The 1970s television landscape is renowned for introducing relevant and timely situational comedies to American broadcasting. Many of these shows were produced by independent studios, such as Norman Lear and MTM Enterprises.
However, what did this shift mean for the major film studios that had previously dominated the sitcom scene just a few years earlier?
In particular, what were the implications for Columbia Pictures’ TV imprint, Screen Gems? Well, in the 1972-73 season, it resulted in the creation of “Bridget Loves Bernie,” a show that, if remembered at all, is known for being canceled after just one season despite achieving a top 10 rating.
It’s quite a task to catalog the numerous shows that Columbia/Screen Gems had in prime time during the 1960s.
Their portfolio included hits like “Bewitched,” arguably their most significant success.
They were also responsible for “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Dennis the Menace,” “Hazel,” “The Monkees,” “Gidget,” “The Flying Nun,” and distributed “The Flintstones.”
The Screen Gems style embodied the essence of old Hollywood B-movie aesthetics applied to TV sitcoms: producing them swiftly, maintaining a professional quality, and avoiding overly topical content that might limit a show’s longevity.
Screen Gems’ shows shared sets and crew members, and they exuded a particular charm and light-hearted wit.
While their writing wasn’t exceptionally clever, it wasn’t devoid of intelligence either, occasionally slipping in a sophisticated joke when the writer was in the mood.
Notably, Screen Gems seemed relatively progressive in terms of hiring female comedy writers, with Barbara Avedon, Ruth Brooks Flippen, and Treva Silverman among those who contributed scripts.
The sitcoms of the 1960s offered viewers an escape from the tumultuous times, and few were better at providing such an escape than Screen Gems.
Fast forward to 1972, and Screen Gems embarked on a comeback journey after facing adversity.
The struggling Columbia Pictures had offloaded a significant portion of its studio space, leaving Screen Gems with no choice but to rent facilities from Warner Brothers.
Most of Screen Gems’ previous shows had been axed, with “The Partridge Family” barely clinging on and nearing the end of its run.
Studio comedies were encountering challenges. While major studios still dominated the realm of high-cost scripted dramas, a new breed of cost-effective and popular comedies had emerged.
Shows like “All in the Family” employed videotape and operated exclusively on soundstages, significantly reducing production costs compared to Screen Gems productions.
By 1972, both audiences and critics were growing weary of single-camera comedies, the preferred format of film studios, just as some viewers would experience sitcom fatigue in the 2000s.
The independent sitcoms exuded energy and excitement, while the single-camera studio shows were associated with artificial acting and contrived situations.
(As it would turn out, this perception would be reversed a few decades later.)
Studios recognized the need to adapt to the changing times, although they were somewhat uncertain about what elements of the new sitcoms they should emulate.
Paramount, during the second season of “The Odd Couple,” opted for emulating the format, adopting a three-camera, live-audience system.
For one of its three major fall 1972 productions, “Bridget Loves Bernie” (the other two being “The Paul Lynde Show” and the “M*A*S*H”-inspired hospital comedy “Temperatures Rising”), Screen Gems decided to stick to its traditional method of creating shows while giving the subject matter a modern twist.
Well, it was a bit of an update and a bit of a throwback, as the premise of the new show was, as critics pointed out, over 40 years old.
“Bridget Loves Bernie” centered around an attractive Jewish male (David Birney) marrying an attractive Irish-Catholic female (Meredith Baxter) and the ensuing cultural clashes when their families from different backgrounds came together.
The show’s premise was reminiscent of the play “Abie’s Irish Rose,” a Broadway production that became a roaring success in the 1920s, despite critical disdain.
Columbia likely anticipated that the premise would be immune to criticism.
They also believed it was a modern enough idea to thrive in the evolving sitcom landscape.
CBS was enamored with the concept to the extent that they allocated one of the network’s prime slots to the show.
In fact, it was given a prestigious time slot in television history: Saturday nights at 8:30, following “All in the Family” and preceding “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
The studio entrusted the creation of the pilot episode to their prolific writer, Bernard Slade, a hardworking Canadian responsible for their previous hits like “The Flying Nun” and “The Partridge Family.”
In an interview with TV Times conducted while he was developing the pilot, Slade elucidated how the show was a response to the changing television landscape brought about by “All in the Family.”
He stated, “Suddenly areas we couldn’t touch are opening up for us.
For example, you can now have a character who is specifically Jewish or specifically Catholic. Never before! You couldn’t even have an Italian.”
The concept offered an extra advantage for the producers of “Bewitched.” It not only resembled “Abie’s Irish Rose” but also paralleled “Bewitched.”
Both shows revolved around whirlwind courtships followed by intermarriage and the ensuing in-law issues.
In the cautious 1960s, like most shows, “Bewitched” approached sensitive subjects through the lens of fantasy.
This allowed the writers to tackle themes of intermarriage and cultural differences indirectly, without delving into specifics (some viewers believed it was about a Jew and a Christian, while others thought it hinted at issues related to sexual orientation, and some Southern stations suspected it of covertly addressing interracial marriage).
In the early 1970s, post-“The Godfather” and pre-“Star Wars,” the appetite was for addressing issues directly.
Therefore, the Columbia team, with producer Doug Cramer (“Love, American Style”), decided to confront one of the topics that had underpinned their gentle cultural commentary.
If we consider the show as a non-magical counterpart to “Bewitched,” the pilot episode starts to become comprehensible.
In essence, it employs the comedic style of the 1960s but overlays it with a 1970s sensibility, much like some early episodes of “M*A*S*H,” another single-camera studio comedy that made its debut on CBS that year.
The 1970s influence is evident in the specific portrayal of the characters’ ethnic backgrounds and a slightly increased use of outdoor shooting. However, the majority of the show remains rooted in the 1960s.
Even Meredith Baxter, who portrays the beautiful blonde heroine, is the daughter of Whitney Blake, the beautiful blonde actress from “Hazel.”
Additionally, there are the customary attempts to emulate recently successful films, incorporating elements of “Love Story” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” into the pilot episode.
The pilot of “Bridget Loves Bernie” includes some terribly unfunny jokes, particularly when Slade attempts to align with the contemporary humor style of “All in the Family.”
These include ethnic jokes, a scene where Bridget’s father (David Doyle) mistakenly believes his daughter is marrying a black man, and the line “do you take one or two lumps in your Jew?” (a direct borrowing from “All in the Family” but lacking the humor).
It falls short of the confidence and charm that were characteristic of Screen Gems’ 1960s productions and lacks the appeal of “Love On a Rooftop,” a romantic sitcom that Slade considered his personal favorite among his creations.
(Slade would soon depart from television to become a highly successful playwright; his initial play, “Same Time Next Year,” became one of the decade’s biggest hits.)
While the pilot episode of “Bridget Loves Bernie” is overly saccharine and filled with excessively cute acting, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the show could have evolved and improved.
Interestingly, the initial reviews of the show weren’t entirely negative.
The show, unfortunately, did not see any significant improvements.
In contrast to Fox, which granted Larry Gelbart the freedom to toughen and enhance “M*A*S*H” after its shaky start, Screen Gems never truly embraced the concept of a strong writer taking the reins of a show.
This reluctance may shed light on why Danny Arnold’s tenure on “Bewitched” lasted only a year. Larry Slade had no intention of taking on such a role either way.
According to Arnold Kane, another Canadian comedy writer who became a writer-producer on the show, “[Bernie] wrote the pilot but wisely declined to get involved with the series. He was content to collect his substantial royalty.
Bernie enjoys sleeping in, and he still does.” Although he would write episodes upon request, he would never assume the role of showrunner.
This arrangement was acceptable, perhaps even intentional, within the Screen Gems system. However, it left the show vulnerable to the whims of freelance writers.
This was acceptable in the 1960s when there was an abundance of talented freelancers, but the situation changed in the 1970s, with many top writers moving to staff positions in newer sitcoms.
As the show continued with lackluster scripts, it maintained high ratings due to its favorable time slot.
However, its level of critical acclaim was comparable to shows like “Suddenly Susan” or “¡Rob!”—time-slot hits that most would prefer to forget.
In his memoir, “My Meteoric Rise to Obscurity,” Arnold Kane noted that despite the show’s high ratings, “no one in the business liked it.”
Troubled by this, producer Doug Cramer approached Kane and his writing partner Gordon Farr to take over the show.
The new writers concluded that the show’s main issue (aside from David Birney, who believed himself too good for television) was the weight of the in-law characters.
They believed that the “Bewitched” formula of incorporating eccentric middle-aged actors was diverting attention from the show’s primary asset: the attractive young couple.
“We informed Cramer and Columbia that we’d only come back if we could send Bernie’s family to Florida and bring them back when a script required their presence,” Kane explained.
Understandably, CBS executives were not enthusiastic about making massive changes to a successful show.
However, the show never underwent testing in this regard because an unexpected development took place, one for which CBS and Columbia had not been prepared.
“Bridget Loves Bernie,” the seemingly innocuous show with a time-honored premise, ignited a firestorm of controversy.
In fact, it became far more controversial than most shows deliberately designed to court controversy.
It appeared that the creators, testers, and approvers of the show had failed to recognize just how sensitive the topic of interfaith marriage was, and many Jewish viewers were incensed by its casual treatment in the series.
Edward Fiske, in a New York Times report covering the controversy, noted that “Leaders of virtually the entire spectrum of American religious Judaism have asked the Columbia Broadcasting System to withdraw the program on the ground that it makes intermarriage look ‘mod’ and thus mocks a basic teaching of Judaism.”
In his autobiography “Shared Laughter,” Bernard Slade recounted an incident at a Variety Club meeting in Toronto, where he heard a rabbi referring to him as “a man who, in his honor, had three thousand trees uprooted in Israel.”
John Mitchell, who served as president of Screen Gems at the time, responded to the controversy by saying, “while we recognize that interfaith marriage is a reality in today’s society, I don’t for a single moment believe that ‘Bridget Loves Bernie’ is advocating it or that any couple would be influenced by it.”
Essentially, he found himself resorting to the same boilerplate language employed by drama producers in response to campaigns against TV violence.
Part of what transpired here is the familiar scenario where TV executives fail to recognize certain social trends until it’s too late.
In this instance, they likely underestimated the possibility of a more specific religious backlash, unlike the more general one witnessed in the 1920s.
However, the backlash may have been even more pronounced because the show seemed entirely oblivious to the sensitive nature of the issue at hand.
“All in the Family” courted controversy deliberately, understanding that it might elicit angry letters.
On the other hand, “Bridget Loves Bernie” was a product of the 1960s-style Screen Gems sitcoms given a 1970s facelift.
The subject matter was controversial, yet the show’s style and tone were charming and escapist.
The spokesman for the Synagogue Council of America expressed disgust, noting that the show “treats intermarriage in a cavalier, cute, condoning fashion, and deals with its inevitable problems as though they’re instantly solvable.”
It followed the typical Screen Gems sitcom formula, similar to how “Bewitched” handled sensitive subjects.
The difference was that “Bridget Loves Bernie” ventured into the real world, and the writers weren’t prepared for the consequences when a comedy engages with real-world issues.
There are various legends surrounding the show’s cancellation, but the most frequently heard story revolves around CBS founder William Paley.
According to Kane, Paley was reportedly disturbed by the protests, which led him to watch the show.
After viewing it, he overruled his executives and decided to cancel it. This account is a common one.
It’s plausible that the protests made retaining the show more trouble than it was worth, as its ratings weren’t necessarily indicative of its quality.
Given its prime time slot, almost anything could have made the top 10 that season.
CBS lacked a suitable alternative night for the show, and it might not have fared well on any other night.
The cancellation appeared unusual because high ratings don’t always equate to a beloved show.
CBS likely benefited from the cancellation in the long run.
Following Bridget’s departure, they filled the 8:30 Saturday slot with the second season of a show called M*A*S*H.
This show had struggled in a truly terrible time slot, following a sitcom adaptation of The King and I.
However, it gained momentum after All in the Family.
It was during the 1973-74 season, with M*A*S*H at 8:30 and The Carol Burnett Show shifted to Saturday, that CBS had what is arguably one of the most famous single-night lineups in TV history, albeit lasting only a year.
Ultimately, the battle to create a hit big-studio, single-camera comedy in the new era was won by Fox, whose TV division thrived on M*A*S*H for the next decade.
Meanwhile, Screen Gems took a somewhat schizophrenic approach the following year.
On the one hand, they attempted to bring back the 1960s by rehiring Sally Field and starring her in an old-fashioned supernatural comedy titled “The Girl With Something Extra,” with Slade once again handling the writing.
On the other hand, they cautiously ventured into MTM-style multi-camera comedy with a TV adaptation of the movie “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.”
Both shows turned out to be failures, leading to the absorption of the Screen Gems name into the more mundane Columbia Pictures Television.
As a sitcom supplier, Columbia had few hits, and over the next decade, the studio primarily distributed shows by independent producers such as Susan Harris, Danny Arnold, and Lear.
The Columbia sitcom empire crumbled, falling victim to shifting times and the backlash against the Barneys.
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