From ‘Beaver’ To ‘Better Call Saul’: America Vs. The Golden Rule
Beaver Cleaver’s older brother died this week and naturally that got me to thinking about whether human beings by nature are good or evil.
Wally Cleaver, I can say for sure, was not evil. He was kind of heart and he followed the Golden Rule, like every other character on the 1957–1963 sitcom Leave It To Beaver, with the occasional exception of that rascal Eddie Haskell.
Tony Dow, who played Wally, died Tuesday, a day after the initial report of his death was rescinded. Dow, who was 77, didn’t live an especially happy life after Beaver, battling depression for years.
That’s sad. It was not, however, what got me to thinking about the essential nature of humankind.
A friend and I by coincidence had been talking about how we missed a genre of TV shows that had a relatively brief run a few years back on the USA and TBS/TNT networks. They included White Collar, Royal Pains, Covert Affairs, In Plain Sight, Burn Notice, Psych, Suits, Monk, The Closer, Rizzoli & Isles, Major Crimes, Franklin & Bash and My Boys.
None of these shows revolutionized television. They were cop shows and mysteries and detective shows and medical shows. What set them apart is how they almost always stayed away from blatant cursing, graphic violence and the other explicit and semi-explicit content that has become a television norm since it was confirmed that cable and streaming shows could ignore the FCC decency guidelines that restrained broadcast shows.
The above-mentioned shows didn’t lean on sex jokes, the supernatural or graphic effects. They focused on characters who were interesting for who they were and what they did. It was popcorn television, a nice way to enjoy a good story suitable for anyone in the house.
Some of these shows — White Collar, Rizzoli & Isles — naturally were better than others. More importantly, they formed a collective oasis, and I’m still sad that both USA and Turner decided they weren’t hip and cool enough. Or maybe that the audiences were too old. Whatever the reason, they all disappeared, replaced by darker, edgier shows like Mr. Robot and Good Behavior.
That transition also conveyed an unspoken message. Where the popcorn shows had bad guys, they were an aberration. Most of the characters, even hustlers like Mozzie on White Collar, were at their core decent. If they saw an innocent person in jeopardy, they would help. In the later shows, the innocent person shouldn’t count on it.
Now sure, that’s not true for every character in every show. There was still, overall, a shift, and it is reflected in one of the best shows on television right now, Better Call Saul.
The lead character in Better Call Saul is Jimmy McGill, brilliantly played by Bob Odenkirk. Jimmy the character was born in 1960, meaning he grew up in the combative media world of the late ’60s and early ’70s, not the cartoonishly sunny world of the Cleavers.
Jimmy McGill doesn’t see the world as a good place or humans as worthy inhabitants. He sees the world as survival of the fittest, social Darwinism, and he uses that rationale to justify whatever serves Jimmy McGill.
Jimmy doesn’t lack a kind side, which makes his darker side more interesting. He’s simply addicted to the adrenalin of hustles and scams, and blind to the consequences for anyone else. When his schemes careen out of control and leave people dead, his primary concern is how long it will take before he’s no longer bothered by those uncomfortable memories. It’s all about Jimmy.
Nor does Jimmy’s view of the world make him a unicorn on TV these days. His unease about the world feels widespread in the same way the optimism of Leave It To Beaver felt widespread 60 years ago.
In lockstep with sibling sitcoms like Ozzie and Harriet or Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver bought 100% into the 1950s premise, halfway between wish and myth, that life behind the white picket fence in the American suburbs was Utopia. If millions of real-life Americans worried daily that the Cold War could become a nuclear holocaust, that concern never came up on Leave It To Beaver.
Any 2022 kid who watches Beaver for five minutes will burst out laughing and ask whether Grandma and Grandpa, as pre-teens, really bought into it.
That’s a no and a yes. We laughed about the unctuous Eddie Haskell and the earnest, often befuddled Beaver because we saw the disconnect between the Cleaver world and the world we knew the other 167 and a half hours every week.
That said, however, we did buy that this weekly campfire story got it right when it suggested the world was basically decent and humans were basically a good species, especially American humans.
A bad day for Wally Cleaver was taking a girl to a restaurant for dinner and realizing he forgot to bring his wallet. That was where the bar was set for an episode-length crisis in 1950s sitcoms.
His rock-solid Dad discreetly rescued him, by the way, underscoring the wider implication that if you live by the Golden Rule, you will be rewarded with a life full of material comforts and unconditional family love.
Messages don’t get much more comforting than that, which is why a whole lot of people today wish we could go back to those days.
The only problem is they didn’t exist. In the real-life 1950s, the Golden Rule didn’t extend to people of color, women or the rainbow community, to name a few, and beneath the rosy façade of the ’50s, the Utopia myth was already crumbling into the chaotic reshuffling of the ‘60s.
And going forward from there? Let’s just say that whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, he would not have been elected president in the era when Beaver was on the air.
It needs to be stressed that the ’50s and early ’60s weren’t anywhere near as uniformly naïve and oblivious an age as Twitter-length history would suggest. In the same vein, millions of Americans today still believe that people are essentially good and will over time build an ever-better world. For all the strengths America has, consensus on those kinds of issues never has or will be one of them.
But long after we’re all gone, when the scholars of the future study our era the way we study the Middle Ages, they may look at what we left behind and say that Leave It To Beaver, popcorn television, and Better Call Saul caught notable shifts in the pulse of their times.
Not that it will get them any closer to deciding whether humans are inherently good or evil.