From Donna Reed and Andy Griffith to Fred MacMurray and Jim Nabors, vintage TV stars offer soul-sustaining solace for tough times

It’s the holiday season — and a season of woe. The economy is staggering. Thousands are losing their jobs and their savings. Money is terribly tight with no end in sight. What are we to do?

Well, we all have our strategies, plans, beliefs and hopes, and mine is to stay stout, maintain my resolve, hang in there, circle the wagons, work as hard as I can — and ride this out. No white flag for me, because Annie was right: The sun will come out — if not tomorrow, then in what’s hopefully a not too distant future.

But beyond sheer survival and forever focusing on dollars and cents, what about our emotional and spiritual worth? What about our psyches, our souls, our hearts? Money is one thing. Inner peace is  another — and it can be quite independent of external turmoil.

So beyond nurturing my family as best I can, I do something for my inner self. Amid so much tough stuff, I remind myself that life is good, I try to be grateful for those good things, and I also reflect on fleetingly elusive innocence. I guess that’s why I watch as many vintage TV shows on DVD as I do current TV shows with an edge, from Boston Legal to The Simpsons. And those vintage shows on DVD often offer a reminder of a broader, kinder, more peaceful perspective on the world.

Take such ’50s and  ’60s sitcoms as The Andy Griffith Show, The Donna Reed Show (now new on DVD with its first season), My Three Sons, Father Knows Best (new on DVD with its second season) or even Gomer Pyle, USMC (new on DVD with its fifth and final season). Each is a clear product of its times, which is to say, each is often quaintly dated. Yet each, in its own way, concerns a universal and timeless good side to human nature which was better able to shine when mainstream society wasn’t so battered and bruised.

I mean, how many shows today are about someone who’s determinedly good-intentioned, no matter what? Sure, he’s a country bumpkin, but Andy Griffith Show character Gomer (Jim Nabors), in his own spinoff, has an earnest, aw-shucks, down to earth good will toward men (a nice turn of phrase at the holidays — but let’s add “and women”) which is all too rare on TV now, beyond charity shows such as Extreme Makeover and the occasional Biggest Loser (though that once-noble series has strayed from its meaningful beginnings to become emotionally show-boating and open to cliched reality-show rancor).

Or take The Donna Reed Show’s Donna Reed, a woman who epitomized sweetness and light in the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, then became an American standard for loving, sensible, dutiful womanhood at a time when women had to make the most of their repressive limitations. Sure, her show’s sexism is often painful from today’s perspective, but it’s also heartening to see Donna return an expensive gift because she didn’t want to be like other craven women, or nudge her husband to choose a homely baby in an infant beauty contest because of how much it would mean to his mama.

Or take Robert Young in Father Knows Best, a solidly fun show which also can be  preachy but almost always in a worthwhile cause that needs a bit of sermonizing. Father Knows Best (which he often didn’t) serves to remind us that we’re all in this together, we have to get along and we might as well be kind and considerate as opposed to today’s entitlement-obsessed attitude junkies. Young’s Jim Anderson also well knew that, while family was paramount, it wasn’t everything, and instead of a myopic preoccupation with his own brood at everyone else’s expense (another common trait today), he also had a strong sense of duty and obligation to his community.

Or take Fred MacMurray’s patient widowed papa on My Three Sons, a harried engineer who was always willing to stop and listen to his boys and try to understand their troubles, then guide them in the right way (though MacMurray’s Steve Douglas sometimes erred, as when he encouraged smallest son Chip to battle a bully). In a sitcom that’s often surprisingly serious, MacMurray was a portrait of quiet compassion.

Now, how often do you see such shining examples of humanity on current TV programs? Ever? Never? Not often, that’s for sure.

That’s not to say we have lost these qualities, but that we’ve forgotten to champion them in our popular culture, perhaps for fear that they’ll seem corny and quaint. But human nature is timeless, and human goodness hasn’t gone away. It’s just been eclipsed by our world, by our culture’s general coarseness and by, if you will, the callouses on our hearts. As I ponder how to make all those ends meet in these troubled times, I don’t forget that goodness. I hold onto it, I cherish it, and I try to live up to it, with the hope that one day it won’t be retro, old-fashioned or quaint, but more widely embraced than ever as the route to true happiness.

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