Frank Rich, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, is an annoying public presence. He is paid by the Newspaper of Record to work himself into a twice-weekly snit, his love of the suit-state making clear that he would do it all for free if he had to. Rich spends much of his professional time in high outrage over the actions or ideas of politicians, especially conservative politicians. He is often wrong, of course, but who cares? Not political Washington, which simply ignores him, although this surely would come as news to Frank Rich.
But even inconsequential public voices can go too far. In his column of June 27, Frank Rich got his shorts in a wad over—well, over Ozzie and Harriet. It seems that the Nelsons and their long-running television comedy, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, were responsible for chronic emotional pain during the years of Rich’s TV-watching boyhood. Both young Frank and his divorced, working mom were made to feel “woefully deficient” by Ozzie and Harriet, a show that “created the cultural template for suburban family values in the postwar era.” Chief among those values was the importance to a family of the presence of a father, a value the grownup Frank Rich, to close his tortured loop of thought, now dismisses as a highly suspect “truism.”
As if all that weren’t bad enough, here comes the knife-twist in Rich’s still fresh wounds, the final injustice: He should never have had to suffer in the first place. It has come to light that the TV Nelson family was not simply a filmed version of the real-life Nelson family. You see, they made a lot of that stuff up, and the resultant entertainment product was, it can now be said, “unrealistic.” Having just discovered that fact, Frank Rich, all inadequate and deficient, is pained anew: Those hundreds of hours of Ozzie and Harriet were, my God, just a television show!
As one of many who “grew up measuring our homes against the Nelson ideal—and finding them wanting,” Frank Rich now has his revenge. A new Nelson family documentary, shown on the cable show Biography, reveals that the off-screen Ozzie and Harriet and their sons endured problems, conflicts, and heartaches, a revelation that renders the Nelsons, as Rich puts it, “naked at last.”
And what were the deceitful Nelsons doing when they weren’t busy misleading young Frank Rich about the nature of family life? It seems that Ozzie, rather than wandering around the house and grinning, as he did on television, worked long and hard to create success for himself and his family. Harriet? Brace yourself—not only did she not stand around the kitchen wearing an apron, she partook of a cocktail now and then. What’s more, the ideas “propagated” by the Nelsons’ TV show were, according to Frank Rich, essentially hypocritical since the Nelsons were “both itinerant show people before they married”—meaning, I suppose, that having a past which varies from your present makes your present, ipso facto, a sham.
I watched Biography on the same evening as did Frank Rich. What I saw was a father who did, as fathers sometimes do, the best he could for his children without truly trying to understand his children. I saw the story of a couple who stayed married, apparently happily, for decades, a couple whose grandchildren speak of them today with real love. I saw a family in which one son, Ricky, lost his way in middle-age and made deadly choices long after blaming his father for his problems was an option. I saw, in other words, a real family. What Frank Rich saw was a “stink bomb” in which the effect of Ozzie Nelson’s work habits rendered irrelevant his parenting skills—a fact that, according to Rich’s logic, now challenges the validity of the need for a father in the home. If he’s just going to screw up, who needs Dad? And how do we know Dad? How else: He’s the one who screws up.
The gist of Frank Rich’s column was this: “The discrepancy between who the Nelsons were and what they preached [has become] a lasting model for hypocritical public discourse.” He must be working under the burden of one snit too many. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was probably the least “preachy” show ever on television, and Rich’s use of that term reveals not only his defensiveness, but the reason he finds his way so easily to the word hypocritical. I too watched Ozzie and Harriet when I was growing up in a home in which both parents worked at factory jobs, (Unlike Mr. Rich, we did not consider the Nelson family “omnipresent,” probably because we often made the choice not to watch the show.) Whatever mild appeal Ozzie and Harriet had for us came from the fact that Ozzie was a doofus. And part of the reason he was a doofus (albeit a likable doofus) was that real dads didn’t spend their days meandering in and out of the kitchen. Real dads went to work. As for Harriet, there was general agreement among us that she was, it must be said, boring. The only way we could have felt woefully deficient at my house was if our parents had been like Ozzie and Harriet. We saw no models on their show and discerned no lessons from it. And we certainly didn’t hear preaching or seek reality. When we wanted preaching, we went to church. When we wanted reality, we turned the set off.
But that was my house, where TV was looked upon as mere entertainment. In the Rich household, expectations were higher; that television refrain from presenting families that did not reflect the realities of the Rich family; that, indeed, television refrain from making anyone in the Rich family feel deficient, especially woefully so. That seems a lot to ask of a medium that each of us is, after all, fully free to ignore. In any event, one might assume that with the arrival of the 1980’s and a veritable circus of TV sitcoms about single working moms, Frank Rich’s mother, if not Mr. Rich himself, would have experienced, via television, some sense of personal affirmation. It was not to be. While Frank Rich’s mother “lived long enough to feel vindicated,” her vindication came not through Murphy Brown or the like, but through her “children and grandchildren.”
Precisely. The only vindication to be found in life is earned, not conferred; it comes from within, not without; and its source is our interchange not with popular culture, but with loved ones. With the example of his own mother, Frank Rich kicked the props from beneath his argument. One hopes that, like his mother, Mr. Rich has earned, through his relationship to family, a sense of vindication, validation, and affirmation. One hopes, most of all, that Mr. Rich’s inner child now feels completely free from woeful deficiency.
But if he still feels emotionally put upon, Frank Rich can be assured that help has arrived. In a column published just three days after his Ozzie and Harriet confessional, Rich discussed an episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer accidentally set afire a Puerto Rican flag and then tried to stomp the fire out. While he conceded that viewers “have the right to protest” such images, Rich went on to recommend a more distanced philosophical perspective: “It is a sitcom, for Heaven’s sake.”
Now, as far as I can tell, one of two things happened there. Father Frank Rich determined that one man’s suit is another man’s sitcom, or he finally found closure for his Ozzie and Harriet problem.