Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
Want to see a fully lived American life? Take a look at Tom Braden. Braden died in 2009, after a 92-year run in which he fought in a war, worked for the CIA, wrote books, taught college classes, owned a newspaper, ran for public office, co-hosted Crossfire, and socialized with some of the most powerful men and women in the world. He also fathered eight children, and whenever he was stuck for a subject for his syndicated column, he’d write about his kids: David, the working-class rebel who rejected his father’s way of finding success; Mary, the bright young activist; Joannie, the infectious can-do optimist; Susan, the workaholic tomboy; Nancy, the boy-crazy sensualist; Elizabeth, the haughty beauty; Tommy, the know-it-all teenager; and Nicholas, the mischievous little kid.
Braden used his experiences with his children as object lessons in generational change. Outnumbered by his brood, he’d had to become as much of an observer as an authoritarian; and his feelings about drugs, fashion, and pre-marital sex softened as he watched his children thrive while making what Braden’s generation would’ve deemed “mistakes.”
Eventually, Braden turned his columns into a book, Eight Is Enough, which was published in 1975.
Then the book became an ABC series in the spring of ’77, with Dick Van Patten playing Tom “Bradford,” a syndicated columnist based in Sacramento. Eight Is Enough wasn’t the first TV series inspired by a real person’s life, but it’s a rarity for such a show to be about a fairly well-known person, one who’s still alive at the time the show’s produced. It also poses an unusual challenge for the writers and producers. What responsibility do they have to be faithful to the reality of their subject?
In the case of Eight Is Enough, creator William Blinn and Lorimar Productions honchos Philip Caprice and Lee Rich had the show’s creative team hew fairly closely to Braden’s book, at least initially. The abbreviated first season even loosely adapts Braden’s anecdotes about his sporting rivalry with the Kennedy clan, his children’s brushes with the law, and the lawsuits he faced from disgruntled readers. But before the season wrapped, Eight Is Enough was forced by circumstance to diverge from its source material. The producers cast Diana Hyland as Joan Bradford, the levelheaded mom who holds the sprawling family together. But shortly after taking on the role, Hyland discovered that the mastectomy she’d had the year before hadn’t stopped the progression of her breast cancer. Hyland appeared in only four of the first season’s nine episodes before becoming too ill to continue. She died before the series premièred.
Rather than recast, the producers retooled. When the second season began in the fall of ’77, Tom Bradford was a widower, and the family was dealing with the recent death of Joan. Then, in the second episode, Tom met Sandra Abbot, nicknamed “Abby” (and played by Broadway star Betty Buckley). So where the real Tom Braden had a long marriage to a globe-hopping socialite who ghost-wrote columns for Jacqueline Kennedy and was close friends with Henry Kissinger, the fictional Tom Bradford remarried, and lived a far more modest life, aside from the audacious size of his family.
Also, in blatant defiance of its name, Eight Is Enough kept growing its cast. Some of the kids got married and had babies, bringing spouses and new children into the mix. And on November 5, 1980, toward the beginning of Eight Is Enough’s fifth and final season, in an effort to boost the flagging show’s youth appeal, the producers added dreamy 18-year-old newcomer Ralph Macchio as Abby’s orphaned nephew Jeremy Andretti.
Aside from the new character, the episode “Jeremy” is fairly typical for the series. Credited to writer Gil Grant (currently employed by the NCIS-plex) and director Jack Bender (a TV drama specialist best known for helming some of the key episodes of Lost), “Jeremy” follows three main stories and two minor subplots. Eight Is Enough wasn’t serialized in the way we think of the term today, with stories that stretch on for whole seasons or longer, like a soap opera. But the characters did go through changes, and “Jeremy” acknowledges a couple of those, via a brief mention of Susan coming home with her new baby, and short conversation about David’s wife Janet beginning her legal career.
Then it’s on the main stories. In one, Joannie (played by Laurie Walters) frets that she’s about to lose her job in the news department at the local TV station because a consulting firm has been called in to make changes. Instead, they promote her to sports anchor, believing that having a woman in the position will be a good hook. The problem? Joannie knows nothing about sports. (When a colleague tells her that all she has to do is read “Phillies 7, Reds 2” off a piece a paper, she asks, “What are the Phillies and the Reds?”) The station managers dress Joannie in a man’s suit, and she does become instantly popular with the viewers, but she still feels out of her depth whenever she’s asked to fill airtime with banter about Tom Landry (whom Joannie thinks is a player, not a coach), or when she has to interview a half-naked Bubba Smith in the locker room after a game.
Meanwhile, the Bradford’s youngest sibling Nicholas (played by Adam Rich) finds a medical book in his sister Mary’s room that contains detailed illustrations of the female anatomy. He and his friend Ralph take the book to school and sell access to their friends: 50 cent for five minutes, and a quarter extra to know where the good pages are. A teacher busts the business, then tells the boys’ parents and gets them punished. It’s a real shame, especially since neither Nicholas nor Ralph ever knew what they were looking at anyway.
Neither of these stories have anything to do with each other, either structurally or thematically, unless you want to argue that they’re connected because they’re about people who don’t know what they’re doing. But I doubt that Grant—or any of the show’s writers who may have left a thumbprint on this script—had that in mind back in 1980. More likely the choice of B- and C-stories in “Jeremy” was more pragmatic. Which actors hadn’t had much screen-time lately? What might their characters be up to? More importantly: Can their stories be funny? Because while Eight Is Enough was ostensibly a drama, every episode had overt comedic elements, underlined with a laugh track and jaunty music to cue the home viewer.
And without that comic relief, “Jeremy” would be pretty heavy. Early on, Abby prepares to head to San Francisco for her former sister-in-law Peg’s funeral. She’s not wearing black, because Peg was the kind of person who wore bright red to her mother’s funeral, and black when Abby married her brother Frank. Peg’s son Jeremy, though, is more of a brooder. Left without a mom—and with an absentee father who’s so out of the loop that he hasn’t even heard his son’s mother has died—Jeremy accepts his Aunt Abby’s invitation to spend a few days in Sacramento with the Bradfords, which is utter Squaresville to a kid from San Francisco with a free-spirited mom. So Jeremy sulks, smokes, drinks beer, and messes with everybody’s stuff, and when Tommy gets fed up with the kid’s tough-guy attitude, Jeremy grunts, “This whole house stinks… of hicks!”
The situation doesn’t improve when Jeremy’s father arrives. Jeremy’s always boasted that his dad’s not around because he’s a movie director, which is true. But Mr. Andretti (played by John Considine) directs nature documentaries, not Hollywood movies, and he lives in an apartment in Encino, not a big house in Malibu or Beverly Hills. Also, he has no idea how to interact with a teenager. He takes Jeremy to the zoo—the zoo!—and asks him if The Byrds are still popular with the young folks. Nevertheless, Jeremy starts to get excited about moving in with his pop, thereby setting up the inevitable letdown when Mr. Andretti skips town, telling Tom Bradford that bringing Jeremy into his life would be too complicated for both of them. The boy would be better off in a foster home.
Naturally, that’s not how the story ends. Instead, Abby reminds her husband that she took eight kids on when she married him; the least he could do is take one. She also reminds him that his own father abandoned him as a child, and that Jeremy’s standoffishness is just a case of him rejecting everyone else before they can reject him. So after some hard soul-searching, Tom goes to see Jeremy just as the boy is packing up his stuff to hitchhike down to San Diego to look for work, and tells him, “For what it’s worth, I’d like you to stay.” As Jeremy’s about to leave the house, he has a change of heart, puts his suitcase down, and helps Nicholas do the dishes so that Nicholas can finish his punishment in time to catch his favorite TV show.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with the real life of Tom Braden, a D.C. media power-player who never became the belated father figure to the surly son of a thoughtless documentary filmmaker. (Or if he did, he never wrote about it.) You could also argue that very little in “Jeremy” has anything to do with life-life. Eight Is Enough debuted a year after another ABC series, Family, that tried to grapple with modern problems frankly and realistically. Eight Is Enough was more contrived. As written and played, the situations were generally more TV-ish, as is the case in “Jeremy” with Joannie’s wacky new job and Nicholas’ smut-peddling—or even with Mr. Andretti bailing on his son without telling Jeremy first. These are little problem-plays, meant to be introduced and resolved over the course of a single episode. The laugh track only enhances the artificiality, as does the theme song, which is more Love Boat than Ordinary People. (But what a song, though… I’m telling you, if you don’t enjoy belting out lines like, “We spend each day like bright and shiny new diiiiimes,” or, “There’s a plate of homemade wishes on the kitchen windowsill,” then you are way too stuffy.)
It’s important to remember, though, that the actual Braden’s life was hardly the stuff of common-man melodrama. This was a writer who had first-name friendships with presidents, and had print and broadcast forums through which he spoke to millions. And though his book Eight Is Enough feels candid in its ruminations on the changing mores of family life, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Braden’s very sweet when he writes of his wife, “I never knew a girl who looked prettier in a skirt nor one who so unconsciously and yet so irresistibly flaunted before my eyes the challenge to take it off. That’s the reason we had eight children. The skirt. The rest is persiflage.” Later, though, Joan Braden wrote her own memoir, Just Enough Rope, in which she revealed that the two of them had an understanding that he was free to dally with whomever he pleased in private, and so was she. In fact, it was rumored that Joan Braden had affairs with many of the powerful men she befriended, including Robert Kennedy; and Mrs. Braden encouraged those rumors rather than debunking then. (Now that would’ve made for a good TV series.)
Behind the scenes, the cast of Eight Is Enough had their own secrets: Lani O’Grady (who played Mary) suffered from anxiety attacks and later died of a drug overdose at age 46; Susan Richardson (who played Susan) reportedly got hooked on cocaine when she was trying to lose weight rapidly after having a baby during the run of the show; and Willie Aames (who played Tommy) has publicly suffered through drug addiction, alcoholism, and financial ruin in the decades since Eight Is Enough went off the air. On-screen though, any connection between Eight Is Enough and the real world came through only in the occasional plotline and small decorative details. In “Jeremy,” for example, some of the passing jokes and anecdotes—like Nicholas explaining that Mary hid his baseball mitt in her room after he tossed it into a dish of peas—feel like something Braden could’ve written in his book. And there are signifiers of real life circa 1980 all over the episode, like Tom Bradford’s unbuttoned-too-far shirt,
the wall-mounted pencil sharpener in Tom’s home office,
and the spiral-corded kitchen phone
(though the phone cord isn’t twisted enough for true verisimilitude).
Then there’s the biggest cultural signpost: the show itself. Stories of oversized families have been popular since the days of Cheaper By The Dozen (at least), and became especially popular at the end of the ’60s with movies like With Six You Get Eggroll and Yours, Mine & Ours, and TV shows like The Brady Bunch. Prior to Eight Is Enough, Lorimar Productions’ Lee Rich produced The Waltons, the quintessential family drama of the ’70s. And the trend continued into the ’80s, with Family Matters, Just The Ten Of Us and more.
Like a lot of those movies and TV shows, Eight Is Enough featured actors who didn’t look even remotely related, aside from being young and attractive. To some, that’s Exhibit A for these shows’ phoniness, but it was also a key part of their appeal. Just about any viewer can recognize someone like him or herself in the eclectic casts of most family dramas or comedies. It’s what allowed Eight Is Enough to throw Macchio into the mix, with his tough-guy exterior and secret boyish enthusiasm—the kind that teen girls everywhere recognized even if the other characters in the Bradford family didn’t. Macchio’s Jeremy was just another type on a show that welcomed lots of different types.
In the end, maybe that’s the best tribute Eight Is Enough could’ve paid to the life that inspired it. The Bradfords were an openhearted and multi-faceted family. And Tom Braden? He had a public life and a private life that were equally eventful, and equally divided between what he chose to reveal and what he kept to himself. Sometimes, you could’ve scored Braden’s days with plaintive piano-and-flute music. And sometimes, a laugh track.
Note: Pardon the image quality of the clips; Eight Is Enough has yet to be released on home video in any official capacity.
Next time, on A Very Special Episode… The Rockford Files, “Sleight Of Hand”