So, how do I reconcile being a fan of current shows as subversive or edgy as South Park, The Simpsons and Boston Legal as well as sweet family sitcoms from olden times such as Leave It to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show, whose first season is new on DVD? Simple: I’m eclectic, I’m a Boomer and just as my favorite flicks include The Exorcist and The Sound of Music, there’s room enough for both.
Sure, I love today’s shows which get into the viewer’s face on social and political issues. But in today’s uncertain world, I also find solace in reassurances of the past.
Donna Reed was, and still is, as reassuring as a bowl of pudding — or, for us Texans, hot chili. (Comfort food can be anything, as long as it comforts.) The squeaky clean Stone clan was the ideal 1958-66 American family, and certainly reflected my own of the time. I was a bit younger than Paul Petersen’s Jeff, but like him, I was a little brother to an older sister, my dad was a white collar family man and sole bread winner, and my mom, like Donna, was a cheerful housewife and, in her case, a Junior Leaguer. They, and we, were calm, comforting — and dull, perhaps, in many people’s minds. But again, reassuring. And certainly these Ike-era families hung together in love. Anything wrong with that?
For The Donna Reed Show’s 50th anniversary, its DVD debut from Arts Alliance America collects all 37 first-season episodes on four discs, the last of which adds a photo gallery, original TV spot, press release and production notes. It’s a handsomely packaged set which, unlike the likes of Father Knows Best, appears to have preserved the original black-and-white episodes in their entirety, meaning they each run about 26 minutes.
Much like Fred MacMurray before My Three Sons or Brian Keith before Family Affair, Reed was a successful film star who was essentially lured into the budding medium of TV. Heck, she’d won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity (playing a prostitute!) and also had starred in the classic It’s a Wonderful Life. But she also found a home on the small screen, lasting for eight seasons as the perfect mom and housewife in a gentle sitcom which rarely pushed limits and stayed warmly and safely in middle-class America’s comfort zone.
Carl Betz, as her husband, was a pediatrician with an at-home office, while that older sister/daughter was played by Shelley Fabares, who went on to big-screen stardom in three Elvis Presley flicks as well as renewed TV prominence in TV movie Brian’s Song and the series Coach. Fabares and Petersen got to be marginal pop stars via their Donna Reed fame, with Fabares scoring a hit with Johnny Angel. Her ex-husband, BTW, is Lou Adler, who produced, among others, the Mamas and the Papas and Carole King, notably her landmark Tapestry album.
The Stones’ family fun on Donna Reed was as easily digestible as a cracker — and often as thin — but still had that comforting, curl-up-on-a-sofa quality that’s largely missing in popular entertainment today. Call them bland and overly wholesome if you must, but watching the Stones grapple with everyday crises like canceled camping trips and community theater rivalries still does my heart good. I didn’t grow up in a fractured family as in Gidget, My Three Sons or Family Affair. I grew up in a stick-together family like the Stones. If that makes me bland, too, in some people’s minds, then that’s a blandness I’ll take.
Now when does the next new South Park episode air? See? You can’t say I don’t strive for balance.
And, oh yes: While some vintage shows are victims of watchus interruptus (take Hazel, which has had one season released, and that’s it), not Donna Reed. Arts Alliance America already promises to issue the second season of The Donna Reed Show “in time for Mother’s Day 2009.” Hey, I’m feeling even more warm and more fuzzy already. Cookies and milk, anyone?