My favorite episode is a feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.
Picture from CBS/cbs.com
Nostalgia does a weird thing to memories – it can make something awful seem lovely and interesting: case in point, The Brady Bunch. The campy “classic” TV show that ran from 1969 to 1974, it has become legendary in its cheesy badness. It’s difficult to pinpoint its enduring hold on pop culture. Some of it may be explained by nostalgia, but most of the show’s fans were born decades after the show went off the air. So what is it? One explanation is that it was a hermetically-sealed environment that seemed impervious to the turmoils of the outside world. During the run of the show, the country saw Vietnam, race rebellions, the surge of the women’s movement, Watergate. These were troubled times, and yet in the sunny, Day-Glo world of the Bradys, none of this managed to get through. It was really an aggressively-innocent show in which people loved each other, and were able to get past their differences in about twenty minutes.
For detractors, The Brady Bunch was saccharine dreck. That’s why I chose “Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” as my favorite episode because it touched upon one of the show’s more complex and interesting characters: Jan Brady. Unlike supermodel-hot Marcia (Maureen McCormick) or adorable Cindy (Susan Olsen), Jan – played by Eve Plumb – was caught in the middle, forever identified by her relationships with her sisters: she was always “Marcia’s younger sister” or “Cindy’s older sister.” This must’ve fucked up Jan’s head bad because a good source of the show’s actual tension and angst comes from Jan’s search for identity and self-confidence. When Jan fumes “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” in one of the show’s classic lines, it’s a great peek into the frustrated pent-up outrage that resides in Jan Brady.
“Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” is great viewing because for once, the show manages to shake off some of its Formica-stiff camp and actually function as a bit of story telling. Now, it’s not great story telling, but it’s solid, mainly because of the performance of Eve Plumb. Though Florence Henderson and Robert Reed did solid work as parents Carol and Mike Brady (and Ann B. Davis was a hoot as Alice), the six kids – the main draw of the show – were a mixed bag when it came to acting. There were some cringey moments throughout the show when the banal scripts pushed the children do to more than just stand there, looking groovy. But Plumb was a dark horse among the Brady bunch, because she actually could act.
The episode made good use of Plumb’s abilities, but it also told her story with surprising sensitivity, despite the central gag being Jan wearing a crazy black wig. Ah, the wig. In the theme song, the kids warble the premise to the show and introduce the girls and their mother as “A lovely lady who was bringing three very lovely girls/All of them had hair of gold.” So immediately, we get that these characters are partly-defined by their looks, mainly their blonde hair. So when Jan feels a crisis of self-identity, it’s natural that she works to destroy the main thing that makes her blend into the background: her hair of gold.
So inspired by a magazine ad, Jan skips over to a wig shop – staffed by future Edna Krabapple/Carol Kester, Marcia Wallace. Wigs are fun for a lot of people because they can put them on, and assume new personas. That’s why it makes sense that Jan turns to wigs to giver her personality a new twist. After looking through various pieces, she settles an on unflattering tight crown of black curls. In the priceless 1995 parody film, the wig is changed from a dowdy short cut to an impressively gargantuan afro.
Once her family catches her wearing the wig, she gets the standard “be yourself” lesson. And I gotta say, all of that is garbage, because being yourself includes altering parts of yourself that you feel need changing. The show was filmed in the early 1970s, so it makes sense that such pat, conservative bromides are spoon fed to its viewers. Folks weren’t encouraged to experiment with identity and appearance – doing so would seem like deception or lie. That’s why “Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” feels like such a resolutely queer episode: we want the “real” Jan Brady to stand up, but we’re not quite sure who that is – and more importantly, Jan doesn’t either.
In a telling exchange, when confronted with the ugly wig, Jan insists that she wants to wear her wig all the time. When asked why she fumes, “I wanna be me. I’m tired of looking like everyone else. I wanna be Jan Brady.”
“But Honey,” Carol says in that plaintive, soothing way that she does. “Jan Brady has blonde hair.”
“Nobody notices that Jan Brady,” is Jan’s poignant response.
Mike pipes in by saying, “A person doesn’t make himself different by just putting on a wig.”
“It’s what’s inside that counts,” Carol practically coos.
It’s here where I think the show really peaks in its queerness. Jan wanting to be different and insisting that changing her outside will make her different, and her conformist parents telling her that her inside and her outside should match.
Look, I know it’s a stretch to say that this show can work as an allegory for drag, trans, gay, or any other queer/non-hetero identities – after all, this is The Brady Bunch, after all. But there are all kinds of queer pings throughout the show’s history and its legacy. Queer people – especially gay men – love schlock, and we embrace it. But there’s subtext, too. Knowing what we know about Robert Reed, it feels weird having him be the mouthpiece of this kind of mainstream, square kind of thinking.
The plot comes to a head in the last third, when Jan debuts her new look at a birthday party. Instead of being wowed by the new Jan Brady, her friends assume it’s a joke, and they laugh. The teasing is the kind of low-level, milquetoast roasting that would pass as bullying in a world as corny as the one depicted in The Brady Bunch. But it stings and Jan leaves (again, Plumb does some great subtle work here, letting her look of pride dissolve into confusion, and then hurt as she runs away).
At home, she tells her parents what happens, and she’s full of self-recrimination. It’s here that the show’s message of conformity really hit home, despite the nudge towards self-expression heralded earlier. Jan admits that she looks like “some kind of freak” in her wig, and blames herself for her friends’ boorish behavior – never mind that it was the kids who were laughing at her and acting like assholes. The narrative constructed is that Jan’s to blame because she was trying to be somebody she’s not.
As if this “lesson” wasn’t enough to bare, we get even further into gendered concerns, when Jan’s friends come to the door, hoping to apologize. Instead of apologizing for acting like jackasses, the girls appeal to Jan’s vanity, admitting that they’re envious of her long blonde hair. And just like that, all’s well in the world, because Jan’s identity as a blonde is affirmed (and is proven to be a source of envy among her clique).
It’s too bad that an episode that starts off so daringly ends up cliff diving into conformity so quickly. It’s too much to ask of The Brady Bunch to question notions of identity, I know. But still, this episode remains the strongest of its run because its problems present a darker, more complex side of the toothy family than what we’re normally shown. In fact, any episode that centers on Jan tends to be a stronger episode. A lot of that is due to Plumb’s distinct qualities as an actress, but a lot of it is also due to the writers seeming free to explore these weirder feelings in that character, instead of trying them in the Barbie-doll pretty Marcia or the Kewpie-doll pretty Cindy.