Judge Brett Cullum wasn't charmed by the craft that went into this bubbled-over troubled sitcom, which should have been Tabatha the Teenage Witch.
Could this be the magic at last?
Hot on the heels of the Nicole Kidman big screen version of Bewitched, Sony has decided to unveil not only the original Bewitched series on DVD, but its spin-off as well. Tabitha: The Complete Series gives collectors and fans a chance to see all twelve episodes of the ill-fated situation comedy that proved magic usually doesn't happen twice on television. Tabitha was doomed even before lead Lisa Hartman (Knots Landing) twitched her nose. The series debuted in 1977, a decidedly different era than when Bewitched first hit the air. Its parent show came at a time when escapism was all anyone wanted. It was after the Kennedy assassination, when shows like Gilligan's Island and My Favorite Martian were all the rage, offering silly distractions every night. But Tabitha premiered against an onslaught of quite serious shows, such as M*A*S*H and Alice. The style of sitcoms was more melancholy and less fanciful a decade later, and Tabitha seemed too late to conjure up an audience. Yet timing aside, Tabitha also had its share of inherent problems, including the set-up and the cast.
The premise of Tabitha has Tabitha Stephens, the daughter of the Bewitched leads, all grown up and living in Los Angeles. She has a swanky job at a television station helping to produce a talk show starring a studly egotistical pretty-boy named Paul (Robert Urich, before he was Spenser for Hire). Also working with the go-getter witch is her staunchly mortal brother, Adam (David Ankrum, who did little else after this series other than provide some voices for the dogfight in the original Star Wars). He disapproves of any spell casting, and is constantly frustrated, like his father, whenever witchcraft appears. Also popping in and out of the show (quite literally) is Aunt Minerva (Broadway legend Karen Morrow, who, ironically, also appeared in Sabrina the Teenage Witch), who keeps an eye on the young witch for her mother's side of the family. Can Tabitha fight the urge to use her powers and prove she's gonna make it after all?
One of the most daunting problems with Tabitha was the complete disregard for continuity with Bewitched. The spin-off series appeared only five years after the original ended, and when Bewitched went off the air in 1972, Tabitha and Adam Stephens were (respectively) only seven and two years old. So in real time, setting the show in 1977 meant the characters should have only been twelve and seven. Yet somehow both children appear to be in their mid-twenties in this series. Also, Adam Stephens is a mortal here, but on Bewitched it was revealed late in the series that he was, in fact, a warlock, much to his father's disappointment. Also, Adam seems older than Tabitha in many ways, and they don't play to the fact Adam was the little brother. Then there is the impossible presence of Aunt Minerva. Samantha Stephens was supposed to be an only child, with her closest relative being a cousin named Serena (a wild hippy vision, also played by Elizabeth Montgomery). Tabitha proved improbable from the start thanks to this lack of consideration for the backstory of Bewitched.
Another problem for Tabitha was that the situation seemed to be an unseemly blending of Bewitched with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The blissful domestic farce that served Bewitched was missing from the idea of Tabitha as a career girl trying to make it in television. The show wasn't always conceived that way, as the sole extra on Tabitha: The Complete Series proves. Included in this set is the original unaired pilot, which features brunette Liberty Williams and Bruce Kimmel playing the witchy siblings in a completely different setting with starkly contrasting dilemmas. The pilot is better about consistency with Bewitched, and even spells the lead character's name right (in Bewitched, we saw it spelled "Tabatha"). In this first incarnation of the show, Tabatha lived in San Francisco and worked at a trendy magazine. Brother Adam is not only a full-fledged warlock, but also a proud resident of the Castro. Maybe it's not obvious, but originally they wanted to make Adam gay. The network wouldn't stand for it. It was okay to have Jack Tripper pretending to be a homo to live with two women in Three's Company, but Middle America was certainly not ready for a gay man witch (at least not after Paul Lynde). Middle America apparently wasn't ready for a brunette lead either, so a blonde quickly replaced Liberty Williams, who evaporated into obscurity. So Tabitha was recast and retooled completely, and rather hastily, at the last minute in order to premiere in 1977.
The writing in the twelve episodes that make up Tabitha: The Complete Series doesn't help matters any. Not only do we have a flawed concept with little regard for continuity, but there is also the pain of watching the cast flail with weak jokes and even weaker plot lines. Later in their careers, Robert Urich and Lisa Hartman would prove they were adept at more dramatic roles, but here Urich seems to be at a loss how to play comedy, while Hartman is cornered into doing a second-rate impersonation of Elizabeth Montgomery. Karen Morrow is a trooper and has her moments, but she's just not given the wit or flair that Agnes Moorehead had as Endora in Bewitched. You can tell the writers are at a loss with what to do with Tabitha when characters from Bewitched begin showing up, like Dr. Bombay, along with Abner and Gladys Kravitz. Hartman defended the show after cancellation, saying the series was impeded by many preemptions for network specials, but the truth was the show felt like a retread—and a silly, sloppy one at that.
Luckily, if you are a fan of the show (or just one of the curious), Sony has cleaned up the series quite a bit. Originally Tabitha had not been seen since its short-lived run in 1977. Then TV Land reran the series as part of its programming concentrating on failed kitschy shows. The rebroadcasts on cable were bad quality, and a lot of print and sound damage was apparent. Well, the two DVD set Tabitha: The Complete Series cleans up many of the prominent scratches and grain, and also gives the show a clean two-channel stereo mix. You can finally hear the trippy rocking theme song sung by Lisa Hartman in two speakers! It's been well-treated and preserved for posterity. Unfortunately, there is not much in the way of extras for the series. Only the unaired pilot is provided in addition to the twelve episodes. I'm baffled by why this series appeared on DVD, but for anyone who wants it, this is probably the best Tabitha will ever look or sound.
Tabitha was ill-conceived to begin with, and it's an oddity at best. At worst it is a prime example of why television is derided as an artless format where recycling is the only way anything gets made. It's not very much fun to see actors flail against tired concepts and weak one-liners, but if that's you're bag then have at Tabitha: The Complete Series. The rest of us will probably be content to wait for the big-screen remake, with Jessica Simpson or Britney Spears as likely candidates to fill Lisa Hartman's shoes. Truth is you're better off buying Sabrina The Teenage Witch or the original Bewitched DVD sets. Tabitha will have you wrinkling your nose rather than twitching it.
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• Original Unaired Pilot
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