Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday… on a Wednesday! This week, we’re beginning coverage on the best of I Dream Of Jeannie (1965-1970, NBC), available in full on DVD and Amazon.
I Dream Of Jeannie stars BARBARA EDEN as Jeannie and LARRY HAGMAN as Major Tony Nelson, with BILL DAILY as Major Roger Healey and HAYDEN RORKE as Dr. Bellows.
The most important takeaway from yesterday’s introductory essay examining the series in relation to Bewitched — check it out here, if you haven’t already — is that Jeannie‘s premise does not have comparable depth of conflict because it assigns character goals that are unable to believably propel more than situational, episodic drama. While Jeannie wants Tony to love her, Tony wants to keep her a secret so he doesn’t lose his job at NASA. Naturally, her pursuit of him involves using her powers, which is a direct threat to his desire to keep her hidden, but this is the extent of their clash, for he seems to share her feelings. Now, some read his regard as lustful only, but from the second episode, creator Sidney Sheldon has him expressing thoughts that imply a deeper, more genuine attachment. From there, Jeannie and Tony are written as being in love and the only thing standing between them is his refusal to get involved with a genie. Unfortunately, this is not a buyable excuse because, unlike Darrin, Tony otherwise raises no fundamental objection to Jeannie’s powers, and although there are times he doesn’t want them used, he never honestly expects her to lead a “normal life” or be anything else. So, without an anti-magic stance, Tony’s love has no intrinsic opposition. It also has no extrinsic opposition either, for there’d be no added stress to his public life if they were in a relationship — in fact, it’d be easier because instead of hiding both her and her powers, all he’d have to hide is her powers. Thus, in failing to justify this self-imposed obstacle, the premise can’t concoct motivated character drama — all it has are the weekly predicaments she blinks up, and this is limiting. However, Season One is the series’ best — it’s the only year that claims regular narrative use of Jeannie’s goal. After this, her routine intervention is not as well-tied to a motivation, which makes stories less substantial by further freeing them from any rooting character interests. And while future years will have more fun maximizing the comedy of funny ensemble players like Roger and Dr. Bellows, One’s “will the girl get the guy?” question yields a rom-com sensibility (even suggested in the waltzing theme song) that allows for higher emotional stakes and enables more believable characterizations with plots better supported by a dramatic foundation. But see for yourself — I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 1: “The Lady In The Bottle” (Aired: 09/18/65)
After Tony frees Jeannie, she follows him home and refuses to leave.
Written by Sidney Sheldon | Directed by Gene Nelson
Sidney Sheldon’s well-written pilot is probably the strongest segment of the entire series — and easily my choice for this year’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode) — for in addition to establishing the premise and Jeannie’s objective (for this first season, anyway), it also illustrates the kind of weekly conflicts that we can expect. And it notably does this with an obstacle that has more emotional ramifications for Tony and emphasizes the sexual tension central to the concept: his fiancée Melissa (Karen Sharpe), the daughter of the general (Phil Ober), his boss. Accordingly, the threat that Jeannie’s amorous and palpably sexual advances pose to Tony’s career is evident, and the plot introduces his basic “let’s keep the genie hidden for the sake of my job” through line that will come to dominate most outings — only here, there’s an added triangle, which looks like it could set up a subtextual love vs. sex conflict that might supply him some kind of inner dilemma. However, as discussed at length in yesterday’s essay, I ultimately don’t believe Sheldon’s decision to cut Melissa and her father limited the show significantly — not only because the weekly conflicts would remain the same with or without her (keeping Jeannie a secret), but also because Tony’s interest in his fiancée is more about his career than anything else, and Melissa’s essentialness to his life is a fallacy. In other words, she’s not a necessity pitted against Jeannie, and so she’s not a legitimate or sustainable roadblock — no emotional pull beyond NASA. Nevertheless, the sexy sophistication of the premise is benefited by the contrast of a wifely figure against a harem girl, and with the clear establishment of Jeannie’s goal and Tony’s desire to keep her hidden, the series looks poised for situational fun… if, as is quickly proven, nothing else, for no other entry quite fulfills the comic possibilities of this proposal.
02) Episode 7: “Anybody Here Seen Jeannie?” (Aired: 10/30/65)
Jeannie sabotages Tony’s medical tests at NASA.
Written by Arnold Horwitt | Directed by Gene Nelson
This is the quintessential example of how Jeannie uses her powers to sabotage Tony at work, and at this juncture, she’s rendered as something of an antagonist — motivated by a childish possessiveness over him that leads to actions that are fundamentally incongruous with her goal. (See more on that in yesterday’s essay.) Yet while a large chunk of this offering is devoted to her purposely unhelpful antics during Tony’s medical tests, the second act finds Jeannie trying to make good and convince the test-giver, Dr. Bellows, that his judgment is compromised and can’t be trusted. It’s really the first time his character is addled by Jeannie’s magic, and it’s an early showcase for Hayden Rorke. Also, given what a big hook the series’ NASA element would have been to kids of the era, and is now to us looking back at the series as a ’60s time capsule, the final moments of the show are a seminal projection of this gimmick, when Jeannie visits Tony as he’s walking in space. Dabney Coleman and Davis Roberts have small roles.
03) Episode 8: “The Americanization Of Jeannie” (Aired: 11/06/65)
Jeannie reads an article about how to be the modern American woman.
Written by Arnold Horwitt | Directed by Gene Nelson
Prior to the network-mandated marriage of Jeannie and Tony in the final season, there are very few stories about her trying to live a “normal” mortal life and/or without her powers. I think Sheldon purposely keeps these rare so as not to beg comparisons with Bewitched, which used Samantha’s attempts at suppressing her witchcraft for its main dramatic premise. But Bewitched has an obviously richer central drama than Jeannie, and so whenever this series calls upon that notion, it’s usually a strong showing for the characters, both because it enables the utilization of an inner conflict — how can Jeannie not be who she is? — and also because her attempts at being “normal” are a rare logical attempt to achieve her goal, considering that Tony’s supposed objection to being with her is simply that she’s a genie. Plus, with themes about the “modern woman,” the script acknowledges some of the feminist thematics in the subtext of the series’ design. And there’s fun to be had in this idea too — of Jeannie out in the mortal world — with the scene of her trying to sell a “miracle oven” being the highlight.
04) Episode 13: “Russian Roulette” (Aired: 12/11/65)
Jeannie’s bottle winds up in the hands of a Russian cosmonaut.
Written by Bob Fisher & Arthur Alsberg | Directed by E.W. Swackhamer
The series’ sexy NASA angle is smartly engaged in this memorable segment that enjoys some Cold War-era tensions, courtesy of a visiting pair of Soviet cosmonauts, including the equally sexy Sonya (Arlene Martel), who accidentally ends up with Jeannie’s bottle after the jealous genie has stowed away in Roger’s coat. However, beyond these appealing story trappings, “Russian Roulette” is laudable because of how it maximizes Jeannie’s objective to spark the narrative, while also reinforcing both emotional continuity — her efforts to make Tony jealous with Roger began in “Where’d You Go-Go?” — and Tony’s obvious reciprocation, as the threat of losing Jeannie is the entry’s conflict, both for the international implications and because, aww, he’s in love. John Beck and Paul Reed also guest. (Incidentally, this triangle with Roger is just as inconsequential as the pilot’s with Melissa because Jeannie isn’t torn — he’s just a tactic to get what she wants: forcing Tony to reveal his feelings. Such plots give Tony the goal of trying to get Jeannie back, but they’re mostly the same: her magic has caused a situational dilemma and she needs to remain hidden. It’s more layered, but the conflict is still not a true character clash.)
05) Episode 14: “What House Across The Street?” (Aired: 12/18/65)
Jeannie accepts Roger’s marriage proposal and blinks up a house and parents.
Written by Bob Fisher & Arthur Alsberg | Directed by Theodore J. Flicker
Jeannie’s calculated use of Roger continues at the urging of her mother — played for this one time by Lurene Tuttle (the second of three women to take the role, the last being Barbara Eden herself). Mama is a character that Jeannie is reluctant to include, likely to differentiate it from Bewitched. Speaking of Bewitched, the comic idea of this offering would later be used by that series in a 1966 show called “Endora Moves In For A Spell” — the gag being a non-existent house that keeps confounding mortals by appearing and disappearing. (And Screen Gems supplied the exact same exterior for both!) Here, Jeannie’s efforts to get to Tony have her creating a fake home and fake parents for “fiancé” Roger to meet. But all she knows to blink up are TV commercial actors, who talk in clichés. It’s a funny, unique gag that correlates to her limited knowledge of the contemporary American world. What’s more, the premise is admirably used, for the plot not only makes use of Jeannie’s goal in story, supplying a clear character engine, but also the magical house bit confounds Dr. Bellows, which involves Tony’s fear of Jeannie’s discovery. So, because of all that, I’d say this is the one Jeannie outing that comes closest to rivaling its Bewitched alternative — I’m hesitant to call it definitively better, for the Bewitched version has stronger characters and features them with just as many laughs, but both episodes are above their series’ respective baselines and deserve attention.
06) Episode 15: “Too Many Tonys” (Aired: 12/25/65)
Jeannie blinks up a duplicate Tony who’s in love with her.
Written by Arthur Horwitt | Directed by E.W. Swackhamer
Jeannie blinking up another Tony — this one more affectionate, who lives to love her — is, as with the above, both a terrific application of Jeannie’s character objective in story and an idea that Bewitched would later employ to its own success. To the first point, Jeannie is desperate for Tony’s love and wants to get married, so she creates her perfect version of him… and when Dr. Bellows sees them together, he’s led to believe that they are very much in love and should be wed, putting the real Tony in a predicament, especially because Bellows thinks it’d be good for him to have a wife — yet another reason that it makes no sense for Tony to be opposed to the idea of being with Jeannie: it would be beneficial to his career. That said, even as it reveals a weakness in the series’ design, this is a great show based on both the series’ established conflict and its use of the characters. As for Bewitched, its take on the story — “Divided He Falls” — has Endora literally splitting Darrin in two, and despite lacking a guiding goal from Samantha, it’s funnier and got better character work (dividing a man is much richer than conjuring up a dummy version). Yet, again, both shows do it well, per their own interests. (For the record, though, Bewitched does another, more analogous take on this story in its sixth season, “Tabitha’s Very Own Samantha.” Compared to that one, “Too Many Tonys” is superior.)
07) Episode 17: “The Richest Astronaut In The Whole Wide World” (Aired: 01/15/66)
Roger discovers Jeannie’s a genie and becomes her new master.
Teleplay by Sidney Sheldon | Story by William Davenport | Directed by E.W. Swackhamer
Roger discovers Jeannie’s a genie in this important installment that changes the course of the series, giving Tony a mortal ally who can assist in keeping her and her powers a secret from the rest of the world, and particularly the folks at NASA. As noted yesterday, this is a smart move — and a fresh one; Bewitched gives Darrin no mortal confidant — because of how much this show has to rely on the “let’s hide Jeannie” plot in the absence of any other character drama. That is, Tony needs all the help he can get because this is the only real sustaining conflict throughout the run, and it’s rather limiting. Also, with the removal of Roger as a romantic device that Jeannie was using to make Tony jealous in pursuit of her goal, the show is taking its foot off the figurative gas pedal when it comes to her overt objective in story. Indeed, from this point on, the show slowly begins to phase out explicit mentions of her feelings — still using the general help/harm action, but with less of a direct link to “love,” inevitably making the show even less character-driven. To that point, this isn’t a great outing for character either — Roger is sleazier here than at any other point in the run — but for all the aforementioned reasons, it’s nevertheless a “must-include.” (One more point: I’ve also suspected that having Roger find out about Jeannie’s powers was an insurance policy for if/when the difficult Larry Hagman left the show — now she’d already have another master with emotional history.)
08) Episode 18: “Is There An Extra Genie In The House?” (Aired: 01/22/66)
Roger thinks that a pair of stage magicians are his own personal genies.
Written by Charles Tannen | Directed by Hal Cooper
The very funny Bill Daily counts this as his finest episode of the season — maybe of the series — as Roger comes off the last entry having had Jeannie as his own and is so desperate to receive continued help that he gullibly believes two stage magicians who are hoping to sublet his place are his new personal genies. It’s a classic misunderstanding, but an original one — an idea that only I Dream Of Jeannie can do, and that’s why it’s such an amusingly fitting story. Also, there are great guest appearances by Judy Carne (who’ll play herself in a few years), as Dr. Bellows’ niece whom Roger is dating, along with Herbie Faye, Bewitched‘s Bernard Fox, and future Jeannie semi-regular Emmaline Henry, soon to recur as Mrs. Bellows herself.
09) Episode 24: “The Permanent House Guest” (Aired: 03/05/66)
Dr. Bellows moves into Tony’s house to investigate the shenanigans.
Written by Sidney Sheldon | Directed by Hal Cooper
Dr. Bellows moves into Tony’s house in the hopes of finally catching him in the act of doing something strange, like having an elephant in his bedroom. This is perhaps the first season’s simplest use of its primary conflict — Tony is trying to keep Jeannie and her powers a secret, so he doesn’t lose his job, but this is complicated by Jeannie’s liberal use of her powers, which puts Tony in the awkward position of having to find creative excuses for them. It’s also another ideal show for Hayden Rorke’s Dr. Bellows, whose exasperation at the elephant not being there when he tries to show the general — the embodiment of NASA authority and Bellows’ vitally skeptical structural superior — is classic. Still, it’s really the series’ play of its principal drama in story that makes this such a notable outing and one worth highlighting as a sample Jeannie.
10) Episode 30: “I’ll Never Forget What’s Her Name” (Aired: 05/07/66)
Tony gets amnesia and falls in love with Jeannie, who doesn’t tell him she’s a genie.
Written by Sidney Sheldon | Directed by Hal Cooper
Season One ends with one of the series’ most “rom-com” installments, utilizing an apparently common sitcom gimmick — temporary amnesia — to bring Jeannie closer to her goal (having Tony love and be with her) by allowing her the chance to circumvent his opposition, which the entry also tries to reinforce as a legitimate obstacle standing in their way. However, I think it proves what we discussed yesterday and above — Tony’s refusal to become romantically involved with a genie is a convenient self-imposed roadblock that’s not rooted in his characterization, for this story shows with certainty that he’s in love with her, and since he otherwise takes no firm, hard stance about her magic, it seems like his regard for Jeannie is not actually opposed by anything of equal weight. Yet the idea of Jeannie only landing Tony through manipulation — and not telling him the truth about her powers — is perhaps a sincere character drama, and Roger’s attempts to stop their marriage are both motivated and amusing. So, this is a strong end to this more substantive season — it gets flimsier from here.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the offering that introduces the idea of Jeannie using Roger to make Tony jealous, “Where’d You Go-Go?,” along with “My Master, The Magician,” in which Tony’s explanation for Jeannie has him pretending he’s a magician with an act. Other interesting entries include the experimental “The Moving Finger,” the situational “My Master, The Doctor,” the unique “This Is Murder,” the formative “My Hero?,” and the well-premised “G.I. Jeannie” and “Never Try To Outsmart A Genie.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of I Dream Of Jeannie goes to…
“The Lady In The Bottle”
Come back next week for my thoughts on the best from Season Two!