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Life was better in 'Donna Reed' world, cast member Paul Petersen says
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McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - It's 50 years old _ that's about a thousand in television years _ filmed mostly in black and white, and relentlessly square in its values. But viewers have never stopped loving "The Donna Reed Show," and series regular Paul Petersen says the reasons are simple: It's better than today's TV, made by a better Hollywood about a better America.
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"It depicts a better time and place," Petersen says of the mom-and-pop-know-best sitcom in which he played Jeff, the mildly erratic but deeply lovable teenage son of Donna Reed and Carl Betz. "It has a sort of level of intelligence and professionalism that is sadly lacking in current entertainment product. It was peopled with Oscar winners and Emmy winners.
"The messages it sent out were positive and uplifting. The folks you saw were likable, the family was fun, the situations were familiar to people. Even though in the mindset of America there's something dismissive about this, it provided 22-and-a-half-minutes of moral instructions and advice on how to deal with the little dilemmas of life."
Perhaps that's why life has seemed so relentlessly vexing the past few years: Donna hasn't been available to guide us through the rough spots. Though "The Donna Reed Show," which originally aired from 1958 to 1966 on ABC, was a perennial favorite in reruns (Nick at Night ran it for nine years, longer than its network lifespan), it disappeared abruptly during legal wrangling over ownership of the rights.
But earlier this year, the estates of Reed and her second husband Tony Owen won control, and now the show has been issued on DVD for the first time. The four-disc set includes all 37 episodes of the first season.
Superficially, at least, they take place in the same perfect (and phony) world of the other family sitcoms of the era like "Ozzie and Harriet," "Leave It To Beaver" and "Father Knows Best": White picket fence. Neat-as-a-pin living room. Twin beds for Reed (a stay-athome mom, of course) and Betz. The harshest four-letter word to be heard is darn, and there's no sign at all of the Cold War, civil-rights demonstrators or even beards.
But look closer, and you see some cracks in the picture.
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Reed's tight dresses showed off the same spectacular figure that helped her win an Oscar as a sizzling young hooker in "From Here to Eternity," wreaking Oedipal havoc on an entire generation of young boys. And while she was no Marge Simpson (or, heaven forbid, Peg Bundy; we'll get to that in a minute), Reed wasn't a blandly virtuous paper doll like Harriet Nelson or June Cleaver, either.
She lied ("fibbed," she preferred to call it), schemed and manipulated to keep peace in her family and the neighborhood. She regularly counseled daughter Mary (Shelley Fabares) that the only way to get a man was to trap him (using "feminine wiles") and even admitted to stealing Betz from another woman. For his own good, of course: "She was the type who would get fat."
And if her tiny flaws and vices made "The Donna Reed Show's" family a little more recognizable to most Americans, the presence of teenage children _ most sitcoms of the time preferred kids to be small and uncomplicated _ offered access to a host of social issues which, however mildly treated, gave the show a more contemporary feel.
"Jeff and Mary and their friends had all the same problems that real kids in high school did," Petersen recalls. "Jeff underachieved a little bit. They had teenage romantic problems. We had shows about ethics ... What do you do if you find a lottery ticket, and you know who dropped it, but if you keep it you win a car? Jeff saw a little girl drop a winning ticket for a Ferrari, and he picked it up. But when he shared that with his parents, Donna said, 'You must make every effort to find the little girl with the droopy drawers' ...
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"Drugs weren't such a huge problem yet when we were doing the show, but we did have an alcoholism problem in one episode. One of Dr. Stone's colleagues had that problem. We had interracial marriage. We had abandoned babies. We had shows about illness and ageism. We had an episode on the status of women, when Donna ran for mayor. When you do 260 episodes, everything's fair game."
Not that Petersen is claiming "The Donna Reed Show" offers solutions to the banking crisis or the war in Iraq. (Though it arguably did foresee the clamor for nationalized health care. "The doctor's the first to be called and the last to be paid," Reed brooded to her pediatrician husband in one early episode.) It was more like an oil can for squeaks in the basic unit of American life, the family.
"That's what the show was really about, the importance of family," Petersen says. "That's where life's lessons are transmitted, generation to generation. There's a certain way in which these are transmitted, with love and affection. Little things like how good manners are important, and good grooming is important."
Most of those lessons are long since lost to television, Petersen says. A child star before "The Donna Reed Show" (he was one of Walt Disney's original Mousketeers), he was only 20 when it went off the air. He kept working steadily on TV into the early 1970s, then drifted through several careers _ writing adventure novels, running a limo service _ until 1990, when he created a foundation for child stars who'd fallen on hard times.
It didn't take Petersen long to decide that Hollywood's problems with children went beyond the ones who acted. His foundation, A Minor Consideration, now lobbies against the way kids are portrayed in the media _ particularly in his old medium, television, and his old genre, the family sitcom.
"Some of the comedies that followed 'The Donna Reed Show' tried to do the same things we did," says Petersen, 62. "'The Cosby Show' really reflected our values. Before that, there was a show called 'Family' that was pretty good. 'The Brady Bunch,' not quite it; 'Family Ties,' close but no cigar in my book.
"But eventually everything really went off the cliff. Just consider the difference between Donna Reed and Roseanne Barr. Even shows with good intentions went wrong. Do you remember 'All in the Family'? Norman Lear set out to make a buffoon out of a man filled with prejudice and racism. And what he accomplished instead was to turn Archie Bunker into a star and make prejudice funny. It's not funny. The underlying message he hoped to achieve got lost entirely."
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Perhaps not surprisingly, no show sets Petersen's teeth more on edge than "Married ... With Children," the 1980s Fox sitcom that lampooned the family shows of the 1960s with lecherous, loutish parents and conniving, promiscuous children.
"To be blunt, I thought it was detestable," Petersen snaps. "Everything about it was bad and nothing more than the image it presented of the father _ drunken, useless, obsessed with pornography. To constantly portray adult men in families as buffoons has an impact. It's not reflective of our culture or the lives most men live. We have devalued marriage so much that _ oh, don't get me started.
"I once tried to explain to a network why a 'Donna Reed Reunion Show' would be powerful. They said, 'No one will watch.' I complained bitterly about it to Donna _ 'All these damn young men at the networks.' She said, 'No, it's not that they're young men; it's that they're the wrong young men.'
"They walk around mystified by the impact their medium has had on the culture. I can't tell you how many of these guys are involved in projects that they won't let their own families watch. I say to them, 'How can you do that?' They have no answer. Their answer is, 'I live in Malibu and drive a Mercedes.'
"It has infected the media. Major media outlets pay a million dollars for the first photo of an unwed mother's baby, as if this person had something to tell us. I've had enough of this. It filters through everything."
His voice trails off in frustration, and it sounds for all the world as if he's realized this is a problem that even Donna Reed can't fix.
© 2008, The Miami Herald.
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