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The Television Critic

Criticís Choice
Leave It To Beaver
by Vince Staten
written for Saturday Review and Satellite Orbit, May 1985

 

Mom cooked and washed dishes.
Dad worried about the bills.
The boys watched TV.

Leave It To Beaver was a rarity in its time: a show that stressed realism over plot contrivances, normality over abnormality. It came along at a television time when Americaís favorite family comedy was about a dizzy redhead who spent her days scheming to get into show business and her nights putting those schemes into auction, a time when "Americaís favorite family" was headed by a bumbling Ozzie Nelson. On one channel, Father knew best; on another he didnít know anything.

Beaverís Dad was different from other television dads. He knew a lot, but not everything. He could fix a lamp, but he couldnít always mend a broken heart. He wasnít Dumb Dad, or Wise Dad, he was Real Dad.

Leave It To Beaver is even more of a rarity in this television time. Ward and June have always been married to each other. Wally and Beaver are natural brothers. There are no special ratings-month episodes about abortion, child molesters or teenage pregnancy, no portraits of teenage runaways. Leave It To Beaver doesnít deal in issues, it deals in problems. Beaver wonít eat. Teacher comes to dinner. Beaver disowns his parents. Eddie spends the night. Wally goes steady.

It was, and is, a show about every-day line.

When the show did take a rare peek at big issues, it brought them down to the level of everyday life. Beaver discovered divorce from his friend whose parents were divorced. He learned about alcoholism from the actions of the house painter.

The Cleavers were so normal that, watching them in reruns, today them seem almost super-normal. Thatís because of what television has become. Now we have single parents (One Day at a Time); widowed parents (Gimme a Break); two girls living with a boy (Threeís Company); a rich white widower, his white daughter and his two adopted black sons (Diffírent Strokes); a gay, a mother and her daughter (Love, Sidney); a girl and an alien (Mork and Mindy) and every combination of the above in Dallas.

We have all these odd couples, trios and quartets because it is easier for scriptwriters to come up with plots when they have all sorts of oddball relationships to build on. It is easier to milk an episode out of "Little boy offered drugs by older classmate" than it is to create tension and drama and hold interest with "Little boy refused to eat his Brussels sprouts."

But thatís what the writers on Leave It To Beaver did. There was an episode in which Beaver refused to eat his Brussels sprouts, a common predicament in any family. Each week they created lasting entertainment out of real life situations. They may have moralized and lectured and sometimes given us heavy-handed kitchen philosophy, but they made it all believable. It wasnít a whitewash, it was a microcosm of normal, unexciting family life.

In Mayfield people were normal. Real things happened to them. They rushed to watch the fire at the lumberyard or to check out the mudslide on the Crest Highway. Little kids threatened to run away from home. But they never got farther than Larry Mondelloís.

And the adults didnít always win, as they did on other family comedies of that timeÖand of this time. Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) made mistakes in raising his boys. He wrongly accused, he flew off the handle at small things, he yelled. But Ward was always trying to stay involved in his sonsí lives because Ward wanted only one thing for Wally and Beaver, the dream of many parents of the 50ís: a better life than he had had.

Once when Beaver (Jerry Mathers) had let his run away imagination run away again and get him in trouble, Ward made him go to his teacher and explain what had happened. After Beaver had gone to bed, Ward told June (Barbara Billingsley) that he was going to call Miss Landers (Sue Randall) ahead of time and "sort of pave the way" for Beaverís confession. "Would your father have done that for you?" June asked. "No," Ward replied, "thatís why Iím doing it for Beaver."

Ward was stern and quick but, as Wally (Tony Dow) often pointed out to Beaver, he was only doing whatever he did for their own good.

Rusty could outsmart Danny Thomas. Dennis the Menace could run circles around Mr. Wilson. But Wally and Beaver werenít smarter than their parents. They werenít the precocious tikes of Sit-Com, USA. They were kids. Only once in six years did they pull one over on Ward and June and get away with it: in the episode in which Wally stays at Lumpyís (Frank Bank), and Gilbert (Stephen Talbot) spends the night with Beaver. Ward had told Wally he could stay at Lumpyís when Beaver had a friend over and June had told Beaver he could have a friend over when Wally spent the night at a friendís house. They put the two together and outsmarted Ward and June. But only that once.

Leave It To Beaver accepted the boyís point of view as legitimate. The producers didnít go so far as to position the cameras at Beaverís eye level. We certainly never had an episode filmed through Beaverís eyes the way M*A*S*H once filmed an episode through a patientís eye. But Leave It To Beaver introduced childrenís logic to television. Beaver didnít just ditch school one time on a lark. He and Larry Mondello (Robert "Rusty Stevens) got involved in watching some men work on the sewers and, well, before they knew it, school had started and they figured it was better to ditch school altogether than to walk in later and get yelled at.

Leave It To Beaver created real life situations and populated them with sharply defined real characters. These strong characterizations went past the four main players. Even the characters of the supporting actors and actresses were carefully etched. So when Wally said, "Itís too bad Eddie Haskell isnít mixed up in this, then we could blame him," Eddie didnít have to walk on camera and take a bow. We knew Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond), and we knew how he acted in certain situations, just as we knew Fred Rutherford (Richard Deacon) and Larry Mondello and Mrs. Rayburn (Doris Packer). It is a rare television program that can create characters that are so identifiable that the main characters can use them as dramatic props and they donít even have to appear (or get paid).

The Mayfield of Leave It To Beaver didnít exist on any map, but Mayfield seemed real. Nothing as much ever happened there. The carnival came to town. Wally was suspended from the track team for throwing a towel. Beaver forgot his lunch. The things that happened in Mayfield happened in our lives. So to anyone who watched Leave It To Beaver, Mayfield was real and the Cleavers and the Haskells and the Rutherfords were real. They lived p the door or up the street.

We watched how they lived, how they dealt with life, because the same situation occurred in our own lives.

It was us.

For those of use with cable television, Leave It To Beaver lives on. And for those of us with video recorders, it will live forever.

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