Are We Taking TV too Seriously?
As the “Mad Men” series finale spawns thousands of think pieces, let’s see what it would be like if TV inspired the same kind of deep analysis in 1972 that it does today.
Creator Sherwood Schwartz begins the fourth season of The Brady Bunch in the same fashion that he started the third, by taking the Bradys on a Conradian journey into the aboriginal cultures that are pushed to the fringes by the suburbia that Mike has a hand in building.
Last season, it was the Grand Canyon and ghost towns. Bobby and Cindy got lost. When Mike and Carol called, “Bobby! Cindy!” we knew that the Bradys would never be the same again, only to have this confirmed when the entire clan was given Indian names at the conclusion of episode three, titled “The Brady Braves.” In a shamanistic ritual, Mike was dubbed “Big Eagle of Large Nest,” Bobby was “Little Bear Who Loses Way,” and Alice became “Squaw in Waiting.” While season three saw the Bradys transformed but unscathed, the first two installments of season four, titled “Hawaii Bound” and “Pass the Tabu,” sends the Bradys into a deepening spiritual quagmire in the forward outpost of America’s Pacific empire.
Sent to Hawaii to oversee the construction of a building he designed, Mike decides to make a working vacation out of it by taking his extended brood along with him. Where the Bradys trip through Arizona only saw them assimilating with Hopi culture near the conclusion of the opening trilogy, and quickly dispensing of it by the time Greg gets his driver’s license in the next episode (“The Wheeler Dealer”), the Bradys go native almost right after touching down in the Aloha State. In the beginning of “Hawaii Bound,” Mike has straight hair when he announces the pending trip, but sports a curly perm once he’s in Honolulu. The rest of Bradys also discard their trademark polyester for Hawaiian shirts or muumuus, and Alice is overburdened with leis as she exits the plane.
But the traditional garb of the islands and tight curls provide scant protection from the indigenous evil brought to the surface by Mike’s construction project. After bulldozers unearth an old Tiki idol, Mr. Hanalei (Lippy Espinada), a superstitious older construction worker, wards his co-worker away from it. “Taboo idol, very strong,” Hanalei warns, “Bring evil to all who touch.”
Bobby soon finds the idol lying in the sandy soil overturned by his father’s laborers and wears it around his neck, mistaking the cursed object for a good luck charm. This isn’t the first time that Bobby is drawn to dark antiquities. His search for dinosaur fossils leads him astray in the Grand Canyon, and his obsession with Jesse James couldn’t even be dispelled when an elderly survivor of the Old West tells him that “Jesse James was a mean dirty killer.” Only a vision of his entire family being slaughtered on a train by James makes Bobby abandon his adulation of the outlaw.
In Hawaii, Bobby spreads the curse, albeit unknowingly, as he gives the idol to various family members to wear. As a result, Greg wipes out on his surf board, a bronze wall hanging in the hotel room almost takes out Peter, and Alice throws her back out while joining Carol and the girls for a beach-side hula dancing lesson. “My hu went one way and my la went another,” Alice explains as back pain renders her immobile as if she’d just gazed upon the Gorgon. It is here that Anne B. Davis gives us a gateway to Alice’s tormented soul in a richly nuanced performance. Alice puts on a brave or self-deprecating face, hiding the unhappiness brought on by her fealty to the Bradys. Mike and Carol say that Alice is part of the family, but she is still the help no matter how much kindness she shows towards Jan, the middle sister.
As with Grand Canyon, Alice has a job to do in Hawaii, and her duties prevent her from gaining true intimacy with Sam the Butcher (Allan Melvin), who is likely left grinding chuck back home. As an independent business owner, Sam is the equal of Mike Brady, yet the tradesman still lacks the capital to free Alice of her servitude to the upper middle class.
We also find ourselves asking, “What of Tiger?” In season one, Tiger not only weathers rejection when the family believes that Jan is allergic to him, but runs away and absconds with Cindy’s Kitty Karry-All doll. In these early episodes, Schwartz develops the Tiger character, but has been underutilizing him ever since. One can only hope that The Brady Bunch will return to Tiger as season four progresses, but for now Tiger is either being fed a steady stream of butcher’s scraps and maybe drinking Oly out of a bowl with Sam back home, or he’s been kenneled.
Whenever the Bradys are away from home, Schwartz and writer Tam Spiva make use of spirit guides to move the family through unfamiliar terrain. In “Grand Canyon or Bust,” the Bradys are first led by an old prospector (a deliciously delirious Jim Backus) and then Jimmy the Indian boy. In “Hawaii Bound,” a young native named Dan is tasked with showing the Bradys around the islands, but directs the boys to Mr. Hanalei once they realize they need to rid themselves of the tiki’s hex. Hanalei tells Greg, Peter and Bobby that they have to take the idol back to the burial ground of ancient kings. However, this time the Brady boys have to descend into their own heart of darkness without a native or their parents to guide them.
With Schwartz’s return to themes of native cultures that are foreign to the Bradys while still being homegrown in origin, it’s fitting that Jack Arnold was chosen to direct this season’s opener. The first episode of The Brady Bunch helmed by Arnold, “The Un-Underground Movie” from season two, depicts the first meeting between white settlers and Native Americans. In Arnold’s masterful film-within-a-film, Greg has to make a movie about the first Thanksgiving for his history class, and does so with surprising attention to historical accuracy despite the AstroTurf creeping into the shots filmed in the Bradys’ backyard. Bobby and Peter’s portrayal of Native Americans while the rest of the family are cast as pilgrims lays the groundwork for the show’s future exploration of clashes between civilizations.
Arnold has also dealt with similar subject matter in his feature film work during his time at Universal. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Arnold’s most famous film, confronts a scientific expedition in the Amazon with a living throwback to the Devonian Age, just as the Bradys are confronted by a more stationary relic from the time of King Kamehameha. Arnold delves even further into historic regression in Monster on Campus (1958) where scientific experiments transform an unwitting professor into one of mankind’s Neanderthal ancestors. Arnold’s skill in directing large arachnids in Tarantula (1955) comes into play in “Pass the Tabu” when Peter wakes up to find a regular-sized tarantula sitting on his chest. In Tarantula, a pre-superstardom Clint Eastwood saves the day by burning the 50-foot spider with napalm, whereas Robert Reed rescues Peter by merely scooping the eight-legged creature into a bag and taking it outside.
By the end of episode two, the boys set out for the burial ground of ancient kings leaving a trail of popcorn behind him in a reference to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Like Hansel and Gretel, the caves that house the ancient Hawaiian tombs also come with their own boogeyman in the form of Vincent Price, who is glimpsed as the show fades to its familiar end credits.
Price has just come off the success of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) where he plays a hideously scarred, art deco madman who patterns a string of gruesome murders after the plagues of Egypt.
With the maniacal intensity of Price’s latest series of horror movies so fresh in the public’s imagination, Schwartz is no doubt signaling a darker new direction for The Brady Bunch in season four, but let’s hope that this story of a lovely lady who was bringing up three very lovely girls doesn’t get overrun by too many new characters. Schwartz needs to refocus on Mike and Carol’s inner turmoil as they forge one family out of the wreckage of two others, which is the way they became the Brady Bunch.
Come back on Monday May 18th for the follow-up to this piece where I review the final episode of “The Brady Bunch” as if it’s the series finale of “Mad Men.”
Originally published in my now-defunct Open Salon blog.
Bob Calhoun is the author of “Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor” (Obscuria Press, 2013). His work has appeared in Salon.com, RogerEbert.com, Gawker and the San Francisco Chronicle. You can follow him on Twiter @bob_calhoun or contact him at bobcalhoun AT shatteringconventions dot com.