“Leave it To Beaver” and the Joys of Nostalgia

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You may have seen the recent New York Times story claiming that nostalgia is good for you That was all the justification I needed to embark on a mini “Leave It to Beaver” marathon. 

NetFlix, God bless them, is a veritable time machine, with more than enough shows to make me nostalgic for every period of my life. But “Beaver” is special.  It was my favorite show when I was six or seven, and although it lasted in syndication for a few years it seemed to disappear from TV when the culture turned dramatically away from gentle suburban comedies to edgier contemporary fare, like “All in The Family.” Until it showed up on Netflix, I hadn’t seen it for 40 years.

For older baby boomers, the appeal of “Leave It to Beaver” was that it was the one show on TV that was primarily about kids.  The main character, Theodore “The Beaver” Cleaver was slightly older than I was and the Cleavers lived in a neighborhood like mine, so at the time the show felt like a reflection of my life.

For such a mild, inoffensive show, “Leave It to Beaver” became one of the most controversial series in TV history.  People are still denouncing both it and its partner in crime, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Their sunny depictions of complacent middle-class lifestyles and their alleged advocacy for Eisenhower-era norms represented everything that the ‘60s stood in opposition to.

And it’s true, if you were Black, Hispanic, urban, rural, gay, single, poor, handicapped, Jewish or a member of any other identity group, you would not see yourself depicted on “Leave it to Beaver.”  The show, which debuted just 12 years after World War II, was aimed at the millions of Americans who were happy to have survived the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s and had migrated out to the suburbs to make cozy little lives for themselves.

Watching the series now, after a four-decade hiatus, reminds me how much TV itself has changed.  For starters, there are 39 episodes per season! The pressure to come up with new material must have been enormous, leaving little room for creativity and originality. Consequently, the stories are simplistic and slow – one plotline per episode, with none of the quick cuts and elaborate plots of “Seinfeld” and “Arrested Development.” The shows are also a little moralistic.  Rare is the episode when someone – kid or parent – doesn’t learn an obvious but important life lesson.

For me, the appeal of “Leave it To Beaver” today is primarily anthropological. Even the smallest details show how much society has changed. We learn off-handedly that Beaver’s class has 40-45 students, which would give the modern “Tiger Mom” an aneurism. And when Wally goes to a post-graduation party (at the country club, no less!!) all the guys wear white dinner jackets, not the shorts and flip-flops they’d sport today.

More important, with their assumption that all dads should work and all moms should happily stay home and take care of the house, the Cleavers seem like a different species than the modern family.  Yet for all the criticism of this series, it is a more accurate depiction of the late 1950s and early 1960s than the more highly regarded “Mad Men.” I don’t recall one Betty Draper from my childhood but I do remember lots of June Cleavers.

When I watch the show now I am far more interested in how June and Ward handle the challenges of parenthood than I ever was 40 years ago. Ward is a surprisingly modern dad, always there for the boys and trying hard to see thing from their perspective.  He internalized Dr. Spock’s childrearing principles better than the real Dr. Spock ever did.  As a parent myself, I know that it is not as easy as the Cleavers make it seem.

Having said that, although the Cleavers’ life seems pleasant, it’s a bit bland.  Just as there are no lows, there are no highs.  Beaver never laughs so hard that milk comes out of his nose, which happened to me more than once. And June and her friends never end up dancing in the living room after a few vodka and tonics.  The ‘50s were more fun than they appear on “Beaver.”

Nevertheless, for a viewer of a certain age, the appeal of “Leave it to Beaver” remains undiminished. Don Draper himself famously defined nostalgia as “the pain from an old wound,”  suggesting that we all yearn to go “back home again, to a place where we know are loved.”   From the second season on, every episode of “Beaver” ended with a credit sequence showing the boys walking home, to a place where they are definitely loved.  Who wouldn’t want a life like that?

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