I was a child of the 1980s, so I wasn't around to catch this series in its first run, but I do remember watching re-runs of it in syndication and loving every minute of it. One of the great benefits of DVD technology is the release of old television shows for today's enjoyment, and Family Affair is no exception.
The premise of the show, as it was with many sitcoms back in the day, is quite straightforward. Successful, wealthy bachelor Bill (Brian Keith), an engineer who finds his life permanently grounded when he takes in his two nieces and his nephew: fifteen-year-old Cissy, and six-year-old fraternal twins Buffy and Jody. English gentleman Mr. French (Sebastian Cabot), is a combination manservant, nursemaid, and housekeeper. This show was unique in that it featured an inanimate character as well: the beloved "Mrs. Beasley," Buffy's blond, bespectacled doll, who features prominently in many storylines.
Memorable episodes from this season include:
First Love: Buffy develops a crush on an older boy who plays football in the park with Jody, while Uncle Bill pursues a geologist who has her mind set more on business than romance. When Buffy's crush shows more interest in the older, more hip Cissy, and Uncle Bill's love interest continues to rebuff his advances, they provide comfort to one another. Bill's love interest in this episode is played by Lee Meriwether, a former Miss America who guest-starred on several episodes of The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote, as well as played Catwoman in the 1966 Batman movie.
The Candy Striper: Cissy longs to be a candy striper, even though she is younger than the age requirement, yet after she secures a position, she finds her job in jeopardy when she inadvertently violates one of the rules of the hospital. Also in this episode, Buffy wants to join a Brownie troop, which means Uncle Bill must take her to the first meeting and sit with all the mothers, making for a fun comedic moment.
Star Dust: Bill dates glamorous movie star Carol Haven, who quickly bonds with the children. Problems arise, however, when Carol's high profile and new relationship with Bill sparks great media attention, and her desire to settle down with Bill's family causes Bill to hesitate. Actress Martha Hyer, who plays Carol Haven, guest-starred on such classics as Alfred Hitchcock, Bewitched, and The Beverly Hillbillies.
Family Reunion: After some initial hesitation, Bill takes the children back to their hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana to visit with family they left behind. Problems arise when the kids' excitement at being back in Terre Haute causes stuffy Aunt Fran to share her belief that the children are a burden to Uncle Bill and should live with her instead. Cissy's love interest in this episode is played by Jim Henaghan, who appeared on The Waltons and My Three Sons.
Old sitcoms are just great. This one makes me long for a release of My Three Sons, which used to run on TV Land, but no longer. The differences between sitcoms today are remarkable. Bill often smokes cigarettes while relaxing at home, which would be verboten on any family sitcom today. His treatment of a female coworker he's interested in would likely constitute sexual harassment these days, but the episode is still great fun to watch. In the episode when Buffy becomes a Brownie, she speaks of loving God and her country; a wonderful sentiment, but one that would likely be considered too earnest for modern sitcoms.
Family Affair's kitsch factor is wonderful as well. From the avocado green carpeting, to the wallpapered walls of Bill's office, the fake wood paneling of the living room, to Buffy's outfits (red tights with a yellow dress, pigtails and hair ribbons!) – this show is really a trip back in time! The show is clearly on a soundstage – the "outdoor" scenes, whether on the terrace of Bill's apartment or in the park, feature backgrounds that are clearly painted on, but it's still 60s fabulous! The 40-year-old outdoor shots of Manhattan, which often provide transitions between scenes, are wonderful as well.
Family Affair should also be credited for being one of the first sitcoms to feature the "poor orphaned children" and "non-traditional family" premise, which would be repeated many times over with shows like Diff'rent Strokes, Webster, and Punky Brewster. It contains a good balance of drama and comedy, and it rarely goes for the cheap laugh, as many sitcoms do today.
Some flaws with this show include the fact that Cissy often has to play mother to her younger brother and sister rather than enjoying her own life, and the gender stereotyping that was typical of this time period is alive and well. For instance, in one episode, Jody says he would rather be a marine, while Buffy aspires to be a Brownie. Another time, Bill states what he is looking for in a wife, which does not include her having a career. The characters of Jody and Buffy border on saccharine at times due to the overly cute dialogue they are forced to recite, yet this is balanced nicely by Mr. French's English properness and Uncle Bill's no-nonsense way of relating to the children. Both Brian Keith's and Sebastian Cabot's acting is excellent, and it is just the right antidote to the sometimes precious storylines. Kathy Garver (Cissy) deserves commendation as well, for her role as the not-a-child, not-quite-an-adult older sister provides for some nice storylines as well.
As for the DVD itself, which features a generous 30 episodes on five discs, it would have been nice to have a brief episode guide, either on-screen or in print, in order to better choose which episode to watch. All viewers are given is the title of each episode, which at times is very descriptive, and at other times is vague.
Family Affair is presented in full screen, and it is a pleasantly surprising improvement over what one might expect when viewing it on television. The brightly colored sets and costumes are incredibly vivid, and the lines are sharp and clear. The fact that this series ran in the mid-1960s is apparent only in brief moments where some black static can be seen flashing across the screen, especially in the outdoor footage. In my experience watching endless television shows on DVD, however, the television-to-DVD improvement of Family Affair ranks as one of the better ones.
This season is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, which is adequate for what this sitcom is. Keep in mind that there are no special effects, just spoken dialogue, and for that, the sound quality works quite well. One nice feature to the sound is that it can be set to a normal level and does not have to be constantly adjusted. Overall, it is quite good. English subtitles are also offered.
This season's release contains a 15-minute present-day interview with Kathy Garver called "An Affair to Remember." Garver shares great insights about the excitement of the show's popularity and this season's shift of focus from the adjustment of Bill's first year with the children, to the individual characters in the family. Garver also makes a good point that some of the episodes this season focus on class differences between the children, who are living with their wealthy uncle, and others in New York who are not as fortunate. The interview is effectively interspersed with clips from individual season two episodes, and interesting tidbits are revealed, such as the fact that Johnnie Whittaker (Jody) is seven-years-old in many of these episodes, and Anissa Jones (Buffy) is ten, but due to her tiny stature, she believably played a six-year-old.
Overall, Garver's sincerity and terrific recall of the filming of the series, as well as her willingness to share personal memories, makes this featurette a great addition to this season's DVD release. Be sure to check it out.
This show was beloved by families in its initial run, and don't be surprised if your own family falls in love with it as well. Its sweet wholesomeness, straightforward storylines, and ageless appeal make it a worthy investment.