Leave It to Beaver: The Complete Series
Back in 2005, Universal began issuing Leave It To Beaver on DVD with the first two seasons, a bit less than a year apart -- the Season One set came in both a basic DVD edition and a deluxe package, the main feature of which was an authentic 1950s-style school lunchbox outer container. And then there was nothing -- from 2006 until the early summer of 2010, no further episodes were seen on DVD. It seems as though Universal did a major re-thinking of their DVD strategy, at least where vintage programs were concerned, and started licensing them to specialists in the field, Timeless Video getting the westerns and police shows while Shout Factory has gotten the rights to more mainstream comedies. And this 37 disc set of the complete six-season run of Leave It To Beaver is a mother-lode, 234 half-hour episodes plus bonus features, comprising more than 6090 minutes (that's 101 hours) of programming. By most reckonings, a list price of $200 is pretty hefty, even for the complete run of a classic 1950s series, but this reviewer jumped on it, owing to the overall quality of the show, which seldom ever faltered (though it it can be argued that Leave It To Beaver "jumped the shark" with the 1962 episode Three Boys And A Burro -- oh, sure, Ward and June Cleaver, upstanding citizens of Mayfield's suburbs, or any other parents in that area, are going to say yes to their boys buying a piece of live-stock, a burro no less . . . .). And the quality does hold up, for the most part -- fortunately, as series star Jerry Mathers matured and gradually grew out of the role, and the makers ran out of new situations for his character, the writers and producers were able to devise more stories dealing with older brother Wally (Tony Dow), and these, plus the work of the supporting cast, carried the series for probably at least a year of strong programs past the point where it, otherwise, would have started to fade. The quality of the transfers on the first two seasons in this set is identical to the those on the old Universal disc editions -- all shows are, of course, full-screen (1.33-to-1) and in black-and-white; the first season episodes look superb, the second season less so, with a surprising amount of grain in some of the sequences, but this isn't sufficient to put off viewers. And the sound is strong throughout, the chaptering more than adequate, and the menus easy to access and maneuver around. As to seasons three, four, five, and six, which are new to DVD, the transfers are excellent, with none of the grain that seems to be unique to some of season two's shows. For the purposes of this set, the bonus features that appeared on the free-standing first-season set (principally the pilot, It's A Small World)) have mostly all been shifted to a disc in the last set. The inclusion of previously made features focusing on the series and its evolution and production makes this set a vital resource for fans -- even this longtime viewer, who knew a fair amount about the show, found new information in the featurette Forever the Beaver: The Cleavers Look Back, and enough new information so that it was a necessary pleasure to go back it more than once -- the stories about interactions with Robert Mitchum and Steve McQueen on the Universal lots were just two of many highlights. The audio bonuses, which are culled from radio appearances by the cast, are also very funny to hear, filled with good humor and a generous spirit on the part of all concerned. In short -- and with this series, it's appropriate -- the reunion and retrospectives are like walking in on a series of joyous family gatherings. The set is formatted as a series of slim multi-disc jewel cases in a larger slipcase, which makes this a fairly compact affair but simple to open and play. Each set comes with an insert providing a "map" to the episodes. Each disc opens automatically to a simple, easy to use menu offering individual episode access. And the audio bonus features are simple to activate or shut down during viewing. As to the viewing experience itself, the array of the complete series in one place bears out what a lot of serious fans always knew about Leave It To Beaver -- beyond its other virtues, in terms of comedy and entertainment, the program was virtually a mirror of how white, middle-class America (which, like it or not, and for better or worse, was what defined America in those days) saw itself, and wanted to see itself. The creator/producers, Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, who also wrote a good many of the early scripts and supervised the writing for the full run of the show, managed to tap into several rich veins of material, all rooted in reality. Watching the show from beginning to end, which is a herculean task best pursued over a period of many months, one absorbs some of the best writing about childhood foibles and anxieties ever set down in an entertainment context. And thanks to the fact that the series always made a good effort to stay in contact with the environment and social world it sought to portray, one sees a surprisingly realistic reflection of how childhood and teen-age life changed between 1957 and 1963. (Indeed, one suspects there may be a doctoral dissertation to be mined out of this series, for someone willing to do the excavation). In other words, its a series that can be enjoyed on a multitude of levels, by those who remember it and those who lived it, or viewers who didn't arive until long after it left production.