They made us long for what never was

You must understand if some of us are feeling a little blue after hearing of the deaths last week of actors Barbara Billingsley and Tom Bosley.

The passing of "June Cleaver" and "Mr. C" produced that vague sorrow, that echo of grief that comes when you think of your own long-dead parents. Even in middle age, you can feel like an orphan.

"Leave it to Beaver," a 1950s show about a suburban family, and "Happy Days," a 1970s show about a 1950s suburban family, allowed those of us of a certain age to watch ourselves grow up — twice — even if the families on the small screen in no way resembled our own.

Television has always had that kind of through-the-looking-glass quality. The new technology arrived just as post-war America was settling down in the suburbs, with mortgages and kids, and it makes sense that networks would have conjured family shows for the families who were watching.

And despite the disconnect between what we watched and how we lived, those television families set a standard to which the rest of us aspired, and "family values" became the medium's standard. No wonder Dan Quayle had a fit about Murphy Brown's unwed motherhood.

The television parents slept in twin beds and wore pearls and jackets with elbow patches and resolved their children's minor crises firmly, reasonably and with good humor. And nobody got divorced. Mayberry's Andy Griffith and Fred MacMurray of "My Three Sons" and all the other single spouses were always widowed. If that was a far cry from what was happening in our own neighborhoods, we can't be blamed for craving the comfort of those shows like we might crave a mother's lap.

Television families changed with the times, of course. "Dynasty" and "Dallas" fit the over-consumption of the go-go 1980s. "Cheers" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" gave us workplace families, and "Friends" gave us ersatz families. But in all of them, there was connection and commitment and obvious affection.

Today, we have little or none of that. In most family sitcoms, the father is a bumbling fool, the mother is bitter and the kids are snarky.

The Osbournes and the Kardashians are real, live versions of "Dallas'" dysfunction. And "Big Brother" and the "Bachelor" series are a cross between "Friends" and "Mean Girls." There is only conflict and no resolution. And we watch as voyeurs, not aspirants.

I never resented the fact that June Cleaver and Mr. C. were not my parents or that I didn't live in a sweet, small town like Mayberry. I don't think we wanted to be members of the families we watched on television. I think we were happy just knowing they were out there, somewhere.

The passing of Barbara Billingsley and Tom Bosley reminds us that they never really were.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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