19 July 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Nice try, Jerry...
I feel sorry for Jerry Van Dyke. In the early 1960s, he turned down the lead role in a sitcom that he felt lacked the potential for a long run, and then he signed to star in another sitcom which he believed had better prospects. The role he turned down was Gilligan in "Gilligan's Island", a show which (much as I loathe it) will probably run forever in repeats. The show that Van Dyke chose to do instead was 'My Mother, the Car', which ran very briefly and was no more mindless than 'Gilligan', yet which has been unfairly derided ever since as one of the all-time most brainless TV shows. (Many others were far worse.) And now, Jerry Van Dyke is best known for playing Luther on 'Coach' ... a character about as dumb as Gilligan, in a comparatively realistic TV series.
In between these two low spots, Jerry Van Dyke starred in another TV series with a too-brief run: 'Accidental Family'. This was officially a sitcom, but it featured plausible characters in a premise that was painfully real: the main characters had financial problems and were stuck in an unpleasant situation. The emphasis was on the two halves of the 'family' learning to get along together, rather than cheap laughs. This show, with its early example of a blended family, may have inspired the premise of 'The Brady Bunch' (another series which I loathe as much as 'Gilligan').
The opening credits of 'Accidental Family' were very enjoyable, featuring an animated sequence of eggs hatching baby chicks inside the tumblers of a fruit machine, to the sound of a jazzy instrumental version of 'Old MacDonald'. Much of what followed was quite painful.
Van Dyke's character Jerry Webster was officially a nightclub comic, working sporadically in minor bookings, but we never saw him performing onstage. (This might have changed if the show had run longer.) He's a widower with a young son. Jerry's career requires him to live out of a suitcase; to find some stability for his son Sandy, Jerry buys a farm from a man named Kramer (hmm, first name Cosmo?) without actually inspecting the property first. When Jerry gets there, he finds out the farm is in worse condition than he realised. Also, the ownership of the farm is in legal limbo, because Kramer and his wife Sue had divorced (Kramer vs Kramer?) before the sale; due to the mutual property laws, it's not clear whether the sale of the farm to Jerry was valid. Maybe Sue Kramer owns the farm, maybe not. (This too might have been resolved if the show had run longer.) Anyway, Sue and her young daughter Tracy are still living on the homestead. This being a TV show, it's obvious that the four of them will all become an accidental family. Ben Blue (whom I've always disliked) played the farm's handyman, who was ostensibly a source of comic relief.
The dialogue on this series was surprisingly realistic for a 1960s sitcom, such as this exchange when Jerry meets Sue for the first time:
Jerry: I'm looking for your husband. / Sue: If you can find him, I'll give you half the alimony he owes me.
The best episode of this show was "Minnesota Tracy", featuring guest star John Byner (a very underrated performer) as a Vegas hustler who kept conning Jerry out of his assets until Jerry had nothing left but the farm ... which he proceeded to lose to Byner in a poker game. The day was saved by Sue's little daughter Tracy, who challenged Byner to a game of marbles ... winner take all.
'Accidental Family' was hardly the stuff of greatness, but it deserved a longer run than it received ... while 'Gilligan's Island' and 'The Brady Bunch' should have been smothered at birth. There is no justice in TV Land.