Leave Ozzie and Harriet Alone

New York Times Magazine, January 19, 1997

A Defense of the Drama of the Quotidian Life

On a gray morning last August I was riding with David Nelson in the hills just above Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. We were on our way to see the house where he grew up with his parents, Ozzie and Harriet, and his brother, Rick, the same house shown at the beginning of episodes of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." That program, which was on the air from 1952 to 1966, was the original family situation comedy, a television genre that David's father invented. "The Cosby Show," "Roseanne" and even "The Simpsons" are direct descendants of "Ozzie and Harriet" and owe their existence to Ozzie's -let's call it what it was -genius.

David is the last of the Nelsons. Ozzie died of liver cancer in 1975. Rick died in an airplane crash on New Year's Eve 1985. He was a good rock singer but, after several years of popularity, his success was never again commensurate with his talent. In the end his reputation was unfairly clouded by the discredited report that free-basing cocaine sparked a fire that caused his plane to go down. Harriet died at 85 in 1994.

Now David is 60 and has his own company that makes advertisements and promotional films. Except for his broad, athletic frame, he does not look much like the young man on the television show, but the tone of his voice and the cadences of his speech are exactly the same. He is extremely nice and accommodating -taking a morning off to drive me around, among many other courtesies -but also extremely private. He is forthcoming about the show but reticent about his life today, as if he had to expose so much of himself as he grew up that now he wants to take cover whenever possible.

The Nelsons' legacy is its own peculiar burden. In the continuing political debate over family values, the phrase "Ozzie and Harriet" has become shorthand for an idyllic America of the past where mothers, fathers and children lived happily together. Social conservatives call for a return to this world. Alan Ehrenhalt wrote in The Wilson Quarterly: "America is full of people willing to remind us at every opportunity that the 1950's are not coming back. Ozzie and Harriet are dead, they like to say, offering an instant refutation to just about anyone who ventures to point out something good about the social arrangements of a generation ago." This is anathema to those who believe that alternative family structures are just as good as the traditional one. Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, two college professors, wrote in Newsday of "a well-financed, well-organized campaign by the rightwing to prove the only family system that works is the Ozzie and Harriet family with a breadwinner father and a homemaker mother." They concluded that attempts to "turn back the clock" were doomed to fail. And speaking at Harvard, Barbra Streisand said, "They attacked 'Murphy Brown,' which represents a thoughtful attempt to deal with the reality that Americans now lead lives that, for better or for worse, are very different than the lives of Ozzie and Harriet." Even this newspaper recently said that believing that poor people could live like Ozzie and Harriet in today's world was "cruel."

How can it be that such an important, entertaining and apparently harmless show is at the center of such conflict? Which is it -- a reflection of a better world or a model of oppression -- or something else entirely?

"THE ADVENfURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET" WAS SET IN AN IMAGINARY small town where there is never any politics, any contention, any heart-break. Everyone is happy. Everyone is well fed and well dressed, lives in a nice house and has the same heart and the same values. At the center of this world are "America's favorite family, the Nelsons," as the show's announcer says. Ozzie plays a character named Ozzie Nelson; Harriet, a character named Harriet Nelson; and so on with David and Ricky. They all live in a virtually unchanging harmony; they love to walk into rooms of the house and greet each other. Scene after scene begins with: "Hi, Mom. Hi, Pop." "Oh, hello, boys." Scene after scene ends with: "Bye, Mom. Bye, Pop." "So long, boys. Have a good time." The plots, such as they are, often concern events or issues from the daily life of the Nelsons. Will Ozzie play Ping-Pong in the father-and-son tournament with David or Ricky? Is David old enough to have his own key to the house? Should Harriet change her hair style?

No one would mistake these "problems" for the great social and political dilemmas of our time. But they are exactly the kind of complications that are common in family life. Ozzie makes a happy family, their routine and the minute events of their lives the entire focus of his considerable creative energy. He was close in spirit to P. G. Wodehouse, who also wrote about families, if not exactly about marriage. Like Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster, Ozzie has no visible occupation and nothing of any importance to do except get himself into absurd fixes. He's just around the house, affable, a little bumbling. In Wodehouse the slightest complications are nudged by a gentle but precise hand toward absurdity; That's how Ozzie wrote as well, so that the slighter the premise the funnier the show. How far, for example. will Ozzie go to satisfy his late-night craving for tutti frutti ice cream?

Contrary to what those who damn the show for its old-fashioned values assume, Ozzie is not the wise and all-knowing father. He does not preach to his sons or to Harriet -indeed, there is never any moral lesson to preach about. Everyone in the family is so confident in loving and being loved that nothing needs to be said about it. In one episode, Ozzie mistakenly thinks that Harriet no longer wants to sleep in the same bed with him, and she thinks that he doesn't want to sleep with her. Ozzie camps out on the couch in the den for part of the night until, miserable and lonely, he goes back to Harriet. Here is a plot that goes right to the heart of a marriage. The sexual tension is subtly played; indeed, Ozzie frequently bragged that he and Harriet were the first couple in a television series to be shown sleeping in the same bed. But here Ozzie is hurt and confused and Harriet is hurt and confused, yet neither one confronts the other. The misunderstandings are discovered in a calm conversation, and Harriet welcomes Ozzie back into bed as if he'd done nothing more than get up for a glass of water. Fundamental as the crisis is, it never occurs to either one that the marriage is threatened.

This unquestioned harmony makes us think of Ozzie and Harriet as living not only in a different time but also in a phony different time, and that the world the show implied -- one of happy husbands and wives and happy children in a land of plenty -- was the phoniest thing of all. It ignored all the ugliness that we have now almost obsessively dug up from the society of those days and of our own -- oppression of women and minorities, domestic violence, sexual harassment and a host of other abuses and injustices. Today we also have new problems to face, or more vicious versions of the old ones. Last year the high school our daughter and son attend had a racial standoff so intense that the hallways were cleared and patrolled for days. This year there has already been an attempted gang rape of a male student, even though the hallways are guarded.

When David and Ricky attended Hollywood High in the late 50's, there were no guards in the hallways. Why should they have been so lucky compared with my kids? That's the kind of frustration that politicians are trying to mine with their talk about family, and that's the kind of dismaying change people mean when they say we don't live in an Ozzie and Harriet world anymore. But as I watched hours of old "Ozzie and Harriets" on videotape, I realized that, in spite of the myriad intractable social problems, there is a continuity between "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" and our days, which are supposed to be so different and difficult. That's why the phrase "Ozzie and Harriet" has entered the language and the Nelsons have become the one emblematic family we have.

It gave me a start, I must admit, when I realized that the infinitely small problems the show turned on made it spookily like looking into a mirror. So many of our family's days sound like plots for the show. The dog disappears; it turns out he has fallen into a neighbor's sunken garbage can. Our son becomes a vegan. Our daughter gets a job in an ice cream parlor. Ozzie knew that for a family something as mundane as buying a car or mother's getting a new hair style is a huge occasion. He knew something else too. The string that ties a family together is spun from a series of minute decisions, of routines, of hellos and goodbyes and hellos again. And there is nothing about these greetings and daily decisions that depends on wealth or class. "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," although set in an idealized, gently comic world of minuscule problems that is now 40 years old, had the exact tone and rhythm of happy married life.

That gray morning in the car with David, he turned down a short, tree-lined street, parked suddenly and said, "There it is." The familiar New England-style house was still in gloriously good repair, with shining white shutters by each window. I got out to look more closely; but to my surprise David stayed in the car. He has been the one to see the family through its darkest times. He was in the room in this house with Ozzie when he died. When Harriet died, David was holding her hand. And he had to battle through the exasperating difficulties of Rick's estate, which was settled only recently after almost 11 years.

After Ozzie died, Harriet lived alone in this house until she finally decided to sell it. On the last day before the new owners moved in, a friend took Harriet by for a last look inside. She broke down. Seeing the empty house, she suddenly didn't know where she was or who she was or why she had lived. Standing there with David waiting for me in the car, I thought of Harriet panicked and alone in that empty house and I thought of my wife alone or me alone or our children alone, as someday they must be, and it made me want to embrace those days when our lives happen to be a quiet, gentle comedy.