Like any good child of the ‘90s, at least one TV in my house growing up was tuned to Nickelodeon at all times, which inevitably meant that come nightfall, Nick at Nite opened the door to sitcoms I wasn’t around to catch the first time. And while Nicktoons will forever have a place in my nostalgic heart, Nick at Nite’s lineup is responsible for permanently shaping my taste in pop culture. So when I stumbled upon The Brady Bunch Movie, I was on board for two reasons: I grew up with the show, and the movie features Shelley Long—the woman who made me fall in love with Diane Chambers and Cheers—as Carol Brady. Not to mention the premise seemed crazy enough get some sort of enjoyment out of it, even if it turned out to be terrible. Throwing the Bradys into the grunge-tastic ‘90s, when they’re still stuck in the ‘70s? On the surface, it doesn’t sound like something that should work, let alone warrant a second film.
But it does. And it did. And A Very Brady Sequel achieves that difficult feat of being even better than its predecessor.
These two films play like a crash course in creating successful satire, because they locked in on a perfect target. Poking fun at The Brady Bunch and its cheerful innocence is like shooting fish in a barrel, especially when you compare it to of some of the other programs to come out of the ‘70s (Three’s Company, anyone?). Still, it’s one of the most beloved shows of all time, as the countless reincarnations throughout the years have proven time and time again (spinoffs and movies and ill-advised variety shows, oh my!). There’s a fine line between bland jokes and cruel cheap shots, but these movies glide along it like they’re too cool for sküle. And as a result, you get a couple of films that not only parody a show so ingrained in the pop culture lexicon, but also honor it in a way that’s worthy of a celebratory trip to Sears. So, since The Brady Bunch Movie turned twenty this year (HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE), let’s take a trip back to 4222 Clinton Way to examine the factors that make the Brady duo great; maybe we can grab some of Alice’s spaghetti and mushroom sauce while we’re there.
NOTE: I’m not including 2002’s The Brady Bunch in the White House, because as much as I love to plant my face in front of anything Shelley Long does, I refuse to watch it for fear of it tarnishing these two previous gems. Alice and the kids were recast for this one, and I just don’t understand why anyone thought this was a good idea. Have we learned nothing from replacing Jan on The Brady Bunch Variety Hour? Or from giving the Bradys a variety show in the first place? To give you a little more perspective: I gleefully devoured all nine episodes of The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, which was once ranked the fourth worst show in television history by TV Guide, but I still won’t watch that movie. I’m a sucker for a good variety show, but if I can’t get that, I will absolutely take a good decades-old trainwreck. If you ever had the desire to watch some of the Brady kids sing “Car Wash” dressed like characters from The Wizard of Oz, get ye to YouTube.
“Together, we’re a bunch.”
First thing’s first: these films would have been nothing without a solid pseudo-Bunch navigating the ‘90s. The Brady Bunch Movie had the daunting task of introducing a convincing yet slightly off-kilter version of everyone’s favorite blended family, but luckily, all involved crushed it (by the way, the director of this one is none other than Betty Thomas. Name doesn’t ring a bell? You might know her as Velda Plendor, Shelley Long’s arch nemesis in Troop Beverly Hills. What a thrill!). When it comes to the kids and Alice, one major quality from the show becomes highlighted and perhaps slightly exaggerated in some cases. Bobby’s main trait is being the safety monitor at school, which I didn’t even realize was an actual thing until I watched the episode as prep for this post. Maybe that’s why he feels like the most modern out of the Brady kids to me; his character wasn’t reliant on something I instantly remembered from the show, so aside from the way he dresses, he didn’t scream ‘70s kid. But we get Alice serving up puns and punchlines along with her meatloaf, Greg attempting to be Don Juan with lines that may have worked twenty years prior and getting absolutely nowhere, Peter going through puberty, and Cindy struggling with tattling (but she has a point, Jan COULD be dead by then, Mike).
The MVPs of the Brady kids, though, are without a doubt Marcia and Jan. Marcia’s popularity results in an exaggerated conceit that plays so well with Jan’s Middle Child Syndrome that actually may or may not be schizophrenia—at least in the first movie, before her inner voices are passed on to Cindy. But because these films are essentially paying tribute to the Bradys in a slightly skewed way, Marcia always redeems herself in the end, and Jan never goes disturbingly dark. They’re easily two of my favorite characters, and I could honestly watch a movie that just consists of Christine Taylor and Jennifer Elise Cox going back and forth for an hour and a half. Of course, two people don’t really constitute a bunch, but meh, semantics.
Then there are Mike and Carol, and I just want to hug the people responsible for giving these roles to Gary Cole and Shelley Long. These two are so on point with everything they do that it was actually a little jarring to go from watching these two play together in the movies to seeing the original Bradys in the TV show during my research. The inflections, the body language; everything seems so effortless, as if they were always the Brady parents. Carol’s needlepoint, her constant use of “Oh, Mike” and the way she constantly pours sugar every time a coffee cup is in front of her feel so right. Mike using the Brady house design as the design for literally everything he pitches in the first movie is priceless; aside from the occasional blueprint, I don’t remember ever seeing anything other than the Brady house in the show. And his long-winded words of wisdom are brilliantly crafted in a way that makes them at once ridiculous and fitting, with bonus points every time Carol throws him some shade, either with a glance, or just straight up telling him that he doesn’t make sense. Case in point, my favorite speech from A Very Brady Sequel:
Mike: We Bradys have to stick together, or we’ll fall apart, much like that house of cards. You see, a deck consists of 52 cards. And if the hearts didn’t work with the diamonds, and the spades with the clubs, how the heck would we ever play a game of gin rummy? So, in keeping with the spirit of togetherness, I’m sure you kids know the right thing to do.(Silence)
Carol: Mike, maybe you better tell them.
These two are stellar on their own, but put them together, and they soar because, more often than not, their exchanges end in crazy innuendos that make you laugh out loud. Mike and Carol do get a little wink-wink-nudge-nudge at times on a very G-rated level on the show, but man, do they run wild with it in the movies. I don’t know how you make a bookmark sound sexy as hell, but you do you, Mrs. Brady. By the time we get to the second film, subtlety isn’t even an issue anymore. Which is totally fine with me, because that way, we get gems like this:
Love isn’t dead; it just gets much more direct with age.
“They’d probably just treat you like a maid.”
One of the things that makes me the happiest with The Brady Bunch Movie is seeing how much of the original cast came back for a quick cameo. While this wasn’t repeated in the sequel—although Maureen McCormick and Eve Plumb were namechecked for a second during the charity auction—it’s a treat to watch the ones who helped make the show what it was interact with those paying homage. Christopher Knight is the coach in the high school cafeteria helping Peter fend off Eric Dittmeyer (I honestly didn’t even notice it said “Coach” on his shirt until the last time I watched this, and spent years of my life thinking he played some random weird dude who liked hanging out in high school cafeterias). Barry Williams is the record producer laughing in Greg’s—sorry, Johnny Bravo’s—face, which I love largely for the fact that the song Greg is trying to get recorded was co-written by Williams. Ann B. Davis picks up a hitchhiking Jan before pondering what life would be if she had chosen another path, “married young, had a family. Three boys, three girls” (I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE, SCHULTZY). Finally, Florence Henderson steps into the role of Carol’s mom, because how else did you expect this movie to end?
The cameo fun isn’t strictly for former Bradys, though; Davy Jones performs at the high school dance before judging Search for the Stars with the other Monkees. In the sequel, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Rosie O’Donnell can be seen bidding on Carol’s antique horse, and Barbara Eden briefly reprises her role as I Dream of Jeannie’s titular character, claiming to be Mike’s first wife. But there are two people who stand out above the rest for me.
As someone who will gladly sit down to one of those all-day Law & Order: SVU marathons any chance she gets, I loved seeing Richard Belzer—A.K.A. John Munch—as the detective in A Very Brady Sequel…but not for the reason the movie probably wanted me to love it. This film was released in 1996, when Belzer was in the middle of Homicide: Life on the Street, the first show John Munch ever appeared in. Since then, almost every time he’s in something, he’s either playing Munch or himself. Seriously, the only time I remember seeing him in a role that really deviated from this norm was that time he played a pimp in the pre-Munch era Night Shift (also starring—you guessed it—Shelley Long, and for those keeping track at home, this is the fourth movie of hers I’ve mentioned, because I’m clearly going for some kind of record). With that in mind, watching him in this movie in 2015 is kind of perfect; you have a guy who would go on to play one character for the better part of his career, in a film parodying a franchise that had a group of people playing the same character for decades. It’s like they knew.
But my favorite non-Brady cameo across the two films is RuPaul, playing Jan’s guidance counselor, Mrs. Cummings. This was my first exposure to RuPaul, and it sparked a lifetime love and admiration. When we first see Mrs. Cummings in The Brady Bunch Movie, she wonderfully creates a little platform for that patented Brady innocence:
Mrs. Cummings: So Jan, what can I help you with? Teen pregnancy? Bulimia? Suicidal tendencies?
Jan: No, it’s my stupid glasses.
But more than that, Mrs. Cummings is consistently in Jan’s corner for the couple of minutes we see her on screen. And while it never feels like everyone is aggressively cruel to Jan, it definitely helps to have someone like Mrs. Cummings on board. Otherwise, everyone’s just shitting all over Jan’s ideas for the majority of these movies, and as hilarious as that can get, there needs to be a balance. Who better to aid in that balance than RuPaul?
“It’s a sunshine day!”
Now that the characters are ready to play, we need a setting they can play in. Throwing the Bradys in the ‘90s creates two extremes that provide so much material. On one side, we’ve got the brightness of a family who were square even by some ‘70s standards. On the other, there’s the cynical rest of Los Angeles, who also happen to be neck-deep in the grunge movement. But don’t think the ‘90s setting is out to completely skewer those who are a couple of decades behind. Focusing on either end of the spectrum at any given time targets the other side, so the playing field is pretty level. And while the sequel doesn’t match the first film’s effort to check in every two minutes to make sure you know the time period in which this takes place (like remember that time Doug Simpson was talking to Eric Dittmeyer about Marcia, and Eric told him that “she’s harder to get into than a Pearl Jam concert” just in case you forgot they were in the ‘90s?), but by that point, it’s not necessary.
Another thing to note is how lighting is used to amplify these contrasts in the first movie, further separating the Bradys from what constitutes the real world in this film. Whenever you see the Brady property, AstroTurf and all, the scene is always blindingly bright, chock full of that artificial sitcom-y lighting. But whenever the film explores other settings, the scene instantly becomes duller and darker visually. So whenever Cindy walks through the fence back and forth between her house and the Dittmeyers’, you see just how disconnected the Bradys are from the rest of the world.
“Here’s the story…”
Come for the crazy premise, stay for the overabundance of Brady references!
Recently, I was talking with a friend of mine about these films, and he told me that he didn’t really remember the plot of The Brady Bunch Movie; he just remembers that the film references pretty much all the major Brady moments. It’s completely valid; in the course of my preparation for this post, the list of everything both films referenced took up half of my notes. And while there is a definite plot to the first film—the Bradys have to come up with $20,000 to pay back taxes or they lose their house—it plays more as if the writers sat down and said, “How many episodes can we reference in an hour and a half?” But you can’t really fault them for that; there was no way to tell that there would be a sequel, and you want to please as many Brady fans as you can while parodying the hell out of this family. So why not include all the things?
And forgive me for sounding like Stefon, but this movie has everything: potato sack races, Johnny Bravo, that football hitting Marcia’s nose, Jan’s ridiculous wig and refusal to wear her glasses, confusion over where Tiger is, musical numbers (I’ve never gone into Sears and felt the need to break out into dance, but maybe I’m doing it wrong), and all the catchphrases your heart can handle; “Porkchops and applesauce” is even written on the chalkboard in the Brady kitchen. And who could forget Davy Jones and his epic performance of “Girl” at Marcia’s school dance?
These references aren’t just scattered randomly throughout the movie; each one helps the plot move along in its own way, creating tiny subplots as the Bradys work to come up with $20,000. But it’s not enough to simply reiterate that these things exist; the movie goes a step further to modernize some of the Brady moments to add originality to the story. The biggest example of this comes in the form of Doug Simpson. The movie keeps fairly true to the episode it parodies (Marcia broke a date with another boy in order to go out with Doug, only to have her nose crushed by a football, DAMMIT PETER). The film, however, takes it one step further by sexualizing the whole thing. Because that special Brady innocence doesn’t cut it for everyone in the ‘90s, Doug only wants to take Marcia to the dance so he can sleep with her afterwards. And while it highlights the flaws in Brady mentality, it stays true to the show by keeping Doug Simpson a total douche. (Similarly, if “Something suddenly came up” was part of your childhood, this movie and the sequel have probably ruined your childhood.)
“This is Roy, Mrs. Brady’s first husband. He’s not dead like we originally thought.”
At one point in my note taking during A Very Brady Sequel, I wrote in all caps, “SHELLEY LONG IS A GODDAMN CHAMPION, FIGHT ME ON THAT” as though someone else would be looking at my notes? I don’t know. Granted, she’s a queen in my eyes, so I’ve had this thought at least once during pretty much everything I’ve seen her in, but I think it the hardest during this movie. When you’re the one who gave me both Diane Chambers and Phyllis Nefler, you have my heart for life. But then to take one of the most famous TV moms ever and breathe new life into her? Excuse me, but how are you so wonderful? Not that she wasn’t amazing in the first one, because she was. But considering the sequel’s main plot, she gets more screen time than she had in The Brady Bunch Movie, and therefore can do even more than she did before and do it well. Thus, I am a happy camper.
With the formality of reminding you of just about every Brady Bunch episode out of the way, A Very Brady Sequel was freer to have more of a plot (while still referencing major episodes, of course), and the genius of it lies in focusing on a hugely open-ended Brady storyline. In the sequel, a man claiming to be Roy Martin—Carol’s first husband—crashes the Brady house in order to nab their antique horse statue so he can sell it for a cool $20 million. Roy Martin’s absence was never once discussed on The Brady Bunch. The original intention was for Carol and Roy to have divorced, but since that was still a little taboo at the time of the show’s debut, they simply decided not to address it. I personally have always assumed that Roy passed away like Mike’s first wife, and I feel like that’s the theory most people subscribe to (although, in an interview a few months back, Florence Henderson jokingly offers up my new favorite possibility: Carol killed her husband. Joke’s on you, Mrs. Brady; in my mind, that’s canon now). But to largely focus on a reference that’s so up in the air is a genius move on the writers’ part; there’s more room for originality in manipulating the plot of the film while still keeping true to everything the first movie established.
Sure, there are straight references; how could you not have references? New musical numbers, the family trip to Hawaii, the infamous George Glass, bringing it all back to the pilot episode at the end of the film, with Mike and Carol renewing their vows. The house of cards competition actually happened in the show, right down to Marcia’s bracelet almost costing the girls the game. And when they couldn’t find a way to reenact these moments, the characters simply summarized them as a way to highlight the family’s innocent disconnect. My personal favorite comes when Mike is trying to comfort Carol after “Roy’s” sudden arrival and ends up describing an entire episode from The Brady Bunch’s first season:
Mike: Now, honey, our family’s been through tough times before. Remember when the kids couldn’t agree on what to buy with those trading stamps that Alice had saved up? The girls wanted a sewing machine, the boys wanted a rowboat.
Carol: I remember, Mike.
Mike: In the end, we decided to get a new TV, something we could all enjoy. I’m sure this thing will work itself out just like that.
Carol: You mean we’ll get a new TV?
Mike: Well, no, we don’t really need one.
A Very Brady Sequel’s plot also allows the opportunity to branch out into references that don’t come directly from The Brady Bunch. One of the most famous behind-the-scenes stories from the show stems from Maureen McCormick’s relationship with Barry Williams. So why not throw Greg and Marcia into a frenzy by realizing their attraction to one another?
Greg: I was just wondering, if Roy really is Mom’s husband, does that mean…
Marcia: We’re not brother and sister?
I mean, you were never blood relatives to begin with, but please proceed. Throughout the movie, they’re struggling with this realization, trying to avoid each other before ultimately setting up dates with each other’s rivals (hey look, another episode reference!) that fail so hard. In all seriousness, I don’t know how they managed to not make this super creepy, but they did and it works so well with the wrench Fake Roy throws into their lives, but it’s a hilarious subplot that adds so much to the movie.
And in a genius move, Fake Roy’s mushroom trip is a nod to The Brady Kids animated series. To be fair, some of the projects to come out of the Brady franchise feel like a trip more than anything else—I will never be able to get over The Brady Bunch Variety Hour ever—but if you were going to have this guy trip, you might as well play with the cartoon rather than any live-action project.
Playing around with show references in some cases improves upon them. Take the whole George Glass thing. That’s playing off an episode called “The Not-So-Ugly Duckling,” and it’s not their finest half-hour in terms of lessons learned. When Jan realizes Clark, the boy she has a crush on, doesn’t notice her in the same way, she tries to alter herself before ultimately making George Glass up. Once Carol realizes that there is no George, she decides to ask Clark what the boys in school think of Jan, and he tells her that they think of Jan as one of the guys because of the way she dresses. And since the gender binary is alive and well, once Jan puts a dress on, everything changes for the better. I know that this is from another time, but I just can’t make it through this episode without internally cringing. So thank you, A Very Brady Sequel, for giving me an ending to the George Glass saga that I can actually get behind. I think you’re super cool.
“Because we’re Bradys, and this family is our home.”
Perhaps the biggest indicator of how successful the Brady movies are lies in the fact that we’re still rooting for the Bradys, no matter how out of touch they seem to be. Because at the end of the day, we’re given a couple of super-sized, partially modernized, slightly exaggerated, but well crafted Brady Bunch episodes. We’re not watching The Brady Bunch Movie to root for Dittmeyer to destroy the Brady house, and we’re not watching A Very Brady Sequel in the hopes that Fake Roy successfully dupes the family. Where’s the fun in that? These films, while they are constantly poking fun at the show, are sensitive to the fact that even after two decades, the Bradys still hold a place in a lot of people’s hearts, and a prominent place in pop culture. And no matter how squarely wholesome they seem to be, you can’t help but want them to succeed.
How would the Bradys react to being thrown into 2015? Judging by the way Mike completely rejects that crazy notion of cable TV, my guess would be not well. And I don’t even think you could pull off a movie like that the way the Brady duo was executed. That twenty-year gap provides enough time for the Bradys to be culturally lost without being helpless; add another two decades onto that, and it just wouldn’t be funny. So thanks to the grungy ‘90s for existing. Thanks to the Bradys for existing. Thanks to whatever light bulb moment lead to someone wondering what would happen when you combine the two. And thanks to The Brady Bunch Movie and A Very Brady Sequel for not completely ripping everyone’s favorite bunch apart. It really is a sunshine day.
How did your favorite Brady moments fare in the movies? Let’s chat in the comments before Search for the Stars begins.