Interesting Ideas

Leave It To Beaver Lies

Consider the startling cultural triumph of Leave It To Beaver.

The producers of this unassuming family sitcom could never have imagined that the Cleavers would one day become America's paradigm for the ideal middle-class family. More incredibly, Beaver attained that mythic status even though something was dreadfully wrong in the supposedly ideal world of Mayfield, USA.

The problem wasn't, as some critics have objected, that the Cleavers and their all-white hometown were too male, middle class and comfortably heterosexual to represent a legitimate idealization. That is true, perhaps, but it misses the point: The retro charm of Leave It To Beaver is based exactly on its perceived deviation from the real world.

But nostalgia buffs should look a little more closely before embracing the Cleavers as the ideal family they never had (and can't hope to duplicate) because, when you penetrate the idyllic surface, it's hard to imagine anyone really wanting to be like Ward, June and the boys. A close inspection reveals a familial purgatory worthy of Tennessee Williams--toned down for TV, certainly, but still consumed with rage, sexual turmoil and plain old mendacity. This family needs help.

Ward: Much idealized as the archetypal swell Dad, the day-to-day burdens of fatherhood in fact overwhelmed Ward Cleaver. Rare was the episode in the early years that he contained his fury over his sons' misdeeds, sometimes real ones, often imagined. By television convention, Ward had to see the error of his ways, backing off and restoring the household's equilibrium before each show's conclusion. TV isn't Tennessee Williams, after all. Can anyone doubt, though, the emotional damage his rantings and unfair accusations--let's name the evil: his emotional abuse--must have done to the boys?

In later episodes, Beaver's writers smoothed out Ward's character a bit, making him less the dangerously flustered hothead and more the wise and just father. But that, if anything, made Ward a still greater terror. As he became more serenely virtuous, he became that much more unreasonably demanding of his family, turning the always-less-than-perfect Wally and Beaver into liars and cowards, and June into a nervous wreck.

June: Each week Mrs. Cleaver struggled to maintain a facade of middle-class civility, nervously intervening to cool her husband's anger or to interdict some especially lunatic expectation aimed at her sons, especially the behaviorially challenged Beaver. That her spouse was so obsessed with righteousness certainly didn't help June cope with her own problems, whether the numbing boredom of an isolated suburban existence or her evident terror at Wally's emerging sexuality. (That issue charges several of the later episodes, most memorably the one in which Frances bamboozles Wally into lending her his sweater, sending June into a panic over the perceived intimacy.)

Wally: The elder of the two Cleaver boys had more to trouble him than just rising hormones. He was as funny looking as any teenager and not especially quick-witted. His only obvious physical talent relegated him to that refuge of athletically inclined dweebs and jocks who don't make the football team: track. But worst of all was the constant fear of Beaver sending Ward into a rage with some antic. Any big brother worries about his younger sibling being a drip, but with a father as unpredictable and demanding as Ward, friends as obnoxious as Eddie and a sibling as pitiful as Beaver, who can blame a nervous Wally for always whining at his little brother to knock it off.

Beaver: That Theodore Cleaver is pathetic is the show's raison de etre. Whether he's making a fool of himself in front of Wally's friends, disrupting Miss Landers' classroom or bugging his parents with an inane question, Beaver is a sorry sight.

He also is a pathological liar, a kid whose self-image is so poor that it can be sustained only through fantastic fabrications. When he's not trying to incompetently fib his way clear of trouble, he is busy making up aggrandizing stories about Ward's alleged wartime heroism or about Indian battles on the site of his home. But then lying comes naturally to a kid who would do anything to avoid his father's temper and gain his parsimonious approval.

It is not to the credit of Mayfield's social-service professionals that this messy situation rated no more than an occasional note from Miss Landers or phone call from Mrs. Rayburn.

If the social workers and psychologists weren't calling on the Cleaver household, though, perhaps it was because there were plenty of other woes to contend with. Once you get below the superficial contentment, Leave It To Beaver was ahead of its time in suggesting the troubled lives of youths condemned to suburban anomie. Its portraits of the soft-core delinquent Eddie Haskell, the hen-pecked Lumpy and the spoiled Gilbert put it in the vanguard of '50s pop sociology.

Most memorable of all its troubled characters was poor Larry Mondello, who inhabited the hard core margin of Mayfield society. Here was a case that the teachers and social workers and psychologists could not have handled on their own. It would have taken the police to put the Mondello household in order. Being characterized as fat, ugly and stupid wasn't sorrow enough for Larry. He had to be a repeatedly abused child as well. How many times, after getting into mischief with the Beaver, did Larry worry about the beating he was going to get when he arrived home? How often was he amazed when Beaver said his father didn't slap him around him for the same misdeeds?

Yet despite these many cracks in Mayfield's picture windows, Leave It To Beaver has won a place in the nation's affections denied to such contemporary family comedies as Father Knows Best, the Donna Reed Show and My Three Sons. It helped that Beaver went off the air before becoming self-parody. The others dragged on well into the sixties--My Three Sons, into the seventies--more than wearing out their welcome. Aesthetically, too, Beaver was the superior show. Its lively pacing, naturalistic dialogue and realistic lighting, among other technical virtues, give it an enduring freshness that makes even such old favorites as Dobie Gillis seem sadly lugubrious when viewed today.

Leave It To Beaver's staying power also wasn't hurt by its owners tenacity in aggressively syndicating and marketing the show on broadcast stations long before the cable-fueled revival of black-and-white television. Likewise, Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow paid dues, bravely stumping for Beaver back in the seventies when it was still little more than a subject for trivia questions and underground rumors about Mather's alleged demise in Vietnam or Ken Osmond's falsely rumored career as a porn star.

It is to their credit that the Beaver stars, unlike so many other TV actors, didn't repudiate the program as a youthful folly or bewail careers putatively ruined by its typecasting. In this regard, too, none of Leave It To Beaver's principals suffered the personal problems that befell, for example, members of the Father Knows Best family. Nor, for that matter, could any of the show's cast boast even the relative later Hollywood success of, say, a Father Know Best's Robert Young with Marcus Welby M.D. or the Donna Reed Show's Bob Crane with Hogan's Heroes.

Hugh Beaumont died, but otherwise the Leave It To Beaver cast simply went more or less into seclusion as far as the small screen was concerned. They remained untouched as Cleavers, and they were eminently available when the time came to bring the show's growing popularity to its logical conclusion with Still The Beaver, the most obvious television reunion ever next to Escape From Gilligan's Island.

That Wally and Beaver should have emerged in the Still The Beaver TV movie not in the image of the ideal, mythologized Ward, but as true sons of their so obviously troubled father, complete with a modern set of neuroses, demonstrates sound insight by the modern producers into the original show's secrets.

Like real-life family drama, the most resonant action in Leave It To Beaver is subtextual. By suggesting the emotional turbulence underneath the idyllic surface, Beaver paralleled the actual experience so many of the show's fans had growing up in real-life suburban families. Despite all the cant about the perfect childhood, that is the show's real triumph. We may think we see perfection, but most of us really do just see ourselves.

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