I’ve made no secret of my fascination with the reruns of midcentury television, the era lasting from “I Love Lucy” to “The Brady Bunch.”
As a child, a watched this stuff with passive joy, but the past several years, mainly for my own amusement, I’ve tied to turn college degrees in literature and history and 50-odd years of perspective onto the topic in tiny little morning essays I share with close friends. I’m looking for what America’s television was telling America about America.
Syndicated television programs were the subtext of my youth, so I might as well dig into them to see what I was being taught over the public airwaves.
I previously wrote a column about how “Dragnet,” generally a platform for conservative politics, had a very progressive line concerning rehabilitating drug addicts, … if they were white.
Another time, I wrote about how “Leave It to Beaver” was a dated morality play set in a black-and-white (but exclusively white) Eden that never really existed.
Few things have brought me the heated reader response that one did. You can say anything you want about the president of the United States or people who won’t get vaccinated, but hands off Wally Cleaver!
My current project is “My Three Sons.” The other day, I remarked to a friend about the show’s almost casual condescension toward women.
A better name for the program would be “Our Absentee Father,” because Steve Douglas is rarely at home, and when he is, he is rarely engaged in what happens there. Over the course of the series, he subcontracts the raising of four sons and a stepdaughter to his quirky father-in-law and, later, an unpolished uncle with a very colorful past and a tendency to threaten violence.
Yet the others, Steve’s children, daughters-in-law and second wife, treated him with reverence. They seek his banal advice on topics that they understand better than he does, but he is always proven right.
The women are portrayed as smart but not wise. They are often indecisive and always dependent — economically and morally. Polly Douglas, Chip’s wife, is a bad cook and is an easy mark for a canny salesman. Katie Douglas, Mike’s wife, is beautiful and college-educated but never able to decide on important issues that require Mike’s or Steve’s determination. Barbara, Steve’s wife, is smart enough to keep any differences with Steve’s decisions to herself but almost always subservient and unable to handle the issues of a man’s world. (Recently, Steve took her on her first camping trip, and she was sleepless for two nights because she feared owls hooting and the potential of rabid squirrels. Finally, Steve wisely took her home. Ha! Women!)
The figure of the infallible father is not unique to the Douglas clan.
You could summarize about half of the “I Love Lucy” plots in these words: Lucy disobeys Ricky, comedy ensues, followed by regret and reconciliation. In some cringeworthy instances, instead of reconciliation, we have Ricky literally putting Lucy over his knee and spanking her to the audience’s roaring laughter. Other times there is no violence, but she flinches as if it could be coming at any moment.
The same disobedience-comedy-regret plot line (although without domestic violence) shows up again and again in “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Leave it to Beaver,” “The Brady Bunch” and elsewhere.
In American TV, nothing succeeds like theft, but there’s more to it than mere imitation.
If loving and honoring the revered father are so ingrained in the text of the era that it could be subconscious, obeying him is an overt and critical plot device.
It’s telling that women and children seem to be in the same general class, at least in reference to the wise fathers. Opie, Beaver and the Brady kids are disobedient by nature, controlled only by the strictures of Andy, Ward and Mike, but usually willing to try any zany thing to avoid Dad’s commandments. Then they admit what they did, regret it genuinely and are forgiven. Again, a morality play in 30 minutes.
The wise men share many things. They are all white. They are all veterans. They are all fathers, but not always husbands. They are all professionally successful, although often in fields that are too technical for on-screen explanation. They are occasionally noticeably older than the women they are paired with, and never younger. They are very rarely wrong, and when they are, it’s often someone else’s fault.
The family isn’t the only thing being portrayed here, although the portrait of the family is important. Mr. Douglas, Mr. Cleaver, Mr. Brady and Sheriff Taylor aren’t just the heads of their families. They are emblems of America at least so far as they relate to women, whose vow is to love, honor and obey.
In a world where Father knows best, Mom better listen, or comedy will ensue — and then regret.
Word of the week: avante-garde — literally “advance guard” in French, it is used to describe art that is on the cutting edge, such as bebop jazz. Zaila Avant-garde of Harvey, Louisiana, won this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee. The New York Times reports that her father changed her surname (from Heard) to honor jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.