Alex Stone was a small-town pediatrician whose office is connected to the house. His wife, Donna (Donna Reed), was a homemaker. And both were articulate, bright, and witty. Their teenage daughter, Mary, and adolescent son, Jeff, sniped back and forth, but without any real rancor. Donna wore a dress while working around the house—gasp!—and the family took their meals together. (Double gasp!)
“‘The Donna Reed Show’ depicts a better time and place. It has a sort of level of intelligence and professionalism that is sadly lacking in current entertainment products. ... The messages it sent out were positive and uplifting. The folks you saw were likable, the family was fun, the situations were familiar to people. ... It provided 22-and-a-half-minutes of moral instructions and advice on how to deal with the little dilemmas of life.”
Our Early TV Culture: Some Brief NotesInterestingly, the writer of that article, Glenn Garvin, snidely belittled Peterson’s observations. He called other family sitcoms of the period, such as “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave It to Beaver,” phony. He wrote, “Reed’s tight dresses showed off the same spectacular figure that helped her win an Oscar as a sizzling young hooker in 'From Here to Eternity.'” She “schemed and manipulated to keep peace in her family and the neighborhood,” and taught her daughter to use her “feminine wiles” on the boys at school.
Guilty on all counts, though many of us might have overlooked Reed’s dresses had Garvin not highlighted them.
They’re Called Sitcoms for a ReasonCertainly, as Peterson noted, the families in these shows were fun, bringing laughter to their audiences with a humor gleaned from situations and stock characters rather than from wisecracks or snarky remarks.
“The Andy Griffith Show” (1960–1968), which remains popular in reruns today, is an excellent example of the early situation comedy. It brought together the wise Sheriff Andy Taylor; his son, Opie; his good-hearted Aunt Bee; the inept deputy sheriff, “Nip it in the bud” Barney Fife; and other inhabitants of the small town of Mayberry, and looked for its laughs in how the characters dealt with everyday problems. No one used foul language, any mockery of others was gently delivered, and the relationship between Andy, Aunt Bee, and Opie was core to this series, though it wasn't strictly a show about family.
Love, Marriage, and FamilyIn these family-centered shows, the husbands generally left for work in the morning while the wives stayed home and raised the kids. Both spouses may have had different obligations within their families, but as is the case with several young couples I know today, the relationships between these television wives and husbands were balanced, loving, and respectful.
The MessagePeterson was right on target when he noted that these light comedies delivered “moral instructions and advice.” One of the more explicit of these messengers of virtue was “Leave It to Beaver” (1957–1963). Ward and June Cleaver were raising two boys, teenaged Wally and his younger brother, Theodore, nicknamed Beaver. Like other sitcoms about families at this time, Ward often appeared in a suit and tie, and June almost always wore a simple but stylish dress and her trademark pearl necklace.
OffspringPlenty of other family sitcoms hit the airwaves following these shows. Like their predecessors, many of them also offered positive messages about marriage and parenting. “Family Matters,” “Family Ties,” and “The Brady Bunch” are just a sampling of these successors that promoted the idea of strength and love in the family.
Then and NowCriticisms of the old family sitcoms as unrealistic are understandable, particularly when compared to our culture today. The world of Donna Reed, Ward and June Cleaver, and Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry now seems as far away from our digital age as the streets of Shakespeare’s London. The dress, manners, and customs from then to now have undergone a radical transformation.
On the other hand, these same shows have some things to teach us if we let them. Most of the adults are portrayed as grownups—men and women who dress with class, treat others with respect, and avoid rude language or behavior. Children listen to their parents, play games, and display a curiosity about the world around them. Some of our 20-somethings who claim to be confused by what they call “adulting” might, in particular, gain some insights from Rob and Laura Petrie, or Alex and Donna Stone.
And here’s the good news: All of these shows are available somewhere online. So if you’re looking for lessons from the past, or if you just want some humor delivered with wit and sophistication, hop aboard these time machines of family sitcoms and travel back to a gentler age.