MAD: The Brady Bunch
(1995 Paramount/Watched on DVD)
This is such a weird one. A movie from the mid-90s based on a show that ran for five years, from ’69-’74 and ended over three decades previously, and now that movie is over two decades old. My brain is doing hula hoops.
The Brady Bunch runs a tightrope juggling act between affectionately mocking the super-twee comedy that was dated even for its day, and actually making you, the jaded viewer in a far darker age, feel a little envious of the sweet oblivion this loving family exist in.
Mystifyingly there is no plot device or crazy time-displacement to explain why the Bradys exist in the 90s entirely unchanged from their 70s way of living. It seems like if you can suspend disbelief for the Addams Family then the same should apply here. They’re equally creepy and kooky, only they have shields up to the nastier elements of the world to the point where they just don’t exist within this bubble. It’s similar to the way the Mormon family were portrayed in South Park, so it is at least conceivable that something like this could exist in real life. The normal, frustrated, socially anxious 90s denizens who encounter them are the ones with something broken, which prevents them from living lives as peaceful and assured as this.
It’s also subtly filthy, cramming in innuendo with a wink and a nod. Their female neighbour seems intent on scoring at least one tightly-panted Brady man (on a side note, actress Jean Smart’s self-deprecatingly wanton little head tilts are the funniest thing in this) and the parents, Mike and Carol, spend quite a bit of time making thinly veiled references to their bedroom activities, blithely, in front of their clueless kids. Gary Cole has, as far as I can tell, never been anything less than hilarious in the comedies he’s in, and while the same cannot be said for Shelley Long, she’s pitch perfect here, as is Michael McKean as their terminally furious male neighbour.
Special note must go to Alana Ubach as Marsha’s clearly amorous friend Noreen. What she’s going through is unfortunately just not something Bradys think about, so she’s destined for failure there, but manages to be extremely funny and human amid these cartoons. It’s also quite dark, with middle-sister Jan tormented by Marsha’s popularity to the point where a divergent and malevolent personality has begun to emerge. One of the only bum notes is how easily this is fixed with just a punchline. This is shit that stays with you.
Contextually, you could take this as less of a film and more the brief window of post-Vietnam, pre-Watergate optimism experienced by certain segments of white, middle-class America, juxtaposed against a climate of Clinton-era malaise and general lack of identity the 90s suffered, being the hotchpotch of twentieth century greatest hits that it was. This was released the same year as Seasons 6 & 7 of The Simpsons, which is arguably their highest point. That show remains the finest of the decade, and had already redefined the sit-com before Seinfeld, Friends and Frasier ran it through the final years of the canned laughter format. By comparison this feels like three good, satirical gags, played repeatedly on a rerun, in a more troubled age. The irony being that looking back on the 90s now, as with Austin Powers, that more troubled age is itself a sweet, innocent, grunge-filled fantasyland of basic chat room gumdrop smiles and cotton candy drive-by-shootings on streets paved with harmless, avuncular Bill Cosbys.
“Doctor Evil would return in a time when free love was over and greed and corruption ruled again”. Subtitle: 1997. Oh my sweet, summer child.