Wednesday, September 17, 2014

'Bewitched' Embarked on a Wild Ride 50 Years Ago

Darrin (Dick York): Al, my wife is witch.

Bartender: Cheer up. You should see my wife.

Fifty years ago tonight, Bewitched came into America's homes for the first time — and took up residence for eight years.

When the 1964–65 season was over, the sitcom was #2 in the country. It remained in the Top 10 through its third season, then dropped out of the Top 10 but stayed in the Top 20 for the next two seasons. That five–season run was really pretty good, given the often–intense competition between the three networks. Most programs didn't last more than a season or two.

But Bewitched didn't stop there. It was on the air for three more seasons; it wasn't even in the Top 30 for the last two.

So many things from Bewitched worked their way into the culture's consciousness. Take Samantha's trademark nose twitch, for example. Before Bewitched, the predominant image of a witch casting a spell would have the witch waving her arms and spouting some sort of incantation.

Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) did that, too, at times, but mostly she just looked at the focus of her spell and twitched.

Viewers first learned about the twitch 50 years ago tonight. They would learn a lot about witches and witch culture in the next eight years — and the rules by which they lived. If a witch cast a spell, for instance, another witch could not cast a spell to override the first spell. (Strangely, no other witch — except for Samantha's children — twitched spells.)

In many ways, it represented the kind of existence most of us mortals would like to have, and viewers could sympathize with Samantha, a member of a persecuted and largely misunderstood minority group who wished only to marry and make a life with the person she loved.

I suspect the series was somewhat empowering for people who, like Samantha, had felt the sting of prejudice. After all, Samantha might have been persecuted, but she clearly was more powerful than her oppressors, and she often showed great restraint in not using her power. It isn't very gratifying to show restraint if no one knows or acknowledges it, though, and sometimes Samantha demonstrated her own inclination toward mortality and yielded to the temptation to use her power for her own benefit.

Endora (Agnes Moorehead) played Samantha's mother, who did not approve of her daughter's choice in husbands. She was so dismissive of him that she could not — or would not — pronounce his name correctly.

Some of the other witches followed her lead, but a few seemed to side with Samantha and Darrin (Dick York).

When I got older and watched those episodes again, I realized the premise of the series was a great metaphor for mixed marriage or an unconventional marriage of some kind — which was a social issue at the time, but it did not always refer to sexual preference (as some modern viewers might assume) or race (as many viewers from the previous generation might have assumed).

It could refer to spouses who belong to different faiths — or it could refer to people who come from different countries. I've even heard the phrase used in reference to people who were separated in age by many years — and couples in which the wife was older than the husband. Or marriages in which the spouses came from different rungs on the social ladder.

In short, any marriage that is perceived to be different from others in some supposedly important way is a candidate for the mixed marriage designation.

It wasn't a new theme in 1964. The idea of a marriage between a mortal and a witch, though, was kind of a new thing, I suppose — mostly because just about everyone agrees that witches don't exist.

If they did exist, though, most folks probably also would agree that they look nothing like Samantha. She had no warts nor a crooked nose nor any of that stereotyped stuff. She was young and sexy.

She didn't even dress like a witch — most of the time.

Neither did her cousin, Serena, also played by Montgomery (under the stage name of Pandora Spocks). Serena looked exactly like Samantha, of course, but their personalities were entirely different. Viewers had to be prepared for Serena, I suppose. She didn't appear until midway through the second season.

Fifty years ago tonight, there wasn't time, of course, to get into all the aspects of this mixed marriage in which Samantha promised to give up her witchly ways. That was the kind of thing the sitcom could explore. It was in the debut episode that viewers learned Samantha was willing to live in the "mortal way," foregoing twitches and incantations, and her mother opposed the marriage. That was the primary conflict through the series.

The series may have been a product of its time, approaching current events topics in a uniquely allegorical way, but it was a lot of fun.

A wild ride.