‘Leave It to Beaver’ Is Closer to Real Life Today Than We Care to Admit

Perhaps Leave It to Beaver‘s problem in modern society is not that it no longer fits modern social concerns, but that it does so too openly.

Whenever someone mentions Leave It to Beaver in order to summon images of stilted ’50s ideology and conservative sitcom hokeyness, I’m 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.

What else could explain such a 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 conversations at 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 the 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.

Speaking Of Spanking…

Speaking of spanking, it’s also a little uncomfortable hearing wonderful louse Eddie Haskell surprised (in ‘The Broken Window’) that Ward didn’t hit Wally and Beaver for breaking the window. His father, he says, would give it to him ‘right across the puss’. He seems more confused that anything by Ward’s lenience, which adds a slight depth to his (hilarious) fawning falseness towards authority figures. (June wreaks a little petty vengeance of her own on Eddie in ‘The Perfect Father’, giving him mayonnaise that she knows he’s allergic to.)

By the middle of season one, Ward and June have been established as somewhat haughty and mildly judgmental towards their neighbours — something that rarely gets mentioned as it’s portrayed (part of the show’s strength) rather than explained (as is the dim-witted ‘tell-don’t-show’ fashion now). ‘The Broken Window’ gives some good examples of this, as well as a mention of d-d-divorce when a salesman presents a marriage breakup as providing a good opportunity to buy a house. It also lets us see a bit of an argument between Ward and June brewing over the dinner table; Wally complains when it stops that ‘it was just getting good’. (The episode also provides a good chance in some driving scenes to see June’s ‘hollow’ neck that the producer’s felt the need to cover — leading to the the nigh-omnipresent pearls she wore).

In ‘Lumpy Rutherford’, Ward’s fathering techniques seem mostly about reliving his own childhood, chuckling self-indulgently at his own childhood recollections of dealing with a bully while the kids obediently listen. When it’s all done, Ward’s story of luring a bully into an alley lined with barrel hoops (both he and the kids revelling in the talk of bloody noses and injuries) has essentially instructed his kids to commit assault, which they then do, lining a driveway with barrel hoops and getting bully Lumpy Rutherford’s father (played by Richard Deacon, Mel Cooley of The Dick Van Dyke Show fame) all banged up and police-bound.

Aside from Ward’s self-indulgent fathering, we also get to see his smug pleasure when he hears that Mr Rutherford’s had a fall (‘he’s the kind of friend you enjoy seeing fall down once in a while’), general indifference to his friends (he clearly finds Rutherford dull), suburban facade (the social interaction that’s more show than real) and self-righteous posturing (giving sage advice after clearly not giving much of a damn about what he’s listening to).

There’s also nice hints of awareness of changing methods of parenting; after June reprimands Ward for telling violent stories and ‘giving them ideas’, Ward replies that ‘kids today don’t think that way. With modern psychology all their aggressions have been siphoned off into other things … like finger-painting’. Similarly, in ‘Cleaning Up Beaver’ June wonders when Beaver will outgrow being ‘sloppy’. Ward replies, ‘Oh June, that’s not the modern approach. You can’t wait for kids to outgrow things … you have to send them to orthodontists, psychologists, they’ve even got experts to tell children how to play. No self-respecting parent would dream of relying on nature’. (These sly comments always remind me of an obnoxious brat on an episode of the somewhat more ‘hip’ 77 Sunset Strip, ‘The Lady has the Answers’ from 1961: ‘You can’t spank me … Who spanks kids these days? Wanna stifle my initiative? Wanna build up my aggression?’)

As for the kids’ perspective, it’s episodes like ‘The Party Invitation’ that really allow the show to create its own sense of authentic childhood concerns without stretching too far for either drama or comedy. Here Beaver is worried that a girl likes him and when he’s invited to her party he’s upset that he’ll be the only boy there (‘she looks awful – like a girl’ is how he describes the young lady). Silly as this seems, the show doesn’t reduce his problem to some idiotic concept or smug ‘he’ll get over that’ grinning. It recognises that, for a kid, this is a big deal and a stage of life real enough to be treated with care.

Of course, this creates some problems when Beaver tries to get out of it (Wally does a great impression of Ward over the phone) and the scene of Ward more or less forcing Beaver to go to the party evokes parental control and childhood powerlessness nicely, without going needlessly into some big confrontation or show of unfairness. And, nicely, as soon as Ward and June find out why Beaver didn’t want to go, the show doesn’t try for cheap laughs out of some generation gap: they immediately understand that it’s pretty tough for Beaver to be at an all girls party and feel pretty bad about the whole thing.

It’s this sense of seriousness from the perspective of a child that makes the show so strong. It’s a warm show that isn’t afraid to take seriously just how much a boy doesn’t want to kiss a bunch of girls, without being too knowingly clever about how that may change in a few years.

For infamous stereotypes, they’re all really fairly rich as characters. I always get a kick out of any reference to Ward’s childhood, which come out in brief and casual mentions, and Ward often views his children through his own experiences. There’s something evocative, humanising, and even a little sad, in Ward’s implied childhood: not the circumstances themselves (Ward had a ‘real mean father’, June says in ‘The Broken Window’), but simply that this generic ’50s family-man ever had a childhood. Somehow it humanises the pursuit of the comfortable security of suburban life and consumerism that we’ve all discovered is essentially false and now so easily regard with public suspicion.

If Ward’s childhood seems another world entirely, its image is summoned briefly in a charming finalé to ‘Beaver’s Short Pants’. While June’s away, Aunt Martha stops by to look after the household and decides that Beaver would look just spiffy heading off to school in an old-fashioned short-pants suit. Just before the final commercial break, Beaver’s heading off to school for more teasing about his outfit when he’s covertly called over to the garage by Ward, who’s snuck outside with Beaver’s regular clothes. Helping Beaver change, Ward pops Beaver’s old-fashioned cap for convenience on his own head, giving him the air of a childhood conspirator, a boy of the past rather than the slightly stuffy father we’re used to. Beaver notes, a little surprised, that he’s ‘almost like one of the fellas’, something that seems to please Ward immensely.

Sharing this odd moment together, the cap still suggesting the boy Ward once was, Beaver cements their camaraderie with an appropriate show of ’50s-era father-son affection: he extends his hand for a handshake.It’s a slightly sad moment that seems to mark out clearly the gap that prevents the two ever truly bonding as comrades, the memory of a young boy that still lurks inside Ward, and the confines and changing nature of father-son affection. I know more than a few men of the Leave It To Beaver generation who still remember the pain of the moment when freely expressed physical affection with their father was replaced, often by formal announcement, with a handshake.

In this light, it’s an authentically warm moment when Beaver then pulls Ward closer and kisses him on the cheek before leaving for school, and rare emotion crosses Ward’s face as he seems to realise that they’ve briefly shared a moment outside of their normal roles. Ward grabs his generic briefcase and generic umbrella and heads of to his unspecified generic job, the old-fashioned cap of his childhood still resting for a moment on his head.