66. "Baby Picture," Leave It to Beaver (1959)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
Because of the flak I've been getting from certain individuals about including Everybody Loves Raymond on this list, I've changed the rest of the entries so they're all about nice people in tasteful homes whose favorite activity is forgiving each other. Stand by for Family Affair! (Seriously, though, don't click this. Worst earworm ever.)
In fact, the next episode on the list features one of the most misanthropic characters on television, so let's pause to recognize the family sitcom that has had the sweetest afterlife.
Leave It to Beaver was never a big hit in prime time, lagging behind shows like Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and The Real McCoys in the ratings, but it's now better known than any of its sitcom contemporaries. Beaver's distinction is that it's from the point of view of the kid characters, giving them more screen time than the parents — which has the effect of making Ward and June seem, if not clueless, somewhat out of the loop.
When Beaver mopes around his father, Ward only makes things worse, telling Beaver to suck it up and take it like a man without bothering to find out what's wrong. By the end of the episode, Ward comes up with an elegant solution to the problem and even apologizes to Beaver for his rotten parenting. Before that, however, this is a sweetly funny short story about adults can never really put themselves in the shoes of their children.
• When I included Beaver in my 1997 list of landmark TV shows, I emphasized its most well-known supporting character:
Through the late '50s, sitcom regulars could be scatterbrained or have somewhat of a temper, but they were all basically likable. Leave It to Beaver introduced a truly loathsome character: Eddie Haskell, the hypocrite who would bully little kids and then suck up to their parents. Writers for earlier sitcoms might have found it implausible for nice characters to have rotten friends. Kids, on the other hand, don't have as many options in finding people to hang out with, and most of us can recall childhood "pals" who were real assholes. After Beaver, jerks like Eddie Haskell crept into the casts of adult sitcoms. Viewers agreed that they belonged there — and credibility be damned.
If you want to see Eddie Haskell at his worst, a good episode is "Beaver and Chuey," in which Eddie, long before he became a Fox News host (kidding), tricks Beaver into insulting a Latino classmate. Then again, none of Beaver and Wally's regular friends were anything to brag about. They typically goaded Beaver and Wally into doing stupid things, then ran away when things went wrong.
• Noel Murray covered Leave It to Beaver for the A.V. Club's "Very Special Episode" department, focusing on an installment that covers many of the same themes as "Baby Picture" and similarly features Beaver's understandng teacher, Miss Landers.
Leave It To Beaver is a more-realistic-than-it-gets-credit-for document of childhood and adulthood too, as seen from both sides. For example, the third-season episode “The Last Day Of School” — which originally aired on June 18, 1960 — is grounded in common experiences. As they prepare for school to end, Beaver and his pals clean out their lockers and talk about what they’re going to get their teacher Miss Landers for an end-of-the-year thank-you gift. Meanwhile, Wally’s annoyed that he has to be at school for a week longer than his brother, because the seniors in his high school need an extra week for pre-graduation activities. Not only are both situations true to the times, they wouldn’t be out of place in a slice-of-life family show in 2011.
• The A.V. Club's Todd VanDerWerff includes "Baby Picture" in "10 Episodes That Show Off Leave It To Beaver’s Quiet Innovation." From his essay:
Leave It To Beaver was a surprisingly progressive show for its era, part of a movement in American popular art in the ’40s and ’50s that told stories about people living in a new superpower, uneasy about their wealth and comfort and considering not how to leave their children better off than they had been (since such a thing was a fait accompli for those born during the Depression) but rather how to make those children better people.