Demographically, most American TV watchers have only ever known “The Brady Bunch” in syndication — a phenomenally successful rerun even now, 40 years after the show was canceled at the end of its fifth season.
Beneath its perpetual ability to keep us aghast at the fashion, décor, lingo and the most corny and tentative notions of counterculture in the 1970s, “The Brady Bunch” remains a permanent touchstone. No one will ever mistake it for Ibsen, but disdainful critics have learned that it meant something to some of us.
Hearing about the death on Sunday of 88-year-old actress Ann B. Davis, who is remembered best for playing the fictional Brady family’s live-in housekeeper, Alice Nelson, I immediately and wistfully thought of what it felt like, in grade school and middle school, to come home every afternoon to an empty house.
It wasn’t a terrible thing; these aren’t bad memories, but Alice is certainly in them. Like “The Brady Bunch,” being a so-called latchkey kid was a byproduct of the ’70s. Some of us had moms who were among the first American women to boldly attempt the juggling act of earning a paycheck and running a household. Some of us had divorced parents, or soon would. Some of us knew it was our job to fend for ourselves for a couple hours between 3:30 and 5:30 each day. None of us had a live-in housekeeper.
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But we were not entirely alone when we had reruns. As early as the mid-’70s, when Paramount Television first put the show into weekday syndication, “The Brady Bunch” felt immediately and almost profoundly nostalgic.
No matter how quiet and empty the house was when you got home, you could turn on the TV just as the theme song began (“Here’s the story …”) and Alice was there, in the center of that joyful, blended-family “Brady Bunch” grid. She was in the kitchen getting dinner ready. She offered cookies and milk and sound advice.
She was, I suppose, whatever June Cleaver had been to the previous generation. The years went by, the 117 “Brady Bunch” episodes kept rerunning (the Grand Canyon trip, the Hawaii trip; Davy Jones dropping by, Joe Namath dropping by; Jan buying a wig, Peter’s voice cracking) and Alice kept filling some need for nurture.
The entire premise of the show seemed to acknowledge, at least in subtext, that Alice was filling the need that Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) could not fill. It’s the great unspoken truth of “The Brady Bunch,” particularly in retrospect: Ann B. Davis was the better mother.
But television could never let on about that. The jokes they wrote for Alice had an outdated and intentionally broad and hammy quality to them, as if her prior gigs had been cleaning hotel rooms in the Catskills. Davis was already a two-time Emmy winning comic actress (as Schultzy, the Gal Friday character on NBC’s “The Bob Cummings Show” in the 1950s) when she took the “Brady” gig.
Whether or not she believed the material was up to her standards, she made Alice’s wisecracks and goofy physicality seem perfectly natural. Robert Reed, who played father Mike Brady, went to his grave still grumbling about the insipidness of the show; Davis seemed to exult in it.
Viewers, especially children, were meant to understand that Alice was “old,” or was at least feeling the first pangs of decline. (In fact, Davis was in her 40s during “The Brady Bunch’s” run.) Dancing the hula or unwisely having a go on a trampoline, Alice seemed prone to lower-back strain and assorted pratfalls which caused her employers and their children to squeal with laughter at her expense — oh, Alice.
Always the Gal Friday, she made frequent, self-deprecating jokes about her spinsterhood and her futile attempts to get Sam the Butcher, her only suitor, to come around to the idea of commitment.
When Hollywood began making big-budget “Brady” movies in the 1990s, which were faithfully detailed and lightly subverted parodies, I remember being so let down by their idea of Alice (played by Henriette Mantel) as a secret freak and sexual libertine. It was one of the few times I’ve ever been offended on behalf of a fictional character, as if my — our — Alice had been fundamentally misunderstood.
In the gauzy bliss of Bradydom, where the bathroom was only ever used for staring at the mirror in a spell of pubescent unease, we rarely, if ever, saw Alice in the act of completing the household’s hardest chores, such as scrubbing a toilet and bathtub shared by six children.
People look at “The Brady Bunch” now and bring too many questions to it, starting with: Why did the Bradys need a full-time, live-in housekeeper? Why did Mike Brady, an architect, design the house with just one bathroom for the kids? If they loved her like family, why did they make Alice wear a uniform? Too many questions and too many cheap jokes to be made until, finally, one day, “The Brady Bunch” won’t be on anymore.
I hardly questioned it as a child. I had everything a kid could ever want and still found myself watching “The Brady Bunch” from a place of envy.
I envied the activity, the noise, the laughter, the good cheer, the sunshine, the talent shows, the vacations. I envied the brothers, the sisters, the cohesion, the Alice-ness of it all. I envied it and on some level I feared it. Their lives were too clean, too ordered, too right.
“If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s a perfect kid,” Alice once said, piercing that veneer, celebrating faults and spats and mistakes. Latchkey kids were especially attuned to “The Brady Bunch’s” nonsense, but we sensed the safety in it.
So maybe you didn’t come into the kitchen through a sliding glass door from a backyard covered in Astroturf.
So you most likely didn’t have five siblings.
So the cookies weren’t homemade.
So no one had remembered to buy milk.
So Alice was imaginary.
What a wonderful person to have around anyhow, if only on TV, just in case we felt alone.