July 7, 2011
Imaginary Friends: Secrets and Lies in Sixties Sitcomsby Arthur Smith
Watching the new FX comedy Wilfred, which features Elijah Wood as a depressed young man with a talking humanoid dog (others see the pooch as a normal, unvocalizing canine), I was reminded of a strange cul-de-sac of sixties sitcoms that featured things that shouldn’t talk (or exist, or do magic, or come from space), the average-shmoe custodians and companions of said things, and the fraught dynamic between the two. Wilfred ups the ante with frank sex talk and copious pot smoking, but I can’t help thinking back fondly on earlier examples of this largely moribund TV trope.
The desperate need to keep a secret has been a key ingredient in farcical humor since the form was invented, and a staple of sixties-era sitcoms. But the situation comedy format demanded that the deception—and its attendant anxiety—continue, week after week. Is it a coincidence that this compounded neurosis happened to coincide with the advent of one of the most socially revolutionary periods in American history? New attitudes began to creep into even mainstream, family-oriented entertainment, and, as usual, they came in disguise.
Consider: Bewitched, with its “flamboyant” witches and warlocks (talk about alternative lifestyles) mocking the “straight” mortal world, as epitomized by the hopelessly uptight Darrin, can clearly be read as a gay allegory (of course, Bewitched also included many gay actors in its cast). Or take Samantha’s sister in sorcery, Jeannie (from I Dream of Jeannie): a woman of vast power, bound by archaic convention to serve a man and (literally) bottle up her individuality. Paging Betty Friedan.
And what was Batman but a fever dream of bursting the bounds of social propriety…dressing up in wild clothes, cavorting in the ultra-Freudian Batcave, and “slumming” by night with (super-villainous) rough trade? In a more general sense, the outlandish premises of shows like Mr. Ed (pictured right), My Mother the Car, and My Favorite Martian gave lie to the conformist ideology of the fifties; in these programs, the radically strange could happily exist cheek-by-jowl with the blandly normal, and both parties benefited from the relationship.
In the freewheeling seventies, things had changed; the vogue in sitcoms was for realism and the explicit exploration of social issues—the MTM/Norman Lear era. Hiding talking horses and possessed cars from the neighbors suddenly seemed awfully quaint. But look what happened in the conservative eighties of Reagan’s New Dawn in America: Tom Hanks put on a dress, conned his way into a hotel for women, and a star was born. Plus ca change…
And now we have Wilfred, an obscene, dissolute dog, and his suicidal buddy. What this says about the current moment…I shudder to think.
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Arthur Smith worked in a film archive and failed to earn a living as a professional musician before joining the Paley Center in 1997. He’s not bitter, but has unhealthy fixations on tweedy clothing and Marvel comics.Interests:
60s Pop Music, Comedy, Comic Books, Great and/or Terrible Movies, and Exotic Brunettes
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