“You can’t reheat a soufflé” was Paul McCartney’s wise answer in the ‘70s when people would ask him about the possibility of a Beatles reunion. Sir Paul was exactly right. When any popular band reunites for an album, it’s almost never as good as the work that came before. The same principle holds true for television shows.
I’ve been fooled countless times. No matter how many times they disappointed me, television reunion shows (and we’re not talking about reboots here, we’re talking about bringing back original cast members) would always get me excited. The Odd Couple: Together Again with Jack Klugman, Tony Randall, AND Penny Marshall in 1993? How could it be bad with those people in it? The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies in 1981? Yes please, they got creator Paul Henning to write a script! Mary and Rhoda in 2000? I was so excited for that one I nearly burst! None of these turned out to be any good. At all. Who the heck decided to replace Irene Ryan as Granny with Imogene Coca anyway?
The king of the television reunion has got to be producer Sherwood Schwartz. By my count, he did three Gilligan’s Island reunion movies. Each more insipid than the last, until it finally devolved into (I kid you not) The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island, which starred not only the original castaways, but a pre-Oscar-for-Ed-Wood Martin Landau. I shudder to think of it. The highlight was Mr. Scatman Crothers scatting “Sweet Georgia Brown” while the Globetrotters practiced for their game against a team of evil robots (again, I kid you not.) It was downhill from there. Sherwood Schwartz talked about how all the Gilligan’s Island reunions came about.
Schwartz’s other series of reunions involved what was certainly his most successful show, The Brady Bunch. For those who don’t know (I can’t imagine you’ve read this far if you don’t) The Brady Bunch was a half-hour sitcom that ran from 1968 to 1974 about a large, blended family. Only, it didn’t really end in 1974. For the next twenty-five years it kept coming back, again and again in different ways to suit each era.
As a kid, I loved the Bradys. I was completely mesmerized by them from a very early age. I actually remember them from their network run (yeah I’m pretty old) but when they went into syndication on WNEW channel 5 out of New York, that was it. I must have seen each episode 50 times from ages five to twelve. It got to the point where I would say the dialogue along with the characters. Not just the famous “Don’t play ball in the house” type lines either. Entire scripts. There was something about the show. The colors, the lighting, the music- I can’t even tell you. Thing is, I don’t believe I ever once laughed at anything on the show other than the brilliant Ann B. Davis as Alice, who I still laugh at to this day. I was a Brady addict.
When it was announced in 1976 that the Brady family would be doing a variety show, my little head exploded. “Variety show? Like Donny & Marie, only with THE BRADYS?” was my thought. As far as I was concerned, there was no way this would not be the best thing that had ever or would ever be on television. The show was to be produced by Sid and Marty Krofft, the guys who brought us H.R. Pufnstuf and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. It was actually produced over the strenuous objections of Sherwood Schwartz, who eventually relented because he didn’t want to deprive any of the cast of jobs.
Sherwood’s first instinct was right. The show was really terrible. First off, none of the Bradys could sing or dance, save for Barry Williams and Florence Henderson. This left us with six out-of-tune and out-of-step performers. Well, five, actually. Eve Plumb, who’d turned in a critically-lauded performance in Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway earlier that year, declined to participate. They hired Geri Reischl, who could sing and dance somewhat, and from that day forward would be known the world over as “Fake Jan.” Increasingly in that era, variety shows felt the need to have a central gimmick for their chorus girls. Donny & Marie had an ice rink, which worked nicely. The Brady Bunch Variety Hour had a full-length pool on stage, with an all-female dance troupe called The Krofftettes, who performed water ballet. But what worked for Esther Williams in the ‘40s in big, splashy MGM musicals did NOT work in a videotaped, ‘70s variety show. The one good thing about The Brady Bunch Variety Hour was that it inspired the brilliant parody on The Simpsons, “The Simpson Family Smile Time Variety Hour.” They even had a “Fake Lisa.”
The show included sketches, including a recurring sketch where we saw the Bradys at home. But not the San Fernando Valley home we remember. For some reason, Mr. Brady moved them to a beach house in Malibu, where they had to contend with their irascible neighbor, played by Mr. Rip Taylor. In those sketches, they would talk about how they were doing a variety show for ABC. It was very hard to get a handle on exactly what was going on in those segments. None of the kids acted as they’d done on The Brady Bunch. Their personalities were all written as jerky and unpleasant. The show lasted nine episodes, before getting a mercy killing from ABC. I don’t remember being too upset over the cancellation, but I did enjoy the What’s Happening? crossover episode.
By the way, nothing that happened on The Brady Bunch Variety Hour was considered canonical. In subsequent reunions, they were back in their original house, and no one ever said anything like, “Hey, remember that time we did a variety show for ABC and moved to Malibu?” It was all stricken from the record, like George Lucas has tried to do with The Star Wars Holiday Special. In our interview with them, Sid and Marty Krofft described The Brady Bunch Variety Hour as, “the worst television series ever produced in the history of television.”
Next there was to be a made-for-television movie called The Brady Girls Get Married in 1981. Again, the anticipation leading up to the airing was killing me. “Two hours of older Bradys!” But, for some reason, when it aired, they only aired a half hour of it! What the hell?? The network at the last minute had decided to chop the movie up into 3 half-hour episodes to air over 3 weeks. It must have been very last minute because the TV and newspaper had it as a two-hour movie event. I can’t recall anything like this ever happening before or since. As I recall, none of the boys appeared in the first half-hour segment, so it was very disappointing. It should be noted that this was the only Brady reunion project (other than a later clip special) in which every original cast member participated. Though, it seemed to me that the Brady boys (Barry Williams, Christopher Knight, and Mike Lookinland) were only present for one day of filming. They weren’t in it very much.
It eventually became clear that the show had been broken into half-hour segments in order to launch the next Brady incarnation: The Brady Brides. Marcia and Jan and their new husbands moved in together. Carol Brady and Alice made occasional appearances. The show was just terrible. It was a hybrid of the original Brady Bunch and Three’s Company. Awkward, uncomfortable sexual innuendo and canned laughter abound. None of the Brady men, including Robert Reed as Mike, were anywhere to be found. This one lasted six episodes.
The most successful, by many measures, of the Brady reunions was 1988’s A Very Brady Christmas movie on CBS. Sherwood and his son Lloyd Schwartz wrote a script that was the closest they ever came to capturing the spirit of the original series. Unfortunately, the original Cindy Brady (Susan Olsen) declined to appear. By the time that one aired I was older, and had lost interest in all things Brady. But I watched, and enjoyed it. The biggest disappointment was they’d recast Alice’s beau, Sam the Butcher, who’d been originally played by the great Allan Melvin, with some unknown actor in a Santa suit. Well, you can’t have everything. But what we did get was the budding political career of Mike Brady, who rushed into a crumbling building to save two security guards, while Florence Henderson raised her lovely voice in song. How could he lose the election after that? It turned out to be the second-highest rated made-for-television movie of the year. An honest-to-God blockbuster.
Not content to leave well enough alone and go out on a Brady high note, CBS commissioned a new series on the strength of the Brady Christmas ratings. The Bradys premiered on March 9, 1990. I got though 20 minutes of it, and it cured me of my seemingly endless Brady fascination. This time, Maureen McCormick declined to participate. Which means you could actually do a Brady reunion with three girl replacements! Leah Ayres, Geri Reischl, and Jennifer Runyon could be Fake Marcia, Fake Jan, and Fake Cindy. THAT I would watch.
With The Bradys they tried something different: a one-hour, family drama, replete with early ‘90’s style truth bombs. Bobby Brady became a paraplegic, and Marcia Brady battled alcoholism. Spinning off a half-hour comedy into an hour drama had been done before with Lou Grant and Trapper John, M.D. and it worked for those two shows. Not so with The Bradys. The first episodes had no laugh track (one was added in later episodes to try to boost ratings.) It was not fun watching the Bradys struggle with real life issues. What had made the original so great was it was pure fantasy of a perfect family. With that gone, there wasn’t much left. And, to be honest, while all the adults were great (Florence Henderson, Robert Reed, and Ann B. Davis), some of the children had grown up to be not the best actors in the world. True to Brady reunion form, this one lasted but six episodes.
The Bradys slammed the lid on any further scripted Brady reunion shows, as did the tragic death of Robert Reed two years after the run of The Bradys ended. But the culture was far from done with them. In 1992, Jill Soloway, who would later create the groundbreaking Amazon show Transparent, developed “The Real Live Brady Bunch,” in which actors recreated original Brady Bunch scripts on stage. Whatever that elusive element was that so mesmerized me as a child, Soloway was able to capture and deconstruct brilliantly. It was a smash, running for months on end in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Original cast members included Jane Lynch, Andy Richter, and Christine Taylor, who would recreate her eerily perfect characterization of Marcia Brady for 1995’s wonderful “The Brady Bunch Movie.” Both these projects captured, parodied, and deconstructed what Generation-X loved about The Brady Bunch. The Bradys became as cool and relevant as Nirvana or Candlebox. I was back in the cult of Brady, and thought the movie and stage show were hysterical. Sherwood Schwartz was ambivalent about the postmodern nature of the movie, but I’m sure was glad it was a smashing success.
That is the story of how The Brady Bunch surfed the wave of cultural zeitgeist for almost thirty years. For more stories about revivals, reunions, and reinventions, search our site!
- by John Dalton