Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Have Yourself Another Very Brady Christmas

On this date in 1988, TV's original Brady Bunch reunited for what would turn out to be one of their highest-rated endeavors, and certainly, after the original series (1969-74) one of their most beloved.

Sure, there had been the campy variety show The Brady Bunch Hour in 1976, and the short-lived sequel series which launched with the double wedding of Marcia and Jan, The Brady Brides, in 1981.  But it was A Very Brady Christmas that delivered huge ratings (inspiring CBS to bring back the bunch one more time in 1990, for a woefully conceived hourlong drama, The Bradys.)  I remember gathering around the TV with my college hallmates for Christmas, all of us eager to see the Bradys step so far into the '80s.

Some Very Worried Bradys
Recently, I interviewed some of the Bradys for a retrospective story, below, and had fun dissecting why their Christmas ended up being so popular.  Christopher Knight, who played middle brother Peter and from 2005-08 parlayed that fame on his own reality show My Fair Brady, had a hilarious perspective on the telefilm.  You may remember A Very Brady Christmas' hilariously cheesy ending, where a building collapses on paterfamilias Mike (Robert Reed), and yet he somehow survives thanks to his wife Carol's (Florence Henderson) miraculous singing.  "Bob Reed is resurrected in it, if you think about it.  There's even the removal of the rock!  It's a Christmas movie that ends at Easter, with a resurrection."

The Bradys are no strangers to resurrection, and who knows when will be the next time we see them all come together -- after all, apart from Reed, who died in 1992 at just age 59, the other eight original cast members, including Ann B. Davis as Alice, are still around and popping up in fun places.  (Did you catch Henderson's hilarious cameo on 30 Rock a few weeks back?  Priceless!)  Here's what Knight, Henderson, Maureen McCormick (Marcia), Susan Olsen (Cindy) and even Geri Reischl ("Fake Jan" from the variety Hour) had to say about their groovy years growing up Brady.

Marcia Marcia Marcia!

The Brady Bunch Has Captivated Generation After Generation

It was the story, as The Brady Bunch’s theme song famously explained, of a lovely lady, a man named Brady, and the six kids who came together to form a blended family in groovy 1970s California.  And it’s also the story of how, even though the original Brady Bunch was cancelled in 1974 after only five seasons, the show continued to spawn spinoffs, merchandise, and movie and stage adaptations for decades.  And that’s how they all became a true pop culture phenomenon.

Created by Gilligan’s Island impresario Sherwood Schwartz, The Brady Bunch was one of the first shows to depict a blended family.  In the sitcom’s pilot, divorcee Carol, along with her three daughters, moves in with her new husband, the former widower Mike Brady, and his three boys.  Schwartz seriously considered some famous names for these leads, including Gene Hackman and The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Joyce Bulifant.  And for the ninth member of the Brady family, matronly housekeeper Alice, Schwartz initially favored actress Kathleen Freeman.

In casting the Brady kids, producers narrowed their choices to 3 blonde girls and 3 brunet boys -- and then vice versa, so that each set of kids would share the same coloring as their TV parents yet to be cast. In the end, it was brunet Robert Reed, formerly of the landmark early '60s legal series The Defenders, and blonde singer/actress Florence Henderson who landed spots in the Bradys' famous opening credits grid. In the center was Ann B Davis -- already a tv icon for her role as the man-hungry Schultzie on ‘50s sitcom Love that Bob -- as ever-faithful Alice.

“I was a huge fan of Robert Reed’s from The Defenders, and oh my gosh, he’s now my father!” recalls Maureen McCormick, aka eldest Brady daughter Marcia.  Susan Olsen, who played the famously curly-haired young Cindy, adds, “And I was so thrilled that I was going to be working with Schultzie.”

Henderson, too, credits the Bradys’ casting.  “There was a chemistry we all had.  We all felt very close to each other – and we still do.  That was a big part of the show’s success.” 

Groovy and Squeaky Clean

Premiering in September of 1969, The Brady Bunch spanned from the Summer of Love through Watergate and Vietnam, and yet its characters remained unabashedly square.  The worst thing a Brady kid ever kid was get caught with a pack of cigarettes in his varsity jacket; and even then, it turned out they truly did belong to Greg’s friend.  The show’s storylines revolved around sanitized preteen traumas like first dates, invitations to school dances, and general acts of sibling rivalry.  In its later seasons, to promote the cast’s own Partridge Family-like touring musical act, the Bradys even competed in wholesome local talent competitions.

“The show was a throwback,” remembers Christopher Knight, who played middle Brady boy Peter.  “We were right in the middle of the disaster of Vietnam, and the country was coming apart.  In three years, I was going to get drafted.  And in the middle of all this tumult, we were doing The Brady Bunch.”

But as Henderson recalls, in its troubled times, the show’s gentle nature was a big key to its appeal.  “I always felt that The Brady Bunch was like a wonderful children’s story, that you could read over and over, because it was so loving.”

A Little Variety

In 1974, after five seasons, ABC called it quits on the original Bunch – and some teenage members of its cast, wary of going through more puberty on camera, were secretly relieved.  But two years later, NBC reunited the family with a special, then a series, called The Brady Bunch Hour.  This trippy sequel of sorts – in which patriarch Mike Brady has ditched his architecture practice and moved his clan to the beach, to put on feathers-and-sequins variety numbers around a pool stocked with synchronized dancers – capitalized on the Brady kids’ earlier musical popularity, and Henderson’s rich career on TV variety shows and on Broadway.

But for the first of what would be several times in later revivals, a Brady opted out.  Producers searched worldwide, auditioning over 3,000 girls – including Paris Hilton’s mother Kathy Richards – to replace Eve Plumb as Jan.  They chose the appropriately teenage blonde singer and actress Geri Reischl -- who to this day is lovingly referred to by Brady-ologists as “Fake Jan.”

“I loved doing the disco numbers,” Reischl remembers, “and working with the famous Brady family was like going to Disneyland every day.  I never saw it as going to work.”  Even someone more jaded about the short-lived variety Hour, like the admittedly disco-hating Olsen, had to admit it was enjoyable – to perform.  “I was begging my friends at school not to watch it,” Olsen admits. “Because the outcome was embarrassing,.  But actually making the show was loads of fun.”

Forever Brady

The Hour lasted only a dozen or so weeks, as did NBC’s 1981 The Brady Brides, which saw Marcia and middle sibling Jan both marry, with the couples now cohabitating.  In 1988, the Bradys reunited for a Christmas TV movie (this time, sans Olsen), the ratings success of which inspired the development of The Bradys, a 1990 hour-long dramatic reincarnation, this time on CBS.  This time, for drama’s sake, the Bradys had uncharacteristic problems.  Bobby was in a wheelchair.  Marcia drank – although as Olsen jokingly points out, “of course that was solved in an hour.”  Only Paramount Studios’ two 1990s big-screen Brady adaptations, albeit with a new cast, proved to be a hit with Brady-craving fans.

Such fans still come up today, Knight says, and hope he’ll utter Peter’s inadvertent catchphrase, “Pork chops and applesauce.”  McCormick, too, is often reminded of Marcia’s lines “Oh, my nose!” and “Something suddenly came up.”

The messages fans relay to her, McCormick says, "have always been so good and so positive.”  And Olsen has a theory as to why new generations of fans continue to approach.  “The Brady Bunch is something you could grow up with.  A girl could start out identifying with Cindy, and end up identifying with Carol.”

Fans, Henderson says, like the show because “it was so honest and so sincere.  We really believed in it, and worked so hard.”  She continues to receive fan letters from as far away as Russia, India and China, and says the most common request she gets in person is simple:  just a hug.  “It’s wonderful to have been a part of something that people love,” she enthuses.  “And so I have hugged people around the world, and it’s a lovely feeling.”

Sunday, December 16, 2012

TV's Top 10 Snowbound Moments

Stuck at home during these wintry months, it’s easy to come down with a case of cabin fever.  But when the weather outside is frightful, at least we have our televisions’ glow to keep us warm.  And when the snow starts falling on the screen as well, those are the situations which often precipitate TV’s biggest laughs.  Below, my Top Ten episodes where chilly situations have made for some warm memories.

1.  I Love Lucy, "Lucy in the Swiss Alps," aired March 26, 1956

Snowy setting:  Swiss chalet

The Wintry Scene:  After a mountaintop picnic in snow-laden Lucerne, TV’s favorite foursome takes shelter in a cabin whose door is soon blocked by a drift.

Cracking Up:  When Lucy tries to sneak a snack of a sandwich left over from lunch, her three hungry cabin-mates pounce, expecting their fair quarter-shares.

Breaking the Ice:  After a round of true confessions – Fred has been overcharging the Ricardos $10 a month in rent; Ethel has been secretly returning it – Lucy and friends are rescued by a local oom-pah-pah band, which Ricky then books on his show to play the world’s unlikeliest rumba.

2.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show, "The Snow Must Go On," aired November 7, 1970

Snowy Setting:  Minneapolis newsroom

The Wintry Scene:  Mary is already nervous that Mr. Grant has put her in charge of the station’s live election night newscast.  And that’s before a blizzard knocks out the station’s phones and teletype.

Cracking Up:  Lacking election results and forced to ad-lib for hours, anchorman Ted Baxter resorts to his Jimmy Cagney impression and reading the numbers on his driver’s license. 

Breaking the Ice:  Mary discovers inner strength as a boss when an overtired Ted responds to her threat of termination and agrees not to deliver unsubstantiated returns announcing Minneapolis’ new mayor.

3.  The Bob Newhart Show, "I'm Dreaming of a Slight Christmas," aired December 22, 1973

Snowy Setting:  Chicago medical office

The Wintry Scene:  When his longtime patient Mr. Peterson is too scared to go home on Christmas Eve, psychiatrist Bob returns to the office just in time for a blackout during Chicago’s worst-ever storm.

Cracking Up:  Eager to return to wife Emily, Bob is dismayed to find that the building’s elevators have shut down – and even more forlorn about remaining at his office’s party late enough to witness a performance by dentist Jerry’s drunken barbershop trio. 

Breaking the Ice:  After abandoning his car in a snowbank, Bob trudges four miles in the cold to make it home to celebrate.  Too bad he didn’t think to load up first on the warming Irish coffee his secretary Carol was serving at the party -- where she’d also spiked the water cooler. 

4.  Laverne & Shirley, "Ski Show," aired February 23, 1982

Snowy Setting:  California ski lift

The Wintry Scene:  The relocated Milwaukee bottlecappers take to the slopes in order to meet men.  But when their chairlift gets stuck in midair, all they may end up with is frostbite.

Cracking Up:   Panicking, Laverne tricks Shirley into surrendering the peanuts she’s kept for her afternoon snack.  Then, trying to cheer themselves up, the two sing “Let It Snow” – and unfortunately it does.

Breaking the Ice:  The gals think they’ve “died and gone to Sweden” when two hunky blond mountain rescuers work to warm their frozen bodies and – thanks to quick thinking by Laverne – their lips.

5.   Taxi, "Scenskees from a Marriage," aired October 21, 1982

Snowy Setting:  New York City cab

The Wintry Scene:  Selfless cabbie Latka himself gets stuck when he’s sent to save a female coworker from a snowdrift.   Stranded and shivering, cabbie Cindy comes up with a convenient idea:  to avoid freezing, she and her married rescuer must make love.

Cracking Up:  Following the advice of their priest, Reverend Gorky, Simka vows to make similar “nik nik” with one of Latka’s male coworkers.

Breaking the Ice:  Unable to agree who should be Simka’s conquest, the couple decides to choose the way their indeterminate Eastern European home country selects its president:  by throwing a dinner party, with the last man through the door the winner.  But Alex refuses to do the deed, forcing Latka and Simka to divorce – and then immediately remarry.

6.  Newhart, "No Room at the Inn," aired December 20, 1982

Snowy Setting:  Vermont bed-and-breakfast

The Wintry Scene:  Former New Yorkers Dick and Joanna are excited to spend their first Christmas in New England, and even more thrilled that their inn will be packed with customers from the Silverbird Ski Club.  But soon the Silverbirds, and all flights in and out of Stratford, are grounded.

Cracking Up:   The cooped-up Silverbirds squawk about a ruined vacation, and heiress housekeeper Leslie pines for the family she can’t celebrate with.  But things get really dire when a prophetically named traveler named Joseph enters with his pregnant wife, who proceeds to go into premature labor.

Breaking the Ice:  Providing excitement at last for the 24 Silverbirds – all of whom turn out to be physicians -- Joseph and his wife welcome their Christmas Eve delivery.  As Dick notes, Christmases don’t get much more authentic than this – particularly when more stranded motorists show up seeing shelter:  Alan Wiseman and his two brothers.

7.  Family Ties, "Birth of a Keaton," aired January 31, 1985

Snowy Setting:  Columbus, OH public television station
The Wintry Scene:  The Keatons have airtime to fill during the annual on-air pledge drive at Steven’s workplace WKS – without Steven, who is trapped at home in the snow.
Cracking Up:  That’s not a high note that pregnant Elyse hits while singing an otherwise mellow Irish folk tune – it’s a labor pain.
Breaking the Ice:  With the roads impassable, Elyse faces the prospect of giving birth right there at the station.  But her doctor arrives just in time, and the Keatons welcome  baby Andy.  And the bonus:  with all the on-air drama at WKS, $70 grand in pledges has come rolling in.

8.  Designing Women, "Stranded," aired December 7, 1987
Snowy Setting:  Tennessee motel room
The Wintry Scene:  When their co-workers get the flu on a business trip to St. Louis, it’s up to Atlantans Anthony and Suzanne to drive in and save the day.  But in an ever-worsening blizzard, they’re forced to spend the night together in a motel’s sole available room.
Cracking Up:  After initially spending hours in the Sugarbaker delivery van, shivering despite wearing extra layers of Suzanne’s pink marabou robe and pantyhose, emasculated Anthony barges in and begs the designing diva for a share of the bed.
Breaking the Ice:  In their cozy refuge, the unlikely duo becomes fast friends, their sudden mutual interest in Suzanne’s wigs and manicure making the rest of the gang  realize later that something strange indeed has happened amid the snow.

9.  The Nanny, "Schlepped Away," aired March 9, 1994
Snowy Setting:  Queens, NY apartment
The Wintry Scene:   The Nanny named Fran succeeds in convincing Mr.  Sheffield to take the entire clan on a Caribbean holiday.  But, after getting lost in the white stuff en route to the airport, they’re soon marooned at her parents’ much less exotic abode.

Cracking Up:  The adults in the group jump at the chance for some wine – but then learn to their chagrin that the Jewish Fine household has only super-sweet wines flavored “red” or “purple.”
Breaking the Ice:  Ultimately won over by the Fines’ warm ethnic ways, the whole Sheffield mespuchah engages in a time-honored tradition, noshing on tongue and stuffed derma in front of Wheel of Fortune, before departing for the tropics.

10.  Everybody Loves Raymond, "Snow Day," aired January 14, 2002
Snowy Setting:  Long Island, NY house
The Wintry Scene:  Ray and Debra’s golf getaway is scuttled by snow.  But even worse, a power outage forces them to gather around the hearth with Ray’s meddling parents, brooding brother Robert, and their intended airport ride, Robert’s ex-girlfriend Amy.
Cracking Up:  Papa Frank is atypically charming as he teaches the youngins his old-timey dance moves.  But relations soon sour when Debra blurts out her surprise about enjoying an evening with her in-laws.
Breaking the Ice:  Frank admits to having taken umbrage only because he always thought it was he and Debra against the rest of the family, who are, after all, “looneys.”  Then, as if to prove his point, the four members of the younger generation break into a fevered dance to their own favorite tune, “Jungle Love.”

Happy Holidays, and to all, a White Christmas!