My Mother the Car: Many Happy No-Returns (1965)

Often regarded as one of the worst, if not the worst, American sitcoms in history, My Mother the Car ran for thirty episodes between 1965 and 1966. The premise of the show is that the main character, David Crabtree (played by Jerry Van Dyke, the younger brother of Dick Van Dyke), discovers his dead mother has been reincarnated in the form of a 1928 Porter who talks to him through the radio when no one else is around.

I should add this was written and produced by some of the greatest legends in television history - Allan Burns and Chris Hayward created the show, and James L. Brooks wrote for it. As explained by Burns in this clip, the series was envisioned as a satire of the sub-genre of '60s sitcoms built around an absurd fantasy gimmick (think Mister Ed or Bewitched), but something went wrong and the satirical elements were lost in production. In that interview, Burns blames it on the show becoming too cute, but I think the issue was intrinsic to the premise. The shows they were trying to satirize were themselves satirical: any attempt to parody was destined to transform into an entry. The line between laughing at the stupidity of a joke and not laughing because a joke is stupid can be a thin one, and this show tripped over that line.

I should note I watched the first two episodes of this series in addition to the Christmas episode for context. None of these are good, but nothing I saw came close to justifying the hyperbolic labels slapped on this. To me, it felt like a misguided attempt to make an extremely silly show where the jokes just weren't funny enough. The pilot was by far the worst of the three episodes I watched, though it was mostly a case where they were struggling to define the tone. Honestly, it almost plays as a halfway decent psychological thriller about a man having a breakdown - think something in the vein of Wilfred without the guts to explore the darker aspects of the premise. The second episode comes closer to landing the tone they were actually going for by highlighting just how big an idiot David is supposed to be. While the "mother as car" aspect of the show fails to read as parody, the show does portray David as a riff on the generic "father knows best" trope by having its lead explicitly be a complete moron (hell, that's the reason his mother returned to Earth in the first place).

The Christmas episode, which comes around the midpoint of the series, is incredibly weird in that it's really not all that weird. Which is to say, the titular car is barely present and only tangentially connected to the plot. With minor reworking, this script could have been used for almost any sitcom from the era: it's essentially a generic '60s sitcom episode.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a touch disappointed. You watch something like this really hoping for something memorable, and the Christmas episode doesn't deliver. But, since we've come this far, let's discuss the plot.

We're told that David and his wife, Barbara, typically buy each other gifts they hate and wind up returning after Christmas, so David suggests they buy their own presents. Barbara reluctantly signs on to the deal and purchases herself an electric manicure device. David's mother, the (sigh) car, guilts him into using his money to buy his wife a present, so he also buys an electric manicure device, because one of the random caveats to this is that they're still buying their gifts in secret.

If you think you know where this is going... you're actually wrong this time. Both David and Barbara are enrolled in an art class and both are supposedly horrible, which in this context means they're making modern art. Regardless, both believe they're good and enter their projects in a charity art auction against the instructor's advice, believing their talents will be appreciated by others. While each believes in their own talent, neither believes in the other's, so they return the gifts and arrange to have friends secretly bid on their spouses' art to protect their egos. Of course, in David's case his mother instructed him to do this, presumably to work her into a few more minutes of the narrative.

Everything goes according to plan at first, though neither David's nor Barbara's friends are good enough at subterfuge to actually hide the art indefinitely. So they realize what the other did at vaguely the same time and, while they're left with nothing but a couple pieces of amateur artwork not even they can stand to look at anymore, they're at least touched their partner cared enough to sacrifice a gadget for their feelings.

Then the things they wanted show up on Christmas morning anyway, because David's car-mom purchased them. Somehow. This really isn't a show that's eager to provide explanations, so please don't ask.

Again, this wasn't good, but I'd describe the quality of this episode as typical for the time; maybe a little below average but not notably awful. Jerry Van Dyke is fine as the bumbling lead - he has some of his brother's talent for expressions and physical comedy - and everyone else is offering fairly by-the-numbers performances. I will say that Ann Sothern's vocal performance as the car, dripping with gentle sarcasm and attempts at wry humor, is eerily similar to William Daniels's KITT from Knight Rider. It could be coincidence, but I almost wonder if there's some connection, even if it was as simple as a casting agent subconsciously thinking Daniels sounded "right" for a car.

Obviously, this is all a riff on the Gift of the Magi, watered down to remove even the hint of tragedy. Hell, even before the gifts show up, the joke is basically that they're going to blow their money on overpriced gadgets they'll probably use a few times then lose interest in - it's not like anyone shaves their head or pounds a nail through a treasured washtub. But as a retread of the classic Christmas story, the outline here is fine, and there are a few decent moments. Again, about what you'd expect from a sitcom from the 1960s.

Taking a step back, the show's most interesting aspect was largely absent from this episode. I'm not talking about the car (though it was weird she was reduced to a bit part) - I'm talking about treating the main character as a childish idiot incapable of managing his life without the oversight of his wife and mother, who literally leaves heaven because she knows her son can't get by without her. In a lot of ways, he feels like a precursor to Homer Simpson, which might not be entirely coincidental - again, James L. Brooks worked on this a few decades before producing The Simpsons. This aspect of the show was a major part of the first two episodes, but by the Christmas installment, it felt like David and Barbara were more or less equally eccentric and half the car's advice was pretty bad.

Without watching more episodes around that time, I can't say for certain whether this was an anomaly or if the show changed course, and - seeing as I already sat through three episodes of this stuff, I'm not inclined to put myself through more just for a few added scraps of context. I mean, I'm a little curious, but...

Oh, Jesus Christ. Fine. I'll be right back.

I just watched a couple more episodes from the middle of the season. It appears the shift in concept wasn't unique to the Christmas episode - these were more centered around the family's zany shenanigans than about David being incapable of functioning as an adult. One of these two episodes was fine, the other was abysmal, but neither had anything to do with Christmas, so there's no need to go into more detail.

This was an interesting diversion, despite being neither as bad as I'd hoped nor remotely good enough to justify any real dissenting opinion. The show was still weird enough to make it watchable, at least for a few episodes. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone who's not in the mood for a laughably bad misfire, however.