Oct 22, 2020–For boys growing up in the early days of television, all our favorite heroes were single men.
The Lone Ranger. Gene Autry. Batman. Zorro.
And most TV families were led by single fathers: Bonanza, Andy Griffith, My 3 Sons, The Rifleman, Jed Clampett.
The pattern continued through the 70s and 80s. M*A*S*H. Frasier. The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.
All the captains on every Star Trek series.
Any children that remained (Opie, Hoss, Ellie Mae) were delivered by wives who met an early demise, freeing the man to pursue his deeds of saving fellow citizens from crime and attacks from Klingons, who were also mostly single.
I imagine it was a simple plot device. There are many more interesting options writing for a single dad than for a married couple, when the show is not about the marriage. That way dad can have a wider variety of relationships, even a few lady friends, without worrying about social mores of the day.
Of course, when there was a TV family with both mom and dad, they were idealized beyond recognition, especially during the 50s. Dad worked a professional job, mom stayed home and reared two precociously cute children:
The Donna Reed Show
Father Knows Best
Leave It To Beaver
I Love Lucy
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Even the Flintstones had Fred and Barney coming home from a grueling day at the quarry to beautiful barefoot wives.
Later, the theme got switched up a bit. In Lucille Ball’s subsequent shows, she ditched her Desi and became the zany single female. Mary Tyler Moore dumped Van Dyke and moved to Minnesota. That paved the way for Rhoda, Dame Edna, and a flock of female single heads of households, culminating in the three Golden Girls.
About that time, broadcasters switched to digital and I stopped getting TV, thus ending my career as TV reviewer.
I don’t know why this matters. I’d just never thought much about it before. How influenced are we by what programs we watched on TV growing up.
Even as a kid I knew those TV families weren’t real. I knew my family didn’t look or act like the Bradys or the Waltons. But still, you compared subconsciously.
Did children really asked to be excused from the dinner table, and not just dash after gulping down the last piece of pie?
Did brothers really talk out their problems instead of slugging each other when mom was distracted by a crying baby?
Did dads really sit down with pipe and slippers and share what happened at the office that day? And did moms really fix the kids snacks when they got home from school and listen to how their day went? My memories are getting home and streaking off to the timber before mom gave us chores to do.
To this day I subconsciously squirm when visitors come over, because I know my house doesn’t look like Ozzie & Harriet’s. Strangely, I find that is what people LIKE about my house. I don’t make them take off their shoes or engage in witty repartee over martinis and canapes. Coming to our house is pretty much a free-range experience.
Perhaps the real genius of these early TV shows were that we all watched them, despite nothing actually happening. As a writer for The Simpsons observed, we watched TV families so we wouldn’t have to interact with our own.
We were looking through the walls at the daily lives of actors who were pretending to be us, muddling through our little dramas and disputes. The difference was that the TV families tackled them with humor and clever dialogue, with parents who wore suits and dresses, and solved them in 30 minutes. Our issues with siblings were attacked with screaming and bare knuckles, name-calling and crying, and endless schemes for revenge well beyond the 30-minute time limit. Often years beyond.
Just something to think about as you sit down at your next holiday get-together.