The Brady Bunch

The Brady Bunch

1969 - United Kingdom

Poor Sherwood Schwartz. His two best-known sitcom creations -Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch were the targets of critics who found them juvenile, predictable tripe. But in the case of The Brady Bunch -a comedy about two families who came together as one- Schwartz was as relevant as other new-wave sitcom producers such as Norman Lear and Grant Tinker. Schwartz noted a social trend and created a series to reflect it. Yes, The Brady Bunch was occasionally juvenile, often predictable and (certainly in its final season) banal. But it was a very likeable comedy about a nice family and their wisecracking housekeeper in Southern California. Today, The Brady Bunch lives on in American social culture, thanks to more encores than just about any sitcom in history. Let's face facts: The Brady Bunch WAS 'That 70’s Show!'

Schwartz says the idea for the Brady's came when he noticed government figures showing an increasing number of Americans living in "blended families" by the late 1960’s -that up to 30% of all families had at least one child from a previous marriage. In 1968, he pitched the idea to the three major US networks, but no one bit. That same year, two theatrical films came out about the premise. "With Six You Get Eggroll", starring Doris Day and Brian Keith, was not much of a success, but the other, "Yours, Mine and Ours", was a smash hit. It starred Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, a pair of widows (she was the wife of a Navy officer, he WAS a Naval officer) who married and combined their 18-plus children into one household. The film was based on a real-life family, and proved that a story about large, blended families could work. With the success of "Yours", ABC gave the green light for Schwartz to film a pilot. 

Schwartz created the simple story of an architect named Mike Brady (Robert Reed), a widower with three boys, older Greg (Barry Williams); middle boy Peter (Christopher Knight) and youngest Bobby (Mike Lookinland). Their household was run by the efficient, wisecracking maid Alice Nelson (Ann B. Davis, the Emmy-winning veteran of The Bob Cummings Show, which Schwartz co-wrote). Alice had a commitment-shy boyfriend, butcher Sam Franklin (veteran comedy actor Allan Melvin).

Then there was the story of a lovely lady named Carol Martin (Florence Henderson) who was bringing up her equally lovely girls: Marcia (Maureen McCormick); Jan (Eve Plumb) and Cindy (Susan Olsen). (Carol was originally written as a divorcee, but the show never mentioned whether she divorced or became a widow.) As the now-famous theme song explained, Mike and Carol met, fell in love, and got married (the basis for the show’s pilot, which aired on September 26th, 1969). vThe Brady Bunch drew its ideas from real-life situations that happened to Schwartz’s children and the young cast. It dealt with sibling rivalry, childhood problems, and parental authority-but did so in an entertaining yet predictable form, complete with a lecture from dad Mike to tie up the loose ends. The show was nearly cancelled in its first season, but younger viewers were tuning in, and that made it a gold mine for advertisers and ABC. (The Brady's benefited from the growing trend of "demographics", which found that TV shows could have the right audience, rather than the largest audience, and still succeed.) It was never a top-25 hit during its original run, but The Brady Bunch proved to be good counter-programming against more adult shows on rivals CBS and NBC.

The Brady's never dealt head-on with such issues as race, drug use, or the counter-culture. When it did, it poked fun in a clumsy way at evolving trends such as women’s liberation. For star Robert Reed, he felt 'The Brady Bunch' was too cartoonish and kept clashing with Schwartz over the show’s writing and direction. (Reed was bound by contract to appear on the show; he felt it was a comedown compared to his former role as attorney Kenneth Preston on the well-regarded legal series 'The Defenders'.)

There was also another problem: Robert Reed was a gay man in the closet. While he kept his personal life off 'The Brady Bunch' set, co-star Henderson had inkling about Reed’s sexual orientation during their early lacklustre scenes of kissing and affection.

If Reed had personal and professional problems on stage, they didn’t spill over to the kids. By all accounts, Reed treated the six young actors as his own children, even taking them on trips during the summer hiatus. And the kids proved to be a far cry from their squeaky-clean TV roles in real life. Several of the cast members dated each other; Barry Williams even went on a 'date' with star Florence Henderson (it was all perfectly innocent, to Williams’ chagrin).

In 1971, the Brady Kids began singing on the series as Williams tried to launch a solo music career not unlike David Cassidy of 'The Partridge Family.' While the efforts never really got off the ground, the six young actors began singing the show’s theme song in the second season (a group called The Peppermint Trolley Company warbled the theme during Season One).

In 1972, ABC launched a Saturday morning cartoon series called 'The Brady Kids', where the cast members showed up in animated form -not unlike popular kids series as 'The Archies' and 'Josie and the Pussycats.' It ran until 1974. So did the parent show. Declining ratings and growing tensions on the set marked the final season of 'The Brady Bunch.' The young actors demanded more money than Schwartz was willing to offer, while Reed was angry over what he saw as increasingly bad scripts. In fact, Reed refused to appear on what would be the show’s final episode, where Bobby tries to sell a bogus hair growth tonic. That same season, the producers added a younger cast member to the final episodes, Carol’s cousin Oliver (Robbie Rist). ABC decided a sixth season was not profitable, and The Brady Bunch ended its original run on August 30th, 1974.

Like 'Gilligan’s Island', 'The Brady Bunch' became even more popular in reruns on local stations across the country. That syndication success prompted ABC to consider a comeback for the Bradys. Producers Sid and Marty Kroft, who had success with the now-classic kid’s series 'H.R. Puffnstuff' and Donny & Marie’s variety series, put together a similar programme for early Sunday nights. The premise of 'The Brady Bunch Hour' had Mike give up his career as an architect so that the fictional Bradys could be on television. All the original cast members returned for this show, except for Eve Plumb; Geri Reischl played the role of Jan Brady. But it was the same predictable Brady family in a predictable variety format, wearing gosh-awful costumes that epitomized the worst in 1970’s fashion. Viewer interest boosted ratings for the first episode in January 1977, but the audience quickly fell off and 'The Brady Bunch Hour' was gone by May.

In February 1981 came 'The Brady Brides', where both Marcia and Jan became newlyweds and lived together under one roof with their husbands. Eve Plumb returned to the fold; Ann B. Davis and Florence Henderson were also on hand as regulars. But this version of the Brady saga lasted just three months on NBC. The popularity of 'The Brady Bunch' reruns continued during the 1980’s, prompting Sherwood Schwartz to launch a reunion for the show’s 20-year anniversary. In December 1988 came A Very Brady Christmas, a two-hour TV movie for CBS with all the original cast members that drew the highest ratings for a made-for-television film that season. 

Encouraged with the numbers, CBS ordered a new “Brady” series for the 1989-90 season. After life as two sitcoms and a variety show, 'The Brady’s' took on the family drama format. All the cast members were back except for Maureen McCormick; actress Leah Ayers took the role of Marcia. But unlike the lighthearted Brady Bunch of the 1970’s, the older Brady’s faced a number of personal crises, including Bobby being injured in a race car accident. Critics denounced the series, calling it a poor version of the successful ‘yuppie” drama 'thirtysomething.' Schwartz wanted the show to air at a later hour so it could deal with more adult issues. But CBS yanked 'The Brady’s' three months after its February 1990 debut. Sadly, Robert Reed was the first of the original cast members to pass away; he died May 12th, 1992 of AIDS and cancer complications.

Meanwhile, something unusual was going on in Chicago. A group of actors put on what they called 'The Real Live Brady Bunch'. Taking scripts from the original series, the troupe played up the “camp” aspects of the show to an audience that had watched 'The Brady Bunch' in reruns after school. It was parody, but it had a true love for the show. 'The Real Live Brady Bunch' was a surprise hit in the Windy City and became the subject of many a television news programme. It also led executives at Paramount Pictures to consider a “Brady” movie that didn’t take itself as seriously as the old show did.

'The Brady Bunch Movie' was released in the spring of 1995. Actress-turned-director Betty Thomas helmed the feature, with Gary Cole and Shelley Long as Mike and Carol Brady, along with a new batch of actors as the Brady kids. The joke was that the Brady’s were still living in the 1970’s (bad hair, bad clothes, avocado green kitchen and all), while the cruder, meaner world of the mid-1990’s lies outside their Clinton Way home. It worked for the most part, because it managed to poke fun at the era yet still treat the Brady’s in a loving manner. (It was co-written by Bonnie and Terry Turner, who would later create 'Third Rock From The Sun' and-ironically- 'That 70’s Show!') The movie was a hit at the box office and led to 'A Very Brady Sequel' in the summer of 1996. It wasn’t as good in part because it had different writers and a new director; also, Brady fans squirmed at the not-so-subtle inference that Marcia and Greg were engaging in something other than innocent brother-sister affection!

A third “Brady” film was made, but it was not released to theatres. Instead, 'The Brady Bunch in the White House' aired as a TV film on Fox in November 2002. As the title implied, the Brady’s found themselves as America’s First Family through a series of unplausable events. Low ratings for this outing probably killed the “Brady” franchise—at least for now.

But like cockroaches and Cher, you can bet the Brady’s will be back in some form. For a generation that grew up with the show, 'The Brady Bunch' was the perfect blended family where every problem was resolved in less than 30 minutes. Yet its traditional form has proven to be the video equivalent of “comfort food” for themselves, their children, and future generations. 

'The Brady Bunch' began a run in the UK on 21st May 1975, just over a year after the last episode had been transmitted in the USA. It was never a big hit in Britain and was shown generally on weekdays around 5.15pm between children's programmes and before the early evening news. More as a time-filler than essential viewing one would say. In total 114 episodes of the 117 made were shown between 1975 and 1982 by which time it seemed very dated. 

Published on November 30th, 2018. Michael Spadoni (2004).

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