Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post looks at a single season single-camera sitcom that aired on CBS during the 1972-1973 season, Bridget Loves Bernie. Shockingly, the complete series has been released on DVD.
Based on the play (and later radio series, also twice adapted for film), Abie’s Irish Rose (1922), this situation comedy was created by Bernard Slade (Love On A Rooftop, The Flying Nun, The Partridge Family) and starred David Birney and Meredith Baxter (who later married in real life) as an interfaith couple; she’s Irish Catholic and he’s Jewish. The premise involved the struggle between their families differing religions and contrasting economic backgrounds. Baxter was a school teacher whose father owned his own company (David Doyle), her mother was a daffy socialite (Audra Lindley), and she had a priest for a brother (Robert Sampson). Birney was a taxicab driver and aspiring writer whose parents (Harold J. Stone & Bibi Osterwald) owned a delicatessen above which they lived with Uncle Moe (Ned Glass). (The newlyweds lived there as well.) Rounding out the cast was Bill Elliot as the couple’s black cabdriver best friend. Slotted on Saturday evenings between the third seasons of both The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS) and All In The Family (1971-1979, CBS), Bridget Loves Bernie ranked #5 for the yar. However, the controversial subject matter — spurring protests from both religions — led to its cancelation.
Sony released the entire series on DVD as an MOD (Made on Demand) release in late 2012, and I am fortunate enough to say that I own and have screened every episode. The series’ strength is its cast — particularly Doyle, Lindley, Stone, Osterwald, and Glass. They are each unique performers with interesting energies and distinct line deliveries. Also, because the series has since been chided as insensitive to the Jewish faith, I would like to say that the religion is treated lovingly, and all of the material is tame — nothing compared to what has been seen in other places. The same can be said for the Catholic faith, although I will admit that Doyle’s character is, more than any of his Jewish counterparts, made to look the most staunch and ridiculous in his beliefs. (This surprised me a bit.) But, I did not find any of the scripts objectionable, and thought the premise and the set-up showed lots of promise.
Unfortunately, the quality of the scripts is a different story. They’re not as funny as they need to be. (Perhaps trying too hard to be sensitive to both sides?) Clashes between the families about religion are so mild, while clashes about the financial differences are repetitive and sometimes too dramatic. But the show’s fatal flaw is its leading couple. They’re dull. Birney does what he can to elevate his material, but Baxter is lifeless — lacking in both personality and humor. While I understand that the show was designed to have the parents as the source of comedy, I couldn’t believe how bland the newlyweds were. Why didn’t the two of them ever fight about religion or money? The series would have been smarter to involve them more in the conflicts. Thus, the show is structurally flawed. The show needed to provide Baxter and Birney with bigger, more nuanced characters that could provide comedy themselves instead of functioning as narrative pawns. As it stands, they are, along with some of the scripts, the series’ biggest disappointment. Forget the controversial premise; the series didn’t deserve to be renewed if it couldn’t fix the writing.
However, there are a few episodes that stand out to me, and I want to share them with you.
01) Episode 5: “Who’s Watching The Store?” (Aired: 10/14/72)
Can a Catholic girl run a Jewish deli? Bridget tries.
Written by Jerry Mayer | Directed by Lee Philips
Premise allows for comedy as Bridget and her family try to operate the deli. Naturally, it’s disastrous. This installment works because the couple is directly involved in the conflict, which isn’t cliched or nasty. Not a brilliant episode, but a memorable one with some laughs.
02) Episode 10: “The Little White Lie That Grew And Grew” (Aired: 11/18/72)
Mission impossible: convince Bernie’s devout aunt that Bridget is Jewish.
Written by Arthur Alsburg & Don Nelson | Directed by Lee Philips
A ’70s sitcom featuring a family of Jews would be incomplete without Nancy Walker. She plays an aunt for whom Bridget must fake Jewishness. This easy premise (which surprisingly took until episode 10) works because of the requisite tension leading to the reveal. And with a sharp guest, this is a satisfying excursion.
03) Episode 11: “The In-Laws Who Came To Dinner” (Aired: 11/25/72)
Social snobbery is the theme as Walt tries to hide the Steinbergs from a snooty visitor.
Written by Jerry Mayer | Directed by Richard Kinon
One of the episodes that most points to the shortcomings and prejudices of Doyle’s character, this installment is a nice showcase for Lindley, whose daffy but compassionate character both grounds the series and provides humor.
04) Episode 18: “With This Ring” (Aired: 01/20/73)
Bridget is heartbroken over her lost engagement ring.
Written by Gordon Farr & Arnold Kane | Directed by Ozzie Nelson
Another trite sitcom plot, this one sticks out because the conflict isn’t family vs. family, and because director Ozzie Nelson has a small role as a ring salesman. (And look out for Harriet in a brief cameo as a woman in the shop!) Like all of the episodes, the script is cloying, but it’s okay since there’s some humor.
05) Episode 19: “Into Every Life A Little Snow Must Fall” (Aired: 01/27/73)
Walt and Sam are feuding after a disastrous trip to Walt’s hunting lodge.
Written by Elias Davis | Directed by James Sheldon
This is probably the most overt character vs. character installment and it works because the religion and the money are put into the background; the reason for the fight is an incident that we don’t learn about until near the end. Some story machinations along the way, but still one of the most enjoyable installments.
06) Episode 20: “To Teach Or Not To Teach” (Aired: 02/03/73)
A sex-education movie and an X-rated sizzler: Bridget’s taken the wrong film to her class.
Written by Arthur Alsburg & Don Nelson | Directed by James Sheldon
Finally! There’s some topicality in this episode, with its Three’s Company style misunderstanding. Bridget’s educational film about sex is mixed up with a porno. The script comes very, very close to meeting all of the humorous expectatons that the premise invokes. Maybe the series’ funniest.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!