Show: Season One
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Reviewed by Will Harris
s much as I’d love to go on a rant about today’s young whippersnappers who think that “I Love Lucy” was the only sitcom to air during the 1950s, it’s hard to blame them. Think about it: how many other comedies from that era still get broadcast on a regular basis? It’s that whole rebellion against anything that’s in black-and-white. Roger Ebert has said, “Children who refuse to watch B&W movies should be sent to bed without their supper until they change their minds.” The same goes for television as well, as far as I’m concerned, and both Nick at Nite and TV Land should be roundly chastised for easing classic 1950s series out of their lineups over the past several years. Thank goodness for Alliance America (formerly Hart Sharp), that is offering up all 37 episodes of the first season of “The Donna Reed Show,” which is unquestionably a ‘50s classic.
Reed’s role as Mary Bailey in the perennial holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” earned her permanent inclusion on the list of America’s all-time sweethearts. By 1958, she had found her way onto television, and into the role of Donna Stone, a former nurse turned housewife. Donna’s character married into medicine as well – her husband, Alex (Carl Betz), is a pediatrician – and the happy couple has a pair of children: Jeff (Paul Petersen) and Mary (Shelly Fabares). Donna is a doting wife, but she’s also a concerned mother, which means that she invariably ends up with her nose in her kids’ business on a regular basis.
Although the show has the expected ‘50s sensibilities (there’s more than a little sexism to be had), it’s a pleasant surprise to find that it’s not a case where it’s terribly saccharine. It’s perhaps a given that the kids are constantly sniping at each other, but there’s an unexpected amount of abuse hurled by Jeff at his father for having to cancel plans at a moment’s notice because of some medical crisis or other. Somehow, the moments feel more real than you’ve come to expect from ‘50s sitcoms. For the most part, the plot lines are semi-standard – Jeff has a game, Mary has a dance, Donna makes a mistake and has to fix it – but, in particular, Betz and Petersen have a way with sarcastic quips. Some episodes find Donna acting more naive than others (she seems intent on wanting to rescue any urchin who comes within half a mile of her home), but no matter what happens, she handles it all with style and grace.
The series isn’t what you’d call packed to the gills with high-profile guest stars, though the show had the opportunity to air an episode on Christmas Eve and took full advantage of it by bringing in the Great Stone Face himself, Buster Keaton, for a sweet installment that’ll bring a tear to your eye. Mostly, it’s a case where you’ll recognize a lot of people who were either TV staples of the time (Richard Deacon from “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Howard McNear from “The Andy Griffith Show”) or went on to greater fame a few years later (George Hamilton, Ted Knight). There is, however, a funny episode where Mary’s favorite rock singer, Buzz Berry, comes to town; he’s played by James Darren, who was known as a teen idol at the time, but has since become far more renowned as an actor for his roles as Office James Corrigan on “T.J. Hooker” or as holographic lounge singer Vic Fontaine on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
Actually, it’s probably a good thing that the show tends to focus as much on its regular cast than on guest actors. Reed, Betz, Petersen and Fabares are all comfortable with their characters and, more importantly, know how to deliver their dialogue well, but you won’t be able to go more than two episodes at a time without hitting on some guest actor or actress whose wooden delivery is straight out of Cue Card City. But thanks to the classic foursome appearing in some capacity in every one of these episodes, you’ll find that “The Donna Reed Show” holds up remarkably well for a show that’s – GASP! – 50 years old.
Special Features: As great as it is to have the show on DVD, it’s highly disappointing that neither Paul Petersen nor Shelley Fabares have contributed to this set, given that both have been longtime supporters of Reed’s legacy. All we get in the way of bonus material is a photo gallery, an original commercial for the series, and production notes and the original Screen Gems press release for the show. Interesting stuff for obsessives, perhaps, but it offers little insight into the show’s history.