It’s a little heartbreaking when you revisit something you loved in your childhood and it turns out to be not nearly as good as you remembered it. You question your own memory–were you just more easily entertained back then, or has it been warped by the comfortable warmth of nostalgia? I mean, have you seen an episode of The Brady Bunch recently? It’s awful. The pits. The acting is terrible, and the most exciting it got was wondering if Greg was going to win the big surfing contest in Hawaii. And yet, I watched every fucking episode of this stupid, corny TV show when I was kid, many more than once.
It wasn’t as if I was a captive audience, I knew how to change the channel–you used a pair of pliers to turn the broken knob. I just felt compelled to watch it every day after school. A lot of kids did–like Firefly, The Brady Bunch had the rare distinction of becoming more popular after it was canceled. Despite it being one of the most iconic TV shows of the 70s, it only aired in its original run for a little over four years, and never made it to the top 30 most watched shows during primetime. Only when it went into syndication did it hit the jackpot, appealing to little dorks like me who thought the idea of living in a house with five other kids (six if you counted Cousin Oliver) sounded awesome.
Not surprisingly, there were numerous attempts, almost all disastrous, at expanding oeuvre du Brady. The first was The Brady Kids, a cartoon in which Marcia, Greg, et.al., live in a treehouse with a pair of talking pandas and a magic bird. Not quite as weird as the cartoon where Laverne and Shirley join the Army and their drill sergeant is a pig with the voice of Horshack, but pretty goddamn close (I’m not making any of that up, by the way). Then there was the legendary Brady Bunch Variety Hour, which most people thought was merely just the actors appearing in a variety show, like virtually every celebrity did during the 70s at some point. But no, this was actually supposed to be the Bradys themselves, having somehow been offered the opportunity to star in their own variety show, with behind the scenes plots, including Alice, having dumped Sam the Butcher when showbiz called, being wooed by none other than Rip Taylor. Once again, not making any of this up, and the really bizarre thing is, despite Robert Reed never enjoying his role as patriarch Mike Brady on the original show, he loved doing this godawful thing, with the whole family (minus Eve Plumb, who wisely had to get her nails done that day or something) wearing matching spangled costumes and singing covers of “Turn the Beat Around.” I suppose it’s inevitable that I’ll get around to watching an episode for this, but I just don’t have the intestinal fortitude it requires yet.
Eve Plumb, opting for something slightly less embarrassing, returned for The Brady Girls Get Married, a two-part special intended to be spun off into a whole new series. Marcia and Jan have a double wedding (of course) in the Brady homestead (where else?), and continuing to sacrifice plausibility in the name of sweet cashola, they move into another house together (in the same neighborhood as the old one, so it’s convenient for guest appearances) with their new husbands. Marcia, a fashion designer, is married to Wally, who works for a toy company. Jan, an architect, is married to Philip, who’s a college professor. Wally, a fun-loving slob, is super different from Philip, an uptight nerd, and…well, that’s it. That’s the entire premise of The Brady Brides, and the fact that it lasted ten episodes on that paper-thin plot is pretty remarkable.
I watched the fifth episode, and even by then the show still makes a workmanlike effort at constantly reminding the audience how different Wally and Philip are. Boorish, loud Wally finagles his way out of doing the dishes, while effete, fussy Philip wears a dress shirt and tie to do repairs around the house. It’s like Oscar Madison and Felix Unger had a couple of annoying sons and married them off to Mike and Carol Brady’s daughters.
The “plot” of this episode is Wally bringing home an enormous stuffed gorilla that looks like a villain from Dr. Who. The toy company Wally works for has gotten this thing, which has googly eyes and the round, gaping mouth of a RealDoll, from a nightmare factory and plans to sell it. Why Wally is required to bring it home with him first is unclear, and nobody seems to question that so much as where they’re going to put this horrible portent of sleepless nights and torment.
Uh oh! Philip is bringing home one of his bosses for dinner the next night, wherever will they put the gorilla? Nobody suggests “in one of the bedrooms,” instead deciding that they’ll just try covering it with a sheet instead. Good ol’ Alice shows up to discuss a neighborhood watch committee, and spots the sheet covered devil’s afterbirth right away. If you guessed that she leaps into Wally’s arms in terror at the sight of it, congratulations, you’ve completed your sitcom writer correspondence course, please accept this diploma and let me know if your name is spelled wrong.
Four at least partially educated adults are still unable to come up with the idea of hiding the gorilla in one of the bedrooms, so when next we see it, it’s tumbling out of a closet, naturally right in front of Philip’s boss, who, understandably, flees in horror. But before that, we meet Harry, a streetwise, sassy kid who Wally has befriended as an unofficial consultant for the toy business. As you could probably guess, Harry is black, and naturally greets Philip by slapping him five, which Philip reacts to with bafflement, even though it’s 1981. The audience just loves Harry, especially when he says grownup things like “Bo Derek? Now that's a toy!” Oh, sassy black child, we could just eat you up with a spoon.
In the meantime, because there’s been a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood, Marcia, Jan, and their mother practice self-defense skills, wearing matching leotard and tight sets like they’re auditioning for Bob Fosse. Jan proves remarkably well at flipping people, a skill which of course will come to great use and tremendous comic relief by the end of the episode. Well, great use at least.
As the episode so skillfully foreshadows, Marcia and Jan’s house is next on the burglar’s list. Have no fear, this is one of those ineffectual, bumbling burglars who wouldn’t be able to steal anything if he was given a key and a garbage bag. Naturally, he too jumps in pants-shitting terror at the sight of the gorilla, waking everyone up. Everyone spends time trading tired, profoundly unfunny quips rather than fearing for their lives, and it’s only when the burglar threatens to steal Philip’s prized fish (how would that work–who cares?) that they take action. Philip snatches the gun out of the burglar’s hand, while Jan–surprise!–flips him to the ground.
Because it’s a slow news week, the thwarted burglary makes it into the school newspaper where Philip teaches, and somehow this completely unrelated event earns him the promotion he feared he lost after terrorizing his boss with the gorilla. “So everything turned out for the best!” Wally says. I’m not kidding, he literally says this. The episode ends with Philip, trying to get in touch with his lighter side, pretending to be a gorilla. Comedy!
Woof. This was the longest 22 minutes I’ve willingly sat through in quite a while. The Brady Bunch looks like Arrested Development compared to this. The running gag of how different Wally and Philip are is forced and boring, especially since they’re equally irritating (though Philip introducing himself to everyone, including children and burglars, as “Philip Covington the Third,” like a total fucking toolbag, has a slight edge). In their thankless roles as straight women to the battling man children they’re married to, Maureen McCormick and Eve Plumb do try and are likable enough, but, like the entire show, there’s an air of desperation to their pained “oh, honey” smiles. They didn’t want the rest of their careers riding on something they had done when they were adolescents, but the reality of that loomed over them, like a hideous, giant, stuffed gorilla.
Three shows, none of them lasting a big impression on NBC during the tail-end of its dark days, with only Harper Valley P.T.A. getting a second season, and even that was slightly re-tooled from its original premise.