Grade:  B-/B
TV Comedy
Not rated (would be G)

Until It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia pushed past them in 2021, with its 14 seasons The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet held the record for longest-running live-action television sitcom. And it still holds the record for most live-action sitcom episodes, with 435 filmed between October 1952 and April 1966. 

That’s pretty amazing, considering that the rival family sitcom I Love Lucy got all the love back in the day. Lucy earned 25 Primetime Emmy nominations and eight wins, while Ozzie and Harriet got justthree nominations and no wins. Lucy became the most watched TV show in America for four out of its six seasons, while Ozzie and Harriet managed to crack the Nielsen Top 30 just once (in 1963-64).

Call it another case of slow-and-steady wins the race. Lucy relied on manic, slapstick situations and comedy of character, while Ozzie and Harriet offered the kind of gentle everyday situational family-life comedy that made The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet a popular radio show from 1944-54. Looking back, it was as close as early classic TV programming came to the kind of loosely scripted reality shows that are popular now. Almost all of the episodes were scripted variations of real incidents from the lives of the Nelson family:  father Ozzie, mother Harriet, and sons David and Ricky. The opening title shot of a home exterior was actually the Nelsons’ home, and though interior shots had to be filmed on a soundstage, producers meticulously recreated the look of the interior of the Nelsons’ home. Ozzie was a stickler for realism, and the plots that viewers watched were often reenactments of family incidents or situations, with Ozzie directing 382 episodes and also writing 261 of the show’s scripts. The boys were 16 and 12 years old when the TV show began, so America watched David and Ricky grow up.

And if you’ve heard the term “teen idol,” it was coined to describe Ricky Nelson, who was a wisecracking 12 year old when the show began and a married rock star of 25 when it ended. Ozzie Nelson used the show to promote his son’s musical career, starting with an April 1957 episode titled “Ricky the Drummer,” which featured the boy and back-up musicians performing “I’m Walkin’”—which hit #4 on Billboard. A year later, “Poor Little Fool” reached #1 and Ricky had 12 Billboard hits that year, while Elvis had 11. And by 1960, the Ricky Nelson International Fan Club had 9000 chapters. Two of Ricky’s real girlfriends played his girlfriends on the series, and when he and David married the wives were also written into the show. So it truly was a family comedy, and Ozzie was a trailblazer when it came to musical promotion. Before radio and TV, Ozzie’s occupation was bandleader and Harriet’s was singer for the band. But with I Love Lucy featuring Ricky Ricardo as a bandleader and Lucy as an aspiring performer the year before Ozzie and Harriet debuted, it’s easy to see why Ozzie kept his “job” off-camera and out of the scripts.

How does the show play now? For fans of classic TV, it’s a real treasure trove. But it  might seem corny, slow moving, and a bit too gentle for many families. The fascination comes from seeing what sitcoms were like back when TV was still in its infancy. Today’s viewers will find the little things most interesting: like the slang expressions that were popular back in the ‘50s, the parent-child dynamic, the way episodes began with brief skits promoting the sponsor of the episode back when single sponsors paid the freight, the social interaction with people outside the family, and what family values were on display.

People love comparing themselves, whether consciously or subconsciously, and, as one of the earliest family sitcoms and the record-holder for episodes filmed, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet provides a good basis for then and now comparison. One surprise might be that the parents just chuckled when David and Ricky got into small battles of name-calling insults, a reflection of the “boys will be boys” philosophy that pops up now and again. Attitudes toward women are also a reminder of how America was in the ‘50s . . . and how a third of the country wants people to return to that simpler time period, though it’s never possible to recapture the simplicity of an earlier period when the world has grown more complex. Back when the show first aired, the average price of a house was $7,750, while a car cost $1,600 and the average annual income was $3,515. A gallon of gas was 20 cents. Think we’ll ever see those prices again?

In the first two seasons, more of the plots focus or turn on Ozzie than on the other family members, though that focus would shift to the boys in later seasons. Each season contains all 39 original episodes on four discs per set, though an early Christmas episode and several others are later rebroadcasts—used, presumably, because the quality was better than the original episodes. In Season 1, 17 out of 39 episodes are entertaining enough to watch from start to finish:  “Whistler’s Daughter,” “Late Christmas Gift,” Boys’ Christmas Money,” “Curiosity,” “The Orchid and the Violet,” “Safe Crackers,” “Oscillating Ozzie,” “The Rivals,” “Separate Rooms,” “Pancake Mix,” “Brother Beesley’s Philosophy,” “Bowling Alley,” “David the Babysitter,” “Thorny’s Gift,” “Valentine Show,” “The Play’s the Thing,” and “The Traffic Signal.” The last entry (and quite a few others, as a matter of fact) will seem familiar because sitcoms have frequently recycled the premise—most recently Modern Family. There are only so many “situations” a family can face, so it can be fun to compare classic TV episodes with those from newer shows.

In Season 2, 22 out of 39 episodes are entertaining enough to watch from start to finish: “The Party,” “The New Neighbor,” “The Friend of the Family,” “Parental Guidance,” “The Swimming Pool,” “Overprotection,” “The Camera Show,” “Harriet Gives a Party,” “Gentleman David,” “David Writes a Column,” “The Incentive,” “Ozzie’s Night Out,” “The Hunter,” “Tuxedo for David,” “The Miracles,” “New Chairs,” “Ricky’s Lost Letter,” “The Insurance Policy,” “David’s 17th Birthday,” “Father & Son Tournament,” “The Suggestion Box,” and “The Boys’ Paper Route.”

This is the first time that complete seasons and shows have been released on DVDs authorized by the Nelson Estate, so fans of classic TV have to consider The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet Seasons 1-2 must-adds to their collections. Restored and remastered, the episodes look (and quite often, sound) great.

Entire family:  Yes (though smaller children will be bored)
Run time:  33 hrs. Black-and-White (16 hrs. and 30 min. per season)
Aspect ratio:  1.37:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Studio/Distributor:  MPI Home Media
Season 1 Amazon link
Season 2 Amazon link
Trailer
Not rated (would be G)

Language:  1/10—The boys’ insults can land punches that are now considered in poor taste, like their frequent use of “moron”

Sex:  0/10—Squeaky clean, though today it might seem a little pervy for Ozzie to want to hang around when one of his boys has a girl over

Violence:  0/10—Nothing here

Adult situations:  1/10—Some dinner-party cocktails, but really there’s nothing here that isn’t inherently wholesome

Takeaway:  Timing is everything, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet made the leap from radio to TV when so many other shows failed, no doubt because the show struck a chord with viewers on some level; that it lasted well into the turbulent ‘60s is a testimony to the degree to which Americans appreciated the sleepy Eisenhower years.