The Big Six of Perfect TV Families

Ignore naysayers who claim that children are unaffected by watching TV, movies, and video games.

My perspective was irrevocably swayed by “ideal American family” TV programs I watched as a guileless child growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s.

After studiously absorbing the Big Six of Perfect TV Families, I secretly felt that my imperfect family fell short. I unfairly longed for humor, warm patience, and wise understanding from my young, harried parents who both hailed from hardworking, unaffectionate farm homes.

Father Knows Best (1954 to 1960)
No family was more ideal than the Andersons, a middle-class family living in a nameless Midwest town. I escaped into this program from age three through nine, wondering why Jim Anderson was home a lot more than my dad, why housewife Margaret Anderson was sweeter than my mom, and why oldest sister Betty’s younger siblings seemed less annoying than my younger brother and sister. I distinctly remember feeling comforted by watching “Father Knows Best.”

Leave It to Beaver (1957 to 1963)
In retrospect, the four-person Cleaver family was more believable than the perfect Andersons, but still, the Cleaver’s suburban existence looked fetchingly normal, while ours felt puzzling and sometimes uncomfortable.(Hilariously, smiling Ward and June Cleaver were invariably dressed in impeccable suit-and-tie and perky dress with pearls.)

Like all kids, the Beaver and older brother Wally constantly got into stupid scrapes: fibbing, plotting or sneaking, often egged on by Wally’s delightfully sneering friend, Eddie Haskell. When caught by their parents, the Beaver and Wally were scolded and softly punished, followed by a wise, sternly loving heart-to-heart with dad Ward… a stark contrast to no-nonsense measures meted out at my home.

The Show Biz Families on TV
The show biz families on 1950s were not only portrayed as preciously normal, but they were also glamorous and had glamorous friends, dressed glamorously and did glamorous things. All the time, it seemed. Without question, my family flunked the glamor test.

  • Ozzie and Harriet (1952 to 1966) featured Big Band era couple Ozzie Nelson, house wife Harriet and their dreamy sons, David and Ricky, who morphed into a handsome teen idol crooner.

  • The Donna Reed Show (1958 to 1966), boasted Academy Award winning actress Donna Reed as beautiful housewife Donna Stone, married to pediatrician Alex, and mother of incredibly attractive teenagers Mary and Jeff, played by Shelley Fabares and Paul Peterson. When Mary/Shelley scored a top-ten hit record with “Johnny Angel,” I wanted to be her.

  • Make Room for Daddy (1953 to 1964), starring actor/comedian Danny Thomas as hardworking nightclub performer Danny Williams, who was married and the father of two adorable children. No matter how many problems his frequent absences caused, all was happily resolved within 30 minutes.

  • The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961 to 1966) which is purported to be First Lady Michelle Obama’s all-time favorite TV program. The show was considered mildly revolutionary because housewife Laura Petrie, played by prim, pretty Mary Tyler Moore, wore slacks on camera rather than cinched-waist dresses and skirt-and-blouse combos. Orderly middle-class family life was shown as central to the purpose of everything, and more vital than Rob Petrie’s (i.e. Dick Van Dyke) burgeoning career as TV comedy writer.

To this very day, I unconsciously, and reflexively, measure marriage and family life, mine and those of everyone else, against the seductive fantasy of 1950s TV family life… and of course, reality usually falls short.

Oh, how I wish I hadn’t been permitted to watch so much of the then-new technology of TV at the tender, impressionable ages of three to ten years old.

I wish my parents had explained that TV shows were merely pretend, and not meant to be taken quite so seriously. Believe it or not, I thought the lives, roles, aspirations and values acted by the Big Six of Perfect TV Families represented the American ideal, one all good people were called to emulate in lockstep.

I was wrong because the impressions imparted to me by TV were pure fiction. And my silly pursuit of idealized family perfection has caused pain over the years for me and others.

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8 Responses to The Big Six of Perfect TV Families

  1. Trisha Marchetti says:

    Those impressions were pure fiction and probably did do some damage to many people.

    I think shows like Modern Family are drawing such rave reviews and garnering viewers in part because they show blended families with problems – albeit in large comedic proportions.

    If this had been my list, I would have chosen the 80s Cosby Show with Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad as one of my perfect families. Growing up, I thought those two were good parents and the kids seemed relateable. But I chose them for the positive influence – not the negative ones.

  2. Leann Toda says:

    Do you have any relevant theory to backup your opinion written on this article?

  3. Jessica Chambers says:

    Possibly you should consider the young minds that are now growing up with TV shows like Two and a Half Men, Weeds, Dexter, Married with Children, Roseanne, Modern Family, etc. Do you think it would be worse to grow up with unrealistic expectations for your family and fall short or to grow up thinking that it is okay to be an alcoholic, a drug dealer, a murderer, or a dysfunctional or verbally abusive, neglectful parent. I think you had it very easy my friend and if you let those shows fool you, you can bet that kids across America are being influenced by whats on TV now as well.

  4. Joni says:

    I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s; Looking back the warm fuzzy’s that those TV shows left you feeling was great. I never felt like my family fell short because if you remember those TV families had their day to day problems and they worked them out. TV most definably has an impact on those who watch it. Today’s TV shows show lot’s of realities of life the way it is today however it takes a strong set of parents to teach the children watching that this is wrong or that is wrong etc. Also reminding all of us that most TV shows are nothing but entertainment.
    Parents (guardians) have become very lazy and expect the world around them to raise their children. That is wrong. It is a parents or acting parents’ responsibility to guide their children accordingly.

  5. Jessica says:

    @Jessica Chambers

    But with today’s TV, people know that these shows are fiction, and are meant to be portrayed as fiction. Also, most of these shows are technically meant for adults. And in the 50s, these shows were NOT conveyed as fiction, and set up to seem real/normal.

  6. Steve Trout says:

    Women don’t hate me for this statement, but back in the day the television shows portrayed the Father (or dad) to be a strong family man, not an ignoramous. The mom of the house was at least equal, and seen as supportive and encouraging, and strong as a mother. People are influenced by television, books, news, even blogs. In the last few years, then man of the house is portrayed as weak and inferior to his wife, or partner. Tim the Toolman Taylor, Everybody loves Raymond, Married with Children, King of Queens, The Simpsoms, even Seinfield ( I love that show), Cheers, etc. I know this is not the smoking gun that has eroded the family and marriage, but it has influenced negatively. I am an equal opportunity married guy with a supportive, encouraging, and wonderful wife. I would never think her role of mom is less than that as mine of dad. (Now grandkids). I am old school and believe the man of the family should be a leader in his home, with love, respect, and never, but never putting down his wife or treating her as anything but equal. And worse, putting her down in front of others including children. She is stronger than I in some areas of marriage, and I have more stronger attributes than her. I am sorry television has tyrned dads into morons. Too bad. Thanks for reading.

  7. Ev Bishop says:

    Thanks for sharing your candid thoughts. I agree that TV shows, for better or for worse, shape our ideas of what reality should be like–and, especially as an impressionable child with no-one around to say “That’s lovely, but PRETEND,” can make real life disappointing or disallusioning. I hope you’ve come to peace with your “my imperfect family . . . harried parents who both hailed from hardworking, unaffectionate farm homes” and have learned how to appreciate the love that was probably existed, even if unarticulated.

    A fellow crazy woman,
    :) Ev

  8. Ev Bishop says:

    p.s. Interesting thoughts, Steve Trout. I too am horrified/saddened by how fathers have become the butt of jokes and been made the weak, inferior “extra child” in so many sitcoms. Ah, well–I think Deborah nails an important truth: we need to tell AND SHOW our children by how we live that TV, fun and hilarious as it often is, is make believe and real life can be _better_. If we discuss the elements we find disturbing or unfair or biased for or against either gender, we’ll go along way in showing how a lot of shows are meant to be satirical, not a “how life is” manual. . . .

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