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.
You’ve seen it, this moment, probably more times than you can remember. A television character pulls out a guitar and starts to sing a heartfelt song about peace and love. The camera moves from his hands, plucking away, to his face, with the eyes closed and chin raised. Then there’s a cut to the other people in the room, all beaming with pride and exuding Inner Light, while occasionally turning and looking appreciatively at each other. Giving the nod. The Brady Nod.
The clip below is from the third-season Brady Bunch episode “Dough Re Mi,” or what most people of my generation call “the one where Peter’s voice changes and Greg writes a song about it.” I’ve told at least four friends over the past month that I was about to cover this particular episode, and in every single case, they immediately launched into a credible rendition of the episode’s climactic song, “Time To Change,” complete with an impression of Peter’s cracking croon. But not one of them remembered much about the first song, “We Can Make The World A Whole Lot Brighter.” That’s the one that Greg claims is “a sure-fire hit song… a gold record.” That’s the one with the heavy message that we all need to hear, man.
In fact, “Dough Re Mi” opens with Greg locking himself into his bedroom for hours with his guitar and a notebook, so he can hone that gem. When he emerges, he tells his younger brothers Peter and Bobby and his stepsisters Marcia, Jan, and Cindy that he’s written this super song, but that he doesn’t have the money to record it properly, at the best studio in town. Even though Peter is friends with the son of the producer who runs the studio, he can’t get Greg a rate any lower than $150 for a session. But Peter does get a bright idea for how to raise the money and increase Greg’s chances of scoring a hit. He suggests that every Brady sibling pitch in some money, and that they form a family group called The Brady Six, since family groups are all the rage. And so we get the spectacle of the Brady kids singing together as one, while their parents and their maid Alice nod away at Greg’s sweet, significant song.
Writer Harlan Ellison had a classification for songs like “We Can Make The World A Whole Lot Brighter.” He called it “defanged dissent.” Ellison coined the term in a column he wrote for The Los Angeles Free Press in July 1970—one of a three-year run of columns about television and revolutionary culture that he later collected in two volumes as The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. The two books are out of print, but reasonably easy to find, and I’d call them essential reading for anyone interested in television, criticism, Ellison, or the way changing values among the youth of the late ’60s and early ’70s shook up Hollywood—which then, as now, relied on interested young eyeballs to persuade their advertisers to spend.
In his column, Ellison wrote from the perspective of an insider—an award-winning TV writer with lots of friends and acquaintances in the business—and he wrote as someone sympathetic to “the movement,” and thus repulsed by the way his colleagues tried to pander to youth with faux-hip lingo and characters, or the way they went the opposite direction and trashed the rising generation in order to feed the reactionaries. According to Ellison:
Had they the slightest, smallest vestige of control over the material they contribute to television, the members of the WGA could conceivably arrest the trends in this land toward repression, violence, mass ignorance, and the death slide down the trough to ecological and sociological ruin. But writers in this industry have allowed themselves to be brainwashed into believing they are no better than bricklayers, crop-dusters, sewer maintenance men. They are creative typists.
When The Brady Bunch debuted in 1969, the show’s cast looked strikingly pre-Kennedy, but when “Dough Re Mi” aired on January 14, 1972—just a couple of months before Ellison stopped writing his column—the kids had gone shaggier, in keeping with the times. You can see the transition just beginning in the opening credits of The Brady Bunch’s third season, where everyone looks stuck halfway between clean-cut and counterculture:
The Brady Bunch was created by Sherwood Schwartz, who, like a number of people in showbiz in the 1960s, was looking for a way to reflect the increasingly fractured state of the American family. (See also: the movies Yours, Mine And Ours and Divorce American Style, the TV series The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father and Family Affair, and so many more.) Ellison noted the phenomenon in his column:
The network mufti who bought all of this drivel, from The Doris Day Show to Here’s Lucy, in their paralyzing fear of portraying anything even remotely resembling the realities of life in These United States, have opted for crippled families of husbandless wives or wifeless husbands, all playing Pygmalion to raise their kids with a vested interest in “acceptable morality” and the beliefs of generations nudging the grave.
That just about sums up the most persistent problem with The Brady Bunch. Here was a show that was plugged into its times in so many ways, given that it was about a blended family, living in au courant Los Angeles, with six children of varying ages and dispositions. And yet the show’s mandate was to keep it light and bright, while pushing traditional values. On the rare occasion that The Brady Bunch addressed issues of the day like racism or women’s rights, it did so with no particular passion for the causes, any more than the writers really cared about whether Cousin Oliver was a jinx, or whether Cindy’s Kitty Karry-All doll was cursed. Really, the plot of any given Brady Bunch barely mattered; people tuned in then and probably still tune in now just to spend time in one family’s cool-looking house in a relatively carefree southern-California suburb. The show is more an environment than a piece of narrative art.
As such, verisimilitude was never a Brady Bunch priority. Even if we buy that Greg’s drippy song—with lines like, “God made the land for each and every man / So we must do all we can to save it”—is a guaranteed smash, are we really supposed to believe that all he has to do to break into the music business is to walk into a studio and start recording? Or that Peter could interrupt someone else’s recording session, and the “best producer in town” would drop what he’s doing to hear him out?
After Peter comes up with his Brady Six plan—arguing, “We could make three times as much as The Carpenters!”—he and Greg persuade the other siblings to kick in about half the money they need, and then they get the rest from their father. But first, Dad protests, “Greg, I’m an architect, I don’t want to branch out into the record-producing business!” Greg brings their money to the big-shot producer—most of it in pennies, as is the industry standard—and books their session. Then they settle in to rehearse, and are starting to sound pretty smooth before Peter begins croaking.
Of course, Peter’s changing voice shouldn’t really affect anything. His brothers and sisters can easily record the song without him, and can even still call themselves The Brady Six. This actually occurs to the kids too, and they hold a vote about whether to kick Peter out of the group—a vote which ends in a tie because Cindy votes both “yes” and “no”—but then their mother intervenes and tells them that while it’s up to them, she thinks some things are more important than money. And so they’re all ready to pack it in, before Greg gets a bright idea.
I confess that I was a dedicated Brady Bunch-watcher when I was a boy. I never saw the show in first-run as far as I can recall—I would’ve been not quite 4 years old when the show went off the air in 1974—but as a child of divorce and a latch-key kid, I was drawn to The Brady Bunch in syndication, especially during those long Southern summers when there wasn’t much to do but spend entire afternoons watching reruns of old TV shows on the local UHF stations. Even now, The Brady Bunch generates reliable pangs of nostalgia for me, whenever I see the family’s hand-patted burgers cooking on a large outdoor grill…
…or their colorful, pattern-heavy fashions, or the kids’ rooms, which are adorned with trippy posters and toys. That’s where I wanted to escape when I was younger, and it’s hard even now to shake its appeal.
For the most part, though, I find The Brady Bunch tough to sit through for an entire 22-minute episode. I’m talking Spanish Inquisition tough. From Alice’s lame wisecracks to the contrived problem-plots, I wince at The Brady Bunch now far more often than I groove to it. Re-watching “Dough Re Mi,” I got goose pimples of horror at the goofy way the episode resolves, with Greg writing “Time To Change” to take advantage of Peter’s voice, and The Brady Six recording it in front of a studio full of people, all giving The Brady Nod.
Again, because we’re in Bradyland, I won’t ask some of the key questions I have about how “Dough Re Mi” ends. Like, how did they afford a band to record a backing track? And given that the epilogue has Peter trying to maintain his cracked voice, since that’s now the group’s “special sound,” are we to assume that “Time To Change” did in fact become a hit? If so, why isn’t the rest of the series all about the fame and fortune of The Brady Six? These questions, nagging as they may be, are ultimately irrelevant.
No, I’m more interested in the episode as an example of Ellison’s defanged dissent. To some extent, “Dough Re Mi” represents the triumph of the younger generation, if only because the clothes, the music, and issues like ecology are presented here as normal, not radical. But at the same time… this is 1972. Vietnam’s still raging, the generational clash over drugs is intensifying, and during the run of The Brady Bunch, its target audience would likely been at least tangentially aware of Woodstock, Altamont, Kent State, and other major polarizing moments in the culture. Also, All In The Family and M*A*S*H were both already hits when “Dough Re Mi” aired, and edgy comedians like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and the members of The Committee had become frequent guest stars on primetime variety shows. Yet The Brady Bunch couldn’t be bothered to get the fundamental details of the music business right, let alone to reflect what was going on in the real world.
It was undoubtedly a challenge for Hollywood back in the early ’70s to reach an increasingly plugged-in younger audience without wading into the kind of controversies that turned sponsors off. With The Brady Bunch, Schwartz and company chose to follow the course that Dynamite magazine and other kid-focused ’70s media later did, treating even the most politically charged popular culture as completely divorced from its intended meaning. (The first issue of Dynamite in 1974 featured M*A*S*H on its cover, for example.) The Brady Bunch started out as a show for the whole family, but by the time it was paired with The Partridge Family as a timeslot partner in 1970, it had become more of a show for pre-teens. Then it started aiming even younger. During the last two years of its run, it spawned a Saturday-morning cartoon featuring an animated version of the Brady kids…
…and three years after The Brady Bunch was cancelled, it came back as an ill-fated, truly bizarre variety series, produced by kid-entertainment impresarios Sid and Marty Krofft.
The variety show tanked, and the original run of The Brady Bunch wasn’t that successful either, never finishing a season in the Top 25 of the Nielsen ratings. “Time To Change” was released as an actual single, and couldn’t crack Billboard’s Hot 100. All of this seems to bear out Harlan Ellison’s faith in the savvy of the younger generation. In a Glass Teat column from 1968, Ellison wrote:
It became obvious this last week, inundated as we were with political ‘specials,’ that the days of the fraud in politics are numbered. Or more correctly, the inept fraud. The baby kissing, slogan mouthing hypocrite: the machine politician. TV’s eye is much too merciless, and the generations raised on TV are too wise to the fraudulent; they’ve seen too many commercials to ever again be taken in by demagogues and political used car salesman.
So why is it that nearly everyone I grew up with remembers “Dough Re Mi,” while only a handful know anything about The Committee? Thank syndication. The Brady Bunch played perfectly as a five-day-a-week time-killer for kids just coming home from school—frequently to a grownup-free house—in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And because the show’s stories and dialogue weren’t its main selling points, the generation that watched The Brady Bunch the second time around could see the same episodes over and over without getting burned out. The mood woven by the show was a lot like the Bradys’ lawn: plastic and evergreen.
The need to take comfort from a largely passive medium was something Ellison understood implicitly—not for nothing did his television criticism compare TV sets to a mother’s breast, after all—and yet his Glass Teat columns sometimes forgot this basic truth. Ellison railed against the Mustache Petes of show business, sneering at the corniness of Danny Thomas and Andy Griffith, while standing up for “where it’s at” comedians like David Steinberg and his dopey variety show The Music Scene. The two Glass Teat books are bracing to read, a lot like an off-the-cuff weekly journal in which Ellison veered off-topic frequently to vent his spleen at Spiro Agnew, Flip Wilson, and Standard Oil. But Ellison was never a disciplined critic, and didn’t pretend to be. He forgave a lot of mediocrity because it had the right message or because it was written by friends, and he blasted a lot of entertainment and entertainers that have outlasted the heat of that particular moment in history.
Still, Ellison was on to something when he warned against the commodification of youth, and when I watch “Dough Re Mi,” I can’t help but think about something else he wrote:
Even the music can be corrupted. They can take even something as pure as the sounds and turn them into shit for the monkeymass. And if they can do that, how much easier it must be to take political theory, revolutionary activity, dissent, all of the paraphernalia of the barricades and corrupt them, turn them against their own people, use them to keep us in line.
Meanwhile, Alice nods.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Homicide: Life On The Street, “A Doll’s Eyes”