Endora Was Right

By Adam Blair

Has anyone ever noticed what a very female world "Bewitched" is? Unlike its ripoff/counterpart "I Dream of Jeannie", which is dominated by male bonding and is framed by an ultra-masculine portion of the already hierarchically male military, the space program, "Bewitched" is teeming with feminine interactions and a distinctly female sensibility. If you don't believe me, check it out yourself on the "TV Land" cable channel: they've brought my favorite show back at 9:30 weeknights, and not a moment too soon.

The strongest, most complex relationship on the show is between mother and daughter. Samantha's position - caught between two worlds - is played out in her relationship with Endora. It's a genuine conflict: she accepts mortal life and marriage but she most definitely does not give up her magical heritage. She's a witch, and says so, if not always proudly then matter-of-factly.

The downside to giving Samantha this conflict, essentially a dramatic rather than a comic one, is that Elizabeth Montgomery, ostensibly the show's star, often seems like she's on the sidelines. True, she's the focal point of the Endora-Darrin conflict, defending her mother to Darrin as much as she defends Darrin to her mother, but there's often a feeling that she doesn't get the juicy comedy material to play. She runs the risk, especially in some of the later episodes, of being the straight woman rather than the comedienne, of seeming like something of a guest at her own party rather than the center of attention.

Mary Tyler Moore encountered the same problem as her show progressed, although in her case it was more a matter of the gaggle of supporting players stealing the spotlight rather than something so central to the show's premise. Of course, both Montgomery and Moore were savvy enough to play to the considerable strengths of their ensembles. The calculated outrageousness of Paul Lynde's Uncle Arthur or Bernard Fox's Dr. Bombay make an interesting counterpoint to the appealing thick-headedness of Ted Knight's Ted Baxter and Betty White's horny yet sugary-sweet Sue Ann Nivens.

In addition, Samantha's mediator role - one that many females take on in family relationships - played off a significant strength of Montgomery's as an actress. She's a great listener and an excellent re-actor. This skill, as well as her concentration, make even her most unbelievable conversations believable, whether she's talking to a leprechaun, a horse, a husband-changed-into-a-goat, her child or a dopey client.

She certainly listens to her mother (though she may not like what Endora has to say). Of course, with Agnes Moorehead, who could find the acid in a bowl of syrup, that's not difficult. In fact, it looks like a pleasure for an actress. It's significant that Montgomery and Moorehead are two of only three principal actors who played the same role for all eight seasons. David White's Larry Tate, a caricature of a stereotype, was the third, keeping the same face with the same character for the show's entire duration. There were not only two Gladys Kravitzes - the dementedly funny Alice Pearce and the serviceable Sandra Gould - but also two Louise Tates, the sharply snotty Irene Vernon and the warmer but less secure Kasey Rogers.

The dual-ing Darrins have, of course, become famed in song and story, although what has gotten lost in the comparisons of Dick York with Dick Sargent is how little the switch affected the show's innate structure.

What, after all, is "Bewitched" about? On one level it's simply light fantasy like its cinematic forebear, René Clair's I Married A Witch. On another, it's a reworking of classic sitcom themes, à la "I Love Lucy": straight-laced husband endeavors, in vain, to keep wacky wife from perpetrating mischief. (Sitcom creators have continued to mine this vein as recently as "Dharma & Greg".)

On a sociological level, "Bewitched" is clearly a parable for feminism. A strong, confident, capable woman with enormous powers is literally roped into domestication. Her husband, under the guise of protecting their marriage and maintaining his own status, forbids her from using those powers. How many women still feel straightjacketed by their mates' narrow view of their proper roles? Friedan's Feminine Mystique was published three years before "Bewitched" premiered in 1964, and women's liberation blossomed into a potent force during its run - with nary an on-screen mention. It wasn't necessary, and indeed would have made the tensions on the show unbearable: the battle was being played out already, week after week.

On another level, the mother-in-law's constant disapproval of her mortal son-in-law can be seen as an allegory of snobbery. Substitute "blue-collar" for "mortal" and "old money" for "witchcraft" in the 80% of scripts with Endora disparaging Darrin and the shows would play almost exactly the same. Endora often refers to a high-flying high life that Samantha has given up for marriage, including rubbing elbows with European nobility, landed gentry and the literati. For the rootless, classless American, these still hold nearly as much magic as the incantations uttered by the various witches and warlocks.

But the spell still isn't quite complete. What explains the show's continuing popularity? I believe one reason is that it expresses a number of female fantasies. In contrast, "Jeannie" not only took place in a masculine world, it also expressed a potent male fantasy: capturing and subjugating a beautiful woman, one who could be reduced to the size of a Barbie doll and bottled up when she was naughty or inconvenient.

The fact that Jeannie's owner/master refused to take advantage of the sexual possibilities inherent in the situation, and that Jeannie herself seemed more sexually aware than Tony (her frequent jealousy of the few fly-by-night dates he went on with other women) served only to titillate viewers, especially male viewers. ("If I had a beautiful blonde genie who called me 'master,' I can think of a few things I'd be wishing for," must have been a refrain in, oh, tens of thousands of horny male teenagers' heads during the late 1960s).

More overt acting out of the sexual situation, however, besides putting Jeannie outside the bounds of 1960s TV "morals," would also have destroyed the premise of the show. As with "Bewitched" and feminism, it would have made too obvious what was more powerful on an unspoken level. The show declined even further in comic quality when Tony and Jeannie got married, since much of the illicit thrill of having a female genie, i.e. a sexual relationship outside the prescribed bounds of marriage, was the requirement that her very existence remain a secret. This is, again, the masculine fantasy of "owning" a desirable, available woman that no one else - except the ineffectual best friend - can know about, much less get access to.

Of course, this fantasy has its price. Tony's frequent hysteria that Col. Bellows, the Air Force and NASA will discover Jeannie's existence and true identity is an expression not only of his concerns about his career but of his losing "ownership" of this woman. Marriage, which made public this private relationship, made his hysteria even more hollow than it was before.

"Bewitched," in contrast, detailed the price that women paid (suburban slavery for a husband, home and family) but also a fantasy that made that price bearable. "Bewitched" allowed a housewife to have the faults she knows are present in her husband to be magnified for her inspection - all without her conscious action. Endora's malevolent spells - making Darrin's ears grow when he lied, giving him total recall that turned him into a self-absorbed boor/bore, emphasizing his narcissism, stinginess, snobbery, laziness - ironically served as the secret wish fulfillment of countless wives.

Superego Samantha was then given the privilege of correcting those faults - another wish-fulfillment situation for the average woman, who would have liked curing her husband's ills, from which she often suffered more than he, to be as simple as twitching her nose. If Samantha's rather unconscious support of Darrin through all these expressions of his mortalness starts to wear on viewers - she often comes off as a Goody Two-Shoes, albeit with an increasingly sardonic wit as the series progressed - remember that she only represents the light side of her personality.

Her cousin Serena - pouty, sexually aggressive, whiny, flighty and vain - is literally Samantha's darker, brattier side, an expression of the selfish side of Samantha's ego. What Serena wants, she goes after. Actually, she's a rather ballsy woman, while Samantha is what you might call aggressively feminine.

Her psycho-sexual implications aside, Serena is really the best of the evil twins on TV, and the most believable (funny that a fantasy witch should be a believable character, but there it is). The black wig, the beauty mark, the pale makeup and the hilariously mod clothing all help, but it's really Montgomery's acting skill that creates the illusion of two separate characters. Even with the clumsy split-screen technology of 1960s TV, Montgomery as Serena sounds, moves and behaves so differently than Samantha, some people actually forget that it's one actress playing both parts.

Patty Duke, who also played "identical cousins" in her early 60s sitcom, did what she could to separate the two characters, with what she called, in her autobiography Call Me Anna, a vaguely European accent for Cathy, the refined (non-American) cousin. She apparently wanted to take the separation even further, she wrote, but was held back by the time demands of appearing in a weekly series and the producers' fear that an actual Scottish accent would be difficult for the audience to understand. By the way, William Asher, the main director/producer of "Bewitched" and Montgomery's husband in real life during "Bewitched"'s run, also worked on "The Patty Duke Show" in its early years. I guess he had a thing for identical cousins.

Maybe Sidney Sheldon, who actually created Duke's show as well as "I Dream of Jeannie" did as well, but Barbara Eden never made anyone with an I.Q. higher than Roger Healy's believe that Jeannie's dark-haired sister was anything but, well, Barbara Eden in a dark wig speaking in a baritone voice. It didn't help that the evil sister was also named Jeannie - parents in old Persia apparently didn't have too much imagination.

With Endora a vengeful, clever id, Serena a sexually precocious ego and Samantha a smart, sane but subdued superego, we have represented the elements of a distinctly feminine personality. We even have Aunt Clara representing Samantha's dream state - in some ways the true heritage of her subconscious. In Marion Lorne's inspired playing, Aunt Clara's jumbled phrases, missed connections and half-remembered incantations are the clearest expression that Darrin will remain forever frustrated in his attempts to turn Samantha into a "normal" wife and mother.

In fact, the real reason the show declined somewhat in quality in its later years had little to do with Dick Sargent's replacement of Dick York - he brought some sardonic wit of his own and played down the hysteria, which helped as the show progressed (after all, how surprised could he be the 50th time Endora popped in unannounced at breakfast? Both Darrins may have been boobs, but they weren't idiots.)

What really hurt was that Marion Lorne's passing eliminated Aunt Clara as a character. Alice Ghostley, wonderful as she was as Esmeralda, lacked both a blood connection to Samantha and a sort of goofy pride in her own wackiness, and her own witchiness, that Lorne brought to Clara.

Faced with this powerful coven of females, it's no wonder Derwood, er, Darrin often feels at a loss. The force of femalehood, its mystery, power and terror, is too strong for this frustrated Madison Avenue man to master. But it's precisely the tensions inherent in his attempts to do so that makes "Bewitched" so strong and so compelling.

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