'50s TV families fondly remembered

March 13, 1992|By David Hinckley | David Hinckley,New York Daily News

Some kids' fathers collect baseball cards or beer cans. Christopher and Michael Denis' father collected press releases and photographs from the early days of television.

For Paul Denis, this was logical. He was the New York Post's first TV editor. "Someday these will be valuable," Christopher remembers his father saying.

Paul Denis left his sons not only a room full of press releases, but his fascination with TV itself. Now they've written "Favorite Families of TV" (Citadel Press. $16.95), which examines 20 TV families, from "Mama" to the Simpsons, and concludes that -- like Fords and Chevys -- the American TV family worked better in the '50s.

Which was good for America, because TV families provide a benchmark for measuring real families, and to Christopher Denis' mind, Donna Reed's family was healthier than Al Bundy's.

The standard counter-argument here, of course, is that today's TV families offer more truth precisely because they do have flaws. Fifties TV families, it's said, were hothouse flowers, unrealistically perfect people who might as well have lived on Mars.

But Christopher Denis says that's not true, and he cites his own semi-startling trip back to the actual tapes of "Father Knows Best," his favorite '50s family show.

"I remembered it all as perfect," he says. "The Ozzie-and-Harriet white picket fence number. But what I saw was the father, Robert Young, losing his temper.

"What was happening, and the best family shows all did it, is that one member went out of sync, then was shamed back into sync. That was our lesson. That's how it was supposed to work."

Not perfection. Imperfection and forgiveness.

"Then 'All In the Family' came along and everything changed, until today we have a kind of reverse fascism. There's no such thing as a family where you get out of sync, then come back in. Families like the Bundys or the Simpsons are so dysfunctional it's like they're beating us over the head with it.

"There always has to be a dark secret, like Dad wears rubber underwear."

There are exceptions, of course: " 'The Cosby Show' is like 'Father Knows Best' in blackface. I wish they'd be a little more dysfunctional."

There are also the in-between families, the '60s and '70s outfits from "Little House" or "Family Ties." Although Christopher Denis personally finds them less interesting, they're in the book, too. Except "The Brady Bunch" -- "and that's the first thing a lot of people say to me," he admits. " 'Where's the Brady Bunch?' If we do the second volume, we may have to include them. But the reaction is common: Everyone wants to know why their favorite show wasn't included. It's like you're screwing with their childhood."

Which proves, he adds, that the TV families we watch in our formative years have a powerful, enduring influence on how we think life is supposed to be.

He notes in the book, for instance, that Billy Gray, who played son Bud on "Father Knows Best," has called the show "a hoax" and has apologized for his role. "Billy Gray's view is honest," says Mr. Denis. "But the experiences of the performers, off the screen, didn't alter for a second the images I saw. Billy Gray's experience has nothing to do with mine in seeing the show."

That life and art sometimes diverge was reconfirmed when Mr. Denis tried to contact Robert Young about the book -- the same week, he later learned, when Mr. Young was trying to commit suicide.

There are other unhappy off-screen tales in the book. But the bad stories aren't the ones Mr. Denis wanted to tell. "We didn't want to do 'TV Babylon.' " Rather, he says, he wanted to ruminate on the eternally patient Andy Griffith, the Cartwrights, "Kate & Allie," and even the Keatons of "Family Ties."

They gave us a lot of laughs, but they're also a remarkably sturdy lot.

"If you put Donna Reed's family down in New York instead of Hilldale, I think they would have hardly noticed," Mr. Denis says. "They were so focused on their own way of life. It would be like, 'Oh, honey, give the homeless a bowl of soup.'

"I was on a radio show where the hostess took the view that the old shows were all unrealistic. Does that mean Lauren Chapin [younger daughter in 'Father Knows Best'] should have had a needle in her arm or something? To me, that misses the point. In the '50s, this was as close to realism as we were going to get. Let's look at what the shows did tell us."

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