“The Brady Bunch” is the kitsch that keeps on giving.
No one can be surprised to learn that “A Very Brady Renovation,” which just wrapped late last month, has turned out to be the highest-rated series in the history of HGTV — a “juggernaut,” as the network puts in its gushing release this week.
Despite the fact that its first run, from 1969 to 1974, was a ratings bust, and despite the fact that it’s a bright chunk of Astroturf, “The Brady Bunch” has been deeply embedded in American culture for five decades now. Once it went into syndication, “The Brady Bunch” and its blended-family fantasy grew like a root system into our collective imagination. Couple it with home-improvement-porn — the HGTV show had the six Brady-brood actors redoing the L.A. split-level whose façade was featured on the sitcom — and you’ve got liftoff.
And payoff. “A Very Brady Renovation” proves that, beyond its social-historical significance, the Brady franchise is still quite marketable. It endures almost in the way superhero comic books do, as we keep revisiting and rejiggering the property, first with sequel series and movies, then with stage and movie satires, and now with reality TV. Producer Sherwood Schwartz’s comedy only seemed disposable. Much later in the life of “Friends,” we may well find a different gang of six with construction gloves on, one of them pounding the last nail into an empty gold frame on a New York apartment door. Fifty years on, we still can’t quit “The Brady Bunch,” and, given its schmaltzy, synthetic, cloyingly perfect, and wildly-out-of-sync-with-the-times universe, you have to wonder why.
One thing that’s clear is that “The Brady Bunch” means different things to different people. It’s an inkblot test that reveals who you are, to some extent — generationally, temperamentally, and in terms of your taste in comedy. In its simplicity (some might say stupidity), the show remains wide open to interpretation by its fans. What we talk about when we talk about “The Brady Bunch” can be a range of things.
For some, “The Brady Bunch” is straight-up nostalgia. Watching it, even just thinking about it, brings them back in time, perhaps to an early period in their lives when they were still blessedly unaware of the enormity of adult life. They liked the show or they didn’t like the show; the attraction isn’t about quality so much as it’s about happy personal associations. The theme song triggers warm feels.
Even during its first run, “The Brady Bunch” encouraged nostalgia, as it doggedly dodged real life with a domestic situation that seemed imported from the wholesome late-1950s illusion that was “Leave It to Beaver.” As the Brady kids dealt with school bullies, sibling rivalry, and orthodontics in episode-long journeys leading to lessons learned, they were many miles away from the 1970s, sheltered from topics such as the Vietnam War, drugs, and the sexual revolution that were front and center in the news and on, say, “All in the Family.” Their world was black and white — or should I say brown and blond — with no grays.
Certainly, that unreality was a lure for those kids of the Divorce Generation, primarily Generation X (born 1965-1980), who mostly saw “The Brady Bunch” in reruns. The show presented such a candy-coated view of both the absence of one parent and the challenges of living in a blended family that it served as a kind of balm. There was almost none of the grief and resentment that trip up so many stepfamilies; just pure comfort. In the wake of profound upheaval in your life, there was this prime-time illusion of a soft landing. There were these traditional family values, there was this evergreen grass.
That same fantasy of bliss conjured by “The Brady Bunch” is ripe for ridicule, and many fans do approach the show as a joke. It’s so bad, it’s good. Generation X, in particular, tends to traffic in irony, and the show often seemed to beg to be mocked. As Jan once said about glasses, the show was “absolutely positively goofy.” “The Brady Bunch Movie” from 1995 played into that ironic sensibility by dropping the Brady family, still inside their strange bubble of contentment, into the middle of 1990s urban Los Angeles. Sure, Greg Brady could be groovy and all, but could he rock out to the torn suffering of Kurt Cobain’s voice?
It’s possible to do both at once, of course — to be soothed by the family’s flawless post-single-parent lives, and be cynical about the TV-ized falsity of it all. In some ways, that duality of feeling was at the heart of Generation X’s reputation, and it has always been ensconced in human nature, as pain leads to longing, then resolves into wry bitterness.
And so it turned out that the lovers of and the laughers at “The Brady Bunch” found their way to HGTV to see the past — the “Brady Bunch” soundstage — be re-created inside the home from the show’s establishing shots. The next iteration? Perhaps a cooking show featuring the casts’ recipes for — as the routine in the sitcom had it — pork chops and applesauce.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.