Judge Dennis Prince has become bored with the once tawdry, now trite gaggle of Brady gossip. He's waiting for VH1 to step forward with the shocking revelations sure to spill forth in "Behind the Music: The Peppermint Trolley Company."
Our reviews of The Brady Bunch: The Complete Second Season (published October 5th, 2005), The Brady Bunch: The Complete Third Season (published October 19th, 2005), The Brady Bunch: The Complete Fourth Season (published November 2nd, 2005), and The Brady Bunch: The Complete Fifth Season (published March 29th, 2006) are also available.
"A few years ago I thought it was the end of the world."
In 1969, long-time television producer Sherwood Schwartz (Gilligan's Island, It's About Time) discovered a startling statistic: Over 29% of all marriages of that year involved a child or children from a previous marriage. According to the affable Jack-of-all-TV-trades, he knew this chance revelation from the pages of the L.A. Times would buoy a new series that would have more than enough content to endure for years to come…and it did!
"…that this group must somehow form a family,
Facts of the Case
Who says fairy tales can't come true? Certainly widower Michael Paul Brady (Robert Reed) and divorcée Carol Ann Tyler-Martin (Florence Henderson) are among the believers as they find their potentially tattered lives about to be beautifully knitted together in wonderful wedded bliss, once again providing a full familial foundation to each spouse's three children, namely Greg (Barry Williams), Marcia (Maureen McCormick), Peter (Christopher Knight), Jan (Eve Plumb), Bobby (Mike Lookinland), and Cindy (Susan Olsen). Include handy housekeeper Alice (Ann B. Davis) and pet pooch Tiger (himself), and you have the makings of a cohesive—and usually chaotic—suburban lifestyle within which the Brady clan lives, laughs, and oftentimes laments the growing pains of their goodhearted and groovy new world together.
After a topsy-turvy wedding ceremony and seven-person-chaperoned honeymoon, the Bradys set about to start a new life in their swanky split-level home at 4222 Clinton Way. Immediately, uncertainty abounds when a troubling treatise appears in the latest "Dear Libby" column: "Harried and Hopeless" seeks quick advice for a complicated new marriage that may be too much to manage. Surviving that, the Bradys find the much-loved Alice is feeling outdated and unneeded and must work fast to keep her from flying the coop. And, siblings being siblings—be it his or hers, but usually both—the six brothers and sisters are soon crossing paths, locking horns, and tussling over turf, whether it be a shared bathroom that's continually barged in on or a boys' clubhouse overrun with shabby she-chic.
"When your mother and I were married, the man said 'for better or for worse.' We've had enough of the 'worse'; now it's time for some 'better.'"
Well, the good news is that it's all the better thanks to Paramount's long-awaited release of The Brady Bunch—The Complete First Season. Whether you experienced it at its inception or were drawn in by non-stop syndicated airings after the five-year ABC network run concluded on August 31, 1974, TV's The Brady Bunch has captured the interest and allegiance of multiple generations. With its catchy theme song, tic-tac-toe title design, and numerous one-liners and catch phrases that have become indelible inclusions in our pop-culture lexicon, the show has displayed the envious ability to continually allure and entertain viewers regardless of their age, nationality, or familial status.
The Brady Bunch has proven itself a phenomenal success that has stood the test of time, despite its usual saccharine sweetness and cringe-inducing fashion sense. An outgrowth of the expressive and experimental '60s sensibility, when one-time hippies were no longer looking to turn on, tune in, and drop out, but, rather, recognized the need to clean up, dry out, and get ahead, the show served as an attempted generational bridge; Apple Pie wholesomeness and Establishment accountability merged with a grown-up but not entirely outgrown inclination to remain somewhere in the mentality of the mod. Completely self aware of its goody-goody disposition (and frequently unafraid to jab directly at this purported stigma within the storylines themselves), the show stayed true to the original concept put forth by Schwartz, he who sought to modernize our faith in the wholesome American family life previously exemplified by the Nelsons, by the Cleavers, and perhaps most relevantly by the Douglas clan, sans the remarriage yet with the indispensable—though sometimes irascible—house servant, Uncle Charley. As we would later learn, Sherwood Schwartz would prove to be a man of creative convictions who would coolly and calmly defend his ideas against any and all challengers (especially those within the cast itself) and, ultimately, would reap endless moral victories as his imaginative instincts routinely paid off.
Whether it was by shrewd design or just dumb luck, Schwartz elected to tackle one of the toughest assignments in television production—the ensemble show—and execute it to perfection. Deftly, he designed the nine-tile opening sequence and co-wrote an infectious jingle that would effectively introduce viewers to no less than nine characters and impart their back story in a mere 57 seconds. (He achieved a similar feat, incidentally, in the opening titles of Gilligan's Island, during which we met seven stranded castaways.) Then, he created a pilot episode, "The Honeymoon," in which we met Mike and the boys, Carol and the girls, Alice, Tiger, and Fluffy, the one-shot wonder cat. Before the inaugural outing concluded, we were likewise introduced to all the elements that would ultimately become earmarks of the series: lots of hugs and smiles, lots of sibling shrieks and shouts, and plenty of life lessons to be learned along the way (with Mike immediately emerging as the ever-ready patriarchal lecturer). In just 24 minutes, America met and fell in love with The Brady Bunch. Aired on September 26, 1969, the show became a fast favorite that, while it was never a true Nielsen-ratings powerhouse, had households tuning in every Friday evening for five succeeding seasons.
Regarding the cast, well, if you know anything about The Brady Bunch, you likely know plenty about the actors and actresses who spent five years living amidst the wall-to-wall paneling, flowery wallpaper, and orange Formica countertops. Likely much of the success of the show since its original run has been fueled by our culture's perpetual peeping-tom mentality of peering into the private lives of performers, especially former child stars. Although they enjoyed a rather squeaky-clean and practically revered image during the 1970s, the cast of The Brady Bunch has long since become the sort of juicy fodder that the tabloid trade salivates over. Did Bobby and Cindy really smooch it up in Tiger's dog house, was Greg really stoned during a shoot for Season Four's "Law and Disorder" episode, and was Dad Brady really gay? This has been the sort of dirty laundry that not even Alice could clean up, not even with a box of Safe detergent. Seeing the commercial potential for a tell-all account, Barry Williams wrote Growing Up Brady: I Was a Teenage Greg, published in 1992, in which he succinctly yet respectfully answers those and other too-turgid-to-ask inquiries of Brady iniquities.
As far as their performances, the Brady kids are, well, kids. They don't quite have the acting chops to convincingly pull off the situational tasks at hand and yet they provide an unpolished approach that becomes almost believable if not completely endearing ("You say that again and I'll bop you," threatens the pig-tailed Cindy). In this initial season, the goal was to introduce the family and spend the first 25 episodes exploring the interaction of the newly-joined tribe adjusting to their new togetherness. Whether it was due to an alignment of the stars or, again, just a fluke happenstance, Schwartz managed to cast a group of kids who did resemble one another (Bobby, of course, endured regular color rinses to change his natural red locks to chalky brown) and who each brought distinct personality traits that perfectly fueled and inspired some of the show's most enduring storylines (if ever there was a high-maintenance middle child, it was definitely Jan Brady/Eve Plumb). The kid actors do reasonably well in their roles, each occasionally stepping forward to be featured in an episode (such as Peter in "The Hero" and Marcia in "The Possible Dream"). While their delivery is never of award-winning quality, their quirky and uneven performances have since been regarded among the best moments in television history. Think about it: "Mom always said 'don't play ball in the house,'" "Oh, my nose," and "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!" are immediately recognizable and oft-repeated by just about anyone who has even a casual awareness of the show.
As for the adults, poor Robert Reed was truly an individual trapped in an existence that he portrayed well but that didn't satisfy his inner ambitions. (That works on a couple different levels, if you know what I mean.) Trained as a serious Shakespearean actor, Reed agreed to take the role as a sort of in-between stint, yet found, once he slipped into Mike Brady's loafers, he could never again slip out of them. Although it served as an undeniable point of success in his career, Reed continually rebuffed the show, the scripts, and, most directly, creator/producer Schwartz. It's a testament to his acting prowess, since, as truly disgruntled as he was in the role, he never gives hint of his vehement objections during his performances. And while it was a role he openly loathed, it was alternately a performance his fans loved. Sadly, Reed passed away in 1992. Florence Henderson, later to become immediately recognized as the Wesson oil spokesperson, played her part well, providing maternal nurturing, spousal support, comedic gaffes, and even a bit of ditziness to the role of Carol Brady. Throughout her performances, she seems to subliminally acknowledge she's not a comedienne by training and uses that sort of "fish out of water" reality to propel whichever kooky crisis is at hand each week. Then, Ann B. Davis is on hand as everyone's favorite blue-uniformed comedic cornerstone. Her achievements as Alice often go severely under-appreciated in that she displays a innate talent to carry a scene, extend a gag, and take a pratfall with vaudevillian precision. Clearly, she exists as a source of energy and inspiration to the actors around her, they who always seem genuinely transfixed and entertained by her antics (see the tent interior sequence during "A-Camping We Will Go"). Finally, there are the guest stars, who, in later episodes, would typically be of big-name caliber yet would have no choice but to take a backseat to the increasingly-confident Brady actors. In the first season, Schwartz manages to enlist then-known names like Dabs Greer, Wes Parker, and Desi Arnaz, Jr., while also offering up several others who would become well known such as Marion Ross, Gordon Jump, and Allan Melvin (as Sam the Butcher).
In this defining season, each episode managed to address an element or incident of real life generally familiar to those of us who faithfully tuned in, with the Bradys having to continually react and realign every time disharmony visited this "average American family." And so we see the youngest Brady kids struggle with fears of rejection by their new parents, the middle kids battle to emerge from the daunting void of in-betweendom, and the eldest Brady siblings lock in power struggles, both in the house and on the school grounds. It all works—and works well—because the stories focus not so much on the signs of the times but, rather, on the rites of passage that every kid from every generation must endure.
Now, look a bit more closely and you'll see some interesting post-'60s elements that seemed innocently included only to be quickly ushered out, never to be seen again. While it's been some time since I've seen syndicated airings of the pilot episode, the sequence with Mike and Carol in the hotel's honeymoon suite sipping champagne doesn't strike a chord of familiarity with me; was it excised when re-run, either on network or syndicated showings? Prior to the wedding itself, Mike professes his extreme nervousness to Carol during a phone conversation. "Why don't you take a tranquilizer?" she casually advises. Somewhere Timothy Leary is applauding. Alcohol would later make another brief appearance during the "Is There a Doctor in the House?" episode, when, while attempting to resolve the his-or-hers doctor debacle, Mike, just home from the office, is whipping up a medicinal pitcher of martinis. Beyond this, drugs and drink disappear from the household medicine chests and liquor cabinets.
Still, despite its predilection to remain tinged with a sometimes sickly cherry-on-the-top goodness, in the end, the show manages to portray genuine domestic situations (though certainly not the caustic dysfunctions of cretins like today's Osbournes) and provides a light and refreshing narrative of how a family can cope with the inevitable growing pains to which no family is immune. And, to look at the actual first-season episode list, it's remarkable how many of these flagship adventures have gone on to become some of the best-loved shows of the entire canon. Specifically, here are the episodes included in this set, each presented in its original airing order:
So you know the show, and the question that stands now is whether Paramount has given one of its most popular properties the sort of high-quality digital treatment it so richly deserves. In a word, "yes!" The 25 first-season episodes are spread across four single-sided discs, each housed two-up in a pair of colorful slimline keep cases with plot descriptions and original airdate information on the back of each. As for the transfers themselves, presented in the original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio, these are the best I've seen the episodes look over the past 35 years (even at the time of original broadcast, when transmission quality could be summarily sabotaged by an aluminum rooftop antenna that refused to pull down a signal). This isn't to say, unfortunately, that the episodes are pristine; they're not. Beginning immediately in the pilot episode, we see evident grain and even some nasty film dirt that accompanies the post-title credit bleeds, at one point looking as if one of the kids had smeared some fresh nose-pickings on Sherwood Schwartz's credit (or maybe it was Reed, huh?). You'll find intermittent graininess and occasional film dirt during the first several episodes. but, thankfully, the image quality vastly improves throughout the four-disc content. The color, however, looks terrific, and you'll be astonished to see how vibrant it all looks with that avocado green, pumpkin orange, and glowing goldenrod all vying for dominance of the on-screen color spectrum. Detail level is also quite good (and likely contributing to the frequent graininess of the earliest episodes) and reveals minute aspects of the production that will make it fun for long-time fans to pore over. As far as audio goes, the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is pleasingly energetic, distinct, and easy to discern. I was immediately struck by how full the Peppermint Trolley Company's theme song sounded, a once muddled bass line now clearly evident (groovy). The dialogue and incidental music is very well balanced throughout each episode and, as with the image itself, is the best I've experienced in over three decades of watching.
The real issue for classic television fans and collectors these days is in the realm of extras (or the maddening lack thereof). Breathe easy, Brady brethren, because this disc set delivers a much appreciated serving of goodies that, while not overly generous, is well done to meet a TV fan's expectations. First, take a look at the outer slipcase that features an extremely well-designed lenticular ("flicker") image that features the nine tiled Brady faces in full motion. Neat-o! Then, before the pilot episode's opening titles commence, we're nostalgically greeted by a still panel pre-show bumper showing the Brady family posed along the trademark staircase with the show's logo and the exciting promise of "In Color." This is exactly the sort of detail that TV fans are demanding, and, thankfully, it appears someone at Paramount (or at least the very bright team who helmed this release) has realized the need to dredge the vaults for every last artifact that may still exist; they may seem like trivial elements, but they make a world of difference to consumers, fans, and TV historians. This bumper precedes each episode within the set. Again, greeting us right out of the chute is an audio commentary by Sherwood Schwartz during the pilot episode. His comments are well placed if not a bit sparse at times. It's the only episode for which he provides his insight, definitely leaving us wanting more. Fret not, though, because a few Brady kids—Barry Williams, Christopher Knight, and Susan Olsen, to be exact—are on hand to provide commentary during "A-Camping We Will Go" and "The Hero" episodes. They provide lively and laid-back conversation that demonstrates a chemistry that still exists between them. They comment on the clothing, the sets, and the situations behind the camera during the episodes. We'll hope for more of this content in future DVD volumes. Then there's a fun 15-minute featurette, "The Brady Bunch: Coming Together Under One Roof," that provides on-screen individual interview snippets with Schwartz, Williams, Knight, and Olsen, interlaced with episode scenes, where we learn a bit more about the show's origins and first-season goals. For die-hard Brady fans, you won't learn anything truly groundbreaking here, with the possible exception of whom Schwartz originally wanted for the role of Mike. (As much of a Brady know-it-all as I profess to be, this was a refreshing bit of new trivia I hadn't previously known.) Although the featurette is a bit short, it appears to be just a portion of a much lengthier content that will hopefully grace each of the succeeding four seasons' releases (three more tentatively slated for June, August, and November of 2005). While this selection of extras doesn't qualify as a true Plymouth Satellite Wagon full of bonus goodies, it is a well-received offering that seems to indicate more will be on the way in future releases (and that is good).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
But the stories are so drippy, the acting so clumsy, and the Astroturf lawn so fake. The Brady Bunch truly isn't for everyone, but, even to the unrepentant Brady-haters, there's no denying that everyone knows a little something about the world of the 1970s' grooviest TV family. (Yes, The Partridge Family really "grooved," but they didn't have the same degree of pop culture effect as have the beloved Bradys.) If you just can't stand the Bradys, you'd have no business considering this new release, because it's all Brady, through and through. Fans, of course, are rejoicing that it's a sunshine day.
For Sherwood Schwartz, the participating Brady cast and crew, and the folks behind this new Paramount release, it's a groovy group hug for all. Just as the first season itself set a solid foundation for future episodes, so, too, does this first DVD release successfully set the stage for more (and better?) full-season releases to come. A special note of commendation to the folks at Paramount for wisely acknowledging that classic TV fans are best satisfied (and best inclined to purchase) when shows are released in complete and chronological season packages. It's a great start for the digital adventures of Mike, Carol, the kids, and Alice.
"From here on out it's gonna be smooooth sailing."
Guilty?! "Not in a million years!…a billion years!" Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Select Episode Audio Commentary by Sherwood Schwartz, Barry Williams, Christopher Knight, and Susan Olsen
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