Television

The Sitcom and the Surveillance State

Friday A/V Club: My Three Sons vs. Good Times

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ABC

One of the weirdest half-hours of nominally normal 1960s television is "Top Secret," a 1963 episode of My Three Sons. This almost invasively wholesome series starred Fred MacMurray as Steve Douglas, an aeronautical engineer raising three boys after his wife's death. In this installment, he has to work at home on a classified project; to keep everything secure, the house is put under surveillance.

"We'll handle this job as though the Douglas family was out to blow up New York City," one agent explains to his colleagues. "Every word, every move, every meaningful silence—that's our assignment, from Top Level Pentagon." An apparatus built to combat external and internal threats will be used instead on an ordinary American family, for what we are assured is the common good.

For the rest of the episode the government invades everyone's privacy, but the biggest victims appear to be the feds themselves, who are bored to tears by what they find. They file dreary reports on a young boy's movements; they tap the family's phone, yielding nothing but the halting progress of a teenager's love life. At the end, Fred MacMurray's character breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly:

You know, this security thing was a little tough on my family for a while, but, well, you can see that it was necessary. Of course, now that the project is completed I can tell you what it was all about. You see, what I was really working on was a type of missile—

And then the words TOP SECRET appear over MacMurray's face and his next several sentences are scrambled. The security system that hovered over the Douglases turns out to be in our homes too, intercepting information before it can be heard on our televisions. It is difficult to describe this scene without it sounding deeply creepy, but the show presents it as perfectly benign. There's even a laugh track:

In my book The United States of Paranoia, I contrasted that episode with a bicentennial-year edition of another sitcom, Good Times. (The summary above is adapted from my write-up in the book.) By 1976, the country had seen all sorts of official crimes exposed, from Watergate to COINTELPRO. Between that and the larger cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s, audiences were more willing to accept stories about the national security state abusing its power, even in a genre like the situation comedy. So when Good Times did a story about an ordinary American family falling under federal surveillance, it took a rather different approach to the subject. Here the FBI is shown callously disregarding its targets' liberty, privacy, and well-being, with disastrous results.

This is how much pop culture can change in 13 years:

Part two of three:

Part three of three:

As you may have noticed, "The Investigation" ends with John Amos looking directly at the camera, like Fred MacMurray at the end of "Top Secret." This time there's no laugh track.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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