'Honeymooners' special captures complexity of the '50s


November 12, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"The Honeymooners' Anniversary Special" is a triple dip of pretty terrific television.

It's funny and it entertains, all right. But the CBS salute to "The Honeymooners," which will air at 10 tonight on WBAL-TV (Channel 11), offers more than laughs.

It offers a look at one of the ways we were in the 1950s. It is a way that is considerably at odds with the popular notion of a monolithic, prosperous, suburban and tranquil nation of I-Like-Ikers. The special also is good enough that for a moment or two some viewers will lose track of time, and feel as if it is 1952 and they are watching Ralph and Alice doing battle and making peace in the drab kitchen that was the Kramdens' universe.

About the only fault to be found with tonight's special is the title. CBS is stretching things with the "anniversary" business. The network says the show is a celebration of "The Honeymooners" becoming a regular series on CBS in October 1955. But the two "lost" episodes that are at the heart of tonight's special are from 1952, when "The Honeymooners" was a recurring sketch within "The Jackie Gleason Show" on CBS. And "The Jackie Gleason Show" was a revised version of Gleason's "The Cavalcade of Stars" variety show on the old DuMont Network in 1951. "The Honeymooners" first appeared as a sketch on the DuMont show.

But one sketch not seen since 1952, "The Quiz Show," makes up for any sleight of hand used to get us into the tent tonight. All the elements that made "The Honeymooners" such a popular show in its time and such an important and ongoing piece of popular culture are there.

The story line is that Ralph (Gleason) and Alice (Audrey Meadows) were on a radio quiz show that could have delivered the "pot of gold" he is always scheming for. But Alice answered incorrectly -- or so it seemed. Instead of riches, they got a year's supply of cereal. The first half of the sketch is Ralph telling Alice how "stupid" she is. The second half is Ralph proving himself the "stupid" one and finding out she was correct.

Ralph's verbal and threatened physical abuse ("One of these fTC

days, Alice, pow . . .") is a troubling reflection of the tension between some husbands and wives in the early 1950s who had married in too much of a rush during World War II. That's not what we tend to recall as part of the more fondly remembered Eisenhower years. But it's the kind of thing that great and representative television reminds us of. We rediscover ourselves our laughter.

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