TV Review - Leave It To Beaver (1957)

Netflix recently removed the series Leave It To Beaver from its video-streaming site. July 30 was the kill date. I spent this past month binge-watching the series, remembering why I liked the program and why it's considered a classic. It premiered on October 4, 1957 and ran until June 20, 1963. It had six seasons of 39 episodes each. There were 235 episodes total, including the unaired pilot.

First, I have to marvel at that. Most sitcoms today only do 22 episodes per season. Yes, the writing and direction were simpler nearly sixty years ago, but the work-ethic is still rather impressive. It's a shame because the pay was less, once you write-off the residual money those involved back then are not getting.

The show was about a family of four, a mother, father and two sons living in the fictional town of Mayfield, somewhere in the Midwest like Ohio or someplace. The show focuses on the two sons and the troubles and travails they encounter, as they attend school and hang out with friends. Most of the scenes take place in their home, the living room, dining room, kitchen and boys' bedroom.

Barbara Billingsley played June Cleaver, the wife and mother. Hugh Beaumont played Ward Cleaver, the husband and father. Tony Dow played Wally Cleaver, the older brother who started the show at age 12, and Jerry Mathers played the Beaver, aka Theodore Cleaver who began the show at age 9.

We never ever enter into the parents' bedroom, but a lot of the show is about how the parents parent. As much as the program is about the two boys making mistakes and trying to hide those mistakes from their mom and dad, the show is in many ways a critique on parenting and the mistakes and misperceptions that adults make when relating to their children.

It's funny to look back at this show nearly sixty years since it went on the air. Obviously, the show was very lily white. There were no people of color or any ethnic characters. The show never tackled any true controversial issues, even as the show persisted into the sixties and films were tackling controversial topics like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

The only time it came close was in the third season when the show did an episode titled "Beaver and Andy" that briefly dealt with the issue of alcoholism. That's the most edgy the series ever got. In Season 4, in the episode "Beaver's House Guest," the show dealt with Beaver meeting a child of divorce, which it effectively skirts and condemns through the effects it can have on children therein.

Of course, no conversation about this show can be had without talking about the character of Eddie Haskell, played by Ken Osmond. His first appearance was in the first season in Episode 5, titled "New Neighbors." Eddie is the best friend of Wally, and despite being two-faced, especially with Wally and Beaver's parents, and despite constantly teasing and pulling pranks on Wally and Beaver, he remained Wally's best friend, clearly because his character was the source of a lot of fun as well as conflict.

Some friends of Wally like Tooey or friends of Beaver like Larry Mondello disappeared after the third season or so, but Eddie Haskell is a character who kept appearing on the show up to the very end. Eddie became one of the best characters on the show, but he became one of the best characters in television history. He's better regarded than the core family.

What was great is how a bit transgressive the character was. Eddie would enter and ruffle the feathers of the parents and in subtle and sly ways and through subterfuge would challenge the perfect picture being presented here. Obviously, the perfect picture always shone brighter and was always the take-away. The show was never cynical, but his presence and his picking at the tapestry represented the potential for unraveling that is a staple of television today.

Most of the time, he would just be an agent of chaos. He would often be a source of antagonism or push the two boys into trouble. That was the formula for a lot of the show. Friends would do stuff that were wrong or not right for Wally and Beaver, and the two boys collectively or individually would succumb to peer pressure. Often, they would disobey or disregard their parents' rules, their schools' rules, or else the episodes would be about the two of them trying to navigate around or through awkward, social situations like interactions with girls.

No matter what, the show would always circle back and end each episode with a clean, wholesome message about family, honesty, forgiveness and love. Looking at it with the perspective of a person living in 2015 and having a nearly 60-year gap, an entire generation between, there were lines here or there that were a bit iffy. Yet, the show is surprisingly not as backwards, like racist or sexist, as one might think.

Yes, June Cleaver was your typical or stereotypical housewife but there were episodes like "Beaver Won't Eat" or "Substitute Father" both in the fourth season where she takes control of the household. There's also episodes like "Pet Fair" in the third season where she sings "I'll Never Smile Again" that puts the spotlight on her and shows how talented Billingsley is. In the episode, "The Dramatic Club," June reveals she played basketball in high school. In almost, each episode, she was also given comedic one-liners that poked fun at the inherent, cultural patriarchy. One such example is "Miss Landers' Fiance" where June doubts the truth of Ward's boyhood stories, which are at times overly inspirational and at times self-aggrandizing for Ward.

In the first season, episode 3, titled "The Black Eye," introduced the character of Violet Rutherford, played by Veronica Cartwright. The episode was about a little girl named Violet beating up Beaver. She was no June Cleaver-type. She was a strong and independent girl, and as Beaver said, "gressive." That episode gave two of the most memorable lines. One was "Don't get violent with me, Violet Rutherford" and "If I do get married, I'm not going to get married to a girl."

Overall, I would say the show is sweet and cute more than it is a laugh-out-loud sitcom. The laugh track doesn't always work, but the show did have some great, funny moments that I hope never to forget. It all started with the very first episode titled "Beaver Gets Spelled." First, Mathers is just an adorable, little boy who has an even more adorable, speech pattern. It's broken English, which by itself is hilarious, but, in that episode, Wally and Beaver have a great gag involving the bathtub where they pretend to take a bath in ways that's more work than actually taking a bath.

Other great comedic moments are June's reaction to Beaver's head in "The Haircut" in the first season, and Wally and Beaver chasing a constantly, rolling piece of rubber in "Tire Trouble" in the third season. It was also great to see Ryan O'Neal who became famous for Love Story (1970). Nine years prior to that classic film, the goregous O'Neal guest starred in the fifth season in the episode, "Wally Goes Steady."

The AV Club, PizzaSpotz, Knoji and Ranker.com did lists of the best episodes of the series. During my binge-watch on Netflix, I made note of which episodes were truly the best. Those websites got a lot right, but I wanted to refine their lists a bit.

Of the 235 episodes, here are the best 25:

1. "Beaver Gets Spelled" - Season 1, Episode 1
2. "The Black Eye" - Season 1, Episode 3
3. "The Haircut" - Season 1, Episode 4
4. "The Shave" - Season 2, Episode 8
5. "Happy Weekend" - Season 2, Episode 14
6. "The Grass Is Always Greener" - Season 2, Episode 15
7. "Wally's Pug Nose" - Season 2, Episode 19
8. "Wally's Haircomb" - Season 2, Episode 34
9. "Most Interesting Character" - Season 2, Episode 39
10. "Beaver Takes a Bath" - Season 3, Episode 2
11. "Wally's Election" - Season 3, Episode 19
12. "Beaver and Andy" - Season 3, Episode 20
13. "Wally's Play" - Season 3, Episode 37
14. "Beaver Won't Eat" - Season 4, Episode 1
15. "Miss Landers' Fiance" - Season 4, Episode 7
16. "Wally and Dudley" - Season 4, Episode 25
17. "Eddie Spends the Night"- Season 4, Episode 26
18. "Substitute Father" - Season 4, Episode 39
19. "Wally Goes Steady" - Season 5, Episode 1
20. "Beaver Takes a Drive" - Season 5, Episode 7
21. "Wally's Big Date" - Season 5, Episode 8
22. "Nobody Loves Me" - Season 5, Episode 20
23. "Beaver the Babysitter" - Season 5, Episode 27
24. "Box Office Attraction" - Season 6, Episode 23
25. "The Silent Treatment" - Season 6, Episode 25

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