- Father Knows Best (TV Milestones Series) by Mary Desjardins
This contribution to Wayne State University's TV Milestones Series (which covers programs from the 1950s through the 2000s) analyzes Father Knows Best, which ran on CBS and NBC from 1954 through 1960. Mary Desjardins accurately introduces her book as a remedy to the problem that this popular series "has received little in-depth or sustained critical attention from television scholars" (1). In a compact portion of the introduction worth quoting at length, Desjardins outlines numerous points of interest: "I will use textual and extra-textual evidence to analyze the stylistic, generic, and industrial practices exemplified by Father Knows Best in relation to the social and cultural contexts in which the program was first produced and in which it has been received by audiences and critics for sixty years" (1-2). The author delivers effectively on this promise of a broad-ranging critical analysis.
Father Knows Best makes for an interesting series for analysis not because it is a self-evidently rich text, but because it is so apparently superficial. Desjardins, is well aware of the program's low default status in television history. She writes that Father Knows Best is often "remembered today via a cultural shorthand that views the 1950s as an era of massive conformity and authoritarianism, and this series, with its close-knit family looking to a wise 'everyman father' as emblematic of those repressive social mechanisms" (1). The standard reader, fittingly, is imagined as skeptical of the program's importance, but willing to be convinced otherwise. Desjardins makes a convincing case that Father Knows Best is, indeed, a series worthy of scholarly attention.
The book contains four chapters which cover two related topics: chapters one ("Media Transitions, Media Legacies") and four ("Rerun and Rewritten") cover the show's place in media history, including the career trajectories of the major performers, its prior existence as a radio drama, and the after-life of Father Knows Best on cable television reruns and DVD sets. Chapters two ("Fathers and Sons") and three ("Women in the House") analyze the performance of gender. These two dominant points of interest give the book a needed focus. Should readers be more interested in one topic or the other, chapters one and four or two and three could effectively be read as stand-alone sections.
Desjardins' historical research for this volume is admirably thorough. For example, she challenges claims about whether the radio version of Father Knows Best, which predated the television show, included a question mark in the title. While numerous scholarly sources indicate that it did, reviewing "contemporary newspaper and magazine sources" such as "profiles of Robert Young, radio schedule listings, [and] program reviews" on the radio show, Desjardins does not find a single instance of this different title (105). She draws a hesitant conclusion about the source of this misunderstanding (an interview in which the wrong sponsor was erroneously identified, leading scholars to believe Young was discussing the television show when he was, more likely, referring to the radio version) while setting the record straight that the radio program never appeared as Father Knows Best? in the 1950s (106).
As Father Knows Best focuses on a family of five (Jim, Margaret, and their children Betty, Bud, and Kathy), episodes sustain their variety by rotating the emphasis on different characters. Desjardins strikes a nice balance by including careful analyses of episodes that star different cast members. For example, the following episodes analyzed in the text all emphasize a distinct cast [End Page 74] member: "Betty and the Jet Pilot," "Father is a Dope," "An Extraordinary Woman," featuring Margaret; "Kathy Becomes a Girl," and "The Gold Turnip," featuring Bud. As Desjardins delves into analysis of specific episodes she often focuses on "social themes" such as "change versus tradition, autonomy versus family togetherness, and self-fulfillment versus altruism" (2). Desjardins effectively makes the case that Father Knows Best is a more accomplished program in terms of technique and style than it is typically given credit for, especially compared to contemporary competitors such as The Stu Erwin...