Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Review

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Some Beaver Background

Pinback, circa 1960
Pinback, circa 1960 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we write a review, we count some things as common knowledge, and we state them without fear of contradiction: The Beatles are one of the most popular bands of all time. Depending on our audience, we expand or contract our list of The Obvious.

Sometimes, before I start generalizing about a particular TV show, I like to do a little research so that I can link to key facts supporting statements that I don't think are common knowledge. I choose to establish credibility by allowing readers who wonder just how reliable I am to confirm what I say for themselves. 

If I say "Leave it to Beaver" didn't crack the top 20 shows in its first year on TV, although five Westerns did, I might choose to link to that (see below), particularly if I don't have a track record - a public identity - as a reviewer. A link is enough. Usually, I don't cite a source by name.

Often that's enough. Too many links can make a page ugly and confuse or divert a reader. As in the case of The Three Bears, there's too hot, too cold and just right when it comes to porridge and to links.

 Also, when you check out your assumptions, sometimes you'll find you've assumed wrongly and will save yourself public embarrassment.

1957-1958 Season

Top 20 shows (ranked by total viewers)
  1. Gunsmoke CBS
  2. The Danny Thomas Show CBS
  3. Tales of Wells Fargo NBC
  4. Have Gun - Will Travel CBS
  5. I've Got a Secret CBS
  6. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp CBS
  7. General Electric Theater CBS
  8. The Restless Gun NBC
  9. December Bride CBS
  10. You Bet Your Life NBC
  11. The Perry Como Show NBC
  12. Alfred Hitchcock Presents CBS
  13. Cheyenne ABC
  14. The Ford Show NBC
  15. The Red Skelton Show CBS
  16. The Gale Storm Show CBS
  17. The Millionaire CBS
  18. The Lineup CBS
  19. This Is Your Life NBC
  20. The $64,000 Question CBS

Primetime TV ratings 2013-2014

Ratings of most popular TV shows each season during the 20th Century.

Most popular shows in syndication 2012-2013

I include the following charts because they suggest "Leave it to Beaver" was in some ways a window onto the way Americans lived in the Fifties. 

TV S GREATEST SIITCOMS Copyright 2004 by Stephen
Winzenburg/Greatest TV Sitcoms (If you're impatient, jump to the boldface)

What is the greatest TV sitcom of all time? Seinfeld? I Love Lucy? The Simpsons? All in the
Family? Everyone seems to have his or her own opinion as to what were the great sitcoms, often
associating a particular show with a specific time of life that emotionally meant something to them. We
hum the theme songs, repeat the funny phrases, and even copy of the behavior of the characters that have
become our living room friends. Sitcoms are the most popular type of programming on the most influential
medium in history and have had a major impact on how we think and what we think about.
Television is a cultural reference point for most of us, a type of shorthand that makes it easy to
carry on a conversation. Columnist Ellen Goodman wrote that to those born since the baby boom of the late
‘40s, “All history begins with television.” We compare ourselves to those on TV, we change how we dress
and cut our hair and talk based on the latest television trend. Viewers pick up catch phrases and turn them
into sidesplitting party parodies that in turn become part of our culture. “Not,” as Jerry Seinfeld would say,
“that there’s anything wrong with that!”

Over time sitcoms acquire a kind of second life, where people who don’t even watch a show
perceive the program as being extremely influential. “Everyone watched Seinfeld” is a common
misconception when in reality only around 20 percent of the population was tuned in on any given week.
“Malcolm in the Middle is the hot new show,” people shouted in 2000, yet it finished its first season in 19th
place with less than 15 percent of America watching and soon lost almost half of those viewers. The media
reported that Sex and the City was “a huge hit,” but the ratings showed that only seven million people
watched out of a population of over 280 million people—that’s less than three percent!
The truth is few of the situation comedies in the history of television have had much long-term
cultural impact. While Frasier was a darling of the critics, was almost always near the top of the Nielsen
ratings in the mid-‘90s, and holds the record for winning the most Emmy Awards, only about 18 percent of
the people in America regularly watched the show at its peak and 25 years from now viewers may wonder
why it’s being rerun in the middle of the night on TV Land.

How can a critically acclaimed series like Frasier end up having less cultural impact than a show
like TGIF teen show Boy Meets World? The difference can be seen in examples from 1957: the highest rated sitcom on TV at that time was the #2-ranked Danny Thomas Show (also known at Make Room for Daddy) while the Emmy winner that year for Best Comedy was Phil Silvers’ You’ll Never Get Rich (which it would win three years in a row). Neither of these shows are familiar to viewers below the age of 50 today and on the rare occasions when the reruns air, modern audiences wonder why people watched in the first place—Danny Thomas comes across as a harsh caricature and Phil Silvers’ scheming Sgt. Bilko is based on a one-joke premise.

However, there is one series from 1957 that was cancelled by CBS in its first season, never
appeared in the top 25 of the ratings, was ridiculed by critics, and didn’t win any major awards—yet it continues to air successfully in reruns today. Leave it to Beaver was a flop when it first went on the air, though ABC picked up the cancelled show after its first season and ran it for another five years without any ratings success. Though it didn’t win an Emmy and didn’t make the top 30 of the ratings, Beaver is the only TV series from the late ‘50s that people still watch and even remember today. It was one of TV Land’s five highest rated shows in 2002 and modern pop culture writers make hundreds of references a year to the Cleavers as the quintessential ‘50s family.

Though some older critics may place You’ll Never Get Rich on their “best sitcom” lists, the series
had no serious long-term impact. Make Room for Daddy, the highest-rated comedy of the late ‘50s, is so
forgotten today that one web site devoted to television history failed to even list it among 2000 shows
because the site creator/TV expert had never heard of the show! Instead it’s the under-appreciated Beaver
that deserves a place on the list of sitcoms with the greatest impact due to the amount of cultural influence
it has acquired over the years.

There are similar examples from other years: Get Smart was highly rated in the mid-‘60s, won the
Best Comedy Emmy twice, and appears on many critics’ lists of greatest TV shows of all time. Yet few
under the age of 50 can recall anything from the series. Instead, a low-rated show from the same time
period has had long-term impact: Gilligan’s Island. Even CBS executives that aired the series about seven
stranded castaways hated the show and were embarrassed that it was on the top-ranked network. But today
most Americans can sing the theme song, name the characters, and theorize why it took them so long to get
off the island. The sitcom even spawned a new generation of island-themed shows, like the TV series
Survivor and the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, 35 years after the original series was on the air.
It happened again in the early ‘70s. There is no doubt that All in the Family changed the course of
television, but similar groundbreaking, highly-rated, award-winning series such as Sanford & Son, Maude,
Chico & the Man and One Day at a Time have failed to be successful in reruns. Instead it is a corny little
series about a blended family that we still talk about it today. The Brady Bunch never won an Emmy, never
made a list of the greatest TV shows of all time, never even ranked in the top 30 of the ratings, and yet
almost every person in America can recall the personalities and plots of this family series that has
continued to influence generations.

Influential sitcoms are those that either made a major contribution to the genre when they initially
aired, such as when All in the Family contemporized the format, or shows that years later hold long-term
appeal generation after generation, such as The Brady Bunch gaining new viewers on Nick at Nite’s TV

Do not mistake innovation for influence. Many innovative sitcoms have had little or no long-term
impact on the situation comedy genre. The groundbreaking, highly-rated Maude was critically praised but
has had little long-term impact. Shows such as Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Ellen, and Ally McBeal
were innovative but not influential. The most recent examples are Sex and the City and Will and Grace,
which critics point to as introducing previously taboo subject matter. But the cultural influence of such
shows has so far been limited to a small number of faithful viewers. The real test of time will be whether
these programs attract a large audience in syndication, if they inspire copycat series, and if their characters
or phrases hold a place in American culture decades from now.


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