By Greg Boyd
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 2, Episode 15: “The Cat Burglar”
Original Airdate: Jan. 2, 1963
Rob Petrie’s need to prove his masculinity according to conventional notions of aggressive manhood has never been one of his most endearing traits. Remember “Washington vs. The Bunny” and “The Bad Old Days”? Both involve the character feeling emasculated and acting in an appallingly sexist manner. And not coincidentally, they may just be the two worst episodes of the entire series. So when this aspect of the character reappears at the start of “The Cat Burglar”, it’s immediately a major warning sign. Is this going to be another half hour in which our protagonist tries to act according to wrongheaded notions of how he thinks a man should act, becoming an unintentional villain in his own story?
I’ve had some commenters point out to me in the past that they think I’m being a bit unfair to the more sexist episodes of Dick Van Dyke, pointing out that the show is of course a product of its time. And in some cases they’ve perhaps been right, but the toxic conceptions of masculinity Rob Petrie tends to embody in these types of episodes have also provided fuel for most of the recent antihero dramas. And we still get comedy episodes that center around (or, perhaps more often nowadays, feature B plots involving) men being comically disturbed by perceived threats to their strength or control. This isn’t something that’s gone away in the 50+ years since these episodes first aired. So I don’t think the underlying attitudes behind something like “The Bad Old Days” can simply be written off as being from a different era. They’re still with us (in both real life and on television), and they need to be condemned.
The other reason the different era argument doesn’t usually hold water with me, however, is due to superb installments like “The Cat Burglar”. This is an episode that (as I’ve said) starts with some pretty major red flags, what with Rob’s early annoyance at Laura for what he sees as her questioning his ability to take care of his family. However, it proceeds to subvert and mock the character’s initial reaction at every turn, by showing that he is in fact completely hopeless in a life or death situation (much as he’d like to believe otherwise). Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with being hopeless in one of these situations. Many of us are. Panic and terrified incompetence are natural responses to a potential intruder in your home: a lesson Rob Petrie learns very well in this episode.
It’s this natural sense of terror that Dick Van Dyke uses to great comic effect here, in a fantastic centerpiece scene featuring the character wandering around the house with a rifle, searching for a burglar who he and Laura think may be in the house. In the show’s typical style, it seems to last an eternity, leaping from one exceedingly clever bit to the next and getting funnier as it goes. Rob has reluctantly accepted a rifle from Jerry a few moments earlier, and told Laura to hide a single bullet (which their neighbor has also foisted upon them) in her jewelry box. Unfortunately for him, it happens to be a musical jewelry box, and so we’re treated to the first of a series of ill-advised attempts by Rob to “protect” his family from a nonexistent intruder. In that regard, “The Cat Burglar” is escalation comedy (this show’s specialty) at its finest; Rob wanders around in blind terror, shuts himself in the closet, and simply makes a general fool of himself in every way. And it is incredibly satisfying—not to mention hilarious—to watch, after we’ve had to put up with our Mr. Petrie’s ego in that earlier scene.
Come the light of day (after the threat of physical danger has passed), Rob does achieve a victory: or at least a half-victory, as the police end up solving the case just as he’s doing the same. But it’s a victory of the intellectual kind, further serving to make fun of his destructive view of man as the physically aggressive protector. Rob Petrie is an intellectual. He’s useless in a physical crisis, but if he puts his mind to the task, he can get results. And he needs to learn to be okay with that. If Dick Van Dyke was even a slightly serialized show, the conclusion of “The Cat Burglar” might find him making progress towards that end, but the lesson sadly does not stick. So we’re still going to have to endure, for instance, the freak out in season four’s “My Mother Can Beat Up My Father” (another of the show’s absolute lowest points, if memory serves) that ensues when he discovers that Laura is more physically capable in a fight than he is.
Nonetheless, this is an example of how sharply subversive Dick Van Dyke can be in its critique of socially engrained gender roles. And that’s a big part of why I’m so hard on other (lesser) episodes of the show, like “To Tell or Not to Tell” and the aforementioned “Washington vs. The Bunny”. I have doubts that Carl Reiner thought about any of the stuff I’ve mentioned when writing the script for “The Cat Burglar”; most likely, he simply figured that Rob’s hysterically ineffectual behavior would be fertile ground for comedy. And it definitely is. This is, like 90% of The Dick Van Dyke Show’s episodes, a very, very funny half-hour of television. But intentional or not, there’s a smart critique of gender stereotypes running through all the laughs, making them perhaps even funnier than they are in and of themselves. A fine way to restart our summer coverage of the show’s excellent second season.
In Two Weeks: “The Foul Weather Girl”