By: Peter Doyle
August 10, 2018

One of 25 installments in a series of enthusiastic posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite TV shows from the Fifties (1954–1963).



From the first episode the show presented as different: a clean-cut, nondescript teenager talks directly to camera, articulating the trials, petty ambitions and dashed hopes that make up his life. We meet his associates: beatnik best friend Maynard (played by pre-Gilligan Bob Denver); an angry, put-upon father; a daffy but doting mother; and Thalia, the “gorgeous, greedy grasping” bombshell with whom Dobie is smitten. And brainy, non-bombshell Zelda who is in unrequited love with Dobie.

Dobie with his mildly Holden Caulfield-esque self-reflexivity was a decisive upgrade on the sitcom teenagers of the early 1950s. He’s a kid unhappily in the middle of things, surrounded on one side by wealthier, cooler, more handsome, more well-favored peers, and on the other by loser weirdos, his closest friends. He’s clearly headed for a life of quiet desperation, and he knows it, simply and without bitterness.

TMLoDG fronts right up to the realization that money, prestige, beauty and status really do call the shots in life, and there’s no getting around it. Maynard, the hipster savant was a surprise character, and a favorite. Dobie’s father was a pretty reasonable – and for the time riskily ground-breaking avatar for an entire generation of the cranky war-vet middle-aged men who had an unassailable authority in everyday life back then. And Zelda is a politicized feminist in the making.

But for all its ahead-of-the-curve knowingness the show didn’t age terribly well. There is an implicit critique there, but not a trace of resistance. It’s potentially subversive, but at base, all Dobie really wants is in. None of the characters are anything more than they appear to be. Zelda remains unrealized. A real-life Maynard would’ve been smoking (dealing?) a little pot on the side, or heading out on the road, or doing something. But he remains a traditional sidekick clown (even if a pretty good one). The show was smart enough to articulate the contradictions, but came just a tad too early (1959-1963) to map the next steps.

Within moments, it seemed, young people worldwide would take action, however contradictory and inchoate, against the order of things. Rapid shifts in politics, consciousness, music, would render mass television culture, including the once-prescient TMLoDG, as half-arsed and redundant. OK, let’s imagine the counterfactual shark-jumping series finale that should have been: Dobie, Zelda, Maynard and Thalia all drop acid, collectively say, “fuck this shit!”


TUBE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Series Introduction | Luc Sante on LOONEY TUNES | Chris Spurgeon on THE THREE STOOGES | Adrienne Crew on MY THREE SONS | Barbara Bogaev on ROCKY & BULLWINKLE | Devin McKinney on THE TWILIGHT ZONE | James Hannaham on THE NAT KING COLE SHOW | Mimi Lipson on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES | Jessamyn West on THE JETSONS | Gary Panter on THE OUTER LIMITS | Peter Doyle on THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS | Mark Kingwell on ROUTE 66 | Josh Glenn on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW | Lynn Peril on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW | Rob Walker on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER | Dan Reines on DAVEY & GOLIATH | Adam McGovern on HIGHWAY PATROL | Erik Davis on HAVE GUN — WILL TRAVEL | Greg Rowland on THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW | Annie Nocenti on THE AVENGERS | Elizabeth Foy Larsen on GUNSMOKE | Sarah Weinman on NAKED CITY | Douglas Rushkoff on THE HONEYMOONERS | Kio Stark on ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS | Gordon Dahlquist on PERRY MASON | Brian Berger on CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? | CODA: Crystal Durant on Marc Anthony & Pussyfoot shorts | CODA: Mike Watt on “A Stop at Willoughby”


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