Outtasite but hardly outtamind, the Bradys are the Lava lamps of TV history when we look at them we can imagine whatever we want about a moment in time. As inspiration for fan clubs, college cults, and at least three books (one of which I cowrote with Andrew J. Edelstein), the genial sitcom The Brady Bunch has proven to be the one thing that baby boomers and Generation Xers have in common. Okay, there's maybe Snapple, but that's it Snapple and the Bradys.
The four episodes on The Brady Bunch: The Collector's Edition Bradys One and All give us uncut evidence of why this clueless, corny show continues to merit such kitschy reverence. A comedy about six SoCal stepsibs and their newlywed parents (Florence Henderson, Robert Reed), it mildly broke new TV ground in recognizing combined families, in showing human parents sleeping in the same bed (technically, the comical monsters the Munsters had been there first), and in its implication that mom Carol was divorced: Scrutinize the pilot episode (''The Honeymoon'') on this tape, and you'll find no hint about her being widowed. (Interestingly, while this same episode shows a photo of Mike Brady's first wife and the script implies she's dead, even that is never said explicitly.)
Yet for all this superficial cultural awareness, The Brady Bunchremains a far cry from socially conscious contemporaries like All in the Family or M*A*S*H, and its critics are right in deriding its wooden dialog, clumsy editing, and awkward direction. Yet consecutively viewing this tape's four first-season episodes (including the pilot and the first regular show) allows one to see the unbearable lightness of its being suddenly rise to sublime levels.
As is usual in sitcoms, the roles here are more archetypes than fully drawn people, so any viewer can find one character to relate to. There's the stoic mediator Marcia (Maureen McCormick), fearful of not earning her stepfather's love in ''Dear Libby'' (the kids misinterpret an advice-column letter) and ''Father of the Year'' (she enters Mike in a Father of the Year contest and ends up grounded). There's the sensitive Bobby (Mike Lookinland), who hides his departed mother's photo rather than risk hurting Carol in ''The Honeymoon.'' There's even Alice (Ann B. Davis), the housekeeper who finds her identity and worth through service to others in an episode called ''Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.''
On another level, of course, it's an unintended parody a Saturday Night Live sketch that doesn't know when to quit. The howlers just keep on coming, as when the three boys appraise Carol in the pilot: ''She's outtasite, Dad!,'' ''Groovy!,'' ''I think she's neat-o!''
And in that, these early episodes reveal starkly what the show offered all through its run: the rubbernecking appeal of home movies. With all its white-bread, bell-bottomed, avocado-tangerine-colored excesses, The Brady Bunch hits squirmingly close to home. Kidcoms today are actually less realistic, with most TV children either wisecrack machines (e.g., Family Matters) or verbally sophisticated miniature adults (Blossom, etc.). But the Bradys acted like totally average upper-middle-class kids, concerned about dressing cool or becoming a cheerleader. So they didn't crank up Three Dog Night or smoke pot not everybody did, and those were just passing fads anyway. But the terror of a first date that's eternal. Laughing at the Brady kids makes us feel superior to them and to our old selves and removed from our own ugly-duckling adolescences.
Series creator Sherwood Schwartz probably didn't intend all this, but like the grainy-looking kitchen scene in ''Father of the Year'' that inexplicably wasn't color-corrected, things always turn up that creators don't plan on. Though embarrassingly outtasite, The Brady Bunch is surprisingly not outtatouch. B-