The Donna Reed Show’s opening theme is a neat encapsulation of the entire series: Donna opens the front door as her husband and two kids hurry to work and school. She hands the kids their lunch, kisses her husband goodbye, then closes the door. The outside world is for others to experience.
In 1960, beauty was still the coin of the realm for women, the ancient key to wealth and security. Radiantly beautiful, Donna Stone has married well, her husband Alex (Carl Betz) is a pediatrician and affable father figure. Donna’s feminine power over men is essential to her status.
In one scene, as Donna and Alex sit down to breakfast, a repairman shows up at the door. “I really love your coffee, Mrs. Stone, may I have another cup?”
As the repairman sits down next to Alex, there’s another knock on the door, this time the electrician. He also loves Donna’s coffee, and wants another taste. Then the roofer shows up, and as the scene plays out, the breakfast table is quickly surrounded by men, all admirers of Donna’s “coffee”. After Donna serves all of her male visitors, there’s no coffee left for her husband. The hapless Alex can only scratch his head, for he’s married to a goddess, worshipped by other men. He must share.
The Stone’s daughter Mary (Shelley Fabares) is a dishy teenage queen and her endless line of suitors is a running joke on the show. Mary discards them one by one, a femme fatale in early bloom. And she can deliver a punch line like a whip-crack; a favorite target is her nerdy brother Jeff (Paul Petersen). In the first episode of Season Three, as the family vacations at a rustic lodge, Alex tells his son that the lodge is going out of business:
Jeff: “They’re shutting this place down!”
Mary: “This message is a public service announcement just for Jeff.”
Mary Stone, meet Kelly Bundy.
Jeff is a twitchy, hyperactive adolescent–like a retro Jesus of Suburbia, tweaking on soda pop and Ritalin. He likes to lift barbells in the middle of the living room and can barely sit still for a friendly game of Scrabble–Jeff’s resolution over a disputed word is to fling the game’s wooden block letters across the room.
The third season of The Donna Reed Show ran from 1960 to 1961, the same era that’s covered by the current AMC series, Mad Men. The period’s chauvinism pops up on occasion–in one revealing scene, Donna complains to Alex about the cost of remodeling their home:
Donna: “I think you need to increase my allowance.”
Jeff: “Hey dad, if you’re increasing allowances, I need an increase, too.”
In the realm of economic power, Donna is no more than a child, like her son Jeff, both appealing to the breadwinner for a bump in cash. Yet scenes like this are rare, and something unexpected happened while I watched this series—I grew fond of the Stone Family and the serene predictability of their household, with its low voltage humor and basic decency.
In one episode, Alex makes a house call to visit a sick child. The child’s father is unemployed and apologizes to Alex because he cannot pay him. “Don’t worry about it,” Alex says, “medical service is something you must have when you need it, not when you can afford it.”
That sentiment still resonates today and there are many moments like this, moments that express something genuine and humane. In another scene, Alex explains the role of being a parent: “We need to instill in our children a set of values, so that when they start making choices on their own, they’ll make the right choices.”
It would be easy to make fun of The Donna Reed Show, particularly in its traditional attitudes towards women. But Paul Petersen notes (in an interview on the DVD’s bonus disk) that after Lucille Ball, Donna Reed was the most powerful woman in American television during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
And after decades of progress–from Mary Tyler Moore to Murphy Brown to Buffy Summers, something ugly is in the wind today. Consider this decade’s main television staple–the reality show, where the degradation of women is the norm. A dozen females vie for the affection of a rock star or a rapper. The humiliation of these young women is palpable and real.
In 40 episodes of The Donna Reed Show, I never saw a woman humiliated–not once. In fact, women often displayed real power over their men. Donna and Mary get what they want from Alex; in a sense, he works for them.
John Gardner once wrote that fiction represents a wish, a dream. The Donna Reed Show represents a uniquely American dream that exalts the traditional family. It’s a flawed dream, but an honest one. It depicts a place where children are always cherished, where a husband and wife will stay in love, and neighbors will always take care of each other. But that place cannot be found on any map; it only resides within the human heart.