The television show, The Brady Bunch seems anachronistic even for its time. Even in the late 60s, the type of wholesome American family of shows like Make Room for Daddy or Father Knows Best seemed passé. The Brady Bunch debuted in 1969, and consider some of the other programs that were on that year that were far edgier. The most popular show was Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In; it pushed the boundaries of seemliness for wholesome American families. The Smothers Brothers, a show which contained low key anti-authoritarian satire, was also on in 1969. And by 1969, there were social revolutions about race and sex, protests about Vietnam and political parties, political assassinations, and upheaval all around.
1969, a time of yesterday and tomorrow
But, take another look at the 1969 television line-up. There appears to be a countervailing wind of institutionalism still blowing. A brief look at some of the other most popular shows in 1969 might lead one to at first assume it was a time of wholesomeness and family-friendly entertainment.
After all, check out some of the other top-twenty shows: Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Here’s Lucy, The Jim Nabors Hour, My Three Sons, and The Beverly Hillbillies. It’s quite possible that someone might look at that list of prime time programming and conclude that 1969 television demonstrated that the medium was still the home of figures like Donna Reed, Danny Thomas, and the Beaver. Someone might think that, but they’d be wrong.
Take yet a third look at those list of shows. What you’ll find are the last echoes of an old thunderstorm, the aging wood of an old stately mansion, whose family is no longer the dynasty it once was. Gunsmoke had been on the radio since 1952 and on television since 1955. Bonanza started in 1959, and would go off the air in 1973. Lucille Ball was on her third show, and her persona is to this day still inextricably connected to the 1950s.
Jim Nabors’s previous show, The Andy Griffith Show, went off the air the year before, and its spinoff, Mayberry R.F.D., was the 4th most popular show in ’69. My Three Sons started in 1960, and The Beverly Hillbillies started in 1962; both of those shows were winding down by 1969–their best years behind them. When viewed from this perspective, the wholesomeness of this television lineup portended a final last gasp of an ebbing cultural high tide. These 2.3 kids, white picket fence, dog, cat, and excessively kept lawn television shows were giving way to edgier shows like Laugh In.
Fast Forward to 1974, a different culture
Now let’s fast-forward five years to 1974, the year, The Brady Bunch ended. Just compare for a moment some of the programs that were the most highly rated in that year to those just five years earlier. In ’74, the top rated show was All in the Family. That alone says something. Some of the other top shows include Sanford and Son, M.A.S.H., Rhoda, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (Amazingly, Gunsmoke, was still in the top 30! Talk about staying power!). The seismic shift in the type of television programming between ’69 and ’74 signaled larger changes in politics, entertainment, the patriarchal organization of society, and the general national mood.
To recount all these changes would be impossible and a bit cliché–I mean, that’s sort of what The Wonder Years is for–but it might be helpful to name a few. Richard Nixon took office as President in 1969, and he resigned from office in 1974. To understand what 1969 was, consider first what it wasn’t. It wasn’t 1968. In other words, it wasn’t the year of the Tet Offensive, the assassination of MLK and RFK, Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics; it wasn’t the year of Walter Cronkite saying the Vietnam War was “mired in stalemate,” students taking over campuses, the musical Hair, riots and strikes, across the globe, the Prague Spring, and the violence and chaos during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This is the short version of 1968.
All this to say that 1969–and I know this might sound silly–happened after 1968. The debut of The Brady Bunch happened right after the most iconic year of the chaotic late sixties and early seventies. Creating The Brady Bunch television show was like a nice Sunday drive to the park after witnessing a 90 car pile-up car collision on the freeway. It was like watching an episode of Gilligan’s Island after watching the film, Cast Away (2000). It was like playing a round of Trivial Pursuit after a lecture on The Spanish Inquisition.
All this is to say The Brady Bunch is an echo, it’s the last hurrah, a call back to a previous time. When people think of The Brady Bunch, they sometimes assume it’s a product of the same culture that brought us Father Knows Best. But that’s not quite right. Rather, The Brady Bunch is the product of a culture that was learning to let go–slowly–of Father Knows Best.
1995, The Brady Bunch Movie
And then came, the year 1995, a year that was as boring as the late 60s was tumultuous, and it was the year of The Brady Bunch Movie (1995). The Brady Bunch Movie takes these characters places them in mid-90s southern California. The conceit of the film is to compare the out-of-date Brady ethos to a mid-90s southern California context. The film highlights the incongruity between wholesome Brady family lifestyle and the comparatively edgier 90s lifestyle. Cindy’s visit to the neighbor’s house illustrates the comic contrast nicely. It’s the home of the Dittmeyers, including Larry (Michael McKean), a real estate businessman, who plays the frustrated adversary to all things Brady.
Larry plays the comic foil for most scenes. He’s trying to sell all the homes in his (and the Brady’s) neighborhood to a commercial developer. Every household agrees, except for one. When Larry explains that the Bradys refuse to sell their home, we can hear his business partner say, “The Bradys? What’s their story?
And you know what song comes next.
In this film, the Bradys are all stuck in the 70s, especially in the TV land version of that groovy decade. Each of the Brady characters have personalities, foibles, and problems that in some way harkens back to the original series. There’s the weird sexual subtext between Mike and Carol, the slow-burning romance between Alice and Sam, Greg’s dreams to become rocker, “Johnny Bravo,” Cindy’s lisp, Peter’s changing voice, and, of course, Marsha’s ability to steal the spotlight from everyone. And then there’s Jan. In this films we see Jan, with her famous lines, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” her middle-child anxieties, and her stress and frustration. All of these personality traits are maximized in the movie for comic effect.
But unlike all the other characters, who remain steadfastly Brady, as if ensconced in a groovy force-field, Jan attempts to modernize, almost always to comic effect. She seems partially aware that she lives in two dimensions, the groovy 70s and the grunge 90s. When we see her talking to her counselor about her “stupid glasses” rather than issues like teen pregnancy and bulimia, we get the sense she’s as clueless as the others.
But then we see her try, in her own desperate misguided way, to modernize, to become a 90s kid. Of course, she stumbles and doesn’t come close, but in her efforts, she becomes the film’s one character whose rounded and capable of invoking pathos in the story. Jan, in this film, is the bridge between the 70s and the 90s, the most identifiable Brady, and the one with the most interesting storyline.
For once Jan outshines Marcia. It’s also worth pointing out that by the end of the film, some of the more contemporary 90s characters become a bit Brady-like, saying groovy, acting weirdly happy, and having an unjustified bout of optimism.
The film mocks the Bradys, but it also celebrates them. The story depicts them out of touch with contemporary mores, but it also suggests that modern America could learn something from them. In this way, The Brady Bunch Movie is similar to The Beverly Hillbillies television show, in the sense that it satirizes both the family and the community that is shocked by them. Which one it satirizes more is perhaps a Rorschach test for the viewer.
I would recommend this film, which is hilariously funny. Though keep in mind, it’s edgy, dark, and decidedly not politically correct.