Thursday, October 4, 2012

This Day in TV History (‘Leave It to Beaver’ Debuts)

October 4, 1957—For an America unsettled by a changing world, the premiere of Leave It to Beaver served as a welcome balm. The Soviets launched Sputnik that day, African-Americans were clamoring for their long-denied rights, and rock ‘n’ roll was unnerving parents even as it excited their teenaged children. 

But for a little boy in the town of Mayfield, blessed with a wise father, a loving mother, and a well-meaning older brother, the world was an innocent place where the worst scrape you could get into involved a baby alligator named Captain Jack that you tried to hide (unsuccessfully, of course) from Mom and Dad. It would be a decade before Billy Joel would use the name "Captain Jack" to evoke a sinister drug pusher servicing the needs of an aimless suburban loser who can't understand "why you've got to keep in style and feed your head."

Mayfield exists in an unnamed state, just as Ward Cleaver works in an unspecified job. The vagueness was intentional: the show’s creators wanted viewers to project themselves onto the characters, and boy, did they ever. Watching the show more than a decade later in syndication, several years after its original run ended, I, as the youngest, most bewildered member of my family, identified with Beaver. I saw more than a little bit of Wally in my two older brothers. And, like just about every else I've come across, I've known at least a few brown-nosers who seemed to have taken their cue from Eddie Haskell.

I also don’t remember ever seeing rain in any episode in the sitcom's six-year run. I’m sure the show must have had it, but in the prototypical TV suburb of the Eisenhower era, sunlight seems everywhere. It would take another decade for the appearance of dark shadows (with and without initial capital letters).

That idyllic image was a suburban dream come true for many Americans in the early postwar era, and one to which millions more aspired—including, as it happened, African-Americans. Future Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote about the show’s ineffable appeal to his childhood West Virginia community of Piedmont in an essay in the recent issue of American Heritage:

“Beaver’s street was where we wanted to live, Beaver’s house where we wanted to eat and sleep, Beaver’s father’s firm where we’d have liked Daddy to work. These shows for us were about property, the property that white people could own and that we couldn’t. About a level of comfort and ease at which we could only wonder. It was the world that the integrated school was going to prepare us to enter and that, for Mama, would be the prize.”

Gates immediately undercuts that vision with some harsh reality: “Lord knows, we weren’t going to learn how to be colored by watching television. Seeing somebody colored on TV was an event.”

Gates had the whole landscape of American television in mind, but Leave It to Beaver was a useful case in point.  Not until the show’s sixth and final season did one of the last of the 234 episodes feature an African-American, and she was a maid—the kind of stereotypical role that Hollywood had been peddling for years. Minorities, quite simply, were invisible for much of America in those years, on their screens and in their lives.

Take the show for what it is, and was: the baby boomer TV equivalent of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, where there’s a good deal of mild-mannered mischief but precious little mayhem. We had to look later for a less innocent, truer reflection of Americans coming of age in those years, just as Twain’s readers would have to wait nearly a decade for a more realistic depiction of the horrors perpetrated by an abusive, substance-abusing parent and a class- and race-haunted society: Huckleberry Finn.

(Photo of the cast of Leave It to Beaver, 1960, from left: Hugh Beaumont—Ward; Tony Dow—Wally; Barbara Billingsley—June;  and Jerry Mathers --Theodore AKA "Beaver").

No comments: