Monday, March 17, 2008

Home is Where the Heart Is....Even on Television

It is perhaps a mark of the importance of television in the late Twentieth Century that many people can accurately describe the homes in which their favourite TV characters live. Indeed, my brother can actually tell people the location of objects in the Cartwrights' house on Bonanza without even looking at the TV screen. There was even a book, published many years ago, called TV Sets: Fantasy Blueprints of Classic TV Homes, which featured blueprints for the houses from Leave It to Beaver, The Addams Family, The Brady Bunch, and many other series. For those blueprints not included in the book, one can often find blueprints for one's favourite television homes on the World Wide Web.

The reason that people seem to remember the homes of TV characters so well perhaps goes beyond repeated viewing of TV shows or even a fondness for those shows. For much of the histories of the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, house and home was central to the lives of people. This was no less true in the Fifties when television broadcasting was in its infancy. As a result the television industry was simply reflecting society in giving houses and homes a central role in various TV shows.

This may have been particularly true in the United States in the Fifties, when domestic comedies flourished on the networks. Shows such as Father Knows Best and and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet focused on families, for whom home life was very important. This is no less true of Leave It to Beaver, which featured two of the best known homes in television history. I say "two of the best known homes," because the Cleavers moved at the end of season two. Initially the lived at 485 Mapleton Drive. They moved to 211 Pine Street. Regardless, fans of the show are intimately familiar with the layout of both houses to the point that they can describe them from memory.

While the Sixties would see domestic comedies give way to what Sherwood Schwartz calls "imaginative comedies," the home will still play an important role in sitcoms. In fact, this may well have been the Golden Age for TV homes, when some of the best known houses on television appeared. The Cape Cod in which Darren and Samantha Stevens lived is probably as familiar to many viewers as their own homes. On The Andy Griffith Show, Sheriff Andy Taylor lived in a typically Southern home complete with a big front porch. It would seem that in the Sixties on American television, even bachelors could own their own homes. Astronaut Tony Nelson lived in his own home at 1137 Oak Grove, but later mysteriously given also as being at 1020 Palm Drive (maybe Cocoa Beach redid the streets...).

The Sixties also saw a greater variety in the sorts of homes featured. Unlike Tony Nelson, The Monkees did not own their beach pad at 1134 North Beechwood Drive, having to rent it from Babbit (who was constantly threatening to throw them out). The castaways on Gilligan's Island lived in simple grass huts, but at least they had no worry of anyone kicking them out! At least three families lived in mansions on 1960's American sitcoms. The Clampetts on Beverly Hillbillies lived in an exquisite mansion complete with a "Cement Pond." The exterior shots of the house were of an actual mansion, the Kirkeby mansion in Bel Air, California. The Addams family also lived in a mansion, although it boasted slightly different amenities than the Clampett Mansion. It was located at 0001 Cemetery Lane and stood right next to both a graveyard and a swamp. The exterior of the mansion was based on a house which actually stood along Addams Boulevard (talk about coincidences) in Los Angeles. The interior of the mansion boasted such furnishings as a stuffed polar bear, a suit of armour, torture instruments (ranging from a rack to a bed of nails), a moosehead, and several other odd items. Even The Munsters' mansion did not quite match the Addams' home in terms of sheer oddity.

The Seventies saw a decline in the quality of television homes, featuring less interesting homes than had been seen in the Fifties and Sixties. Much of this was perhaps due to the networks' decision to focus on primarily on city based sitcoms rather than the rural comedies and small town comedies of old. As a result sitcom characters would increasing live in apartments, The perfect example of this were the Jeffersons, who (according to the theme song) lived in "..a deluxe apartment in the sky." It still seemed a comedown from the days when the Clampetts and the Addamses lived in mansions! That is not to say that there weren't memorable homes from Seventies sitcoms. There are fans of Happy Days who know precisely the location of every object in the Cunningham's house in Milwaukee. And the home of the Bunkers at 704 Hauser Street on All in the Family is also well remembered. The junkyard home of Sanford on Sanford and Son stands as one of the more unique homes of the era, as did the junkyard home of Steptoe on Steptoe and Sons on British television many years before it.

Of course, not every memorable home on television appeared in sitcoms. On The Avengers John Steed and Emma Peel both lived in exquisite appartments at 3 Stable Mews and 4 Queen Anne's Court respectively. The Waltons' large family home is perhaps one of the most memorable houses from a family drama. One of the more memorable episodes involved the house being damaged by a fire. For myself, the most memorable house of all time on a TV show may well be the Cartwrights' house on the Ponderosa on Bonanza. It was just the sort of house that one would expect rich ranchers to live in. It had huge halls, a stone fireplace, and sturdy oak furniture. Despite its size and its exquisite furnishings, I always found the Cartwrights' house felt homier than the Cleavers' houses on Leave It to Beaver or the Bradys' house on The Brady Bunch ever did.

So far I have discussed houses in which families or other individuals have lived. It was often the case on American television, however, that some of the best remembered "homes" weren't actually homes at all. The starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek was technically a space faring vessel, and yet many Star Trek fans know it as well as their own homes. Indeed, when the ship was destroyed in Star Trek III: the Search for Spock, there were those who felt as if an actual place they loved had been burned to the ground. Another "home" that was not a home at all was the bar Cheers on the sitcom of the same name. Sam owned the bar. Diane worked there. Cliff and Norm drank there. It was technically a place of business. But as a place where friends gathered to talk and share a few laughs, it was probably more of a home for them than their own houses and apartments. Indeed, a home can be defined in terms of the lyrics of the Cheers theme song--home is "where everybody knows your name."

Of course, homes, whether a place where a family or other individuals lived or an ersatz home where people worked or gathered to have fun, were not central to all shows. In the Sixties there was the cycle of road shows began by Route 66 and continued with The Fugitive and Run for Your Life, in which individuals moved from place to place out of simple wanderlust or being on the run from the law. Still, while many of the road shows were very popular, they were still outnumbered by TV shows featuring homes.

It seems to me that since the Seventies, homes aren't as central to TV shows as they once were. There are only a few--most of them from domestic comedies such as The Cosby Show or Home Improvement--which stand out at all. Much of this may be due to changes in the United States itself. For much of the Twentieth Century people might hold the same jobs for almost their whole lives, As a result they might also live in the same home for almost their whole lives. Employment for most people tended to be relatively stable, and as a result they were able to put down roots in one place. Since then things have changed. People often change jobs after a number of years. And often such changes will not only require they move from their home, but to a completely different city entirely. In homes no longer figuring quite so prominently in American TV shows, then, American television is simply reflecting changes in the United States itself.

Of course, that is not to say hearth and home are no longer important to Americans. Most people I know want to own their own home. And I still know many people (myself included) who do. It seems to me that there is another reason that homes are not as central as they once were on American television. Quite simply, in the Seventies, in an effort to attract younger, more urban audiences, the networks made a conscious decision to focus on more city bound shows. And in many of these shows the characters' homes either do not appear at all (has anyone ever seen Grissom's home on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation?) or they live in apartments (examples of which are too many to list). And while many Americans do live in apartments and while many Americans might enjoy living in apartments, I rather suspect that the average American prefers a nice residential house to an apartment any day. Indeed, as I pointed out above, the Jeffersons' "deluxe apartment in the sky" seems quite a comedown from the Addams Family's mansion.

Regardless, the homes of TV characters appear to have played an important role in viewers' enjoyment of TV shows. Whether talking about a literal home, such as the house in which the Petries lived in The Dick Van Dyke Show, or a metaphorical home, such as U.N.C.L.E. headquarters on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., people do become attached the places in which TV characters live, work, and play. This is perhaps a natural reflection of the importance of the home in the societies of the United Kingdom, Canada, and United States.


Toby O'B said...

When I was five, I left home to go live in the Treasure House of Captain Kangaroo. I figured it had to be the next street over behind our TV set. And that's where my folks found me ten minutes later, walking up and down the street looking for the Captain and Mr. Green Jeans.

Funny that the TV shows come into our homes and we want to go live in theirs.

Terence Towles Canote said...

The Treasure House was one of the cooler homes on TV. I always wanted to live there myself!

Bobby D. said...

I think my favorite TV house was on "As Time Goes By" a Britcom starring Geoffrey Palmer & Judi Dench. They lived in a modest home in a nice area in London, and I liked the kitchen and living areas a lot--they looked lived in. I noticed when they painted their foyer and changed the artwork on the walls! They even show all of the junk stored in the cupboard under the stairs.