Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Breaking 1950s Conventions on Father Knows Best

There’s something remarkable about Father Knows Best. You can watch any dozen episodes and be entertained by the wholesome charms with which this 1950s sitcom is identified. And then you’ll discover a story that is so compelling in its content that you could write a term paper about it.

To some extent this is true of many shows from an era we now group into a collective memory of innocent nostalgia. To some these situation comedies are nothing more than idealized portrayals of a traditional family that may provide a few simple pleasures, but are no longer relevant to the way we live today. Some actually find them offensive – a reactionary fantasy of a Middle America that never really existed, where Dad brings home the bacon, Mom is happily chained to her stove, and together they raise unfailingly polite kids. 

Those who hold such opinions have either never watched shows like Father Knows Best or The Donna Reed Show, or they just weren’t paying attention when they did. There was far too much talent involved, both in front of and behind the camera, to create something so bland.

If certain formulas tended to repeat themselves – first dates, first jobs, eccentric neighbors and relatives, keep in mind that these are moments and rites of passage that many families experience in the non-scripted world as well.

You won’t find challenging content in most of these vintage series, but that is not a creative flaw. Consistency and predictability is an important part of their enduring appeal. I for one would never want to watch an episode of Father Knows Best in which Margaret gets cancer, or Bud is critically injured in an auto accident. I don’t want Jim to lose his job at the insurance company, and wonder how he’s going to keep up the mortgage payments. That was not why these shows were made.

But that doesn’t mean Father Knows Best can’t surprise you. Here are three remarkable episodes that skirt the comfort zone of classic television.

“Woman in the House”
Often shows like Father Knows Best seem to be set within a secure suburban bubble, immune to the confusion of the outside world. In this season two episode from 1955, some of that less settled world invades Springfield in the form of Jill Carlson, the younger and free-spirited wife of one of Jim’s oldest friends. She smokes, she talks a little too loud for the heartland, and at one point she asks Margaret if she’s ever read Kafka. Margaret, played with quiet dignity by Jane Wyatt, can barely hide her discomfort, which only deepens after Jill becomes their houseguest for a few days. At one point she breaks down, ashamed by how provincial her life seems to this strange outsider, and by her own intolerance. This being Father Knows Best, both Margaret and Jill are changed for the better through the experience, but it’s the culture clash that makes “Woman in the House” so unsettling.

“Mister Beal Meets His Match”
Betty, writing a story for college, casts her family in a new version of the Faust tale.  Mysterious stranger Harry Beal sells Bud a set of books that seem to grant wishes, but you don’t get something for nothing (or at least, that was a lesson still taught in the 1950s). Jim discovers to his horror that the gifts in the books were received at the forfeiture of his children's souls. A panicked Jim offers Beal his own soul in exchange for theirs. The harrowing parts of the tale are played straighter than you might expect. 

“The Bus to Nowhere”
Whatever joys and sorrows are felt by fifties sitcom characters, they still maintain a basic contentment with their lives and their place in the universe. They hold on to certain bedrock values formed by their faith and Midwestern common sense. And then there’s “The Bus to Nowhere,” in which Betty Anderson experiences full-tilt existential angst that shakes her to her core. Nothing matters to her, not even dances and dates and hayrides (man, they loved their hayrides in the ‘50s). Her family dismisses her anguish as “just a mood” and “rubbish,” but Betty is disconsolate – “I don’t know anything anymore,” she confesses. In the climax she’s at the bus station ready to go wherever her savings will take her. I won’t spoil the ending and how she finds her way back, but “The Bus to Nowhere” is worthy of study and debate in college classes devoted to philosophy and theology. It’s one of the most profound and extraordinary episodes in 1950s television. 


  1. I enjoyed reading about the three FKB episodes you selected as less "sitcomish." I think that vintage shows contained challenging content (e.g., HAVE GUN--WILL TRAVEL, THE FUGITIVE). But in those days, the sitcom was supposed to be funny; the dramedy hadn't been born yet.

  2. I just found your blog via Me-TV's website...some really excellent observations and writing here! I enjoyed reading about "Father Knows Best"...the Woman in the House episode is a favorite of mine. I've managed somehow to miss the other two you listed, but hope I can catch them on Antenna TV soon, thank you for mentioning them. I appreciate these shows for what they were and try not to make comparisons. They stand on their own. "Leave it to Beaver" is another good one in the family sit-com, especially how it tends to show things from the kid's eye view.

  3. Thank you both for your feedback! And April, obviously I love your taste in blog titles (148 Bonnie Meadow Road).

  4. I just happened across "The Bus to Nowhere"and was mesmerized. A quick email search afterward pulled up your blog. I agree with your assessment. This episode is filled with the existential angst of some suburban middle class youth in the '50s, who were inspired to dissatisfaction by the writings of the Beats and others. But this episode doesn't hit you over the head with its literary references. In its short 22+ minutes it gives you the gist of what was storming through the souls of some Betty Andersons in suburban America, while their parents felt helpless and scratched their puzzled heads. Yes, Betty's angst is solved with a simple encounter and there's the usual happy ending. But its fulfilling and hopeful in its directness. I think I'll pull out my old copy of "On the Road" and dream again.

  5. Thanks, Ken. Glad you found that episode as intriguing as I did. Every time I watch it it surprises me again!