Case Study 37: Mister Ed, Episode 3–“Busy Wife”

Original Airdate: January 19th, 1961 on first-run syndication

Mister Ed was at the vanguard of a wave of high-concept sitcoms that were everywhere in the 1960s. People often confuse the phrase “high concept” with something highly conceptual or experimental. That’s not what it means. No, when a TV show or a movie is high concept, it’s something with mass appeal, usually with fantasy or sci-fi elements, that can be summarized in a short sentence. Jurassic Park: There’s a theme park with cloned dinosaurs. Big: There’s a twelve-year-old in the body of a thirtysomething. Snakes On A Plane: There’s snakes on a plane. In the 60s, sitcoms were so fanciful they make contemporary fare like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family look even more boring. You had witches and genies and martians and monsters and dead parents reincarnated as cars. But before all of that you had a man and his talking horse. What could go wrong?

Strengths

Um, well, you see….hmm….

Weaknesses

  • Profound misogyny. Look, I realize it was 1961. I realize you have to overlook some of the more incidental symptoms of widespread injustice or else you’re not going to make it through anything from the period without gagging. Watch, here’s me overlooking the fact that Wilbur (Alan Young) pretends that a caller’s dialed the wrong number by adopting a wincingly racist “Asian” accent when he picks up the phone. But in this episode, misogyny is central to the plot of the show. In fact, it’s the entire plot. Wilbur’s wife Carol (Connie Hines) joins a club dedicated to lobbying for civic improvements, and Wilbur isn’t able to stand it for one goddamned second. How dare she take up an interest that keeps her from making him lunches and picking up his dry cleaning? The horse (Allan Lane, Stagecoach to Denver) impugns Wilbur’s masculinity. Wilbur’s asshole neighbor (Larry Keating, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show) taunts him for doing his own grocery shopping. Wilbur manages to fix the situation by preying on his wife’s sexual insecurities and humiliating her in front of her friends. Hooray! It all worked out in the end! The worst part is that we’re supposed to sympathize with Wilbur, despite the look on Carol’s face when she realizes the consequences for daring to push even slightly against the suffocating confines of her home life. No, the real tragedy here is the scene where Wilbur can’t bone his wife right there on the living room rug because she wants to talk to her friend (Edna Skinner.) Instead, he sadly slinks up the stairs, trying to figure out a way to get his manhood back that doesn’t involve murdering Carol and turning her into a new saddle for Mister Ed.
  • Has nothing to do with its central premise. So there’s something else you may have noticed about that little cautionary tale about the dangers of unchaining your wife from the radiator. IT HAS SWEET FUCK-ALL TO DO WITH A TALKING HORSE. That’s what the people came for. They wanted to see the hijinks that ensue when you have a talking horse, but all the talking horse does here is tell Wilbur he’s pussy whipped and watch Leonard Bernstein on CBS. Oh, he also reprises Wilbur’s racist telephone bit. That’s it. Admittedly, the final act requires a woman wearing a bikini astride a horse (don’t ask) but that could have been accomplished with a standard nonverbal horse. I went into this halfway expecting Ed to offer Wilbur some wise counsel on how to have a healthy marriage, but instead he just makes fun of him, and the asshole neighbor is already doing that. Admittedly, Ed does complain that because Wilbur is off in the kitchen making sandwiches like some kind of unnatural monster there’s no one to entertain him, but this feels like fairly perfunctory horse usage, and if there’s one thing you don’t want from Mister it’s perfunctory horse usage. Well, I guess you also don’t want a field trip to the glue, Jell-O and leather factory, but presumably that’s not in the offing.

Motivation: I hesitate to describe this as an issue of love…that would assume that this form of marriage has anything at all to do with love. Since Carol’s essentially treated like a broken piece of property, we’ll call it money.

Final Episode Judgment: This presents me with an interesting problem, because while Mister evidences no strengths, it’s also not nearly as terrible as some of the dreck staining these pages. I’d hardly cite them as strengths, but there’s things this show could have done badly that would have made it worse. The acting is fine. The story is coherent, if repulsive. It’s not funny, but it also doesn’t try too hard at being funny–it’s very gentle. 2/10. Don’t watch it, but don’t bury it thousands of miles below the earth in a steel cask, either.

NEXT TIME: Our search for the dumbest sitcom of the sixties continues as we review Petticoat Junction!

Advertisements
Case Study 37: Mister Ed, Episode 3–“Busy Wife”