Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
What is it about Leave It To Beaver? Is it the title, so innocent in its inadvertent smuttiness? Is it the way June Cleaver vacuums the house in high heels and pearls, or the way Ward Cleaver leaves his tie on when he comes home from work? Is it the way the Cleaver parents always seem to dispense unusually sage advice, targeted toward getting their children to be mature and self-sufficient? Or the way the children and adults hardly ever raise their voices, even though the kids live in constant fear of “getting hollered at?” What made this simple family sitcom become emblematic both of the ’50s (even though roughly half of its original six-season run aired in the ’60s) and of a certain Hollywood-approved, middle-American blandness?
Because if you say, “This ain’t Leave It To Beaver,” most people will know what you’re saying. They’ll assume you’re talking about reality, and not some white-bread suburban never-was. Even though in its own way, Leave It To Beaver is reality too.
For one, it’s a real document of show business in late ’50s and early ’60s. Beaver was shot in the style of its times—clean and bright and black-and-white—and set in a backlot America familiar to devotees of B-movies, kiddie comics, and TV sitcoms. And it’s a real document of its stars. June Cleaver dressed up to do housework because Barbara Billingsley was trying to cover up the hollows of her neck with pearls, and to elevate her height with heels. Hugh Beaumont’s ministerial charm as Ward Cleaver was hard-won, given that Beaumont had a master’s degree in theology at USC and had starred in low-budget religious films. Beaumont and athletic, fresh-scrubbed teen Tony Dow (who played Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver’s older brother Wally) were late adds to the series, replacing actors who played their parts in the pilot, and both were meant to bring a touch of All-American masculinity. And as for Jerry Mathers—the Beav himself—he was already an industry veteran at age 9 when Leave It To Beaver debuted, and was regularly praised by his castmates for his ability to memorize and deliver lines without a hitch or false note.
And yet Leave It To Beaver is a more-realistic-than-it-gets-credit-for document of childhood and adulthood too, as seen from both sides. For example, the third-season episode “The Last Day Of School”—which originally aired on June 18, 1960—is grounded in common experiences. As they prepare for school to end, Beaver and his pals clean out their lockers and talk about what they’re going to get their teacher Miss Landers for an end-of-the-year thank-you gift. Meanwhile, Wally’s annoyed that he has to be at school for a week longer than his brother, because the seniors in his high school need an extra week for pre-graduation activities. Not only are both situations true to the times, they wouldn’t be out of place in a slice-of-life family show in 2011.
And while some of the jokes in “The Last Day Of School” are conventionally sitcom-y—such as Beaver wondering what he should do with the dirty tennis shoe that’s been in his locker since before it was assigned to him last fall—most are smaller and more observational, such as Beaver’s friends noticing that the lockers have been sprayed with something that smells “like when mom cleans the sink,” or Beaver tormenting Wally by lounging around in bed while his brother gets dressed for his last week of school. (“It makes me feel real neat,” Beaver gloats. “Okay, but just wait ’til school starts up again,” Wally says. “Then you gotta go two days before I do. I’m just gonna lie around and watch you go to school.” To which Beaver replies, “Okay, you can be a rat then, but I’m havin’ fun bein’ a rat now.”)
As for the actual plot of “The Last Day Of School,” it’s contrived but hardly implausible. June decides that Beaver should give Miss Landers a set of handkerchiefs, and calls one of the local stores to have them wrap and deliver the handkerchiefs to the Cleaver house, along with a slip that she wants for herself. Inevitably, there’s a mix-up, and the store wraps the slip. On the morning of the last day of school, Ward and June have to leave early, and after they’ve gone, Wally helps Beaver open the package for Miss Landers to see what it is. They’re both mortified to discover that Beaver’s about to give his teacher “some kind of ladies’ underwear.”
Beaver has a decision to make: Should he embarrass himself in front of the class by giving Miss Landers a pink, lacy undergarment, or should he give her nothing and look like a cheapskate? He tries to finesse the problem by giving his teacher an old postcard, but his classmates—especially compulsive tattletale Judy Hensler—aren’t fooled. They figure he either pocketed the money for the present or just forgot to buy one. So Beaver slinks down in his seat, ashamed, as his friends give Miss Landers a fancy fountain pen (“You can smear a whole piece of paper with butter, and then write a letter on it!”), a bottle of perfume (“You’re only supposed to use a little at a time because it’s expensive!”), an iron frog (“If you don’t have any papers to hold down this summer, you can hold back doors with it!”), and a stack of other goodies. Later, after class has been dismissed for the summer, Beaver goes to Miss Landers and starts to say that he didn’t get her a real present because his mom’s been sick with pneumonia—“not the dyin’ kind of pneumonia, just the kind that won’t let you go shoppin’.” But then he comes clean, and explains that the real gift is in his locker, adding, “After I leave the building, it wouldn’t be too embarrassing if you went and got it.”
As always with Leave It To Beaver, the main storyline is just a driver for a string of small, often tangentially related exchanges and pieces of behavior, like when Beaver and Wally come rushing in to the kitchen to talk to their mother, but get distracted by the way that their dad is eating his food while standing up.
Later, on the morning of the last day of school, Wally comes down to breakfast and Beaver explains that mom and dad aren’t around, but that the plates of bacon and eggs and toast were sitting on the table already when he arrived. (“It’s like the three bears, Wally,” a shaken Beaver mutters. “It’s spooky.”) Then when Beaver leaves the breakfast table to get Miss Landers’ present, Wally gulps down his own milk and switches glasses with his brother. After they unwrap the slip, Wally apologizes, saying if he’d known what Beaver was about to go through, he wouldn’t have pulled such a rotten trick.
Miss Landers is fairly rich for such a minor character, too. She’s an understanding young woman who’s amused by her class’ machinations on her behalf, but also someone the kids see as deserving of deference. When she overhears them reciting the old “No more pencils, no more books” rhyme, they’re embarrassed a first, until she tells them that she used to be in the fourth grade too. (“It’s hard to figure you getting yelled at by a teacher,” Beaver’s friend Whitey says, amazed.) They also question Judy giving Miss Landers perfume, but then come to the conclusion that teachers “got as much right as anybody to smell like a rose.”
Leave It To Beaver was rarely bleak, but the show did confront the anxiety of being a kid in this time and place, and it did imply that matters don’t necessarily improve with adulthood. Wally Cleaver has to suffer the company of his weasely best friend Eddie Haskell, and Ward Cleaver deals every workday with his boorish, self-centered colleague Fred Rutherford, who in “The Last Day Of School” takes Ward out to a fancy lunch, but only because he wants to dig for information about what Ward found out during a call with the New York office. (Later, Fred gives Ward a ride home from work, but only because he had to leave early to pick up his son Lumpy, who cut his mouth playing clarinet in the school band.) It’s Ward’s understanding about those unchanging dynamics of life that gives him his sense of perspective. A good portion of any given Leave It To Beaver episode is taken up by Ward making wry, deadpan remarks to June about childhood today, and the ways that it’s both different and the same as it used to be.
June tries to urge Wally and Beaver to be well-mannered, but Ward pines for the days when he and his friends “took our shoes off on the last day of school and didn’t put them back on again until fall.” And though they’re reserved in public, when left alone, Ward and June trade sarcastic quips and even flirt a little. (When Ward comes home in the middle of the day in “The Last Day Of School,” June demands another goodbye kiss before he heads back to the office.) Leave It To Beaver is often held up as an example of squeaky-clean TV, but the producers actually battled the censors—and won—over the right to show a toilet in a first-season episode, and here in season three they spend several minutes, as Beaver would put it, “talkin’ underwear,” and indicating that since Wally and his brother share their home with a grown woman, they’ve likely seen their share of lingerie.
The episode also deals, fleetingly, with the way children come to realize that that their teachers are human, and with the feeling of release that accompanies the end of the daily obligation of school. And “The Last Day Of School” finds time for an odd but endearingly true bit of childlike fidgeting, as Beaver messes around with Wally’s plastic model skull while they’re musing philosophically about running away to Mexico.
No, none of this is subversive or edgy, and yes, there’s something distancing about the way everyone in the show always looks so natty and lacquered. (The children’s hair in particular is practically architectural.) But at the same time, one of the attributes that makes Leave It To Beaver special is one of its most non-naturalistic: the way the characters speak in even tones, rarely getting too rambunctious or flustered. The friction between the slangy language and the narrow emotional range generates most of the show’s laughs.
What that language intends to describe matters as well. In 1985, Matt Groening dug out his fifth-grade diary and illustrated it for an eight-week stretch of his Life In Hell cartoon, in which nearly every entry is about which kids in school got in trouble for which petty offense, or about how Groening and his friends had a brief window of real fun before their mean ol’ teacher shut them down. Such is the cycle of childhood, from generation to generation. A friend of mine once told me that one of the saddest moments he’s ever experienced as a parent was hearing his son say after his second-grade picnic that he didn’t think he’d ever have another day at school that perfect, where he got to do exactly what he wanted without being hassled by teachers. My own children keep track of their classmates’ “folder marks” and “card changes,” and compare notes on the ride home from school about the myriad ways a kids’ day can be ruined. It’s the same as it was with Wally and Beaver, who seemed to expend most of their mental energies on nervous anticipation and damage-control.
In Irwyn Applebaum’s book The World According To Beaver—a valuable resource for trivia and historical background on the show—Applebaum sums up the approach of the show with a bold comparison to a masterwork:
Beaver never tried to be big-funny, but it was almost unerringly true-funny; true to the kinds of childish fears, peer pressure and doubts about coming of age that all of us go through. Beaver’s troubles were never major catastrophes and they were situations that everybody watching the show has either experienced or could easily imagine. In this respect, Beaver has a great deal in common with another cultural favorite, Charlie Brown. What Charles Schulz told a 1983 TV interviewer about his comic strip applies directly to Beaver: “It’s about the struggle for survival when you’re a little kid. There’s a big struggle going on on the front sidewalk and in the school playground. That’s what the whole so-called Peanuts thing is all about.”
That’s what the whole Leave It To Beaver thing was about, too. As Ward Cleaver says at the end of “The Last Day Of School,” it’s practically impossible to have a happy, carefree day when you’re a kid. “About the only way to guarantee it is to stay away from adults.”
Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Celebrity Hot Potato, 6/29/84