In her new, thought-provoking, super-fun book, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up With the Mass Media, author Susan J. Douglas compares the ’60s sitcoms Bewitched (Nick at Nite, Wednesdays, 8-11 p.m.) and I Dream of Jeannie (Nick at Nite, Thursdays, 8-11 p.m.), and concludes that ”both shows anticipated feminism.” Douglas writes that in Bewitched, ”Samantha was clearly a role model, while Jeannie was an extreme version of femininity that girls ought not to model themselves after. When women like that got power, look out.”
Look out, indeed. One of the great minor pleasures of TV this time of year is Nick at Nite’s ”Block Party Summer.” Each weeknight, Nick turns its prime-time schedule over to a single series, playing six episodes between 8 and 11 p.m. My kids have already memorized the schedule, thanks to Nick’s fiendishly clever commercials that herald ”Mary Mondays” (multiple Mary Tyler Moore Shows), ”I Love Lucy Tuesdays,” ”Bewitched BeWednesdays,” ”I Dream of Jeannie Thursdays,” and ”Sgt. Joe Fridays” (an evening of Dragnets). Nick at Nite is apparently one of the few TV networks to have figured out that viewers get a kick out of watching one episode after another of the same show and noting the changing hairstyles and hemlines, picking out obscure character actors in the background, and generally observing the way a series evolves — and invariably devolves at the sputtering end of its run.
Dragnet is a work of profoundly banal complexity that deserves its own separate squint in these pages (soon, soon, I hope). But when it comes to Nick’s current schedule, I agree with Douglas: Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie are fascinating pop-cultural documents, uneven but entertaining on any number of levels.
Is there an American who does not know the premises of these shows? Bewitched (1964-72) featured Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stevens, wife of advertising executive Darin (played by Dick York and, as of 1969, Dick Sargent). Sam is a witch — ”a bona fide, broom-riding, cauldron-stirring witch,” as she proclaims in the show’s pilot episode — albeit a curvy blond one who wears designer clothes and mostly limits her magical body-language to a pert nose-twitch. (It occurs to me that, in 1994, there’s no way on earth the religious right would allow a new TV show about a witch to air.)
I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70), created by future best-seller-churner Sidney Sheldon, starred Barbara Eden as a genie in a bottle found on the beach by Air Force astronaut Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman, in all his pre-Dallas innocence). ”Thee may ask anything of thy slave,” Jeannie says to Tony in the series’ premiere. She also spends a lot of time bending over in her low-cut genie outfit and manages to scotch Nelson’s engagement to a snippy brunette. ”I can do much more for thee than she, Master!” says Jeannie, all too eager to please.
Both shows traded heavily on the sex appeal of their lead actresses, with Eden opting for a style of va-va-voom gaga and Montgomery doing a more sophisticated version of come-hither. But where Jeannie offered the male fantasy of an attractive woman obliged to fulfill one’s every wish, Bewitched always made it clear that Samantha was much smarter than goofy, grinning Darin. In order to assuage her hubby’s ego, Sam had to promise not to use her magic powers. (”It’s tough enough to be married to an advertising man if you’re normal,” Darin once explained.) But when Darin got in a jam, Sam had to devise a way to nose-wiggle him out of his predicament, usually without his knowing it.
To hype its ”Block Party Summer,” Nick at Nite asked viewers to vote on whose powers were greater, Samantha’s or Jeannie’s; Sam won by a substantial margin (810,938 votes to 614,882). Not to get too metaphysical about it, but I think people were convinced of Sam’s superiority because Montgomery managed to radiate a discreet but palpable impression of power, whereas Jeannie not only had to struggle inside that silly harem outfit, but also had to please Tony to avoid being put back in her bottle. Even ridiculous sitcom characters need their dignity. Bewitched: B+