Where’s The Sex? – A Look at the Sitcom Version of BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week I’m discussing and sharing an episode from ABC’s short-lived sitcom adaptation of the notorious 1969 film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Produced by Screen Gems, this misbegotten series starred Robert Urich and Anne Archer as the younger, liberal couple (Bob & Carol) and David Spielberg (you remember him from another Wildcard sitcom, The Practice) and Anita Gillette as the older, more conservative pair (Ted & Alice). Brad Savage (The Tony Randall Show) and Jodie Foster — yes, the Jodie Foster — recurred as their duos’ respective children. The pilot was produced by Larry Rosen (The Mike Douglas Show, The Partridge Family, The Girl With Something Extra), who left and was replaced for the rest of the run by Jim Henerson (Love On A Rooftop, Bewitched, I Dream Of Jeannie). 12 episodes were produced (including the pilot, which aired third), but only seven were broadcast — in an ill-fitting 8:00 Wednesday time slot — when there were poor reviews and even worse ratings.

If you’ll remember from several months ago when we discussed Love Thy Neighbor, another summer attempt from ABC to cash in on the “social relevance” bandwagon, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice saw a delayed premiere — ostensibly due to the 1973 Writer’s Strike. As a result, Love Thy Neighbor occupied that Wednesday slot for the first two weeks of the new season, earning terrible numbers that, in the final annual tally, made it the second-lowest rated show of the year. But, kids, as you can see hereBob & Carol & Ted & Alice didn’t do much better — only 0.3 points better, in fact… and it’s hard to imagine ABC being truly surprised. Having seen all 12 episodes — my copies come from a syndicated run on the USA Network — one can see why the suits shouldn’t have had high hopes: they green-lit a show associated with a brand (the 1969 film) whose subject was wife-swapping, which was something that primetime network television never could have offered its audience. In other words, to quote one anonymous ABC executive who spoke to the incoming Henerson: “The problem with this show is that we have to cheat the audience every week. We have to promise them a sexy show and then not produce.”

Now, we’ve seen before on this blog how certain premises set series up for failure — not by guaranteeing doom, but just by making it much more difficult to find and satisfy an audience. That’s true here. Even though ABC’s press team tried to insist that this television show was not based on the movie, the name (with the same characters, of course) purposely invoked those connotations. That executive was absolutely right: they were not going to be able to deliver a show that met the title’s expectations… But as is often the case with series that have difficulty overcoming seemingly troublesome conceptual bounds, the underlying issue is still character — just as it is for every work that’s creatively below par; the regulars are not defined well enough to motivate character-driven comedy (and drama) that earns the audience’s emotional investment and then compensates for any narrative handicaps. Because we’re already missing the basic titillation that (coupled with the film’s star power) gave the initial property its cultural mission statement, we’re left with what, by 1973, would have already been clichés: a “with it” younger couple and a “square” older couple. Sex or not, that’s a construct that predates television.

You see, by 1973, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice… short of any actual wife-swapping on a regular basis… was old-hat. The era of Norman Lear had made it so that anything relying upon tropes whose tired fascination was based on some kid of “ooh, we couldn’t have done this five years ago” novelty wouldn’t be able to survive unless it found fresh truth, offered real substance, or shone new light. (Other examples of shows that failed on this metric? Why, two others that had occupied the Wednesday at 8:00 time slot within the past year: the aforementioned Love Thy Neighbor and Screen Gems’ single-season The Paul Lynde Show, a laughable All In The Family wannabe.) Needless to say, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice wasn’t strong enough to fill the void provided by its empty, old-fashioned notions of titillation. Instead, it kowtowed to the limitations imposed by its premise, relishing in the fact that it would be bound by network convention. According to the producers, this was the result of self-censorship: they were unhappily constricted in what they could do (see the above article). That’s why it wasn’t worth watching. According to me, if they’d better defined their characters, they wouldn’t have had to keep highlighting (and calling attention to) the disconnect between what was being promised — revolutionary, modern dialogue — and what was being offered — formulaic two-couple banter. They made it worse for themselves, and that’s why it became less and less worth watching.


Okay, that’s easy to say, though — especially now. After all, even with well-defined regulars, the show still wouldn’t have been a success, because it likely wouldn’t have been allowed to find its audience. (And that time slot didn’t make it any easier.) Additionally, the character work required just to mitigate the importance of these branded associations would have been substantial, for even without the sex, the premise made it such that one couple was inherently better for conflict, and thus comedy and story, than the other… Can you guess? Why, the conservative pair, of course! For if the show believes, based on the film, that these characters are living in a modern, increasingly liberal world, then there’s little tension about a liberal couple actually living in it. Sure, the young lovers may have their hang-ups, but that’s just occasional self-modulation — stepping over a line and then stepping back again. A conservative couple, on the other hand, actively has to change to live in this “new” world. So, that’s where everything worth watching resides. (Of course, a truly smart series would have had each couple change the other. But that takes time and a clear sense of purpose. I think this show would have come around to this, if it ever felt like it had the chance…) So, when I blame Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice‘s lesser quality on its characters, I do so while also knowing that the premise still loomed large and the network wasn’t going to be very friendly or patient in ensuring its success.

As for the performers, all four of the regulars are likable, but as intimated above, the liberal couple doesn’t get to be as funny as the conservative pair (Spielberg and Gillette), and that does account for unevenness. Foster is as precocious as one would expect — this was the season before she starred in another sitcom based off a film, Paper Moon — and part of the appeal in watching the show today is naturally seeing her in action. (She appears in approximately five of the 12 episodes.) Meanwhile, as an ensemble, the foursome never really gets the chance to elevate material, for the character foundation (that comes largely from time and experience) is missing… And yet, not all of the material is below average. In fact, this show marked likely the first sitcom job for legendary MTM scribe David Lloyd (who penned the iconic “Chuckles Bites The Dust”). He’s the only writer credited with more than one script — three, to be exact — and while two of them are as forgettable as the rest of the run, there’s one that stands out very obviously as being the most enjoyable and memorable of the entire series…

Called “Open Marriage/Closed Mind” [or “Open Marriage, Closed Mind” or “Open Marriage-Closed Mind”], it was directed by regular staffer Rick Edelstein and broadcast as the series’ fifth on October 24, 1973. In the L.A. Times article from above, Henerson recounts how changes were made to lessen the perceived controversy of the premise, which concerned a trio of people (one man, two women — two of which are played by Harvey Jason and Sarah Kennedy, both of Laugh-In) living in an open marriage. (As aired, the open marriage never actually occurs.) It’s the funniest entry — rivaled only by the pilot, which includes appearances by Henry Jones and Mabel Albertson — for it’s able to make use of some premise-suggested naughtiness, while also deriving humor from what we expect of the respective main couples’ personas: the liberal pair has more issues with the arrangement than they’d predict and the conservative duo is less bothered than they’d imagine. It’s still a little clichéd, even for 1973, yet Lloyd gives us some boffo laughs in what is a genuinely well-written teleplay… But see for yourselves, you critics and scholars with no commercial designs, because here it is…



Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in Monday for some Musical Theatre fun!