Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of I Dream Of Jeannie (1965-1970, NBC), which is currently 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.
Season Two’s consistency and balance is lost in Three, as creator Sidney Sheldon cedes more of the scripting to scribes such as James Henerson, a Bewitched vet Bill Asher fired for moonlighting here. Henerson will become Jeannie’s head writer in Four, but his arrival coincides with the show’s well-meaning yet fatal creep towards a structure like Bewitched’s, with plots that seek to spare Jeannie from being the conflict-pushing antagonist. In fact, his first script meets this concern head-on, debuting Jeannie’s evil twin sister. We’ve talked a lot about Jeannie II already, but the takeaways are: A) she’s analogous to Serena, B) she’s one-dimensional, defined solely by her goal of stealing Tony, and C) she allows our Jeannie to be Tony’s rescuer (à la Sam), which means she serves her purpose, even if her episodes lack nuance. However, this isn’t the only way Three tries to take the burden off Jeannie. Many gimmicks are trotted out — guest stars, a Hawaii trip, a tetralogy where she’s locked in a safe (built for a write-in contest to boost low ratings in the show’s new 7:30 slot). But most of these fail to satisfy the premise, whose lone sustaining drama is the threat of Jeannie’s discovery by NASA. Thus, it’s a catch-22: the premise uses its lead in a way that Sheldon knows isn’t ideal — she shouldn’t antagonize Tony, especially without a firm, believable goal — but Jeannie isn’t Bewitched and it’s only got one conflict: Jeannie has powers and deploys them. Accordingly, Three, like the years ahead, hopes to fight this inevitability but can’t, making entries hit-and-miss as they’re forced to rely on situational stories where the emotional jeopardy of the core drama is mitigated. This requires the actors to oversell the material, leading to a comic heightening that yields more memorable (for better or worse) half hours — I call it “7:30 fare,” where there’s more pomp than circumstance. As expected, Four will be even more bold about using humor to distract from mounting narrative struggles, but it’s already clear here: Jeannie is diluting its premise and thereby diluting itself, and no matter how flawed said premise, series television is about elemental continuity, so even if more effort is put into loading each script with pizazz, it’s hard to care unless the show’s identity is honored. Season Three can still do this sometimes — it’s just hoping to define itself more and more via laughs — and that’s what I aim to spotlight in the ten entries I’ve selected as this year’s finest.
01) Episode 63: “Jeannie Or The Tiger?” (Aired: 09/19/67)
Jeannie’s wicked sister takes her place in a grand scheme to steal Tony.
Written by James Henerson | Directed by Hal Cooper
As mentioned above, Henerson’s first teleplay introduces Jeannie II, the title character’s evil twin sister, also played by Barbara Eden. Jeannie II’s primary purpose is to give Jeannie a break from causing the weekly conflicts, making Jeannie more like Bewitched, with a family member of the magical lady menacing her mortal fella instead of having to do it herself. (Asher would drop Henerson as a Bewitched contributor shortly after finding out about this script — Montgomery felt he ripped off Serena.) As for this entry, it sets up the same template that all five of Jeannie II’s appearances this year will follow, for her straightforward objective otherwise lacks depth and can only spark one type of story, but at least she gives Jeannie an intended respite. And her presence is still a novelty — she becomes less interesting the more we see of her.
02) Episode 65: “My Turned-On Master” (Aired: 10/03/67)
Jeannie transfers her powers to Tony without telling him.
Written by Dennis Whitcomb | Directed by Hal Cooper
One of the most popular episodes of the series, “My Turned-On Master” finds Jeannie transferring all her powers to Tony. The problem is she doesn’t tell him first and he gets into all kinds of sticky situations at NASA before unknowingly giving his powers over to Dr. Bellows. This is a fun idea with a lot of laughs, supported by the series’ regular “keep the genie a secret” engine. There’s also a particularly poignant moment where Tony talks about using Jeannie’s powers to right all the wrongs in the world and she, with a surprising degree of self-awareness (seldom exhibited elsewhere), acknowledges how difficult it is for her magic to achieve desired results. However, Tony doesn’t have a well-established personal objection to Jeannie’s powers (like Darrin), so there’s no dramatic revelation when he suddenly feels what having power is like; the conflict has to remain situational and shallow because that’s all it can be. This is in contrast to Bewitched, which explored the same concept in “A Is For Aardvark” and “Darrin The Warlock,” but intelligently challenged Darrin and the rules of the premise. (Also, this notion of transferred capabilities would soon be seen on Bewitched too with Endora and Aunt Clara, and frankly, it’s funnier there because of how strong those characterizations are when juxtaposed.) Ultimately then, this is a very good showing for Jeannie, but it’s still not at Bewitched-level. It’s an MVE contender, but it can’t transcend the series’ own limitations.
03) Episode 66: “My Master, The Weakling” (Aired: 10/10/67)
Jeannie intervenes when a physical fitness expert makes life tough for Tony.
Written by Ron Friedman | Directed by Claudio Guzman
Don Rickles is one of the best guest stars in this season that’s heavy with stunt casting — everyone from Milton Berle to Bob Denver appears — because he gets to play into his reputation for harshness when he’s being a drill sergeant trying to whip Tony and Roger into shape, and then gets to play against it when Jeannie blinks him into having the personality of his sweet old aunt, who coddles the astronauts. There are many hahas in this scenario — again, the primary conflict of keeping Jeannie a secret from NASA is utilized as a necessary foundation — and Rickles is the perfect person for the role. David Soul also appears.
04) Episode 69: “Who Are You Calling A Genie?” (Aired: 11/07/67)
Jeannie gets temporary amnesia and forgets she’s a genie.
Written by Marty Roth | Directed by Hal Cooper
Tony got amnesia in Season One and Jeannie took the opportunity to try romancing him down the aisle. Here, Jeannie’s the one who gets amnesia and it’s up to Tony (and Roger) to stop her identity as a genie from being revealed while she’s being examined in a hospital and has no idea who she is — let alone the fact that she has powers. It’s a great premise that enables the entry to use the series’ central secret-keeping conflict, without having to make Jeannie herself be the one choosing to complicate the situation through magic — it’s not her fault that she gets amnesia and her discovery is possible. So, this is another example of Season Three trying to find a way to take that narrative burden off its title character. Also, there are a lot of fun physical gags and Richard Deacon guests as a money-hungry lawyer ready to sue NASA for damages.
05) Episode 72: “Tony’s Wife” (Aired: 11/28/67)
Jeannie is convinced by her sister that she’s a jinx and should leave Tony.
Written by Christopher Golato [alias Sidney Sheldon] | Directed by Claudio Guzman
The sophomore entry with Jeannie II is a little more complicated than its predecessor, featuring a plot that calls upon her same basic objective — splitting up Jeannie and Tony and stealing him for herself — but asks us to go along with a difficult assumption to ignite its story: that Jeannie could ever consider herself such a liability for Tony that she’d not only leave him, but set him up with a potential wife to take her place. (That’s not consistent!) However, if you can get past that logistical hurdle, “Tony’s Wife” is actually a fascinating relationship exploration, operating under the subtextual suggestion that Jeannie and Tony are involved in some kind of romantic arrangement but are going to break up and see other people. This provides a dramatic weight to the conflict that offsets the contrived mustache-twirling of Jeannie II in the setup.
06) Episode 81: “Please, Don’t Feed The Astronauts” (Aired: 02/13/68)
Jeannie intervenes when Tony is put through his paces by a tough nutrition expert.
Written by Ron Friedman | Directed by Hal Cooper
This installment was written as a follow-up to the successful “My Master, The Weakling” with Don Rickles, but he couldn’t appear and was replaced by Paul Lynde, in his third and final pop-up on the show — each time as a different character. Lynde’s turn in Two as an IRS agent is funnier (because it’s more original), but he’s always a delight, and while the nature of this script indicates how dependent Jeannie is on milking established formulas (this is an obvious redressing of the Rickles show, even with a stand-in), its format works, and the cast — also including guest Ted Cassidy — sells it. (And it’s much better than Lynde’s stint earlier this year as a movie director annoyed by Roger’s acting. That has nothing to do with Jeannie’s premise.)
07) Episode 83: “Divorce, Genie Style” (Aired: 02/27/68)
Jeannie has her powers temporarily removed and Mrs. Bellows mistakes her for Tony’s wife.
Written by James Henerson | Directed by Hal Cooper
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Divorce, Genie Style” is another offering by former Bewitched contributor and future Jeannie “story consultant” (read: head writer) James Henerson, further revealing this series’ trend towards a storytelling more reminiscent of its supernatural rival. This plot has Jeannie asking Haji (Abraham Sofaer) to strip her of her powers so she can prove herself to be just as much a homemaker as Amanda Bellows, even without magic. Haji agrees — but only for a week — setting up a story that looks to be about Jeannie’s attempted assimilation into the mortal world, despite the fact that she’s not mortal. This is precisely Sam’s sustaining struggle on Bewitched, and although Jeannie hasn’t used this notion very much (again, to differentiate the shows), it’s a potent dramatic idea for both characters, particularly if Jeannie is interested in marrying Tony. That is, his objection to being with her is that she’s a genie, so proving she can act like a human is an essential tactic in achieving her objective, which Three seldom restores in plot like it does here. Meanwhile, the entry also concocts a misunderstanding where Mrs. Bellows mistakes Jeannie for Tony’s secret wife and is appalled that she’s going around in a harem suit and calling him “master,” and this evokes the series’ subtextual gender drama, which is not often addressed in story, but provides a strong sense of self-awareness when it’s implied. It also raises the possibility of Jeannie’s discovery, not because of her magic, but because of her behavior. So, this ends up being the year’s smartest show — with a more elevated use of character and a knowing depiction of the premise that I wish Henerson was able to maintain. But, alas, this isn’t the kind of story Jeannie can feature every week — her powers are vital to the threat of her exposure; calling him “master” isn’t enough — so this is always going to be an exception, not the norm.
08) Episode 84: “My Double-Crossing Master” (Aired: 03/05/68)
Tony disguises himself to prove to Roger that Jeannie wouldn’t fall for another man.
Written by Mark Rowane [alias Sidney Sheldon] | Directed by Hal Cooper
One of Sidney Sheldon’s eight scripts this year — under an alias — this is a surprising take on Molnar’s A Testor, with Tony donning a disguise and testing Jeannie’s fidelity to him. It’s strange to see Jeannie employ this idea because, well, the show won’t actually let these two characters be together, and this narrative’s assumption is that Tony and Jeannie have an understanding that might prevent her from falling for someone else. (Some fans view them as lovers who’ve been secretly boinking the whole time — this outing would fuel that interpretation!) And yet, Jeannie sees right through the charade — incidentally, Roger and Dr. Bellows don’t, which is funny but insults their intelligence — and so this becomes a classic farce, with a little bit of sex appeal and the inference of romance that always supplies Jeannie with a sturdier dramatic base.
09) Episode 85: “Have You Ever Had A Genie Hate You?” (Aired: 03/12/68)
Jeannie II uses magic lotions to make Jeannie love Roger and hate Tony.
Written by Allan Devon [alias Sidney Sheldon] | Directed by Claudio Guzman
Jeannie II makes her fourth of five appearances (this year) in this excursion, as she once again, and as usual, wickedly tries to steal Tony from her sister. Now, there’s a definite law of diminishing returns with Jeannie II — she isn’t defined beyond her surface objective and this precludes investment, making her repetition of plot especially grating. However, while other entries ask us to buy behavior that isn’t motivated — e.g. that Jeannie could ever be convinced that she should find Tony a wife who could replace her — this one justifies a turnaround in Jeannie’s attitude by putting her under a spell, when Jeannie II intervenes to make her sister love Roger and hate Tony. This lets us enjoy all the silliness without having to question any of it.
10) Episode 87: “Haven’t I Seen Me Someplace Before?” (Aired: 03/26/68)
Jeannie grants Roger’s wish of switching places with Tony.
Written by Marty Roth | Directed by Claudio Guzman
Utilizing an amiable fantasy/sci-fi trope, this installment plays to the central conflict when Jeannie uses her powers to grant Roger’s wish of switching places with Tony, leading to an old-fashioned body swap. Bewitched did variations of this, but never under these specific pretenses, with Tony and Roger literally inhabiting each other’s bodies yet retaining their original voices. It’s a bit of a cop-out — the voices are a “tell” that gives them away to others — but it pushes the threat of Tony having to explain what’s happened, which is necessary, because Jeannie’s drama is built on the fear that his bosses will learn that he secretly has his own personal genie. So, we need him to be scrambling, and as a result, this is a solid story to close out this transitional year, with a lot of forward-looking slapstick as well. (Also, this is the only third season appearance by Barton MacLane’s General Peterson, who’s always helpful in ratcheting up Bellows’ mania.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Meet My Master’s Mother,” which stars Spring Byington as Tony’s mom but fails to deliver boffo laughs, “Here Comes Bootsie Nightingale,” which benefits from a dependable jealousy motivation from Jeannie, but puts too much of its comic focus on guests Carol Wayne and Jesse White and traffics in a “high-pitched voice” gag that yearns for higher personal stakes (like we saw when it was used on Bewitched), and “My Son, The Genie,” which was written for Jerry Lewis but had to make due with Bob Denver, who’s fun as a genie in training — another way that the conflict can be maintained but Jeannie herself doesn’t have to be the source of it — even though he’s given a poorly structured plot that misses a climax. Also worth citing are “Fly Me To The Moon,” an uncomfortably broad story where Jeannie foolishly changes a monkey at NASA into a man (played by Larry Storch), “Operation: First Couple On The Moon,” where Jeannie II causes trouble at NASA, and “The Second Greatest Con Artist In The World,” a dreadful Hawaii show that I note only for the guest appearance of Milton Berle.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of I Dream Of Jeannie goes to…
“Divorce, Genie Style”
Come back tomorrow for the best from Season Four!