Joanna Weiss

Here’s the story...

The magic of ‘The Brady Bunch’ was in its simplicity

(Photofest/ The New York Times)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / July 17, 2011

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IN HONOR of Sherwood Schwartz, the “Brady Bunch’’ creator who died last Tuesday, I spent much of this week bingeing on his most enduring show. I was struck by how many scenes I recalled with perfect clarity: Cindy Brady freezing in front of a TV camera. Peter Brady holding a magnifying glass to his eye. The family singing “Clementine’’ in the station wagon, en route to the Grand Canyon.

This comes with having had so few TV choices in my youth; I watched “The Brady Bunch’’ in reruns every day after school, so much that I knew that beige split-level as well as my own house. We Gen-Xers might have been latch-key kids, but we had Mike and Carol to come home to.

I wish I could say the same for my seven-year-old, who watched the Bradys for the first time this week, and was hooked - sensing, perhaps, that they filled a big void in her current TV diet.

“The Brady Bunch’’ feels different from today’s kids’ fare, and that’s partly due to its time-capsule quality, spoofed so lovingly in the 1995 “Brady Bunch Movie.’’ The clothes are vintage ’70s, and in a way, so is the wholesomeness: Today’s TV teens warble pop songs, not old Americana.

But really, it’s not the Bradys’ innocence that sets them apart. It’s the fact that their lives, and their troubles, were usually so mundane.

On most popular kids’ shows today, the characters are living extraordinary lives: They’re international pop stars, budding wizards, or web-show hosts. They live in a hotel, or on a boat. Their parents are often barely present, or conspicuously absent. Cartoons like “SpongeBob SquarePants’’ and “Phineas and Ferb’’ are clever and quick, packed with pop culture references, written for adults as much as for kids.

“The Brady Bunch’’ seldom tried to be clever, postmodern, or hip. And it proved that simple, ordinary lives can make for powerful entertainment, too.

In a 1997 interview with the Archive of American Television, Schwartz said he got the idea for “The Brady Bunch’’ after spotting an item in the Los Angeles Times, which said 30 percent of American families included a child from a previous marriage. This, Schwartz realized, was a situation millions of people could relate to, and a treasure trove of stories to be told.

As with his other hit series, “Gilligan’s Island,’’ Schwartz was conscious of making a statement, showing how disparate people could get along. “The Brady Bunch’’ did a lot to normalize blended families, and could even be a useful lens for viewing social trends. In one 1971 episode, Marcia, awakened to women’s lib, decides she wants to join Greg’s Frontier Scouts troop. In some ways, the episode feels like the pre-Title IX artifact it is. In other ways, it feels as relevant now as ever.

But “The Brady Bunch’’ didn’t have to tackle big issues to seem meaningful. The episodes about lost lockets, middle sisters, and tagging along on a big brother’s date reveal a telling truth: When you’re a kid, the tribulations of everyday life feel dramatic and important enough.

And the safety and security of the family unit - no matter what its makeup, or how it came to be - is no less critical now than it was then. The current successor to the “Brady Bunch,’’ in message and mood, is probably “Modern Family,’’ which just scored 17 Emmy nominations. It’s another tale of unconventional families filled with love, though it sails far above the average seven-year-old’s head.

We assume a certain sophistication among kids today, in part because they’re growing up with iPad apps and KidzBop songs, armed with cellphones and remote controls. They have so many choices, when it comes to entertainment, that the standard response has been to scream at them, offering fare that’s ever-flashier and louder, more outrageous and more unreal.

But maybe we’ve overestimated how worldly or wowed kids need to be in order to be entertained. That was Sherwood Schwartz’s genius, in the end. He knew that all he had to do was tell people, “Here’s a story.’’

Joanna Weiss can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.