Happy Days benefits from a peculiar sort of double nostalgia: The venerable series' affection for a clean-cut '50s is augmented by a more recent nostalgia for the much-fetishized '70s that spawned it. The show's runaway success helped cement the image of the Eisenhower era as an idyllic calm before the raging storm of the '60s, but the DVD release of the show's first season reveals some surprisingly salacious undercurrents. Before Henry Winkler's family-friendly greaser hood became an American icon, Ron Howard's raging hormones drove the show. Not even the looming threat of nuclear war could cool his romantic ardor: In the last episode of the first season, Howard seizes upon his family's planned bomb shelter primarily as a surefire make-out spot.
An underrated comic actor who (thanks to iconic turns in The Music Man, The Andy Griffith Show, and American Graffiti) embodied boyish all-Americanism before Happy Days' first episode ever aired, Howard winningly combines sexual curiosity with empathetic innocence. The show followed suit, tempering teenaged high spirits with Tom Bosley's kindly paternalism. A Love, American Style spin-off that spawned its own cottage industry of spin-offs, Happy Days boasted a dynamic both predictable and dependable. In most episodes, Howard ventured unsteadily into the frightening waters of adult society, whether by going to a stag party, visiting a chaste strip club, or gambling with the morally challenged members of a fraternity. There, Howard would inevitably get in over his head, only to be bailed out by Bosley's wise words or judicious action. Life lessons would then get imparted just in time for an episode-capping freeze-frame. (The show did occasionally abandon its light touch, most notably in a "very special" racism episode that was so ham-fisted, it could make Stanley Kramer rip up his NAACP membership card in shame.)
The period sitcom relied heavily on the chemistry and charm of Howard and Bosley, whose understated, finely tuned performances kept it sentimental but seldom saccharine. Creator Garry Marshall later specialized in directing feature films that look and feel like extended sitcoms, but on Happy Days, he achieved the exact opposite. The series premièred as a one-camera show, which freed it from the constrictions of staging its action on two or three permanent sets and gave it a visual sophistication and looseness rare for sitcoms.
Howard's less-wholesome father figure, high-school dropout Fonzie (Henry Winkler), turned into a pop-culture sensation. Since nothing about Winkler's nebbishy looks or diminutive stature screams—or even whispers—rebellious Italian cool, his performance becomes a master class in attitude and economy overcoming biology. Nothing is less cool than trying to be cool, so the actor never exerts any undue effort, never wastes a line or a gesture. Winkler epitomized unforced studliness for a generation, but he never ignored his character's underlying sad, even pathetic qualities. In many ways, his greaser, who hangs around with high-school boys and constantly macks on high-school girls, represents an idealized version of Matthew McConaughey's vastly creepier horn-dog in Dazed And Confused.
In addition to the spin-offs Laverne & Shirley (which also sees release on DVD this week), Mork & Mindy, and Joanie Loves Chachi, Happy Days gave pop culture the enduring phrase "Jump The Shark" after a notorious late-series episode in which Winkler literally did jump over a shark on water-skis, signaling the beginning of a steep decline in quality. But before it made that jump, the show's marvelous first season scaled some formidable heights.