60s sitcom themes: The hidden alien. The strange family that doesn’t know it is strange.

During the early and mid-1960s, a typical theme of television situation comedies was a character who is some way was different from everyone else, and whose difference (or whose very existence) needed to be concealed from almost everyone by the show’s protagonist. To wit:

Mister Ed (1961-66). Mister Ed is a talking horse who belongs to a human named Wilbur, and will speak only to him. Wilbur attempts to conceal Mr. Ed’s ability from the neighbors.

McHale’s Navy (1962-66). In the South Pacific during World War II, PT boat Lt. Commander McHale and the crew of PT-73 work hard at having fun, to the dismay of Captain Binghamton.  Concealed in their barracks is a Japanese prisoner of war named “Fuji,” who gratefully serves as their houseboy. Keeping Fuji hidden from the American officers is the subject of several episodes, but it is not as central to the show as are the secrets in the other shows on this list.

My Favorite Martian (1963-66). After a Martian scientist’s spaceship crashes, Tim O’Hara rescues him. Tim invites the Martian (whose real name is Exigius 12½) to live with him, and passes him off as Tim’s “Uncle Martin.”

Bewitched (1964-72). Samantha is a beautiful witch who is married to advertising executive Darrin Stephens. They live in the suburbs, and often face challenges trying to conceal Samantha’s powers from the nosy neighbors and Darrin’s boss.

My Mother the Car (1965-66). David Crabtree’s deceased mother is reincarnated in a 1928 luxury automobile. She speaks only to him, through the car radio. He must conceal the car’s secret from the world, especially Captain Manzini, who is determined to acquire the antique.

I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70). Jeannie is a beautiful 2,000 year old genie who lives with astronaut Tony Nelson. Tony and his best friend Roger must conceal Jeannie’s existence from everyone else, especially the commanding officers at NASA.

Another theme of some sitcoms of the period is the family of freaks who do not know that they are freaks:

The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71). After the Clampetts accidentally strike it rich by discovering oil on the Ozark property, patriarch Jed moves them to Beverly Hills. They retain their rural dress and customs, and seem to have little or no idea how aberrant they are in urban California. Their innocent good nature keeps them (except for the half-witted skirt-chaser Jethro) out of trouble most of the time.

The Munsters (1964-66). The father looks like Frankenstein, his father-in-law is a vampire, and so on. Living with them is their niece Marilyn, who is an ordinary human college student, and whom the rest of the family considers to be a freak, but they are very nice to her. Marilyn apparently is unaware that the Munsters are different from everyone else.

The Addams Family (1964-66). A family of wealthy eccentrics with paranormal abilities and a strong taste for the macabre enjoys life in their mansion. Again, they have no clue how bizarre they are.

So in 1965-66, when there are only three national networks producing TV series, we have in a single television season five shows built around the concealment of character with a unique trait. (Or six, if you include the McHales’s Navy subplot), and three shows about extremely strange families who think they are normal.

So my question to the commenters is “Why?” Were these shows an unintentional avant garde, extolling the pleasures of non-conformity and the virtue of tolerance to Middle America? Except for “My Mother the Car,” all the shows were at least moderately successful for a while, and Beverly Hillbillies and Bewitched garnered top ratings. So was the American public subconsciously looking for validation for non-conformity? Or is there some other explanation?

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