Film Reviews

Witch Fix

I envy people whose favorite television show is something well-written or intelligent. My cousin John loves The Mary Tyler Moore Show; my sister has seen every episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show a dozen times each. Even my mechanic favors smarty-pants programs like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I, on the other hand, am a middle-aged man who must grudgingly admit that my favorite television show is -- and has been, for the past 40 years -- Bewitched. Although I have little interest in the new movie based on my fave sitcom, I admit to being one of those scary fans who can tell you, without any help from Google, how many episodes of Bewitched were filmed (254, airing between 1964 and 1972 on ABC); how many actresses portrayed the character Tabitha (nine, if you count Liberty Williams, the former porn star who played Darrin and Samantha Stephens' daughter in a failed pilot for the 1976 series Tabitha); and even what Agnes Moorehead said when she heard the network was recasting the part of Darrin during the show's sixth season ("They shouldn't have messed with a good thing," a comment that reportedly made Darrin number two, Dick Sargent, feel less than welcome on the set.)

I'm embarrassed to admit my love for Bewitched, not just because the program is essentially a cartoon, but because -- no matter what people tell you -- Bewitched wasn't a great show. It was certainly well-acted and well-cast, and was wisely built around Elizabeth Montgomery, one of the most charming personalities on television then or now. But what started out as a sophisticated comedy in its first couple of seasons had become, by the middle of its eight-year run, a profoundly silly show that utilized the same couple of storylines again and again. Montgomery once told me, "Bewitched was popular because it was smartly written, and because we were always consistent." With all due respect, the late Miss Montgomery was mistaken. This was a show that, because magic was its premise, could have gone anywhere the writers wanted to take it. Instead they chose to retell, week after week, the one about how Darrin Stephens, an advertising executive, explains away his wife's latest magic spell by claiming it as part of an ad campaign. (The show's second most popular storyline involved one of the klutzier witches accidentally zapping up a historical figure, who then either wanders off and gets arrested or -- surprise -- ends up as part of Darrin's latest ad campaign. Insert gales of prerecorded laughter here.)

Still, I love Bewitched. I like its subversive subtext about mixed marriage, a hot topic during the show's initial run. I like its decadent people, who, because they can perform magic, do what you or I would do if we were in their shoes: They bask. Samantha's mother, Endora, smokes hash and turns people she doesn't like into donkeys; her father, Maurice, flaunts his extramarital affairs with witches half his age; her Uncle Arthur is a screaming queen (with an illegitimate son!) who has devoted his life to playing practical jokes on stupid mortals.

My affection for Bewitched tends to precede me, and on those rare occasions when the show makes news, it's me my various editors call on. As a result, I've wound up with a couple of cherry Bewitched-related assignments. In some small circles, I'm known as the guy who outed Dick Sargent. In the early '90s, when I was working in the news bureau for a national magazine, we got word that The Second Darrin was about to be outed in one of the tabloids by his former lover. I called Sargent, introduced myself, and convinced him that it would be better to come out in a newsmagazine than be outed in a sleazy supermarket rag. He agreed and, after the story ran, we became friends (despite the fact that his new boyfriend hated me), and he occasionally visited me in Phoenix. Although we spoke often on the phone and passed several pleasant afternoons together, I always made it a point to never talk to Dick about Bewitched; I figured he was sick of that particular conversation. On my 30th birthday, he took me to lunch and said, "Okay. Order anything you want, and then I'm going to answer every question you've ever had about Bewitched. In fact, we're going to talk about nothing but Bewitched all day." (My first question: "Why was Darrin's secretary, Betty, played by a different actress each time she appeared?" Dick's response: "What? I don't remember having a secretary on the show.")

Sargent, who died from cancer in 1994, eventually introduced me to Elizabeth Montgomery, who granted me what would be her final press interview before her death in 1995. I sometimes visited her in her Beverly Hills home, and she would phone me whenever there was a political documentary on television that she thought would change what she often referred to as my "hopelessly liberal politics." Shortly before her death, she sent me a box of old Bewitched comics ("Thought you'd get a kick out of these; I certainly do not") and a book about Reagan-era politics that I cherish but have yet to read.

Despite my affection for Bewitched, I'm not dismayed that Sony Pictures has made my favorite TV show into a film. I don't really care. I was pleased to read that scriptwriters Nora and Delia Ephron have resisted the temptation to simply rehash the show's pilot (which is generally what happens with these sitcom-to-big-screen movies), but, in order to entertain a Bewitched spaz like me, the Ephrons would have had to make a movie no one else wants to see. They'd have had to cast 19 different Bettys. I'm guessing Betty doesn't even appear in the Bewitched movie.

In order for me to really enjoy a Bewitched movie, now-middle-aged twins Erin and Diane Murphy, the third and final set of twins to share the part in the original series, would have to reprise their role as the Stephens' wacky daughter, Tabitha. In fact, I would only be satisfied if the Murphy gals played Tabitha simultaneously, reciting their lines in unison. The film people would have to build an animatronic Paul Lynde to reprise the role of swishy Uncle Arthur, and somehow convince Nicole Kidman to also play Serena, Samantha's hookah-smoking, orgy-attending hippie cousin. They'd have to hire 100-year-old Charles Lane to reprise any of the eight roles he played in the series, or at least to have Will Ferrell's Darrin disappear halfway through the film, to be replaced by, say, Jim Carrey -- with absolutely no explanation as to why one of the principals was suddenly a different guy.

Of course none of this is going to happen. In the new film, the Stephens will eat off the wrong dishes (in the series, their dinnerware was a Harker pattern called Springtime); they'll live somewhere other than 1164 Morning Glory Circle in Westport, Connecticut; the set designer will have hung a mirror in the Stephens' entry hall, rather than the print of Rembrandt's Girl With a Broom that's supposed to be there. I'm sure that Nicole Kidman will make a lovely Samantha, and that the digitally enhanced nose-wiggling and special effects will be magnificent. But I think I'll skip the Ephrons' Bewitched. Without all the inconsistencies, the sexy subtext, the five different actors who played Aunt Hagatha, it just won't be the same. I prefer my sitcom witches to be deeply flawed, my junky television to reside on the small screen. I think I'll stay home and watch my newly colorized Bewitched: Season One DVDs instead. Who knows? Maybe I'll find a new Betty.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela