Positive and Uplifting, Likable and Fun: Television’s Golden Age of Family Sitcoms

Once upon a time, TV shows delivered good humor, moral lessons, and family values

Positive and Uplifting, Likable and Fun: Television’s Golden Age of Family Sitcoms
Audiences laughed at humor gleaned from situations and stock characters. (Biba Kayewich)
Jeff Minick
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” wrote L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel “The Go-Between.” If you’re looking for proof of Hartley’s claim, just tune in, as I recently did, to the early episodes of “The Donna Reed Show,” where you can time travel all the way back to 1958.

Alex Stone was a small-town pediatrician whose office is connected to the house. His wife, Donna (Donna Reed), was a homemaker. And both were articulate, bright, and witty. Their teenage daughter, Mary, and adolescent son, Jeff, sniped back and forth, but without any real rancor. Donna wore a dress while working around the house—gasp!—and the family took their meals together. (Double gasp!)

In a 2008 online article, Paul Peterson, who played Jeff, commented:

“‘The Donna Reed Show’ depicts a better time and place. It has a sort of level of intelligence and professionalism that is sadly lacking in current entertainment products. ... The messages it sent out were positive and uplifting. The folks you saw were likable, the family was fun, the situations were familiar to people. ... It provided 22-and-a-half-minutes of moral instructions and advice on how to deal with the little dilemmas of life.”

 Donna Reed and Carl Betz in "The Donna Reed Show." (MovieStillsDB)
Donna Reed and Carl Betz in "The Donna Reed Show." (MovieStillsDB)

Our Early TV Culture: Some Brief Notes

Interestingly, the writer of that article, Glenn Garvin, snidely belittled Peterson’s observations. He called other family sitcoms of the period, such as “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave It to Beaver,” phony. He wrote, “Reed’s tight dresses showed off the same spectacular figure that helped her win an Oscar as a sizzling young hooker in 'From Here to Eternity.'” She “schemed and manipulated to keep peace in her family and the neighborhood,” and taught her daughter to use her “feminine wiles” on the boys at school.

Guilty on all counts, though many of us might have overlooked Reed’s dresses had Garvin not highlighted them.

But let’s save any comparisons between then and now until later. According to the Library of Congress, in 1950, about 1 in 10 Americans owned a television set; by 1960, when “The Donna Reed Show” was in its third season, that number had leaped to 9 in 10. Huge audiences followed Westerns, some of which, such as “Bonanza” and “The Rifleman,” also spotlighted families. Whodunits and police dramas such as “Perry Mason” and “Dragnet” were enormously popular, and millions lapped up variety shows, with their mix of comedy, music, and dance.
Meanwhile, lighthearted entertainments about family life, such as “Donna Reed,” attracted a boatload of fans as well, which brings us back to Paul Peterson’s comments. “The Donna Reed Show” ran from 1958 to 1966. Do other family sitcoms of this time match Peterson’s positive recollections of this era?

They’re Called Sitcoms for a Reason

Certainly, as Peterson noted, the families in these shows were fun, bringing laughter to their audiences with a humor gleaned from situations and stock characters rather than from wisecracks or snarky remarks.

“The Andy Griffith Show” (1960–1968), which remains popular in reruns today, is an excellent example of the early situation comedy. It brought together the wise Sheriff Andy Taylor; his son, Opie; his good-hearted Aunt Bee; the inept deputy sheriff, “Nip it in the bud” Barney Fife; and other inhabitants of the small town of Mayberry, and looked for its laughs in how the characters dealt with everyday problems. No one used foul language, any mockery of others was gently delivered, and the relationship between Andy, Aunt Bee, and Opie was core to this series, though it wasn't strictly a show about family.

The storylines of other family-focused sitcoms, such as “Father Knows Best,” “Make Room for Daddy,” and the ever-popular “I Love Lucy,” displayed a similar light touch. The humor truly was good-humored.

Love, Marriage, and Family

In these family-centered shows, the husbands generally left for work in the morning while the wives stayed home and raised the kids. Both spouses may have had different obligations within their families, but as is the case with several young couples I know today, the relationships between these television wives and husbands were balanced, loving, and respectful.
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961–1966) is representative of these television marriages. Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) made his living writing for a comedy show while his wife, Laura, took care of the house and their son, Ritchie. When Rob faced some difficulty at work, usually with his acerbic boss, or when some complication arose at home, Laura and Rob talked it through. Like that age-old advice given to wives and husbands—“Never go to bed angry”—this show, like most of the others of this time and genre, only concluded when the couple had put a problem to rest.

The Message

Peterson was right on target when he noted that these light comedies delivered “moral instructions and advice.” One of the more explicit of these messengers of virtue was “Leave It to Beaver” (1957–1963). Ward and June Cleaver were raising two boys, teenaged Wally and his younger brother, Theodore, nicknamed Beaver. Like other sitcoms about families at this time, Ward often appeared in a suit and tie, and June almost always wore a simple but stylish dress and her trademark pearl necklace.
And many episodes of “Leave It to Beaver” did indeed end with a lesson in virtue and character, often mildly delivered by Ward to Beaver, whose curiosity and youth frequently landed him in trouble. Though these shows might have encouraged better behavior in their younger viewers, particularly boys of Beaver’s age, they also served as informal guidebooks for parents, encouraging a combination of discipline, restraint, and love.


Plenty of other family sitcoms hit the airwaves following these shows. Like their predecessors, many of them also offered positive messages about marriage and parenting. “Family Matters,” “Family Ties,” and “The Brady Bunch” are just a sampling of these successors that promoted the idea of strength and love in the family.
Of course, others equally popular with the public, like “Married ... With Children” or “The Simpsons,” taught no such lessons. For example, in “The Simpsons,” which began its long and continuing run in 1989, Homer Simpson is a doofus dad with no real character. “All in the Family” (1971–1979) featured the bigoted father Archie Bunker, whose ham-fisted attempts to govern his household often fall apart.

Then and Now

Criticisms of the old family sitcoms as unrealistic are understandable, particularly when compared to our culture today. The world of Donna Reed, Ward and June Cleaver, and Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry now seems as far away from our digital age as the streets of Shakespeare’s London. The dress, manners, and customs from then to now have undergone a radical transformation.

On the other hand, these same shows have some things to teach us if we let them. Most of the adults are portrayed as grownups—men and women who dress with class, treat others with respect, and avoid rude language or behavior. Children listen to their parents, play games, and display a curiosity about the world around them. Some of our 20-somethings who claim to be confused by what they call “adulting” might, in particular, gain some insights from Rob and Laura Petrie, or Alex and Donna Stone.

And here’s the good news: All of these shows are available somewhere online. So if you’re looking for lessons from the past, or if you just want some humor delivered with wit and sophistication, hop aboard these time machines of family sitcoms and travel back to a gentler age.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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