I recently caught a Leave It to Beaver rerun in which Beaver’s brother, Wally, agrees to paint the Cleaver family’s two old, battered garbage cans for 50 cents apiece. But then Wally’s snide chum, Eddie Haskell, points out that his dad paid someone $3 to paint the Haskells’ garbage cans. Wally goes back to his father and refuses to do the job unless he’s paid more. But before he can finish bargaining, Beaver does the job, leading to a bitter fight between the brothers — Beaver even calls Wally a ”big ape,” harsh invective for a Leave It to Beaver episode.
This show — just a typical Beaver, circa late 1950s, caught by chance — was at once powerfully nostalgic and a treasure trove of details. Who among us, these days, owns metal garbage cans to which we give a fresh coat of paint when they become dingy? What kid would do the job for 50 cents? When the paint-spattered Beaver is finished with his labors, he joins his family for supper — never ”dinner” in their household — and there Wally and the Beaver drink from big crystal goblets of milk with their meal. A meal, I might add, at which Dad wears a suit and tie and Mom earrings and pearls. My children love watching Leave It to Beaver for just such tiny details — to them, the Cleavers’ ’50s decorum seems the stuff of wealth and privilege, and they’re surprised when I tell them that this was supposed to be a typical, middle-class family.
This is partly what gives nostalgia weight and emotional power. Both adults and children can feel an intense yearning for the orderly, comfortable lives led in shows like Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Beaver. Among young people, TV has brought about a new variation on nostalgia: a sincere desire for simpler, better times that’s nonetheless laced with sarcasm, irony, even bitterness. For proof of this, look no further than the enduring, still-growing cult for The Brady Bunch: People of all ages snicker at the corniness of this family of straight-arrow suburbanites, but one reason its episodes are watched over and over is that viewers also wish, on some level, that the security and closeness of the Brady clan were still common in American life.
Television nostalgia, hammered home by endless reruns in syndication and on cable, is also, in its way, educational, operating as a great socializing force. At a time when many new prime-time shows worship youth and beauty, old TV shows value their elders, whether it’s Frances Bavier’s Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show or Ellen Corby’s Grandma on The Waltons. Valerie Harper said at a press conference last year that her then-9-year-old daughter watched reruns of Harper’s Rhoda ”because she’s fascinated by Nancy Walker,” who played Rhoda’s mom. ”I realized it’s because she’s very interested in the way an adult like Rhoda dealt, even in a sitcom way, with her old mother, something you don’t see very much on television these days,” said Harper. ”Just the sight of an elderly woman on television today is so rare that my daughter and her friends seize on it.” So much for the yuppie programmers who think kids only want to see their contemporaries on television.
Nostalgia carries with it an association of innocence, another quality in short supply in current TV programming. These days, characters are so chic and cool, they’re prevented from expressing any honest emotion — everything is reduced to a wisecrack or a knowing media reference; it’s what the critic Mark Crispin Miller has termed ”the hipness unto death.” That’s why some people prefer the silly, ridiculous humor of a show like Gilligan’s Island to any arch, cold contemporary sitcom — even those absurd castaways seem to be acting with more unironic fervor than the sterile creations in your average ’90s TV show.
Sure, lots of nostalgia is mindless, an excuse to turn your brain off to thought and emotion. But the best of it stirs us up, reminding us — or introducing us to the notion — that life is good, and we can make it better.