Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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. Frequently guest starring EMMALINE HENRY as Amanda Bellows.
Season Five is often described as Jeannie’s weakest, with Tony and Jeannie’s marriage usually blamed for the show’s decline in quality and quick cancellation. But that’s not completely fair, for the series’ inherently limited premise constrains the writing so much that no narrative move is able to be a good move. In other words, even if a decision creates worthwhile possibilities for story and humor, it always triggers other confinements and concerns, so inevitably the show is never any better off than it was before. (We saw this when scripts, even prior to James Henerson’s command, began seeking ways to supplant Jeannie as the weekly antagonist. This was a noble endeavor because the series was trying to remove the illogicality of her being Tony’s menace, but it typically failed to ignite comedic or dramatic sparks because there’s no regular conflict without Jeannie’s powers threatening Tony’s career.) Now, I agree that the decision to get the two leads hitched — something NBC had been pushing Sidney Sheldon to do for years before finally giving him no choice — ends up being more restricting than freeing. However, based on what we’ve been observing in our study, I also think Jeannie was primed for a disappointing fifth season anyway, and the pair’s missing “will they/won’t they” tension, so commonly asserted as vital to the series’ appeal, is incidental to the core problem. In fact, as discussed in my introductory essay, marriage actually makes more sense for this duo, as getting Tony and Jeannie wed removes the artificial roadblock standing between them — his flimsy excuse for not wanting to be in a relationship with someone he loves was never buyable, and now that he’s junked it, the show is less contrived. Additionally, marriage formally brings Jeannie into Tony’s mortal world and allows her to directly interact with all of its inhabitants, like the Bellowses, who are a larger presence this year as Emmaline Henry gets her episode order increased from seven to 15 in accommodation of this new arrangement. As we know, Henry and Hayden Rorke are hilarious, so it’s great to see more of them and the entire ensemble together so frequently (including, after a tense period, Larry Hagman with Barbara Eden). This evolved dynamic suggests new plots and, for this show, new types of plots.
Yet not all of these new plots or new types of plots are beneficial, and for as much sense as it makes to couple the leads, the premise was deliberately keeping them apart to maintain its own existence (since its only sustaining drive was hiding her from NASA). Reversing this has consequences; Tony’s objective is narrowed when he only has to hide Jeannie’s powers, not her presence, and this reduces his weekly jeopardy, for he has less to protect in story. And while this scenario works on Bewitched, Jeannie doesn’t have a comparable wealth of character motivations to propel other dramatic ideas alongside it. Actually, it doesn’t have anything else — Tony’s goal has been made smaller, and Jeannie’s purpose has dissipated too, because now that she’s married to her beloved, she’s fulfilled the only recurring objective she ever (occasionally) had: landing him. Accordingly, Jeannie is again becoming more like Bewitched — the two physically resemble each other, with a married couple trying to hide the wife’s powers from her husband’s mortal world — except it lacks the latter’s strong foundation of character, which could yield a dramatic dexterity that might free this series for other, more complex ideas. (Remember, Tony has no innate objection to her magic, so there’s no interpersonal drama.) Thus, it’s even more true now than in Seasons Three and Four that the only way for Jeannie‘s narrative engine to function properly is to engage the threat of her powers being discovered. This has not changed, only gotten more acute, and unfortunately, that trend of becoming more like Bewitched also has Henerson still wanting to avoid making Jeannie the antagonist. Again, this has led to a weakening of the premise, for it needs her to use her magic at the expense of Tony’s job, because no matter how flawed said premise is, without it, the series is just a vessel for (hopefully) amusing ideas performed by (generally) amusing actors — situational, but without a situation. Here in Five, then, Henerson is caught between two impulses and waffles back and forth: does he fulfill the drama or does he try to make Jeannie a more believable character? Ultimately, he tries more often to fulfill the drama, but he’s reluctant about it, seeking to circumvent the structure by having Jeannie, oh yes, be the troublemaker — though not by doing magic, simply by being, well, something of a typically scatterbrained “sitcom” wife.
But this is an unsatisfying template, because magic is the source of Jeannie‘s lone conflict (its premise), and unlike the more adult Bewitched, this show can’t handle fewer supernatural gimmicks — the 7:30 crowd needs immediate gratification. Mind you, I’m not saying this to explain the Nielsen drop — like most shows with a kiddie base, success is dependent on scheduling — but the point is, no one watches Jeannie to see Gracie Allen in a harem suit, for the series wasn’t designed to have this (its lead characters were built specifically for the “she’s a genie!” premise, nothing else), so these kinds of stories are not funny or narratively relevant, to this show or this audience. As for Bewitched, with Jeannie now “in” Tony’s world like Sam has always been in Darrin’s, there’s even more idea overlap, and as usual, this doesn’t acquit Jeannie favorably, because it fundamentally misses equitable character support… Yet, this is also perhaps irrelevant, for as we’ve seen, the show has progressively mitigated its premise every year, moving away from the characters and their pursuits while the writing has become more episodically predicated on its comic ideas, positing humor as the primary way we should judge merit, via said ideas. This is ultimately where Season Five falls short, and why I agree with the consensus’ appraisal of its inferiority, for regardless of a muted conflict — or whether a story is caused by Jeannie’s powers, her general stupidity, someone else’s powers, or even mere circumstance — the show is not churning out plots that are as funny or memorable as they once were. There are a few exceptions, sure, but they’re rare, and this lack of creativity is independent of the marriage, the magic, or the missing “sexual tension” (which never provided much story), for, heck, just look at the two “normal” entries before the proposal: they’re remakes. And for a show that has mostly counted on funny ideas because its premise was flawed and its characters were not made to be helpful beyond it, running out of funny ideas is fatal, especially when a major narrative development (that better mingles the excellent cast) isn’t enough of a boost. So, Five’s basic dearth of worthy comic suggestions is why, I believe, it disappointed in 1970 and still does today… However, I’ve never expected more from Jeannie, and I used the same metrics as last week when picking the ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 118: “Jeannie’s Beauty Cream” (Aired: 10/14/69)
Jeannie gives Mrs. Bellows a face cream that totally changes her appearance.
Written by Joanna Lee | Directed by Hal Cooper
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Jeannie’s Beauty Cream” is the strongest sample of how Jeannie could have maintained its central conflict and comedic vitality, even with Jeannie now existing alongside the other humans in Tony’s world, where his goal has narrowed. All it takes is a dynamite comic idea, and this entry has a top-tier one — allowing the title character’s magic to be the source of the agita, but not intentionally, when Jeannie gives Mrs. Bellows a face cream that makes her unrecognizably young. Tony and Roger then must hustle to keep the doctor’s wife (and the doc) from finding out what’s happened, enabling a lot of fast-paced comedy that showcases the ensemble — one of the strengths of this final era. Meanwhile, this script is the first of two by the great Joanna Lee, Harold Gould and Laraine Stephens are terrific guests, and, of note, the Bellowses’ bedroom set is a redressing of Sam and Darrin’s on Bewitched… Also, speaking of Bewitched, while that show would utilize this notion in its last year and render it less superficial by having the afflicted mortal actively decrease in age, thereby ratcheting up the drama and making the stakes for character higher, this iteration packs in more laughs, and as such, it’s almost up there with the first year’s “What House Across The Street?” as being the closest Jeannie segment to rival its Bewitched alternative.
02) Episode 120: “The Blood Of A Genie” (Aired: 10/28/69)
Jeannie tries to get around taking her pre-wedding blood test.
Written by John L. Greene | Directed by Claudio Guzman
With a teleplay by My Favorite Martian creator and frequent Bewitched scribe John L. Greene, this offering smartly derives drama from Jeannie’s identity, which is posited as distinctly non-human when we learn that genie blood is a different color — a fact that must be hidden from Dr. Bellows when he administers her medical tests in advance of the wedding. The pair’s farcical maneuvering to conceal her blood is connected to the series’ main conflict and delivers exactly the kind of high-energy yuks we expect. However, this script is also saddled with an engagement ring subplot that claims some good guests (Ned Glass, Ruth McDevitt, Ivor Francis), but is a comparatively pedestrian idea, distracting from the more believable and character-rooted drama in the A-story. To wit, this is almost like two outings — one great, one so-so.
03) Episode 124: “The Wedding” (Aired: 12/02/69)
Tony and Jeannie are ready to head down the aisle, but she can’t be photographed.
Written by James Henerson | Directed by Claudio Guzman
No matter what is said about the role this marriage plays in the show’s decline — which, again, I believe to be immaterial to Henerson’s diminishing ability to conceive worthwhile comic ideas — this installment is a high point of the run, pivoting the leads’ relationship by giving them what they both have wanted since the first season. What’s more, the story renews an established rule — that genies can’t be photographed — to create a problem where Jeannie doesn’t have to be the antagonist, for its drama comes from an uncontrollable trait that motivates the overall conflict (because she could potentially be discovered) without stretching emotional credulity. Now, there’s some contrived shtick here — Jeannie’s fantasy is tacky and hampers the wedding sequence — but, overall, this is easily one of Five’s best; a classic. Cliff Norton guests.
04) Episode 125: “My Sister, The Homewrecker” (Aired: 12/09/69)
Jeannie II pretends to be her sister to romance another astronaut and split up Jeannie’s marriage.
Written by James Henerson | Directed by Claudio Guzman
Jeannie II enjoys her farewell appearance in this solid offering that again uses her straightforward objective of stealing Tony as she pretends to be her sister when flagrantly romancing a fellow astronaut. It’s a smart, more relationship-based application of her villainous goal, and it’s reminiscent of several Bewitched outings where a Sam lookalike is caught with another man. There’s less dimensionality here — it’s Jeannie, after all — but this is one of Jeannie II’s best shows because of the greater personal stakes for the leads, and while this structure is so obviously ripping off Bewitched, this too makes it an accurate sample of the season. Frequent guest (and Eden’s then-husband) Michael Ansara appears, as does Farrah Fawcett.
05) Episode 126: “Jeannie, The Matchmaker” (Aired: 12/16/69)
Tony and Jeannie both unknowingly try to play matchmaker for Roger.
Written by Don Richman & Bill Daily | Directed by Claudio Guzman
Bill Daily co-wrote this Roger-centric entry that is more sexually sophisticated than most Jeannie segments, but, true to this year’s form, is also much more enamored of its comic idea than the regular conflict, which it actually could prioritize. In fact, making one of Roger’s two dates the niece of Vinton Hayworth’s General Schaeffer goes a long way in supplying this otherwise shallow story with some sustaining drama, and it’s telling of the show’s sensibilities in this era (and any era, frankly), that it purposely moves away from the premise and the characters to instead focus on being an affable showcase for the ensemble — particularly its co-author — and the series’ sense of humor. That’s enough though. Elaine Giftos and Janis Hansen guest.
06) Episode 128: “Please Don’t Give My Genie No More Wine” (Aired: 01/06/70)
Jeannie’s wine makes the Bellowses turn invisible.
Written by James Henerson | Directed by Jon C. Anderson
In this episode, an interesting plot is built for the series’ key conflict, but it can’t live up to its full potential because it’s not maximized. You see, while the notion of a dinner party where Jeannie’s wine makes the Bellowses turn invisible is a stellar menace to Tony’s objective of keeping her powers a secret, this script mitigates both comedy and drama by having the disappeared twosome unfazed by their change in physicality. That is, they can still “see” each other, so Tony and Jeannie have less scrambling to do, which decreases both the comic mania and the risk of her exposure. Adding a ticking clock with the congressman (Alan Oppenheimer) is helpful, but it’s a deferred threat — unlike when Sam faded out in Bewitched‘s “Disappearing Samantha” (or when Mrs. Bellows changed looks in “Jeannie’s Beauty Cream”). Better idea than execution.
07) Episode 129: “One Of Our Hotels Is Growing” (Aired: 01/13/70)
Jeannie blinks up an extra hotel floor while on their honeymoon.
Written by Bob Rodgers | Directed by Jerry Bernstein
One of Five’s most memorable, this atypical excursion finds Jeannie creating a string of unintended consequences when she blinks up an additional top floor to the hotel where she and Tony are honeymooning, along with Roger and the Bellowses. This makes her the wide-eyed antagonist like in the days of yore, but that is what the main conflict needs to function at its best, and there are enough laughs here to exonerate any emotional leaps that must be made to conceive of this idea-driven (and logic-ignoring) scenario. Also, guests Ned Wertimer, Marvin Kaplan, Fran Ryan, and Jimmy Cross are all especially funny and they help keep the comedy flowing, while the primary cast, as always, shines. It’s big and broad and dumb, but fun.
08) Episode 130: “The Solid Gold Jeannie” (Aired: 01/20/70)
Jeannie pretends to be a statue after blinking herself into isolation with the astronauts.
Written by Joanna Lee | Directed by Jerry Bernstein
Joanna Lee’s second and final script for Jeannie is a clear-cut lunge towards the principal jeopardy of Jeannie’s possible discovery at NASA, when she carelessly blinks herself into isolation with Tony, Roger, and another astronaut (the same character Richard Mulligan played last season, now portrayed by Robert Hogan) and must remain in there for three weeks. Tony’s solution is to have her turn herself into a replica of one of the golden statues they have with them, but of course, keeping her a secret is never easy and that’s the drama. Now, I wouldn’t call this one of the season’s funniest, but it’s believable and reinforces the series’ identity well.
09) Episode 135: “Eternally Yours, Jeannie” (Aired: 03/17/70)
Jealous Jeannie blinks herself into a copy of Tony’s ex-girlfriend.
Written by James Henerson | Directed by Claudio Guzman
Jeannie’s jealousy — an oft-used motivator for her antagonism early on (when the show could be explicit about her feelings) — returns to propel this favorably farcical installment that’s nevertheless more buyable now that their relationship is evidently romantic and has evolved following their marriage, for her possessiveness over Tony is finally propped up by more relatable wifely interests. This doesn’t make for the most flattering depiction of the character — she’s deliberately a pest — but it’s not unmotivated for her, and their coupling does offer a stronger foundation for the hijinks, which inevitably ensue when she teases the central conflict by going down to NASA disguised as Tony’s ex, all to test his fidelity. Denny Miller guests.
10) Episode 137: “Hurricane Jeannie” (Aired: 04/28/70)
Tony finally confesses the truth to Dr. Bellows when they’re all trapped during a hurricane.
Written by James Henerson | Directed by Claudio Guzman
Although two previously preempted episodes were first broadcast in primetime following this one, “Hurricane Jeannie” was written as the series’ finale and it essentially serves in that capacity, signaling an end to Jeannie‘s conflict (and premise) when the four main characters are trapped in Tony’s house during a hurricane and he reveals to the long-addled Dr. Bellows the truth about Jeannie, with a few clips (brief ones) from past entries in supply. Naturally, this all winds up being Tony’s dream — the status quo is happily maintained — but here we get a taste of closure, and it feels like a fitting end, acknowledging what the series has been about this whole time (albeit with less of the wacky humor to which the final years have grown accustomed).
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: three shows some may be surprised not to see above, “Jeannie And The Bachelor Party,” which has little to do with the central conflict or Jeannie’s existence as a genie and is therefore an inappropriate story for the series , “Help, Help, A Shark,” which guests Jim Backus but doesn’t let him clown, and features a situational story where Jeannie’s identity is secondary to the drama, and “One Jeannie Beats Four Of A Kind,” which is similar to the directly aforementioned but includes Herbert Rudley and makes better use of Jeannie’s powers. Meanwhile, of equal relevance yet lesser quality are “Jeannie And The Recording Secretary,” which gets the conflict right but has tired comic ideas, “An Astronaut In Sheep’s Clothing,” which almost feels like a Bewitched with Jeannie hiding something she conjured up from Tony (even though it’s not as dramatically sharp because he has no objection to her magic), and “Never Put A Genie On A Budget,” a Sidney Sheldon script that I cite only because it starts with a fine thought about Jeannie being unaccustomed to the ways of the mortal world since she’s a genie, but then fails to connect it to the core conflict.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of I Dream Of Jeannie goes to…
“Jeannie’s Beauty Cream”
Come back next week for more sitcom fun! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!