‘The Donna Reed Show’ (Season 1): A charming, misunderstood gem

You think the Stone family would make you wear a mask? Please.

By Paul Mavis

Now that the world has officially slipped over the event horizon into a fast-enveloping “dark winter” (yes. They’re claiming he’s the most popular vote-getter of all time. No, you’re correct…that is hysterical), we need even more the Donna Stones of our once-mighty pop culture. While ever hopeful about seasons 6 through 8 eventually seeing the DVD light of day, I dug out the first season of my MPI collection of The Donna Reed Show (yes…another “rewrite”), because quite frankly…what the hell else can you do nowadays, as we enter the 9th month of the self-imposed world-wide scamdemic?

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A nimble amalgamation of professional gloss, smartly written lines, perfect casting, and some surprising twists and turns on the traditional Cold War American sitcom genre, ABC’s The Donna Reed Show, starring Oscar-winner Reed as the prettiest, most together TV mother of the family-obsessed 1950s, is remarkably “modern,” for lack of a better word, within its ’50s network sitcom structure, offering a rewarding look at a healthy, loving, average American family that are, in the words of chief wiseacre Jeff Stone, “too darn smart” for their own good. Far from bitterly clinging to their guns and religion (dude…we saw right through you), the positive, happy, thoroughly-and-wonderfully Midwestern Stones learn hopeful messages about family, about personal responsibility, about playing by the rules, and most importantly, about love—all while fighting and laughing their way through their perfectly ordinary lives. One of the most charming, accomplished sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s, The Donna Reed Show is also one of its most misunderstood.

Set in the fictional Midwestern town of Hilldale, The Donna Reed Show focused on the Stone family, a typical American family. Donna Stone (Reed), a former nurse, was the beautiful, even-tempered, and empathetic wife to pediatrician Dr. Alex Stone (Carl Betz), and patient, understanding mother to eldest Mary (Shelley Fabares) and young son Jeff (Paul Petersen). Alex maintained his private practice at his home office, while he did double and triple duty as a researcher and as the Head of Pediatrics at the local hospital. Mary, the adorable high schooler, was a popular girl (never at a loss for a date on any given night) who had the same emotional ups and downs of any transitional teenager—a state of flux not exactly aided by her ornery, all-American younger brother Jeff, who took great delight in constantly tormenting her. Mary, to her credit, was equally adept at sweet-faced revenge, and gave as good as she got from the rowdy Jeff. Stories focused almost exclusively on the inter-relationships between the family members, with life’s little daily adventures providing most of the comedy, and emotion, as the disgusting, privileged, racist kind, good-natured Stones set out to live a happy, uniquely American way of life in their small town.

See what I just did up there? Sure you did…but you’re too embarrassed (or scared) to comment. I know. It’s okay, though: that’s how they get you to shut up (you have to fight it). Back in the mid-80s, when The Donna Reed Show gained a new, sizeable Reagan-era audience through incessant reruns on Nick at Nite, there were no woke screams of “cancel that!” The most Nick would do is poke gentle fun at the show with humorous network promos for the series (often tied in with Donna baking a cake to solve a problem)—an ironic view of the show that, funny enough, fit right in with the series’ own smart self-awareness.

Often incorrectly lumped together with other 1950s sitcoms, many of which were equally self-reflexive and smart, that were and still are misread as bland, narrow-minded fantasies of unrealistic depictions of a “never-was” America (um…stick it), The Donna Reed Show was, like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, quite the opposite: a charming, thoughtful, very funny slice of life—shaped comedically, of course, for entertainment purposes—that accurately reflected millions of similar real American families. Believe it or not, despite what many unhappy academics, historians, and the MSM write—there were—and still are—families quite like the Stones…as much as it may astonish and enrage the snide, cynical haters of anything traditional in America. And thank god for those families, too.

Yes, of course these series didn’t depict the darker aspects of American society at the time. And no, there are no instances of rape, or pedophilia, or racism, or war, or economic or political struggle highlighted in this first season of The Donna Reed Show. But that conscious decision to avoid those supposedly more “important” issues (this was, after all, a Hollywood entertainment, not a documentary) doesn’t negate the gentle truths that were illustrated on the series—gentle truths about love and family that are universal, and that need just as much (if not more) exposure to today’s viewers as the more dark, tragic issues listed above.

One only needs to look at the morass of questionable “family entertainments” on network TV today, filled with moral equivalencies for awful, uncivil behavior, with lewd, lascivious jokes delivered by kids that demean and cheapen childhood, and perhaps most disturbingly, with a general air of disrespect, of coarseness in how family members interact with each other, to see how far wholesome network TV fare has fallen in the last 60+ years since The Donna Reed Show was on (with rapidly disappearing ratings across the board to prove it). Sixty-two years ago, families could safely tune into ABC at 9 o’clock on Wednesday nights to see the Stones live their lives in moderate, temperate good humor; today, families shouldn’t go near that same time slot on ABC’s Wednesday (nor damn few other nights or times, either, for that matter).

I can’t even begin to imagine what Reed (who promoted women’s rights both on and off the small screen) would think of today’s TV landscape. Not that her (as well as co-producer/husband, Tony Owen’s) on-screen efforts would be respected now in academia/pop culture authorship. Today’s activists would automatically blanche at the women’s “empowerment” messages found in The Donna Reed Show…with actually having to view the show an irrelevant, unnecessary detail.

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The pop culture “Mom as domestic Superhero” view of motherhood in the 1950s has been taking a beating at college campuses for decades now, but in The Donna Reed Show, it’s an accepted fact. And one that the show itself pokes fun at numerous times. In quite a few episodes, other family members comment humorously on Donna’s “perfectness” when it comes to being a mother and homemaker. She’s almost always stylishly dressed, perfectly coiffed, and supremely composed and even-tempered (watch the opening title sequence, where she literally floats down those stairs)—a source of irritation and anxiety, at times, for her daughter, Mary. In the episode, Change Partners and Dance, Donna tells Mary that a woman needs charm (and brains) to get ahead in a man’s world (a fact in 1958), which drives Mary insane because as soon as Mary follows Donna’s suggestion—that Mary bring over a boy she’s interested in—the boy is promptly dazzled by Donna’s “perfectness.” The episode then humorously shows Donna parodying the exact opposite of her own stereotype, when she tries to be a sloppy, loud, aggressive housewife—one of the many self-reflexive episodes in The Donna Reed Show where the producers were more than willing to satirize the TV world they were helping to create.

This open acknowledgment of the show’s manufactured image of Donna as SuperMom is taken to an even higher degree in The Ideal Wife, where Donna, ticked-off that everyone thinks she’s a pushover because she’s so nice, decides to act not-so-nice…and promptly scares the hell out of everyone. While some today might think her apologies to everyone at the end are a cop-out of the story’s central premise, I find it more an expression of that innate Midwestern politeness and civility that seems to be disappearing at a faster rate, year after year (particularly now since we seem to be invaded by the very people who are leaving their own disastrous, malfunctioning messes, hellbent on repeating the same mistakes here).

But it isn’t all beauty and charm that concerns Donna Stone, either. In the excellent Mary’s Campaign, the notion that Mary may very well win the student body vice president’s seat just because she’s prettier and more popular than her thoroughly more qualified opponent, forces Donna to actually side (morally) with the other girl, and not her daughter. The screenplay is extremely well-written (as are almost all of The Donna Reed Show scripts), showing a delicacy of careful thought as Donna expresses her desire for Mary to win…but only for the “right” reasons (with Donna particularly upset when Mary feels the need to dress more provocatively, just to win votes, instead of being her normal self).

And more importantly, the episodes often highlight Alex’s and Donna’s belief that Mary and Jeff learn their lessons in life on their own (a horrific thought to today’s nanny-state helicopter parents), without Donna and Alex just “making” them believe a choice or decision is “right” or “wrong.” Donna often is careful to impart to Mary that with Mary’s beauty and charm comes a responsibility to use them wisely, such as in Mary’s Double Date, when Mary rather callously plays two boys off each other for her own selfish amusement—an act that leads to Mary getting badly hurt, with both Donna and Alex essentially “approving” of that hurt so she can learn a valuable lesson.

The Donna Reed Show is also fascinating for showing a sitcom 1950s dad who isn’t bumbling, who isn’t supremely cocksure about his fathering skills, and who most importantly, works his behind off at his job. Unlike that marvelously surrealistic floater Ozzie Nelson on the frankly brilliant The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett, who was never depicted going to a job, pediatrician Alex Stone’s doctor’s office is right inside his house. And when he’s not seeing a patient there, he’s constantly interrupted in his familial pursuits by a phone call from a nervous mother, worried about her child. Quite a few episodes in The Donna Reed Show this first year revolve around the constant anxiety caused by whether or not Alex will be home for certain events. It’s a fairly realistic view of a type of father rarely seen on 1950s sitcoms: a busy one “outside” the home.

Even more interesting, The Donna Reed Show doesn’t just highlight Alex’s absences as plot devices, but also as character development for the role. Alex, not unlike Ward Cleaver in the equally misunderstood and unfairly dismissed classic, Leave it to Beaver, is actually emotionally involved in his children’s wellbeing, and critically, he’s concerned and worried he’s not cutting it as a proper dad (how many times have you heard the canard that American men didn’t develop recognizable human feelings until somewhere around 1972?). In The Hike, Alex openly castigates himself to Donna about his feelings of inadequacy, as far as not being there for Jeff because of the constant, overriding demands of being a physician (Donna of course tells him that he is a good father, and that his work as a doctor is vital).

In Guest in the House, a promised Thanksgiving football game trip is canceled by Alex because a patient calls, prompting Jeff to angrily snort, “What’s the use of having a father?” (strong stuff for a 1950s sitcom). And in Tomorrow Comes Too Soon, Alex good-naturedly laments the fact that Donna can cry over the children’s troubles, but that fathers can’t; he states fathers feel the exact same things about their children that mothers do, but for what we assume are cultural reasons, they’re not allowed to express them. These episodes and more (in Male Ego, Alex throws up his hands and admits that mothers, in small town America, get far more respect than fathers) paint a surprisingly “modern” view of fatherhood in 1950s sitcoms that I contend isn’t all that surprising…if the forever-yapping, closed-minded critics of such programs would actually watch these series without simply regurgitating the same worn-out clichés they’ve read over and over again in other people’s works, slamming the genre…and small town America, and the civilized, normal people in ’50s and ’60s sitcoms, and…(oh, you get the point).

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The relationships between Alex and Donna, and Jeff and Mary, may also strike new viewers as “unusual,” if they’ve only heard of these shows in the context of their being constricted, repressive fantasies from the frigid ’50s. Alex and Donna, contrary to the cliché that TV couples weren’t having sex back in the 1950s, have a playful, low-key sexual banter that’s quite effective (I love it in Three Part Mother when Donna wakes up Alex with a sexy little ear bite—Mrs. Cleaver never did that to Ward!). And it’s not exactly hidden, either. Certainly the most obvious instance comes during the final scene of the final episode of this first season, when, after Donna admits that she flubbed receiving a doctor bill payment for Alex, Alex leeringly suggests, “I’ll think of some way [for you] to settle it,” while she happily perches on his knee.

Often the notion of “feminine wiles” is brought up in these episodes (a notion that, hilariously, drives uber-feminists insane), but what’s charming about its implementation in The Donna Reed Show (or more correctly: the suggestion of its implementation) is the outright acknowledgment and celebration of its true power and frankly, attractiveness. In Advice to Young Lovers, both Donna and Alex mentally picture the unattractive mates they might have married, prior to meeting each other, with Alex playfully asserting that he didn’t marry Donna for her smarts, but for her gorgeous good looks—an expression of unapologetic male lust (look it up in the dictionary, kids) that mirrors her own healthy sexuality, and one that obviously pleases her, given the big smile and kiss she plants on him.

Of course, what’s funny—and telling—about the scene is that they both already know how smart the other partner is; that’s why they’re free to admit the added bonus that they’re attractive to each other, as well. In other words: a smart, healthy, sexually-active 1950s sitcom couple who not enjoy how the other one looks, but also a couple that’s honest enough to admit physical attraction is a central element of their relationship. So much for the buttoned-down 1950s!

The kids in The Donna Reed Show are refreshingly normal, too. While the Beav and Wally were (mostly) beautifully kind and caring towards each other in Leave it to Beaver (and believably so), out-and-out sibling fighting, as with most sitcoms from that era, was usually off-screen. In The Donna Reed Show, though, Jeff and Mary behave pretty much like kids have always acted. Jeff is a pest to his older sister (he also breaks at least three windows this season, and he’s not above pulling some real stunts, including going on a joyride with a friend and running away from the cops), and she, wrapped up in her own perfect little teenage world, can be insensitive and openly vindictive when she’s a mind to be.

They actually mix it up in one episode (with Jeff openly saying he’s trying to break her arm), while name-calling is the norm throughout (I love it when Mary, in Change Partners and Dance, disgustedly sighs and implores her mother to just “smack” Jeff one, before she calls him a “revolting little freak”—that sounds quite modern, doesn’t it?). But just as the fighting is real, the concern and love between brother and sister is honest, as well, in The Donna Reed Show, with the spunky Paul Petersen (letter-perfect as an all-American, real boy), and the seriously underrated Shelley Fabares (the kind of daughter any mother or father would dream of having—isn’t it a pity she never connected with Walt Disney during his glory years?) switching effortlessly from comedy to tender emotion in scenes, like seasoned pros.

Carl Betz has what seems like a thankless role as Alex, but he’s delightful as the slightly cynical, sarcastic father who understands all too well how lucky he is to have this kind of wife and family (I suspect Betz didn’t get very much credit for what he was able to do here; these kinds of roles, far more difficult to play than most people realize, are often overlooked when it comes to understanding the craft that goes into playing them). As for Donna Reed, well…what more can one say? An Oscar-winner for playing a prostitute in From Here to Eternity (the sub-textual knowledge of which must have thrilled male viewers just a little bit when they wondered what Donna Stone was really like when the lights went out…), Reed offers a graceful, confident, sexy—and oftentimes quite hilarious—presence to The Donna Reed Show that makes today’s female TV stars look like nervous, chattering twits by comparison.

You can concentrate on Reed alone to get a Masters’ course in small-screen light comedy acting (her Hollywood-trained reaction shots are eerily precise), a skill that is only amplified when she subtly pulls out the acting stops in a dramatic scene. In a touching Christmas episode, A Very Merry Christmas, Donna tries to find the true meaning of Christmas by helping out an old hospital worker (Buster Keaton, in an effective turn) who’s in charge of putting on a small Christmas party for the lonely little patients in the children’s ward. There’s a final image of Donna and Alex, looking at the angel on the Christmas tree while singing Silent Night, where Reed goes from happily smiling at the gift she’s been given (the gift of knowing what Christmas really means)…to putting on the most amazingly enigmatic, searching look—a look I still think and wonder about whenever The Donna Reed Show comes to mind. It’s a truly beautiful moment, and one that’s a testament to this wholly underrated actress.

So…with that kind of perfection, The Donna Reed Show must have been a ratings’ smash right out of the gate, yes? Well…no. Since the forever-struggling ABC network didn’t have nearly the “clearance” (available stations to air their programming) of giants CBS and NBC, its shows always had the uphill battle of actually getting the chance to have eyeballs tune in. Premiering in 1958 on Wednesday nights at 9:00, The Donna Reed Show‘s lead-ins were solid—Lawrence Welk’s Plymouth Show (in stereophonic simulcast—a TV first) and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet—with a lead-out that was still punching (the former CBS heavy hitter, Pabst Blue Ribbon Bouts, now renamed The Wednesday Night Fights).

Unfortunately, The Donna Reed Show‘s lead-ins were decimated by NBC’ Wagon Train (the second most-popular show in the country) and The Price is Right (in color, and holding the 11th spot on the Nielsen’s). The direct competition often cited as the show most hurting The Donna Reed Show‘s numbers—CBS’s Milton Berle starring in the Kraft Music Hall—was actually doing less business than CBS’s offering at 9 o’clock: the last season of their hit series, The Millionaire, which still pulled down a respectable 30th place slot on the Nielsen’s (with lead-out I’ve Got a Secret way up in the Top Ten). Almost cancelled by ABC, somehow The Donna Reed Show was renewed for a second season (maybe charming It’s a Wonderful Life ambassador and expert guerilla street photographer Mary Owen can fill me in some day on why), where it went on for seven more successful seasons.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

11 thoughts on “‘The Donna Reed Show’ (Season 1): A charming, misunderstood gem”

  1. B really brilliant, well near brilliant analysis, not simply of Donna and others, but one of the last howls of mass media sanity. On a personal note, I knew people like this, and I do not mean the cast, but good normal folks in wood-frame houses on the streets of Rutherford, New Jersey. Memories to be treasured, but no one will have them in this hostile, naive, self-flagellating generation.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you Paul for taking the time to reveal how and why The Donna Reed Show holds up so well and deserves it’s place in our American Heritage.
    To answer your question, I believe the show was renewed for a second season because of Mrs. John Campbell. Yes, New Jersey native and founder of Campbell’s Soup, his wife, whose name I’m sorry, I don’t have, she loved the show and insisted it get the green light for another year….

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Donna Stone was what many of us “yoots” wished our moms were! The show was fun to watch without being preachy. Sadly TV sitcom devolved from Donna Stone to Roseanne. BTW the way this was an Ike/JFK (not Reagan) era sitcom. ☺

    Liked by 1 person

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