Happy Days: Season Two Review

Although at first glance Happy Days appears to be a simple nostalgic look back at the carefree days of 1950s youthful America its existence is due almost entirely to what was happening in the country two decades later, the time of its production. Even if one came to the series with no knowledge of its history, it would be easy to date: not only do the scripts reflect that curious moment in US culture when the liberal revolution of the previous decade was beginning to seep through to even the most mainstream of programmes, but they also reveal a preoccupation with simpler days when life was far less complicated and the biggest dilemma a teenager had to face was how to ask Betsy Jones to the Prom without using the words “Wibble bibble bleh.” America has always loved to mythologize its own past - even in his own lifetime Washington was being set up as the Father of the Nation (despite the fact that he wasn’t much cop as a military commander), while Buffalo Bill spent the majority of his life spreading the lore of the Wild West even while it was still being formed, and Happy Days is a perfect modern example. While the actual Fifties the older generation viewed the new, scary creatures in their midst calling themselves teenagers with apprehension, if not downright fear (see all those old black-and-white films from the time, usually starring Marlon Brando or James Dean), by the time the Vietnam War was busy massacring the nation’s youth that earlier era suddenly became a veritable paragon, a youthful ideal of innocence and happiness which it was important to try and remember in these new, blood-sodden times. It was a brand new idea: a couple of years earlier, when the first pilot for what became Happy Days was made and rejected, the idea of Fifties nostalgia was laughable: now, it was crucial.

It was George Lucas, of course, who first explicitly drew the parallel between the two times with American Graffiti. The huge box office success of that movie kickstarted the whole genre, with Happy Days, created by Garry Marshall, being only the first, and ultimately most successful, of that movie’s offspring. In later years the shows got more anodyne but Marshall and his cast managed to repeat Lucas’s film success in humanising the characters without making them too one-dimensional. Not that that would have mattered to Happy Days’ audience: the crucial thing for them was the show was very, very safe. This is what was wanted from the viewers: a nice cosy world in which nothing very dreadful ever happens. It’s a sitcom in which the sit is far more important than the com: in truth, even though this is a very enjoyable collection of episodes, I don’t recall a single belly-laugh, or anything that comes close to a memorable line, in any of the twenty-three shows on these discs. It is, instead, simply a reassuring way to spend twenty-five minutes at a time. As an approach, it looks hideously outdated and naïve now, but back then it was perfect.

Effectively, the Fifties were neutered and made genteel. This is most blatant in the show’s most famous character Fonzie (Henry Winkler), who is not so much a wild one as a mild one. Strutting round in Dean-like leather jacket, roaring off on his motorbike with his latest girl, and generally ordering the rest of the town’s youth around, he is a rebel but an acceptable one, and one whom the series time and again takes pains to point out is all bark and no bite. Underneath it, as lead character Richie’s mother would no doubt agree, Arthur Fonzarelli is a very sweet boy, one who just like the rest of us doesn’t want to be alone at Christmas and craves the adoration of his peers because he has no family unit to lean on. There’s a particularly telling episode in this season which illustrates perfectly the contrast between this Seventies portrayal of the type and that of the Fifties. Richie (Ron Howard) and his pals get on the wrong side of a local gang of bikers, the sort who roared into town to cause terror in The Wild One. Naturally our heroes turn to the Fonz to help them out but he, instead of engaging said toughs in a bout of street boxing, simply pulls the leader by the scruff of his neck and tells him to lay off. Job done. It’s all very civilised and non-threatening, and much how parents would have hoped it would be, but one can almost hear a young Brando turning in his grave.

Interestingly, the one area in which the series does flirt with pushing the boat out is sex. The main characters, naturally enough given their age, spend a great deal of their time eagerly discussing the mysteries of the bedroom, and while today it all seems quaint (and, one can’t help but hope, rather far away from how teenage boys in the Fifties must really have talked) back then the relative explicitness of some of their dialogue is surprising, given this was a time in TV when most married adult couples still slept in separate beds. US TV was slowly (very slowly) beginning to grow up and follow the trend of ever-greater permissiveness in film, and while poor Richie and co never really get close to hitting a home run, they certainly get further round the bases than they would have done even five years before.

As such, Happy Days marks an important moment in TV history, a very noticeable transition from the simplicities of Sixties TV to more daring stuff. As the decade went on, sitcoms grew in leaps and bounds, and became ever more sophisticated, both in subject matter and style. Happy Days was one of the first to present a complete worldview: whereas before most shows of its type were held strictly within the confines of the four walls of the family home, here we get a fairly convincing picture of a complete town, complete with shopping centres, diners, and a mixture of young and old inhabitants. The stories, too, are a little more ambitious in construction, and don’t follow so rigidly a single byline, but are given time to breathe. And, although the Fifties it presents is idealised, this second season still does a good job in presenting a reasonably convincing version of the time - there’s an excellent episode concerning the 1956 Presidential Election, and others which recall the infamous Quiz Show scandal and the popular children’s show Howdy Doody Time (another highlight, but perhaps only if you’re aware of the history of that show). Even when it’s more contemporary - there’s a riff on The Graduate in one show, for example - it takes pains to place it in a context appropriate to the era. Even if its preoccupation is with what was the present when the show was broadcast, it still takes the pains to present an authentic past.

The first two seasons are somewhat atypical, however, in that they were shot on film without a studio audience. The freedom of this was a little wasted in the first year, which is at times painfully lethargic, but things had tightened up in this second to ensure a good pace to most shows. However, it does have a substantially different feel to the later years, far less frenetic and almost more thoughtful. The show would start filming in front of an audience the following year, and there’s one episode in this season which experimented with that format which sticks out… not like a sore thumb, exactly, because that suggests a change for the worst, but which certainly has a completely different atmosphere to those around it. (The excitement of the audience is palpable, especially when Fonzie walks in for the first time and there's general hysteria). The contrast between the two approaches is very interesting - while Seasons Three and on are undoubtedly more exciting to watch, there’s a quality that is somehow lost which these episodes have in abundance.

Happy Days cemented Ron Howard’s place in the pantheon of stars (already rising thanks to his essentially identical turn in American Graffiti) and he makes the most of his somewhat limited, nice guy role, being far more memorable than his character should be. That said, Winkler is the most charismatic, obviously, but for me the star has always been good old Tom Bosley as Richie’s Dad. Bosley is one of those happy actors you are always pleased to see, a comforting presence in a comforting series, and he plays Pa Cunningham with far more commitment and seriousness than you might expect. Together with Marion Ross as wife Marion, the highlight of many episodes is him trying to work out what Richie’s up to this week, and being the consoling wise head at the end when yet another plan has ended up in disaster. In the real Fifties everyone heard that the kids were rebelling against their square parents. In Happy Days Mr Cunningham assured anxious parents everywhere this was not the case. Just as he puts a reassuring arm round Richie’s shoulder week after week, so the series did the same for the nation at a time when, more than most, it needed the wise words and homely values of the Cunningham household. He reminded them that there had been happy days in the past, and that there was hope for them again in the future.

The DVDs
All twenty-three episodes Season Two of Happy Days is presented on four no-frills discs. Each disc has six or so episodes, with the always welcome option to Play All, and all are subtitled.

Disappointing. Colours have faded and the image is not especially pinsharp, meaning that outdoor scenes in particular suffer from low levels of detail. For a series reflecting a vibrant youth culture, this is mute and indistinct, with a colour palate that doesn’t change much from interiors to exteriors. Watchable, but no more.

First the disappointment: most of the music tracks have been replaced with just four songs. Rights issues can explain if not excuse this: what I found inexcusable is the replacement of the original opening title music - Haley’s Rock Around the Clock - with the theme used from Season Three onwards, the eponymous Happy Days. Surely that was worth splashing out on to preserve? The actual soundtracks are not as clear as they could be: dialogue is a little muffled, and nowhere near as good as other soundtracks of the same vintage I’ve heard.

With no extras and a mediocre AV presentation, this can’t help but be a bit of a disappointing package. The actual episodes are hugely enjoyable, but the fact they are not supplemented with anything is a let down - Howard might be too busy, but surely Winkler and co could have been roped in for a couple of commentaries?

7 out of 10
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