Like most other baby boomers, I grew up with sitcoms. I also didn’t have very discriminating taste. While I watched reruns of The Honeymooners, and MASH at various times, I loved the really indefensible stuff as well. I knew the time, day, and channel for F-Troop, My Mother the Car, OK Crackerby, the Beverly Hillbillies, and It’s About Time . I even watched Petticoat Junction.
Magical thinking sitcoms that combined the wonders of videotape and the laugh track, we’re a particular favorite. I grew up wanting to be able to blink (I Dream of Jeannie), telescope my antennae (My Favorite Martian), and especially just wiggle my nose (Bewitched) to make things appear and reappear at will. I did, however, draw the line at being Hazel, a housekeeper with mysterious but undefined powers.
Bewitched was a favorite because it combined several childhood fantasies. First, the witchcraft thing embodied America’s future. Material goods were changing so fast and in so many ways that it seemed that anything was possible. In that time, television sprouted color, radios shrank to the size of batteries, machines answered the phone, restaurants could produce food in under three minutes, cars had electric seats and landau tops, there were even devices that let you turn lights on and off with a clap of the hands. Second, Bewitched held out the ultimate dream for any ordinary American male. It was, after all, a show where a totally charmless and not particularly attractive guy held a great looking woman in thrall. How stupid yet hopeful can a premise for a show get? Like witchcraft was somehow any worse than being an advertising executive in those days.
This means that despite its mediocre reviews, I was determined to eventually rent and make it all the way through Nora Ephron/Penny Marshall take on Bewitched. There’s been a long run of movie versions of sixties TV shows over the last decade for some reason. I suspect it’s some combination of a dearth of imagination in Hollywood, the prospect of a ready market through Nickelodeon (Baby Boomers taking their own kids to see the sitcoms they loved when they were kids), or just growing cultural vacuousness. As a group, they’ve fared from abysmal- Dragnet, Starsky and Hutch, Leave it to Beaver, Dennis the Menace, an all black version of Car 54, My Favorite Martian, to funny but generally forgettable, the Brady Bunch and maybe the first Flintstones. You have to wonder, why they keep making or remaking the things.
Remaking the sitcom for the Tivo generation remains one of those unsolved artistic problems. Each time they try it, the directors get caught between loving tribute and self-conscious post-modern commentary on the campiness of the original. This mixture happened to work in the Brady Bunchlargely because the Bradys were an anachronism in their own time, so the movie version’s schtick of transporting them to the 1990’s allowed the movie makers to have it both ways,let the Bradys play it straight while Asian carjackers, sexually challenged best friends, and punk boyfriends collided into the family station wagon and paisley.It may have helped that the Brady Bunch remake started as a stage play where they could get the mix right. Dragnet went heavy on the campiness and turned Joe Friday into a sitcom character. The result was one of Tom Hanks’s least memorable movies. In general, this attempt to turn TV nostalgia into a Bond like movie franchise has been more or less Mission Impossible, which they pulled off by giving up almost all pretense to paying homage to the original TV series.
There’s a simple reason for that. Even though, they are as a group, dreck, the sixties sitcoms were still a reflection of a much more hopeful time. In the sixties, America still believed in its own perfectibility as a culture. Technology and magic were one. Social perfectibility and tolerance were just a wise sitcom mother or father away. Solutions to all problems were never more than twenty seven minutes from being solved. Today’s idea thieves only seem to see the camp. While I love today’s reality TV, there is no more deeply cynical form of television in the way that reality TV marries the greed of the game show to the staginess of the sitcom.
In remaking the sitcom, modern directors seem either totally unaware or unable to face the pain of what our culture has clearly lost. Modern America has become so deeply cynical that we’ve lost the capacity to protest our own emptiness. Sitcoms always had this vanilla wafers and milk feel to them. They weren’t substantial or sophisticated, but there was something warming and hopeful about them. Our generation’s remakes it with Jolt Cola and low carb corn chips. “See how stupid and simple those old shows were?” they say, while the whole time failing to look in our own botoxed mirror.
Coming in, I had some hope for Nora Ephron and Penny Marshall. For one thing, Marshall came from Laverne and Shirley. She has multiple ties to the great sitcom family tree as the sister ofGarry Marshall (Happy Days, Mork and Mindy) ex-wife of Bob Reiner (All in the Family) and former daughter in law of Carl Reiner (Dick Van Dyke, Show of Shows). If anyone understands the soul of the sitcom, it should be Penny Marshall and her family. In fact, Garry Marshall, in particular, has come the closest to preserving the innocence and warm magical non-realism of the sitcom form alive in movies that don’t directly footnote the sitcom starting with Pretty Woman, Dear God, Raising Helen, etc. (not that any of these were actual good movies).
Ephron’s screenplays have generally drawn on some of the same schmaltzy warmth of forties romances and sitcoms-When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail-(otherwise known as the Meg Ryan as America’s sweetheart trilogy). Two of those alluded directly to forties movies like An Affair to Remember and the Shop Around the Corner. Harry Met Sally is best described as a chick flick take on Annie Hall or if you include Reds, all Diane Keaton movies. The first two were directed by Rob Reiner. The third was Ephron’s own attempt at directing.
I’m not at all sure just how Bewitched went so wrong. EPHRON appears to have wanted to respect the sitcom’s heart by talking about the story as a “romance.” Somehow, she got sidetracked in other agenda. In the process, she takes on the shallowness of modern Hollywood with poolside deal meetings, audience approval ratings, entourages, etc. Perhaps she was trying to say that there was something sweet and innocent about the original Bewitched that modern Hollywood is incapable of understanding. She certainly got an A list light comedy cast to bring it off with Michael Caine (Samantha’s father), Shirley Maclaine (Endora), Will Ferrell, and Nicole Kidman, and even, the recently so white hot he’s seen everywhere and in everything, Steve Carrell.
The result is a five ring circus without a ringmaster. There’s the attempt to evoke the original Bewitched, Ephron’s post-feminist philosophizing on the source material Kidman was involved with another failed attempt to combine witchcraft, romance, and feminism Practical Magic), the attempt to satirize modern Hollywood, and incongruously enough her attempt to take the romance seriously (some business about real love vs. manufactured love).
How do I put this? The best joke in the movie is the in joke of having Shirley Maclaine claim to have supernatural powers. Frankly, Hollywood never does all that well when it tries to make fun of itself. It’s just never genuinely self-critical. The best thing about the nostalgia portion turns out to be Kidman’s nose. They do a marvelous job recreating whatever it was Elizabeth Montgomery did on screen to make witchy things happen. In fact, Kidman does well at channeling Elizabeth Montgomery’s winning mixture of innocence, sexiness, and charm. Unfortunately, this is marred by Will Ferrell. While the multiple Darrins in the original never had much romantic chemistry with Montgomery, it still seemed possible to believe the marriage.
In the remake, Ferrell works the fatuous side of his fallen action star hard, but never manages to give any hint of a character anyone might really love. Thus when the movie closes on a set that’s built to replicate a set, the viewer winds up at least three levels away from feeling any actual romance. Both Marshall and Ephron are generally good at story. With Bewitched, however, it becomes surprisingly hard to even stay interested in the plot because we have so little interest in Kidman actually living happily ever sitcom with Ferrell. In fact, the disregard for actual chemistry between Kidman and the trying too hard Ferrell winds up twisting the movie itself into what appears to be either unintended cynicism or just over the top self-consciousness.
One of the other notable things about the original Bewitched is that it had maybe the most archly gay cast in all of TV. Part of the deeper irony of sitcom America always was the odd way it closeted those things that the sixties weren’t quite prepared to talk about. Robert Reid, the man who played father Brady, was gay, for instance. Bewitched was a show filled with gay icons starting with Paul Lynde’s Uncle Arthur, Vincent Price, and Agnes Moorehead. Even one of the Darrins was apparently gay. This, of course, meshed admirably with the show’s subtext of secret hidden cultures and forces still lurking in America’s emerging suburban life then mythologized by the sitcom. Ephron and Marshall sadly did their best to avoid that one at all costs. It seemed that all that self-consciousness only went so far.
Someday, perhaps, someone will take on one of the old sitcoms and get it right by aiming straight at what they really represent and what most of us love about them. I miss sitcoms because they remind me of what America has lost. They were trusting, simple, somehow predictable, yet hopeful visions of what we never really were as a country or culture. We might make fun of bellbottoms and Gladys Cravitz or Gladys Cravitz in bellbottoms, but that world was in some real ways much wiser and healthier than our own. Maybe we’ll get Pleasantville right some day so it doesn’t come out as Pretentiousville or Self-Conscious Campinessville.