Critic's Notebook: Florence Henderson and Remembering Why Comfort TV Matters

The Brady Bunch
Paramount Television

Is there a rule in television that the more children a man has, the better a father he is? If so, widowed architect Mike Brady (Robert Reed) of The Brady Bunch must rank pretty highly. In addition to his biological children -- sons Greg (Barry Williams), Peter (Christopher Knight), and Bobby (Mike Lookinland) -- he must care for his new wife, Carol's (Florence Henderson) daughters -- Marcia (Maureen McCormick), Jan (Eve Plumb), and Cindy (Susan Olsen). In addition, housekeeper Alice (Ann B. Davis) lived with the family, as did their dog, Tiger.

I did a handful of interviews this past week about the need for comfort-food television, an appetite fueled by the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Netflix's savvy timing in premiering new episodes of Gilmore Girls and a political climate in which you're almost grateful if the news is only giving you ulcers.

When actress Florence Henderson, enshrined forever in the TV pantheon as Carol Brady, died on Thursday at the age of 82, it was a reminder that television that aims for the heart, even if it sometimes eschews more intellectual functions, doesn't just have value, it has a value with a lifespan that may be eternal. 

It doesn't matter that The Brady Bunch may not make many lists of the "best" TV shows of all time, because several generations (and counting) would surely place it among the most "beloved" shows of all time, which was far closer to creator Sherwood Schwartz's goal. Premiering in 1969, The Brady Bunch affirmed so many traditional family and sitcom values, but it also captured a shift in the American family dynamic that was possibly more prescient than reflective.

As divorce rates were only beginning to soar, The Brady Bunch was all about taking fractured families and offering an image of hope and togetherness. The nuclear family had always been TV's gold standard, but The Brady Bunch was a blended family in a moment in which more and more Generation X children were growing up in domestic situations that had lost all hope of being like the Cleavers. The relatively seamless reconstitution of the Bradys and the Martins was over-idealized to the point of absurdity, but it still offered earnest hope.

That earnestness has always made The Brady Bunch an easy target for mockery and subversion. Audiences lapped up all the behind-the-scenes dirt made available by actors eager to prolong fame that never superseded the ABC sitcom and its endless specials and reunions and spinoffs. And when it inevitably came time to make Brady Bunch remake movies, the tone had to be satirical. I really enjoy both Shelley Long/Gary Cole movies, but I can also step back and ponder: What point did they think they were making? Did they think they were cracking some hidden code in discovering that the chippery, chirpy Brady clan wasn't all that realistic? That their over-eager naivete wouldn't work in the regular world and that it didn't translate into modern life? That they wore funny clothes and had funny haircuts? Duh.

Just as none of the Brady Bunch stars ever did anything that moved above The Brady Bunch on their résumés, none of the dilutions of the franchise had any impact on the love for the original series, nor did the movies satirizing the show. And knowing the sexual hijinks and secrets behind the show has never impacted my ability to be amused by The Brady Bunch as a reassuring, silly fairy tale of dated '70s family life unaffected by anything that was actually going on in the country at that moment. The Brady Bunch aired from 1969 to 1974, but amidst a celebration of reformatted domestic tranquility that probably didn't exist, it rendered things like Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement or feminism or the erosion of faith in various national institutions invisible. So you can watch The Brady Bunch and, in that respect, it doesn't feel additionally dated at all, because it's as out-of-touch with 2016 as it was with 1974. I suspect as long as we have technology allowing us to produce and watch television shows, storytellers and audiences will still find some value in the idea that no matter the obstacles, parents and children can come together to eat meals and teach each other valuable lessons over the course of 30 minutes or an hour. 

Gilmore Girls is not a show about a mother and daughter who want to find ways to avoiding spending time together, and while Lorelai's (Lauren Graham) reconciliation with her estranged parents is an obstacle she'd rather avoid, the series was always on the side of keeping Emily (Kelly Bishop) and Richard (the late, great Edward Herrmann) in the picture. Sometimes fights lasted a while and tears were shed in sadness or anger, but the core dramatic unit of Gilmore Girls would always be the communal breaking of bread or sharing of coffee. 

NBC's current hit This Is Us is nothing if not a story of the complications of a blended family, albeit one with complications the Bradys didn't face. Death, racism, obesity and professional difficulties may mark the lives of the Pearsons, but episode after episode, the ideal state is one of increased togetherness, and the storylines in the '70s and '80s consistently remind us that even flawed parents can teach lessons or introduce traditions that have applications decades later. 

The things that weren't represented on The Brady Bunch are easy to point out, and you're not wrong if you think that its obliviousness to the outside world and its lack of inclusivity probably limits its greatness. But even if you couldn't relate to being in a white, uniformly attractive eight-person family with basically one income that still somehow was able to afford a full-time maid and regular vacations to places like Hawaii, there was something you were relating to.

Robert Reed and particularly Florence Henderson universalized The Brady Bunch and opened the door to audiences who may not have been able to connect to the show otherwise. The kids did one stupid thing after another on that show, but Henderson's trademark expression was an open smile, a half-laugh that said, "Even if the lamp is broken, the family remains intact." Discipline wasn't something the Brady parents excelled at, but who needed discipline when you had that famous Henderson head-slanted side-eye that said, "You rascals are going to be in trouble when your dad gets home, but let's be honest, you aren't really going to be in trouble even then, but at least your father and I know that you'll be at dinner every night and we don't have to worry about you smoking pot, burning your bra or protesting against Nixon"? Few children in the real world have ever experienced the sort of virtually unconditional approval the Brady kids got, but I've watched a lot of episodes of The Brady Bunch and I know a lot of people who watched a lot of episodes and I never knew a single person who watched because The Brady Bunch was like looking in a mirror. 

When I make my Top 10 list in a few weeks, it will probably be heavy on shows that are unsettling and unnerving, populated with antiheroes and complicated moral terrain. And that's fine!

In a month when I've been thinking about comfort-food TV and its importance, it's especially easy to honor the late Florence Henderson, whose likeness may belong on comfort TV's Mount Rushmore.