In December of 2017 I wrote a piece about ten forgotten television shows I’d like to watch. One was The Smith Family, a 1971 series starring Henry Fonda as a police detective.
What I said then:
“The Smith Family lasted 39 episodes, and you’d think that many shows coupled with such an impressive pedigree would have earned it a DVD release by now. It could still happen.”
For once, I was right.
Was it worth the wait? I think so – though it certainly wasn’t what I expected.
The DVD box describes the series as “a light-hearted comedy.” That’s an understandable assumption, as first season episodes begin with an animated opening credits sequence, accompanied by a jaunty tune called “Primrose Lane,” which had been a top-ten hit in 1959.
The first episode opens in the California ranch home of Sgt. Chad Smith (Fonda), who is with his family at the breakfast table: wife Betty (Janet Blair), their college student daughter Cindy (Darleen Carr), son Bob, who’s in high school (Ron Howard) and nine year-old Brian (Michael-James Wixted).
Their conversation is typical of a family sitcom – dad doesn’t get the lingo of the younger generation. The clash of values with the counterculture is a recurring theme, as Chad’s older kids often talk of fighting the establishment and “sticking it to the straights.”
But then Chad goes to work at the police station, where a distressed family friend explains how she found marijuana cigarettes in her daughter’s bedroom, and wants Chad to arrest the girl to scare her straight. Chad visits the home and finds the dope, and then his daughter emerges from the bedroom and he may have to take her in as well.
That was interesting to me, because none of this is played for laughs. It was a discordant change in tone after the opening scene. And when the story took another nasty turn I was even more intrigued.
Dramedy – was that a word back in ’71? That’s what this is, with emphasis squarely on the drama. In “One More Goodbye” Chad spends some quality time with each member of his family, before heading out on a dangerous stakeout from which he may not return. In “Desk Job” he apprehends a couple of burglars, takes a beating in the process, and wonders after 25 years on the force if it’s time to stay out of the field. In “Where There’s Smoke” he is framed for sexual assault.
With such sobering stories it’s not surprising The Smith Family didn’t fare well on ABC’s Wednesday night schedule following Bewitched and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. This was not a typical 30-minute series. But that’s what makes it interesting now.
That, and, of course, Henry Fonda.
The actors from Hollywood’s golden age that tried TV – Jimmy Stewart, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck – always brought star quality with them, regardless of whether their shows worked or not. Here Fonda is instantly believable as a good and honest cop, because audiences had already accepted him as Tom Joad and Abe Lincoln and Wyatt Earp. When he reads an essay his daughter wrote about him in that distinctive, folksy cadence, he has earned my undivided attention.
The serene confidence and integrity of Chad Smith may seem too unflappable for viewers raised on shows about deeply flawed heroes. But this series was from a time when adults still acted like adults, and that’s what maturity looks like, kids.
Janet Blair is fine as Mrs. Smith, and in her best moments has the conviction of Jane Wyatt in Father Knows Best. As a policeman’s wife she too bears much anxiety with a quiet dignity.
Among the cast Ron Howard certainly had the most name recognition after Fonda, after growing up on The Andy Griffith Show. Once again he plays the son of a lawman, but surprisingly he’s not utilized particularly well or often. Here he is what Eddie Murphy once called him – Opie Cunningham. An awkward teen marking time between his two iconic TV roles, and having no clue what to do with his hair.
Instead, the series was giving Darleen Carr what’s known in wrestling as the main event push – she is featured in several episodes including the pilot. Had the show lasted 4-6 seasons she’d probably be remembered fondly by teenage boys like Susan Dey and Maureen McCormick. It feels strange to be introduced to her work here, and realize that this lovely young ingénue with the luminous, intense eyes is going to turn 70 this year. Time sucks.
And then there’s the kid, who I disliked instantly, as mentioned in my previous blog. Michael-James Wixted always has a wounded expression on his face like his dog just died. He brings down the whole room even in a happy scene. Casting kids was a proven forte of Don Fedderson Productions, as evidenced by Family Affair and My Three Sons. But someone dropped the ball this time.
At the start of its second season, The Smith Family switched up its introduction. Gone is the animation and “Primrose Lane,” replaced by a montage of Fonda in action scenes that plays like an SCTV parody of a Quinn Martin show.
More encouraging is how the writers were finally figuring out how to blend the workplace stories with the family stories. Both worked for me separately, though sometimes it felt like watching two different shows.
But now we get episodes like “State’s Witness,” in which Chad testifies in court against a top defense attorney and old college buddy, who has dinner with his family and uses that access to bolster his case. And in “Stakeout,” Chad is assigned to go undercover with a police woman to catch a hold up man working lover’s lane – when his kids spot the two together they think dad’s having an affair. In “Ambush,” Chad brings a witness to a police shooting into his home for protection.
And while Ron Howard deserved more screen time, he is featured well in “The Peer Group,” another outstanding show about the pressures the son of a cop feels in high school at a time when “the fuzz” was the enemy.
Purchase or pass? I’m happy with the purchase. I was in good hands with a seasoned stable of writers (Paul West, Austin and Irma Kalish, John McGreevey), some welcome guest stars (Tim Considine as a long-haired hippie was a shock) and Fonda’s firm hand guiding viewers through stories good and adequate. Also, it was fun to see Erin Moran pop up twice in guest spots, though never in a scene with her future TV brother.
Overlooked classic? Maybe not. Comfort TV? Absolutely.