By Anthony Strand
Right On Schedule is a new series looking at a network’s primetime schedule for one night during one TV season. It aims to examine the shows in relation to one another, TV as a whole, and sometimes even the culture as a whole.
ABC Fridays (1970-1971)
8:00 The Brady Bunch
8:30 Nanny and the Professor
9:00 The Partridge Family
9:30 That Girl
10:00 This is Tom Jones
From 1988 through 2000, ABC devoted two hours on Friday nights to a family-friendly programming block called TGIF. It wasn’t actually called that until 1989, but the previous season’s schedule was TGIF in everything but name. If you were a TV-watching kid during those years, you probably know what that means: broad three-camera comedies with silly characters and even sillier writing, often produced by Miller-Boyett.
Prior to TGIF, ABC had a long history of airing family comedies on Fridays. Leave It to Beaver, The Flintstones, Webster, and many others had done time there. But for four years in the early 1970s, ABC’s Fridays were essentially a proto-TGIF. I want to talk about 1970-1971 (the first of those years) in particular because so many of the elements that defined the TGIF block were in place—a crowd-pleasing family comedy (The Brady Bunch), a less-inspired knockoff of same (The Partridge Family), a supernatural sitcom (Nanny and the Professor), and one that pretended to be about adult things (That Girl!)
But while the evening’s shows looked towards the future of ABC Fridays, they also looked back to the previous decade. At the time, CBS was developing its slate of more adult-oriented comedies, beginning with The Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family during this same season. The characters on those shows behaved like human beings. The ABC shows, on the other hand, were very much in line with silly ’60s fare such as ABC’s own The Patty Duke Show, NBC’s I Dream of Jeannie, and CBS’s Gilligan’s Island (from Brady creator Sherwood Schwartz). Let’s look at them individually.
If you’re reading this website, you certainly know what The Brady Bunch is. It’s that show where a guy with three sons marries a woman with three daughters and they all get along wonderfully. For decades, it was almost a guarantee that every American citizen knew The Brady Bunch. It was never a top-30 hit during its network run (something it has in common with most of the ’90s-era TGIF hits), but it was inescapable in syndication for the next 30 years or so. It spawned three reunion TV specials, two theatrical spoof movies starring Shelley Long, and another made-for-TV movie also starring Shelley Long. The original cast even returned in character for a variety show, a multi-cam sitcom (the original was single-cam), and a one-hour drama!
So you probably don’t need me to tell you about The Brady Bunch, which was entering its second season in the fall of 1970. It was typical of these ABC Friday shows in that it had a theoretically forward-thinking premise (a blended family) that was completely lost among the corny jokes and cartoonish relationships (all six kids called Mike and Carol “Dad” and “Mom” and never mentioned their deceased parents after the pilot). I don’t mean to insult the show. It obviously succeeded at what it set out to be, but it did its best to ignore reality. It was, in short, a perfect antidote to the new CBS hits, especially for families who wanted TV to be clean and friendly and mindless. (Interestingly, its basic premise was adopted by the dirtiest TGIF show, Step by Step.)
So it makes sense that ABC sought to duplicate its success in 1970. The Partridge Family shares much of Brady’s DNA: a non-traditional family (in this case, a single mother who sings lead in a band with her children) with a bunch of kids (five rather than six) and a live-in supporting character (curmudgeonly manager Reuben in place of cheerful maid Alice). It also produced several albums’ worth of pop music, two teenage sex symbols (David Cassidy and Susan Dey, who were secretly four years older and four years sexier than oldest Brady children Barry Williams and Maureen McCormick), and one ever-present pop culture goofball (Danny Bonaduce).
Of all these shows, The Partridge Family most embodies the past/future dichotomy I talked about earlier. In addition to The Brady Bunch, it was heavily influenced by The Monkees, another sitcom about how being a pop star is a wacky good time where nothing ever goes wrong (and by the way, buy our albums!). Decades later, it was reflected in the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, a TGIF descendant. Like Partridge, that series was dedicated to selling kids on the dream that if they became pop stars, they’d have everything they wanted while still maintaining a completely normal childhood.
Airing between those two was Nanny and the Professor, then in its second of three seasons. It isn’t very well-remembered today (although the first two seasons are on Hulu, if you want to check it out for yourself.) The show had a pretty close TGIF descendant in Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but it was mostly a combination of two popular 1960s entertainments: Disney’s Mary Poppins and ABC stalwart Bewitched.
Juliet Mills (sister of Disney star Hayley, and later one of the breakout stars of NBC’s nutty soap Passions) starred as Phoebe Figgalilly, a beautiful nanny (generally called “Nanny”) who was apparently psychic and possibly ancient. She was in charge of three kids, and also a widowed college professor with whom she got to share sexual tension.
The preceding paragraph could come straight out of a Wikipedia summary, but that’s mostly because I’m having a hard time finding much to say about Nanny and the Professor. When I watched several episodes on Hulu a couple of years ago, I discovered that the show had little identity of its own. Everything about it was done better elsewhere. Nanny’s powers are supposed to be elusive, but they came across as ill-defined. The title characters mostly just seemed genial towards each other, lacking the spark that made Bewitched‘s Samantha and Darrin fun to watch.
Nanny and the Professor stands as proof that you can’t pander to audiences and expect them to show up. The makers of Brady and Partridge believed in what they were doing. As far as I can tell, the makers of this program were trying to give the people what they thought the people wanted, and the people noticed that it wasn’t worth much.
That Girl wasn’t just a throwback to trends from the 1960s. It was an actual leftover, limping to the end of a five-year run that had begun in 1966. At the beginning of this post, I said that it pretended to be about adult things, and that’s the best way I can think of to sum it up. Marlo Thomas’s character—first-name-Ann, last-name-Marie—was presented as a carefree single woman making her own way in life. But mostly she just bounced through a fantasy world, moving from job to job and depending on her boyfriend Donald to do man things. It really was a reasonably progressive show in 1966, but compared to the brand-new Mary Tyler Moore Show, it suddenly seemed as outdated as hippie ideals. TV had moved on, making the show seem cornier than it should have.
But the ABC Friday audience was probably pretty happy with that. Kids could watch the show and dream about growing up to be Ann Marie, which probably seemed a lot more appealing than growing up to be Mary Richards with her steady job, dating troubles, and actual responsibilities. This entire programming bloc aimed for fantasy, and it’s pretty hard to argue that it didn’t deliver.
Finally, the evening ended with a one-hour variety show hosted by Tom Jones. You can probably imagine how outlandish that was.
Next: CBS Saturdays (1955-1956)
Anthony Strand is a middle-school librarian who often baffles his students by talking about old things that they’ve never heard of. He lives in Fulton, Missouri with his wife and their extensive collection of Muppet stuff. He sometimes blogs here, and you can follow him on Twitter here.