Wednesday, March 29, 2006

"A is For Aardvark"

In one more follow-up to my posts about the Danny Arnold season of "Bewitched," I wanted to write something about the best episode from that first season -- the one Elizabeth Montgomery and Bill Asher considered the best of the series -- "A is For Aardvark." Update: Dialogue excerpts replaced with clips from the episode.

The episode is one of the last of the batch that Danny Arnold produced himself, before turning over producing duties to Jerry Davis for the rest of the season (with Arnold as head writer). It's very low-key and low-maintenance, taking place entirely in the Stephens's house; the fact that it doesn't feel claustrophobic or slow is probably due to the director, actress and pioneering female director Ida Lupino. It's pretty much is the essence of what makes the first season so good: the use of magical elements to tell a human, relatable and, yes, realistic story. As I said earlier, the writer, Earl Barret, was a freelancer who also contributed a similar (and equally good) script to a later season. (There were a few episodes in seasons 3 and 4 that were done in the down-to-earth human style of the Danny Arnold episodes; Barret's script "Charlie Harper, Winner" was one of them.)

The premise of the episode is that when Darrin sprains his ankle and is confined to his bed, Samantha tires herself out running up and down the stairs to bring him things. Tired out, she suggests a way to make things easier on her: she will put a spell on the house so that Darrin can have anything he wants by calling for it. Darrin is reluctant ("Sam, I don't want any part of that nonsense!"), but agrees if it'll make things easier for his wife.

After seeing Darrin teleport one thing after another upstairs to his room, Endora warns Samantha that mortals are inherently greedy and that once Darrin knows what it's like to be able to have anything he wants, he won't stop with just the things that are available in the house: "Today lunch, tomorrow the world."

And at the midpoint of the episode, Samantha is disappointed to find that her mother was right: after being exposed to just a taste of power, Darrin is starting to accept and even encourage the idea that she should use her powers to have anything she wants. The dialogue exchange is very well-written and played -- well-written because it pretty much analyzes Darrin's sexism years before pop-culture analysts started to do it, and well-played because Elizabeth Montgomery conveys Samantha's disappointment: she doesn't want full permission to use her powers, because she married a mortal to get away from a way of living where everything comes too easily:

In act 2, Darrin becomes more and more determined to live off magic: he quits his job and tells Samantha that, for the six-month anniversary of their marriage, they should go around the world and have all the fun "that we could never have if we saved for twenty years." Sam tries to use reverse psychology on her husband by offering him "too much of a good thing," but when she overhears him making plans to sell the house, she realizes that it's over: the life she chose with Darrin has been wrecked by his addiction to having everything right now.

In the climactic scene, Darrin gives Samantha some flowers and a watch that he had already bought for the six-month anniversary: "I bought this a long time ago," he says. "Just a couple of weeks, actually, but it seems like a long time ago." The watch bears the corny inscription "I love you every second." Samantha starts to cry and we get a dead-serious, emotional, tearjerking scene that you wouldn't have expected on a 1964 fantasy sitcom episode on ABC:

And Samantha, doing a bigger magical feat than she'd been capable of earlier in the series (that line "if you want it badly enough" implies that that's what makes it possible for her to pull it off) turns back time to an earlier point in the episode, when she had used magic to send a pencil upstairs to Darrin. Now she happily walks up the stairs to bring it to him.

So the episode answers most of the questions about the series. Is Samantha being oppressed by not being allowed to use her powers? No; living this way is her decision and her preference, because when everything comes easy, there is no fulfilment. Why doesn't Darrin want Samantha to use her powers? Because, as he explains himself, his ego and pride won't allow him to accept the fact that Sam can have things that he can't give her. Did Endora ever call Darrin by his first name? She does in this episode, but only after he's become selfish, idle and determined to live off magic -- now he's worthy of her daughter.

The episode is unusually carefully set up for a '60s sitcom episode, with plot developments tied into structural and thematic elements. So the episode begins with Darrin falling and spraining his ankle when he goes downstairs to lock the back door: that's the setup (Darrin laid up in bed with a sprained ankle), but there's a thematic element built into it: he goes downstairs to shut the door himself because he won't let Samantha use magic to do it. And the very last scene of the episode shows a parallel scene where Darrin has again forgotten to lock the back door -- but this time Samantha uses magic (surreptitiously) to close it without getting out of bed: nothing has changed, but she's happy to be back to her preferred status quo, where she lives the life of a mortal but uses magic as a little private pleasure.

Whew! That's a lot of analysis for one sitcom episode, and more than I meant to provide, but it's a really good episode, and surprisingly rich and meaningful for a sitcom episode. It's about more than a situation or a pratfall; it's about whether you enjoy things more if you have to strive for them; how much you need to give up in order to make a relationship work, and so on. Montgomery, York and Moorehead are all about as good in this episode as they ever were (I'm reminded that Endora was a less cartoonish character in the first season: she was genuinely concerned about her daughter and was mischievous rather than just malicious). That's what makes the much-derided sitcom form worthwhile: a good sitcom episode is about universal situations and questions that we all recognize from our daily lives. Even if it involves witches. Especially if it involves witches.


Jenny said...

Jeez, who are you, and how do you manage this terrific writing? This blog(which I've only scratched the surface of)is like a shelf full of great books on my favorite cultural subjects.

I grew up with "Bewitched" and have been banging a gong about how good a show, howwell written it is--how really exceptional--ever since; even the silly later episodes had some choice performances, if not nearly as clever scripts. But those early ones are of course everything you say. One sideline I became aware of in my teen years of catching the occasional rerun of this show: the level of drinking...good grief! The oft-used line "make it a triple"! All too realistic in my 60s-70s experience, plus it seemed(my dad was working for a very McMahon & Tate-like outfit)pretty accurate about advertising as well.

Thanks for the analysis...Bewitched and Tiny Toons--man!

arfies said...

Right on!! I love this show, and "A is for Aardvark" is far and away my favorite episode.

Speaking of "who are you," Jenny- you have the same name (well, in real life) as me!