June and Nancy: A Tale of Two Moms

I love television. I’m not ashamed to admit it. And what a astounding thing it is. I don’t know about you but this week I watched miners being rescued deep underground live some 5000 miles away and folks around the world, from Germany to China were watching at the same time on their TV sets and laptops. We’ve come a long way from the days when I sat on the floor in the living room with my parents and my brother viewing our “modern” grainy black and white set.

Obviously, technology is not the only thing that changed over the course of some fifty-plus years.

On a Sunday night in October of 1957, I probably would have watched Maverick, about those two lovable but somewhat cowardly con men of the Old West, Bret and Bart. But, last night, I watched Dexter, one of my current favorites, which is about a blood-splatter analysis guy for the Miami police department who also happens to be a serial killer. He only kills other serial killers though.

On Thursday nights in 1957, I probably watched Leave It To Beaver, featuring the recently departed Barbara Billingsley as June Cleaver, archetypal suburban mom of the 1950s. This Thursday, I watched Weeds, starring the absolutely hot Mary-Louise Parker as Nancy Botwin, mother of two teenage boys, who in this week’s episode wandered into a roadside saloon and had sex against the bar with the bartender, a total stranger.

Nancy started dealing marijuana after her husband died. Then she started growing it. Her oldest son was the chief grower. She burned down an entire town in Season Three, and after that she was romantically involved with a Mexican politician and mob boss who’s former mistress Nancy’s youngest son killed, on purpose. Now the Botwin’s are on the run from the gangsters and the cops. Nancy is everything but your typical suburban mom and her family is about as normal as the Sopranos.

We’re not in the Cleaver household anymore.

Yes, we’ve come a long way baby, and I’m loving it, and yet I wonder if fifty-three years from now people will still be watching Weeds as they do Leave It To Beaver today (until recently it was airing on TVLand). Even though Leave It To Beaver is dated in many respects, it seems to have a certain timeless quality.

I think what makes the show hold up so well is its naturalness. There was always a moral to the story, but the program never preached. The life lessons learned by Wally and the Beaver were received somewhat organically, as they often are in real life. And there was nothing forced or artificial about the way the two brothers spoke that era’s kid-speak:

Wally Cleaver: Boy, Beaver, wait’ll the guys find out you were hanging around with a girl. They’ll really give you the business.

Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver: But gee, Wally, you hang around with girls and the guys don’t give you the business.

Wally Cleaver: Well, that’s because I’m in high school. You can do a lot of stuff in high school without getting the business.

Ward and June Cleaver had an even-handed approach to parenting. For instance, whenever one of the boys got into trouble they’d ask if Ward was going to “yell” at them, in spite of the fact that their father never once raised his voice with real anger that I can remember.  My parents were not that different from Ward and June. Perhaps that’s why the show seems true-to-life to me. Although, I have to say that I don’t recall my mom ever ironing or doing the dishes wearing pearls and earrings like June Cleaver did.

You can read Barbara Billingsley’s obituary here at the LA Times.

I used to eat frequently at Billingsley’s Steak House in West Los Angeles. I was under the impression that Barbara Billingsley owned and operated it, but now I learn it was her two sons who founded the place. It’s the kind of steak house that’s hard to find these days with dark wood paneling and plush red seats. You never mind waiting for a table at Billingsley’s because you can enjoy a drink or two at their great old traditional bar, which, come to think of it, is similar to the one Nancy Botwin had sex against.

My favorite line from Leave It To Beaver is from the episode when Beaver says,

You know when I shoulda known things were going haywire? When Eddie Haskell was on my side.

You have to know the show and know about Eddie Haskell to appreciate that.

I’m sure that the “Cleaver household” is near and dear to many folks around my age, and so, we note with sadness Barbara Billingsley’s passing, although 94 is pretty good age to go out on. More than any other TV mom, Barbara Billingsley as June Cleaver seemed to be everyone’s mom – either like the one they had or like the one they wanted – and with her death, another little piece of childhood is now lost.

So long, Mrs. Cleaver. Thanks for everything.

And hello, Nancy . . .

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