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Chip's Harvest

Chip's Harvest

What a sixty-three-year-old sitcom can teach us about the folly of "land acknowledgments"

Savannah’s Broughton Street was already decked out for the holidays, but all I could focus on was playhouse tucked in between two competing honey stores. A four-foot sign leaned against the window announcing to all passers-by that the uber-white theater company and its board know they tread on Yamacraw territory and are really sorry.

I don’t know how many Yamacraws caught that production of Driving Miss Daisy, but I sure hope everyone felt their guilt was properly assuaged. As I rolled my eyes, I  thought about the zinger I’d half committed to memory from Graeme Wood’s The Atlantic article on the land acknowledgment craze I read during last year’s pre-Thanksgiving downtime: “The acknowledgment relieves the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event.”

Still seething about this uninterrogated do-gooder display a week later, I commandeered the remote at my childhood home. My Three Sons was on thanks to our local retro broadcast station. My parents had raised me on it since its 90s run on Nick at Nite. It’s a program I revisit frequently, though I’d somehow never seen this early season one Thanksgiving special called “Chip’s Harvest” that premiered in November 1960. And I likely wouldn’t have had my dad not religiously DVR’d every episode that aired in the wee hours of the morning. 

No one really talks about My Three Sons—even in the parlance of “OK Boomer.” It’s a time filler, a blast of second-wave nostalgia for a generation that forgot it wasn’t really raised on cynicism. Its time has passed in the age of prestige TV. Except no working screenwriter has come close to parsing out how to address America’s settler-colonial roots like this particular sitcom episode—and not for want of trying . This may explain why it had taken me this long to see it.

When My Three Sons premiered, Fred MacMurray was fresh off his turn as a slimy executive in Billy Wilder’s megahit The Apartment opposite Jack Lemmon. Despite begrudgingly moving to the small screen at the time of this unexpected career resurgence, he stuck with the show for twelve years as widower Steve Douglas, a put-upon father of three boys aided by his late wife’s father, Bub (William Frawley) and, later, Uncle Charlie (William Demarest) when Frawley’s alcoholism made him uninsurable. Mike (Tim Considine) and Robbie (Don Grady) make up the adolescent contingent while Chip (Stanley Livingston) does as much as he can to differentiate himself from The Beaver. Despite its reputation as fluff, the show was never afraid to embrace bleaker territory from its single-parent premise to the loneliness of the empty nest, a tone particularly suited to MacMurray’s gift for balancing comedy with pathos. 

Much of the humor in “Chip’s Harvest” revolves around a single dad trying to wrangle his clan for Thanksgiving dinner. The boys scuttle about the house in animated conversation about the holiday and the guests their dad has allowed them to invite. Mike has opted for his current girlfriend. Robbie chooses a first-year female biology teacher, who the show implies might be a suitable substitute for his mother if she hits it off with Mr. Douglas. Then, Chip casually mentions he’s invited Johnny Squanto (Monty Ash), a local handyman of dubious Indian heritage who lives in a clapboard house by the train tracks that the elementary schooler visits every day after school.

Contemporary viewers may bristle at Chip’s relationship with Squanto (and the Jewish Ash playing an Indian), but what really makes the episode an outlier in 60s television is the vicious manner in which its characters share their antipathy for the interloper. In a scene all too rare in studio-shot sitcoms, Steve visits Squanto in an attempt to suss out both his identity and intentions. He rebuffs Squanto’s modest offer of coffee and tobacco, telling his host that he has his own at home. When the camera pushes in on Squanto’s dejected face, the white-collar architect comes to terms with his dismissive attitude. Squanto looks like the bum Mike and Robbie said he was. This patriarch doesn’t want him at Thanksgiving dinner either. But, he’s got to be an example now, a better version of himself. It’s so straight out of the golden age of Hollywood that one wonders if MacMurray called in a favor to Wilder. 

As half-hour sitcom fate would have it, Steve wakes up on Thanksgiving morning to find the stove is on the fritz. Hijinks ensue. Squanto easily diagnoses the problem after Chip runs off to get him, though no one takes either of them seriously. Eventually, Squanto adopts the mantle of noble savage (this is the early 60s after all), cooking the turkey by fire via a hole in the ground. 

Yet, this native encounter is much more layered than critics of classy TV would want us to believe. Bub and the older boys are apoplectic over Squanto’s methods. While Chip sees the meal as a return to the real ways, the rest ridicule their guest until he runs off. As Steve returns from a botched attempt to find an electrician, the family tries to make amends with their scorned guest. Squanto reemerges in full native regalia to tell the story of his Wampanoag ancestors and the land where the Douglas house now stands, which was once covered in birch trees. “As it was, in the beginning, the Indian and the white man meet on their common ground to give thanks.” 

The Douglas’s are humbled yet not shamed. Squanto has asserted himself as equal without diluting his identity. He acknowledges the past, but realizes he and his neighbors have to contend with the future. There’s no real way to right these wrongs, no return to an imagined Eden. Yet, there is a common ground that has far outlived all humans who’ve trod upon it. And it, like Squanto, doesn’t give a rip if white people publicly proclaim we remember.

“Chip’s Harvest” is available to stream for free on YouTube.