Monday, June 19, 2006

"Consider Yourself Lucky That You Are Not At This Moment An Artichoke!"

I did a bunch of posts a couple months back about why the show "Bewitched" was so good in its first season (when Danny Arnold was in charge of the writing). I am still stubbornly fond of this post about how a bad "Bewitched" script was rewritten into a good one by Arnold and co-producer Jerry Davis. But the posts were sort of hampered by the fact that I couldn't post clips from the episodes. Now I can, so I thought I'd post a few samples of what made "Bewitched" work in its first season.

First, the post about the episode "A is For Aardvark" has been updated with two key clips from the episode: the scene where Darrin decides he wants to live off his wife's witchcraft after all, and the scene where he realizes that's not what Samantha wants or what he wants. As I said in an earlier post, this story was important enough to the show that it was sort of brought back from the dead: a script was written around this premise, it didn't work out, but Arnold saved the premise and some story points and had writer Earl Barret write a new script around the same idea. It's the essential "Bewitched" episode for the way it definitively addresses and resolves the biggest issue on the show (why does Samantha put up with this jerk who won't let her use her natural talents?). It's also a model of how to do a "bottle show," an episode that saves money by using the bare minimum of sets and cast members. The whole episode takes place in the house and there's no one in it except the four regulars (Sam, Darrin, Endora and Larry), but if it was done that way to save some money, it sure doesn't lose anything for that reason; it gains from being done without any outside characters or sets.

And here are three clips from season 1 episodes that illustrate how Arnold and his other writers were trying to keep the magic element to a minimum and find fantasy equivalents for real-life problems.

"Mother Meets What's-His-Name" (written by Arnold) -- when a couple is in a "mixed marriage," what happens when the bride's mother meets her son-in-law for the first time? And what happens if she expresses her disapproval of the way he's making her daughter assimilate into his culture: "What is normal to you, young man, is to us asinine!"

From "Eye of the Beholder" -- Darrin asks Samantha the familiar real-life question of how old she is, and goes through the familiar real-life fear that she won't love him when he gets old and decrepit. The fact that his worry stems from the fact that she might be several centuries old is almost beside the point. (This is another episode that was heavily rewritten from the scriptwriter's original version; the original draft was about Samantha deciding to grow old along with her husband, but Arnold or Jerry Davis rewrote it to be about Darrin accepting the fact that Samantha won't grow old, and declaring that it doesn't matter -- Darrin didn't become a raving selfish pig until the show went to colour.)

And from "The Witches Are Out" (written by Bernard Slade, his first sitcom script, though he'd written a lot of variety shows in Canada), the down-to-earth problem of Samantha objecting to the stereotypical way her group is portrayed in popular culture:

The point of all this, I guess, is that in a weird way the first season of "Bewitched" was one of the most realistic shows on the air: at a time when comedy and drama alike were mostly doing wacky fantasy stories, Arnold and Davis took a wacky fantasy premise and used it to tell fairly realistic stories about relationships.

Incidentally, has a little biographical information on freelance writer Earl Barret. He wrote the "A is For Aardvark" script, but more than that, he's one of those freelance writers whose scripts (in a time when the credited writer usually had more to do with the finished episodes than today) always seemed to be really good, often better than the level of the show or season he was writing for. He came back to "Bewitched" in the third season -- the first colour season -- to write an episode that was leaps and bounds ahead of any other episode in that season; and in the second season of "The Bob Newhart Show," the one episode he wrote is quite a bit better than most episodes from that season and really makes something three-dimensional and interesting out of the marriage of Bob and Emily. I wouldn't go too far in evaluating his work (he did co-create "Too Close For Comfort," after all), but if you're watching an old show and he has the writing credit, the episode is probably worth watching.


Anonymous said...

Taking a run at it from the other direction, the Screen Gems comedies of the early 1960s like "Hazel", "The Donna Reed Show" or "The Farmer's Daughter" were for the most part extremely bland and earthbound, dealing with domestic situations that avoided any close links with current societal subjects. The Arnold/Davis first season of "Bewitched" had a number of shows that were build around stories that on the face of it, could have been used on any of the other sitcoms (Samantha campaigns for a traffic light at Morning Glory circle; Samantha tries to match up her friend with Darrin's co-worker) but the magic elements give those plots an extra kick, and the difference between Sam and Darrin at the same time gave the writers a chance to work in some current topics in the guise of a witch/mortal debate.

Season 2 has a similar feel, though the magic elements did start to play bigger plot roles, and you can start to see the seeds of the show's decline begin to show in a few places (I guess they decided they had to go all-out with the magic in the birth of Tabetha episode, but it does bring in the first signs of "magical wackiness" that favored special effects over characterization and became the norm by the time Season 4 began).

Anonymous said...

A seventh season episode that revolved around Endora turning Darrin into an old man in an effort to show Samantha what she has to look forward to because of the difference in how witches and mortals age reworked the idea from the original "Eye of the Beholder" script of Samantha deciding she'll choose to grow old with Darrin. It's much less effective, character-wise, to see Sargent's Darrin decide he can live with growing old as long as Samantha grows old with him than it is to see York's Darrin realize that he loves Samantha so much that the differences in how they'll age don't matter.

Incidentally, comparing this later episode with "Beholder" points out how the show had changed. The earlier episode's entire focus was on Darrin grappling with the realization that Samantha will remain young as he grows old. The later episode squashes all this into the tag scene and spends the bulk of its running time on Samantha yelling for her mother to come back and remove the spell she'd cast on Darrin (Sam did that an awful lot in those later shows), while passing off "old Darrin" as Darrin's grandfather to Larry and Louise Tate, who want to fix up the "old man" with Louise's aunt.

Rob Bates said...

One thing that always drove me crazy about Bewitched is the way the laugh track goes crazy over every bit of witchcraft. We can see that in these clips. Endora lights her cigarette by magic and the "audience" goes nuts. How can that possibly be funny?! IT HAPPENED EVERY WEEK.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Rob - Screen Gems' laugh tracks were notoriously annoying (though nothing can top the loud, drowning-out-the-performers fake laughter from the pilot of "The Beverly Hillbillies").