Watching Bewitched: The Complete Fifth Season can be a rather melancholy experience. If you're a fan of the show, you know that this is the last season that Dick York appeared as Darrin Stephens, the decidedly goofy, buttoned-downed, hot-headed mortal husband of beautiful witch Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery), and the recipient of a myriad cruel, hysterical spells perpetrated by his vengeful, acid-tongued mother-in-law, Endora (Agnes Moorehead). Knowing the circumstances of York's departure, and the subsequent downward spiral of his professional and personal life, makes the experience of watching Bewitched: The Complete Fifth Season even more morbid. We're constantly looking for some kind of on-camera indication of the pain and misery that York was going through, not only gauging his performance against earlier, happier seasons, but also watching for signs that the show was faltering due to the behind-the-camera turmoil created by his condition. And that's a pity, because the episodes for Bewitched: The Complete Fifth Season are still consistently strong, with the usual quota of clever scripts, ingenious special effects (for its time), an agreeably animated central performance by the always strong Montgomery, and some funny supporting turns by the guest stars. Most sitcoms experience a downturn in creativity in their fifth season, but Bewitched showed no signs of such weakening; it's a pity York couldn't have stayed with the show.
I've written before about the inherent complexity behind Bewitched's concept (please click here to read my Season Four review), but obviously by this point, in its fifth year, America was settling down with the series as an old favorite, with consistently high ratings year in and year out. The notion that Bewitched was some kind of radical, subliminal exploration of mixed marriages sounds good today, but I seriously doubt most viewers had that concept foremost in their minds when watching the antics of gorgeous witch Samantha constantly battling the expectations of her fussy husband Darrin that she settle down and become a totally mortal -- and thus, normal -- housewife. No, the show at this point delivered ratings because it was a glossy fantasy that earned consistent laughs with well-written scripts. Women viewers loved the idea that Samantha, although on the surface always deferring to Darrin in all things -- even in being herself: a witch -- almost always influenced her domestic situation to her favor with the aid of her forbidden witchcraft. Samantha was certainly the most powerful, in the truest sense of the word, example of the newly emerging emancipated woman. Male viewers weren't left out, either; they loved to secretly fantasize about what it would be like to be married to first, Elizabeth Montgomery, and then, Elizabeth Montgomery as a witch (you know exactly what I mean, fellas). And young children loved the special effects and silly, expertly executed sight gags. It's not surprising, then, that Bewitched was still ABC's single-highest rated show, coming in tied for eleventh place in the Nielsen ratings for this 1968-1969 season.
What most viewers didn't know was that all of that success was about to come to an end. Dick York, who for five years had delighted audiences with his infinitely varying rubber-faced expressions of fury and shock, was heading for a complete physical and mental breakdown. Earlier in his career, when he was an in-demand supporting player for major Hollywood features, York had seriously injured his back during the filming of They Came to Cordura. Years of crushing pain had prompted York to take increasing amounts of painkillers in order to work. Soon, York's back trouble was secondary to his addiction. Quite often, York was so incapacitated (from either the back pain or the drugs) that he had to be helped from set-up to set-up by fellow Bewitched crew members. Absences from work became more frequent, with York's role having to be reworked or written out of the scripts, causing expensive delays. Towards the end of the filming for Season Five, York suffered convulsions on the set of the show, and he was transported to an area hospital. Reports vary, but either York voluntarily resigned his position on the show, or he was fired. Over the summer, actor Dick Sergeant, who ironically had been the first choice of the producers to play Darrin back in 1964, was cast as the new Darrin. There would be no explanation of the switch to viewers tuning into Season Six in the fall of 1969. The ratings for Bewitched plummeted. York would spend the next few years in a drug-induced haze, until he finally pulled out, and sought help. A bad real estate investment went bust (York bought an apartment building, but it went under, with York eventually cleaning his own apartments to try and avoid foreclosure), and soon York was penniless. Years of heavy smoking caught up with him, and he died from emphysema.
It's difficult to put that sad story out your mind when watching this last season of Dick York-starring Bewitched, especially since York still manages to get so many laughs as perpetually steamed "Durweed." Yes, he looks fairly gaunt and pale, and stooped and stiff at times due to his back, but he still manages to generate big laughs with his pop-eyed intolerance of Samantha's antics. Indeed, this fifth season has many memorable episodes that fans rank with the series' best. I particularly like Samantha's French Pastry, where Samantha's irrepressible Uncle Arthur (Paul Lynde) accidently whips up Napoleon himself (Henry Gibson), instead of a Napoleon pastry. Paul Lynde makes three appearances here this season, a real jackpot for series' fans. Lynde, a certifiable genius at getting laughs with just a sneer and a snotty, bitchy line reading, is paralyzingly funny in Samantha's French Pastry; there's a moment when Uncle Arthur is contemplating replacing Samantha's angel food cake, and right before he zaps one up, he stops, and says with barely concealed contempt, "No, not angel food cake. That's so...cafeteria." I haven't laughed that hard in quite a while; no one but Lynde could pull off a line like that so beautifully. Samantha Loses Her Voice, Cousin Serena Strikes Again, and Samantha's Power Failure are particularly good episodes this season. And let's not forget the sensational Agnes Moorehead as the beautiful, willful, catty Endora. Watching Bewitched as a kid, I was always kind of frightened by Endora, but seeing the skill that Moorehead brings to the role, as well as the obvious delight she has with delivering her wicked lines, I can see now what a skilled performer she was in this series. And of course, we have gorgeous, sexy Elizabeth Montgomery as adorable, nutty Samantha. Never afraid to really mug it up with goggle-eyed double takes, Montgomery still anchors the show with her enthusiastic comedic verve, while maintaining the solid, normal core that most sitcoms need - that's quite an accomplishment to master both of those qualities in the same role.
Here are the 30, one-half hour episodes of the four-disc boxed set Bewitched: The Complete Fifth Season, as described on their slimcases:
Samantha's Wedding Present
Endora shrinks Darrin down to size after he refuses to allow Samantha to accept a gift that her mother conjured up by witchcraft.
Samantha Goes South for a Spell
A jealous witch sends Samantha (mistaking her for Serena) back to 1868 New Orleans, so Darrin must also go back to rescue his wife from the hands of an amorous scoundrel.
Samantha on the Keyboard
Thanks to a little coaching (and magic) from Endora, Tabitha becomes a virtuoso at the piano, much to the dismay of her parents.
Darrin, Gone and Forgotten
Vengeful witch Carlotta holds Endora to a promise she made long ago that Samantha marry Carlotta's son.
It's So Nice to Have a Spouse
While Samantha is off at a witches' council meeting, Darrin mistakenly takes Serena on a second honeymoon, unaware that she is standing in for her cousin.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
After Samantha argues that Darrin has not a vain bone in his body, Endora casts a spell that transforms him into the most conceited and self-absorbed man in the world.
Samantha's French Pastry
Uncle Arthur accidently conjures up the real Napoleon instead of the French pastry Samantha needs for desert.
Is It Magic or Imagination?
Samantha's brilliant slogan wins her and Darrin a trip to Tahiti, but Darrin thinks that his wife used witchcraft and another brain to win the contest.
Samantha Fights City Hall
Samantha fights to save a neighborhood park, unaware that the man who wants to destroy it is a client of McMann & Tate.
Samantha Loses Her Voice
Uncle Arthur's latest practical joke has Samantha and Darrin switching voices, while at the same time the Stephenses are trying to resolve a fight between the Tates.
I Don't Want to Be a Toad, I Want to Be a Butterfly
Tabitha's first day in nursery school turns into her last when she grants a friend's wish to be a butterfly.
Weep No More, My Willow
Samantha is in tears when she gets caught in the fallout of Dr. Bombay's spell to save her ailing willow tree.
Claiming that Darrin is never anything but rude, Endora casts a spell that transforms him into a perfect gentleman.
Darrin's mother insists that Samantha hire a maid, but Samantha must find a way to politely let her go before the maid discovers she is working in a witch's house.
Cousin Serena Strikes Again, Part I
Serena changes an overly affectionate client into a monkey before the client has the chance to make her move on Darrin.
Cousin Serena Strikes Again, Part II
Samantha frantically searches for the missing monkey who Serena must change back into Darrin's client in time to attend an important meeting.
One Touch of Midas
Endora casts a spell over a doll called "The Fuzz" that causes ever mortal that touches it to fall in love with it and causes Darrin to mass market the toy.
Samantha, The Bard
Samantha's in trouble, it's here words this time, 'cause each time she speaks, it comes out in rhyme.
Samantha, The Sculptress
Samantha tries her hand at sculpting, but it's Endora who deserves the credit when busts of Darrin and Larry are brought to life.
Mrs. Stephens, Where Are You?
Serena turns Darrin's mother into a cat after the meddlesome mother-in-law makes disparaging remarks about Samantha and her family.
Marriage, Witches' Style
Fed up with the witches' social scene, Serena turns to a computer dating bureau to find a mortal man to marry.
Samantha turns a stray chimp into a man who ends up appearing in an ad campaign for Darrin's client.
Samantha and Endora accompany Tabitha on a bewitching weekend with her mortal grandparents.
The Battle of Burning Oak
Endora turns Darrin into a snob just in time to accept a membership in an exclusive country club owned by his client.
Samantha's Power Failure
The Witches' Council strips Samantha of all of her witchcraft for refusing to give up Darrin, and Serena and Uncle Arthur also find themselves powerless for pledging their loyalty and support to Samantha.
Samantha Twitches for UNICEF
Samantha can't resist using witchcraft to settle the score with a man who withdrew his $10,000 pledge to UNICEF.
Daddy Does His Thing
Maurice turns Darrin into a mule after Darrin refuses to accept a birthday gift from his father-in-law.
Samantha's Good News
Samantha's parents seem to be headed for divorce, but Samantha is able to reconcile the bickering couple just in time for her own announcement that she is going to have another baby.
Samantha's Shopping Spree
Samantha makes a big mistake when she allows her prankster Cousin Henry to accompany her and Tabitha to a department store.
Samantha and Darrin in Mexico City
To impress a new client, Darrin must make a speech in Spanish, but thanks to Endora's spell, he disappears every time he utters a word of the language.
I can't say that the full screen transfers are the greatest for Bewitched: The Complete Fifth Season. In fact, on the first disc for the first couple of episodes, there's a jerkiness any time the camera moves that reminds me of a PAL to NTSC transfer. It stops after a few episodes, but the sometimes grainy image, with occasional blotchy color, isn't welcome here.
The Dolby Digital English mono soundtrack accurately represents the original broadcast presentation. Spanish and Portuguese mono tracks are available, as are subtitles in these languages. English close-captioning is available.
There are no extras for Bewitched: The Complete Fifth Season.
It's tough to see Dick York's final season as Durweed, but luckily, Bewitched: The Complete Fifth Season is still funny enough for you to forget York's eventual departure. The transfers could be better, but for clever, witty, special-effects laden fantasy, you won't find much better than Bewitched: The Complete Fifth Season. I highly recommend Bewitched: The Complete Fifth Season.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.