[6 August 2008]
It’s a testament to the charm and talent of the I Dream of Jeannie cast that 40 years and a few waves of feminism later, the sitcom about a genie from Babylon and the astronaut boyfriend she calls “master” still seems like innocent, kooky fun. In the first four seasons, the scantily-clad Jeannie (Barbara Eden) lived in sin with Anthony Nelson (Larry Hagman), so by the fifth and last season, the writers decided it was time to make an honest woman of her; this season features the long-awaited marriage between the mismatched couple.
Aside from a few episodes that deal with Jeannie’s new status as a wife, the humor still primarily centers on her mischief making and everyone’s attempts to restore order to the domestic and public spaces she’s disrupted. (She can, after all, turn NASA upside down with the blink of an eye).
I Dream of Jeannie’s origin story sets the bar for the realism of the show. During a NASA space mission, Anthony Nelson’s spacecraft crashes on a remote island. When he gets out, he bumps into a bottle, and out comes Jeannie in a puff of hot pink smoke. She kisses him, they fall in love, and he decides to take her home to live with him. (Even after watching this show as a kid and in re-runs for decades, I still couldn’t tell you where exactly Jeannie slept at night. In bed with Major Nelson? In her splendid bachelorette pad of a bottle lined in silk and strewn with pink pillows?)
Every episode of I Dream of Jeannie played off a recurring scenario. Jeannie uses her magical powers (or is visited by some crazy relatives) which creates a problem for Major Nelson. He and his colleague, the goofy playboy Roger Healey at NASA (the wonderful Bill Daily), must somehow make sure NASA’s head psychiatrist Dr. Alfred Bellows (Hayden Rorke) doesn’t find out. Dr. Bellows’ baffled expression as Anthony, Roger, and Jeannie try to pull the wool over his eyes becomes one of the shows oft-repeated and funny visuals.
Like vaudevillian pros adept at corny jokes and slapstick physical humor, the ensemble cast of I Dream of Jeannie worked marvelously together. Once Jeannie gets the ball rolling with mischief-making magic, the pleasure in watching the surreal hijinks that ensue doesn’t get old. (Well, OK, three episodes in a row was my limit.) Whether she creates a 13th floor of a hotel because all the rooms are booked, gives Dr. Bellows’ slightly hipper and younger wife Amanda (Emmaline Henry) a beauty cream that turns her into a 20-something sexpot, or has to figure out how to allow photographers at the wedding even though genies can’t be photographed, we know that Anthony and Roger will go to absurd lengths to hide it from Dr. Bellows, his wife, and anyone else at NASA who may find something fishy going on with the Nelsons.
Roger’s inclusion on the secret between Jeannie and Anthony creates an interesting alliance among the three of them. It’s as if Jeannie’s magic and his acceptance of it separates the generation divide so clearly set up in I Dream of Jeannie between the swinging ‘60s generation and the old fogies back at NASA.
The “Never Put Jeannie on a Budget” episode contrasts the show’s conservatism with its openness to the era’s anything goes questioning of middle-class values. Jeannie, without “master’s” knowledge, takes on boarders to save money. (Not surprisingly, Jeannie is woefully inept as a housewife.) This new frugality coincides with a visit from a Russian cosmonaut Major Nelson has been instructed by Dr. Bellows to impress. Although the Russian is horrified by the tiny portions Jeannie makes for dinner (dessert is an apple slice) and the fact that a famous American astronaut is so poor he has to take in boarders, all is redeemed when the hippies have a swinging party, complete with Russian folk music and dancing.
As if to acknowledge the cramp Jeannie’s status as wife has put into the show’s style, the fifth season includes a couple of characters who up the ante on naughty antics to make up for Jeannie’s newfound conservatism. Djin Djin, the mutt from Babylon, shows up in “Djin Djin the Pied Piper” to wreak havoc at NASA, and in “My Sister, the Home Wrecker”, Jeannie’s smoldering, brunette trollop of a twin sister (played by Eden) shows up, dresses like Jeannie in a blonde wig, and tries to convince everyone Jeannie’s having an affair with a star astronaut who’s in town.
One can watch only so many shows, after all, in which Jeannie longs to be a good wife. It’s a definite drag to watch “Jeannie, the Recording Secretary”, for example, an episode in which Jeannie is named timekeeper for the Officers’ Wives Club. How exciting can this be when we know Jeannie could be the queen of Babylon, go on trips abroad in the blink of an eye, and, well, create a 13th hotel floor out of thin air? It’s hard to cheer when we see the dynamo act like a Stepford Wife and ask Major Nelson to repeat, once again, “Mrs. Major Anthony Nelson”.
Ultimately, the screwball plot lines and slapstick physical humor of I Dream of Jeannie provide mindless fun, but if the viewer wants to read into the show as a document of the era’s ambivalence about feminism and The Establishment, it’s a pretty amazing symptomatic text. I Dream of Jeannie debuted on network television in 1965, after all, two years after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique urged American women to question the notion that childbearing and homemaking were the pinnacles of a fulfilling life.
If the viewer is so inclined, she can remind herself that although Jeannie looks, most of the time, like an on-call stripper in a cheesy, pink genie costume, she will never, truly be subsumed into a conventional role as a subservient housewife. Male power as represented by NASA and the US space program and conventional marriage and its rigid gender roles are upended as often as they are put back into their places on the show, making I Dream of Jeannie as potentially subversive as it seems reactionary.
The DVD bonus is minisodes from Fantasy Island and Bewitched.