There are some television reunions that should not happen. The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited, which airs tonight at 9 on CBS, is one of them.
At the core of the television viewing experience is an unstated compact into which we enter as we watch our favorite shows: We agree to suspend disbelief for 30 minutes or an hour to those writers and producers talented enough to invent imaginary worlds that bring us pleasure when we visit.
The make-believe TV worlds that bring us the greatest pleasure live on in our memories like Camelot or Bedford Falls long after they have departed the prime-time airwaves. For many of us who have been on the move since high school or college, working in one city and then another, we remember these TV places with the same nostalgia and fondness that folks from earlier generations might have felt for their hometowns.
The suburban, New Rochelle world of Dick and Laura Petrie (Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore) was one of those places. Today, we can go back and deconstruct the artifice - chronicling, for example, how creator Carl Reiner wrote the series as an autobiographical Jewish sitcom starring himself, but had to "de-ethnicize" it by putting Van Dyke in the lead before CBS would buy it. But that's the nasty backstage business of television in the 1960s, rather than the magic that happens when we so identify with something onscreen that we give ourselves up to it and are transported to a happier place.
There is almost nothing happy about the place to which CBS wants to take viewers with The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited. As fumbling and tongue-tied as Rob could be when acting on his own in the original series, he and Laura together offered an irresistible vision of good intentions, can-do optimism, wit and everyday grace. The New Rochelle world they inhabited was a perfect suburban counterpart for the New Frontier promise suggested by a very similar young couple living in the White House in 1961.
Little or none of the grace, wit or optimism of that series is to be found in tonight's reunion, and it is painful to experience the void. Laura is now running a dance studio in New York, and Rob is helping her.
Appreciating the more obvious aspects of the physical grace of the two lead performers, the script offers both Rob and Laura the chance to perform a few dance steps in the early going. But 40 years is 40 years, and what Reiner's writing should have emphasized is the grace and style with which the two carried themselves as they walked through everyday life.
You can retain that into your golden years as Fred Astaire and Kate Hepburn did. Moore, at least, seems to have some of that poise. But, outside of the dance steps, the script mainly has Rob and Laura sitting around reminiscing as they watch black and white clips from the original show.
What modern-day story line there is involves Alan Brady (Reiner), the egotistical comedian for whom Rob used to work, calling up the retired sitcom writer and asking him to write a eulogy. The idea is that Rob gives a great eulogy and Alan wants to make sure he gets one from Rob - even if he has to pay for it. Not that Alan is dying. He just wants to know what is going to be said when he does.
Will Rob compromise himself and take the money? Of course, he won't. Where's the story?
The sin here is not simply that of CBS going for cheap nostalgia. It is rather a matter of The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited being so superficial as to show only the outward change in these characters without capturing the inner life that allowed them to live so large in our memories.
What: The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited
When: Tonight at 9
Where: WJZ (Channel 13)
In brief: Not since Return to Green Acres has a TV reunion so tanked.