Most TV theme songs are brief bursts of tone-setting music or washes of discordant notes played over the cold open. There was a time, though, when the TV theme was an opportunity to tell the show’s story through the universal language of music.
Think of the togetherness mantra of Family Ties or the belly-up-to-the-bar invitation of Cheers. These songs didn’t refer specifically to the shows’ characters by name, and they didn’t say the shows’ titles, but they were about the show. Vagueness and generality gave casual and first time viewers a refresher in what the shows were about.
The Mr. Belvedere theme—written by Judy Hart-Angelo and Gary Portnoy, the same duo behind the Cheers theme—is one of the last great TV themes to serve as not only a catchy ditty, but also an extension of the narrative.
At the beginning of the series, mother Marsha (Ilene Graff) is back in college studying to be a lawyer, and father George (Bob Uecker) is busy covering sports for the local paper. The parents’ busy schedule takes them away from home and their three kids, Kevin (Rob Stone), Heather (Tracy Wells) and Wesley (Brice Beckham). The parents place an ad for a “domestic” (George’s word), and their call is answered by Lynn Belvedere (Christopher Hewett), a proper English housekeeper who arrives on their doorstep in the midst of a snowstorm and ends up staying for six seasons.
The opening tinkling of the piano indicates the air of sophistication with which Belvedere carries himself, but it soon gives way to a raucous dixieland jazz band and Leon Redbone’s signature vocals. As the theme plays, a series of still photographs detail Mr. Belvedere’s travels around the world before arriving at the doorstep of the Owens family in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.
The opening piano returns as the cast gathers for a family photo, and it all ends with a big burst of horn and drums. This mixture of the serious and the zany sums up the tone of the show, and the plot is summed up lyrically: a “new arrival” enters the Owens’ lives when “things get turned around” and in the process he teaches them valuable lessons like “life is more than mere survival/and we just might live the good life yet.”
From the beginning, George bristles at the arrival of Belvedere and those life lessons, a recurring theme of the show. George, played as a typical tough guy by Uecker, says he pictured someone “more like Hazel” when he placed the ad for a housekeeper, a reference which was old when this show premiered in 1985 and would likely be totally lost on most viewers today.
But this reversal of “traditional” gender roles is a source of jokes throughout the show, as when Wesley takes ballet classes and when Kevin struggles with his home economics class. George sees these changes in the Owens’ as threats to the family, and he puts the blame squarely on Belvedere.
During the first few episodes, George makes constant references to firing Belvedere due to this disruptions of the status quo, but this plot device soon wears thin and is slowly phased out (though never completely). After all, it wouldn’t make sense for the titular character to leave the show. A few episodes into season one, though, it’s clear that, though the show is called Mr. Belvedere, it’s not about Mr. Belvedere. The show is about family.
The Owens are a typical American sitcom family: white, middle class (though somehow able to afford a live-in housekeeper) and concerned with the usual struggles of making ends meet, etc. The three Owens children cover the demographic bases: Eldest son Kevin is a well-meaning dolt who, in one episode, finds himself in jail for vandalizing a fur coat to impress a fetching activist and, in another, secretly playing football to earn a varsity letter to impress his sports-obsessed father.
Heather, the middle child, is often given the task of simply reacting to her brothers’ antics or talking on the phone (and running up a huge bill on the Duran Duran hotline). In another reversal of “traditional” gender roles, it’s her budding sexuality, not Kevin’s, which is prominently displayed. In one episode, the family seeks shelter from a tornado in the basement and Heather laments the fact she’s “going to die innocent”. In another, the kids learn their parents were married because their mom was pregnant with Kevin. “No wonder [mom] watches me like a hawk. She’s afraid I’ll turn out like her—a sex fiend!”
Wesley, the youngest, is both a precocious moppet and little hellion. What’s surprising about his character is that he’s rarely used for cheap laughs or cute one-liners. Wesley’s setup as something of a nemesis for Belvedere, his complete physical opposite, and the two often trade wisecracks.
Mr. Belvedere himself is a strange character. He appears in the first episode like Mary Poppins with facial hair and carries himself with a sense of greater purpose, a sort of acknowledgment of the theme song’s promise to change the Owens’ lives. There’s a sinister element to Hewett’s performance early on, a moustache-twisting villain quality which eventually gives way to the hammy smart-ass that inhabits the rest of the series.
In the first episode, Belvedere is like the angel and devil on the characters’ shoulders, whispering into their ears to nudge them along, to get them to act or react. It’s almost as if he’s invisible and he’s pulling the family’s strings for his, and our, amusement. This is most clear in the family portrait which appears at the end of the opening credits: the Owens sit close together on the couch and Belvedere hovers in the back, his arms stretched across the couch to surround them.
Of course, this isn’t some episode of The Twilight Zone, it’s a sitcom, and all that puppet-master creepiness is gone by the second episode. Belvedere is an accepted and fully visible part of the family’s life. Who Belvedere is remains something of a mystery, however, though bits of his biography pop up now and again.
He once worked for Sir Winston Churchill, has traveled extensively, and he adores the British royal family. Again the show isn’t about him, but in a sense it’s by him. Each episode ends with Belvedere writing in his journal. We see him in his room writing a summary of each week’s moral lesson and then making a sarcastic remark about said moral.
These scenes are a call back to Belvedere creator Gwen Davenport’s novels in which an English butler plans a book based on his extensive experiences. Despite their simple moralizing, these scenes add an extra emotional weight by showing the inner thoughts of Belvedere. Here Hewett’s Belvedere is at his most grandfatherly, such as when he beams at the chance to “whip [the Owens] into shape” in the first episode. The scenes are also a chance for sight gags, as when Belvedere tosses a fish to a seal sitting on his bed, or when he dances the mambo in his bathrobe.
Aside from Belvedere himself, Beckham’s Wesley is a standout performance, but not in an Olsen twins on Full House way. That he’s a cute kid is beside the point: Beckham is genuinely a good actor. He combines the kicking the can down the road innocence of Opie with the menace of Bart Simpson. Beckham holds his own against Hewett, and gives a great performance in the second season episode “Wesley’s Friend”. In it, Wesley learns his friend Danny has AIDS, and though the family is shocked, Wesley thinks it’s like getting caught with firecrackers—it’s something a kid shouldn’t have.
Keep in mind, this was 1986. There weren’t nearly as many television networks as there are now, and Mr. Belvedere, though never a runaway hit, was quite popular. There are still many myths and misconceptions about about AIDS and how it’s spread today, but imagine how it was in 1986. For a mainstream sitcom to tackle the controversial issue of its time is pretty daring, and the episode is executed wonderfully, striking a right balance of humor and seriousness without veering too far into preachiness or inanity.
Marsha asks, “What are we going to tell Wes?” and George replies, “I say we make something up.” It’s a funny yet real reaction to a difficult subject. They eventually explain to Wesley that Danny contracted the disease from a blood transfusion and it’s completely safe to be Danny’s friend. Still, Wesley is torn between his friendship and the taunts of his classmates, but he sides with friendship in the end. He hugs Danny at a school assembly and, without cliché or irony, it is truly touching.
The jokes on the show are rarely laugh out loud funny, but rather in a smile to yourself way, like when a family member says something funny at the dinner table. The humor is comfortable, even when it confronts an uncomfortable subject.
Bonus features on this set include brief interviews with the cast, minus the deceased Hewett and, though no reason is given, Tracy Wells. It’s a typical “we all got along so well” feature but, like the show, its cheesiness feels sincere.
The inclusion of the “Mr. Belvedere Fan Club” skit from 1991 is a welcome change to the usual DVD features. In it, Tom Hanks leads a fan club meeting which, in typical Saturday Night Live fashion, features a variety of characters acting insane while another comments on how insane they are. The skit is great, if only for hearing Chris Farley say, “Mr. Belvedere is the light of my life” and Kevin Nealon suggesting calling Mr. Belvedere “Brocktune”.
Watching Mr. Belvedere is like uncovering a repressed memory. Despite being buried under two decades of pop culture debris, it’s reemerged virtually untarnished and as good as I remembered it. Unlike most repressed memories, this show isn’t some hidden horror responsible for one’s attitudes toward housekeeps, sportscasters or the English. Instead, it’s like its wonderful theme song—a lot of fun, and hard to get out of one’s head.