- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Jeff Giles
e’s long been lumped in with the Ward Cleavers and Ozzie Nelsons of the stereotypical 1950s American sitcom, but the truth is, Jim Anderson – the “Father” portrayed for six seasons by Robert Young in “Father Knows Best” – has more in common with more recent television dads than you might remember. Sure, he was almost always in a suit and tie – and yes, the advice he was forever dispensing frequently ended up being on target. Hell, his wife and kids even told him they loved him on a regular basis. These are all things you’d expect from a television show that kicked off in 1954. What sets “Father Knows Best” apart – at least during these episodes – is the pleasantly acidic humor that seasons its Wonder Bread ingredients.
This wouldn’t have been a surprise to fans of the show in its earlier incarnation as a radio series, where Young was known to lament the bunch of “stupid kids” he’d sired. But more than five decades later, it certainly helps add another dimension to a series whose broad setups and Main Street values went on to provide the basis for countless sitcoms – and fodder for just as many send-ups of the All-American lifestyle the show pretended to reflect. These days, “Father Knows Best” is less a television series than a floating punchline, shorthand for any dorky, unrealistic attempt at capturing the family dynamic (and that makes it sadly perfect that the pending film adaptation is set to star Tim Allen, an actor who delivers “dorky” and “unrealistic” in spades).
Here’s the thing, though: Regardless of whether or not “Father Knows Best” ever had any basis in reality, it actually functioned as a situation comedy. Where other shows of the era got by on cardigans and bromides, “Father” had a pretty decent batting average when it came to squeezing laughs out of mundane family life. Rather than puffing on a pipe and patting his kids on the head thoughtfully, Young was as likely as not to unleash a sarcastic zinger. (In the first episode, when older daughter Betty rushes in to tell her parents she has exciting news about her brother Bud, Young asks if he’s leaving home. In the next episode, Young walks in the door and responds to Bud’s “Dad, you’re home” with “No, I’m in Africa, hunting wild goats.”) While certainly a far cry from the buffoonish sitcom dad we’ve grown accustomed to, Jim Anderson was anything but infallible – or unflappable – and Young wasn’t above sitting on an open-faced jelly sandwich to prove it, either.
With the benefit of more than 50 years of hindsight, there’s no getting around the fact that these 26 episodes have their fair share of unbelievably corny moments. But they’re also frequently laugh-out-loud funny – and touching, too. Where they fall down, as you might expect, is in the audiovisual department. The film has been preserved reasonably well, but it’s -- you know -- old. Don’t go in expecting pristine remastering and you’ll be fine; but if contrast problems, ghosting and two-dimensional audio drives you nuts, then you’ll get very little enjoyment from this set. Adding to some fans’ ire will be the preponderance of syndication edits that were used; anyone with a long memory – or original versions of the episodes – will feel like something’s missing.
Helping to make up for it is an absurd wealth of bonus material, including new interviews with Young’s onscreen daughters, home movies, behind-the-scenes footage, and a “special episode” of the show (titled “Twenty-Four Hours in Tyrantland”) commissioned by the United States Treasury and the AFL-CIO for the purposes of scaring people into buying bonds. Though not without its defects, this is absolutely the way season sets should be assembled – with extra content and obvious care. For fans of the series – or children looking for a nod-and-a-wink Father’s Day gift – this will be $34.99 well spent.