Thursday, March 16, 2006

Unexpected Greatness from "Bewitched"

The third season of "Bewitched" was the first in colour. It was not as good as the first two seasons, for a number of reasons: the increasingly repetitive plots, the death of the original Gladys Kravitz (Alice Pearce), and the complete abandonment of the sophisticated screwball tone that first season writer/producer Danny Arnold had sought to bring to the show. (As he mentioned in this 1965 article, Arnold saw "Bewitched" as an opportunity to use fantasy situations as metaphors for everyday, real-life problems like infidelity and bigotry; Elizabeth Montgomery's husband, William Asher, tended to go more for standardized wacky fantasy plots after he took over.) It's still worth watching for the usual reasons: Elizabeth Montgomery, Dick York, Agnes Moorehead, and various special guest witches.

But near the end of the third season comes an episode that is so good -- so much better, in fact, than the rest of the season -- that it would always throw me for a loop whenever it came on in syndication. This was an episode called "Charlie Harper, Winner", an episode that departed from the formula the show had followed for most of the season: no wacky relatives, no magic spells that louse up Darrin's attempt to land a big advertising account. The story instead uses a more down-to-earth sitcom premise: Darrin meets an old college friend who is more successful than he is.

The friend flaunts his success and his conspicuous consumption, and in particular the fact that he's bought his wife an expensive fur coat that Darrin could never afford to give Samantha The only fantasy element in the episode comes when Samantha, upset at the couple's attempts to make Darrin feel inferior, uses witchcraft to create a mink coat of her own. (In popular culture, the mink coat was the ultimate status symbol, the clearest point of differentiation between the middle and upper classes: you had "made it" when you could afford to buy your wife a real mink coat.) The coat impresses the wealthy couple but mortifies Darrin: alone with Samantha, he angrily reveals the real source of his inferiority complex: his knowledge that he can't give Samantha anything that she can't give herself. Because she can do and have anything she wants, there's nothing he can achieve for her. The scene isn't played for laughs, and, indeed, most of the rest of the episode is quite serious and played for emotional impace rather than jokes.

Despite -- no, not despite, because of -- the fantasy elements, the episode has some interesting things to say about what happens when a man is married to a woman who doesn't need him to be the breadwinner; it takes the gender and class issues that were always a part of "Bewitched" (we all agree that Darrin's kind of a jerk, and that Samantha is sort of like a rich woman adjusting to suburban housewifery after a life of upper-class idleness) and brings them to the surface. It also digs deeper than we expect into Samantha and Darrin, making them seem like three-dimensional characters and giving their relationship some real depth. It's one of my favourite television episodes, but it really almost seems too good for this season of "Bewitched." It suggests what "Bewitched" could have been if it had really tried to explore the idea of magic as a metaphor for real-world issues (the kind of thing Danny Arnold was trying to do early on, but only fitfully got onto the show).

The episode was written by a freelancer named Earl Barrett, who also wrote the episode that many of the people involved with "Bewitched" cited as their favourite: the first season's "A is For Aardvark." And, again, that's an episode that digs much deeper than usual for "Bewitched," even in the relatively sophisticated first season. The premise of that episode is that Darrin gets a taste of what it's like to have Samantha's power, and immediately disappoints her by becoming lazy and idle, deciding that he should quit his job and they should just live off magic for the rest of their lives. That episode answered all the nagging questions people ask about the show -- why would Samantha agree to stop using her powers, why did she marry this guy, why does Darrin keep his damn advertising job and live in the suburbs -- and again presented real emotional depth in the couple's relationship. I don't know whether I prefer it to "Charlie Harper," but it's at the very least the second-best episode of the series.

I've always wondered why this Earl Barrett fellow -- a good, solid freelance sitcom writer but not legendary or anything like that -- saw possibilities in the show and the characters that the regular writers didn't seem to see, but I wonder what "Bewitched" would have been like if he'd been running it. It's always tantalizing to see a good show briefly become great when one writer takes it to a new level.

1 comment:

arfies said...

I'm thoroughly enjoying all your "Bewitched" posts! (even four years after the fact). I love the Earl Barret episodes. Even with more standard sitcom fare (he also wrote "Which Witch is Witch?"), he's still quite good.

There is one more episode from the fourth season that captures a bit of the "magic" from the first. Have you seen "If They Never Met?"