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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » My Three Sons: The Second Season, Volume One
My Three Sons: The Second Season, Volume One
Paramount // Unrated // February 23, 2010
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted March 11, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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I doesn't really matter that they still keep cutting out the original music - the unqualified brilliance of that first season is now long gone, replaced by a competent, well-meaning, and a distressingly ordinary sitcom. CBS DVD and Paramount have released My Three Sons: The Second Season, Volume One in a bare-bones three-disc, 18-episode release that just breaks my heart. It's not that My Three Sons isn't perfectly acceptable in its sophomore session - it is. Fred MacMurray - when he's around - lends just the right amount of star-power authority to his rather distant turn as father Steve Douglas; William Frawley gets frisky with some of his lines this year; and the three young actors playing the sons - Tim Considine, Don Grady, and Stanley Livingston - still can seem refreshingly "real" in their high-spirited portrayals of all-American suburban kids, circa 1961-1962...when they're given the chance here. Had I only viewed this second season, without seeing the first, I would have chalked up the second season of My Three Sons as a pleasant diversion, expertly and even glossily produced...but nothing much more. Unfortunately, I did review that first season, and those genuinely remarkable episodes (all 36 directed by first year-only producer, Peter Tewksbury), are still strong in my mind, making these sophomore excursions pale significantly by comparison.

As I noted above, I reviewed both volumes of Season One of My Three Sons in quite some detail, so for further background you can click here to read my review for Season One, Volume One, and here for Volume Two. Some brief background on the series' set-up. My Three Sons' basic premise follows the suburban adventures of the Douglas family, minus one very important part of the traditional American sitcom nuclear family: the mother. Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray), a former pilot and now aviation and missile engineer for the Universal Research and Development Company, has been a widower for six years. Living in a comfortable but not ostentatious middle-class neighborhood in a comfortable, not ostentatious Midwestern suburb, Steve's life revolves around either working long, hard hours not only at his office but often times late into the night at his bedroom drafting table, or trying to solve the problems a busy father might have raising three rambunctious, healthy American boys. Mike (Tim Considine, a Disney veteran who co-starred with MacMurray in the smash hit, The Shaggy Dog), the eldest son at 19, is now comfortably settled into his first year of college, full of helpful book-learning advice for Bub (William Frawley) and Steve on how to raise "the children," but minus his steady girlfriend from right next door (Cynthia Pepper's Jean Pearson, an important supporting player in the first season, has been dropped without a word of explanation for this second season). Robbie Douglas (Don Grady), at the awkward age of 15, is trying to find his place as the middle child in this noisy group, often times competing with Mike for Steve's approval, while still reconciling himself to the fact that he's not a boy anymore, but not yet a man, either. And finally, little Chip Douglas (Stanley Livingston), eight-years-old and full of energy, is just trying to negotiate his way around this relatively new world without causing too much havoc. Helping Steve watch over the boys is Michael Francis "Bub" O'Casey (William Frawley), Steve's father-in-law, who gave up his life running a movie theatre to come live with Steve and the boys when his daughter died, acting as a surrogate "mother" who cooks, cleans, attends PTA meetings and tea socials, and who provides gruff, no-nonsense (but loving) "front-line sergeant" discipline for the boys when calm, cool, collected "general" Steve is busy at work.

I honestly just don't know what to write in this review, so disappointed am I in the direction the series has taken in this second season. Again, taken in context, the first 18 episodes of this second season are quite nice, in and of themselves, with funny performances and moments of genuine, heartfelt "slices of life" drama. But seen against the first season, these episodes seem almost deliberately anonymous and safe. Gone are the directorial and script flourishes and experimentations of producer/director Tewksbury (again, please refer to my previous reviews for more details), gone is that feeling that something entirely...different was being attempted in tone and atmosphere, from the way other sitcoms of the time looked and sounded and were put together. That's all missing here in this second season. The direction (many times by Richard Whorf) is flat and uninteresting, with a by-the-numbers sameness that looks identical to every other TV show out there in 1961, a mechanical process that just leadens the few promising scripts that pop up. As for the stories, we don't get anything at all like the rather remarkable first season offerings Countdown, Raft on the River, or Small Adventure; instead, we have standard sitcom forays into parents fumbling the birds and the bees talk, or the kids teaching the old dog Tramp some new tricks, or silliness about sleep-learning or mixed-up blind dates.

Except for one or two moments in some of the better episodes, the emotional weight and heft of My Three Sons' first season, is also MIA. One of the elements I really responded to in those first 36 episodes was the feeling that Steve truly was struggling with his duties as a parent and a working father. His time was necessarily limited (both the character because of his job, and the actor, because of the "MacMurray Method"), but the writers focused quite movingly on Steve's efforts to stay connected with his sons, all of whom were still suffering the effects of losing their mother. None of that feeling is here in this second season. Yes, there's an episode, Chip's Composition, that deals specifically with Chip's feelings about not really knowing his mother (it's one of the best outings this season), but overall, Steve seems largely absent as a father here. It could be me, but MacMurray seems to be on-screen for markedly less time this go-around than in the first season, and when he is there, he's largely detached from the action (smoking a pipe while a discussion goes on, or reading the paper, or coming in from or going out to work, or just...gone). In the first season, he came off, believably, as a real father - and a smart, loving father at that. Now, however, he's veering off into "sitcom dad" unreality, issuing a few sage words of advice before popping out of a scene. Frawley's Bub character certainly benefits from Steve's absence, but in general, the series is already - just around the edges - developing that hermetically sealed-off feeling that cripples the final, lonely seasons of the series. One or two actors occupy the screen, do a scene, and then break off, and we don't become connected with their plights at all. There just isn't a sustained feeling of engagement between the actors and their material; the intensity of those first outings have given way here to slick, commercial manufacturing.

Even the kids seem muted and plugged into a repeatable, safe schematic designed for maximum efficiency and a minimum of innovation. What has happened to little, quirky Chip, who had such a funny, offbeat outlook on the family's various situations in Season One? He's gone, man, replaced by just another sitcom kid who does dumb things and who needs a lot of explaining from adults. In the first season, there was a remarkable episode with Robbie coming to grips with the intricacies of dating and friendships, with the young man believably frightened by the inexplicable passions those emotions aroused within him (Spring Will Be a Little Late), and Don Grady was quite effective in the script. Where is that searching, confused teenager Robbie now? Gone, replaced by an all-purpose All-American boy stand-in to moved around the familiar plots involving too-young blind date mix-ups and exclusive youth club snafus between Robbie and his anonymous, goofy best friend. Mike, who had some moving episodes the previous season concerning the fear of growing up and away from the safety of one's home, is taken down this season not only by the loss of his steady girlfriend, next-door-neighbor Jean Pearson, but also with the writers' refusal to treat his college career as anything more than a convenient plot mechanism. Dropping in and out of the house when he's not at college or at the frat house, Mike's first college days would seem to be a goldmine of plot opportunities for the writers, but for the most part, Mike merely serves as a comical rejoinder whenever the scripters want to contrast his book-learning smarts with Steve's and Bub's old-school experience. It's a pity these talented performers are reduced to the familiar hijinks on display here in this second season.

Brief, momentary flashes of Season One do crop up here - even if they're not as sustained or as well-integrated as those first remarkable efforts. A Perfect Memory, oddly enough directed by visiting Peter Tewksbury, finds Steve just missing an old flame as he tries to track her down as she visits their old haunts around town. It's a bittersweet episode, filled with truths about past glories and loves, and memories that may be best left alone, and it's directed with simplicity and directness by Tewksbury. Danny Simon (Neil's brother and a master scripter) turns in A Lesson in Any Language, a silly premise (a mix-up with Mike's Spanish language sleep-learning equipment) which is expertly built by Simon, with plenty of funny one-liners. Chip's Composition gives MacMurray a few chances to actually stay on camera and subtly emote as he realizes little Chipper doesn't really remember his mother any more. It's a sad little episode with some funny asides, taking swipes at different kinds of bad mothers (the ones shown as examples for Chip are either too busy, or too lazy, or not truly involved in their kids' lives), and it ends on a sweet note when Chip writes about his "true" mother: Bub (who tears up, predictably). Perhaps the best episode this first half-season is Romance of Silver Pines, a familiar tale of Steve trying to get away from it all, only to be sandbagged by pushy strangers staying at the same deserted lake resort. Co-starring Jan Clayton (Lassie), MacMurray gets to have a believably mature romance with widowed parent Clayton (she's terrific; too bad she wasn't made a regular character with her girls...oh wait, then it would be The Brady Bunch), while Ed Begley is, as usual, masterful in pulling off a blustering, obnoxious character who turns out to be pathetically flawed - and sympathetic - at the end (he delivers some telling, hard-to-hear lines about how a job can "chew up your days as you watch your life slide away," written by pro Jack Laird). It's just a shame that these episodes are the exception to the rule in this second season. 1961's audience, however, didn't seem to mind the switch in My Three Sons's production team, propelling the topsy-turvy ratings hit to its series-high rating of 11th for the year. My Three Sons was one of those strange shows that yo-yoed all over the ratings, landing in the Top 15 one year, dropping down into the low 20s the next, only to pop back up again unexpectedly during its long, long 12-season run, all of which, save for its last season, were in the Top 15 or Top 30. Ratings were strong with its Thursday night lead-ins The Donna Reed Show (30th for the year) and The Real McCoys (14th), although that show did take a bit of a ratings hit from it and My Three Sons' direct competition: NBC's new powerhouse medical drama, Dr. Kildare (9th for the year), followed up by their new powerhouse comedy hit, Hazel (garnering a remarkable 4th for the year).

Here are the first 18, one-half hour episodes of the three-disc set, My Three Sons - The Second Season, Volume One, as described on the DVD insert:

DISC ONE

Birds and Bees (September 28, 1961)
When Tramp becomes the father of six puppies, Steve decides it's time to tell Chip the facts of life.

Instant Hate (October 5, 1961)
The Douglas family's good neighbor policy comes under attack when Steve, Bub and the boys tangle with the new family across the street.

The Crush (October 19, 1961)
When Mike brings his new girlfriend home to meet the family, he misunderstands her attraction to Steve.

Tramp - The Hero (October 26, 1961)
Inspired by a friend's well-trained German Shepherd, the boys make a valiant attempt to teach Tramp new tricks.

A Perfect Memory (November 2, 1961)
Steve tries to track down the old high school sweetheart who called for him while he was out.

Bub's Lodge (November 9, 1961)
Bub looks forward to his lodge ceremony, where he's to be installed as D'Artagnan of the East Door.

DISC TWO

A Lesson in Any Language (November 16, 1961)
While their rooms are being painted, Steve and Bub sleep in Mike's, unaware he's using a pre-programmed record player to learn Spanish while he sleeps.

The Ugly Duckling (November 23, 1961)
Concerned he's going to fail world literature, Robbie gets a new study partner - who's as beautiful as she is dumb.

Chip's Composition (November 30, 1961)
When Chip's assigned to write a composition entitled "What My Mother Means to Me," he uses Bub as his model.

Mike In Charge (December 7, 1961)
Mike takes charge of the household after Steve and Bub are called out of town.

Bub Goes to School (December 14, 1961)
Tired of being asked questions he can't answer, Bub enrolls in night school where he passes himself off as an ex-show business producer.

Robbie's Band (December 21, 1961)
Steve picks up his sax and joins Robbie's band to help them land a gig at Mike's fraternity dance.

DISC THREE

Damon and Pythias (December 28, 1961)
Robbie hopes to escape Mike's shadow by becoming a member of the Chieftains, the one school club his brother never joined.

Chip Leaves Home (January 4, 1962)
Convinced his family is ignoring him, Chip decides to run away to India.

Romance of Silver Pines (January 11, 1962)
While taking a one-week vacation from his family, Steve falls in with a couple that seems to be playing matchmaker.

Blind Date (January 18, 1962)
A series of mix-ups leads to Mike and Robbie winding up with each other's blind dates.

Second Time Around (January 25, 1962)
An old girlfriend tries to rekindle Steve's interest, but ends up attracting Bub instead.

The Girls Next Door (February 1, 1962)
Steve is driven to distraction when four attractive airline hostesses move into the vacant house next door.

The DVD:

The Video:
The full-screen, 1.33:1 black and white transfers for My Three Sons - The Second Season, Volume One are up to the usual CBS/Paramount standards - meaning they look quite good, with a sharp image, a balanced gray scale, and a minimum of compression issues. However, there were quite a few vertical scratches at the beginning of The Girls Next Door, while there was a funny, modern-looking fade-out during a crucial scene in Chip Leaves Home that looked suspicious. Paramount makes no bones about saying these episodes may be edited for video and music content, so....

The Audio:
And yes, it does appear (to my untrained ear, for what it's worth) that the music substitutions continue here for the second season. I made an argument for allowing that for the first season, because the content of the episodes was so brilliant, but that may be a harder sell here, since the quality of the series is so much more...conventional. I'll let the My Three Sons experts thrash it out. As for the audio tracks themselves, the Dolby Digital English mono track is clearly rendered, with all dialogue crisply and cleanly heard. Close-captions are available.

The Extras:
There are no extras for My Three Sons - The Second Season, Volume One.

Final Thoughts:
I really don't want to come down too harshly on the first 18 episodes of My Three Sons - The Second Season, Volume One. The show is still snazzily produced, with generic, funny laughs and some genuine heart-tugging moments amid the familiar sitcom antics. However, there's no getting around the fact that the series has been significantly altered with the loss of producer/director Peter Tewksbury from Season One - and not for the better. Masterpiece like the first season? Hardly. Still entertaining? Yes. I recommend My Three Sons - The Second Season, Volume One (but hardcore vintage TV fans won't because of the music substitutions, and they would be right).


Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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