Monday, July 30, 2012

Bewitched, The Electric Company and Prejudice

The premise of Bewitched is a thinly veiled treatise on intolerance. The series thrived during an era in which a situation comedy built around a mixed-race couple could never crack a network's prime-time schedule. But when the mixture is that of a pretty witch named Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) and a down-to-earth advertising man (Dick York, and later Dick Sargent as Darrin), the fantasy element diffused the tension of cultural clashes and the wrath of disdainful in-laws, so memorably represented by Agnes Moorehead as Endora, who imbued the word "mortal" with all the scorn of a racial epithet. 

 It's possible to enjoy this frothy, sophisticated series for decades and never get the connection. But the show's take on prejudice was acknowledged early on. "Bewitched is not about cleaning up the house with a magic wave, zapping up the toast, or flying around the living room. It's about a very difficult relationship, and people see that," Elizabeth Montgomery once said. "They know there's something going on besides the magic. When the show is viewed carefully, its other elements may be observed."

As much as Darrin rails against Sam's use of witchcraft, he ultimately accepts that her powers are part of who she is, and he should not try to change her. And though Sam's parents believe their daughter has married beneath her standing, their prejudice is no match for Darrin's love.  

Of course, some elements of the religious community remain upset over the series' sympathetic portrayal of witches, but you can't please everybody.

Bewitched was running out of steam by its seventh year, so much so that producers were recycling scripts from earlier seasons. But “Sisters at Heart” was a unique late-run triumph that represents the series' most overt exploration of the race issue.

The story begins when a bigoted client demands that Darrin be removed from his account after visiting the Stephens' home and mistaking an African-American girl for the Stephens daughter, Tabitha. The girl, Lisa, wishes she and best friend Tabitha could be sisters, though a boy at the playground tells her it can't happen because they're “different colors.” But Tabitha has inherited her mother's supernatural gift, and tries with a twitch of her nose to make Lisa her sister.

The spell doesn't quite work; Lisa develops white polka dots on her skin, while Tabitha breaks out in black polka dots. Samantha discovers what's happened just as Lisa's parents arrive to pick her up. Uh-oh.

One cure from Dr. Bombay later, the girls are back to normal, and Sam tells them that sisters don't have to look alike. “Actually, all men are brothers,” she says, “even if they're girls.”

“(This) is what I want Bewitched to be all about,” said Elizabeth Montgomery, who singled out “Sisters at Heart” as her favorite episode.

It's hardly surprising this episode would appeal to kids, since it was written by kids as well. “Sisters at Heart” had 29 writers, 27 of whom were tenth-grade students at Thomas Jefferson High in Los Angeles.

The students, most of whom were African-American, wrote the story as a class exercise. Teacher Marcella Saunders was concerned that so many of her students were reading at a third-grade level, and hoped this would be an innovative way to get them excited about writing. Bewitched writer Barbara Avedon heard about the project and visited the inner-city school, and was amazed by the quality of their story. The script was filmed with only a few changes, after a final polish from Avedon and producer William Asher. At the 1971 Emmy Awards, “Sisters at Heart” won the Governor's Award.

Where Bewitched took an in-your-face approach to its subject, no television series offered a subtler message of racial equality than The Electric Company. The Children's Television Workshop's follow-up to Sesame Street combined music, animation and comedic sketches to teach kids in grades 1-3 about the joy of reading. Another message slipped in as well, when the multiracial cast performed in sketches as spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, with no acknowledgment of their diversity.  
 In the 1970s such couplings weren't unknown to television, but every show, whether it handled the issue comedically or dramatically, would focus on the black-white pairing with all the righteous fervor that a 'very special episode' demands. On The Electric Company, Morgan Freeman could play a guy married to Judy Graubart or Rita Moreno, and it was a non-issue because it was treated as such. How clever, and yet delightfully subversive, just like all the best children's shows.

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