In life, TV shows blur their fiction with reality. While reality is thought of as usually being blurred (or altered) through television, especially with idealistic sitcoms, I notice more those instances where the medium’s deception no longer works: that moment when the curtain falls, so to speak, when you realize that this episode is not actually happening, and what you are identifying with is fake—that the actors, events, and scenery of what you’re viewing is artifice. To me, this is especially evident in family sitcoms, because the characters’ literally familiar (pardon the redundancy) relationship becomes figurative when the viewer realizes their beloved nuclear or constructed television family comprises of strangers who met while on this job, memorizing and gesturing “I love yous” without actually feeling them, except in rare cases of onscreen love that bled into the off-screen. I had this exact realization that what I was watching was believable, like a resonating myth, but ultimately one that I must buy into. This buying takes on a double-valence, and I recall Sheehan’s essay on Ralph’s over-consumption in the Honeymooners: not only did you have to literally buy the TV to behold its programs sponsored by your favorite companies and their jingles, but you also have to buy into the beliefs that the shows’ implicit ideologies create.
In art history, it is a commonly held belief originating from Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, that a medium (in that case art, but in ours, TV) could be defined in a biological sense of growth and decline internal to the bodies of their artists (or directors) but external to their product (the capitalist cash cow of TV) which represented the cultural conflicts mirrored in the body of the artists, and consequently, the minds of the viewers. In this way TV has the important role of describing culture clearly while undergoing a progression of form and content that keeps up with those cultural changes that might be out of their pixelated, ethereal grasp.
I felt this notion of generational awareness in TV’s maturation through relentless real family-oriented concerns of my boomer father steeped in old-school Italian values and Southern quasi-Victorian charm of my mother whose upbringings had in common a clean house with squeaker clean parents, my Generation X half-brothers snarky TV like personalities whose home nor parental upbringing was clean but plenty squeaky, and my millennial liking of catch phrases.
On Leave it to Beaver, Season 1, Episode 5, “New Neighbors,” I saw how this understanding of generational continuity in an art form is reflected in the biological bodies of my own family, and that this understanding collapsed from general to personal the moment when I realized that this show, which in its fakeness felt personal to me, probably felt mythically personal to the actors who portrayed its characters and went home to experience the same routine, ad infinitum. While my mother might make me run a crockpot meal over to a new or diseased neighbor instead of flowers, I recall those moments where I had to do something my mother wanted while risking an awkward conversation with a neighbor (although my neighbor might have talked about which married people were kissing other married people that were not their wives). I thought of how my mother is characteristically talkative, and how my dad abstains from conversation: how, like Mrs. Cleaver, my Southern belle of a mother knew all the neighbors and brought gifts much more sincere than flowers to a new neighbors house (those are the moments to bring out something from the gas-lit stove in the kitchen!) while my Dad joked at how my mom startled acquaintances with friendship at parties while he stood in the corner wondering how she could remember all those anonymous names behind a scotch on the rocks. How the handy dad can claim pride in his household repairs while besmirching his spouse who does different, but feminine repairs, that somehow fit in with her chatty, wispy nature, as my dad imitated and created this social behavior whenever he would tell me how to close the now out of frame kitchen cabinets that were out of their ideal shape because of my mother’s hurry. How the mom and dad, who have all these gendered conflicts of authority, neutralize bad outcomes with good intent–parents love persists.
I noticed most of all how to me this show was a parody; to my parents it was an ideal; to my brothers a painful reminder of their not-reality as children of young, financially struggling divorcees. But I remember from the Deadwood course that you can only parody something (like the Western) when it was well-established as a genre. In that moment the familiarity came descending upon me again, realizing that my satirical response to the heavily dated mores of the 1950s was based on my exposure to them in my home, on TV Land, and disparagingly in interactions with my brothers or those seemingly one way interactions of viewership while watching Pleasantville and The Truman Show, which have truly changed my life forever.