I have vague memories of watching Happy Days as a kid — I suppose around the later 1970s to early 1980s, which means it would have been during its original run. I recall it as a frivolous show, a series of undemanding, jocular set-pieces playing on the humour of the Fonz’s being so much cooler than everyone else, almost to the point of it being a superpower.
I’ve recently been watching it from the start. It’s not what I expected at all.
For one thing, the whole tone of the show is very different from what I remembered. It’s a rather earnest look at the real issues faced by an older teenager in the 1950s, including sex and drugs. It’s pitched as a comedy, but it’s very rarely funny — I laugh maybe once an episode and grin one or two times more. The laugh track doesn’t help at all — it’s very haphazard, with the most mundane lines inexplicably picked out as meriting a laugh that comes out of nowhere.
Instead, the show is touching.
In particular, there’s something rather lovely about how consistently understanding and insightful Ritchie Cunningham’s dad, Howard, is. In a show that was played for laughs, he’d be comically furious with Ritchie’s escapades, which are not trivial. In the first seven episodes he lies about having gone further with a girl than he did, wastes all his savings on a useless car, gets drunk at a stag party, gets involved with an illegal drag race, breaks the glass in the door of his father’s hardware store, takes a series of idiot dares as a gang hazing, and is accused (albeit wrongfully) of helping a friend cheat in school. Only once is Howard visibly angry (after the drag-racing episode, which involved him as well as Ritchie being picked up by the police), and even then his punishment — he’s grounded for two weeks — is temperate, even lenient. Howard comes across as a very sympathetic and understanding human, not at all like a sitcom father.
But the real surprise is the Fonz, who is rather a pathetic figure. He’s a high-school dropout who all the other kids think is cool because he works as a mechanic. But the show knows that in ten years when the other kids all have good jobs, Fonzie’s still going to be doing the same things he’s doing now, in a state of arrested development, an increasingly sad man trying to recapture the glories of his early days. Part of what’s appealing about the show is how he’s portrayed, somewhat subtly, as knowing this himself — hence the seventh episode where he briefly tries to drop back into high-school. (He is the friend who Ritchie almost helps to cheat.)
I understand that the character of the show changed pretty dramatically half way through the second series, and I assume that a big part of that change is going to be the Fonz changing into the wholly cool character that I remember from those episodes I saw as a kid. It’ll be interesting to see that process, but I think I’m going to miss the more nuanced show that I’m watching at the moment.
Some aspects of the show have not aged well, though it’s not clear whether they reflect the 1950s setting or the 1970s production. For example, one of the hazing dares that Ritchie and his friend Potsie take in the sixth episode is to forcibly kiss a waitress, who is clearly very distressed by the experience. Potsie goes ahead with it even having seen how she reacted to Ritchie — in effect this is a minor sexual assault, but it’s played for laughs. We’re supposed to find it funny how distressed the waitress is. Instead, we find it uncomfortable and out of character.
Still, that’s an aberration in a show that generally has its heart in the right place. I’m enjoying it enough that I’ll certainly finish the first series and make a start on the second. After that, we’ll see.