Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday… on a Tuesday! This week we’re preempting coverage on the best episodes of I Dream Of Jeannie (1965-1970, NBC), which will begin tomorrow, for an introductory essay on the series and its relationship to the other famous female-led supernatural sitcom of the ’60s, Bewitched (1964-1972, ABC), the better show and one of the first I ever discussed on this blog — long overdue for its own more serious examination.
Bewitched and Jeannie will forever be compared. In addition to existing within a popular trend — the manipulation of domestic comedy to support the higher concept narrative decor of the 1960s — they both featured iconic blondes with magical powers and men who simultaneously loved and wanted to contain them. Their comparable setups led to similar stories — there was a lot of idea-sharing, in both directions — and eventually a sense of formula that no premise-led ’60s sitcom could avoid. Both were produced by Screen Gems on the same lot, allegedly inspired by motion pictures (I Married A Witch and Bell, Book And Candle for Bewitched, and The Brass Bottle for Jeannie), and helmed by men (Bill Asher and Sidney Sheldon) who shared a recent credit: The Patty Duke Show. Structurally, they were rooted in the ’50s husband/wife shows, best embodied by the finest of that era, I Love Lucy, but also claimed a touch of Dick Van Dyke’s “sophisticated suburbia,” while embracing the emerging broadness of the decade — relishing in the supernaturalism that had previously played in 1953’s Topper, but was peaking in the mid-’60s with My Favorite Martian, and both Munsters and Addams in ’64, the year of Bewitched’s debut. In fact, it was the success of Bewitched, ABC’s biggest hit at the time, that encouraged and inspired the sale of Jeannie to another network eager to compete. Now, there’s been a lot of debate over the years about the extent to which the latter owes its creation to the former, and whether Jeannie is a “rip-off” of Bewitched. Here’s what we know: NBC asked Screen Gems for a Bewitched-like series after screening the pilot, and the studio first re-approached creator Sol Saks, who declined. Screen Gems then hired Sidney Sheldon and, before Bewitched’s debut, he started developing both a ghost-themed pilot with Groucho Marx and Jeannie, but only Jeannie was shot — and well after Bewitched was already a hit. By then, Sheldon had seen enough of his friend Bill Asher’s show to want his blessing before creating something similar, allegedly telling both Asher and Elizabeth Montgomery that he was trying to find his own version of Samantha’s nose twitch. This all suggests a conscious effort to not only match Bewitched’s success, but, in some ways, Bewitched itself — by the network, the studio, and even the creator, who may not have stolen the idea, but used it as a reference point during conception. And, well, that’s show biz.
Yet for as much as these two classics have in common — likely intentionally — there are enough differences to make having a preference easy. Mine is simple: Jeannie is not without its own charms, but its premise is fundamentally limited, rendering it unlikely for the series to be written half as well as Bewitched, which — from inception — is richer in every way, starting with character. Specifically, if there’s a key difference between the two that defines why there’s such a qualitative disparity, it’s how they instill established motivations in their leads, enabling conflicts that then dictate the weekly storytelling. Jeanne’s relative inferiority here has a ripple effect that hits everything, making it almost impossible to give the show higher marks on any metric. Oh, I’ll try to be fair — generous, if I can — but even more than with Munsters and Addams, we’re not dealing with scripts of equal value, and there’s less of a case to be made in support of the lesser. And though I’m not thrilled that coverage of Jeannie is going to be so concentrated on Bewitched — I try not to do that — this time, it’s unavoidable: Bewitched deserves it.
Let’s start with a point of convergence: powerful women loving powerless men who nevertheless have (emotional) power over them. I frame it this way deliberately — there’s a tendency to ascribe social commentary to some of TV’s silliest and most escapist shows to legitimize our enjoyment, and while I’m usually reluctant to do so, because it feels like I’m favoring an interpretation of the material over the material itself, Bewitched is an exception because it’s positioned for conflicts that invite such scrutiny. Also, the show — as established by director Bill Asher, who was its sustaining creative force, and original producer Danny Arnold, the future Barney Miller creator who templated Bewitched’s tone and thematic interests in story — made explicit the premise’s subtext. So, I wouldn’t suggest sociopolitical commentary as a reason to enjoy any sitcom — when it’s at the expense of more important traits, it can be just the opposite — but here, its presence is proof of a more thoughtful construction, providing character specifics with foundations of dramatic weight and emotional relatability that aren’t, as in the case of, say, The Munsters, only situational. No, Bewitched is a civil rights era piece and regularly shows it. In the first year (produced mostly by Arnold), the show routinely chastises our tendency to adopt negative prejudices and believe stereotypes about people we don’t know, all the while exploring, in plot, a family’s disgust at a “mixed” marriage where the wife has married “beneath” her station. The racial, and even gay, metaphors are obvious, in some scripts more than others, but there’s also room for an interfaith understanding of the marriage, along with a possible economic drama (Asher’s initial idea) — upper class vs. middle class — courtesy of the fact that they have different backgrounds and families who don’t understand each other. This is a classic clash that encourages depth because it’s based on real-life truths. And theirs aren’t merely allegorical — Sam and Darrin are beyond different races, they’re different species. They have different faiths in the sense that they were raised to believe different things. And they came up differently: she had everything, he did not. That’s not subtext — that’s the characters, and the conflict. (Also, this was conscious; head writer Bernard Slade would use class and religion for discourse on his own rom-coms, Love On A Rooftop and Bridget Loves Bernie, respectively.)
Any series with this premise could boast similar motifs — Bewitched benefits by its construction — but that’s the point: it’s knowingly built to engage with stronger dramatic themes, and while these certainly aren’t necessary on a sitcom, they’re an asset when filtered through a comic conflict and in support of the characters. That is, all the high-concept, unique drama between Sam and Darrin has these other subtextual issues percolating under the surface, giving extra weight to the characters’ perspectives so that they’re both funnier and more relatable. To be fair, Jeannie is not harmed by not having anything so lofty in supply, but it’s a sign of Bewitched‘s smarter design that it sets itself up to be more narratively prosperous in comparison. For instance, Jeannie’s conflict isn’t deepened by talk of prejudice because the show features clichés about genies and doesn’t treat any negative stereotype as worth challenging. It isn’t deepened by faith because there’s no family around (regularly) to cement different belief-systems and make them a point of contention. And it isn’t deepened by classism because Jeannie’s existence as a servant to others means she gets nothing from her unlimited powers — she is no richer than Tony. The show therefore has less to play with in story — fewer conflicts about Jeannie’s identity as a genie, fewer problems with family members, and fewer dramas about an imbalance in who can provide for whom… However, to extend the social framework a little further, there is one place where both series have common ground: the battle of the sexes. As indicated above, the two shows are about powerful women whose power seems to be a problem for men. This may be a modern application of second-wave ’60s feminism, yet the idea of a housewife who has the capacity for more, but is with a man who actively wants to contain her (and have her literally stay home), was not new. The quintessential version of this archetype was a decade old: Lucy Ricardo, who yearned to be more than a wife (and mother), despite her husband’s opposition. I Love Lucy, which Bill Asher directed for over three years, affirms the genre by depicting the man/woman interchange as both conducive to happiness — just like Bewitched and Jeannie do — but with an unavoidable tension, and thematically, it’s the primary conflict of all three.
Of course, Jeannie and Bewitched don’t apply this conflict the same; again, Bewitched positions itself better, thanks to a premise that’s smarter and more precise with character. It starts with a mortal man who marries a witch and asks her to lead a normal life with him — no hocus pocus — because he wants to be the provider. She agrees because she loves him — there’ll be no hocus pocus. From there, we know exactly what Darrin and Samantha want — it’s the same thing actually, but with an inherent problem: she is a witch by nature and he is asking her not to be; how can she do that? What’s more, although she doesn’t want to resort to witchcraft, the “mixed” marriage brings out opposition from her family — mother Endora, in particular — whose efforts to split them up, often by putting Darrin or his livelihood in jeopardy, forces Sam to deploy her powers. That’s a brilliant clash, because it makes Sam do what neither she nor Darrin wants in order to preserve what they cherish most: their relationship. It’s also born from the objectives of the antagonists, like Endora, who has many reasons for not wanting this couple together beyond just implied racism/classism — like the thought that Sam’s forced suppression is cruel. Yet what Endora fails to realize is Sam has chosen to give up witchcraft, not only for love, but also because she believes life has more meaning when it doesn’t come easy. And Darrin, in spite of forbidding witchcraft — because, as he admits, his own ego doesn’t want her to have anything he can’t provide — also makes choices that endear him to Sam and us: he loves her so much that he’ll endure weekly torture just to be with her. So, both leads make sacrifices, and the domestic drama of a wife being contained by her husband becomes a palatable, and noble, prospect — never mind that, like Lucy, Sam and her witchcraft can’t be contained. And because of this structure, there’s an inner conflict of Sam not wanting to use her powers, an interpersonal conflict of Darrin not wanting her to use her powers, an external conflict of Endora (or another supernatural being/force) making her use her powers, and all of this is in addition to the basic dilemma of trying to keep the rest of the world, specifically Darrin’s boss from a sexy Manhattan ad firm, from finding out that Sam has powers. That’s so much to play with — and it’s all thematically sound and motivated by character!
Jeannie, meanwhile, is limited. Let’s start at the pilot — Tony finds Jeannie, she grants him wishes, and he frees her. But despite her freedom, she falls in love with her new master and decides not to go, becoming his personal genie — all in the hopes of amorous reciprocation… never mind that he’s engaged to another woman and initially wants Jeannie to leave. So far, it makes sense: Jeannie’s goal is getting Tony to love her exclusively and she’s going to use her powers to make it happen — usually by helping him, but sometimes by harming him (especially if there’s another woman present). This will create weekly, situational conflicts. As for Tony, his mission in the pilot is to get rid of Jeannie, but we know by the look in his eyes after their kiss, this is going to change, and soon enough (by the following entry), he definitely wants Jeannie around. His objective then — the thing he’s pushing for in story — is keeping her and her powers a secret because they’re a threat to his military job. This makes for the same dynamic as Bewitched and Lucy, where the woman is powerful, but the man wants to keep her “bottled up.” However, this doesn’t produce the same exploitable drama, because Tony’s suppression of Jeannie and her powers isn’t really suppression. Go figure: he doesn’t mind having a woman in a harem suit calling him master and catering to his every whim. He enjoys her being a genie, and, unlike Darrin, he’s not trying to stop her from being who she is or could be. Sure, there’s occasional resistance — particularly when it comes to his career as an astronaut for NASA — but that’s mostly a function of his secret-keeping goal, which, some could say, is also driven by a possessiveness that stems from his developed feelings for her, existing somewhere between lust and love. To that point, while Jeannie’s goal of making Tony love her results in her interfering in weekly plots where Tony is put in either danger or an uncomfortable spot that often forces him to scramble to avoid having her be discovered, he’s actually not fighting her motivation, her feelings. This is because he either wants to have sex with her, is already having sex with her, and/or is in love with her too — depending on how you read the subtext — and so he subconsciously (or consciously) doesn’t mind her intrusion and doesn’t fight it.
Accordingly, there’s no clash here; Jeannie’s goal creates weekly dramas where she may be discovered, but her motivating feelings are encouraged by both parties. All the tension that comes from what each one wants is the situational agita of inconvenient scenarios, some of which may expose her, some of which won’t even do that. No conflict between them. Contrast this against Bewitched and all its personal tensions, and it’s clear how narratively confining and emotionally limited Jeannie is — it doesn’t have the depth or complexity, and it shows. Take Tony’s feelings for Jeannie — there’s some ambiguity, and I wish I could believe the series’ sexual tension, ingrained in the premise of a half-naked woman “serving” an eligible bachelor, is fueled by her objective colliding with his in conflict. But no matter what theory you accept regarding Tony’s interest in Jeannie — is it purely physical or is it love? — the series does not have believable obstacles to motivate an additional sustaining drama. Let’s go through it. For one, if you believe Tony’s favor for Jeannie — why he keeps her around, despite her getting him into all these scrapes — is purely physical, then you either believe he’s trying to bed her throughout the course of the show, is already bedding her throughout the course of the show, or is fighting the urge to bed her throughout the course of the show. With regard to him trying to bed her, even with the era’s Standards & Practices forcing only innuendo and subtext about such matters, there’s no implication of her not satisfying his desires. So, I’m skeptical that this is a believable reading. What’s more, even if he was after sex, there would be no problem — Jeannie wants Tony to love her, so if he requests a roll in the hay, even if she would prefer to wait until marriage (which she also wants from him), she’d probably give it to him, either as his genie or as a woman seeking his affection. (See what she tells him in the pilot: “I am going to please thee!”) No new conflict. Similarly, if he’s quietly been with her the whole time — and there’s a whole school of thought that says keeping her powers a secret is really a metaphor for hiding a sexual out-of-wedlock relationship — then his drive is the same, and not any more complicated: they have to keep her hidden, and if he can hide her and her powers, then he can hide an affair just as easily. There’s perhaps more emotional subtext in this kind of reading, but no new conflict.
If he’s fighting the urge to bed her, then he would presumably hope to mitigate his chances, which is to say, he’d seek to get rid of her. But outside of Sheldon’s sexy and sophisticated pilot — which depicts Tony as trying to shake his hot genie as a result of his engagement to the boss’ daughter — dumping Jeannie is not something he wants. On the contrary, by the second aired outing, he wants her to stay, meaning his feelings don’t support this take on his intentions, and once more, there’s no new conflict. But I want to remain on this notion that the pilot might have been poised differently — and for more success. Certainly, a love triangle with another woman would have been an obstacle for both Jeannie’s desire to be with Tony and his desire to be with her — so, that’s good. And, per the well-written premiere, this would make for an overtly sexual dilemma — Tony’s got two in the hand now. However, I don’t think Sheldon’s decision to axe the fiancée (and her father) in the next filmed episode actually handicapped a winning format, for her continued involvement in story would have still kept Tony’s objective the same: hiding Jeannie and/or, shall we say, “her powers.” That’s more secret-keeping — only from two extra people. It’s true the fiancée could supply a clearer inner dilemma for Tony — he’s caught between love and sex — but this would still be far less personal than Samantha’s inner dilemma, because her oppositional object (identity as a witch) is immutable, no matter how strong her desire is to be a wife as well, while Tony’s oppositional object (his fiancée), is mutable if his desire for Jeannie is great enough. Additionally, the risk of losing his fiancée is framed as being chiefly a threat to his career — she’s the boss’ daughter, not an old childhood sweetheart he’s adored forever. So, this love vs. sex idea isn’t even durable or legitimate, and regardless of how explicit scripts could have been about Tony’s desire for Jeannie, or how another woman could be used, or how this could translate into whether or not we’re supposed to believe Tony and Jeannie want to be having sex (or already are), their two objectives never would be able to yield further, more personal conflict. The drama would always remain surface — Jeannie gets Tony into a predicament that threatens his existence, at NASA specifically.
The same goes for the possibility of Tony loving Jeannie, which makes sense based on how he acts whenever the rare threat arises of someone taking her away, and also because, if Darrin puts up with his in-laws’ abuse but never leaves, then Tony enduring all of Jeannie’s meddling and still wanting her around should be analogous. Indeed, by the second episode, Tony is going to ancient Persia to defend Jeannie’s honor, and while he won’t marry her (yet), he’s visibly sad at the thought of losing her because she’s “the greatest thing that ever happened” to him. For reasons like this — his interest in her is sincere and unshaken by weekly hijinks — I subscribe to the idea that Tony loves Jeannie, which then puts them in agreement: they both love each other. Now why won’t he commit to some kind of romantic arrangement? Sheldon tries to suggest that Tony’s objection is thus: “I would be with her… if only she wasn’t a genie.” But this is a flimsy excuse that’s not supported by his depiction, for Tony doesn’t seriously want Jeannie to not be a genie — he asks her not to use her powers occasionally, yes, but he’s never taken Darrin’s hard line about it, never encouraged her to ignore who she is or expected her to lead a “normal life.” For this to be a legitimate concern, he’d have to be more like Darrin, with a strict anti-magic stance that makes loving Jeannie a conflict — a clash of values. But he’s wishy-washy, and enjoys her powers, so this convenient opposition rings half-motivated (at best). Also, the two could easily become involved without a change to their status quo; when married, they’d only have to hide her powers, not her physical being — that’s easier. Why doesn’t he get with her then? It’s not a fear of commitment — he was engaged. It’s not a lack of awareness — otherwise the genie thing wouldn’t be his proclaimed hurdle. Maybe he doesn’t want to love her, and that’s his inner battle. But then his goal in plot should be trying to shake her… and it isn’t. You see, none of it adds up — sans obvious, believable motivation, everything is nebulous and slight, and once more, no matter how Tony feels about Jeannie, there’s no truly plausible sustaining conflict beyond the simple and shallow “let’s keep her powers a secret,” only made difficult by the situations her magic creates. Bewitched has that — and so much more.
Now, Jeannie’s objective is easier to understand because it’s stated, but it’s just as limiting. Her goal is to make Tony love her, but she does things that complicate his life — sometimes to please, sometimes to agitate. So, most of the drama, especially in early years, comes from Jeannie doing something to Tony that puts him in a bad spot, intentionally or not, which then sparks the conflict of him struggling to hide/contain her. This essentially makes her the main antagonist in story — the threat to his goal and well-being — or the Endora, if you will. In contrast, whether the producer is Arnold or Asher (or Jerry Davis or William Froug), Bewitched‘s weekly drama stems from the premise’s core conflicts, all of which seldom, if ever, have Sam causing Darrin harm. No, it’s usually a family member who casts a spell that jeopardizes “Durwood,” and Sam has to rescue him. This is more logical — she loves Darrin, so she’s not going to willingly antagonize him. The fact that Jeannie, who once vowed to “please” her beloved, now antagonizes him, even in light of the subtextual arousal he might secretly derive, means that her actions are inconsistent with her goal. (At least when Lucy trounces Ricky, her methods are led by her freedom-seeking want, and she’s not acting against her own purpose.) I’d be willing to label this a character flaw and then a conflict — that is, Jeannie is childish and doesn’t know how to love correctly, so Tony pays the price — but the show contradicts this notion via character: Tony keeps coming back for more with little anger or instruction, and Jeannie never tries to change. Neither views it as a problem — he loves her already, and they have little to no personal drama about it. All their ensuing issues are then situational, keeping the conflict trivial… That said, in spite of everything, the series’ underlying theme ends up being the same as Bewitched’s — even the perfect woman can’t be contained, and men will suffer for trying — and it’s still a loss when, perhaps due to these incongruities, her objective is faded out after the superior first season (which is more of a romantic comedy because of Jeannie’s feelings). After this, she continues helping/hurting Tony, but with less of a direct link to an emotional goal, making all these “keep her a secret” plots even less logical and motivated.
Yet the series eventually seems to recognize this as a concern, for after Sheldon begins delegating more writing chores to James Henerson, a former Bewitched scribe whom Asher fired for doing double duty, there’s a deliberate effort to find weekly problems that Jeannie doesn’t have to cause. So, starting in Season Three, there are a few more stories where the drama is about Jeannie being incapacitated — instead of her doing something, it’s Tony who must act. There’s also the debut of her evil sister, Jeannie II (played by a gleeful Barbara Eden in a dark wig), a recurring character with a clear aim: stealing Tony. She’s a bit of a mustache-twirling villain with only one plot to propel and little dimension (no emotional gravitas like Endora), but at least the series is acknowledging the value of an external antagonist — à la Bewitched — with a set objective that can be mined for conflict and take the burden off Jeannie, who should be Tony’s protector. Jeannie II’s inclusion, however, was controversial — Montgomery saw it as evidence of Jeannie‘s flagrant attempts to mimic Bewitched, which had introduced Serena a year-and-a-half earlier but honestly didn’t start turning her into a recurring troublemaker until the fall of ’67, the same month Jeannie II made her debut. So, both shows got the same idea at the same time — that’s not surprising considering they both operate with a similar construct. I try to be fair about this; neither “owns” it — and heck, the “good twin/bad twin” device had previously been employed on Patty Duke, which Asher and Sheldon both created, so it’s no shock that both would reuse it. And fortunately, variation soon developed; as Jeannie II remained a throaty villain with a pinpointable want, Montgomery pivoted her initially gruff portrayal of Serena into a squeaky-voiced loon, prone to fads and mischief, not for any other reason than kicks and giggles. When she’s a source of conflict then, it’s not unusual to see Serena attached to Endora, who has the guiding objective. But instead of relegating Serena to ill-definition, this less menacing persona provides a color that makes her unique among Sam’s relatives, just like Uncle Arthur and Aunt Clara are distinctive. In fact, I wish there was similar nuance in Jeannie II, who, while amiably straightforward and fun, can do little in story because of her narrow characterization. Although, I can’t say I expect it; limitation is a running theme for Jeannie.
We’ll talk more about the series’ trajectory in our seasonal coverage, but it’s important to note that the show becomes more predicated on episodic ideas after its first year, when it moves away from openly utilizing an obvious objective for Jeannie, and later becomes increasingly silly and story-led with Henerson, whose inclination is to write the show more like Bewitched… even though it lacks its sturdy character apparatus and only has episodic ideas, intrinsically hit-and-miss, to propel comedy. Additionally, Tony and Jeannie’s marriage in 1969 — a network mandate that removed the show’s prized sexual tension and is thus often blamed for both its decline in quality and cancellation — inevitably pushes the series further in this same direction: making it more like Bewitched. Unfortunately, while Jeannie being allowed to meet the Bellowses and interact in Tony’s mortal world provides new stories and happily removes the artificial roadblock in their mutual display of love for one another, the series’ conflict has heretofore revolved around keeping her existence a secret, and now, as anticipated, it’s halved — Tony and Jeannie don’t have to hide her presence, just her powers. That’s sufficient on Bewitched because it’s got all that other character drama, too; Jeannie only has this, and so it’s further constrained when split. Also, even with new plots because of their marriage — not to mention Jeannie’s association with the Bellowses — the figurative well of “Jeannie blinks up X” stories has really run dry by Season Five, and the shakeup isn’t enough of a replenish, for the conflict is still slender and the character objectives are further eroded with Jeannie now having gotten what she wants. As a result, Jeannie uses more and more tired fare, some of it very reminiscent of Bewitched, where there’s less magic, and therefore, based on Jeannie‘s premised standards, less fun… But, again, I’m actually forgiving of all the idea overlap, for Bewitched is just as guilty of using plots previously seen on Jeannie, and I chalk up the crossover not to any hackiness, but their similarities — there’s only so many spells/wishes that can cause a half hour’s conflict… And anyway, the difference in their premises makes it so every story shared is stronger on Bewitched than Jeannie. This is a byproduct of having more developed characters, for trivial episodic notions are funnier when there’s the continuity of established behavior underneath.
Speaking of which, fans who prefer Jeannie often call it funnier — it goes for laughs more often than the sentimental and self-important Bewitched. But that’s not an accurate characterization of Bewitched — even if comedy is subjective, any series that casts Alice Pearce, Marion Lorne, and Mabel Albertson in its first year (when Danny Arnold indeed has it attuned to social subtext) unquestionably intends to make its audience laugh out loud, positing humor as a priority. And as scripts get looser and begin to feature, oh, Paul Lynde, Bernard Fox, and Alice Ghostley, there’s no doubt: this is a broad comedy, just as forceful at seeking yuks. Also, anything sentimental arises out of the characters, and it’s important to them first and foremost; that’s the point… Another argument that pops up is that Jeannie is more creative, while Bewitched relies on the same tired beats — specifically, Endora puts a spell on Darrin, Sam intervenes, happy ending. Okay, it is true that Bewitched develops a few key templates and seldom deviates from them, but all are rooted in legitimate character conflicts, so even as the law of diminishing returns applies and the redundancy feels stifling, there’s a base of quality that’s hard to break. Jeannie, on the other hand, has to be “creative” because it doesn’t have comparably sustaining character goals — instead it must distract with weekly pomp and circumstance. And still, it only has a few templates, too — the most prominent being Jeannie thinks she’s helping Tony, but whatever she does makes his life briefly difficult. That’s just as tiring… except the show only lasted 139 episodes and Bewitched went on to do over 250. To wit, the biggest problem with Bewitched is that it ran too long — by the time it switched Darrins in 1969 (after Season Five), it had fallen from its peak and soon would be so starved for ideas that it’d turn to blatant remakes of earlier scripts. In a comparison of the shows’ first five years though, the difference is staggering; Bewitched had declined, but not yet run out of stories on its premised conflict, while Jeannie, even with a change that created new narrative opportunities, limped to its end. And, frankly, when measuring all eight seasons of Bewitched against Jeannie’s five, I’m still not sure the final years bring down Bewitched’s baseline enough to make the two competitive. As far as I’m concerned, one has to hold the worst of Bewitched up to the best of Jeannie to make them seem evenly matched.
Fans who prefer Jeannie also look to that aforementioned sexual tension as an additional selling point. Yet Bewitched is no slouch in this department. Samantha and Darrin are maybe the kissingest couple in all of ’60s sitcoms and one of the few to sleep in a single bed. (They’re not the first, mind you — Mary Kay and Johnny and a handful of others did so earlier.) Their attraction to each other is palpable, and because of their conflict, it’s actually more talked about than on Jeannie. But I won’t be obtuse about this subject — it’s true: because of the decision to make her a female (at a time when genies were usually male), Jeannie and Tony’s master/genie relationship is a Playboy fantasy that’s undoubtedly tinged with sexual implications; this doesn’t have to show up in story to exist fundamentally in the premise and the subtext. Also, I agree that Jeannie tries to be “sexier” in the sense that it wants to be more alluring to audiences — it’s got a swinging musical score, vibrant colors that accompany the “exotic” locale of Cocoa Beach, Florida, and the thrillingly contemporary NASA hook, which is an exciting and forward-thinking element of its identity that’s truly original and enables some of the freshest and most enjoyable stories of the series, creating a definite appeal in the moon-walking era for its younger viewers. And this should be expected — Jeannie never started past 8:00 at night and was scheduled at 7:30 for its last three seasons, so it was definitely built and tailored for a more youthful crowd than the sophisticated Bewitched, which debuted in a 9:00 slot but settled in at 8:30 for most of its run — a place where it was encouraged to combine adult themes with kid-friendly gimmicks, a balance that would skew more towards the kiddies with each passing year. (It finally played 8:00 in its final season, 1971-’72.) These differing time slots — one never after 8:30, one never before it (until its death bed) — also explain their varying styles, and while I won’t let the younger viewer base excuse shoddy character development or premise concoction on Jeannie, I would suggest that a preference for its perceived easygoing “fun” is really a preference for a show that’s better attuned to the uncomplicated idea-driven interests of the 7:30 crowd: it’s more immediately gratifying because it’s lighter, briefer, and sillier.
And that’s all stuff that makes Jeannie a happy show, so even though I remain more impressed by Bewitched, I come away from this study with a real appreciation. A lot of this has to do, of course, with the cast. Now, I wouldn’t say Jeannie has a better ensemble; there’s strength in numbers and Bewitched has everything Jeannie has and then some, but there is an exception that makes Jeannie unique: Roger, a mortal ally whom the first season wisely lets discover Jeannie’s secret, giving the show another person who can help protect her identity. (It’s important because this conflict has to do more heavy-lifting than it does on Bewitched, which has no comparable helpmate for Darrin.) And Bill Daily, it must be said, is hilarious — he probably gets more of a chance to show it on Bob Newhart, but Jeannie does okay by him too, just as it does okay by Eden, who never has the opportunity to play the same emotional substance that Montgomery gets on early Bewitched, but is nevertheless a much freer and warmer actor, more capable of generating chemistry with any of her scene partners. Meanwhile, Larry Hagman’s a solid straight man — not nearly as comical as Dick York, but he’s not asked to be — and Hayden Rorke is the funniest chump in town, as his frazzled Dr. Bellows has some of the authority of Larry Tate but the mounting exasperation of Gladys Kravitz, creating a memorable blend that’s vital to every primary conflict. Later years feature more of him and his wife — played by Emmaline Henry (I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster) — and deliver increased laughs because of it. And together, this cast creates an environment of joy that does something to elevate Jeannie from its mediocre writing, which otherwise shackles it to Bewitched’s shadow — not because it’s a carbon copy, but because it exists within the same trend but doesn’t honor it as well, due to less thoughtful characterizations and a premise that’s simply single-faceted. (However, it’s all relative — Jeannie is better than The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, Nanny And The Professor, and The Girl With Something Extra! As for My Living Doll, stay tuned…) And while I admit my decision to highlight Jeannie here was mostly about revisiting Bewitched within a smarter analysis, I’ve found enough to enjoy that I can gladly choose its finest episodic samples. So, come back tomorrow when we start with the best from the first season of this iconically ’60s supernatural sitcom!
Stay tuned tomorrow for the best from Season One — and Season Two at this time next week!