The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952) | poster excerpt
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952) | poster excerpt

‘The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet’ and the Nerve-Wracking Nature of Nothingness in 1950s White America

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet impresses me not for its alleged blandness but for its ingenious minimalism, its meta-structure, and its nerve-wracking nature of nothingness.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: The Complete Season One
Ozzie Nelson
MPI Home Video
21 Jun 2022

Big news: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (ABC, 1952-53) has been restored and remastered in 4K by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and the first two seasons are now available from MPI Home Video on DVD and digital on-demand services. MPI advertises this as a 70th-anniversary release because the series ran on ABC from 1952 to 1966. The Nelson family appealed to the Nielsen families and remains a cultural milestone in television history. At 14 seasons, it held the record for longest-running live-action sitcom until surpassed by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. However, that show currently has 162 episodes in comparison to a whopping 435 for the Nelsons.

This remastering project is important for several reasons. First, the vast majority of episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet have only been available in ragged, shortened prints that showed up in reruns and on public-domain video labels. The Disney Channel aired episodes remastered from original 35mm network prints – more than 25 years ago.

A more important reason is that now we should be able to judge the series, whose early seasons simply haven’t been available in a coherent fashion, against its Jekyll/Hyde reputation in popular culture. The “Jekyll” side is that the series is a beloved, warm-hearted television sitcom institution fondly remembered by the Boomer generation. After the first half dozen episodes accustomed me to its peculiar rhythms, I find the series often inspired and scintillating, and that surprises nobody more than myself.

The “Hyde” aspect, perhaps unfortunately, has always struck cultural philosophers like me as more interesting. Let’s discuss that first and get it out of the way.

Cultural Symbolism and Sitcoms: A Digression

As long as I’ve been alive, the phrase “Ozzie and Harriet” has functioned as shorthand for a certain type of family sitcom and, by extension, a vision of 1950s America that supposedly summarized what was wrong with it: a homey, insular, bland or saccharine fantasy that never acknowledged the roiling realities of “real life”. Fairly or not, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was perceived as an ultimate example, along with the tellingly titled Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show and Leave It to Beaver, of a white, middle-class, suburban life where everything was perfect, everyone got along despite mild quirks and crotchets, and no problem couldn’t be solved in half an hour with commercials.

In my personal taxonomy of sitcoms, I classify these as Order shows in contrast to Chaos shows. That is, the dominant state of Order shows is equilibrium and harmony. The final joke of each episode acknowledges the restoration of order against whatever mild hiccup has erupted this week. The characters’ lives will continue in the homeostatic bliss in which they began.

The Chaos shows are those whose normal state is chaos, panic, and hysteria. Their closing scenes often feature a fresh outbreak of the disorder in which these characters perpetually live, a signal that the frantic can never be banished. Examples include I Love Lucy and Sgt. Bilko, whose title characters are agents of chaos. Even if an episode ends on an oasis of peace, we know it won’t last because the promise of chaos is why we tune in to these shows.

In other words, the Chaos shows tend to emphasize raucous comedy and slapstick, while the Order shows emphasize the harmony of calm, regulated lives. After we process these modes, we can see why Chaos shows tend to be more highly regarded by sitcom critics and connoisseurs. They’re about being funny.

The Order shows aren’t about that. Their appeal lies elsewhere. Their humor is of a different type (“warm and gentle”) and functions differently. Order shows may reinforce the verities of those who feel their lives are similar to this, or contrarily, they may provide their own form of escapism to people whose lives feel far from perfect. If such people aren’t reassured by such shows, they probably shouldn’t watch them.

Some of the more ingenious family sitcoms blend Order and Chaos. I would argue that BewitchedThe Addams FamilyThe MunstersThe Dick Van Dyke ShowAll in the Family, and The Simpsons promise the continual eruption of Chaos within a framework of Order. We watch them to enjoy the delivery of that promise, and this is the secret to their success.

In cultural criticism, therefore, the Order shows bear the burden of their homey vision in which everyone seems more or less the same. Adjectives like “homogenized” get thrown around when describing them. Most unfair is the pejorative term “unrealistic”, as though the Chaos shows are models of naturalism. To the vast majority of viewers, the Order shows probably felt intrinsically more real than the Chaos shows, even if the Chaos shows made them laugh louder and longer.

After all, and quite frankly, vast swathes of Baby-Boomer America really lived in all-white suburbs and grew up watching such self-reflections on their living room television. Why wouldn’t they? Some of them even lived in reasonably happy families, which Tolstoy told us are all alike.

We feel a certain temptation to blame network executives for seeking profit in the broadest appeal, which they undoubtedly thought of as their job, and for resurrecting the safe visions of MGM’s Andy Hardy movies or radio programs like Henry Aldrich. How fair is this? They were in a conflict-averse and sponsor-kowtowing industry, and all kinds of things happened.

For example, early television also gave us Gertrude Berg’s very Jewish The Goldbergs, a version of that long-running radio hit. CBS resurrected another popular radio property in Amos ‘n’ Andy, refashioned for television as the first ever all-black sitcom, starring a gallery of important African-American performers and appealing to most African-American audiences, according to Henry Louis Gates Jr., Donald Bogle, and various historians and comedians. Yet NAACP protests forced it off the air over perceived stereotypes. Such actions weren’t conducive to educating all-white CBS executives into racial sensitivity and seeking diversity in their programming or their hallways.

I pause to imagine a universe in which NAACP bigwigs met with CBS, parallel to a scenario that really happened later with Italian-American groups over The Untouchables. I imagine them demanding the hiring of black writers and directors for the show. Why not use Spencer Williams, an experienced director who was already there? I imagine them insisting on the hiring of a black executive or two. I imagine a flowering of new series, copycat and otherwise, giving work to black artists, with Amos ‘n’ Andy as the seed. Well, it didn’t happen. Instead, the only lesson white CBS ingested was “No more shows with Negroes, they’ll bite you on the backside,” and it would be another 20 years before any further series about an African-American community.

Television executives found more safety in emphasizing European ethnics, such as the first-generation Norwegian immigrants of Mama (1947-57) or the Italian immigrants of Life with Luigi (1952). Both were derived from radio, but Life with Luigi ended under pressure from Italian-American groups in a scenario not unlike that of Amos ‘n’ Andy.

Again, the network response wasn’t to rush out with material that would strike the professional boycotters as more sensitive but to avoid the issue altogether and air more shows on suburban WASPs, who weren’t organizing to complain of the unreality of their depictions. Thus, the mechanics of social protest did its valiant part to contribute to the homogenization of television into a medium that tended to assimilate everyone into the middlest of Midwestern Americanism. Sorry, but there it is.

We have now gotten far afield from discussing the Nelson family, and that gives you an idea of how they function as a critical and symbolic trope of history and culture more than as their own reality. Let’s now focus on their first season.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: Season One

Early episodes open with the characters enacting a brief commercial for this week’s sponsor, either Listerine or Hotpoint appliances. Then the announcer drills home the point of the show’s appeal: a real family as “themselves”: father Ozzie Nelson in his tie, his “lovely” wife Harriet “who keeps the family on an even keel”, oldest son David, and “irrepressible” younger son Ricky “with a twinkle in his eye”. Almost every line of Ricky’s dialogue is some kind of “wise guy” joke greeted with roars on the obtrusive laugh track. If I could change one thing about the show, I’d love the option of a laugh-free sound mix.

Already we must pause to think about this set-up. Today’s television is loaded with what’s oxymoronically called “reality TV”, in which “real people” play “themselves” in endlessly contrived and manufactured realities (on a desert island, a Big Brother house, etc.) or simply with cameras recording and encouraging their behavior and responses to stimuli. We’re flooded with real families, real housewives, real celebrities, and on and on.

Are the infinitely more modest shenanigans of the Nelsons the precursor to all this, perhaps with emphasis on “curse”? Possibly, but the crucial difference is that these modern “reality shows” depend on things happening, essentially the eruption of chaos, while the carefully scripted lives of the Nelsons depend on the mildest non-happenings in a world largely free of strife and trouble. Or rather, their lives are so free of real strife that they must invent trouble out of thin air, thus exposing a form of middle-class neurotic anxiety.

In their real lives, Ozzie had led a jazz orchestra and Harriet Hilliard was the singer. They created their monumental family sitcom in 1944 on radio, where it ran for a decade of 402 episodes. The real-life David and Ricky didn’t join the show until 1949. So at this stage of their careers in 1952, what the Nelsons did for a living was make a television show. That was their bread and butter. They learned their lines, rehearsed, filmed the show, and went home to their actual lives. The radio version still continued for two more years. Those must have been two very busy years. By the way, and just to confuse us, the Nelsons’ real home was used for the establishing shots of their TV home.

In the sitcom, only the opening commercials allow a slight wink to how they exist for a living. Otherwise, Ozzie does absolutely nothing and hardly leaves the house, although once or twice he refers to taking the bus. (To work? But he owns a car.) Whatever he may do, he’s certainly not working like other TV dads.