Leave It to Beaver, 'Beaver's Short Pants', 13 December 1957
Whenever someone mentions Leave It to Beaver in order to summon images of stilted ‘50s ideology and conservative sitcom hokeyness, I’m always reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s notion of public behaviour in ‘liberal’ Western societies.
Where those in oppressive totalitarian regimes must obey the dictates of political conformity in public spaces, their private spaces may be opened up to functions of secret change, rebellion and transgression. In modern ‘liberal’ society, however, we currently see the reverse: the public persona is defined by images of transgression, self-expression, personal liberation and ‘enjoyment’, while back in private spaces, the regular conservative social structures remain secretly unchallenged.
Leave It to Beaver: The Complete Series
(US DVD: 29 Jun 2010)
What else could explain such an rigid aversion to a sweet and charming show like Leave It to Beaver, while conservative dreck like Desperate Housewives and Californication fills up TV screens? Such shows rely on hastily-constructed fabricated ‘edginess’ to blind us to their mundane run-of-the-mill social cores. They are little more than a delivery of faux cultural transgression for supermarkets and office watercoolers.
In this light, perhaps Leave It to Beaver‘s problem in modern society is not that it no longer fits modern social concerns, but rather that it does so too openly. God forbid a modern hipster should let loose a chuckle at one of Wally and Beaver’s brotherly mishaps and thus irrefutably acknowledge dull suburban roots or ambitions!
Obviously, life isn’t like Leave It to Beaver; most of the world will never experience anything like the life depicted in that show, but it’s probably closer to real life for plenty of modern media consumers than they’d like to admit. There’s plenty to criticise and change about lingering traces of conservative ideology, but little, if anything, is gained by turning key elements of the past into unexamined and disproportionate scapegoats, especially when doing so simply helps us leave our own modern ideological limitations unexamined.
Looked at directly, rather than through the veil of modern TV’s placebo edginess and normalcy-anxiety, Leave It to Beaver is neither overly ideologically stilted (certainly no more than other shows of the time) nor especially generic as a sitcom. Its pace is slow and charming and its simplicity, while it might be seen by some as a negative, comes from its clear understanding of exactly what it is. Tather than pile on sitcom jokes, Leave It to Beaver tries to capture directly and honestly that strange childhood perspective that’s just starting to make sense of the world, even though the sense it makes isn’t the same as any anyone else’s. Leave It to Beaver isn’t radical, but it always knows what it’s about and manages to keep its focus, which is more than can be said for most media.
It’s really this wonderful simplicity and clarity of focus that immediately moves Leave It to Beaver away from being a standard sitcom. Rather than the usual ‘laugh’-a-minute approach, there are few real jokes and punchlines, something described nicely by Neil Genzlinger in a recent review over at the New York Times. In an interview with Neil Genzlinger, actor Tony Dow (who played Beaver’s older brother Wally) points out that ‘jokes get in the way ... we would throw jokes out at the table reading’. (“Golly, Beav, We’re Historic”, 25 June 10)
Leave It to Beaver should probably be taken more as a nostalgic (for childhood, not the ‘50s) amusing suburban-pastoral than a flat-out sitcom. Where droning ‘50s sitcoms like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-1966) and Father Knows Best (1954-1960) drag out wacky antics every episode for parents and children alike (the disease that The Simpsons ultimately succumbed to), the viewer drifts through episodes of Leave It to Beaver like a long childhood day, where adult cares become irrelevant and where minor troubles become the most important thing in the world, until forgotten at bedtime for whatever the next day brings (thus perfect for episodic television).
Unlike those sitcoms that strive for ‘events’, Leave It to Beaver recognises that children are continually in conflict with just about everything, one way or another, and their struggles are no less real, interesting or representative (over at the excellent ‘Classic TV History Blog’, Stephen Bowie sees Wally as a ‘situational ethicist of the highest order’ likening his general moral outlook to ‘Nixonian logic in the Eisenhower era’).
If parents Ward and June seem stilted next to the annoying parental antics of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best, it’s because the show’s childhood perspective wisely removes them from the real playing field, knowing that their roles are simply to either deliver punishment or offer consolation, and otherwise be taken for granted. However, the more careful viewer sees plenty of sparks in their relationship, and their casual barbs towards each other are lively and a lot of fun without ever intruding into the main narrative.
Because of the show’s careful focus, so many of the great moments are throwaway bits and pieces of dialogue and glances. In one great but passing moment (in episode ‘The Party Invitation’), Wally casually but sincerely explains to his parents that his plan for the weekend is to go out to ‘listen to workmen yell at each other’. (Beaver chimes in that ‘those workmen say some real funny things’, bringing about a cute exchange of worried glances between Ward and June, before being quickly forgotten.)
In another oddly offhand moment (in ‘The Train Trip’), Ward describes how much fun two boys can have at a train station, noting that when he was a boy he’d watch people running and hope that their suitcases would fly open. When June suggests that that’s not really that interesting, Ward shrugs: ‘Well, you could always watch a fat lady hit a kid’. There’s also the great pieces of childhood logic: in ‘The Broken Window’, Beaver doesn’t see why he can’t play baseball near the house, since he never manages to hit the ball, anyway. When Ward questions June’s dusting methods in ‘Cleaning Up Beaver’, June fires back that she’s ‘fighting the social order’, calmly mocking Ward’s earlier tale of prep school rebellion.
Ward and June are probably the most unfairly maligned TV parents of all time, as they’re much wittier and more layered than they’re given credit for. Most modern TV families still deliver essentially the same message: whatever their problems, they stick together and love each other. As always, the veneer of new images essentially reaffirms the old outlook, albeit with a more inclusive set of images. So if it’s all about being inclusive (as it should be!), rather than simply rebelling against their negative image, perhaps we also need to apply this modern liberal admiringly all-inclusive outlook to Ward and June: despite being a standard housebound ‘50s housewife and a conservative workaday husband in a blinkered suburban fantasyland, somehow they still manage to stick together and love each other!
Besides, they’re hardly free of bickering and quick barbs. It’s worth noting that (in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box) Barbara Billingsley considered herself very much like June and felt the show reflected a relative normalcy—despite coming from a one-parent household herself. ‘I don’t sound as though I had any brains, but it seemed to be a normal family to me. It didn’t seem unusual that the woman would be serving breakfast and be there when the kids came home from school ... My mother worked, and I was brought up in a one-parent home’ (p. 344).
Ward and June may be superparents, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t live in a world of (some, at least) adult tensions, even if they’re generally left to the peripheries. Right off the bat in the first episode (‘Beaver gets Spelled’), Ward’s parenting comes in for some social awkwardness with Beaver hiding in a tree, insisting that ‘I won’t come down! You’ll hit me!’ Ward readily confirms this, until he notices a couple of onlookers nearby and suddenly changes his tune: ‘why, Beaver, you know we never hit you’. ‘What about the time I spilled the ink on the rug?’ Beaver counters. ‘Uh, never mind,’ fumbles Ward, somewhat deflated by the gawking (and generally uncaring) crowd around him.