After 5 Decades, TV's 'Brady Bunch' Leaves Its Mark On Pop Culture

Sep 26, 2019
Originally published on September 27, 2019 10:03 pm
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Fifty years ago this week, a perfect family appeared on television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BRADY BUNCH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Here's the story of a lovely lady...

KING: I mean, arguably, "The Brady Bunch" wasn't really perfect. The kids were always fighting with each other. But NPR's Neda Ulaby looked at the mark that show made on pop culture.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It's been long enough that we now have "Brady Bunch" historians. Kimberly Potts is one. She says in her upcoming book, "The Way We All Became The Brady Bunch," that Brady history remains misunderstood.

KIMBERLY POTTS: The No. 1 assumption is that it was a hit show.

ULABY: But no. During five seasons from 1969 to 1974, "The Brady Bunch" never cracked Nielsen's top 20.

POTTS: The critics hated it. They thought it was too schmaltzy, too cliche, too cheesy.

ULABY: And yet a generation of 1970s latchkey kids coming home from school found solace in a syndicated show where parents dropped everything to solve their kids' most minute problems, like finding a missing doll.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BRADY BUNCH")

SUSAN OLSEN: (As Cindy) He took my doll.

MIKE LOOKINLAND: (As Bobby) I did not.

FLORENCE HENDERSON: (As Carol Brady) Maybe there's a simple explanation for this.

ULABY: At a time when divorce rates were swelling in real life, it felt reassuring to see a problem-solving, blended family.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BRADY BUNCH")

ROBERT REED: (As Mike Brady) Honey, I know Bobby says he didn't take the doll, and I believe him.

HENDERSON: (As Carol Brady) Well, Cindy always tells the truth, too.

REED: (As Mike Brady) Oh, I believe she thinks he took the doll. But maybe she dropped it somewhere.

ULABY: The Bradys became cultural shorthand. When Michelle Obama was introduced to the nation at the 2008 Democratic convention, her brother invoked her love of the show.

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CRAIG ROBINSON: Somehow managed to memorize every single episode of "The Brady Bunch."

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STEVE LEVITAN: I was a big Brady fan.

ULABY: That's Steve Levitan, who co-created a more recent show about blended families that's become one of the biggest hits on television.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABRIEL MANN SONG, "MODERN FAMILY THEME SONG")

ULABY: "Modern Family" - part of a wildly successful subgenre of shows based on blended families - "Full House," "This Is Us," "Two And A Half Men." In 2010, Levitan talked on NPR about how "The Brady Bunch" influenced him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEVITAN: Just seemed like paradise to me. And the colors were so bright, and everybody seemed happy. I don't know - I liked that show. That just - it was innocence.

ULABY: But it seems the Bradys can be anything to anyone. Back in the 1990s, siblings Jill and Faith Soloway were obsessed with the show as teenagers.

JILL SOLOWAY: It was high school - coming home from high school and watching the queer Bradys.

ULABY: Jill Soloway went on to create the TV show "Transparent" that's really about a queer family. As it happens, the actor who played the Brady father was gay in real life. When "The Brady Bunch" was canceled, the first role he took was as one of the first transgender characters on television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEDICAL CENTER")

REED: (As Pat Caddison) I've been taking female hormones.

ULABY: Robert Reed was nominated for an Emmy for his part on the show "Medical Center" as a surgeon who transitions from male to female.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEDICAL CENTER")

REED: (As Pat Caddison) And I want the surgical end of it performed at Medical Center.

ULABY: Robert Reed died in 1992. Florence Henderson has also passed away - she played Carol Brady - and so has Ann B. Davis, who played the maid Alice. But the Brady kids are doing well. Over the years, most of them have gamely appeared in reunions, specials, reboots and movies because, says Brady historian Kimberly Potts, people love these characters and these actors.

POTTS: And they want to periodically check in with them in whatever form that is - a drama or a comedy or, you know, a variety series or now an HDTV reality show. They want them in their lives.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, my God. This was my favorite episode.

ULABY: This new reality show might be our last big reunion with the Bradys, who tried to prove something utopian - that even people who didn't have much in common could somehow form a family and build a meaningful future together.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A SUNSHINE DAY")

THE BRADY BUNCH: (Singing) Everybody's smiling... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.