Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Here They Are, America’s Favorite Family: The Nelsons

You may have noticed I like to jump around in my topic choices. Comfort TV covers a wide range of television programming from the 1950s to the early 1980s, and it’s fun to have that big a sandbox to play in.

But if I was ever to devote an entire blog to one specific show, it would be The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet

As much as I may have more personal affection for the ‘70s sitcoms that were part of my childhood, or the superhero shows that fired a young comic book nerd’s imagination, only Ozzie & Harriet would provide enough material for dozens – even hundreds – of posts, because there is so many aspects of this endlessly fascinating series worthy of in-depth exploration.

Start with the most obvious ­– it’s the longest-running live action family situation comedy in U.S. history, and it features a real family – married couple Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and their two sons, David and Ricky.

At a time when millions of viewers (for reasons unfathomable to me) are fascinated by shows about the Kardashians and Duggars and others (and don’t kid yourself, reality TV is as scripted as anything on Ozzie & Harriet), here was a series that was 50 years ahead of its time.

Imagine – going to work with your whole family and acting out everyday situations like sitting around the dinner table or planning a weekend trip, all on a set built to resemble the house you just left. In fact, the exterior series shots of the Nelson residence showed their actual Los Angeles home (at 1822 Camino Palmero St. in case you're ever in the neighborhood and want to drop by).

And when the workday is done you return home and pick up where you left off as an actual family. What must it be like to participate in an idealized version of your life, while simultaneously coping with any less sitcom-friendly aspects of those relationships when the cameras stopped?

The results, to me, are as captivating as they are unique. And this wasn’t some short-lived sociological experiment in entertainment – The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet ran for 14 years, longer if you count the radio show that preceded the television series. The show aired long enough for David and Ricky to grow up and get married, and for their wives to join the show, also playing dramatized versions of their real selves. 

I still wonder who these people really were. On the show Ozzie was a genial, laid-back patriarch who avoided household chores or any kind of labor. But the real Ozzie served as the show’s producer, director and cowriter. Harriet appeared the quintessential 1950s housewife, with her woman’s club meetings and the stack of pancakes she served her family every morning for breakfast. But the real Harriet was a vaudeville performer and band singer who was smoking at age 13 and enjoyed hanging out at the Cotton Club. She had such a way with an acerbic punch line that you knew she was just as feisty when the cameras weren’t on. 

What was it about this one family that millions of Americans found so interesting for so long? Was that window into aspects of real people’s lives a factor? I’m not sure whether that even played into its longevity.

Instead, I think it was a familial affection that compounded in viewers over time, as well as audiences seeing aspects of themselves and their own families in the Nelsons – or at least what they aspired to be. 

This was a time in television when there was a lot more of that – shows about families and doctors and lawyers and police officers that depicted their subjects in a way that would engender affection, admiration and respect from the viewing public. It wasn’t done overtly to send that message; it was, rather, a natural consequence of the way a self-assured and principled nation would portray itself.

Another element that made the show special was its balance of traditional ‘50s and ‘60s stories with elements of surrealism and a style of plot-less meandering that was later hailed as groundbreaking on Seinfeld. From the most basic of incidents – Rick grows a beard; Ozzie decides to stay in bed all day; Harriet gets a new hairstyle – the show devised clever, labyrinthine scripts that are still laugh-out-loud funny.

You never know where the show is going to take you. An episode about Ozzie’s quest for tutti-frutti ice cream features a 1920's-themed musical dream sequence. In “The Manly Arts,” David and Ricky fight a gang of smugglers in a scene out right out of The Untouchables. And they did their own stunts, just as they did in a circus episode where they performed a trapeze act. In several episodes one of the Nelsons will break the fourth wall and comment directly to the viewers, sometimes in character, sometimes as themselves. 

And we’ve come all this way without mentioning Ricky Nelson’s remarkable music career, another trailblazing aspect to the series. He was one of the biggest teen idols of the 1950s, but also one with real talent, as evidenced by his 35 top-40 hits and his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His frequent performances boosted record sales, establishing a pattern of crossover success that would be emulated by everyone from Shelley Fabares to Miley Cyrus. 

But one of the things I love the most about The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet is that I still have so many episodes to look forward to watching. There were 435 shows, and I have seen only about 150 of them.

Despite its quality and historic significance, the series has not fared well on DVD, for reasons too complex to explore here. Ricky’s son Sam Nelson is currently working on an official DVD release, but he chose to go it alone rather than work with an established DVD distributor. That may not have been a wise choice at a time when the market is already in decline, particularly for television shows of this vintage. The project was announced in 2011, but nothing has yet been released.

Hurry up, Sam – the fans that still remember the Nelsons as America’s favorite family aren’t getting any younger. 


  1. Looks like Sam Nelson has a Kickstarter campaign going for the restoration of the episodes. I have The Best of the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet DVD set that Shout! Factory put out, but haven't bought any more DVD sets because I can't easily tell what episodes they contain and how much overlap there is among all the sets. Do you know of any good resources you could point me to that might clear that up? I haven't been able to find one yet.

  2. Your best bet is Mill Creek's "Essential Ozzie & Harriet" DVD collection which has 100 episodes. It's out of print now but sometimes pops up on eBay or from an Amazon reseller. The picture quality is what you would expect from a public domain release, but many of the episodes have original commercials, which I always like and adds to the nostalgic viewing experience. Also, Rick's music performances are included, where they are sometimes cut from other public domain sets.