Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photos from left: Hulton Archive (Getty Images), HGTV, Michael Ochs Archive (Getty Images)

They’ll never finish remodeling The Brady Bunch

Photos from left: Hulton Archive (Getty Images), HGTV, Michael Ochs Archive (Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

When I was a kid, my brother and I had a game we’d play after school: How quickly can you guess which Brady Bunch episode you’re watching? One tip-off was the music: If the kids ran into the house to a tune with an upbeat tempo, (do-do-dooo-do, do-do-do-dooo-do…), it was likely a fun-filled episode featuring a celebrity guest star or perhaps a road trip in a camper. If one of the kids strolled into the house with their head dragging, Charlie Brown-style, with the incidental music playing at a slower pace (wah-wah-waaaaah-wah, wah wah wah waaahhh-wah), it was probably going to be more of a downer episode, about an unrequited crush or not making a team.

The clues didn’t really matter: We usually guessed the correct episode in 10 seconds or so. We knew them all. We were the target demographic for The Brady Bunch in syndication, settling down with it every weekday for a full hour, lying on the scratchy loden front-room carpet with our chins in our hands. There were other shows we loved: The Partridge Family had the advantage in the musical department, and we raced through dinner to watch Happy Days every Tuesday night. But none captivated us like The Brady Bunch, which has maintained a similar hold on pop culture for decades, never leaving for long. As recently as late 2019, the now-AARP-eligible Brady kids were still reuniting for new onscreen adventures. This time, it was under the roof of the split-level ranch that they never actually shared as a family, though their TV characters did—if you ignored the fact that its groovy mid-20th-century interiors were actually located on a soundstage. There they were, 50 years later, renovating that Studio City house to resemble those Paramount Studios sets, with the help of some extremely 21st-century celebrities: the onscreen personalities of HGTV. The Bradys were blurring the lines between real life and fantasy—and not for the first time.

In a half-century, The Brady Bunch has evolved from sitcom to cartoon to variety show to drama to parody to reality series, molding and re-molding itself to fit the prevailing styles, tastes, and sensibilities of multiple eras. It all began in the late 1960s, when Gilligan’s Island producer Sherwood Schwartz wanted to capitalize on the different types of families that were following in the wake of a relatively new wave of no-fault divorce, the sort seen in big-screen comedies like Yours, Mine, And Ours and With Six You Get Eggroll. This was the zeitgeist that produced Schwartz’s famously blended Bradys, even if their show never mentioned the “d” word: a widower with three sons marrying a widow—or is she a divorcée?—with three daughters

The story of a lovely lady (Florence Henderson) bringing up three very lovely girls (Maureen McCormick, Eve Plumb, and Susan Olsen) and forming a family with a man named Brady (Robert Reed), who was busy with three boys of his own (Barry Williams, Christopher Knight, and Mike Lookinland), wasn’t much of a hit in its original broadcast run. The Brady Bunch aired on ABC for five seasons, beginning in 1969, yet never cracked the Nielsen Top 30. But other factors helped sustain the Bradys’ longevity. Previous sitcoms like Family Affair and The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father also had school-aged characters, but this one was primarily focused on the kids’ viewpoints, not the parents’. The younger Bradys had the adults greatly outnumbered, leading to a plethora of plots involving sibling rivalry, school, dating, and other topics that their peers watching at home could relate to.

And unlike previous generations of adorable TV moppets, the Brady kids fought. A lot. Marcia and Greg ran against each other in the race for student body president; quintessential middle child Jan nursed a long-standing envy of her big sister. The fact that a sitcom-perfect family like the Bradys had their squabbles, and always stuck together at the end, was a valuable lesson for those of us who quarreled constantly with our siblings. The years separating the Brady kids also made for an easy transition for the young viewer: Start out watching at Bobby or Cindy’s age and you might idolize the older brothers and sisters, only to wind up relating more to Greg and Marcia as you grew older and returned to the show in syndication.

Those reruns were another component of the Bradys’ enduring popularity, often packaged in a local station’s after-school “Brady Bunch Hour.” It was easy to get caught up on all 117 episodes, and then rewatch them, while the look and layout of the Brady house imprinted itself on your brain: the wood paneling in the TV room, the toilet-free kids’ bathroom, the bizarre horse sculpture under the open staircase. And from that level of familiarity springs the third pillar of Brady immortality, unique to this franchise: As ubiquitous reruns fueled the series’ popularity, its characters proved flexible enough to fit an assortment of TV and film formats.

Schwartz was only too happy to revisit his creation, whether the request came from an animation studio (for Filmation’s weak Archie knockoff, The Brady Kids) or psychedelic Saturday-morning kingpins Sid and Marty Krofft (for the retina-searing train wreck The Brady Bunch Variety Hour). TV reunion movies The Brady Girls Get Married (1981) and A Very Brady Christmas (1988) each led to spin-offs, but neither the odd-couple comedy The Brady Brides (1981) nor the hour-long drama The Bradys (1990) lasted longer than a season. The kids who’d tracked their own growth from Kitty Karry-all to “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” to crushes on Davy Jones were given a whole new set of Brady yardsticks to measure their own lives against—though none ever achieved the staying power of the original Brady Bunch.

Despite that lack of success, whenever all nine original cast members—let’s not forget Ann B. Davis as live-in housekeeper Alice—got the chance to work together again, they signed up, give or take the occasional ripe-for-lampooning holdout. The Bradys’ familial bond had transferred to the actors who played them, and they kept bringing other people together, too. When the typically hackneyed A Very Brady Christmas debuted in 1988, my then-twentysomething friends and I devoured it eagerly, howling over plot points like architect dad Mike finding his way out of a collapsed construction site thanks to the sound of his family singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

Rather than adopt an ill-fitting seriousness—Marcia’s an alcoholic! Bobby’s auto-racing career ends in a wreck! Greg grows a mustache!—to get with the changing times, the Bradys would only survive the ’90s by being who they’d always been: a vision of the American family as corny, inauthentic, and tied to the 1970s as their AstroTurf backyard. So it was with The Real Live Brady Bunch, the stage show created by Jill and Faith Soloway that debuted at Chicago’s Annoyance Theater in 1990, which draped the likes of Jane Lynch and Andy Richter in polyester for faithful reenactments of vintage Brady scripts—underlining their schmaltz and phoniness in the process. The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) took a similar, affectionately snarky approach, depicting the Bradys as an out-of-touch family that hadn’t changed at all since their eponymous TV show had ended, sitcom-earnest fish swimming through ironic ’90s waters of grunge, Guess jeans, and car jackings. The film opened at the top of the weekend box office; A Very Brady Sequel brought a very Brady Hawaiian getaway to theaters the next summer.

The satirical message was clear: The Bradys’ idyllic existence was an unattainable facsimile of real life, an example even its stars couldn’t live up to. Barry Williams’ autobiography, Growing Up Brady: I Was A Teenage Greg, provided the flip side to the stage and screen spoofs’ funhouse mirror. Williams scandalized fans by revealing that he once went on an innocent “date” with his TV mom, Florence Henderson; that he had showed up on set stoned; and that all three of the Brady kids’ male-female sibling pairings had harbored some level of romantic interest for the other. In Maureen McCormick’s own book, Here’s The Story: Surviving Marcia Brady And Finding My True Voice, she writes candidly about her eating disorder and a cocaine addiction that she says harmed her career irreparably.

The illusion of the original series shattered like mom’s favorite vase in the path of a rogue basketball, with the next generation of Brady projects eschewing laugh tracks and third-act resolutions for something grounded in reality—or a heightened form of it, anyway. This was more than future primetime stars Kaley Cuoco and Adam Brody playing versions of Williams and McCormick who can’t stop making out with each other while in character in the 2000 NBC adaptation of Growing Up Brady. This was America’s Next Top Model winner Adrianne Curry living out countless fans’ daydreams by romancing Peter Brady while she and Christopher Knight were on The Surreal Life. In grand Brady tradition, their onscreen courtship led to a wedding and a three-season spin-off on VH1, but My Fair Brady and a few respectable runs on Dancing With The Stars were merely reality-TV dress rehearsals for last year’s A Very Brady Renovation, in which McCormick, Knight, Williams, Plumb, Olsen, and Lookinland reunited to transform “the Brady house” into… the Brady house.

In the years since The Brady Bunch ended, the residence at 11222 Dilling Street in Studio City, California—recognizable even without the words “created by Sherwood Schwartz executive producer” superimposed over it—had become a popular tourist destination. When the longtime owners decided to sell, they found plenty of prospective buyers—including ex-N’ Sync member Lance Bass—in the market for a piece of TV history. But they were all outbid by HGTV, whose producers paired the surviving Brady cast members with some of the channel’s top home-improvement personalities who, more often than not, were family themselves: Property Brothers Drew and Jonathan Scott, or Karen Laine and Mina Starsiak, the mother and daughter team of Good Bones. Meanwhile, various pairings of the original six Brady kids (no Geri Reischl substitutions, no cousin Oliver additions) assist, picking up Cindy’s favorite doll from Sherwood Schwartz’s daughter, or helping to identify the proper dining room set at a resale shop. After all, no one could be expected to know the Brady place as well as the six actors who basically lived in it for five years.

The experience is obviously emotional for the Brady cast, especially since it’s their first series en masse (reunion specials aside) since the deaths of their TV parents: Reed in 1992, and Henderson two decades later. (Ann B. Davis died in 2014.) The effect the Bradys have on the renovators is also compelling. No matter what generation they belong to, all the HGTV hosts bring their own memories to the job, and are committed to realizing them within these four walls. They feel the gravity of the task ahead of them, joking that “America will be so mad at us!” if the house isn’t exactly right.

The Brady Bunch is far from the best or even most memorable series to air on the small screen. But it’s hard to imagine another TV setting that the average viewer is able to visualize so clearly, down to the clown painting in the boys’ room and the floral wallpaper in the girls’. And as a lifelong Brady viewer, I found it fascinating to see the artifice of the most familiar house in TV history brought to life, as the Brady actors and the HGTV crew tracked down the oversized amber glass grapes for the coffee table, and the long-outdated avocado-colored kitchen appliances. The cast is as thrilled as the renovators that there’s finally a visible commode in the kids’ bathroom, and devoted viewers contribute their own knicknacks to the decor.

In the series finale, the cast and their guests wander through the finished Brady home. “Doesn’t this make you feel like you’re 12?” Williams asks rhetorically, while McCormick hugs a familiar stuffed animal in the girls’ room. Susan Olsen proudly takes pictures of her own kids on the iconic staircase. Florence Henderson’s daughter Barbara remarks as she spies the parents’ spot-on master bedroom, “It’s such a strange experience. You sort of go back in time, and have something that wasn’t real, become real.”

It’d be a fitting capper for the relationship The Brady Bunch has had with its viewers: turning an actual house into a fictional home is not unlike trying to create the perfect fake family and bring it to life. Over the decades, the actors have forged their own clan—an imperfect one, because the perfect family doesn’t exist. But if the Brady Bunch legacy concludes with A Very Brady Renovation, it’s the right note to end on. The cast banded together to memorialize the place where they spent so much of their childhood—and where we spent so much of ours as well.