Bewitched tweaked ’60s gender roles and became one of the first feminist sitcoms

Bewitched tweaked ’60s gender roles and became one of the first feminist sitcoms

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

Television has always had its high-concept sitcoms, shows where the comedic premise was so integral to the series that it could never simply settle into being about its characters, as most sitcoms do. Think back on Dinosaurs, say, or ALF for examples of largely successful shows that relied heavily on premises that skewed toward the fantastical. The problem with a gimmick sitcom like this is that it’s difficult to do storylines that don’t connect directly to the premise. ALF would always have to deal with the fact that one of the regulars was a secret alien, which left it scrambling if it wanted to do a more low-key episode about the show’s father and son going fishing. Putting a science-fiction or fantasy element at the center of a sitcom has the tendency of unbalancing everything, of creating a situation where the show must get broader and broader and broader, simply because there’s no real way to scale back once aliens or ghosts get involved.

The ’60s were unquestionably the top decade for high-concept sitcoms. Even a relatively normal show for the period like Green Acres started from the idea of two city folk moving out to the country to start working on a farm. The decade’s top sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies, was this scenario in reverse, and was simply wedded to it. But this was also the decade of the genre sitcom, with shows as diverse as My Favorite Martian, Get Smart, and The Flintstones taking the sitcom and putting it through a filter that offered a skewed take on contemporary relations. The United States was going through one of the most tumultuous decades in its history, yet television was intent on ignoring the social developments taking place throughout the country. And in that sense, the high-concept sitcom ended up being a way to deal with the weirdness of the decade without losing a mass audience. As with much science fiction and fantasy, the weird situations allowed for these series to examine a changing society through a variety of shifting lenses.

Most of these shows have a reputation for being terrible, many of them justifiably. One show that’s earned that reputation a bit unfairly, however, is Bewitched, which debuted in 1964. The series’ high-concept premise was simple and ingenious: What if some normal American suburban guy married a seemingly all-powerful witch? And what if she told him she was a witch, and he just had to deal with it? And what if her mother-in-law kept dropping by? Creator Sol Saks mostly stole the contours of the show from the movie I Married A Witch and the play Bell, Book And Candle, but he left after the pilot, and ABC turned the show over to a young producer named Danny Arnold. What Arnold and the first-season staff built became the longest running of the fantasy sitcoms, at eight seasons, lasting into the ’70s. But they also built something surprisingly sophisticated and smart, something much better than any sitcom about a man who married a witch had any right to be.

Arnold’s first mission was to relegate witchcraft to the show’s sidelines, where it wouldn’t take over the storytelling. If Samantha, the witch at the series’ center, cast a spell, it was usually in the early going of the episode, and the spell would inevitably backfire in a way that allowed for a more realistic problem to arise. Then, she and husband Darrin went through the paces of a domestic conflict that would be familiar to millions of young couples filling the suburbs at the time. Take, for instance, season one’s “Open The Door Witchcraft,” an episode that features only minor instances of magic, and mostly in the first few minutes. It’s more an episode about a husband trying to control his wife and realizing that’s impossible, as well as an episode about the often-impossible attempt to keep up with the Joneses. (Regrettably, all of the episodes available online from the first two, black-and-white seasons have been colorized.)

The episode’s premise—Samantha gets excited by the notion of an electric garage-door opener, uses her magic to open the garage door, and is nearly caught by nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz, necessitating the purchase of an actual garage-door opener the family cannot afford in order to keep Samantha’s secret—relies on witchcraft to get started, but it very quickly settles into a staple sitcom story about a wife who creates a problem for her husband that spirals out into a larger conflict. A moment late in the episode—when Darrin commands Samantha to stop using witchcraft, even though that’s central to who she is—is surprisingly powerful stuff, even if the chuckling laugh track and overbearing score work as hard as they can to keep things light and pleasant. And as the episode digs deeper into that idea, the show’s true power becomes evident: This is a show, no matter how goofy, about the growing power of women in both the home and society at large in the 1960s. It’s a show about how men weren’t sure how to deal with that, and about how couples where the husband and wife truly loved each other could find solutions to even the most difficult of conflicts by showing each other courtesy and respect.

Arnold actually said that he considered the theme of the show to be a woman with more power than her husband and her husband’s attempts to come to terms with that. (He also said he thought of the show as one about a mother dealing with her daughter marrying beneath her.) The series’ witch mythology was always slightly threadbare—in spite of intriguing hints that both Samantha and her mother, Endora, were hundreds of years old and the fact that both of Samantha and Darrin’s children displayed magical ability—but it indicated that those in possession of witchcraft were capable of almost anything. Their seemingly endless reservoirs of power allowed them to solve essentially any problem via magic, something that could have robbed the show of conflict, were it not for Arnold and the other writers’ ability to center those conflicts on more fundamental emotional questions. Still, the show attempted to answer the question of what a man of the times, with certain expectations, might make of being thrust into a situation where his wife was ultimately much more powerful than him.

Predictably, he didn’t deal all that well with the issue. This could have come off as retrograde or clumsy, but it worked because of the writing talent assembled and the actors. Elizabeth Montgomery was at once the epitome of the perfectly ’60s housewife and someone who suggested a woman with a real independent streak to her. (Right away in the pilot, the series suggests this is the case. Otherwise, why would she have married a mortal, no matter how much she was in love with him?) The show had certain elements of I Love Lucy to it, with an impetuous, headstrong wife getting her more buttoned-down husband into trouble, but it also gender-flipped that equation, as Darrin’s jealousy could get him into trouble with a wife who just wanted him to take her and her concerns seriously. The series also seriously considered questions of fidelity. Darrin and Samantha never cheated, but they were both always worried the other was tempted. It was light sitcom stuff, but the two were surprisingly well-developed characters for a series where literally anything could be solved by Samantha wiggling her nose.

Look, for instance, at first-season episode “A Is For Aardvark,” in which Samantha gives a bedridden Darrin a taste of her power, and he goes overboard with it. The cheeky suggestion that Darrin was simply too weak to deal with having this much power was transgressive, but not in a way that audiences (outside of those objecting to the idea of witchcraft in general) might find objectionable. Granted, the show took place in the same patriarchal society its viewers lived in. But it went out of its way to say men didn’t have the real power.

Lest the show be seen strictly as one of the first feminist sitcoms, it was able to give Darrin surprising shading as well by taking his quest to find his place in a world that was constantly upending him seriously. In perhaps the most famous episode of the series, season two’s “Divided He Falls,” Endora splits Darrin into a “work” version and a “fun” version when the advertising agency he works for keeps him from going on vacation with his wife. The episode works because of the performance of Dick York, who plays both halves of the Darrin equation with aplomb, but also suggests a man who’s forced to be two different people, one at work and one at home. He only works when he can integrate the two together, a nice example of the show using its magic as metaphor.

Under the guidance of Arnold and season-two producers Jerry Davis and Bernard Slade, the show was also able to deal subtly with issues outside of gender relations. Under Arnold, the first season Halloween episode became a weird cry for tolerance, as Samantha tries to get her husband to consider changing a witch depicted in one of his ad campaigns from a stereotypical old hag to something more modern and fresh, something more like Samantha, perhaps. The storyline played around with questions of stereotypes and depictions of minorities that were only beginning to be asked on a larger scale than they had been before, and it did so in a way that was mostly invisible if you weren’t looking for it. The best episodes of Bewitched worked on one level as metaphor and on another as a serious tale of a nation evolving from one thing into another. For its troubles, the series earned an impressive amount of critical respect and even a few Emmy nominations.

The problem, though, with any gimmick sitcom, even a really good one, is that the gimmick eventually comes to dominate the show. Though the first season of Bewitched is excellent and the second season has several strong episodes, the other six seasons of the show were a long, downhill slide, with some of the weirdest creative decisions made in TV history. The show never really lost its political bent—a seventh-season episode famously depicted what happened when Samantha gave her and an African-American friend polka dots to make them the same race—but the special effects began to take over the show, and Samantha’s nose started to wiggle more and more. The situations got goofier—the Loch Ness Monster popped up at one point—and Dick York left the show for health reasons, replaced by Dick Sargent, who was fine, but not nearly as winningly goofy as the original Darrin. The one constant throughout the series’ run was director William Asher, Montgomery’s husband, who directed the bulk of the series’ episodes. But even he wasn’t enough to tie the increasingly adrift series back to its glory days.

Eventually, the show started to drift. The couple’s two children grew older and developed their own powers. A lengthy arc filmed in Salem, Massachusetts, and necessitated by a fire at the show’s regular set revived the show right when its ratings were flagging, sending the family off on an interminable European vacation and resorting to plots involving time travel and other more fantastical notions. The series had always been popular with children, but the sophistication it once had was gone, and the series seemed more like its less-intelligent high-concept brethren. (Get Smart came along in the late ’60s to take its “smart, high-concept show” crown anyway.) And perhaps that’s just inevitable for a show where many of the main characters are witches and warlocks. But, for a couple of seasons at least, Bewitched suggested that these gimmicks could be used to tell surprisingly deft stories about a changing nation and world, even if everything could be fixed with a quick bit of magic. That it lost that touch was regrettable, but that it was able to tell smart stories within that framework, even for a little while, was remarkable.

Next time: Unsolved Mysteries

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