If you want to see one of the reasons the wheels are coming off at CBS these days, tune in "Brady Bunch Home Movies" at 8 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).
It's one of the cheesiest cut-and-paste nostalgia-ramas that any network has tried to stretch into an hour of prime-time programming.
Former CBS President Howard Stringer bet the farm on nostalgia and baby boomers three years ago, and even though Stringer is gone, the network can't seem to let go of the past. Maybe it's because when Stringer resigned in March, he left behind a programming cupboard containing mostly empty memories -- like tonight's scrapings from the bottom of the Brady barrel, or the sorry "Rockford" reunion movie CBS aired earlier in May.
How thin is the gruel of the "Brady Bunch Home Movies"? Viewers can count for themselves how many times they see the same clip of Eve Plumb (Jan Brady) and Maureen McCormick (Marcia Brady) making funny faces for the camera on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth 2 during a trip to Europe. I stopped after five, but that's only because I ran out of fingers; my other hand was busy counting how many times they replayed another clip, of Plumb and McCormick playing volleyball on the beach.
In the hyped-up opening of tonight's special, viewers are told that they will see "footage never before seen by the public." You might think CBS is talking about something like "The Lost Brady Episodes" -- shows from the series that were taped, but never aired. Networks and cable channels have found and aired such episodes of "I Love Lucy," "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Honeymooners" in recent years. But nothing quite so exciting for viewers tonight.
"Brady Bunch Home Movies" is a special built around interviews with the stars and clips from home movies that cast members took with cameras they received from the late Robert Reed (Mike Brady). It appears that most of the film came from Susan Olsen (Cindy Brady), who is co-executive producer of the special.
Most of the film (what little there is) also appears to be from two trips, which Florence Henderson (Carol Brady) says Reed paid for the cast to take. One was to Broadway, the other to England.
So we see grainy film of the Brady cast looking at the Statue of Liberty, and more dark and shaky pictures of them walking into William Shakespeare's house. Henderson tells us Reed was a great stage actor who wanted the crew to appreciate the tradition within which they worked.
I am going to bite my tongue and let Henderson's remarks go unchallenged. If Reed paid for the trips, it was a nice thing to do. God bless, rest in peace, he was a good guy, enough said. But it's killing me not to unload on the revisionist goop Henderson and her ilk ladle out in heaping doses in these reunion specials.
There are other film clips. There's a dog eating out of a dish. There's film of a cat belonging to Mike Lookinland (Bobby Brady) walking across the grass of his backyard.
There is film, too, of Henderson putting her lips together like she's going to kiss the camera. And there are several shots of Reed and other cast members putting their thumbs in their ears, waggling their fingers and sticking their tongues out at the camera.
You can just tell how much they were influenced by the Elizabethan acting tradition.
"The Brady Bunch" is a culturally significant television series. I once asked Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of the series, what was the most common theme of the tens of thousands of letters written to the Bradys. He said that one of the most popular requests was for a floor plan of the Brady house.
His explanation for that unusual request (beyond Mike's being an architect in the series): Some viewers apparently believed that if they could physically re-create the house, they could have the love they felt inside it as they watched the series each week.
Now, that's what a Brady special should be about.