Sunday, November 12, 2023

90's 70's Watch: The Brady Bunch Movie (1995)

Watched:  11/10/2023
Format:  Amazon
Viewing:  Unknown
Director:  Betty Thomas

November of 2023 is about 28 years from when The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) was released.  Which is funny, because the TV show, The Brady Bunch, which this movie spoofs, ran from September 1969 to March 1974, meaning the movie - which was sending up the show was only separated from the final air date by 21 years.  That's some math, but we're~7 years further out now from this movie than we were from the show when the movie arrived.

While the US is too large and has too many people to have a monoculture, due to the nature of broadcast TV, and then early cable, in the 20th Century there was a shared experience for the youth of the United States in the form of mass entertainment.  With a minimum of programming aimed at youth, for millions of us, the politely banal episodic adventures of The Brady Bunch, playing in mid-afternoon reruns, were a common touchpoint.  As were a handful of other shows, to be sure.*

Musical tastes of the time could vary - you might like country or R&B or rock or metal - but you only had so many channels to pick from.  I cannot imagine today's kids have a concept of wanting to unwind after latch-keying oneself into your empty house after a long day at school and watching some TV, and, really, there's maybe two options across your 4 to 30-odd channels (if your folks sprung for cable).

So it was that, thanks to the power of cheap syndication, for about 20 years, The Brady Bunch aired daily, sometimes multiple episodes, as the six kids, two parents and their maid acted like weird, alternate-reality stepford wives and children, making mountains out of mole hills and speaking in an almost otherwordly way that became a common cultural currency for kids to discuss, make fun of, etc....  The tendency of TV execs to want to sanitize the world was so harsh and weird, it was like bleach had killed anything resembling actual life. 

The success of the show was parlayed into TV movies over the decades and a shot at a new TV show around 1990 (that lasted only a few episodes).  But, then, lots of retrospectives on cable in the 90's, if memory serves.  There have been exposes, books, and - recently - HGTV bought the house used for the exterior and made the interior match the show.  @#$%ing wild.

I don't think of myself as someone who watched a lot of TV growing up, but what I did watch was in that after-school, before homework and dinner window (ie: before my mom got home from work) and so - yes, I watched a bucket-ton of Brady Bunch.  And, somehow, I remember being very aware of the various gags, theories, observations, etc.. that became the common discussion.

And, honestly, for 90 minutes, that's more or less what they use as the platform for The Brady Bunch Movie (1995).  I mean - it's a pretty good concept.  Within the film, the Brady's are never explained - they're just the same Brady's we always knew from the show, but they live in a modern LA suburb, acting exactly as they did on the show, but dealing with a culture that was not in step with what Sherwood Schwartz was putting on screen.  

Admittedly, even as I was watching the movie on opening night in 1995, I remember being a little bit embarrassed of some of what the movie thought of as hip and people roughly my own age being shown on screen as it was a very "movie 90's" version of reality.  But it's also interesting to go back to an era where we didn't think much of a mainstream movie showing high school kids having sex, drinking, using condoms for balloons at a school dance, etc...  

What I can't imagine is that the movie makes sense to anyone who didn't watch the show.  Like, it's clearly a weird, funny thing happening on screen, and if you've seen family-friendly programming, ok.  But seeing Alice write "pork chops and applesauce" on the chalkboard in the kitchen, or references to "the new Jan Brady" will lack some of the appeal for those of us who remember the completely batshit stuff referred to in the movie.

Now, it's been decades since I've watched an episode of the show, so it's much harder to recall the references, but they are going by at a million miles an hour in this movie - the benefit of working with a long-running show that was a goldmine for awkward TV making.

Most of the rest of the cast is left in the position of just staring at The Brady's or shaking their heads.  But the movie wisely cast Michael McKean as a neighbor and conniving realtor looking to buy the Brady's house so he can turn their block into a strip mall.  His wife is played by Jean Smart as a lush with eyes for the Brady men.  And they're both hilarious.

A handful of the original cast appear.  Robert Reed had passed by the time the film was released.  And I don't think any of the three original girls appear.  But Florence Henderson makes a big guest spot as Grandma Brady, Ann B. Davis as a trucker who helps out Jan, Chris Knight as a high school coach and Barry Williams as the exec who turns down Johnny Bravo.  But we also get three of the Monkees and the Partridge Family bus cruises by.

The movie works not just because it takes the gags of the show and makes it kind of psychotic - from Mike's rambling speeches to Alice's endless pining for Sam,  But they also cast the thing weirdly perfectly.  Gary Cole and Shelley Long absolutely *nail* Mike and Carol Brady.  The three kids who play the boys clearly get the gag, and are so close, it's spooky.  But the all-stars are Christine Taylor playing Marcia to perfection ("skewl") and, of course, our MVP, Jennifer Elise Cox who takes the hints of psychosis in Jan you could see if you wanted to and turns it into a full blown character.  It's... something.  As is Olivia Hack as Cindy and Henriette Mantel as Alice.  

Anyway, good to revisit, but what a weird movie.  An absolute "you had to be there at the time" event. I literally can't imagine how this plays to someone who didn't know the show, but I also can't imagine what from 2020's pop culture will have enough long-term syndicated exposure that you would have a whole fanbase ready to watch a spoof that both loved the show and understood what it was, and the implications.  It's absolutely a fascinating movie perhaps more for what it is and why it exists than any of the frankly very good jokes in the film.

*I vividly recall my 8th grade class all driving cross-country from our North Austin environs to Astroworld and everyone singing TV show theme songs as we rolled across Texas.  

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