Bewitched – Television from the 1960s USA

April 16th [2011] saw the death of television writer Sol Saks, chiefly noted as creator of the long-running US comedy series Bewitched. I remember watching it on British television back in the 1960s. And I was struck by my memories of the cheery confident attitudes it showed to the supernatural, a big contrast to the edgy violent mood you find in later US television.

It’s been said that the series owes a lot to a 1942 film called I Married A Witch. I’ve seen that too, and I’d say that the changes in concept were small but crucial. Jennifer in I Married A Witch starts out with evil intentions: she is the classic ‘bad girl turned good’. Samantha in Bewitched is very different, an entirely nice well-meaning person, reluctant to use her powers and sometimes slow to spot hostility or bad intentions. Jennifer starts out working with her father on a scheme of vengeance: when she rejects this he tries to imprison her, only to fail and end up imprisoned by her. In Bewitched, a major theme is relations with Endora, Samantha’s mother. She dislikes this marriage to a normal human, but the two of them are clearly close and you’re confident that neither of them could ever hurt the other. Which provides an underlying logic to the fact that she will play pranks and try to break up the relationship but never go too far. It is also highly comic, reversing expectations by the daughter being responsible and the mother prone to pranks and foolish actions. And it also touches more on a real-life phenomenon in the USA, the children of immigrants or minority groups wanting to wholly integrate and their parents not liking it.

The ending of I Married A Witch lays the groundwork for a sequel, but there was no sequel, despite low production costs that made sequels much easier than nowadays. It wasn’t that great a film, and according to the IMDb the actress who played Jennifer behaved badly and offended the rest of the cast.

Bewitched ran from 1964 to 1972, apparently with a new actor as Samantha’s husband when the original had to quit because of back problems. I didn’t see those, nor the spin-offs, but it was a grand success. So much that a rival network tried a copy with I Dream of Jeanie, with Larry Hangman as the male lead as a very different character from JR in Dallas. Jeanie is a genie whose role is a kind of hybrid of Samantha and Endora: she tries to do good but also plays pranks. It didn’t have the same success.

The influence of Bewitched may even have reached into Star Trek. The gentle well-meaning Deanna Troi from The Next Generation is given an overbearing and embarrassing mother with whom she also has a strong bond. That was Lwaxana Troi, played by Majel Barrett, widow of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Both of them are members of a non-human species, but Deanna is half human has adapted to human ways. Lwaxana makes a point of being different and upholding her own traditions, though not in her choice of husbands. That relationship worked well as a source of comedy and drama, with Lwaxana brought back several times and becoming the most popular non-cast character apart from Q. I think she was also the only non-cast Star Trek relative seen more than once, apart from Spock’s father and maybe also his mother.

What’s also notable is that the USA nowadays has become edgy and unhappy and could not think about the supernatural as flippantly as Bewitched does. Despite vast material wealth, it is a society at the end of its tether. Something may snap soon.

From Newsnotes, May 2011.

[I should also have mentioned that Bewitched ignors all of the problems that US society had at that time, and mostly preferred not to deal with.]

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