Ozzie and Harriet: The First Postmodern TV Series

Typically, uninformed critics too lazy to do the research lump The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in with such shows as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best as examples of conformist 50’s television designed to further inculcate the patriarchal ideology that lies at the heart of the political design of American society. In these shows the father is always wise and benevolent, the mother dresses up to do housework and the kids, while not perfect, always learn their lesson in the end. These shows are ripe for parody and satire. The difference is that Ozzie and Harriet was already satirizing it at the time.

There is a fundamental postmodern strain at work in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet that is clear from its opening titles and the very concept of the show itself. Ozzie Nelson was already a famous bandleader and Harriet Nelson a famous singer when the family was offered a chance for their own radio show. The radio show was essentially moved intact to television in 1952 and lasted until 1966, in the process becoming the longest running sitcom in television history until The Simpsons recently broke the record. The postmodern element at play in the credits is that each family member is announced as playing the character on the show. In other words, “Ozzie as Ozzie Nelson, Harriet as Harriet Nelson, David as David Nelson, and the irrepressible Ricky as Ricky Nelson.” What the show was really selling was this bizarre idea that this famous family was in reality an average suburban post-war family. They were playing themselves, in other words, but their characters had absolutely no relation to real life. It was like reality twice removed. Reality once removed is exemplified by Jerry Seinfeld playing a fictionalized version of himself; twice removed would be as if Jerry Seinfeld hadn’t been playing a comedian named Jerry Seinfeld, but a bank teller named Jerry Seinfeld who still hung out with characters based on his life. And, of course, that brings up another postmodern concern of the show.

Ozzie Nelson the character’s job has often been a source of jokes. Despite lasting over a decade, it was never revealed what Ozzie’s actual job was. In fact, he seemed able to hang around the house all day long. The unspoken idea is that he was, in fact, a musician who worked when he had a gig, but there was never even a reference to that. The postmodern idea is that Ozzie was satirizing the whole concept of this kind of show, where the father would go off to his job in an office, deal with the stress of making money and then come home to dole out kisses on the cheek to his wife and advice to his children. But Ozzie’s advice very often didn’t work out too well. He was never really prone to the “special episode” type dramatic lecture that fathers in shows like Leave it to Beaver or the Brady Bunch engaged in weekly. Often Ozzie appeared to be just as confused by societal concerns as Ricky or David. Sometimes he would even seek counsel from his next door neighbor “Thorny” (whose son—that gosh-darn Will Thornberry—was a consistent thorn in the side of Ricky), only to come away with truly awful advice that he would try out with disastrous results. In fact, Ozzie Nelson was just as likely to get himself into trouble as his boys.

Media critics are fond of pointing to how the Norman Lear revolution of the 70’s did away with the comfortable bubble of 1950’s sitcoms in which the world was presented as orderly and uncomplicated. That is somewhat true, but it’s a mistake to lump Ozzie and Harriet in there; the world of the Nelsons was fractured and convoluted. The plots in those other shows were predictable: Beaver killed a guy and feels sorry about it and tries to hide with Wally’s help but gets found out and so must receive a lecture on not killing people from his dad so he promises he’ll never kill again. You never saw Beaver’s dad or Kitten’s dad go sliding across a freshly waxed floor the way Ozzie Nelson memorably does in one episode. (Nor will you find any plot revolving around one of those kids wanting to paint his car heliotrope!) You never saw those guys going to great lengths to hide the consequences of their bad advice from their wives. Those guys were paragons of 1950’s Eisenhower-style infallibility. They never made mistakes in judgment that got them into ridiculous situations. On the other hand Ozzie Nelson often found himself drifting into situations just as laughably horrific as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton. The difference, of course, being that Kramden and Norton were working class New Yorkers without kids.

Ozzie Nelson was a suburban dad who was supposed to know better and set a good example. What may truly separate Ozzie and Harriet from the pack of seemingly similar shows is that the true boss of the family was clearly the mother, Harriet Nelson. This was, of course, a quite accurate reflection of 1950’s life where the father did his part as the breadwinner and the mother ran the household and essentially raised the family. The fathers of most other shows seemed to be the ultimate boss, with the wife subservient to his wishes, which was more a reflection of the patriarchal fantasy that the Eisenhower era wanted to sell so as to get Rosie the Riveter back inside the house where she couldn’t be exposed to dangerous ideas like feminism or civil rights.

Another vital element of the postmodernism inherent in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet is the acute awareness of the fact that the family are characters within a show. The tempo and rhythm of most episodes is significantly looser than most television shows, often seeming as though the actors are almost improvising half the time. Conversations are punctuated by unusual pauses and moments where the actors seem to be reacting not as the character but as themselves. Nowhere is this made plainer than in the “commercials” that often precede the actual program. Often presented as what we would call a “teaser,” that short opening scene that rarely has any connection to the actual plot of the episode but exists to present a comforting joke, the commercial adds yet another level to the already complicated structure of the show. These commercial teasers were quite common during the 50s, but Ozzie and Harriet lifted it beyond the norm. The commercial, as such, would appear to be part of the show, taking place on the set. A good example is the one where the irrepressible Ricky enters the kitchen and announces to Harriet that he sure hates homework. Being the good mom, she tells him everyone hates homework but he still must do it. He tells her he is supposed to come up with a compound sentence and this is it: “My mother likes to cook, and especially likes to cook on our new Hotpoint stove.” He then asks if that’s a good example and Harriet replies it is. And that point Ricky, still apparently in character, goes on to ask “It’s also a good commercial, huh?” Harriet responds by taking a beat to consider it as if it were an honest inquiry before tilting her head, nodding and making an almost noncommittal “mmmm” sound. The levels at work in this simple scene are so complex that one could write a research paper on it alone.

Breaking the fourth wall is one of the key elements associated with postmodern performance art. The show made it a staple of their comedy as well. One of the best of many examples occurs right before the commercial break in an episode in which Harriet has buried some gold doubloons in the backyard as a sneaky way to trick Ozzie into digging up the back yard for a garden. Ricky is the first to come across one of the coins when he’s digging for worms for a planned fishing trip. In just a matter of minutes Ricky has infected his father and brother with gold fever that reaches a hilarious comic pitch of fast-paced dialogue.

Ozzie: This is unbelievable!

David: This is fantastic!

Ricky: This is terrific!

Ozzie: (Turning to face camera): This is the end of the first act.

This same kind of self-awareness of a family of actors playing a family of characters based on themselves, but not actually themselves is often handed to Ricky in the early seasons when he is still the irrepressible kid mentioned in the introduction. Ricky probably breaks the fourth wall in the first three or four seasons than all the rest of the family combined will afterward, but it would still remain a viable source for postmodern humor through the rest of the show’s long run.

If you do an internet search on Ozzie and Harriet or read any critical analysis you will almost always find Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver mentioned in close proximity. Aside from the fact that Ozzie and Harriet is far funnier than either of those shows or their lesser known clones, the show different significantly in the self-awareness of its own detachment from reality. Whereas most other family-centered shows of the 50’s and 60’s struggled mightily to pretend they were presenting a realistic portrayal Eisenhower American dream of creating enough happy smiles in sunny climes that nobody would want to upset the apple cart, Ozzie and Harriet always seem to be in on the joke. Watching Ozzie and Harriet is kind of watching a subtle satire of 1950’s sitcom life.

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