Prime time's first countercultural hero was a palomino named Mr. Ed.
Since humankind first donned stirrups, this planet has been home to two groups of people: those who love horses and those who find the creatures, with their shaggy bangs and Richard Branson teeth, a little weird. Mister Ed, which premiered in 1961 and ran for five years, was born in equal measure of both tastes. For horse lovers, it was an anthropomorphic Liebestraum, a vision of the world in which hoofed beasts were not just lithe and gorgeous but possessed of an uncommon, prime-time-eligible wit. (Ed, the talking palomino, got his own billing in the credits and most of the show's best lines.) For the ambivalent, there was the added comedy of seeing a gawky animal enjoy the sacraments of postwar culture. Ed submits to psychoanalysis, goes to costume pageants, orders shoes over the phone. The joke is not just that he acts human; it's the implication that the better part of early-'60s home life could be managed, quite adeptly, by a horse with a vocabulary.
Today, the show remains bizarrely, often startlingly, funny, and the reason is largely this playful skewering of the era's domestic conventions. Mister Ed was both a product of its time and an indictment of it. The show straddled a seam in postwar life—the great migration, basically, from long skirts to long hair—and channeled both worlds as a result. Its first episodes were sponsored by a group of Studebaker dealerships, then ascendant, and they aired during the final three weeks of the Eisenhower administration. By the time the finale appeared in February 1966, Studebaker had the death rattle, Johnson was ramping up the war, and Dylan was recording Blonde on Blonde. Like most TV shows of that era, Mister Ed was flying into a cultural crosswind. Unlike many, it had seen the storm approaching from the start. The oracle of change, in this case, was the horse.
In order to appreciate just what Mr. Ed brings to the small screen, it is helpful to imagine Mister Ed minus its four-legged star. A horseless version of the show would have been uninspired but not unwatchable. Stripped of its barnyard conceit, the program is essentially a couples farce like I Love Lucy: Husbands and wives drop in on one another's homes for badinage and card games; team up, men vs. women; and bumble through domestic and career imbroglios that vanish by the closing credits. The first episode of the show's debut season (recently rereleased on DVD) begins with Wilbur Post, a freelance architect, carrying his wife across the threshold of a Southern California house they cannot quite afford. "Oh, darling, isn't it beautiful?" she exclaims. "And it's all ours." "Yes," Wilbur croons back. "Yours and mine and man from the bank." Their first domestic argument follows after a short commercial break.
It's into this precarious late-Eisenhower bliss that Mr. Ed appears. He is a horse with an uncertain past. The previous residents of the Posts' house "had to leave in a hurry," whatever that might mean, and left the animal behind. Wilbur is smitten. When he finds the horse can speak—and only to him!—he takes up the animal as his life coach, prophet, and professional consultant. Wilbur configures his home office such that his drafting board is beside the window where Ed holds forth, and he spends hours of each week playing attorney to the horse's whims. Frequently, Mr. Ed's whims run directly contrary to those of Wilbur's wife, Carol. Alarmingly, Wilbur often ends up siding with the horse. It is difficult to shake the sense that underneath the Doris Day-grade cheer, this is a wickedly dysfunctional household.
What, exactly, is Ed's hold over his owner? This is unclear. Mr. Ed and Wilbur's shared live-work space casts them into a bizarre yin-yang symbiosis: Ed is the horse who talks, and Wilbur is the man who spends his days in a barn. Wilbur is naive and suggestible. Ed is tetchy, enterprising, urbane. The horse's default mode is accusatory going on paranoid, and he retches his sentences from deep within the throat like William S. Burroughs after a hard night. His mangy teeth flash at the camera. Ed finds Wilbur and Carol's chaste lovey-dovey exchanges "sickening" and doesn't shy from bawdier flights of erotic realism. In one episode, Carol starts spending a bit too much time out with her club for her husband's taste. "If you were a real man," Ed chides Wilbur, "she'd stay home nights." We know what he's talking about, but it's hard to believe that Wilbur does.
At the start of the first season, Wilbur's white-bread innocence and Mr. Ed's picaresque retorts come from two different worlds. (Both were actually scripted by a rotating cast of writers, including Ben Starr, who went on to write for The Brady Bunchand The Facts of Life.) For the modern viewer, this cross-lighting can produce some strange illusions. Ed's ironic rejoinders seem, at times, like the jaded commentary of someone watching the show 50 years later.
It is tempting to regard Mr. Ed as Wilbur's id incarnate: the racy voice that speaks to him when he is all alone, unhampered by his wife, his neighbors, and their all-devouring Gemütlichkeit. That's a fair assessment—Mr. Ed's complaints could easily point toward a black-hole-of-the-postwar-soul of the kind we hear so much about. But take another step back, and a more surprising constellation comes into focus. The horse's quirks gesture less toward suburban malaise and more toward a kind of nascent counterculture.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell. Clips from Mister Ed © Orion Production Corp. All rights reserved.