Thursday, February 16, 2017

Idealized TV families of yore

The death of Florence Henderson (1934 - 2016) late last year prompted me to think about a topic that has not crossed my mind in any serious way for at least 35 years: that fictional family, The Brady Bunch. As most readers will know, Henderson was best known for her role as Carol Brady, the mother on the Nixon-era sitcom. 

I was of that generation for whom The Brady Bunch was a constant companion during the years between roughly eight and the onset of puberty. I was barely too young to have seriously watched the show in primetime. (The Brady Bunch ran from 1969 to 1974.) But I am quite sure that I saw every single episode in rerun, some of them multiple times.

A few years ago I heard a stand-up comic who was roughly my age confess that during his childhood years, he had secretly wanted to be the seventh Brady kid. Although well into middle age by this point, I found myself blushing. The comedian had somehow read my thoughts, after all these years.

Not that I’d admit that to you, by the way, if you ever questioned me about the matter in real life, in a room full of people. Although I haven't watched a full episode of The Brady Bunch since before Ronald Reagan was president, I am somewhat embarrassed at my devotion to the show at the age of about ten.

But at least I’m not alone. The generation that came of age during the 1980s was the first generation to endure, en masse, what used to be quaintly called the “broken home”. Divorce rates in the U.S. reached all-time highs in 1980. The Brady Bunch, by contrast, was a sitcom in which the parents never yelled or fought, everyone was always cheerful, and there was no problem that couldn't be solved within the show’s 26-minute running time.

In real life, I was one of the lucky ones of my generation. My parents didn't get divorced, and my childhood was basically a happy one. But from the perspective of a ten-year-old, the idyllic family life depicted on The Brady Bunch was a tough act for any real family to follow. 

The show also had a certain proto-erotic appeal for the pre-adolescent boy that I was in the late 1970s. The premise of the show is that you get to live with three sisters who are not really your sisters, and two of them are very hot. Yes, I had a crush on Eve Plumb when I was ten. What ten-year-old boy of that era didn’t? 

While life onThe Brady Bunch looked perfect, there were all sorts of real-life problems going on in the background. Maureen McCormick had become addicted to cocaine and quaaludes; and years later she would admit that she sometimes traded sex for drugs. Robert Reed, the sitcom's ever-patient, all-wise father figure, was a closeted gay man who would die from AIDS in 1992. 

No matter. The show was supposed to be an illusion, and for those of us who were of a certain age at a certain time, the illusion worked. 

The Brady Bunch would never past muster today. Our culture is too cynical, and too obsessed with controversy for controversy’s sake. The show would also be lambasted today for its lack of diversity. Almost every character to ever appear on the show was white—an unlikely situation even in the California of that era. And as for gay or transgendered characters? Don't even go there.

The Brady Bunch was originally filmed in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s; but the show’s writers and producers ignored the Vietnam War, the counterculture, rising crime rates, drug abuse, and the sexual revolution. 

The show was a last glimpse of the American family as it probably never was—completely, at least. But there was a time, a tad more than forty years ago, in which millions of Americans could still tune into such an illusion for half an hour, and sort of believe in it. 

Especially if you were ten.

I do remember the show fondly for that, if for no other reason. But like I said, don’t ask me to admit any of this to you in person. I’ll steadfastly insist that I never liked The Brady Bunch, and perhaps feign ignorance that such a sitcom even existed. Like the rest of America, the years have made me more cynical and disbelieving, too.