Despite the show’s critics, there are a host of reasons to love this dated black-and-white show.
So maybe the episode didn’t have quite the gravitas of Breaking Bad or a twist worthy of This Is Us, and it sure didn’t have any dragons like Game of Thrones. No matter: Even though Leave It to Beaver was never a hit during its original run (it never even ranked in Nielsen’s top 30 shows), it’s now recognized as a bona fide classic.
Oh, sure, the show has its critics. Some say Leave It to Beaver offers an overly idyllic, unrealistic, and ultimately corrosive portrayal of American society, reinforcing stereotypical gender roles, conformity and — ugh — family values. They scoff at June Cleaver constantly vacuuming in high heels. They say that even in the 1950s, most families didn’t look like the Cleavers.
And you know what? They’re not wholly wrong.
But we still have a host of reasons to love this dated black-and-white show, which is still in syndication 60 years later.
I’ll give you five of them:
1. It was edgy
Was Leave It to Beaver traditional? Sure. Stodgy? Hardly. In fact, the show’s intended first episode, “Captain Jack,” was initially held back by censors because it featured — feel free to sit down for this — a toilet tank. “Captain Jack” eventually aired three episodes in, making Leave It to Beaver the first television program to show the interior of a bathroom. And it wasn’t the last time it did so. As Wikipedia notes, “Leave It to Beaver is unique in 1950s television sitcom history for its extraordinary number of bathroom scenes.” Now, that’s the sort of bathroom humor I can get behind.
Oh, and it was edgy in other ways, too. While the series doesn’t include a lot of a-very-special-episode episodes, it dealt with some difficult issues like divorce and alcoholism. The Beav’s world might’ve felt kinder and gentler than today’s, but it was no Pollyannish utopia.
2. Wally and the Beav meant well (even if they didn’t always do well)
The Beaver and his big brother, Wally, weren’t utopian children, either. They engaged in enough childish hijinks to fill 234 episodes, after all, from the time the Beav lost a dollar his father loaned him to the time he got trapped in a giant fake bowl of soup. But here’s the thing: They were children. They were learning. Each mishap was an opportunity to grow a little, and they wanted to grow. Wally and Beav respected their mom and dad. They listened to them. And, in the end, they wanted to grow up to be kinda like them. That feels like a radical departure from today’s youth-worshiping culture, where we’re encouraged never to grow up at all.
3. Ward knew what he was doing (most of the time)
It’s not often you can say that about a television father these days. We’ve grown up with Homer Simpson and Walter White, after all. With a few exceptions, 21st-century TV dads — if they’re around at all — are clueless, disengaged or deeply, deeply flawed. But Ward was different. Sure, he had a steady work as a … well, a nondescript tie-wearing business guy. But despite working hard for a living, Mr. Cleaver was fully engaged with his family and doled out wisdom worthy of Solomon, sometimes even offering biblical parables or Greek fables to make his point. But he wasn’t perfect, either. While most episodes revolved around the childish foibles of the Beav and Wally, a few centered on times when Ward made a fatherly misstep — and his earnest attempts to correct whatever mistake he made.
4. June Cleaver was loving but strong
Hip, June ain’t. The only glass she breaks is the occasional drinking glass. She’s quite content with her role as wife, mother and homemaker, thank you very much, and as such, modern criticism often targets her. But for me, June is a fantastic role model: wise and gracious and kind and strong, a little like Wonder Woman, only without the super-strength, revealing outfits and cool, bullet-repelling bracelets. As the show makes repeatedly clear, June could have no more important job than raising a couple of not-always-picture-perfect kids.
Oh, and that whole vacuuming-in-high-heels thing? That was an effort to keep June visibly in command of the household: As the show’s kids grew in height, Leave It to Beaver‘s producers told actress Barbara Billingsley to wear heels in order to still loom over them.
5. It was aspirational
No, Leave It to Beaver doesn’t look much like our families today. Heck, it probably doesn’t look much like most did in the 1950s, either. But that, I think, was partly the point. As a kid, I sure didn’t act much like the Beav. Yet, in watching how he treated his mother and father, I got an inkling of how I should speak to and act toward to my own parents. As a father, I know I don’t always resemble Ward Cleaver. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take a tip or two from him.
Just as Wally and the Beav learned from their parents, so we all learned — or, at least, could learn — from the show. We’d never be like the Cleavers. (And truth be told, I don’t think many of us would want that.) Each family is different. Unique. Special. And yet, to see those examples — to see kids who don’t talk back and who learn from their mistakes; to see dads who work really hard, try to be really good role models and to pass important values on to his children; to see moms who anchor the family and gently-but-firmly guide the people in their lives to be better people, each and every day — there’s value in that.
We don’t see much aspirational television today. We don’t see families who are better than ours, but rather worse, which perhaps makes us feel like ours are better by comparison. And I suppose there’s a place for such families, too. I, for one, will miss The Middle when it goes away.
But I do think that, when we don’t have some television characters to aspire to, we miss out. We miss an opportunity to learn through laughter. To engage with television as something more than a means to escape.
Leave It to Beaver may feel old-fashioned and idealistic. It definitely feels like a product of its time. And yet, the lessons it teaches are, in their own way, timeless. And that’s why the Beav may never go out of style.
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