Well, That *Almost* Computes: A Look at MY LIVING DOLL

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, we’re looking at the single-season sitcom My Living Doll (1964-1965, CBS), which starred Bob Cummings as a bachelor psychiatrist working for the Air Force at a Space Research facility, and Julie Newmar as the sexy, lifelike, top-secret robot he’s been tasked with protecting. The series premiered the same year as Bewitched and followed a few of the trends we’ve been highlighting in our I Dream Of Jeannie coverage, making it ripe for discussion now. Let’s start at the beginning…

Doll was born out of the success of My Favorite Martian, which debuted the year before on CBS and was such a hit that network president James Aubrey was eager for another show from executive producer Jack Chertok. Two of Martian’s writers — Bill Kelsay and Al Martin — created My Living Doll from an initial idea by Leo Guild, and it was ordered without a pilot. Like Martian, Doll was premised around a science fiction trope — not an alien, but a robot — and it also seemed to fit within the broader fantasy genre peaking in 1964 with The MunstersThe Addams Family, and Bewitched, all of which contained characters in domestic formats who contrasted their humanity against an element or figure that was not. However, unlike MartianDoll was also implanted with the romantic comedy chip seen in Bewitched and eventually Jeannie, deriving comic scenarios from a husband/wife dynamic (or some modification), specifically between a human male and a nonhuman female, whose identity would also have to be hidden. Accordingly, the series was made to imply the same subtextual gender drama that we’ve been discussing, with Bob attempting to shape AF-709, alias Rhoda, into his idea of “the perfect woman,” never mind that this is impossible — with any woman, let alone a robot. Indeed, all three of these shows deal in some way with a guy who wants to contain, or hide, the qualities that make his woman special and could naturally free her from the home and position where he prefers she remain. Yet if Jeannie and Sam are potentially perfect because they’re powerful women who can use their powers — or in Sam’s case, not use them — at the discretion of their men, Rhoda is even more ideal: she has no free will, only a computer system, and is subject to programming at the hands of someone who can condition her into his vision of perfection. And with his Pygmalion objective explicit in the premiere, Doll looks better poised than the other two shows to comment upon the era’s corresponding tensions, for the premise also allows the robot to be a mirror: a reflection of Bob’s preferences, the actualization of which could lead to comic conflict beyond just the threat of exposure as a result of her mechanicality — because maybe the kind of woman he thinks is perfect, well, isn’t.

In this regard, Doll is wired for a more interesting dramatic subtext than, not Bewitched, but Jeannie, and this is a fairer point of comparison, for although Doll premiered the same year as Bewitched and both producer Howard Leeds (who’d eventually create another robot series in the ’80s, Small Wonder) and script consultant Bernard Slade would come to write in some capacity for Bewitched, Doll’s design is more like Jeannie’s. To wit, Bewitched’s central duo is already together, and their drama erupts from the “mixed” marriage — of race/religion/class, etc. — that they must protect and navigate. But Jeannie, like Doll, is about an unmarried twosome and hopes to benefit from this rom-commish sexual suggestion. Also, despite Jeannie being more of a fantasy show than a science fiction show, they’ve both got the Space Race as a decoration, while the layout of their casts is more directly comparable as well, because they both claim a coworker who’s unknowingly on the make for the nonhuman “woman” — Jack Mullaney’s Peter here (a wannabe wolf, who’s really a lamb) and Bill Daily’s Roger in the first season of Jeannie. In fact, we often talk about Jeannie owing some of itself to Bewitched, but it’s likely Sidney Sheldon studied Doll, too — their constructions are so similar, and thematically, they start on more even footing, without the buffet of dramatic potential that delineates Bewitched as a cut above. Meanwhile, the primary distinction I see between Jeannie and Doll — my thesis, if you will — is that Doll better uses its unique premise to create character motivations that are clearer and more conducive to conflict. However, this doesn’t matter much, for Doll makes other decisions that render it vulnerable to the same narrative limitations as Jeannie, with little more offered than situational plots about Rhoda the robot possibly being discovered. Essentially then, My Living Doll is better built than Jeannie, but no more successful at showing off its figure.

For starters, Jeannie is a mess when it comes to its leads, struggling to concoct motivations for Tony and Jeannie that are logical, direct, and consistent with their actions. But Doll doesn’t have to worry about supplying an objective for Rhoda — she’s a robot who is never going to “want” anything; she’s going to do as she’s been programmed (unless there’s a malfunction). This means that the intrinsic and never well-explained contradiction stemming from Jeannie’s conflict-pushing choice to use her powers — despite wanting to endear herself to the discretion-seeking Tony — isn’t going to exist here: Doll can have its nonhuman woman create the situational dramas it needs without having to worry that she’s fighting her own interests — she has none. As for Bob, he’s actually given goals that aren’t in competition, and yet also enable an inner drama of his own — a drama that complements his external need to keep her identity top-secret, for, because he’s a psychiatrist, Bob sees the opportunity to guard the space facility robot that his absent buddy (Henry Beckman) created as a chance for scientific exploration: to mold a machine into the perfect woman — one who is rigged to approximate human emotions, but only the ones he wants her to have and when he wants her to have them. For Bob, then, Rhoda is more than just a machine — she’s a psychological experiment, and as he’s trying to keep her “machinery” hidden from the rest of the world, he’ll also be turning her computer into something that resembles the human mind. But this gives rise to an internal conflict, for as the bachelor shrink gets closer to creating his idea of feminine perfection, the risk increases of him falling in love with her himself — especially when she looks like the gorgeous Julie Newmar. Now, there’s a little bit of ambiguity, à la early Jeannie, about whether Rhoda would merely be a sexual fixation for Bob, or one rooted in deeper feelings, but with the show reinforcing that his goal is to supply her with a facsimile of human emotions, this predicts a scenario where he molds her into “feeling” things like love, which is how he contextualizes her ascension into being the perfect woman — therefore the threat to the doc is love, not sex.

So, Bob’s goal — based on his profession — is going to increase the likelihood of him falling for Rhoda, which he doesn’t want. This speaks to an inner conflict, for unlike Tony, who stops trying to shake Jeannie after the pilot, Bob’s actions tell us that he’ll be fighting. Look at the premiere, when he convinces his sister Irene (Doris Dowling) to move in with him as his “chaperone,” because Rhoda will be staying in the spare room and he needs a watchful eye. Here, he’s making a choice to establish a guardrail against, well, himself, and despite saying he wants Irene around to dash any suspicions of romance — the building would talk! — we never see the personification of a neighbor/landlord who would raise an eyebrow to an unmarried man and woman living together, so this is never legitimized as Irene’s actual function. Rather, given how flustered he is with Rhoda on account of her being shaped and coded like a female — before asking his sister to stay, he specifically says Rhoda “bothers” him — Bob’s clearly nervous about living with the robot because of her “sex.” Hence, Irene is a chaperone not just to protect from the appearance of impropriety, but from probable impropriety as well. Additionally, she’s also an asset to his interpersonal Pygmalion goal — he might need another woman around when trying to teach the robot how to be his ideal… although, he does have to be careful, for if Irene teaches Rhoda habits that to him are unideal, this will create more problems — between Bob and Irene, Bob and Rhoda, and Rhoda and the rest of the world, from which he’s trying to hide her identity. Thus, as you can see, giving Bob this emotional dilemma opens Doll up for more (and more layered) dramatic story. Yet, this is where the series begins to let itself down. For even with the establishment of an objective for the bachelor scientist that could create an inner conflict — which in turn sets up a more believable drama between the central couple, who are also steeped in a gender clash and have the task of trying to prevent her discovery — My Living Doll makes choices that keep its weekly storytelling from being able to offer all that it tries to tease in its premiere, instead coasting, like the very similar Jeannie, on the surface, situational ideas where there’s no emotional substance, just hit-and-miss hijinks.

The series has two big unintentional obstacles to the dramatic depth its premiere seeks. The first is Irene, whose inclusion is minimized by the decision to not have her learn that Rhoda is a robot. At jump, there’s a believability issue: it doesn’t make sense that she’d move in with Bob when his reasoning is so slight — it doesn’t seem like he needs her. However, if he told the truth, we’d buy it, because of course she would recognize the importance of hiding Rhoda — not only to protect Bob, but also to protect the country’s secrets during the Cold War. Okay, I get the thinking here — since Bob’s external goal is to keep Rhoda under wraps, he’s not going to want to tell anyone about her, and if Irene is described early on as a “blabbermouth,” then she wouldn’t be someone in whom he’d confide. But the smartest move Jeannie ever made was enlisting Roger as Tony’s ally in the middle of its first year, for the show’s structure was already prioritizing Tony’s secret-keeping aim and this narrative assistance made it easier to delineate the characters, separating Roger from the NASA authority figures from whom they really had to hide Jeannie. Similarly, if Doll had Irene find out about Rhoda — maybe not from Bob, and maybe a few weeks after the premiere — then he would have help in sustaining his ruse, particularly with Peter, the wannabe wolf down the hall, and this would have increased the show’s possibilities tremendously, because if Irene does have a big mouth, then this too would be a dramatic risk that could cause conflict, adding another complication to his goal. Also, if she knew about Rhoda, it’d be easier for her to challenge Bob’s interpersonal objective of programing the robot into perfection, because, as noted, while a human woman might be beneficial to him in certain instances, it could also lead to “bad” habits he’d want to break. And allowing Irene to be conscious of what she’s doing would better reinforce the gender subtext, for we’d truly get a battle of the sexes — and much more story — with Irene being aware of his intent. (She’d also make Bob more likable by loving him in spite of his attitudes about women, which even scripts from 1964 would have framed as narrow.) More importantly, though, Irene has to know about Rhoda because Doll can’t explore Bob’s inner dilemma if she doesn’t. That is, his sister isn’t much of a block against his own impulses simply by being around.

For one, she’s too easy to rout: he could send her away whenever he gets weak. Also, since Bob in the opener doesn’t believe he has the willpower to withstand Rhoda’s charms, we have no reason to doubt what he’s saying: he needs active help in resisting a robot that looks like Julie Newmar. Therefore, Irene has to believe she must stay in order to stay when she must. What’s more, if Bob was indeed able to recognize when he’s becoming too involved with Rhoda and could rein himself in, then his self-control would be strong and there’d be no problem. As such, if this is to be displayed as a struggle, Bob has to be shown as occasionally weak and in need of opposition from another force (Irene) who insists he not bend. This gets to an important point, for unlike Bewitched and Jeannie, Doll’s central twosome may ooze chemistry, but we’re not encouraged to root for them to be together. That’s right, for the first time, there’s a good excuse to keep the main couple apart, because while Jeannie and Sam aren’t human and may seem like the wrong partners for their mortal man, they are female, and they’re still in reciprocated love with their fellas. Rhoda, on the other hand, may look like a lady, but she isn’t — Bob is trying to make her one — and no matter how many emotions he programs her to have, there’ll always be doubt that she’ll actually feel them. The prospect, then, of a man falling for a machine that might be incapable of sharing his love is sad. Now, we can absolutely have fun watching him be tortured — inside by his impulses, outside by the way she’s programmed — and Rhoda may learn so much that even we start to get confused, but most of us would call the show’s intentional separation of the couple wise, for, unlike on Jeannie (or even Bewitched), Bob’s love would ultimately seem more unfortunate than redeeming, and so, in this case, we’re rooting for the same thing both he and the series want: self-control. Accordingly, we support his inner goal, and it’s essential that Irene remind him why. That’s what she’s there for, and that’s what she has to do. But because she doesn’t know this, she can’t, and because she can’t, this isn’t able to be depicted as the struggle Doll needs it to be, forcing scripts to drop that drama entirely and instead rely on the situational “keep her identity a secret” engine, just like Jeannie.

But I don’t blame this dramatic limitation solely on Irene not being used properly. It’s also the result of improper casting. And, no, I’m not talking about Julie Newmar, whose inclusion was enough to get the series on the schedule without a costar. The statuesque Newmar, better known today for Batman, is actually the best remembered part of Doll — along with her character’s “that does not compute” catchphrase — and the role of a robot named Rhoda is perfect for her, emphasizing her natural beauty while letting her motivate big, broad comedy that doesn’t require a lot of heavy acting, as being a machine allows for a reduction of emotions, which inherently restricts what Newmar is asked to do, setting her up for success. It’s not an easy job — she has to believably play a nonhuman, and find ways to propel the situational conflicts of a robot causing trouble in the outside world, which necessitates a sort of childlike sensibility where commands are taken at face value (making her a metal version of Gracie Allen, if you will) — but it molds to her strengths… It’s Bob Cummings, on the other hand, who doesn’t quite fit. And I want to be fair with this — there’s a lot about him that makes him look right for the role. For example, Cummings, who had already starred on three sitcoms — including his five-season run on The Bob Cummings Show of the ’50s — was a known quantity who not only brought his celebrity, and thus attention, to the program (that’s why he got top billing), but also a TV persona that appeared, on paper, a bullseye. Take a look: in Bob Cummings, the star played a bachelor member of the Air Force who is a technical genius in his profession and a connoisseur of the female form. On Doll, he’s asked to be the same… only now he’s a shrink instead of a photog, and his understanding of ideal womanhood extends beyond her body, but to her mind… Yet My Living Doll isn’t Bob Cummings, and the skirt-chasing playboy who had babes falling all over him on the latter doesn’t work on the former when the show’s inner conflict has to be predicated on a more complex emotion: love. He can’t be a swinging Lothario used to casual relationships who is threatened by the idea of loving Rhoda — that would dilute and confuse his inner struggle, making his resistance to feeling more about the feelings themselves than about the fact that, uh, per the high-concept premise, she’s a robot.

This would have been hard to fight, for the audience’s innate perception of Cummings was that of a hound dog interested only in sex — his well-established TV image had little to no capacity for romantic love. Unfortunately then, Cummings’ casting pivots My Living Doll away from a show about a man fighting his feelings for the perfect woman — the Pygmalion myth — and into a show about Bob Cummings, who might boink his lifelike sex doll. And, needless to say, that wouldn’t have been an appealing notion for audiences, let alone one that could sustain the premise, for, with Irene not being much of an obstacle, if Cummings wants access to Rhoda’s USB port, he’s going to get it. And there goes half the conflict and most of the audience. Because of this, it’s no wonder that producer Howard Leeds would choose to stop trying to explore Bob’s inner dilemma shortly after the opener… Meanwhile, Cummings doesn’t just overwrite Bob’s inner drive, he overwrites all the other drives too, because his presence overwhelms the entire premise, moving our attention to him and away from the robot, whose identity is the linchpin for everything — it’s why Bob has an inner goal (fighting his feelings), an interpersonal goal (shaping her into the perfect woman), and an external goal (hiding her from the rest of the world). This doesn’t compute, for just like Bewitched and Jeannie, Doll may be about a relationship, but there’s no show if the doll isn’t special; she’s where our focus needs to be and this naturally should make her the star. Cummings was simply too much of a star himself — behind the scenes, especially — to let Doll be the kind of show it needed, and right from the beginning, he was difficult: the series was initially titled “The Living Doll,” with its emphasis on Newmar; Cummings wanted “His Living Doll,” emphasis on him; they comprised on My Living Doll, emphasis split. (Not so different from I Love Lucy or I Dream Of Jeannie.) Then he started to resent Newmar’s centrality, altering scripts to favor him by supplanting the comic threat of Rhoda’s behavior leading to her discovery with shtick about his own scrambling to hide her. To be fair, the show needs both, but he can’t scramble unless her behavior holds the spotlight.

So, in addition to removing the viability of an internal drama and making it more about the situational hijinks later seen on Jeannie, Cummings also weakened Doll by undermining its structure. Stories became less connected to the premise as the run continued — with the irony being that Newmar nevertheless improved, finding ways to animate her robot more believably. This created tension on the set, and after completing 21 of the 26 episodes ordered by CBS, Cummings departed. Some have said his unplanned exit was precipitated by a fight over a script that used his “Grandpa” character from The Bob Cummings Show — one Cummings wrote to feature himself and, of course, mitigate both Rhoda and Doll’s concept. I’d also guess he left partly because the show was in the Nielsen trash bin. That is, Aubrey installed Doll at 9:00 on Sunday against NBC’s Bonanza, which had spent the previous year as the second most-watched show in the country. Together with 9:30’s The Joey Bishop Showwhich CBS nabbed because it had a named star for whom they hoped to fashion a more Dick Van Dyke-like series, Doll inspired a lot of enthusiasm at the network and from critics. In fact, it was predicted that Doll would be good enough to crack the Nielsen Top 40 and earn a renewal, while Bishop would fare in the Top 50, allowing CBS to collectively improve upon The Judy Garland Show that inhabited this berth the season prior. But Bonanza quickly climbed into the #1 position and CBS’ comedy-block ended up underperforming — worse than Judy Garland. Aubrey and CBS moved both sitcoms in the middle of December, putting Doll at 8:00 on Wednesdays, between Mr. Ed and The Beverly Hillbillies, but it was too late; ratings failed to improve, and Cummings’ leave was announced in early January… At any rate, with five episodes left, the series hastily wrote out Bob (and Irene) and, for the time being, put Rhoda in the care of Peter, the other scientist (a physicist), who had been attracted to her from the start, not realizing she was a robot. This made for a different dynamic — instead of fighting his falling (like Bob), Peter had to fight already having fallen. Presumably Peter’s housekeeper, played by Nora Marlowe, would be his new chaperone, but sadly, I have little comprehension of these final episodes.

Only 11 of the 26 entries are available and released on DVD, and none of them are without Cummings. So, nobody today has a complete understanding of Doll — instead, we have to piece together a picture based on loglines and articles about the missing offerings. What I’ve concluded is that only the earliest scripts make time for the premise, and the best of these is currently lost. It was the fourth aired outing on October 18th, 1964, “Lesson In Love,” in which Bob tries to explain love to Rhoda and she wreaks havoc with Irene and her date, one of the bosses at the facility (Herbert Rudley). This script (by Berne Giler) was likely the show’s most effective use of its many interests, since priming Rhoda to suggest emotions is one of Bob’s goals, not to mention a threat to his own feelings, while Rudley’s inclusion naturally forces the external threat of keeping her identity a secret. I hope I can one day see this smart outing, but in the meantime, for those who have the DVD, I have to recommend sticking with the first three episodes for the best sampling of what the series could have been. There are laughs in some of the later ones, yes, and Newmar looks like she’s having more fun — the mounting behind-the-scenes drama notwithstanding — but narratively they’re on par with Jeannie, though not nearly as joyful, for the ensemble isn’t as unanimously strong and Cummings is stifling. However, because of its construction, it’s disappointing to see Doll fail — it was wired to work. In addition to a mistake regarding Irene, if the show had only cast a leading man who was more of a team player, and could communicate a deeper emotionality, Doll might have been set up for creative success. (Had it defied the odds and gotten a second year, Rhoda would have had a new caretaker — someone with a name, like Cummings, but less of a “star.”) As for popular success, the time slot was a killer. Following Dick Van Dyke at 9:30 on Wednesdays would have been a choice spot for this adult show, but alas, Jim Aubrey wasn’t making the right decisions in 1964 and was ousted for it. This left Doll to remain little more than a memory, notable today for housing the impressive Julie Newmar and yielding a quote later cribbed by Lost In Space: that “does not compute.” My Living Doll didn’t compute either, but it could have.



Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more sitcom fun!