One last, lovely go-around for the Davises. MPI Home Video has released Family Affair: Season Five, the final season of this warm, tender drama/sitcom, which ended its highly successful run after this 1970-1971 season. The previous year, Family Affair ended up the fifth most watched show in the Nielsen's; for this season, Family Affair was knocked out of the Top Thirty altogether - a precipitous fall for such a highly-rated show. Those looking for tired plotting or indifferent acting as possible causes for the show's cancellation will be disappointed - the quality of the episodes doesn't wane for a moment here. Certainly, going up directly against the breakout new hit of the year, The Flip Wilson Show (second for the year), severely impacted the ratings (given the choice, my parents always picked Flip), but from a production end, the show was still as sharp and wonderful as it had always been. It's still one of the best kept secrets of 1960s television.
I've written extensively about Family Affair's appeal, as well as its structure both dramatically and visually (you can click here to read my review of Family Affair: Season Three, and here to read my review of Family Affair: Season Four), so I won't go into detail again about the show's aesthetics. Having written those reviews, I must say that every few weeks or so, I get an email from a reader, thanking me for defending the series so vigorously. And the tone of the emails are always remarkably the same: a mixture of apologizing for liking a "fluffy" series like Family Affair, and then happiness that someone took their same feelings seriously about this terrific show. I certainly understand their position. Admitting you liked Family Affair when you were a kid wasn't "cool" like saying you watched Mission: Impossible or Mannix, but I suspect a lot of young kids like myself still tuned in (the ratings certainly bore that out) during its original run or reruns, and found great pleasure in its reassuring kindness, its tempered messages, and its gentle, good humor.
Of course today, it's rare (or is it even possible?) that a nationally broadcast sitcom would approach the basic premise of Family Affair in the same way (although I must admit, I thought the 2002 remake with Gary Cole was a nice attempt); I'm not sure "gentle," "kind," or "reassuring" are in the current vocabulary of the suits that run Hollywood and TV. And I suppose that's what makes going back to Family Affair such a pleasure; it reminds me of a time in TV (cue the violins, kids) when a family really could spend an entire evening together, watching TV, without the slightest worry that something would come up to embarrass them or demean their beliefs. And those shows were quality shows (on Thursday nights, during this last season of Family Affair in 1970-1971, a family could sit down and dial around for Bewitched, The Odd Couple, The Flip Wilson Show, Ironside, or maybe the The Dean Martin Show if it was vacation and you didn't have school the next day), written and produced by pros like Family Affair's producer Don Fedderson (My Three Sons) that still stand the test of time after almost forty years. Have you watched an rerun of Friends lately? It's as dated and worthless as an episode of Love, American Style - and that's insulting to Love, American Style.
The fact that stylistically and aesthetically, Family Affair didn't change this final season doesn't mean that the series' writers weren't aware of the compelling main story arc that ran throughout the entire show - the fact that these three adorable children are with their Uncle Bill in his New York penthouse because their parents died - nor that it should be commented on, as well as the gradual maturing of the characters. This season, several episodes deal with these themes in a surprisingly frank and balanced way. There's a beautifully realized episode, Wish You Were Here, where Buffy and Jody ask if they can call Uncle Bill, "Dad." Bill, noticeably concerned that the children are forgetting their dead parents - as well as being unwilling to "replace" them - decides to take the kids back to their old home in Indiana (where he also grew up with his brother, the father of the children). Of course, the kids are too young to remember anything, but a found postcard, addressed to then-three-year-old Jody from his father, makes Jody realize he did indeed already have a father. Nothing in the episode is fake or drummed up; there are no sudden tears, no rejection of Bill in favor of a memory of a dead father, no "significant" long-lost memory dredged up. It's such a carefully crafted, realistic episode, in detailing the gentle loss of memory for a loved one who has passed, that it's a perfect example of what Family Affair did so well. It's always true to the moment, and to the characters. It never feels fake or idealized - despite those common pejoratives applied by critics of the series.
There are so many genuinely touching, heartfelt episodes this season, it's a shame to realize that it would be the final one. The Good Neighbors details the twins' efforts to become friendly with their apartment neighbors by throwing a party - with typically New York results (nobody shows up). Again, it's a perfect example of Family Affair's realism. It Can't Be Five Years shows Uncle Bill as far too busy to remember the fifth anniversary of the children coming to stay with him, but unlike the way a similar episode would be handled today on a sitcom (Bill would no doubt suffer a slew of insults and humiliations for this simple forgetfulness), the children understand - especially when he tells them why he forgot: he simply can't remember a time when they weren't there. It's a lovely moment in the series (enhanced by the sweet flashbacks to the first episode). Kathy Garver continues to mature into the role of Cissy, getting plenty of opportunities to fall in love with several suitors (even though poor Gregg Fedderson, as her on-again, off-again boyfriend Gregg, gets dismissed, and then re-invited into the fold, one too many times for believability). Sebastian Cabot, always terrific, gets to try his hand at love, as well, including a believably sad episode, The Return of Maudie, with guest star Ida Lupino. Johnnie Whitaker, always so bright and adept at his line deliveries, continues to shine as Jody (he's quite good in the episode, Heroes Are Born, where he discovers that even idols make mistakes like the rest of us). A nice addition to this season is the semi-regular appearance of Nancy Walker as Emily, a maid that Bill hires to help French around the house. Walker is always a hoot, and her gruffer, more earthy demeanor is a nice compliment (as well as a good comedic foil) for the stuffy, uptight French. And Brian Keith, though showing up frequently in episodes as punctuation to scenes rather than as an integral part (at times, it is apparent he looks bored or slightly frustrated in some scenes), is effortlessly right-noted in his take on Uncle Bill; it's not surprising his warm, considerate Uncle Bill was his best-known role.
Perhaps the stand-out episode of this final season is Goodbye Mrs. Beasley, where the amazing Anissa Jones (so talented, as indeed the whole cast is) decides she may be too old to carry around her beloved Mrs. Beasley doll. The rest of the characters' gentle handling of Buffy, and their care and concern for her well-being - allowing her to make up her own mind when she's ready to put Mrs. Beasley away in a closet - looks almost foreign today when viewed against the general air of mean-spirited, smart-mouthed apathy and tawdry, ironic, rim-shot cracks that permeate even the most basic "family comedies" today. Dubious TV "critics" for years have been writing books and theses and columns about the "detriments" of so-called "idealized" 1950s and 1960s American TV, dismissing shows like Family Affair as fluff that are at best meaningless and at worst, actually harmful to viewers. Watching these past seasons of Family Affair brought into crystalline clarity for me, the nonsense (and in their own way, danger) of arguments such as those. The day we agree that a sensitive, compassionate, loving show like Family Affair is actually hurtful to young viewers, we'll have gone down a seriously wrong path in judging what indeed is valuable to watch on TV.
Here are the 24, one-half hour episodes of the five-disc box set, Family Affair: Season Five:
The Good Neighbors
Jody and Buffy, dismayed by the lack of friendliness from their fellow apartment dwellers, decide to throw a getting acquainted party in the lobby. But nobody comes.
When Cissy is left in charge of the twins, a case of bad judgement on her part finds the children left alone in the apartment overnight.
Bill's friend Ho is getting married. But his arranged bride from Hong Kong has other ideas after becoming "Americanized" by Cissy.
Bill decides to hire his nighttime cleaning lady to help out French at home...with disastrous results.
The Return of Maudie
French's old flame, Lady Marchwood, returns to his life, and this time, French is ready for marriage.
It Can't Be Five Years
Bill forgets the fifth anniversary of the kids' arrival, which disappoints the children who arranged a big celebration.
Travels With Cissy
A trip to Hollywood may be just what Cissy needs to cool off her relationship with Gregg...until a Hollywood star falls in love with her, too.
Stamp of Approval
Jody's efforts to impress a girl may mean he's in love. Or he may have other motives.
And Baby Makes Eight
One of Cissy's friends comes to stay with the Davises - with comical and emotional results when her baby comes early.
Jody learns about threats and fighting from a bully schoolkid. And it's up to French and Emily to see he knows how to defend himself.
Bill's dating a professional comedienne turns Jody into the class clown.
The Unsinkable Mr. French
Ever-increasing domestic disasters will not ruffle the unruffleable Mr. French.
Wish You Were Here
The twins are forgetting their deceased parents, so Bill decides to take them back to their home town, to remember.
Feat of Clay
Bill gets a priceless piece pre-Columbian piece of sculpture as a gift - which the twins promptly break. But when they create a forgery that fools everyone, they know they're in big trouble.
Heroes are Born
Jody befriends the nephew of his idolized pro football player. Unfortunately, Jody learns that idols are human, too.
Nobody Here But Us Uncles
The twins try to hook up Uncle Bill with a suitable mate, so he won't be lonely when they eventually grow up and leave the apartment.
Too Late Too Soon
Emily takes a turn at matching making with Mr. French, while Cissy is in a hissy about Gregg's new date.
The Little Exile
Jody befriends a mysterious boy whose mother holds a secret that involves the family.
Put Your Dreams Away
Cissy falls in love with an old beau from Indiana, but a quick marriage and a stint in the Peace Corps may not be in the cards for the young lovers.
Buffy wants to join the Mod Maidens. But she's too young, so Uncle Bill steps in with a peace-offering clubhouse. But will Buffy thank him for his efforts to buy her way into the club?
Emily's son has graduated from his physician internship, but Emily doesn't have a date for the celebration ball.
Goodbye Mrs. Beasley
A new, older friend convinces Buffy that her beloved doll Mrs. Beasley is for "babies," so she gives her up. But is it too soon for the sensitive Buffy?
Buffy's Fair Lady
Buffy takes an overweight friend under her wing, to build up her confidence. But it all backfires when she bribes Jody to like her.
You Can't Fight City Hall
The twins want to develop a dirty city lot into a park, but city hall has other ideas.
The full screen, 1.33:1 video transfers for Family Affair: Season Five hasn't improved any from Season Three and Four. Compression issues, combing, and a general soft, fuzzy picture do a real disservice to this colorful series.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 mono soundtrack accurately reflects the original TV presentation. There are English subtitles available.
Kathy Garver Tours the CBS Studio, running 19:48, features an animated, happy Garver giving us a tour of the CBS facilities and Stage 10 where Family Affair was shot, as well as sitting down in front of the My Three Sons house (another Don Fedderson project) to discuss the final season of Family Affair and where the rest of the cast wound up. A nice bit of trivia: evidently, ABC was interested in picking up Family Affair when CBS dropped it in 1971, but they decided to stay with The Brady Bunch.
The final bow for this charming, gentle, touching series. Family Affair: Season Five may not look the greatest on DVD (seriously, this show deserved better transfers), but parents looking for a sweet, touching show to watch with their children (or fans looking to recapture some happy childhood memories), can't go wrong here. A beautifully realized work of art, unfairly dismissed as just another "fluffy fantasy kids-com." I highly, highly recommend Family Affair: Season Five.
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 .