Golly, Beav, we're historic

Leave It To Beaver:

The Complete Series

DVD boxed set

(Shout! Factory, $199.99 list.)

Television was still relatively young when, on Oct. 4, 1957, CBS broadcast the perfect sitcom scene:

A second-grader known as "the Beaver" and his older brother, Wally, ordered by their mother to take baths before going to bed, are kneeling beside a tub they have just filled.

They are fiddling in the water to make it sound as if bathing were taking place. As this goes on, the Beaver, who was given a note by his teacher to take home to his parents but has been too afraid to deliver it, asks Wally for advice: Should he open the note, to see whether he's in trouble?

"'Course not; that'd be dishonest," says Wally, who then grabs a handful of dirt and tosses it into the draining bathtub. Why the dirt? "It'll leave a ring," he explains as the boys go off to bed, unwashed.

There have been funnier sitcom scenes since, and certainly more frenetic ones. But has the craftsmanship - wonderfully believable brotherly chat as a foundation; sly incongruity laid on top - ever been bested? Doubtful.

Wally and the Beaver, of course, were the focus of "Leave It to Beaver," and that bathtub scene was in Episode 1 of Season 1: "Beaver Gets 'Spelled.'" There would be 233 more episodes during the show's six-season run, from 1957 to 1963, and they are full of small, knowing moments.

A new boxed set from the Shout! Factory collects the entire series, with assorted extras and annotated booklets for each season.

The real prize is being able to immerse yourself in the body of work, a time when American life stood blissfully still.

TV was slower

"Jokes get in the way," Tony Dow, who played Wally, said in a telephone interview, talking about the "Beaver" writers' reliance on placid, observational humor. "They get in the way of your concentration when you're trying to get at a story. We would throw jokes out at the table reading."

That is what hits you first when you sit down with a box of "Beaver": Television comedy was much slower then. You have to detox mentally to watch these shows.

That bathtub scene takes almost 31/2 minutes to unspool. In that time, Hannah Montana could have traded six insults with her father, tripped over a couch, lost her wig, dumped two boyfriends and had a crisis involving shoes.

Not that "Leave It to Beaver" was above using sight gags. Dow named as his favorite episode "Happy Weekend" (Season 2, Episode 13), a wise, wistful tale in which the boys' father, Ward (Hugh Beaumont), drags them to the cabin where he used to vacation as a child.

Like so many of the best installments, that one was written by the show's creators, Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, men apparently obsessed with bathing. "Hot dog, Beaver!" Wally says as the boys are looking over the cabin. "There's no bathtub!"

A timeless appeal

Cheating on homework, being mortified by clothes or haircuts, running away from home, discovering the cruelties of the working world, feeling the stirrings of interest in the opposite sex: "Beaver" covered those and dozens of other topics that later turned up in "Family Affair," "The Wonder Years," "The Bernie Mac Show," "Hannah Montana" and everywhere else, and will turn up again in whatever family series comes next.

You might have thought kids had changed too much for half-century-old stories to still resonate. "Nah," said Ken Osmond (Eddie Haskell). "Kids are still the same as they were in 1810."