Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Comfort TV Goes Grocery Shopping

A few years ago I scribbled a note to myself to write a piece about grocery stores in classic TV episodes. It never seemed the right time, and it felt like a pretty strange idea anyway.

But if there was ever a moment to delve into this topic, it’s when we now realize how long we’ve taken these establishments for granted. Unless you are well into your senior years, this is likely the first time you went into the neighborhood supermarket wondering if they’ll have everything you need.

Me, I’ve always liked grocery stores, and I’m always amazed by all the options they provide us. So when one of my favorite shows visits a supermarket, my attention naturally perks up.

There are two kinds of supermarket TV episodes; those that shoot on location in an actual store, and those that build a scaled-down version on a soundstage, and fill it with fake products.

Real Stores
These moments are more fun, because I love freeze-framing on the shelves to see which brands from 30-50 years ago are still available, and which have disappeared.

Some are easy to spot right away, because the packaging has barely changed from then to now – the brown and yellow Bayer Aspirin box; green 7-Up bottles (do they still make it in glass bottles?); Heinz Ketchup.

There’s a supermarket scene in the Partridge Family episode “Why Did the Music Stop?” that I love, because on the shelf behind Shirley are displayed large tin cans of Hi-C fruit juice. I used to get those all the time, especially the Citrus Cooler.

Those are long gone, along with a lot of other products that used to be packaged in heavy glass and metal containers. In an episode of The Donna Reed Show called “Just a Housewife,” Donna is surrounded by shelf after shelf of large metal cans – imagine having to lug paper sacks full of those from the car to the kitchen.

And if you know something of the history of that series, it won’t surprise you that the two most prominent brands in that supermarket scene are Campbell’s Soup and Franco American Spaghetti – both sponsors of The Donna Reed Show. Product placement works, even back in 1960.

Overall, however, it’s surprising how little these places have changed over the decades. The debut episode of Police Story, “Slow Boy,” aired in 1973, and features a stakeout and shoot-out between cops and crooks inside a supermarket. Almost 50 years later that store wouldn’t look out of place now, except for the much lower prices and a few products lost to the ages, like Dixie Riddle Cups.  

An episode of Honey West called “Pop Goes the Easel” opens with an overhead shot of a massive supermarket, shelves stacked to the point of near overflowing. I’d have enjoyed a longer look around, but after thieves steal a can of chicken gumbo soup purchased by Honey’s aunt, the plot heads elsewhere. Turns out that can had a hand-painted label by a pop artist patterned after Andy Warhol.

And in the Eight is Enough episode “Quarantine” I referenced a few weeks ago, David Bradford walks the aisles of a large store where the directory signs are identified by a very ‘70s font of lower-case letters.

Fake Stores
The most familiar fake store from the Comfort TV era is the one owned by Herbert T. Gillis on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. But that’s more of a small neighborhood market. 

The store set built for “Supermarket Sweep” on Laverne & Shirley has shorter aisles, to accommodate the frenzied action as contest-winners Laverne and Shirley have three minutes to grab as much stuff as they can for free.  They load up a cart and stuff more goodies down their clothes, yet somehow only wind up with a box of fish sticks and scooter pies.

Next time you catch this one notice how the items on the shelves were not as vintage as they should have been. There are boxes of Frosted Flakes and Corn Flakes that reflect when the episode was shot, and not the era in which it was set.

Over on Bewitched, in “Samantha’s Lost Weekend” Esmerelda accidentally casts a spell on Sam that puts her in a permanent state of hunger, so it’s off to the market where she starts eating everything right of the shelves, and stealing apples from little old ladies. There’s a mix of real and fake items on display, and because they wanted to condense an entire market into a smaller space you’ll see product arrangements you’d never see in a real store. In one scene there are two shelves of alcoholic beverages stocked directly over the bottles of ketchup. 

It's rare when nearly an entire episode is set in a supermarket, but that’s what happens on Here’s Lucy in “Lucy, the Shopping Expert.” Lucy’s son Craig gets a job at a grocery store, where he is told to help keep the store looking neat and organized…and then Lucy shows up. You can guess the rest. 

This is one of those topics for which there are dozens, if not hundreds more examples. But I think a second grocery store piece might be pushing it. Let’s just hope that the era of grocery shopping that requires masks, social distancing and Soviet-style waiting lists for cleaning supplies and paper products will soon be the kind of memory we’d all rather forget.


  1. When I saw that can of Hi-C, I had a sudden flashback of Donny n' Marie pouring a tall one & boasting it had 10% fruit juice--"C'mon and go Hawaiian!"

    Anyway, love that scene of poor Mary disgustingly throwing that overpriced piece of meat in her cart (ugh! Inflation!) but one of my favorite supermarket-on-the-screen memories is from a 1961 Bob Hope movie, "Bachelor in Paradise". He's a famous writer who moves to the suburbs (thinking it will help him write again). Meanwhile, one afternoon he shows up at the local supermarket and all the (nicely dressed, sexy as hell) housewives are intrigued--"A man! In here! He must be that writer we heard about!"

  2. There's a Married...with Children episode from 1991, "You Better Shop Around", that had the most impressive and realistic supermarket set I've ever seen to this day, and, yes, there was name-brand products on the shelves. I'm sure the expense and labor building that set blew the budget, which was why the episode had to become a two-parter. Not exactly in the "classic" era you're encapsulating here, but since Jerry Mathers guest-stars, perhaps we can offer some leeway.

  3. I remember that same can of Hi-C in the pivotal scene from the PF episode where Shirley was talked into leaving the family act. It gave the show a nice touch of nostalgia for me.

    PF's timeslot neighbor, THE BRADY BUNCH, did location shooting outside a real LA supermarket for the nutty director who discovered the Bradys for his detergent commercial. Lloyd Schwartz told a sad story in his book, BRADY BRADY BRADY, about how 1 of the men who was guarding the camera equipment overnight died of a heart attack before the shooting that morning. Filming was delayed until the man's body could be removed.

    While this isn't from tv (though it was run on tv eventually), the Disney movie "Gus" had a great scene where the field-goal kicking mule destroys a Ralph's supermarket while evading 2 mulenappers. I remember at 1 point Tom Bosley getting a full package of Gold Medal Flour over his head.

    Again this is not from tv, but here's a fun look back at the workings of a supermarket and the job of a checker back some 55 & 56 years ago. I figured out the filming dates from the TV Guides seen on the magazine rack in an actual store (March 14, 1964) and in the checkouts set up for the "Checkers of the Year" (March 13, 1965, exactly 52 weeks later):

  4. There's another sitcom relevant to this post. CHECK IT OUT was a syndicated sitcom produced in Canada set in a grocery store. Don Adams was about the only actor who had a recognizable name, as I think the rest of the actors, aside from Henry Beckman (known in the US for HERE COME THE BRIDES and only appearing in Season 1) were Canadian. Adams played the store manager. The show lasted 2 seasons total. I remember being interested in the show back around summer 1986, as I worked in a grocery store myself that summer.

    You can see the show's opening credits for Season 1 here: