A Very Brady Christmas Is Your Weekend Cheesy Movie
by Erik Amaya
Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: A Very Brady Christmas
For at least two generations, The Brady Brunch was the mythical family unit everyone wanted to join. Though a blended family with six kids, the Bradys illustrated how to work through differences to become a stronger group — even if Cindy (Susan Olsen) and Peter (Christopher Knight) needed to learn the same lessons every so often. They also lived in an amazing house, had money for a wisecracking housekeeper, and never worried too strenuously about bills. Sure, Mike (Robert Reed) and Carol (Florence Henderson) kept the house on a budget, but the Brady household would not collapse if, say, Bobby (Mike Lookinland) got into a serious accident or Jan (Eve Plumb) needed insulin.
Their pleasant and thoroughly American values kept The Brady Bunch rolling for five years on ABC. Then the well suddenly ran dry and the show was cancelled. Nonetheless, the Bradys flourished in syndication and returned in 1980 for the TV movie The Brady Girls Get Married and the short lived Brady Brides sitcom starring Maureen McCormick and Plump reprising their roles as Marcia and Jan. Eight years after that, Brady creator Sherwood Schwartz found the will to reunite the Brady Bunch again and a new network willing to foot the bill: CBS. But as this is your weekend cheesy movie, you know the product of his efforts, A Very Brady Christmas, must not be a straightforward entertainment.
The plot concerns Mike and Carol as they plan to present one another with surprise Christmas trips. But as both intend to draw funds from their shared “vacation account,” the whole thing turns into a very thin retelling of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” In fact, Mike helpfully cites Henry as the source of their story. When they cannot choose between Japan or Greece as their getaway, Mike and Carol decide to use the vacation account to fly all the kids home for Christmas. In the years since Greg (Barry Williams) went off to college in the mid-70s, the whole bunch have not been under one roof for the holidays.
As Mike and Carol begin calling the kids, the viewers learn each is in a predicament. Peter is dating his boss and feels sore about her making more money than him. Jan and her husband Phillip (Ron Kuhlman) are literally in the midst separating when Carol calls them. Marcia’s husband Wally (Jerry Houser) just lost his job as a toy salesman. Bobby is secretly racing cars. Cindy (played here by Charles In Charge‘s Jennifer Runyon) is mad her father ordered her to come home for Christmas. And Greg has a disagreement with his wife, Nora (The New Gidget‘s Caryn Richman), about flying to California for the holidays.
Okay, Greg’s problem is practically non-existent, but you get the idea.
Meanwhile, former housekeeper Alice (Ann B. Davis) is staying with the Bradys because her husband Sam cheated on her and Mike quit a high-profile account with a cost-cutting building developer.
And if all of these plots sound a little too much like primetime soap opera for the Bradys, that’s part of the charm. Ever looking to put his shows back into production, Schwartz saw A Very Brady Christmas as a backdoor pilot for Brady dramedy. On paper, the idea actually doesn’t sound insane because The Brady Bunch was a show about interpersonal issues, if tweaked toward zany comedy. But on the screen, the attempt to give the grown-up Brady Kids real life problems rings hollow.
For one thing, those are a lot of plots to serve in a 100 minute telefilm that also requires setting up the kids’ current whereabouts and spending a good 10 minutes reuniting everybody. In the end, the kids silently commiserate about their troubles while eating midnight snacks and “come clean” to Mike about the things they were hiding during Christmas dinner. It ultimately feels like the issues get short-changed. The original show got around this by focusing on one or two of the kids per episode while penning in the others with a comedic B-plot. But as A Very Brady Christmas does not have the luxury of a next episode, it hobbles these ideas into a quick succession of apologies and Nora appearing on the doorstep. Even Jan and Phillip, who get an additional scene to solve their marital problem, resolve their conflict in a way which suggests Schwartz (or his son Lloyd, who co-wrote the teleplay with his father) never really had a real disagreement with his wife. Even the attempt to put Mike in danger falls flat. Well, flat if you expect The Brady Bunch to have any actual tension. It’s not something the show, in any of its iterations, could genuinely pull off.
Which is the underlying problem — and source of cheese — with A Very Brady Christmas. It tries to put these characters into a world they were not designed to inhabit. Add to this the direction of Peter Baldwin, a veteran of the original Brady Bunch trying admirably to shift the tone toward thirtysomething or even early Eight is Enough, and you get a film at cross purposes with itself.
In terms of performances, Reed, Henderson, Davis, McCormick, Plumb, and Knight stand out from the core cast. They’re all TV pros and can literally deliver the material fast asleep. Kuhlman and Houser reprise their roles from The Brady Brides and do their best to tamp down their broad sitcom characters for the more dramatic take the film imposes on them. Kuhlman just about pulls it off as he was the more buttoned-down character anyway, but Houser gives Wally a three-camera franticness you might expect from a guest character on Perfect Strangers. Nonetheless, he is watchable for missing the mark and the constant wonderment that Marcia married him. Runyon’s Cindy is a non-starter. The character never really developed a personality beyond “the cute one” and Runyon is left with it. The script tries to remind you she’s not a little girl anymore, but it doesn’t work without Olsen’s face in the mix. Also, Runyon appears to be four or five years younger than Olsen (who was on a honeymoon when the film was produced), further diluting the character’s already thin plotline.
But beyond that is the problem The Brady Bunch Movie identified and milked for all its comedic potential: the Bradys are a hermetically sealed aspect of the early 1970s. Their world really only existed for four of their five years on the air, and as soon as it vanished, the show looked strange. Then, it quickly became comfort food to child viewers because it seemed like a brighter, happier place. Any attempt to give the characters marriages and careers was always doomed to failure. That said, it is failure you can enjoy with some cranberry sauce and leftover stuffing. It’s the sort of cheese you can take in while fighting a food coma or the sort you can examine during a clinical study of family programs. It offers just enough to keep you engaged as long as you don’t try to take it seriously.
A Very Brady Christmas is available on Hulu.