Homefront, TV’s Postwar Flashback

Now that @warnerarchive releases so many obscure delights and curiosities of big and small screen, I’ve taken to frequently (and maybe annoyingly for them) tweeting them about releasing Homefront, a TV show that aired for a couple of seasons in the early 90s. The show got me more interested in old movies and history, introduced me to big band swing (my now-massive collection serves as proof that was a Big Moment), and looking back as an adult, I see the appeal of the show was more than just my crush on Kyle Chandler. It actually still is as good as I remember it, which is rarely the case when you revisit favorite things of youth. Homefront was well done and authentic, with astonishing attention to detail and a fantastic cast as its best features. The story started at the end of WW2 and told of the seismic shifts that were underway as those who served came back home and, along with those who stayed behind, had either difficulties or adventures adjusting. If you took The Best Years of our Lives, made it a sweeter, lighter family-friendly soap opera, placed it in fictional small town Ohio, and expanded it to include bereaved parents, labor relations, interracial marriage, suspiciously viewed foreign war brides, and screwball couples who’d be at home in a Howard Hawks movie, Homefront is what you’d get. “The world would never be so simple again,” said the ad tagline, which gives you the premise in a nutshell.

The cast had many (now-)familiar faces: Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Ken Jenkins (Dr. Kelso on Scrubs), Mimi Kennedy (Dharma & Greg), John Slattery (Mad Men), Dick Anthony Williams, David Newsom, Hattie Winston, Wendy Phillips, Jessica Steen and more. The dozen main characters were mostly grouped around three families: the Metcalfs, strictly blue collar, Rosie the Riveter mom and daughter displaced from their jobs when the men come back, and aspiring baseball player heartthrob son who was fooling around with his brother’s girl while he was at war. There’s the black Davis family with a highly decorated son who brings home a white bride. The Davises dream of opening a restaurant but in the meantime are chauffeur and maid for the rich factory owners the Sloans, who lose their son in the war but gain his pregnant Italian wife, a survivor of Auschwitz. That’s only one of the blows the Sloans’ image and social standing takes as they’re buffeted by the rise of the union and the demands of a changing workforce. Sergeant Hailey (Harry O’Reilly, who I just spotted in Tower Heist as I’m writing this) comes home with a British wife who’s a bit of a shrew and whose modern ideas turn out to be incompatible with his. There’s the spunky screwball girl and wannabe actress (Tammy Lauren) who’s waiting for her sweetheart to return but meets his wife instead and has to plan for a different future. And every small town has to have the sultry siren, the war widow dame (Kelly Rutherford) who looks like she walked straight out of a noir (producers did cast for her Gloria Grahame attitude). Those roles, filled by extremely talented actors (especially the women), were set up as a microcosm of society, every class and type with whom we’d watch the postwar age unfold.

kyle

One thing I vividly remember (and had confirmed by binge watching episodes on youtube) is that the lifestyles and styling seem just the way you’d expect in reality, meaning it looks like the character came home after seeing the latest Betty Grable or Veronica Lake movie, ran to the mirror and mimicked her look, as opposed to you being painfully aware you’re looking at a 90s actress playing dress-up. They act as believable people, not as reasonable facsimiles; some trendy, some traditional, each looking as they should. It’s no wonder the show was nominated for over a dozen Emmys, and won four for art direction, hair and costuming. Wherever you lay your eyes there’s a detail and a touch of realism someone thought to include: furniture, cars, slang, gossip, products, sponsors, newsreels, all were woven in where appropriate. The brides from Europe are wearing dresses authentic to their regions, and according to the complaints of some of the actresses, even the underwear was uncomfortably vintage. The show was even shot in the style that would have been in use in the 40s, so for example they used no zoom lenses. Music was a huge part of the series and it was picked carefully, featuring deeper, more meaningful tracks than just the basic Swing’s Greatest Hits compilation. I remember a dance contest story that really put the tunes to good use, with most characters involved and the prize being that most coveted portal to fame, a Hollywood screen test.

hf

Homefront had its moments of hitting you over the head, sometimes with cheese and corn, and other times with pet issues; for example in the steel mill labor stories, boss Sloan was almost always an insensitive and ignorant capitalist villain against the almost always sympathetic union, characterizations as flat as cardboard, but parts like that were balanced out by fair and intelligent writing, so on the whole you didn’t get the sense you were looking at 90s writers condescendingly portraying some “pathetic specimens of the unenlightened past.” Good old fashioned traditional values like courtship were in there, and mostly without cynicism, as one reviewer wrote, it was like a wholesome Norman Rockwell painting come to life, but you also got the necessary portion of social realism beneath that pretty painting, of unmarried girls facing pregnancy scares, the struggle of trying to walk after polio, dealing with racism, civil rights struggles, PTSD and divorce. Religion was depicted not as bigoted, weird and backward (as in most entertainment now), but as the deep, central and organized parts of life that they were, with beliefs inextricably linked to how people dealt with each other and to those Big Societal Changes. One of the fun angles of the show was how it depicted the rapidly changing world of marketing and advertising, seen as we tracked Lauren’s character who gets a job hawking Lemo Tomato Juice on the radio (she seems to be one of the few who foresees that TV will be a thing), or Chandler’s endorsement deals when he’s signed to the Cleveland Indians. “I’m in bread!” he marvels, as a kid hands him a baseball card he wants autographed. I read a review complaining that as the series went on it tried to pack in far too much history, but that seems easily explained because it was A) a soap opera after all, they all deal in momentous events, B) a show constantly on the verge of cancellation, so presumably they tried to shoehorn in all the period-specific cool ideas while they could, and C) intentional, since the producers said they built a frantic pace into the show, basing it on everyone’s rush to get on with life after the war.

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Homefront was one of the best examples of comfort television I’ve ever seen, and with the critical acclaim and the awards it got, it deserves a better place in TV history than just being a cute soap. It was a bigger step than people realize, toward the high production-value throwback series we enjoy now like Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire. But because of poor network promo, six time slot moves by ABC, an expensive production budget, and chronically low ratings, it barely squeaked out two full seasons and is pretty much forgotten now. With that much potential to mine in the actors, characters and plots, it would have been interesting to follow all the way through the 40s and beyond. Trivia I found in research: Dear Abby was a big fan of the series, promoted it in her columns and kickstarted a letter drive to save the show. I’m no Dear Abby but this is my little request: I’d love to see this “just swell” 40s story get a dvd or streaming release and watch it all again from more than just degraded VHS uploads.

(…and some of the 90s commercials I saw included on those uploaded videos? LOL those pathetic specimens of the unenlightened past…)

many details to refresh my memory came from this Homefront guide archive

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3 thoughts on “Homefront, TV’s Postwar Flashback”

  1. love love love this show. We just dug up our copies we DVR’d in what… 2003, 2005 when American Lifetime aired them and we are watching through them. Why is it that shows which were so well done ended up getting cancelled too soon??

    1. thanks for visiting! Yes I always loved it too, and was so upset when it got cancelled. It opened my eyes to big band swing so I really owe it a lot for forming my tastes. Hope it gets a release sometime.

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