25. "Death Be My Destiny," The Bob Newhart Show (1977)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Unlike The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which preceded it on Saturday nights for five of its six seasons, The Bob Newhart Show isn't terribly concerned with storytelling. Like Newhart's stand-up act, it's primary aim seems to be skewing reality just enough to induce a kind of nervous euphoria.
Newhart always seems to be thinking, "Wait, am I dreaming this?" On his comedy albums, that thought might occur to the security guard watching King Kong scale the Empire State Building. On The Bob Newhart Show, psychologist Robert Hartley seems to be questioning reality whenever he sees his patients, who only seem to get more neurotic — or when he tries to be inconspicuous at a kiddie ice-cream parlor by ordering a small dish of vanilla, only to be assaulted by the entire staff singing "Single scooper, single scooper, this man is a party pooper!" This tone continues into the star's next sitcom, Newhart, which is revealed to be an eight-season-long dream of... Robert Hartley.
Bob: Just remember, Mr. Hurd. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.
Mr. Herd: That’s my worst fear!*
*Mr. Herd has much in common with Charlie Brown.
"Death Be My Destiny" may be the most dream-like episode of The Bob Newhart Show, in part because it's all about fear. Mr. Herd, Bob's ever-apologetic patient, can't enjoy life because he's afraid to try anything new. ("I'm afraid to live and I'm afraid to die, and I'm afraid to laugh and I'm afraid to cry!") Then Bob's next-door neighbor Howard, an airplane navigator, becomes afraid of his job after a rough flight. Bob tries to get them to see their fears as irrational — until his own brush with mortality, when he nearly tumbles down an elevator shaft in his office. His wife is sympathetic, if nitpicky:
Bob: Emily, I was almost touched by Father Death.
Emily: That's Father Time, Bob. It's Old Man Death.
Bob: No, it's Old Man River.
Emily: You sure?
Bob: Well, whoever he was, Emily, I felt icy fingers up and down my spine.
Emily: That's Old Black Magic!
Bob becomes obsessed with symbols of death, recounting a dream to Emily:
Bob: I was in this rowboat, on this empty lake, and there was a vulture perched on the rowboat. And he kept going, "CAW, CAW!"
Emily: I don't think vultures go, "CAW, CAW!"
Bob: Emily, do you mind? It was my nightmare! Anyway, he was going, "CAW, CAW!" And then, all of a sudden, the boat seemed to glide by itself to this island. And the only person there was this tall, gaunt man, and he was dressed all in black.
Emily: Did he have a guitar?
Emily: (a little disappointed) Oh, I thought it might have been Johnny Cash.
Bob: He was wearing a hood. In one hand, he had a tombstone, and in the other hand, he had an hourglass, and the sand was running out. And in the other hand he had a sickle.
Emily: He had three hands?
Bob: He had four hands. The other was flipping a coin. Then his face loomed out of the fog, and he said two words to me.
Emily: What did he say?
Bob: "Hi, Bob."
By the end of the episode, Bob has finally summoned the courage to get back on an elevator, but the "tag" scene has him backsliding and taking the stairs again. Permanent cures are not very common on this show.
• I put this episode on my Top 100 list last year, but the A.V. Club's Phil Nugent beat me to the punch in January by singling out "Death Be My Destiny" in a feature called "Best Show, Best Episode":
... It’s the perfect half-hour for anyone who ever wondered what Newhart had that so many other comedians who tried to helm their own series didn’t have: his regular-boring-guy dryness, which he knew how to use to get laughs without ever overdoing it and becoming a cartoon, took the curse off touchy material and allowed the more broadly funny members of the supporting cast freedom to strut their stuff without threatening his position as the show’s indispensable tentpole. Room for one more!
• Those elevators in Bob's office lobby are a set-design master stroke. Perfect for a sitcom about the strange things that appear when patients "open up" about themselves. (I wrote about elevators, and dreams about elevators, in an earlier post.)
• "Death Be My Destiny" is from the fifth season of The Bob Newhart Show, which hasn't been released on DVD yet. For now, the best I can find are uploads to the DailyMotion site (from which the low-quality screen shots were taken): Part One and Part Two.