Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bewitched season 2

There's a running joke at our home that for many of my favorite TV series, I have one season I particularly favor -- and that's the only season we watch in syndication. (At the very least, it keeps our daily TV viewing down to just above the national average.) So occasionally I'm going to focus in on a favorite season of a cherished old series -- although these posts come with a warning: although I'll try to provide some background, they are not for the uninitiated. (If you know nothing about the series, you can check out premise and characters and plot outlines at wikipedia, epguides, and tv.com.) But if you're a fan of a particular show, or if you've heard about it and you're curious which season is particularly worth picking up or checking out, and why, read on.

I'm starting with Bewitched because, for many of us who grew up in the '60s, it was a fascination bordering on an obsession. To this day, when I'm down with a cold or the flu, and getting out of bed is a struggle, I wave my arm to see if I can get the book across the room to fly over to me. I believe that was Einstein's definition of insanity.

Jaime J. Weinman, at his wonderful blog Something Old, Nothing New, makes a passionate case for writer-producer Danny Arnold, who (Sol Saks' onscreen credit to the contrary) pretty much created Bewitched and masterminded its first season. Arnold viewed Bewitched as a romantic comedy (its antecedents were clearly the screwballs of the '30s) about a man and a woman from different backgrounds: a "mixed marriage," as it were. He was Darrin Stephens, an up-and-coming advertising executive; she was Samantha -- and she was a witch. Fantasy sitcoms ruled the airwaves in the '60s, but Bewitched, as originally conceived, was no Mister Ed or My Mother, the Car or The Flying Nun kiddie show. The witchcraft was used sparingly; mostly it allowed Arnold to explore familiar themes -- here, the trials of a young married couple -- but with fresh details. (If Darrin was stuck working late at the office, and Samantha decided to go out to dinner with her mother Endora, the two of them flew off to Paris. Without a plane -- that was the fantasy element. But when Samantha returned home, the question that plagued Darrin was a decidedly down-to-earth one: "Does she miss her old life, the one she had before she married me?" -- a question that resonated with couples of all ages and backgrounds -- and the sort rarely voiced in a TV sitcom.)

Arnold's Bewitched was smart, sophisticated television -- and capable of surprising poignancy and punch. He left the show at the end of its first season (with ABC-TV pushing for more magic, more farce, more kid-friendly plots), but he left it, for one season at least, in the capable hands of producer Jerry Davis, who had overseen Season 1 with him, and writer-turned-script-editor Bernard Slade, who had penned many of the first season's most memorable episodes. I'd be hard-pressed to say that any later season comes close to the ambition and accomplishment of Season 1, but where Weinman and I differ is that I find that Arnold's seriousness of purpose, his solemnity, could also be a bit of a drag. Bewitched Season 1 at its best ("Help, Help, Don't Save Me," "Witch or Wife," "Samantha Meets the Folks," "Eat at Mario's," just to name a few) is unmatched; at its worst, though, when Samantha is fighting to get a traffic light installed on Morning Glory Circle, or campaigning to get a city councilman elected, or grappling with the overprotective mother next door, the emphasis on the suburban over the supernatural gets a little tiresome -- you pray for the occasional witch's twitch to enliven the action. So I have to say my favorite Bewitched season is Season 2; Arnold's themes are still in play, but the touch is lighter, and the constraints looser.

So a cheer for Bewitched Season 2, although let's start off with some things I don’t like. Elizabeth Montgomery’s pregnancy during the first half of the season (and yes, this is the season in which daughter Tabitha is born, to allow for Montgomery's expanding waistline) forces the writers to throw a lot of the early episodes to Dick York, and while the episodes themselves are engaging, you feel the absence of Montgomery on the screen. Early on, some of the editing feels choppy; later on, after the birth of Tabitha, the narrative energy dissipates for a while. And there seem to be a lot of horses running around the Stephens’ house, not to mention the occasional stray dog, cat, chimp and teddy bear.

But thirty-six new episodes aired during that 1965-66 season, and only three are duds: a pretty staggering achievement. Against so many odds (Montgomery’s pregnancy; the death of Alice Pearce, the original, irreplaceable Gladys Kravitz; Marion Lorne’s heart attack, which kept Aunt Clara off the screen after the first dozen episodes), Season 2 still seems to me the true miracle season, the one where slapstick and sentiment are best balanced.

That blend is never more apparent than in “And Then There Were Three”: Tabitha's birth, and writer Slade and director William Asher at their absolute best. Slade creates beautiful chaos out of one misunderstanding and one coincidence: Endora offers to turn Tabitha briefly into an adult, to show Darrin how much she'll come to resemble her mother; when Darrin encounters Samantha's lookalike cousin Serena (her first appearance), who's dropped in to offer congratulations, he thinks she's Tabitha, aged by witchcraft. That's all Slade needs to create a half-hour of inspired lunacy, line by line, scene by scene. (By episode's end, Darrin is in Samantha's hospital room, dressed as an Indian, in a straight jacket. You have to see it to believe it, but it's so cleverly plotted that believe it you do.) But laced throughout the mayhem -- and crucial to the episode's success -- are the tenderest of conversations: between Darrin and Samantha, between Samantha and Endora, between Darrin and Endora -- all of them reacting just as we would to the birth of a baby girl. And all of it told with the kind of literate, witty dialogue that was not, sadly, a staple of '60s television. (Arnold knew how to do it, so did Slade. The only other regular Bewitched scripter with a real ear for dialogue was James Henerson, who in his last Bewitched effort, in Season 4, provided probably my single favorite exchange in the show's eight-year run: an obnoxious, insistent client of Darrin's challenges Endora, "I'll bet you can't guess what I make," and she replies, "Enemies?")

Throughout Season 2, quiet episodes like “Aunt Clara’s Old Flame” are enlivened by narrative sleights-of-hand, and sillier episodes like “My Boss, the Teddy Bear” are grounded by smart exposition. Some episodes are downright spooky (“Trick or Treat,” “Disappearing Samantha”), others quite heartwarming (“A Bum Raps,” a throwback to Season 1). The characterizations remain sharp and complex, largely free of the one-note one-liners that marred later seasons.

As noted, the narrative energy starts to flag after Tabitha’s birth, in no small part because Slade, after penning a third of the first eighteen episodes, sits out the next ten. (Unlike Slade, who never penned a bad Bewitched episode, David V. Robison and John L. Greene establish themselves this season as the most erratic Bewitched scripters, with three marvelous episodes, three that are OK, and one out-and-out lemon.) But just as you’re despairing that the quality has started to falter, Slade returns to scripting duties with the terrific two-parter “Follow That Witch,” in which a hard-boiled private eye discovers Samantha's secret and threatens blackmail; one of Slade's typically sturdy mixes of the silly and the serious, it sets things right for the remainder of the season.

Season 2 is so full of goodies, I'll mention a few more favorite episodes: the surprisingly adult “Speak the Truth” (where a statue prompts those close to it to reveal their inner thoughts, including Darrin's secretary's admission that she wears dresses two sizes too small, in the hopes that he'll see her as a woman, and Darrin's confession that he already does), “Double Tate” (in which Darrin is turned into his boss, Larry Tate: arguably David White’s best performance), “Divided He Falls” (in which Darrin is split into his "fun side" and his "work side": arguably Dick York’s best performance) and the fanciful “What Every Young Man Should Know,” which answers the question "Would Darrin have married Samantha if he'd known she was a witch?" (It's a premise that no doubt would have delighted Danny Arnold, and the four principals, unassisted by guest stars, seem to be having a ball.)

All in all, a grand season, but only as seen in its original black-and-white. (There's a colorized version for sale, too: worth avoiding.) Those raised in the '70s and '80s, when only the color episodes of Bewitched (Seasons 3-8) were in syndication, saw the show mostly at its worst: the last three or four seasons, in particular, devolved into an endless recycling of "Endora casts a spell on Darrin" plots, with little warmth, affection or chemistry between the leads. But the first two seasons -- the black-and-white episodes -- were rich and multi-layered, and Montgomery and York harkened back to some great seriocomic screen pairings of the Great Depression -- Carole Lombard and Fredric March in Nothing Sacred, Claudette Colbert and Ray Milland in Arise, My Love, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Remember the Night -- and seeing it in its original black-and-white only reinforces the comparisons and illuminates the results. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

About this blog

The title of this blog: from the 1994 Murphy Brown episode "The Fifth Anchor," in which Wallace Shawn plays a former colleague of the FYI'ers, who did a weekly thinkpiece called "That's Alls I Know." The point of this blog: to talk about TV, both old and new.

Speaking of "The Fifth Anchor," it's from the sixth season of Murphy Brown -- easily, to my mind, the most re-watchable and purely pleasurable of all the seasons: a resurgence for the series after the dismal fifth season. It's not as weighed down by the self-congratulatory topical references that now mar the first few years; instead, its experienced show-runners and largely new writing staff apply their talent and enthusiasm to a string of episodes that feel as timeless as they do timely. The many highlights include "Angst for the Memories" (featuring an Emmy-winning guest shot by Martin Sheen), "Political Correctness" (a merry skewering of a concept that had just come into widespread use, which the FYI lawyers insist on calling "cultural sensitivity"), "Ticket to Writhe" (which neatly dispenses with Miles' girlfriend Audrey, played by Jane Leeves, who had moved on to Frasier), "Sox and the Single Girl" (in which Murphy inadvertently steals the President's cat), "The Anchorman" (in which Jim inadvertently purchases a gay bar) and "It's Just Like Riding a Bike" (which Matt Roush, then writing for USA Today, deemed, correctly, the show's "sexiest-on-record" episode). But more than any of those, there's "It's Not Easy Being Brown," probably the series' funniest half-hour, in which Murphy, in order to improve her Q rating, goes on a children's show called Mulberry Lane and ends up having it out with a sassy puppet named Kelbo. The fur, literally, flies.