Culture Notes: Leave it to Beaver

Alison Bechdel’s review of Jane Vandenburgh’s memoir A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century appeared in the New York Times Book Review in comic-book form in the March 29 edition, a witty approach that not only shows off Bechdel’s crisp style but surely gave the Book Review editors a break from printing yet another review of yet another coming-of-age-in-dysfunctionia memoir. (It’s here.) One complaint, though.

Bechdel refers to “the tranquilized ‘Leave it to Beaver’ conformity of the San Fernando Valley in the early 1960s.” You know what she means; I know what she means. Various shorthand terms have represented that idea of the late Eisenhower/early Kennedy era, the era of Revolutionary Road: the Organization Man, the Gray-Flannel Suit, the Lonely Crowd, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. My own favorite summary of the era is an Alan Sherman song, “Here’s to the Crabgrass,” which contains the immortal stanza, “Here’s to mosquitos/Clam dip and Fritos/To golf and bridge and scuba there./Men wearing knee pants/Women in Capri pants/Discussing what’s with Cuba there.”

beaver5Invoking Leave it to Beaver is one of those shorthand references, and it’s an easy one, and I’m afraid I have used it myself. You can see why: the show, which ran from 1957 to 1963 and was created by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, depicts a safe, white-picket-fence world in which the family unit is not only intact but beyond any intimation of divorce or scandal. It has few, if any, ripples of subversiveness, not even in the duplicitous form of Eddie Haskell, who in any case is regularly tamed by the show’s ethical rounding-offs — not that he seems to learn anything from them. (Eddie Haskell, played by Ken Osmond, is nevertheless one of TV’s greatest characters, a Dickensian figure along the lines of Uriah Heep.)

I watched a lot of Leave it to Beaver in my childhood, as it was on every afternoon in re-runs, but it wasn’t until seeing it in adulthood that I appreciated to what extent the show does not merit its reputation as a phony part of a repressive Fifties monoculture. Yes, it depicts a world that probably never existed, and yes, like most of what was on television at the time, it under-represents diversity. There are no homosexuals (although who can be entirely sure about Mr. Rutherford?), few black people, and very limited controversy. Within its contained world, however, Leave it to Beaver promotes honesty and personal responsibility over the values of social status or self-interest. It also overturns (usually, anyway) the assumption that dishonesty is an accepted, and even expected, mode of behavior; think of how many sitcoms, following in the frantic path of I Love Lucy, are built on tiresome spirals of lying.

Hypocrisy of any kind is frequently the target of Beaver‘s scripts, and its basic set-up — bestowing as much attention and point-of-view on the kid world as the adult — guarantees the skewering of various kinds of foolish “grown-up” behavior. The show’s gentleness is embodied in the gloriously serene (but hardly spineless) performance of Hugh Beaumont as Mr. Cleaver, which establishes the series’ moral center but also its sense of play; Beaumont is almost Dalai Lama-like in his measured good humor. It’s also worth noting the warmth of the parental relationship between Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley, which distinguishes them from the plastic figures of so many sitcoms. In short, there’s a great deal more than nostalgia to love about Leave it to Beaver, certainly much more than an easy association with the domain of Pat Boone and Velveeta.