Tune in Tonight: "A Very Brady Christmas"
I’ve written at length in the past about the numerous ill-fated attempts at recapturing the Brady Bunch magic during the 70s and 80s, but now, it being the holiday season and all, I suppose I should talk about the one that didn’t result in profound embarrassment for everyone involved. That would be 1988’s A Very Brady Christmas, a one shot TV movie that ended up being among the most watched programs of the year. Like drinking an entire punch bowl of eggnog, it’s sweet and goes down easy, but leaves you feeling kind of nauseous.
The movie opens with Mike and Carol Brady, living in empty nest bliss in the same house as the original show. Alice shows up at their door one day, weeping over being dumped by her husband, Sam the Butcher, for a younger woman, in what we can assume was revenge for her running off to Hollywood and engaging in a passionate affair with Rip Taylor while filming The Brady Bunch Hour. Bereft of family or other friends, she stays with the Bradys, donning her old uniform and going back to work, because being a housekeeper is the only thing that gives her life meaning.
Alice’s arrival coincides with Mike and Carol’s attempt to surprise each other with an extravagant Christmas present. In a spin on “The Gift of the Magi” for smug rich people, Mike wants to surprise Carol with a trip to Japan, while Carol wants to surprise Mike with a trip to Greece. This plot point seems to exist mostly to play “Asian” and “Grecian” versions of the Brady Bunch theme. They instead decide to use the money from their “vacation account” (ah, the 80s, when such a thing as having a separate bank account just for vacations was still possible) to fly all the kids and their families home for the holiday.
Everyone agrees to the trip, but they come bearing some extra baggage. Each of the Brady children has a problem they’re reluctant to talk about, listed here in order of seriousness:
Jan and her husband, Philip, are about to separate.
Marcia’s husband, Wally, has just lost his job. As an additional issue, though no one really addresses it as a problem, Marcia’s also burdened with two extraordinarily irritating children.
Bobby has dropped out of business school to become a professional race car driver.
Peter is embarrassed because his girlfriend earns more money than him.
Cindy, a college student even though she should be damn near 30 by this point, is upset that everyone in the family still treats her like a child.
Greg’s wife, Nora, has opted to spend the holiday with her family instead, leaving him to travel alone with their young son.
As you can see, really only two of them are legitimate problems, but even they’re solved within less than 24 hours after everyone comes home. The resolutions to everyone’s issues are so simple that they verge on insulting the audience’s intelligence: the Bradys’ next door neighbor just happens to run a toy company, the same industry Wally worked in, and just happens to need a new salesman. As for Jan and Philip, just a two minute conversation in Carol’s presence is enough to compel them to stay together. Everyone else’s problems almost instantaneously work themselves out as well—even Nora just abruptly shows up, deciding at the last minute to celebrate the day with Greg and their son instead. It’s all very forced and a little eerie, as if the movie is suggesting that there’s something almost magical about the Brady household, where no one is allowed to be unhappy for more than five minutes.
With everyone blissfully trouble-free again, what do we do with the last ten minutes of the movie? Another heart to heart conversation? A few more random references to episodes of the original Brady Bunch? How about we have Mike get caught in a cave-in instead? He’s called away from making an interminable speech about how wonderful the Bradys are when a building he helped design partially collapses, trapping two security guards. Why an architect with no search and rescue training is sent in to save them as opposed to, say, professional firefighters, is unclear, but it’s probably best to just accept it without question.
Sure, it’s a bit jarring for a movie that so far has had no conflict, no action, and virtually no plot to climax with the possible (albeit unlikely) death of a main character, but it does allow for more mawkish sentiment, when the whole family gathers at the building site and literally sings Mike to safety. If you don’t think the movie will go far enough to have all of this take place on 34th Street, you really need to work on your corny holiday movie watching, my friend.
Safely home again in time to dine on their hilariously fake looking turkey, the Bradys have just one more loose string to neatly tie up, and that happens when Sam, dressed in a Santa Claus suit to hide the fact that he isn’t played by original cast member Allan Melvin (which is odd, considering nothing is done to hide the fact that Cindy isn’t played by original cast member Susan Olsen), shows up to beg Alice to take him back. She does, of course, immediately, and Carol proclaims “Looks like we all got our Christmas wishes!” as the family breaks into a rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Happy holidays, everyone, be sure to take your insulin.
It’s hard to knock a movie like A Very Brady Christmas without coming off like a joyless crank, but man, even compared to the original show—which was never hard-hitting drama in the first place—this is some sticky, sappy goo. Like the Osmond Family Christmas specials, it presents a “traditional family Christmas” as something so foreign to most of its viewers that they might as well not even be speaking English. It’s the kind of Christmas where the whole family, without prompting, bursts into perfectly harmonized carols, and everyone is dressed like they’re going to church, even though they never leave the house. I was lucky if my father bothered to put on pants before we ate dinner.
Of course, the idea is that this is the kind of Christmas you should aspire to have, and while it seems nice, it also seems like it would be exhausting after a while. No one ever seems to have a moment to themselves–-even when it’s just Mike and Carol alone in that giant house, they’re constantly together. In a later scene, all of the kids, spouses included, squeeze into the kitchen in the middle of the night to eat pie. You get the idea that a person can’t even relieve themselves in peace without someone bursting in to reminisce about the time Bobby and Cindy got lost in the Grand Canyon.
Carol goes into planning the celebration with maniacally grinning, single-minded determination, and you know that if anyone in the house expressed even the slightest possible notion that this wasn’t the most perfect Christmas anyone’s ever had, she would instantly turn to glass and shatter into one hundred pieces. That’s a lot of pressure, and if that sounds like your kind of Christmas, then I might recommend adding a prescription for Xanax to your Amazon wishlist for next year.
Producer Sherwood Schwartz took the success of A Very Brady Christmas as a sign that America was ready to welcome back the Bradys on a weekly basis, only this time as adults (and I do mean adults—all of the characters except for Bobby and Cindy get steamy make out scenes in the movie, in case that was something you wanted to see). This resulted in 1990’s The Bradys, a dramedy in which the whole family, having used up all their astonishing luck at Christmas, suddenly find themselves faced with all sorts of problems, including alcoholism, infertility, and Bobby driving his race car into a wall and becoming a paraplegic.
Except for the paraplegia, most of these problems were still miraculously solved within one episode (never has the turnaround time between wanting to adopt a child and adopting a child been as fast as it was for Jan and Philip), but as it turned out, audiences didn’t want to see the Bradys leave their warm, gooey bubble and face real-life issues. Up against ABC’s improbably unstoppable “TGIF” lineup, it barely lasted six weeks, and it would be, at this writing, the last attempt to revive the Bradys as anything else other than self-aware kitsch. At least they’ll always have Christmas.
Original airdate: December 18, 1988
Currently available on Hulu