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Ozzie and Harriet Unplugged

by FRANK RICH

June 24, 1998

 

''Murphy Brown'' is history and so, to everyone but himself, is Dan Quayle. And still their family-values slugfest lingers on. This month Lisa Schiffren, a former Quayle speechwriter who's now a ''full-time mother of two,'' and Candice Bergen, a widowed mother, had a rematch on the editorial pages of The Times. Even as they battled, however, they agreed that two hands-on parents are better than one -- a truism now embraced by every politician in the land, from our dysfunctional chief executive on down.

But is life so simple? On Father's Day another TV series, ''Biography,'' lobbed a stink bomb into the debate: a documentary examining the people who created the cultural template for suburban family values in the postwar era, the Nelson family. From 1952 to 1966 Ozzie Nelson, his wife, Harriet, and their sons starred as themselves in the early, much-imitated and longest-running family TV sitcom ''The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.'' It propagated not only stay-at-home moms but full-time dads. Though Ozzie had a job, his occupation was never identified and demanded so little time that he could always be found in the living room bumbling amiably about.

Nice work if you can get it. Yet as ''Biography'' details, the offstage story in this primordial Truman Show was less sunny. Ozzie was a 24-hour-a-day workaholic who subjugated his sons to his career ambitions, sacrificing even their education to his lucrative show-biz franchise. While it's hard to imagine a more literally intact, home-schooling-style family than the Nelsons, its psychological fallout was lethal. Adorable little Ricky, who morphed into a teen-age pop star, lost his virginity at 14 before careening into a disastrously combative marriage, drug abuse and the de facto abandonment of his own kids.

The ''Biography'' documentary (to be repeated on Friday) is painful to watch if you're part of the boomer generation that grew up with the Nelsons. It's as if ''Long Day's Journey Into Night'' were being performed by the cast of ''It's a Wonderful Life.'' But for those of us who grew up measuring our homes against the Nelson ideal -- and finding them wanting -- there's rough justice here. If Ozzie and Harriet couldn't live up to their own image, how could the rest of America? The Nelsons -- and the Eisenhower-decade ethos they typified -- set a standard that couldn't be met by a society in which men did have to work long hours to get ahead and women were not necessarily delighted to be confined to home while they did so.

As ''Biography'' reveals, the values propagated by Ozzie and Harriet weren't really their own anyway (both were itinerant show people before they married). Nonetheless, the powerful new medium of TV imposed their nostalgic, unrealistic, one-size-fits-all familial model on a vast, rapidly changing America to which it no longer applied. The discrepancy between who the Nelsons were and what they preached became a lasting model for hypocritical public discourse as well. A Father's Day article in The Times reported that the rigid 1990's family-values moralist William Bennett was ''raised by a mother and grandmother who at best count were married a total of nine times.''

At the young age at which I was in thrall to ''Ozzie and Harriet,'' I had a single, divorced Mom, compelled to work to pay the bills. She was plainly no Harriet, and even when she remarried she continued her dedicated work as a teacher. Later I would figure out that she was a successful parent, but back then she and her children alike felt woefully deficient. Surely it was Mom's fault that life had dealt her a hand different from the omnipresent Nelsons, ''Father Knows Best'' and Doris Day. Luckily, she lived long enough to feel vindicated -- not by ''Murphy Brown'' but by her children and grandchildren.

Her experience doesn't prove that ''Murphy Brown'' was right or that Dan Quayle was wrong. But it does show that the whole long-running family-values debate is framed, especially by politicians and mass culture, by cliches of little use to real people caught up in the inevitable, and perhaps infinite, permutations of family configurations in a modern America. This is why one can feel only sympathy, not anger, toward the real Ozzie and Harriet, naked at last. They were as trapped by their cliches as anyone who watched, and, unlike many of us in that audience, they never could escape.