Season one of Dennis the Menace just out on DVD from Shout! Factory, is a bracing throwback to a bygone era when kids on TV were allowed to be kids. In the golden age of the family sitcom, children (with the exception of wiseacre Rusty from Make Room for Daddy) didn't zing their parents like Borsht-belt comics. They didn't lead fantasy double lives. They didn't explain it all for you. They were kids getting into kid scrapes, finding their way in the grown-up world.
But the rules of TV kiddom did not seem to apply to Dennis Mitchell, suburban scamp, neighborhood scourge, and proto-Bart. Comparisons between Dennis and Bart Simpson, equally iconic characters, are inevitable. Bart made them himself in the classic The Simpsons episode, "Cape Feare," in which he was the target of death threats. "Who'd want to hurt me?" he innocently asked. "I'm this century's Dennis the Menace." Dennis' antics may seem tame today, but he has moments that might even make Bart cry, "Ay Carumba."
Based on Hank Ketcham's long-running comic, Dennis the Menace debuted in 1959 and ran for four rambunctious seasons. The series was perhaps CBS' answer to the popular Leave It to Beaver, replicating its child's-eye view of the world. But what a child! The overalls-clad, slingshot-toting Dennis (Jay North, so indelibly typecast he could not transition from child star) leaves havoc in his wake (the animated tornado that spins through the show's opening credits is an apt metaphor). "Mom," the boy asks when his mother tucks him in for bedtime, "why do you always say, 'thank goodness' instead of 'good night?"
Dennis the Menace anticipated Seinfeld's "no learning" ethos. Each episode began with a cold opening that conveyed Dennis' unerring menaceness. In one, Dennis frantically runs into his parents' bedroom in the middle of the night. "Hey mom, you'd better get out of bed," he warns. "I just remembered where I left my frog." Other family sitcoms taught life lessons about such basic concepts as responsibility, sharing and honesty. Here's what passed for life lessons on Dennis the Menace: "Dennis, I will not have you telling your friends you mother is tattooed."
Dennis, in short, was a Goofus, the opposite of a Gallant, as featured in Highlights magazine, the Gideon Bible of pediatricians' waiting rooms. Dennis did not exhibit the worst traits of the type. He wasn't selfish, mean, or inconsiderate. But you knew a Goofus when you saw one. A Gallant doesn't go to his neighbor's house unless he's invited. A Goofus shows up unannounced and incessantly rings his doorbell. A Gallant is mindful of his babysitter. A Goofus substitutes another child in his place so he can sneak out and go to the movies. A Gallant is respectful of property. A Goofus paints a Christmas card on the side of his house.
Growing up, I knew Dennis wasn't a role model (I was a Gallant), but I loved the show for its carefree summer vacation vibe. In Season One, we never see Dennis at school. He's always at the park, hanging with friends (one of them a pre The Andy Griffith Show Ron Howard) or haunting his neighbor, "good ol' Mr. Wilson" (the great Joseph Kearns).
But was Dennis a "sweet little boy" or "a supersonic missile... who could destroy the neighborhood with his bare hands?" After watching Season One, the jury is still out. When Dennis enlists his friend Joey to paint Mr. Wilson's house, is he really trying to help, or does he anticipate that Joey will put a bucket of paint at the base of the ladder for Mr. Wilson to step in? When he badgers sweet-natured Mrs. Wilson for a coin he can toss into the neighborhood fountain, does he somehow know it is from Mr. Wilson's prized rare coin collection?
Dennis is not entirely without self-awareness. When his parents finally find someone who agrees to babysit him, he asks, "She didn't know me, huh, Dad?" And his parents, at least, have no illusions about their son. To quote Mel Brooks, they hope for the best, but expect the worst. In one episode they receive a call from the police. Dennis' mother informs her husband, "It's Mr. Wilson who got arrested and Dennis just happened to be with him. That doesn't sound right, does it?"
Dennis the Menace is of more than nostalgic interest. It holds up well. Except that watching it did not awaken my inner child. I am now just about as old as Mr. Wilson, and I found myself taking his side. Why will no one heed his warnings about the sociopath in their midst? If I lived next door to Dennis, I'd have a handy supply of nerve medicine, too.