By Greg Boyd
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 2, Episode 8: “Like a Sister”
Original airdate: Nov. 14, 1962
So, domestic violence. Hilarious stuff, isn’t it? Always good for a laugh.
Or so “Like a Sister” would have us believe. This is a problematic half-hour from the start for many reasons, including the simple fact that it’s simply not very funny (the Mel/Buddy feud is almost always good for a few laughs, but that’s about it). But its last few scenes are just utterly appalling, and cement it as one of the show’s all-time worst episodes. They center on Ric Vallone (Vic Damone), the guest star on this week’s Alan Brady Show, and him and Rob concocting a plan to break off Sally and Ric’s relationship—she’s fallen for him, but he doesn’t feel the same way about her—without hurting Sally. This scheme involves Ric pretending to be drunk and being verbally abusive until Sally leaves him.
Now, there are problems with this whole concept right off the bat, chief among them Rob’s belief that he knows what’s best for Sally. Still, in this case it struck me as more the well-meaning concern of a friend rather than something more sinister. The underlying attitude (women are fragile and need to be protected by men) is still an issue, of course, but that’s one you just have to chalk up to the 1960s. I tend to take issue with these types of episodes not when the gender politics are a little dated (that’s only to be expected) but rather when they’re so completely egregious that intelligent people—as Carl Reiner, who wrote this episode, most certainly is—should have known better.
The initial set-up for “Like a Sister”—Sally loves Rick, Rick doesn’t love Sally, and Ric and Rob devise a scheme to spare Sally’s feelings—would be an example of the former. It’s problematic, yes, but nothing that stands out as especially terrible by this time period’s standards. Where it leads is an example of the latter: a pair of scenes that read as basically an endorsement of domestic violence. Now, obviously domestic abuse wasn’t thought of as nearly as big a deal fifty years ago as it is today (and even today it’s still all too commonplace, both in the U.S. and especially in other countries), but this also wasn’t a completely unenlightened age. And many of Carl Reiner’s scripts—particularly the ones focusing on Sally Rogers—have a decidedly feminist outlook, making an episode like this all the more puzzling.
Things initially go according to plan for Rob and Ric, with the latter insulting people, flirting with Laura, and simply behaving abusively. But rather than leaving, Sally elects to help him get home. The next day, Rob discovers that Ric and Sally are still together, and asks Ric why, to which he responds that not only did she forgive him, “she said she understood me. A girl with that much understanding I just got to get to know better.” Now, what does that sound like? Well, to me it sounds like domestic violence, in which the abused person’s “understanding” and affection for the abuser keeps him or her trapped in the cycle of abuse.
In this case we’re meant to think this is okay (as Ric isn’t actually an abuser), and that Sally’s decision not to sever ties with him after his behavior the previous night is a good thing. This sends such a terrible message to anyone watching: namely, that remaining with an abusive partner because you care for him or her is somehow the right thing to do. Abuse is something to be casually shrugged off in “Like a Sister”. It’s something to be laughed at, in fact, as the episode ends with Buddy joking about him and Rob going home to “beat up” their wives. Again, someone capable of writing two of the greatest female characters in the history of TV should be able to do better than such a sickening, lazy, and unfunny joke.
Really, “Like a Sister” is pretty much just a complete loss, and would have been even without those last few scenes. At one point the action stops cold so Damone’s Ric can sing. While musical numbers have certainly worked for the show in the past, here the song is merely pleasant but forgettable, lacking any sort of energy. The same goes for the dialogue, which just doesn’t have much life to it. It all adds up to one of The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s single most horrendous episodes. Fortunately, it won’t take the show very long to return to the quality we saw in the previous two episodes.
Next Week: “The Night the Roof Fell In”