Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The 1960s revisited

Yesterday felt sort of empty since there was no new "Mad Men" episode to watch at the end of the day--the fourth season of 13 episodes each just ended last week. I have become a semi-reluctant, conflicted watcher of "Mad Men" after being sucked into the earlier seasons of the show on DVDs by my son and husband. I say conflicted because even while I admire the writing, the acting, and the production quality, and even though I look forward to finding out what would happen next in the plot ("Mad Men" is nothing if not a high-quality soap opera), almost all of the characters are--let's say--less than admirable people and it is hard for me to--let's say--psychologically "root for" anybody on that show. It also frequently makes me feel uncomfortable with its graphic sex scenes. It is definitely not a family or feel-good show. It is, however, a remarkable (and often startling, disturbing, and nostalgic) depiction of certain aspects of the early 1960s.

My husband and my daughter and I are also currently watching via Netflix a definitely family-friendly and feel-good show of the genuine early 1960s--"The Dick Van Dyke Show" (also available at Hulu). This comedy was a fixture in reruns of my youth, and I must have seen almost all of the episodes at one time or another, many years back. Now, watching them again as an adult, in proper sequence, is a revelation and a real pleasure. My daughter, who has not seen these episodes before, and I are frequently howling with laughter at the humorous writing and the amazing physical comedy of Dick Van Dyke (acolyte of Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel). What a talent he was! The cast worked like a well-oiled machine, the writing was stellar, and it boggles the mind to realize that Carl Reiner, Sheldon Leonard, and the rest of the company turned out over 30 weekly episodes for five years, of such consistent high quality and originality. Best of all, it is so likeable.

What a contrast in television fare--and in zeitgeist--between then and now. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" provides an antidote and a counterpoint to "Mad Men," on lots of levels--including my personal favorite: in Laura Petrie I find a very favorable and positive take on a realistic, attractive, happily traditional housewife in a loving, affectionate and successful marriage. There's a role model I can root for! Plus, I like her Sixties "flip" hairdo (the word we used back then before "hairstyle" came in with Farrah Fawcett). There wouldn't be a Peggy Olson if there hadn't been a Laura Petrie.

I also enjoy watching these early guest appearances of celebrities like Danny Thomas, Richard Dawson, Robert Vaughn, J.C. Flippen, and Jerry Van Dyke. And it's funny to realize now that in writing the character of little Richie, Carl Reiner was writing from life about his own son, the future "Meathead" (Speaking of Meathead--it's definitely not the Sixties anymore).

To top things off, I am also in the process of scanning and digitizing the snapshots from my mother's old family photo albums. For some reason I seem to be fated to steep in the Sixties right now--a time when cars had no seatbelts and little girls wore frilly dresses to slide down slides:

My memories of the early Sixties were more Rob and Laura Petrie than Don and Betty Draper. But then, we didn't live anywhere near Madison Avenue or Hollywood back then.

The late Sixties, after 1968--that's a whole n'other story, isn't it.

BONUS: My husband found this 2.5-hour interview of Dick Van Dyke at the Archive of American Television, a pretty sweet website. Poke around there and you can learn a lot of good backstories.

UPDATE: Alex Anderson, the creator of Rocky and Bullwinkle, just died. (Hat tip to the Stodgy Geezer.) Those cartoon characters I remember well were another icon of the early 1960s.

UPDATE: Is "Mad Men" TV's most feminist show? I'd call it TV's most high-quality theoretical feminist historical dream of "how it was"--perhaps a slice of life for some--but not necessarily how it really was.

RELATED: A nice look back at Barbara Billingsly and June Cleaver.

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