Sit-coms portray a ‘fairy tale’ life

Some of television's most popular shows in the 1950s and '60s offered a very warped perspective of American life.

  • Monday, September 7, 2009 12:13pm
  • Opinion

By Wally DuChateau

Some of television’s most popular shows in the 1950s and ’60s offered a very warped perspective of American life. I speak now of Beaver Cleaver’s America with its manicured lawns and white picket fences; where dad worked a white-collar, upper-middle-class job, mom raised the children and kept house, and the entire family went to church every Sunday.

At the time, such comedy shows reflected life in approximately 5 percent of U.S. families – and less than that if you include how “well-adjusted” the TV families were. More than one-third of the people watching “Make Room For Daddy” didn’t live in houses; rather they lived in brownstones, tenements or rented apartments of some kind.

To blacks, Hispanics and the vast majority of urban dwellers who watched these sit-coms way back whenever, the “Dick VanDyke Show” must have seemed so foreign it approached science fiction and yet these viewers believed that show was an accurate portrayal of most American life out in the provinces somewhere. They worked hard to attain that suburban dream. Even today, people are still struggling to reach that goal. Many others who are dissatisfied with the current state of our country want to turn the clock back to such white, middle-class wholesomeness, despite the fact this America, for all practical purposes, never really existed in the first place.

When you run across such shows on a nostalgic channel, their humor seems quite bland compared to the explicit, blatantly sexual comedy we currently enjoy. In fact, viewed today, the funniest thing about old sit-coms oftentimes isn’t the intended jokes, but the cliche-ridden settings. There are, of course, a few exceptions. For example, the comedy and situations “MASH” innovated in the late Sixties holds up pretty well. However, most sit-coms from that period – shows like “Three’s Company” and “Barney Miller” – are pretty hokey stuff. The “hilarious” bigotry of “All In The Family” seems very dated and Archie Bunker yells far too much and simply looks pathetic.

So, I started thinking, which can be dangerous in and of itself, about more recent TV sit-coms. I wondered if they would appear equally as contrived and ridiculous in a few years.

It didn’t take much thought. Yeah, I decided, they will.

Current sit-coms don’t reflect American life with any more accuracy than those from the past. True, today’s shows often as not have an urban setting as opposed to freshly-scrubbed suburban homes. But the city environs portrayed are a far cry from the grimy, street-level existence common to most urban residence. To start with, the New York apartments in which most of the shows are set – shows like “Rules of Engagement,” “Big Bang,” “Friends” and “Seinfeld” – would rent for about $4,000 a month, which is far beyond the grasp of 90 percent of New Yorkers. Then too, the notion that New Yorkers have a select group of close friends, who associate with one another on a daily basis in a particular tavern, coffee shop or apartment, is more or less a fairy tale. And finally, many of today’s sit-coms are little more than a long string of sexual innuendoes – see “Two and a Half Men” – which I don’t believe will retain their tantalizing, risque humor over time.

In a few years, these shows are gonna look just as corny as “Father Knows Best.”

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