To a contemporary viewer, The Donna Reed Show, which ran from 1958 to 1966 to popular and critical acclaim, must seem beamed to us not just from a separate time, but from an alien planet, or maybe even from an entirely different dimension. What is this curious artifact, this weird relic before us? Where is it from? What is this strange, foreign world we gaze upon, where parents and children get along harmoniously; where the wife and husband have genuine love and respect for one another; where life in suburban paradise is perpetually sunny and bucolic; and where the great crises of the day revolve around what sort of cake to serve after dinner, or which harmless suitor would be the best boyfriend for the daughter, or how best to navigate the delicate neighborhood politics of a baby contest?
Okay, so it can seem hokey stuff, regarding it now and maybe it seemed so then, too. But dismiss or mock Donna Reed at your own peril. Condemn her show as some sort of pie in the sky “Neverwhere” portrayal of conservative suburban complacency which, even as it aired, was slowly creeping out of touch and out of time. Criticize its apparent reinforcement of archaic gender stereotypes, jump all over its relentlessly cheerful mien of an impossibly happy family life. Grouch all you want about Reed’s indefatigable smile and eternal optimism. This is a battle you are destined to lose.
The thing is, it’s all too easy to lob all these criticisms at Donna Reed, just as with similarly set and themed sitcoms of the ‘50s. It’s another thing to make them stick, and even a cursory survey of the inaugural season of Reed’s show (coming in at a whopping 37 episodes!) will reveal the fallacies of such sweeping condemnation. So sure, while the show is “ guilty” of being exactly what it appears to be on the surface, at the same time there is a knowing (if not precisely winking) self-reflexivity to it, buried in plain sight, that is impossible to miss, even to the most casual viewer.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it post-modern, The Donna Reed Show definitely knew what it was about, and knew what it appeared to be, and knew enough to poke fun at itself repeatedly. Self-aware and self-assured, the show was confident enough to portray Reed as the paragon of suburban womanhood – eternally baking, pristinely well groomed (even while vacuuming!), perpetually selfless and thoughtful of the needs of others —while at the same time gently calling into question the virtue and realism of this deification.
The best episodes of the series explicitly address this notion of Reed’s (and by extension the idea of the ideal suburban wife’s) saintly perfection—her eternal patience, her cheerfulness, her pliancy. In “The Male Ego”, daughter Mary delivers an essay in front of a school assembly on the sundry virtues of motherhood, using Donna, of course, as the prime exemplar. Overly sentimental and beatific, the speech is part summation of the show’s raison d’être, part apologia, and part criticism. But it’s also a clever set up, a sort of Trojan horse sent in to subvert the very naïve notions it’s trying to prop up. Because, of course the speech in the end rankles Donna, and she strains against the unrealistic notions they establish, even as everyone continues to heap praise on her.
In “The Ideal Wife”, Reed knowingly complains of and openly bristles against the unreasonable expectations she labors under after being placed on a pedestal by the other wives in town, and even goes so far as to deliberately thwart others’ perception of herself. Of course, her idea of disrupting stereotypes and acting out don’t really venture much beyond sternly asking her kids to clean their rooms properly, or losing her patience with the cleaning delivery guy for the first and last time – but in suburban Hilldale, this positively constitutes a revolution!
Such gentle straining against stereotype doesn’t exactly mean that the show was trying to portray anything even resembling a real subversive undercurrent to Donna Reed, or any sort of real moral strain, or anything remotely like mother going off the reservation. The show does not really evince any sort of underlying disruptive agenda. The sort of subterranean darknesses—alcoholism, infidelity, abuse—which roiled beneath the apparent calm of ‘50s/’60s suburban utopia appear nowhere in the show, unless perhaps we count divorce, which is occasionally hinted at in scattered episodes euphemistically as “the parting of the ways” (and even these potential blemishes are resolved as comedic misunderstandings). The show, like its heroine, is relentlessly sunny.
And really, what’s so wrong with that? The thing is, Donna Reed is not really anything more than exactly what it appears to be, and never had to be. Sure, the show works in places as a critique, but it also works perfectly well played straight. And, thing is, it probably did fairly well reflect reality for the millions of American families who tuned in to the show every week.
Classy, well written sunny comedies—with lots of zingy dialogue; with a strong pair of leads with genuine chemistry; and two children who were realistic, winning and flawed and not al all cloying, or hammy, or wise beyond their years— were just as much a rarity back then as they are almost an impossibility now. If the crises of the day involved Mary’s bid to be class vice-president, or son Jeff’s trying to scrape up enough money to buy a football uniform, or husband Alex trying to balance the responsibilities of being a father versus being a doctor, or Donna trying to be in three places at once (literally, in the brilliant “Three Parts Mother”) - well, this is the stuff of life, isn’t it? The picayune, the every day. And if the details have changed, the realities haven’t (or one would hope).
And if most episodes fell into a well worn groove every so often, the show had the ability to surprise with bursts of emotional depth and poignancy. The episode “Tomorrow Comes too Soon”, in which Donna and Alex enjoy a weekend respite from the kids, turns into a lovely rumination on time and age, and how children grow up too fast if you aren’t looking and take them for granted. In “The Flower Printed Dress” and “Advice to Young Lovers”, Donna and Alex reminisce about their courtship, and marvel at the longevity of love (and not taking one’s partner for granted) and the tenuous strands of circumstances of that bring couples together. These episodes are remarkable for their time, both in complexity and sophistication.
So what that the Donna Reed is no longer (or ever was) the world we live in. We have much to learn from such shows, we sophisticated television viewers who have become so cynical, so dismissive, so crass. Am I arguing for a contemporary relevance of a 50-year old program? Perhaps. But perhaps also its impossible now to see what was there; perhaps we no longer have the ears to hear its gentle message, to appreciate its lack of cynicism. Perhaps we no longer have the capacity to entertain its impossible idealism. But if there’s a ray of hope left, if we are able to find some sort of resonant chords of optimism and decency within ourselves, then Donna Reed has arrived on DVD not a moment too soon.