Saturday, October 16, 2010

Barbara Billingsley

I wasn't completely sure she was still around. But man, this lady was a champ.

Although it was already a bit long in the tooth by the time I was a kid, "Leave It to Beaver" was a huge part of my childhood. Can I tell you how much I love(d) this show? In the past year or so I had been combing through the archives, available for streaming on Netflix. It has not lost any of its charm. In fact, it may be better than I remember.

"Beaver" is constantly held up as a paradigm of cold war squeaky clean America, old fashioned and conservative. Well, kinda. Nuclear families. Bed on time. Wash behind your ears. Blah blah blah. But watching clusters of episodes recently made me rethink this.

Although Ward and June had rules for Wally and The Beave, they weren't total hardasses. They were always loving and understanding with the boys, even when they did really dumb shit. And when they lied, covered it up and -- inevitably -- were found out, Ward and June were usually more disappointed than angry. And they sat the kids down and spoke with them calmly about what they did and why they did it and exhorted them to come to the 'rents and talk to them whenever anything of the sort dealt with in that particular episode arose again.

The elder Cleavers weren't the type to say "In my day, kids had respect for their elders!" They knew that they weren't much different when they were kids and that boys will be boys. They knew that, ultimately, most of what Wally and Beaver learned, they'd learn it through experience, not by listening to a lecture. And as long as no one got hurt, it was all good. They never yelled. They never hit. It was, dare I say it, a pretty liberal show. And not just for its time.

Wholesome? Oh yes. But hardly the hoary cliche of Eisenhower America it's often made out to be. Yes, Ward went to the office and June stayed home and took care of the house, always immaculately dressed and coiffed. But the Cleavers were both active participants in their children's lives. And they discussed matters of discipline and the kids' well-being together. Ward never put his foot down and said "Because I said so!" or "I'm the man of the house, and what I say goes!" Ward and June both knew that even they didn't always know best and admitted when they were wrong. And not just between the two of them. To their kids.

I could fill up an entire post about the language on the show, which is utterly brilliant in its own right. Ward and June spoke perfect standard American English but the youngsters on the show had a patois all their own. I wasn't around when the show aired, so I can't tell you how accurate it was to the time. But there never was then and never was after that a show that had "goofy" and "crummy" and "hunka" and "hollerin' at" and "little creep" and dozens of other nuggets of linguistic awesomeness as part of its arsenal. The writing was only nominated for an Emmy once (and didn't win). This is criminal.

At the heart of the show, though, was the lady that just passed. She was filled with love for her family and a wisdom that is stereotypical of mid- to late- 20th century TV motherhood. But it all began with her. She was the mom you wish you had.

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