Both Do Best
How can anyone not love The Brady Bunch? If you have no appreciation for kitsch or a particular kind of innovation, read no further. For the rest of us, this DVD release of the second season only secures our devotion. The innovation part begins with the premise: the Bradys were a blended family (both parents widowed before marrying each other), a far cry from tv’s usual nuclear image at the time. While the series doesn’t offer radical social critiques, it does attempt to normalize a nontraditional unit, reassuring viewers of the Bradys’ functionality at a moment when divorce rates were spiking.
For all their difference, they were very much the same: in these 24 episodes, Mike (Robert Reed) and Carol (Florence Henderson) and their six kids bear up under standard sitcom fare. Greg (Barry Williams) wants to grow up too fast and hit on older girls, join a band, and smoke; his parents slow him down, all too easily. Similarly, they stop Marcia (Maureen McCormick) from going steady within a half hour’s storyline. Peter (Christopher Knight, who emerged remarkably unscathed from last season’s The Surreal Life) and Jan (Eve Plumb) learn life lessons like taking responsibility for their actions (when Peter breaks Carol’s favorite vase) or learning to accept one’s identity (when Jan dyes her hair brown to be different). And Bobby (Mike Lookinland) and Cindy (Susan Olsen) overcome typical childhood fears (Bobby deals with heights, Cindy with the dark). Live-in housekeeper Alice (Ann B. Davis) mugs for the camera, her presence raising a persistent question: if she’s keeping the house and nurturing the kids, what’s Carol doing?
In this TV comfort food, the problems are slight, the solutions easy. The formula brings pleasure in its simplicity and repetition, in the appealing characters, in the assurance that troubles will be resolved. Many DVD purchasers will be nostalgic for their youth. Here again, you’ll experience the split-level ranch house, beaded vests, Astroturf, and “groovy” vocabulary. The ‘70s was a simpler time in our collective memory, and has inspired new kitsch, like Fox’s long-running That ‘70s Show or MTV’s new The 70s House.
But it wasn’t all so simple then. Oh no. This season also finds the Bradys tackling a couple of meaty themes, even if they do so with their usual cheery reductiveness.
On the topic of gender, the show is topical but trite. In “The Liberation of Marcia Brady,” Marcia says of the Women’s Liberation Movement, “Well, if we’re all supposed to be created equal, I guess that means girls as well as boys.” She decides to join Greg’s Frontier Scouts to prove she can do what boys can do. An irritated Greg sends Peter to join the Sunflower Girls to prove that gender inclusiveness is silly. While Peter drops out after being humiliated while selling cookies door to door, Marcia makes it through the outdoors initiation test and can join the Scouts. Though Greg resists her participation and Mike thinks it a bit “kooky,” they both come around to supporting her success. But the episode returns everything to “normal” by the end. Marcia actually doesn’t want to be a Scout, she would rather read fashion magazines. Mike and Carol agree that boys and girls should do “what each does best,” though, at some things, “both do best.”
Concerning family life, the show is more aggressive. In “A Fistful of Reasons,” Carol writes a story about her family for Tomorrow’s Woman magazine. The editor rejects the first draft because it isn’t “positive” enough. Carol writes a new shiny, happy version that none of her family likes (Marcia describes it as too “goody, goody”) but the editor wants it. At the end of a chaotic visit with the Bradys, reviewers sent by the magazine encourage Carol to “tell it like it is” because “the model family exists only in fiction.” At this point, the editor accepts the first version of the story after all. The episode thus gently critiques family stereotypes. Yet the household disarray the reviewers found so refreshing is actually quite tame. Carol answers in the door in rollers and a robe because she got the meeting time wrong. The boys arrive home with Peter sporting a black eye because he got in a fight with a schoolyard bully. Mike rushes in, bumps into Carol, and drops a bunch of flowers everywhere. The girls arrive arguing. The Bradys’ problems (like kids arguing, skinned knees, or burnt food) never exceed functional family stereotypes.
Who knew the Bradys didn’t want to be seen as “goody, goody”? Though such plotlines insist that the Bradys are an accurate reflection of ‘70s families, they remain squeaky-TV clean. Their gestures toward realism are not as central to the series as its escapism. And if highbrow viewers don’t want to tune in to the Bradys’ world, well then, that’s just more polka dots and bellbottoms for us.