With the current rash of TV on DVD product, it's amazing that certain shows have yet to make an appearance on the medium. Certainly there are factors that delay the release – rights issues, music clearances, poor stock elements. But in some cases, the manner in which to market a past program, especially one several generations removed, becomes the main problem. Modern audiences expect a certain kind of show when they hear "supernatural thriller", "wholesome one hour drama", or "child-based family sitcom". This was obviously the case with the 1966 hit Family Affair. Overseen by maverick producer Don Fedderson, also responsible for the long running My Three Sons, this new angle on the same old parent/child paradigm attempted to mirror the changing face of modern society. Instead of offering the same widow/widower ideal, a bachelor was placed in charge of his orphaned nieces and nephew. With the added element of a British manservant, and the metropolitan Manhattan setting, it seemed the series was destined for success. Thanks to the new MPI DVD release of Season One, we too can enjoy its almost instantaneous popularity.
Bill Davis, a dashing, rich, eligible New York bachelor returns home from an international construction project he is heading to learn he's "inherited" his dead brother's child, little 6 year old Buffy. While other relatives have spent a year caring for the girl, Bill's wealth and single stature make him the perfect candidate to provide for her…and her siblings. Seems Buffy's twin brother Jody was being attended to by another relative as well, while teenager Sissy was fostered with yet another. Bringing them all together seems like a sound idea. The only problem is, no one cleared it with Bill first. Now he is stuck with three kids he didn't want. His prim and proper manservant, Mr. French, isn't very pleased either. He is completely put out regarding his new "nanny" status.
Over the next 30 episodes, we see bonds forming and lifestyles altering. Bill wants to maintain his freewheeling playboy personality, but as he becomes more and more attached to the kids, he realizes how empty life would be without them. Though he finds them an inconvenience and an overall nuisance, French is also smitten by the siblings. Though he begrudges their existence, he develops an unbreakable alliance with them that helps everyone muddle through this manmade family. Specifically, the storylines investigated here are as follows:
"Buffy" - playboy Bill Davis learns that his orphaned niece, Buffy, is coming to live with him – whether he likes it or not.
"Jody and Sissy" - the rest of the abandoned Davis family arrives, making a dejected Mr. French feel unwanted.
"The Gift Horse" - hoping to win his affection, Buffy and Jody give Uncle Bill a horse.
"A Matter of School" – thinking she is in the way, Sissy accepts an offer to attend a prestigious boarding school.
"Marmalade" – an ad agency wants Mr. French to be their spokesman for their preserves.
"Room with a Viewpoint" – when the girls' room is redecorated, Buffy refuses to stay in it.
"Mrs. Beasley, Where Are You?" – Mr. French inadvertently looses Buffy's favorite doll.
"Who's Afraid of Nural Shpeni?" – Mr. French is forced to marry a Middle Eastern woman he has been taking cooking lessons from.
"A Matter of Experts" – Bill is angered when psychological experts condemn Buffy and Jody as being too close.
"Beware, the Other Woman" – an old girlfriend works her way back into Bill's heart, and the kids are convinced that she means to send them away.
"Take Two Aspirins"– While away in Mexico, Bill worries about the kids, especially when French suddenly takes ill.
"Thing Deep" – Sissy is overly enamored with one of her teachers…that is, until he comes over for dinner and shows his true, tyrannical colors.
"Love Me, Love Me Not" – after seeing a friend spanked, Jody wonders why Uncle Bill doesn't "love" him in the same way.
"The Thursday Man" – while doing a paper of Mr. French, Sissy learns a shocking secret.
"Hard Hat Jody" – Jody is desperate to be a construction worker, and will do anything to make it happen.
"That Was the Dinner that Wasn't" – with a mother-daughter dinner coming up at school, Sissy is sulking and Bill doesn't know why.
"All Around the Town" – after being accidentally left on the docks before a cruise, the twins try to locate a man who lost his money near the pier.
"One for the Little Boy" – a planned uncle/nephew trip is a disaster as anything that can go wrong does for Bill and Jody.
"Fancy Free" – as the children settle in, a new woman in Bill's life poses problems for the newfound family.
"A Helping Hand" – when French covers up for an incompetent maid, she gets all the credit – and a new assignment planning a party.
"Once in Love with Buffy" – Aunt Fran, who dropped the kids off in the first place, is back, and convinced that Bill is bad for the children.
"Ballerina Buffy" - a competitive mother believes Bill's previous relationship with the director landed Buffy the lead role in a ballet.
"The Mother Tongue" – Mr. French tries to communicate with Buffy and Jody's new Chinese playmate, with disastrous results.
"Everybody Needs Somebody" – the twins decide to land Mr. French a mate, much to the valet's chagrin.
"The Way It Was" – hoping to recapture his bachelor days, Bill sends the kids on a camping trip.
"All Nephews Are Created Equal" – Mr. French is surprised to get a visit from his nephew, and even more shocked to learn he doesn't want to pursue a career as a gentleman's gentleman.
"The Prize" – the twins enter a cereal box top contest and ends up winners – of a baby lamb.
"What Did You Do in the West, Uncle?" – when Bill's rodeo pal Gabe comes to stay with the family, the twins take an instant shine to his tall tales personality.
"The Award" – the twins want to make Uncle Bill an award for being the best parent, but it turns out they're allergic to clay.
"The Butler Method" – when Sissy is jilted by a boy for the Sadie Hawkins Dance, Bill tries to help.
From all appearances, Family Affair was a chance for executive producer Don Fedderson to continue the success of his previous hit series My Three Sons (still going strong when Affair premiered in 1966). The premises were pretty similar (single father raising three sons vs. single uncle raising three relatives) and each series spun its storylines in a mixture of humor and heartbreak. Unlike the typical TV comedy of the era, Fedderson believed that the only way to make a family show authentic was to mix a little drama in with the delirium. He also noted that morals must be clear and life lessons learned with an emphasis on what was ethically right. The result of all these mandates was a peculiar piece of programming, a supposedly humorous look at the interpersonal dynamic within one of the many new definitions of family, while focusing on the problems and the pitfalls of being part of such a clan. The reason Affair was so different from Sons was that Bill Davis, the bon vivant construction company president as jet-setting ladies man, was fairly happy with his life of too many girls and too much work. When his nieces Buffy and Sissy, and his nephew Jody entered the picture, they cramped his style in a serious, sobering manner.
It's an emotion that lead actor Brian Keith wears all over his face like a war mask throughout the first few episodes of this incredibly entertaining series. Indeed, the work of Keith (who was not known for playing paternalistic softies, the Disney film The Parent Trap excluded) and his clever co-star Sebastian Cabot are the elements that save the series from being a sappy, saccharine melodrama. Bill Davis is initially hurt that his relatives would consider his life so trivial that he would easily welcome the work of three kids into his already hectic existence. Keith constantly scrunches his face in a considered smirk/grimace when, at first, the children ruin his love life and significantly alter his business schedule. His hound dog Method intensity, matched by a casual, savior faire attitude, makes Bill Davis a dense and complicated man, perhaps the most complex character in '60s sitcoms. His introspection and uncertainty are matched only by French's discomfort. Cabot nails the proper British bloke here, giving even the most routine line reading an aura of erudite insight. His uncompromising urbanity, meshed with a sure sense of propriety, rubs up against the needs of adolescents, and French often finds himself the mild-mannered villain during Affair's episodes, the voice of reason who lacks the emotional core to consider the hurtful nature of his annoyances.
As for the children, it's hard to fault them here. Both little Johnny Whitaker and Anissa Jones are darling as Jody and Buffy, respectfully, but can't do much except be cute and lisp. No, it's 18 year old Kathy Garver who is the lynch pin of the first series, required to carry the emotional weight the other kids can't manage. She must wear the badge of grief over the dead parents, express the discomfort of being an unwanted face in a brave new city, deal with her own inner needs, and play the perky teen all at the same time. She gets some stellar episodes to do it in, including series highlights "The Matter of School", "The Thursday Man", "That Was the Dinner That Wasn't" and "The Butler Method". Sissy is the key to the show's effectiveness as she represents both the maturing end of the Davis household as well as its new juvenile foundlings. Along the way we get great guest star turns from Robert Reed ("Think Deep"'s unhinged professor), Sterling Holloway ("Fancy Free") and Myrna Loy ("A Helping Hand"). It is also interesting to note that Sebastian Cabot grew ill during the course of the first season, and even with the odd filming schedule (Keith was allowed, like Fred McMurray before him, to film all his sequences over a strict schedule. While he went off to do other work, the rest of the cast filled in the narrative gaps), the actor had to be replaced. In came UK thespian John Williams to play French's brother, Niles, and he stayed a part of the Davis household for several episodes.
Most of the storylines are simplistic and straightforward. A problem presents itself ("Marmalade"'s less than appetizing spread, the sudden return of Aunt Fran in "Once in Love with Buffy") and through happenstance and considered conversations, agreements are reached and heart wrenching issues resolved. Because both Cabot and Keith are so divided in their familial feelings, the series has an air of realistic unease about it. Though we can't imagine Bill would ever bail on these kids, we are never really certain, and this fuels the show's undercurrent of drama. As a comedy, many of the laughs are old school snickers (the mispronunciation of words, the juxtaposition between the child and adult worlds) and in episodes like "The Mother Tongue" or "Who's Afraid of Nural Shpeni?", such gags can seem tired and clichéd, especially to a modern mindset. Indeed, a lot of today's audience will find it odd that this series was ever considered controversial. But when you realize it was a sitcom which had, at its core, a conflict between a middle-aged man and the kids he didn't necessarily want or need, the elements of contentiousness become crystal clear. Back then families were still comprised of moms and dads, sons and daughter. This relative-based realignment of such a dynamic was one of Family Affair's first giant steps. It's overwhelming success signaled that, as a people, the changing social fabric of the '60s was ready for this new age brood.
One of the first CBS series to be shot exclusively in color (unlike others that went from black and white to hued), Family Affair utilized a true Technicolor palette to realize its episodes. The 1.33:1 full screen image offered by MPI is good, but not as pristine as it could be. Obviously, the original elements have suffered over the years as some installments shine like bright new pennies, while others are as washed out as a gray Manhattan day. We get some grain and dirt during stock footage sequences (you didn't think Brian Keith actually traveled to all the far off locales in the show, did you?) and a few episodes are faded and flat. Still, for a series that debuted 40 years ago, Family Affair looks amazingly good. When you can see the stray blond strands that make up Keith's crappy comb-over, you know you're in decent digital hands.
On the sound side there is nothing much to add. Dolby Digital Mono is single speaker specific, and there's no two channel ways about it. The dialogue is easily discernible, and the trademark music from DeVol is iconic as ever.
Fans of Dark Shadows knows that MPI puts out an effective DVD with decent bonus features in every set they release. The Family Affair package is equally good. In this case, we get an interesting overview of how the show began and the series' first season. On hand to help the voice over narrator is Sissy herself, Kathy Garver (sadly, the other sole remaining cast member Johnny Whittaker does not take part). Loaded with detail, if a little superficial on episode specifics, we learn why Sebastian Cabot left, who was considered for the lead before Keith, and how Garver's green hair (???) helped her land the role. It's a wonderful overview for anyone unfamiliar with the show as well as a nice, nostalgic look back for longtime fans. Along with a gallery and the 30 episodes (spread out over five discs), this is nice, if nominal DVD presentation.
As with most sitcoms that debuted during the decade, the '60s spawned significant syndication hits throughout the '70s and '80s. Individuals uninterested the first time around caught these creative entertainment entities the second (and third, and fourth…) time around, and made many middling successes into crazed cult favorites. Interestingly enough, among the Gilligans and Hillbillies, Affair never really became a part of rerun royalty. A tragic end to one of the cast, as well as the stigma her death created, meant that many saw the show in a highly unflattering light. Perhaps it's now time for forgive and forget. Family Affair deserves a Recommended rating for how well it handles both pratfalls and pathos. You will find a few flaws here, episodes that sink into standard sitcom fodder. But with the aura of uncertainty permeating the show, there is a veiled vitality here that is hard to resist. So here's you chance to be like Uncle Bill. Open up your heart to this once appreciated but now orphaned show. You will not be sorry.
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