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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

All in the family

A popular view of the 1950s in America is that it was a conservative and repressive time. Movies like Revolutionary Road and TV shows like Mad Men use the advantage of 20/20 hindsight to critique the era’s sexist economy and reactionary politics. Personally, I think that decade has gotten a bum rap.

For many people, the era is typified by its popular family sitcoms. As soon as the 1960s and 1970s, it became trendy to point to such TV shows as Leave It to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best as corporate America, perhaps in conspiracy with a Republican administration, indoctrinating the country with white, middle-class traditional family values. In fact, in his 1998 film Pleasantville, Gary Ross actually had two teenagers (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) magically transported to the world of such sitcoms where they bring their enlightened 1990s sensibility to liberate victims of 1950s black-and-white TV repression.

The problem with this view of the Eisenhower era is that it conveniently overlooks the fact that by far the most popular sitcom of those years was not about a well-behaved family with two cute kids in a small town with a picket fence but was about a daffy Irish-American woman married to a Hispanic immigrant living in a small apartment in New York City. Each episode was not about teaching some valuable lesson about growing up or learning responsibility but was about a woman trying one hare-brained scheme after another and causing her volatile Cuban husband to lose his temper. Of course, I Love Lucy has been cited along with other sitcoms of the era as perpetuating and locking in the image of women as housewives, who are out of their depth when they start thinking about having their own careers. The same could be said about another popular New York-set sitcom that was bent on laughing at its characters rather than teaching lessons. Unlike most other sitcoms, the couple played by Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows in The Honeymooners were unmistakably blue-collar rather than white-collar and they did a serious amount of fighting. The threat of violence (“To the moon, Alice!”) was never far away, although we never really feared it would materialize. Ralph Kramden was the breadwinner, but it was clear that Alice was the brains in the home. Unlike the Ricardo household, in the Kramden home it was the husband who came up with the crazy schemes.

If one takes seriously the notion that these family sitcoms were some sort of government/corporate plot to make people conform to traditional values, then why were some major components of many people’s lives completely absent? There was never any allusion to the adults’ political affiliation or their opinions on current issues. The worlds of state or national government, let alone international affairs, did not seem to filter down to Mayfield or Springfield or even to the apartments in New York City. Interestingly, shows set in small towns or suburbs were famously vague about the husbands’ line of work, although they always left in the morning dressed in a suit. Ozzie Nelson, sort of playing himself, was a bandleader in real life, but his television persona never seemed to have a job to go to. The urban sitcoms, however, were more definite about the breadwinner’s occupation. We knew Ricky Ricardo was a bandleader and that Ralph Kramden drove a bus.

As for religion, well, despite the solid small-town values of the Cleavers, the Nelsons and the Andersons, we practically never saw any of them attend church. And, if church were mentioned at all, it was left very vague as to what denomination or sect the characters belonged to. The fact that church did not play a big part in these TV families never seemed that strange to me. That was probably because my own family never went to church. But it must have seemed strange to a lot of people, since most people who easily identified with the Cleavers and the Andersons, i.e. small town residents, would have been regular churchgoers. The reason why these TV characters’ spiritual life was largely elliptical is not hard to figure out. Why take a chance at alienating any portion of the potential viewing audience by specifying that the family belonged to a particular church. Another possible reason also occurs to me. It may be that TV writers didn’t write about small town families’ religious lives because it was a topic that was foreign to them. I don’t know about the 1950s, but I’m guessing that these days anyway regular church attendance among creative people in the TV industry isn’t particularly high.

Whatever the reason, it has long been a de facto convention of sitcoms that, apart from the occasional wedding or funeral, the characters are rarely if ever seen in a church or synagogue or mosque. We might make assumptions about some characters’ nominal religious affiliation, usually based on ethnicity. Irish-American or Hispanic characters, for example, are sometimes explicitly or implicitly acknowledged as Catholic. The eponymous star of Seinfeld was clearly Jewish. And, of course, in my sweeping generalities I have conveniently ignored glaring exceptions like the late 1960s series The Flying Nun. It is also worth noting that hour-long programs, some of which could reasonably be considered comedies or dramedies, are much more likely to explore their characters’ spiritual lives. The Alaska-set Northern Exposure often explored its characters spiritual beliefs and questions, and Desperate Housewives fairly regularly shows its characters in church and occasionally consulting clergy.

What got me to thinking about this was the sitcom Modern Family. As I have commented before, it is very well written and very funny. Like a number of contemporary sitcoms, it trades in the comedy of the uncomfortable, and some of the situations have a bit of a bitter edge to them. But in the end, things are always played for the laugh. But I was struck in one episode a while back by a line that came and went. The landlady to the gay couple, Cameron and Mitchell, in a fit of pique at her husband says to Cam, “Urgh my husband! You two are so lucky they don’t let you get married.”

It’s a funny line, but it also highlights that, despite the “modern” moniker, this sitcom is as elliptical about the characters’ personal lives as were the ones that went before. We really don’t know Cam and Mitchell’s (or for that matter, anyone else’s) opinions on political and social issues. (The glaring exception here is the oeuvre of Norman Lear, particularly All in the Family, in which a couple of the main characters were completely defined by their politics.) There is a brief reaction on Cam’s face that could be interpreted as enduring insult on top of injury. Or it could just be an aghast reaction at the abrasive landlady. We might think we know what his opinion on same-sex marriage is, but that would amount to stereotyping, since not every single gay person is actually in favor of it. If we haven’t see Mitchell and Cam out on the protest line against Proposition 8, it is almost certainly for the same reason that the Cleavers’ church denomination was left vague. Why go out of your way to potentially alienate a significant segment of your audience? Have the series creators not done enough socially by just portraying a committed gay couple that adopts a baby? And that raises the question: if 1950s depictions are looked back on as a form of conservative social engineering, will people in the future look back at programs like Modern Family as liberal social engineering?

Anyway I’m not sure that the Modern Family and other sitcom mavens are wrong to eschew the most contentious political matters on their air. At the end of the day, most people just get on with their lives and are more preoccupied with relationship and family problems than they are with political issues. And let’s face it, politics, like religion, isn’t necessarily funny. Or, if it is, it tends to be for all the wrong reasons.

-S.L., 16 June 2011


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