The Dick Van Dyke Show is a classic sitcom starring Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petrie and Mary Tyler Moore as his wife, Laura. The show ran for five seasons, displaying all kinds of fun storylines, from Laura’s tendency to open Rob’s mail becoming a skit on the fictional The Alan Brady Show to Rob testing Laura’s ability to recognize his voice over the phone (even becoming obsessed with the idea), the show had a wide range of humor. That humor was always complemented by Dick Van Dyke’s slapstick nature and Mary Tyler Moore’s incredible performances, which truly showcased Moore’s talent even before she became the star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which would make a significant impact on not just pop culture but the way the world viewed women. But that’s another story.
“My Blonde-Haired Brunette” is part of the first season, and it’s my favorite episode of the series. According to IMDb, it was also Mary Tyler Moore’s favorite episode. The episode stood out to me primarily because of Moore’s performance in it, and how significant the storyline was. It’s relatable for any couple, married or not. At some point, it seems couples unintentionally take each other for granted, and from then on, they have to make their own adventures to keep the spark alive. That’s the basis of what “My Blonde-Haired Brunette” is all about.
It all begins early one morning when Rob has the day off of work. Laura wants him to eat breakfast with her, but he refuses to get up. She kisses his neck but is surprised, and a little hurt, that Rob asks her to stop. In a voiceover, she expresses her innermost thoughts on the matter. Rob used to love her to do that, why didn’t he now? She’s hurt that he won’t get up to eat with her, then tries reassuring herself that it’s only natural for “a husband to behave this way after so many years of marriage”, though she hasn’t grown tired of him.
She begins to fear that Rob has grown tired of her, perhaps noticing the lines on her face, but again convinces herself otherwise. Laura’s reassurance of herself doesn’t last long as Rob continues sleeping in, even after Laura hilariously tricks him into getting up by setting the alarm clock ahead two hours. Rob lumbers back to bed, with Laura slamming the door on her way out.
While Rob has no idea what she’s thinking, the audience is well aware of the core of Laura’s fear and anger. Part of the suspense of the episode is watching Rob try to figure out what has his wife so upset, especially when the audience already knows.
Rob only makes things worse after he emerges from sleep, wearing ratty old clothes and asking Laura “How’s my old lady?” He’s pretty much shooting himself in the foot without even realizing it, or the ramifications thereof. Laura’s witty response is to tell him she hasn’t spoken to his mother lately, but that she herself is fine.
The situation only worsens when Rob pulls a gray hair from her head, which is pretty much like giving her a papercut and pouring lemon juice on it (in Billy Crystal’s words from his character in The Princess Bride) in addition to the wound already festering in Laura given her insecurities. From slamming a drawer in the kitchen to viciously beating eggs, her physical actions are testament to her mood. She claims to feel otherwise, though Rob isn’t fooled. The smile she gives him when he asks for one is downright scary, further clueing Rob in as to how much trouble he’s in.
Rob gets a hint when Laura confirms that she’s upset with the way he looks, and later asks if he cares that she can see him looking the way he does. Rob tries to remedy the situation by pointing out that she thought he looked cute when he was sloppy, and she rejects the idea. She starts to tell him why she feels upset, but she can’t quite complete her sentences, saying things like “I mean if a husband really cares about…” “Well all I know is that if…” “Well if the bloom is off the rose then…” “And if two married people can’t…well then I say, what’s the use?”
Rob tries to clarify what she means, but all he gets is a “Well if you don’t know what you don’t care about, then I’m certainly not going to tell you!”
The next day, Laura and her friend Millie (Ann Guilbert) are addressing envelopes and end up discussing Laura’s fears, which Millie relates to. That is, after she hilariously mistakes Laura’s motioning to her head to mean Rob hit her, when he really just pulled out a gray hair. It didn’t help that Laura was struggling to get out a sentence initially, which led to Millie’s brief misunderstanding.
The two friends discuss how Laura feels regarding Rob not being as attentive lately, and that he doesn’t look at her like he used to. Millie concludes that Rob is taking Laura for granted, and Laura agrees, saying that given they know each other so well, “there just aren’t any more surprises left.”
That’s when Millie tells Laura that you have to create the surprises. Whenever Millie’s husband takes her for granted, she bleaches her hair and it changes his entire attitude. He’s more affectionate, and Millie suggests that Laura do the same to see if it works on Rob.
Meanwhile, Rob hasn’t been productive in the writer’s room with Sally (Rose Marie) and Buddy (Morey Amsterdam), his mind on his fight with Laura. Sally and Buddy are discussing Sally’s suitors, and it eventually morphs into a discussion that leads to Buddy and Sally helping Rob figure out what has Laura so upset. Rob and Buddy commiserate at one point on the statement “If you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you.” Apparently Buddy has heard it from his wife a time or two as well.
Buddy suggests to Rob to do as he does, which is sorting through a mental list of what “wives get upset about”, but it’s Sally that hits the nail on the head, helping Rob to realize that he hasn’t told Laura he loves her lately. He calls home as Sally and Buddy leave for the day, and Millie answers. Laura emerges from the room, thinking she looks hideous as a blonde, expressing regret over allowing Millie to bleach her hair, though Millie insists that Laura looks beautiful.
Ironically, when Millie hands off the phone to Laura, Rob begins singing about her dark brown hair, instantly making Laura paranoid, thinking Rob knows she’s bleached her hair, though he’s none the wiser. When Rob comments that Laura as a blonde would resemble Harpo Marx, to which Laura agrees, she decides to change her hair back and urges Millie to get the job done before Rob returns, intending to take Laura to dinner.
Ignoring Laura’s plea to not return home and go straight to the restaurant, Rob appears halfway through the hair dye job, initially unaware of what’s going on. He becomes suspicious after his son Richie (Larry Matthews) tells him that Laura is in the bedroom “coloring.”
Getting cryptic answers from Millie, who insists that Rob return in an hour, and with Laura refusing to open the door, Rob, now concerned, threatens to break down the door to get to the bottom of things. He runs straight for it just in time for Laura to open it, and come out as half-blonde, half-brunette. The look on Rob’s face is absolutely priceless.
Laura tearfully breaks down, telling Rob in bits and pieces what has her so upset after he asks why she’d bleached her hair. Somehow Rob understands his wife’s dilemma, and hugs her, reassuring her that he understands. Even Millie is surprised with Rob’s grasp on the situation. She excuses herself to give the husband and wife privacy, hilariously mistaking the closet for the front door before making her hasty exit.
Rob and Richie share a moment in the episode’s conclusion as Richie bids his father goodnight, then asks if his mother’s hair will be brown again. Richie admits that he thinks his mother is prettier with blonde hair, but that he wants his mother to look like herself, that being with brown hair. Rob laughs and hugs his son, their world having been righted.
Mary Tyler Moore’s Performance
According to IMDb, Carl Reiner was so impressed with Mary Tyler Moore’s development as an actress that he wanted to showcase her talent as soon as possible. Though “My Blonde-Haired Brunette” was the ninth episode to be filmed in the first season, it was aired as the second to give Mary Tyler Moore the spotlight.
Her performance throughout the entire episode is perfectly timed and on-point. The episode itself has a memorable plot and is well-paced, direct and offering just enough emotion without being too excessive. Some of the comedy is typical for the sitcom genre but at the root of it lies a real lesson in relationships and how important it is to not take one another for granted.
Moore can both dial it down and dial it up at any given moment, her range as an actress limitless. My favorite part of her performance was watching her tearfully breakdown before her husband, offering bits and pieces of why she was upset. I loved that he knew her so well that despite the lack of full sentences, he understood the context and what she was communicating overall.
The part where she holds her arm above her head, exclaiming in a volume louder than she’d been using before “And the gray hair!”, emphasizes her devastation. It implies the the gray hair was her last straw. Adding the fear of getting older on top of a fear of losing romance in her marriage is what drew Laura over the edge, as it would be for anyone in her position. She’s near hysteria, but she gets what she needs most: her husband, understanding her and being there for her.
Fearing the loss of a spark in a relationship is universally relatable. Across all cultures, it’s something everyone can relate to and sympathize with. People can take desperate measures to preserve or otherwise introduce some kind of spark into their relationship to keep their significant other interested in and attracted to them. You want that person to love you the way they did since day one, when everything was new and exciting. The thing is, the longer you know each other, the more you become in-tune and accustomed with that other person’s behavior, feelings, looks and everything else. Like Millie notes in the episode, you have to create your own surprises.
Laura isn’t alone in her struggle to want her husband to appreciate her and be attentive towards her. She doesn’t want to lose him, but she takes things up a notch too many in her efforts. Plus, her communication skills, at least originally, could use some help. Telling Rob that if he didn’t know what he didn’t care about, then she could tell him nothing, wasn’t logical. Then again, logic tends to go out the window where emotion is involved. It’s hinted in this episode that women tend to play this guessing game more often than men, which can be true to some degree. Women and men are so different. They don’t think or act alike at all. That’s why you have to be more honest and direct. Had Laura been more direct and forthright with Rob, their fight and all that came with it could have been avoided. Then again, we wouldn’t have the hilarious episode that we do if she had.
“My Blonde-Haired Brunette” will always be funny. Some may consider it old given it aired in 1961, but the concept is one that will withstand time because all generations will understand it. Mary Tyler Moore’s performance holds up. Though we sympathize with her, we can’t help but laugh and enjoy her performance simultaneously.