Those weren’t the days.
The man in a business suit pulls his car into the driveway, and before he even gets out of it his children want his attention. He doesn't tell them to go away. Instead, he listens attentively as he enters the house, where dinner is being prepared. Without changing his clothes, he rolls up his shirtsleeves and helps his wife make dinner. Before the meal is ready, he attends to several other issues about the household; he multi-tasks with ease. When not at the office he is 100% committed to helping his wife and kids. He assumes authority only to the extent that it protects his family. He does not yell or lose patience or ask for alone time. He does not bully his way to authority, and he never tries to intimidate or guilt-bate his family by being the patriarch.
This is a summary of an episode I happened upon of the 1950s sitcom, Father Knows Best. This program is one of several from TV’s so-called Golden Age that, depending on your point of view, showed life as it used to be—and in a good way—or shows life as it never was—and in a bad way.
There’s no point pretending that these shows were about “everyone,” and possibly they were not about anyone. The families were solid middle class WASPs, with gainfully employed fathers, housewife mothers, and children without serious mental or physical issues. Minority ethnicities—even Jews or Catholics—virtually did not exist. Women accepted that men were in charge. From time to time there would be an episode in which a tomboy learned that her true happiness came from nylons and make-up and acting stupid or weak to impress a certain young man.
In real life, Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, had to fight the network to broadcast a show about white woman married to a Cuban bandleader. My Three Sons, for most of its seasons, featured a single parent, and Bachelor Father saw John Forsythe raising his orphaned niece. Recasting necessities caused Danny Thomas/Williams on Make Room for Daddy to have a second wife and a stepdaughter. This program and I Love Lucy were set in New York apartments. But for the most part these shows featured intact, white, nuclear, suburban families.
There were no money problems to speak of, Lucy Ricardo’s bad spending habits notwithstanding. No one lost a job or got divorced or had an affair. The children didn’t talk back to their parents, drink or do drugs, or have premarital sex. There were no unwed mothers. In fact, I saw another Father Knows Best in which eldest daughter Betty, a high school student, says goodnight to her date at her front door. He asks, “May I?” and she meaningfully nods her head. He kisses her once on the cheek, and then goes back to his car. Sitcom kids sometimes got into mischief or made mistakes (as youth are prone to do), but nothing caused anyone serious harm. Life lessons were things like boys standing up to bullies, or girls learning not to be selfish. Daughters had a bad habit of bursting into tears and running off to their bedrooms, but Mom or Dad could fit whatever troubled the girl with a few wise words.
There were of course serious problems both here and abroad, but politics did not enter into the TV family perfect universe. At the dinner table, no one argued about Republicans vs. Democrats, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, or much of anything else.
As the 50s gave way to the 60s, these shows ran their course. People who wax nostalgic for them may forget that these programs did not disappear by magic or a Communist plot; their ratings went down. Baby Boomers got exposed to new ideas and new conceptualizations of “reality,” and stopped watching or caring about these relatively trivial picture-perfect families. In fact, I think that breaking away from these perfect sitcom families was a rite of passage in the mid- to late 1960s. The world—not to mention one’s own family—did not match the perfection seen on the small screen. Shows that lasted to the end of the decade, such as My Three Sons, went from seeming cool to reactionary. Latecomers like The Brady Bunch wanted to be cool, but if you were cool you knew The Brady Bunch wasn’t. Only in hindsight does a show like The Brady Bunch seem campy fun.
It is not a coincidence that the most timeless of these shows, I Love Lucy, featured less than perfect characters. However loony Lucy and Ethel’s escapades were, and even if Ricky and Fred got the last word, this was a show essentially about wives not obeying their husbands. Lucy didn’t have a career, but she spent the run of the series wanting one. And she’d go to any lengths to try and make her mark. A few episodes intimate the threat of what we would now call domestic violence, though it never occurred. Still, it is worth noting that even in the so-called traditional 1950s people were ready to embrace a woman who rebelled against the limitations of what society expected of her.
The 60s has been characterized as a time of youthful nonconformity and racial unrest, but popular culture frequently lagged a few years behind. Many rock songs now considered classics did not actually top the charts when first released. And few TV shows succeeded in capturing the temper of the times. People of color were brought to the small screen ever so slowly and ever so carefully. The youth culture was captured in only the most superficial of ways, like those stick-on flowers people used to put on their cars. Marcia Brady was a far cry from Janis Joplin, though in real life some of the young actors who played these perfect children suffered addiction, depression, poverty, and even suicide.
Yet for all that was limited or fake in these older family shows, I think they need to be looked at as products of their time and place. The post-World War II suburban boom was (whatever its flaws) something new and exciting in many people’s eyes. The mere fact of living in a pristine suburb was seen as modern. It gave the Cleavers and the Nelsons a built-in dimension of cool. In fact, Ricky Nelson became a singing teen idol, and other TV kids (such as Donna Reed’s) had hit records, too. Of course, television itself was a new toy in the 1950s, so even the fact of being a TV show was in itself something special.
Additionally, I saw an interview with a former star of one of these shows that made me think twice about some of the assumptions that are made about them. According to this ex-child actor, the players and producers of these programs knew that real-life families did not achieve perfection. So these series were intended to provide good examples for people to follow.
Looked at from this perspective, the old family sitcoms had a little more going on in them than we often remember. Even just the titles sometimes seem telling. Father Knows Best was a pun, because the original saying was that mother knows best. So while it is possible to view this title (and the program thereof) as sexist cooptation, it also possible to look at it as trying to provide a positive role model for men. Robert Young (playing Jim Anderson) knew as much about his children as his wife did, and lived for no other purpose than to embrace his role as husband and father. He never cheated on his wife, and he never was unfair to his children. Atypical even at the time? Yes. But maybe the show was trying to tell men that a more caring and yes, even a bit more egalitarian world could be theirs.
Leave It to Beaver was mostly about the youngest son who gets into jams and tries to get away with doing things he wasn’t supposed to do. But kids will be kids, and, well, leave it to good ol’ Beaver to always make mischief. Don’t hit him or yell at him. Be like his father, Ward, and have an understanding talk about how he can do better next time. Likewise, despite all of her shenanigans, “I” (i.e., Ricky Ricardo) love Lucy. (Years later, the same would hold true for “everyone” loving Raymond, despite Ray Romano’s way of messing things up.)
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet gave intentional irony to the word, “adventures,” because the show never was about anything much. (Some consider it the prequel to Seinfeld.) But with the right attitude, the show seemed to say, ordinary life could be seen as funny, and worth the time and trouble.
The Donna Reed Show was about Mom and not Dad. Contrary to legend, she never cleaned the house wearing pearls, and the show depicted how central the woman was to the family. The father was a doctor, so he was away from home quite a lot, and it was Donna Reed (a/k/a Donna Stone) who knew everything that was going on, and who provided words of wisdom to her children. Yes, she was “only” a housewife, but she was Queen of her Universe; it was her show, not his. Even if the man was technically in charge, the show implied, it’s really the woman who makes things happen.
Also, in this more innocent time, some things were accepted that in today’s world would raise eyebrows. On an episode of My Three Sons, the youngest boy must write a paper for school about his mother. So he writes about the old man who cooks and cleans for the household, saying that he is his “mom” because this is who takes care of him in a way that a mother would. It is intended to be a wholesome, heartwarming moment. When Bob Hope guest-starred on Make Room for Daddy, he and Danny Thomas end up in a cabin in the country where they sleep in the same bed, and this simply is taken for granted. There are no jokes about it, and it isn’t supposed to mean anything more.
I think where these shows went wrong was that many viewers, rather than reflect on themselves, simply felt inferior to not living up to the ideals. Reality was much harder to pull off than it appeared on TV. Other viewers mistakenly believed that these shows showed what their families were like, because the TV wouldn’t lie. Even today, some people want us to go back to a past that never was.
I certainly never received any understanding talks when I got in trouble as a kid. There was no Ward Cleaver or Jim Anderson or Donna Stone in my life, though there were a couple of Godzillas and Mommie Dearests. Maybe I wasn’t the only kid who felt this way, which maybe explains why those cheapo monsters movies of the day were what kids my age really wanted to watch.