The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963)

I was just becoming an adolescent when The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis started playing on television in 1959, and like the title character of that show, I had no interest in being at home with my parents watching television. Like Dobie, I wanted be with my friends, but mostly, I wanted to be with girls.  And so it was that the show that I might so easily have identified with, I never saw.

But in the age of Netflix, it is now possible to watch old television shows on DVDs in the order in which they originally aired, and being retired with lots of time on my hands, I have lately been taking advantage of that possibility.  I say I have lots of time on my hands not only because I no longer have to work, but also because the attractions of youth have largely dissipated.  While I do have friends, the need to hang out with them incessantly, the way I did when I was a teenager, no longer exists for the simple reason that I do not have the need to get out of the house and away from my parents the way I used to.  As for women, while I still find them desirable, I am no longer willing to put out the effort, in part owing to the decline of passion that comes with age, and in part owing to the wisdom that also comes of age.

I don’t wish to give the impression that watching old television shows is the bulk of my entertainment.  I watch recently produced movies and television shows too.  Many of them are quite good, fortunately, but many more try my patience.  Sometimes a show seems so determined to check all the boxes of ethnic and sexual diversity that the story is overwhelmed by these unrealistic combinations of characters.  It might be argued that America has become a more ethnically and sexually diverse country than it was in the 1960s, and that is true.  But while some of that diversity might actually show up in our family or close circle of friends, it seldom does so to the degree that it does on the screen, where the amount of diversity we see is a result forced by the felt need to get it all in.

One of the charms of an old movie or television show is that there was no need for this.  Everyone could be white and heterosexual without anyone thinking there was anything politically incorrect about it.  This is important not because being white and heterosexual is intrinsically better than the alternatives, but because it makes for simpler dramatic situations.  Whether diversity is a good thing in real life is a different question from whether it is a good thing in drama.  If The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis were made today, Dobie’s best friend would no longer be the not-too-bright beatnik Maynard Krebs, but an African American who is always ready with sage advice.  Zelda Gilroy, the one girl that Dobie could actually have but did not want, because she was neither pretty nor sexy, would be replaced by someone who is gay, trying to convince Dobie that since he is getting nowhere with girls, he should consider having a boyfriend instead. Both these substitutes would have overwhelmed the simple plots and precluded the light humor that makes watching this show a pleasure.  Instead, the tension between white and black, on the one hand, and between straight and gay, on the other, would have made this a very different show.  And that would be just for starters. Thalia Menninger would no longer be a scheming gold digger, but a girl intent on having a professional career. And room would also have to be made in Dobie’s life for a Latino, an Asian,and a Muslim.

Could it still have been funny?  Maybe.  And if a show makes us laugh, nothing else matters. But when I watch a modern situation comedy that does not make me laugh, and I find myself at the same time being acutely aware of all the obligatory diversity that has been crammed into it, I cannot help but wonder if the latter is the reason for the former.

Is “The Americans” the Most Deadpan Situation Comedy Ever Made?

When I was in college, back in the 1960s, my friends and I used to watch 1950s monster movies and science fiction movies on the late show.  Much of the fun arose out of the unintentional absurdities in those movies, including everything from the poor production values to the corny dialogue to the scientific nonsense. We did not use the word “camp” to describe these absurdities, for though we had the concept, yet we did not know the word.

Then, in 1966, the television show Batman made its debut. This was, to my knowledge, the first time a movie or a television show deliberately had camp value. As a result, there was a lot of confusion when it first aired.  Children took the show seriously and enjoyed it on that level.  Most adults realized it was supposed to be funny, even if they didn’t actually care for it.  But there were a fair number of people that took the show seriously the way children did and criticized it for being juvenile.

I first started watching the show The Americans only a couple of months ago. On the very first episode, I found myself laughing.  I wasn’t laughing throughout the show, but only occasionally.  I would be taking it all seriously, and then something would happen or be said that would make me laugh.  By way of contrast, I never laughed when watching Homeland.  After a few episodes, I started wondering if there was deliberate camp value in this show, only much more subtle than in Batman.

I suppose the first clue was the hammer-and-sickle symbol of the Soviet Union being used as the “c” in the word “Americans.” Then there was the Ozzie & Harriet cover for the two spies, Philip and Elizabeth.  Now, every sitcom family has next door neighbors to interact with.  This does not happen so much with serious crime or spy shows.  We never saw Joe Friday interact with his neighbors in Dragnet.  We never see James Bond at home, let alone see him visiting his neighbors.  But in The Americans, we do have neighbors, and what could be more appropriate than for them to have an FBI agent living next door.

And while I thoroughly enjoy watching Elizabeth kick butt and waste the “bad guys,” something inside me cannot help but be amused by it all.  She is all communist.  Philip, on the other hand, thinks about defecting, is less likely to kill, and feels guilty when he does.  He is the weaker of the two.  In other words, as with many comedies, the husband is dominated by his wife.

What really capped it off was when their daughter Paige discovered Christianity and wanted to start going to church.  I don’t know much about the actual spies Soviets planted in this country who were married and had children, but I should think the Soviets would have wanted the family to go to church to enhance their cover.  In this show, however, the Jennings have apparently never gone to church or given their children any religious upbringing. And so it is that when Paige gets caught reading the Bible, Elizabeth is appalled. Speaking later to Philip, she comments about how horrible it is in America, what with all the churches and synagogues, all that “opiate of the masses” everywhere you look. How can they have her drop a heavy line like that and not expect us to laugh?

Then there is the way Philip, pretending to be Clark, insists on keeping his glasses on even when he is having sex with Martha.  All I can think of is that this is an allusion to another Clark who, we were expected to believe, could keep people from guessing that he was Superman by making sure he kept his glasses on too.  Speaking of which, at one point, Philip says he is worried about the way Martha seems so insistent that she and “Clark” become foster parents.  Elizabeth is disgusted.  “Just who wears the pants in that family?” she asks.  That’s a fine phrase coming from her.

In one episode, Philip and Elizabeth decide to check on Kate, their handler.  They break into her house, which is deserted.  They sneak around, checking things out.  Then Elizabeth notices that the toilet seat is in the up position, even though Kate lives alone.  Sure enough, there is a secret message on the toilet paper core.  Philip would probably have never noticed.

However, a friend of mine assures me that this show is not intentionally camp, that it is meant to be taken seriously.  But I think we have another Batman situation going on.