Please welcome today’s guest writer, Josh Boerman. Josh graduated from Calvin College with a major in political science and a minor in theatre. He currently is working as a theatrical director and designer in New York.
My parents really love The Brady Bunch. Like, a lot. They’re not compulsive collector types, so they don’t own the Blu-Ray extended set or commemorative tchotchkes or whatever it is that die-hard Brady enthusiasts endeavor to purchase. But I did listen to the Brady Bunch’s greatest hits album on compact disc, on repeat, growing up. And it’s all thanks to them.
More on that later. For those of you who grew up outside the United States and/or under a rock, The Brady Bunch was an American sitcom produced by Paramount and broadcast on ABC from 1969 to 1974. For a show that only ran for five years and received middling ratings during its original run, it had a truly outsize impact on American popular culture.
The basic pitch of The Brady Bunch is simple, and the theme song spells it out in case you somehow managed to miss it. There’s a “lovely lady” named Carol Martin, who is “bringing up three very lovely girls.” She meets a widowed “man named [Mike] Brady,” a well-off architect “with three boys of his own.” Once they meet, they pretty quickly fall in love and get married, thus becoming… wait for it… The Brady Bunch. Somewhere along the line they also employ Alice, a housekeeper. My dad was always very proud of the fact that Ann B. Davis, who played housekeeper Alice, graduated from the University of Michigan, just like him.
As the first show to depict a mixed family, The Brady Bunch marked a social milestone in American television. Of course, that’s not to say that it was a dramatic or artistic milestone. More accurately, the show’s dramatic milieu is perhaps best described as high camp. As a result, many catchphrases from the show have become shorthand in the American cultural lexicon. Take, for instance, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”, spoken by an upset Jan (the middle Brady girl) upset that her older sister is getting all the attention. Or Bobby, the youngest Brady, telling his brothers that their mom “always says don’t play ball in the house” after an indoor basketball mishap leads to a prized vase being destroyed. I grew up hearing my parents saying these quotes totally out of context. I’m still baffled hearing them in their original context.
Perhaps that context is lost on me. Television serves as a way of commemorating life and culture as we want to remember them, rather than as they actually were. In The Brady Bunch, Vietnam never receives so much as a passing reference. It’s entirely unclear whether the Brady girls’ biological father is still alive, as he is never referenced; the creator claims that Carol was originally written to be a divorcée but the network wouldn’t allow it in spite of the rising divorce rates of the time. Male and female gender roles are strongly affirmed and the family comfortably lives in a reliable, totally white, upper-middle-class world.
So, where’s the appeal? According to an article written by pop culture professor Mimi Marinucci and published in The Journal of Popular Culture in 2005, “the special sort of love we have for The Brady Bunch is symbolic of the sarcasm and irony that are the hallmarks of the Gen X attitude. Other members of this generation understand what it means to loveThe Brady Bunch.” From this perspective, one does not immerse themselves in the world of The Brady Bunch in the same way that one might enjoy, say, Breaking Bad. Rather, one enjoys the over-the-top characters and situations. It’s almost a guilty pleasure, something more along the lines of House of Cards.
Overall, though, I don’t buy that analysis. Sure, one look at Florence Henderson’s Carol Brady mullet is a life-changing experience. But shows don’t become touchstones without a dedicated, genuine fanbase. And no show can develop a fanbase without giving the audience something to cheer for.
As previously mentioned, I grew up listening to It’s A Sunshine Day: The Best of the Brady Bunch on compact disc. It’s a weird album, containing both original songs sung by the cast on the show and a number of cuts from various singles and LPs recorded and sold during the show’s original run. The liner notes for the CD quote the producer as “being saddled with ‘six little kids who could not sing,’” and it’s an awful album by any metric. It’s also irresistibly earnest. It’s clear from listening to, say, Susan Olsen (Cindy Brady)’s lispy, tonally variant cover of “Frosty the Snowman” that she really is doing her best. Or take the title track, specifically the immortal moment at 0:50 in which Mike Lookinland (Bobby Brady) implores the audience to “dig the sunshine.” It’s impossible not to love it, at least a little bit, because the kids just want to make you happy.
If The Brady Bunch had stayed dead after its original run—five seasons of mediocre television with cute kids and quotable catchphrases—it might feel less cloying in retrospect. But the show began to develop a stronger following after years in syndication, which inevitably led to numerous terrible reunion shows and specials, the worst of which was 1976-77’s Brady Bunch Variety Hour. The Variety Hour notoriously recast an actress named Geri Reischl in the role of Jan Brady, forever dooming her to history as Fake Jan. Throughout the 80s and 90s Paramount produced other Brady-related properties, including the 1981 TV movie The Brady Girls Get Married, the 1988 special A Very Brady Christmas, and the 1990 dramedy series The Bradys. 1995 brought us a fully recast The Brady Bunch Movie, followed by 1996’s A Very Brady Sequel and the truly execrable 2003 The Brady Bunch In The White House, which holds a 3.3/10 rating on IMDb.
As for the movies, they have one thing in common—they dwell on pastiche and kitsch rather than endeavoring to be true to the characters. Watching episodes of the original series, the level of camp on display is occasionally breathtaking, but it always feels organic to our understanding of the world of the show. In the Brady movies, on the other hand, the entire gimmick is that a family about as wholesome and 70s as they come is dropped into the worldly 90s and has to fend for themselves. One of the major plotlines of A Very Brady Sequel is whether Greg and Marcia, the oldest Brady step-siblings, will consummate their mutual lust. They do so by kissing. It’s gross and unfunny.
Perhaps this sort of “humor” appeals to those bitter Gen-Xers who Marinucci says are steeped in sarcasm and irony. But absolutely nothing about that approach resonates with me. As a counterpoint, Star Trek, a fellow Paramount series which ran from 1966 to 1969, is often even cheesier than The Brady Bunch, but when TOS characters appear in later Trek series such as Voyager or The Next Generation, they are never portrayed as goofy or anachronistic. To the contrary, they continue to be respected Starfleet officers in a near future that happens to have better production values. Even in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which drops the crew of the Enterprise into 1986 San Francisco, the humor develops out of the crew’s natural understanding of the world around them (think Scotty, who has always known computers to take dictation, politely saying “hello computer” into the mouse of a Macintosh, for instance). There’s nothing arch or winking about it, and it actually deepens the affection we have for these characters as audience members.
This is the fundamental conflict at the core of The Brady Bunch, and by extension its fanbase. Paramount is not sure whether it wants to embrace the show for what it is—a pedestrian family comedy that came along at just the right time (and with the right marketing) to seize the cultural zeitgeist in syndication—or to make fun of it in a self-aware way. It can have the winsome tackiness of “It’s A Sunshine Day” or the blasé cynicism of A Very Brady Sequel, but not both. According to a Hollywood Reporter article from July 2012, Vince Vaughn was working together with CBS to develop a new Brady Bunch series which “would revolve around the youngest of Mike Brady’s boys, Bobby Brady, as a divorced dad who remarries and starts a new family.” Presumably the script never made it out of the development stage. I wonder if it had anything to do with an inability to find tonal consistency.
As for me, if I’m going to enjoy the Bradys, I’m going to take them in VERY limited doses in their original setting. I’m going to enjoy Florence Henderson’s polyester dresses and watch Robert Reed attempt to mask his clear disinterest in women. I’m going to sing along with the sha-na-na-