Sunday, March 26, 2006

"Bewitched": The Year of Danny Arnold

More about the first season of "Bewitched", which I watched again recently: this is by some distance the best season of the show, and different in several important ways from the later seasons. The writing is much more sophisticated, and the stories are much more focused on the relationship of Samantha (the witch) and Darrin (the mortal) and the problems that arise from that. By the third or fourth season of the series, almost every episode would be about a crazy spell cast by one of Samantha's relatives, and the show became a fantasy with domestic elements, whereas the first season is a domestic screwball comedy with fantasy elements.

The special tone of the first season comes from one participant, the writer Danny Arnold. Arnold, who would later strike it rich as co-creator and showrunner of "Barney Miller," produced the first third or so of "Bewitched"'s first season, and supervised the writing for the rest of the season. And this interview with Canadian writer Bernard Slade, a staff writer on "Bewitched" (he later created "The Partridge Family" and the hit play Same Time, Next Year) suggests that though Sol Saks was credited as the creator of the show, the (superb) pilot episode may have been heavily rewritten by Arnold:

[Saks] was kind of eased out of that. He was lucky, though because I think Danny Arnold did a lot of re-writing on that. Sol had nothing to do with the series after that, and I don't know what his deal was – he probably got a royalty from that. He hasn't written anything since, and he has lived very well.

Slade also recalled that Arnold was a tough guy to work with but a brilliant writer and producer who made "Bewitched" what it was:

I think some of the earlier Bewitched episodes – the ones in black & white – were quite sophisticated. When Danny Arnold was on the show, which was during the first year, he was difficult for a lot of writers to deal with, but he cast incredibly well and he would fight for people. He was the one that set that show up.

People who worked on "Barney Miller" had similar things to say about Arnold: he was abrasive and a credit hog (he took a director credit on the second episode of "Barney Miller" away from the guy who actually directed it), and he was so much of a perfectionist as to be unreliable: "Barney Miller" stopped taping in front of a studio audience because Arnold couldn't get the script rewrites done in time for audience night.

Arnold comes across as a sitcom producer/writer who took situation comedy surprisingly seriously, and was particularly interested in finding ways to get social significance into sitcom episodes without becoming preachy. I've mentioned this article before, where Arnold explains how he saw "Bewitched," and Elizabeth Montgomery admits that others on the show don't take it as seriously as Arnold does:

Danny Arnold sees more profound implications than just entertainment in Bewitched. "With this show," he says, "I saw a great opportunity to accomplish something. Fantasy can always be a jumping-off place for more sophisticated work. We can make it identifiable with people and relate to problems that are everyday. What we do in this series doesn't happen to witches; it happens to people. But the messages are funnier when they happen to a witch - and therefore less offensive."

What sort of messages?

"Well, take the Halloween show. It pointed the finger at bigotry. Samantha's husband was prejudiced about witches - who are definitely a minority group. He thought they were all ugly old crones, and his wife had to break down this prejudice. It is a direct parallel to some of our social problems of today. But through fantasy, we can get a more vivid portrayal. Humor can then come out of touchy subjects."

Did Miss Montgomery catch this assault on bigotry when she was making the Halloween show?

In her cluttered trailer dressing room she wrinkled her nose thoughtfully and pondered the question. "I don't think it's that cerebral," she admitted.

Most of the first-season "Bewitched" episodes use that idea of magic and fantasy as a metaphor for everyday domestic problems or social issues. It's very familiar now, thanks to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and other shows that tell everyday stories but replace the everyday elements with fantasy elements. But at the time, it was unusual to have this kind of storytelling outside of science-fiction shows like "The Twilight Zone." The most similar thing was Bell, Book and Candle, where witchcraft metaphorically stood for homosexuality (in the play) or the Beat generation (in the movie). But what was new was the way Arnold tied the magical elements so closely and to real life and invited us to see the parallels.

So the best episode of the season, "A is For Aardvark," is about Samantha giving Darrin a taste of what it's like to have magical powers, and being horrified to discover that he soon becomes idle, complacent and determined to stop working and get everything through magic. The episode isn't really about magic at all; it's about the real-world issue of whether you get more fulfilment out of instant gratification or working hard and deferring pleasure.

In "Eye of the Beholder," Endora shows Darrin a portrait of Samantha that was painted centuries ago, demonstrating that witches never age. The episode focuses on Darrin's adjusting to the fact that he and Samantha will not grow old together (there are some pretty poignant moments with him observing a happy elderly couple). But we can recognize in the situation, and the way it plays out, an examination of our real-life concerns about aging and mortality. There's even an episode where Darrin is convinced that his swinging bachelor friend (Adam West) must be under a spell when he falls in love with Samantha's plain friend, because the friend is changing so much and so quickly; at the end, it finally seems to dawn on him that what changes a man is not magic but love and marriage.

Other episodes are about the issue of racially or culturally mixed marriages and genteel upper-class prejudice, as when we meet Samantha's father Maurice (Maurice Evans), whose patrician good manners barely conceal a vicious, violent prejudice against non-witches.

The dialogue was also more sophisticated, less jokey and one-liner-y than usual for sitcoms in this period:

(Darrin mistakenly thinks Samantha's friend is a witch)
SAMANTHA: All right. Gertrude is a witch. All my friends are witches, and we're just waiting for the right time to swoop down on Morning Glory Circle and claim it in the name of Beelzebub.

ENDORA: To err is human, to forgive divine?
SAMANTHA: Exactly.
ENDORA: When you’re up to here in err, and you’ve changed into one huge lump of divine, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

BOY: Are a good witch or a bad witch?
ENDORA: Comme ci, comme ├ža.

DARRIN: Sam, when we do have a child, what do you suppose it'll be?
SAM: Your guess is as good as mine.
DARRIN: Oh, I know it'll be a boy or a girl. Won't it?

There was also more sexual humour in the first season than the show would try to get away with later:

(From an episode about a girl named "Pleasure O'Riley" and her jealous boyfriend)
JEALOUS BOYFRIEND: Do you have Pleasure in this house?
ABNER KRAVITZ: Not too often, but occasionally.

Arnold left the show after the first season -- some accounts say he was fired -- and the show never recaptured the tone he'd brought to it in that first season. The second season, with Slade replacing Arnold as head writer, was good, but had more "wacky" or kid-friendly stories; the number of silly stories increased every year after that, until by the last few seasons most episodes were either: a) Samantha's relatives cast a spell that interferes with Darrin's attempt to land an account, or b) Bill Asher dusts off a script from an earlier season and remakes it. But what Danny Arnold was trying to do with the show in that first year was very impressive, and much more substantial than any other fantasy/comedy show.

1 comment:

Brenton said...

For anyone reading this who is also an I Dream of Jeannie fan it might sound reminiscent of the story of the show's first director, Gene Nelson, who, like Danny Arnold on Bewitched, was with I Dream of Jeannie for about 1/3 of the first season - including the pilot. He really set the tone of that show including Jeannie's trademark folding of her arms and blinking, her old world English style of speaking, and by all accounts he is the person who found the 1964 Jim Beam Christmas decanter to be used as Jeannie's bottle. In addition, under his direction that first season the character of Jeannie seemed more 'in the know' and savvy while still possessing a sweet, naive, innocence. While the stories were certainly still comedy, they seemed - for Jeannie - to be more sophisticated and somewhat set up a sense of continuity that was possessed more in the first two seasons of the series. As the first season episode 'A Is For Aardvark' really sums up the essence of Bewitched and the relationship between the main characters so does an episode entitled 'The Moving Finger' from the first season of I Dream of Jeannie. This was one of the last episodes directed by Gene Nelson and also one of the (if not the) most moving episodes in the series. While it may be unknown why Danny Arnold left there are two stories why Gene Nelson did. According to an interview with Sidney Sheldon, while visiting the set he observed Gene Nelson screaming at a prop man because he didn't have the right prop and couldn't find it. Apparently Gene Nelson's tirade was so bad the man was in tears. Sheldon took Nelson aside and told him he wouldn't stand for him abusing anyone on the set like that so he fired Nelson. Sheldon also stated Nelson wrote the cast and crew an apology. The other story which Gene Nelson tells in the book "Dreaming of Jeannie" is that he and Larry Hagman had "issues" which came to a head (Nelson tells the detailed story in the book). This is what Gene Nelson states got him fired from the show.

Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie both went on to do extremely well and remain very enjoyable though it seems each suffered a big loss creatively by the departure of these two men.