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Shales on TV Live: Leave It To Beaver on DVD, more

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, June 29, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales will be online Tuesday, June 29, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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Today's column: Tom Shales revisits 'Leave It to Beaver' (1957-1963) on box set

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.

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Mayfield, USA: No question, just a comment.

You wrote a very sweet article about a very sweet TV program. It made for a very good morning.

I loved the Cleavers but Eddie Haskell was my favorite character.

washingtonpost.com: Tom Shales revisits 'Leave It to Beaver' (1957-1963) on box set (Post, June 29)

Tom Shales: Mayfield USA! Is that near MayBERRY USA? Good afternoon and thank you for stopping by the old chatter box. We're late because of technical problems, naturally. Technical problems are the way of the world. I'd love to hear your comments on Leave It to Beaver or any other show you loved or hated in years past. Or now. Or even years future if you've already planned your upcoming lovings and loathings. And as a special treat, I will tell you all about my eye and about my latest lottery winnings. Hint; Half a million dollars. Wow. Right into the cookie jar with the BMW I just won from -- oh never mind. Onward! And thanks for the vote for Eddie Haskell. You mean you didn't want to, in one of the show's favorite words, "clobber" him?!

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Hi Mr. Shales, I have always enjoyed your columns. I am in my late 20s and have no frame of reference for the late 50s/early 60s, but I love Leave It to Beaver. I am curious if all kids at that age dressed so formally -- especially in the later seasons -- none of the kids wear jeans and the boys are always wearing dress shoes. Did dads always spend their downtime in coat and tie? Did mothers wear dresses like they were going to a wedding shower? Was some kind of statement trying to be made as to this is the way Americans should behave/this is the ideal especially during the cold war -- or am I reading WAY too much into this? Thanks.

Tom Shales: Hello Philadelphia. I am not far from you -- in New Hope, Pa. Barbara Billingsley has said she always wore a dress -- and I do think they were more like frocks than dresses -- and pert rather than pretty -- anyway, it was cuz the producers wanted her to. Of course it's just a wild crazy hunch on my part, but I don't think they were going for searing realism. And that is one of the reasons, I feel certain, that people are still watching Leave it to Beaver all over the world. Now does anybody know if there's an episode in which they explain his nickname? I confess, I couldn't look at all 234 episodes for today's column.......

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Potomac, Md.: Although the show did not appear "deep" on the outside there were some very heavy episodes. One in particular involved a friend from a divorced home who came to sleep over Beaver's house and showed in a subtle way the devastating impact that divorce can have on kids.

The friend at first made it seem cool to have divorced parents: two birthday parties, two sets of birthday and Christmas presents, etc. He made it sound so good that Beaver began to encourage riffs between his parents to split them up. But as the show went on it became clear that the divorced parents were using the child to get at one another, and the child was often put in the uncomfortable position of having to comfort his mother whenever his father upset her. In fact, the child had to leave Beaver's home early because his mother called and said she had "the weepies." At the end of the show, Beaver was very grateful for his solid if routine family life and realized that his friend was in a very sad situation.

I remember seeing this as a child and it had an impact on me then. Be interesting to see how children react to this now. I am going to get the DVD set and play this episode for them to show them the impact of divorce. Also will show them some other shows that can serve as teaching tools -- e.g, the show where Beaver does something stupid because Whitey dares him to -- climb up on a billboard and look in a soup bowl -- and Beaver falls in.

Tom Shales: Wow, that IS impressive. I knew there were 'heavier" episodes but the "boxed set" doesn't provide a guide to outstanding episodes; it just describes every single storyline, and I didn't find the one about divorce, though it is probably there somewhere. I was sorry to see Beaver's idyllic world was an "all-white" one, as if the absence of racial minorities contributed to happiness - and then in one of the latter episodes an African American face at last appears -- a really nice face, as it happens: the face of an Af-Am actress and she is playing - yes --

A MAID. Oh well; it was some sort of progress. Thanks so much for the note; fascinating data there.

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Rockville, Md.: Read an article last week that stated Jay's numbers were below what Conan's was for the tonight show. Is Jay still down in numbers?

Tom Shales: We don't have ratings yet for this week -- hey, this week is only one day old. As a matter of fact the ratings for this week will be irrelevant because Jay is delayed for some reason (the World Cup? I don't know) AND he is in reruns again - at least he was last night, when he congratulated American astronauts for landing on the moon. No, it wasn't THAT old -- just another pathetically feeble attempt at humor -- but it wasn't new, either. I think it's a pretty darn bitter irony that Jay's ratings are no better than Conan's were. And after all that hullabaloo. There are few things that irk me more than Old Reliables being shoved aside, dumped in the gutter, in favor of younger replacements -- but in Jay's case, it seemed like a good time to GO.

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Orono, Maine: This is my problem with Anderson Cooper.

He's doing his show on CNN live from Venice, La., and bemoaning the lack of proper coverage from other media outlets or the lack of empathy for the "common people" from corporations or politicians or whoever.

Fine and dandy if that's what he says. But it bugs me because he did the exact same story last January in Port-au-Prince after the massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Bemoaning our nation's indifference and urging us to care.

Yet I've watched and not a nanosecond of follow-up on how the relief efforts in Haiti are going today whether it's negative or positive or a mix of both. Nothing.

I wish he would just be honest and admit he's going where the headlines and ratings are rather they act like this great humanitarian.

Tom Shales: Yes, Orono! You watch judiciously and with appropriate skepticism. I always thought Anderson Cooper was pretty much on-the-level for a little rich kid, but this does not sound like exemplary behavior. But by the way, you can look for (and perhaps dread, as I do) more and more reporter comment and opinonating on the news from CNN. They are still getting -- to use that Beaverism again -- clobbered in the ratings, and it appears the decision has been made to interject more commentary where the news oughta be. Thus the recent hiring of that misbehaving boob from the Second Estate (government, boooo) for the 8 p.m hour. Now what the heck is his name? It will come to me. It will come to me if someone sends it to me. I may actually think of it on my own and OWWWW, my eye hurts....

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Frocks: I don't think Ms. Billingsley's garb was much different than other ladies of that TV era -- Harriet Nelson, Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched, Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Although Laura did occasionally don capri pants to show that she was more progressive than the other women.

Tom Shales: Right, of course. The standard was dressing UP to look somehow enviable, part of the fantasy. By the way, a previous poster said Beaver and friends never wore jeans, but I'm pretty sure they did. Every now and then, maybe on a weekend.. But the standard for Beaver and Wally was sans-a-belt slacks, Maybe not the brand name but the kind that didn't require a belt and fastened with a clasp and a thingamajig going into the whatchamacallit. I think Mary Tyler Moore wanted to show off how trim she was as well as making Laura more "progressive." It WAS Laura, wasn't it? (as I shiver in my boots. Er, loafers)

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UHF: Hi Tom -- I really didn't grow up with LITB -- My Three Sons was our family's show of choice. As an adult, I enjoyed discovering Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and Charlie Grapewin in Mr. Smith goes to Washington. And is it me, or were there a disproportionate number of TV shows back then with single/widowed dads raising families? If so, why was that?

Tom Shales: Single parents seemed to make for a greater array of story opportunities - including plots about the kids trying to marry the old man off. And I think the single parents were almost always made single by the death of the spouse, husband or wife. Divorce was very very VERY rarey. I mean rare. You saw a divorced parent about as often as you saw a bong.

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Landover, Md.: Hi, Tom: The RTV (retro TV) channel is showing reruns of Leave it to Beaver. It's channel 205 on Comcast. I saw an episode from 1963 yesterday, though on the Comcast TV guide it said that Marcus Welby, M.D. was supposed to be on at time and it usually is! I was born in 1951 so I definitely watched this show the first time around. Love your chats! Thanks.

Tom Shales: Thank YOU, Landover. I have Cox Cable instead of Comcast and Cox seems to inundate subscribers not with retro channels but with religious channels. I swear (well, maybe a bad choice of word) there are a couple DOZEN of these things. Some are good and feature genuinely compelling speakers - preachers, whatever. Most are junky. But whatever, there are too many of them. Ooops, that was a tangent. Sorry. "Beaver" has been in perpetual reruns since its first airplay all those years ago. No offense, but I do think it's in a class by itself, its resident clan superior to most of the fake families on the other sitcoms.....

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Washington, D.C.: I am old enough to have watched most, if not all, of the Leave It To Beaver shows. Frankly, I thought that the show was more realistic in its own way than more modern shows, such as The Cosby Show (not sure if that was its name, but the one in which Bill played a doctor and his wife was a lawyer). Wally and the Beav were more realistic and mischievous than fictional Cosby's brood, who suffered from the "too cute and smart" syndrome all too typical of today's TV children. And since when do doctors and lawyers spend so much time at home? I'll take LITB any day.

Tom Shales: Yes well if we start nailing these shows on the lack of realism, we could do a marathon that would be in the marathon class itself. But I think you're onto something with the contention that Beaver and Wally were more realistic for their time than the Cosby kids were for theirs .... Hard to pinpoint exactly what the tell-tale details are -- but I don't think it would be THAT hard to find them. Then again, you've got a critic with a sore eye here and has anyone inquired about it? Has anyone offered succor (ok, to this old sucker)? Now that you ask -- the eye is feeling much better and the pain is turning to an itch. Oh Lord MAYBE THATS A BAD SIGN !!!!! Is there a doctor in his house, speaking of doctors and lawyers spending so much time at home? (see how I brought it all around to make it pertinent to our subject at hand?!? Like Letterman likes to say, "They don't give these jobs to chimps."

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Eugene, Oregon: I also concur with Orono, Maine's point.

It actually makes me wonder, how is the relief effort in Haiti going today?

Tom Shales: Good question, but you won't find the answer on tonight's network news -- unless of course someone does do a catching-up, just-for-the-record time report. One problem: all the networks have cut back on personnel, in some cases drastically. The absence of follow-up coverage on Haiti may have as much to do with the networks' financial problems as it does with simple terrible judgment....

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Albany, N.Y.: I feel moved to speak in defense of the game show host, a group you bashed roundly last week. Oh sure, you said (deservedly) nice things about Tom Bergeron, but only in order to say worse things about the group. I will concede that most game show hosts are subpar, but that's true of every group (actors, writers, baseball players, chatters, etc.). Bill Cullen and Allen Ludden deserve places of honor in any museum of television and radio.

Tom Shales: And so they shall have them! I shouldn't make these blanket condemnations. When bloggers were picking on me earlier this year, many too pains to say that TV critics shouldn't be expected to have any brains anyway. To which I feel inclined to say: More TV critics by far have won Pulitzer Prizes than movie critics. Now as for favorite game show hosts -- actually Merv Griffin had a couple such gigs back in the '50s, I believe -- "Play Your Hunch," perhaps, or "Eat Your Lunch," or some sort of funsy thing. I even attended a taping as a wee widdle boy when mom and dad took me and my sister to New York on vacation. I promise to stop the reminiscing Right There.

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Fake Reality Shows: What's going on with the truTV cable channel (formerly Court TV)? Despite their name, their shows are totally fake. And I don't mean in the way all reality shows are edited, but truTV runs scripted shows pretending to be reality shows (Operation Repo, Southern Fried Stings). These shows are so bad they make the Real Housewives series look like Shakespeare.

Tom Shales: Well ya know, when the Weather Channel kills two precious hours by rerunning a "weather movie" like "Twister" -- clearly there is near-bedlam in basic-cable land. It's a shame that cable network owners feel no qualms about ditching their formats in order to make a stray buck or two, but it's happening right and left. But you didn't REALLY thing you were going to get REAL reality or even really good faked reality from "truTV," did you? I think the management discovered there aren't really enough appropriate shows to stock a 24/7 operation....

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I watched Beaver as an afternoon rerun as a kid in the 60s. Always thought Lumpy was an underrated thespian (although his "father", Richard Deacon, was a well-cast buffoon). But for me, the appeal was ruined by the atrocious "Still the Beaver" reunion movie and Wally's "dilemma". Why Why Why?

Tom Shales: There was a reunion movie? What was Wally's dilemma? What, what, what? Of course there was an attempt in the '90s to mine the old lode with "The New Leave It to Beaver" -- just awful and guilty of many of the sins that the original show seemed to take pains to avoid, especially in the cutesy-wutesy department. Lumpy reminds me of that fat kid making lousy comedies these days, Seth Something, and Tony Dow, I swear, bears a resemblance to that kid from the teenage vampire movies, Lautner. Something about the nose.

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Upperville, Va.: Best made for TV movie since "Brian's Song" premiered on the Hallmark Channel Saturday night at 9:00 p.m. and you failed to reviewed it. "You Lucky Dog" with Harry Hamlin and Nastaha Hesteridge was very well done and acted and makes you cry just like Brian's Song! Film shows herding trials the fast growing sport in the USA and the British Isles. A good herding dog is a better athlete than any American or Euro football player.

Tom Shales: The problem is, we are almost never alerted to an outstanding installment of something because (a) the networks have cut way back on P.R. departments and (b) the people who DO work in the P.R. departments don't have either the time or the ability or both to pick out a particularly terrific episode. If one of the producers alerts the P.R. department -- or calls up a critic directly, as I had happen any number of times -- then the critic or columnist or whatever would stand a fighting chance. There's just too much coming at us -- a mountain of stuff that moves in every day - for us to keep up with all the episodes of all the shows. Whine, whine -- but it's true.

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Vienna, Va.: Wait...wha.....BMW? HUH?

Tom Shales: Oh maybe you missed last week's exciting episode. It seems a Mr. Something of northern Anywhere emailed me to say I'd not only won another treasure trove of cash, but they were throwing in a BMW M5 as well. Frankly they can throw their BMW in the ocean; I am not a fan. But the point was, if it can be called a point, that every week I get at least half a dozen emails, often from Nigeria, telling me i have won millions of dollars and FABulous prizes. All I have to do is send about a hundred and fifty bucks to cover the cost of the courier service that delivers the checks (maybe they're those giant ones like Publishers Clearing House [legit, as far as I know] sends to excitable winners)....

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Chantilly, Va.: The best part of Leave It to Beaver: Miss Landers!

Tom Shales: Noted.

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Yes, Miss Landers: My favorite character was Ward, especially when he was recalling a slightly mischievous episode from his youth or his time in the SeaBees in World War II. Then there was his Uncle Billy, who regaled the boys with tales of travel and adventure. June was always slightly dismayed by such stories.

Tom Shales: In one or two of the first-season episodes, Beaver developed a touching friendship with an old man who lived in a shack by the river -- Gus, I think, and he was played by veteran character actor Burt Mustin. Very sweet scenes between the little boy and the old man. But I don't think I ever ran into Uncle Billy. And in fact, I think even Eddie Haskell was in well under 100 percent of the episodes.....for whatever that's worth.

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Alexandria, Va.: I never saw TITB, since I could get only CBS where I grew up. However, I did enjoy the similar CBS-hosted domestic sitcoms of that era, and in retrospect I appreciate that they actually didn't strive for realism, in the sense that they always stayed what they were -- sitcoms -- and didn't attempt to be Chekov or Strindberg. Back then, the star wasn't able to negotiate for the opportunity to do one of "those" performances that make current sitcoms so dreadful. That is, you knew that you would never hear a dreaded promotional announcement like "Tonight, on a very special episode of Gomer Pyle..."

Tom Shales: I appreciate what you're saying, though I did like many of the Norman Lear "message" sitcoms. Sadly perhaps, their very topicality makes them a little less re-runnable today than something like "Beaver" or "Bewitched" or Lucy -- silly stuff that had few if any mentions of then-current events. By the way, i wanted to mention in my column -- but writers no longer are allowed the luxury of space to tell a story -- the hilarious parody of "Beaver" done by the SCTV Troupe many years ago. With John Candy as The Beaver. In this version, the Beave accidentally kills a guy with dad's gun, and dad growls at Beaver, "Maybe thirty years in the slammer will teach you a lesson, young man!" OK, a bit sick, but hilarious.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Several Web searches claim that he was named "Beaver" because Wally mispronounced "Theodore" as "Tweever" FWIW. Wally's dilemma was that the little blue pills weren't yet available. Seriously.

Tom Shales: WHICH "little blue pills?" 10 mg Valium?!? The web sources may explain why he was called something other than Theodore (which is mentioned now & then) but not why, of all the nicknames in the world, "Beaver" was considered a perfect fit.

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Nosy Parker: Did you realize that "Leave It To Beaver" debuted on October 4, 1957? That's coincidentally the very same day that the Soviets launched the first Sputnik.

So that date was doubly the start of a new world order!

Tom Shales: And it went off in fairly-early 1963, just before the Kennedy Assassination ended an Age of Innocence. (Weirdly but not very relevantly enough, the cast of Gilligans Island was filming the show's pilot in Hawaii on Nov. 22 and the cast got the news while on the set). And with that, a very large THANK YOU to everyone who contributed this week, perhaps especially to those we couldn't get to because of that old tyrant, Time. Please drop by again. Really - I'm practically begging here! And though no one asked -- my eye is much improved.......

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