March 13, 2015

An interview with Adam-Michael James, author of The Bewitched Continuum

I recently had the extreme pleasure of talking with Adam-Michael James, author of The Bewitched Continuum, a companion to the much-loved television series of the '60s and '70s.  Now, there have been plenty of books written about specific televisions series, many of them quite good.  But whereas it's very easy to fall into the trap of writing a glorified episode guide that doesn't really tell a fan much that's new, The Bewitched Continuum takes a different approach, using the episodes to tell the continuous story of the marriage of Samantha and Darrin Stephens, their friends and co-workers, and how this story evolves from episode to episode.

You could almost look at it as a biography of the life and times of these characters, rather than a compendium of episodes from a TV series.  We learn that not everything fits perfectly (not surprising for a time when things like Writers' Bibles and story continuity were not emphasized the way they are today), but that there's a surprising and gratifying amount of consistency and development in the way characters and relationships evolved over the years.

It was an approach that I loved immediately, and I knew this was something we had to talk about.  Thankfully, Adam-Michael agreed!

It's About TV:  Why Bewitched? Why not, for instance, I Dream of Jeannie?

Adam-Michael James:  Do we ever pick our passions? (laughs) No, I think interests pick us, or at least that we naturally gravitate to certain things, but not others. I mean, I think Jeannie rocks, and I used to watch her all the time, too, but she didn't stick with me the way Bewitched did. Maybe it's because I discovered Bewitched first. It sounds silly to say it was a defining moment, but it was. I was eight; I can still remember the room and the TV and which scene it was. I think when we reach superfan status with something – whether that's a TV show or a rock star or whatever – it's not just because we think it's cool, but because it reinforces something in us that needs to be reinforced. Or it makes us aware of a part of ourselves we weren't aware of before. It probably goes without saying that Bewitched awakened a sense of magic in all of us. And a message that it was okay and special to be different. At least that's what I feel I got out of it.

You mentioned that you'd kind of filed the show away for a few years, and your interest was rekindled when it came out on disc. Did the way you saw the series change at all from how you'd remembered it? Were there parts of it that you viewed differently?

When you're a teenager, suddenly everything you liked as a kid ceases to be cool! I came back to Bewitched as a young adult when I finally had access to cable – this was in the mid-'90s – and even then the show was familiar but all new. There was a definite sophistication and a sense of humor that you can't get the full impact of until you're an adult. When you're a kid, it's pretty much just the magic that grabs you. Then of course when the DVDs came out and I could watch episodes in order, I started to see that some things tied together between episodes while others didn't. A large part of that is because I've worked with story continuity, both in writing script coverage for Hollywood studios and in the opinion columns I write for soapcentral.com. So I thought, with last year being the 50th anniversary of Bewitched, it would be fun to write all my observations about it down in a book. I do nit-pick quite a bit, but mostly I'm comforted by how well the show holds up.

In the research you did for the book, was there anything you came across that came as a real surprise to you? Something you weren't expecting? And was there anything you'd suspected that you were able to confirm?

Well, most of my “research” was just watching the episodes and taking notes. But I did do a lot of fact-checking. For example, when Napoleon gets zapped out of the past, he asks for Napoleon brandy, which wasn't what they called it in his time. On the other hand, when DaVinci visited, he said he invented “the pump, the power saw, and prefabricated houses” – and he was, indeed, responsible for those innovations. I had a lot of fun looking up those things. You know what surprised me? We always talk about the Stephenses living in Westport, Connecticut, but that locale didn't even come up until the end of sixth season! There are also a lot of iconic elements that don't occur as often as we remember. Uncle Arthur was only on 12 times. Maurice Evans, only ten! And I compiled a section called “Within the Continuum,” which has lists of clients, witch illnesses, how many times Endora called Darrin “Durwood,” and the like. Even the casual Bewitched fan remembers Phyllis Stephens and her sick headaches – did you know she only ever referenced them seven times? Remarkable!

OK, speaking of the "research" - how many times would you say you looked at each episode to be able to get the amount of information needed for the various aspects of the book – the episode write-up, the various accounts in the appendices, etc.? Was there ever an episode you grew tired of by having to watch it so many times? Conversely, was there one that really grew on you, that you became more impressed with through repeat viewings?

Generally, each episode got watched twice – once to jot down all my observations, and a second time focusing on the just episode synopsis. Of course, the DVDs got paused a lot. Often I would have to go back and refer to a scene if I made a note about it in a different episode, just to be sure I remembered something correctly or was making a proper connection. The appendices were both easier and harder. I knew I was going to do those up those early on, so I made notations in the margins of that episode's page – yes, I did all my notes by hand – to make things easier to count when the time came. Yet many times I had to go searching through episodes, especially for the Firsts and Lasts section, because I hadn't paid attention to the last time the word “twitch” was used, for example. There are some third and fourth season episodes that aren't exactly my favorites, so sometimes those required extra motivation to get through. I don't know if there's a particular episode that grew on me, but I would say that I gained a greater appreciation for the black-and-white episodes [of Seasons One and Two]. I tended to think of most of them as Bewitched Lite, if you will, because they're not as outlandish and absurdist as the color seasons. But there's a lot of gold there.

Darrin and Samantha with Sam's mother,
the infamous Endora (Agnes Moorehead)
I know that the book is primarily a companion to watching the show, but you do provide cultural context as well on things like how minorities were portrayed. In that sense, I've read that some Southern stations were quite uncomfortable with the series at first, not because of the witchcraft but because they thought the series was, or would be seen as, an allegory for interracial marriage. Know anything about that, and whether or not that was ever an intent of the creators?

Well, Bewitched started smack in the middle of the civil rights movement. And Elizabeth Montgomery was an advocate of tolerance, so it's not surprising these themes worked their way into the show. My editor, Herbie J Pilato, gets far more into that in his own books about Elizabeth and the behind-the-scenes aspects of Bewitched. My main focus is on the fiction, but even then, all you have to do is look at the episodes. Endora was debunking stereotypes about witches already in the pilot, which certainly was a statement against real-life prejudices, and the messages of tolerance and equality are there all the way through the series. So I'd say it was definitely intentional. Sometimes these allegories were disguised as comments about witches, but other times the show came right out and tackled racism directly. And you have to consider that, in the '60s especially, it was renegade to say that everyone – black or white, straight or gay – should be equal.

I'm impressed by some of the subtle lines in the show that indicate a depth unusual to a sitcom, such as Darrin's awareness of his fear of inferiority (I think it's from the one where Sam offered to do advertising slogans for him, and he says later on if he lets her do it once it can happen again, until there's nothing he does on his own). Do you think lines like that are unusually perceptive for a series of that era? Do you think it means the characters in Bewitched are more formed than in other series?

I'd like to say yes, but I have to be fair and add that my knowledge of other sitcoms of that era isn't as intimate as my knowledge of Bewitched.  Certainly, in retrospect, I find some of those other shows sillier or campier. It's not that Bewitched never got silly or campy; however, I do feel there's a consistent intelligence in the writing of the show. There are times I think they could have dug even deeper, but we're talking about a 1960s sitcom. That they dug at all suggests to me that they were a step ahead of their contemporaries.

And looking at the cast - wow! Elizabeth Montgomery is obviously a star in the making when the series begins, but there are also some very impressive occasional stars - Agnes Moorehead, who'd been nominated for four Academy Awards for example, and Maurice Evans, who I'mn always writing about from the classical plays on Hallmark Hall of Fame. And then, of course, there's Paul Lynde and Alice Ghostley. What was it about the show that made it possible to attract this kind of talent?

Again, I think it has to do with the quality. Naturally, actors want to work, and sometimes you just accept what your agent gets for you. But can you imagine for a minute that Agnes Moorehead would have agreed to appear in even one episode if the writing wasn't up to snuff? The woman was in Citizen Kane! I also think Bewitched had a certain reputation before it even hit the airwaves, given William Asher's directorial history. And everything I've heard about Elizabeth, she was just one of those people others were instantly comfortable around, plus she had the talent to back it up. Besides, who wouldn't want to zap something up or disappear? Maurice Evans always looked like he was having a ball.

OK, here I have to bring up the two Darrins, or people will never forgive me. Several times you make the point about the Stephenses' marriage - its importance to the overall story, as Darrin tries to accept that his new wife is a witch, and Samantha struggles to deal with mortals. Given that, was it absolutely necessary to the show to recast Darrin, rather than to kill him off (for example) and have Sam looking for a new husband? I'd imagine that wouldn't have worked at all.

If Bewitched had been a soap or a primetime drama, Darrin would have been killed off for sure. But you just couldn't do that on a sitcom at that time. Even when 8 Simple Rules killed off John Ritter's character, it was pretty revolutionary, and that was in 2003. It's true – Darrin and Samantha's marriage was the cornerstone of the show. They could have changed Darrin's appearance through witchcraft and gotten away with it, but I think the show was smart to not call attention to the recast. In fact, in The Bewitched Book, Herbie J. Pilato talks about the first episode Dick Sargent filmed; it was a remake of a second season episode in which Endora divided Darrin. Samantha has a line: “I only want one Darrin.” But the producers realized the irony, so they shelved that episode until audiences had a chance to get used to Darrin's new face. Surely Dick York would have stayed had his back injury [that he sustained on the set of the 1959 film They Came to Cordura] not made it impossible, but since that wasn't the case, it seems to me they handled things the best way they could.

Adam-Michael James (The Guardian/Sally Cole)
So out of all that, do you have most and least favorite episodes?  And are there some cast members or guest stars that worked, shall we say, better than others?

This is also something I cover in the “Within the Continuum” section; I have a whole top ten best and worst list. But I'm happy to go on record and say I consider “Sisters At Heart” (#213) my favorite. Tabitha has an African-American friend Lisa, and wants to be her sister so badly that she accidentally gives them different-pigmented polka dots. At the same time, a client of Darrin's turns out to be a racist, so Samantha's schools the guy by making everyone, including himself, appear black. It's the most direct handling of racism the show does, but it's also magical and fun. I'd have to list “Soapbox Derby” (#90) at the bottom. Not that it's a bad episode, but it comes off too Disney for my taste; it doesn't feel like Bewitched.

As for guest stars and supporting cast, there are so many wonderful actors that we could be here all day if I started naming them. I love both Mrs. Kravitzes (Alice Pearce and Sandra Gould), and of course Bernard Fox (Dr. Bombay) and Paul Lynde (Uncle Arthur) and Maurice Evans (Maurice). Sara Seegar is a blast in her many different roles, as is Dick Wilson. I only hint at it in the book, but I wasn't fond of Deacon Jones' turn as the Giant's guard in “Samantha and the Beanstalk” (#171). To be fair, I'm not a fan of stunt casting in general!

Are there any plot lines they didn't follow that you would have liked to see them develop more?

Adam was just discovered to have powers toward the end of eighth season; it's a shame the show ended there, because so much story potential had just opened up for him. I think the show also missed a beat by not letting another main character in on Samantha being a witch. It seemed implausible after a while that the mortals all saw these incredible things happening and never clued in. How cool would it have been for Louise to find out, and then have to work with the Stephenses to keep it from Larry? There were also a lot of one-off characters that it would have been nice to see making return visits. Tabitha's friend Lisa, for example. Gladys had no less than six nephews; bringing back the same one instead would have been great for continuity. One mortal, Irving Bates, knew Samantha was a witch because Tabitha turned him into a little boy – a lot of story could have been built around that. But television continuity wasn't the same in the '60s and '70s. The stuff I mentioned, those are the kinds of things you'd see today on “Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family.”  When Bewitched was on, an episode aired once a year, twice if you were lucky, on little 13-inch screens. So the kind of magnifying glass we apply to shows now wasn't necessary.

Do you see anything on television today that you'd call a descendant of Bewitched? What's the difference between it and Charmed, for example?

I have to admit, I've never seen Charmed, though I read about it when it was on. I do think that all fantasy shows the last 50 years, especially ones involving witches, can be traced back to  Bewitched – it was the first supernatural sitcom. There wouldn't even have been I Dream of Jeannie if Samantha hadn't gotten there first. Look at Once Upon A Time, and that Hallmark Channel show, The Good WitchBewitched's influence is still living on. I'd probably say its closest descendant was Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. I never got past the first episode because I felt it was ripping off Bewitched! (laughs) Both shows have a Witches' Council! Though Sabrina first appeared in comic strips in 1962, so it's not clear whose Witches' Council came first. Those are the kinds of things I explore in my book.

Would they be stupid to try and remake this show today?

I think it would only be stupid if it wasn't done right. It seems every year now, there's a crop of reimagined shows, and I've yet to see one last a full season. I'm sure you know that, last fall, NBC green-lit a new Bewitched series; I haven't heard anything about it since, but it's apparently slated for the 2015-2016 season. So far they're on the right track – instead of a straight-up reboot, they want to do a continuation of the original series focusing on Samantha's granddaughter. That's definitely a step in the right direction. You may remember something similar was attempted in 1977, with the Tabitha series, and that was a disaster.

I remember shaking my head over that one.  

Even as a kid I knew Tabitha wouldn't be in her 20s yet; it seemed they took the basic idea of Bewitched but threw most of the history out. That would be this new show's biggest mistake. There are too many fans who know Bewitched intimately, and they would be as outraged now as fans were in 1977 if the show was brought into the 21st century without having deep roots in what came first. I actually think it could work really well. First things first, bring back Erin Murphy as Tabitha. Oh, I'm full of ideas. And if the new show needs any help with the original series' continuity, I have a whole book on that very subject. And they can always call me!

Have you ever lived next to someone like Gladys Kravitz?

Thankfully, no. I'm a very private person, so if I had been Samantha, I would have been buying much thicker curtains. (laughs)

Could you ever have worked for McMann and Tate [the ad agency where Darrin worked]?

Oh, my God. (laughs) I did once have a data entry job where people were getting fired left and right, and you never knew where the axe was going to fall next. I don't know how Darrin could ever work in that atmosphere, with Larry threatening to can him all the time! I would have loved for Darrin to open his own agency for a while, just to teach Larry a lesson. They did flirt with that in eighth season, but carrying it over for a few episodes would have been cool. I think even the show realized they were having Larry fire Darrin too often. In fifth season, it happened three episodes in a row! Not long after that, the show pulled back. Of course, Larry's hot-headedness is part of his schtick. If he had been a real boss, someone would have reported him!

Could Darrin have ever made it in Mad Men?

What an intriguing question! I've only ever seen the first seven episodes of Mad Men. I wanted to like it – the acting is superb and they really captured the time and place; it's just that I found the characters so reprehensible. I guess they're supposed to be, but it didn't make me want to follow their further adventures. As an ad man, I think Darrin could totally cut it at Sterling Cooper. Did you ever see that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode where that particular crew travelled to the past and interacted with the original Enterprise crew from “The Trouble with Tribbles”? It would be epic if they could do something like that with Mad Men and Bewitched. I can just see Don Draper walking into McMann & Tate!

You knew I had to ask - which Darrin do you prefer?

Oh, of course – this is the question I get asked the most. And it's an understandable question. Yet it's not really a fair one, you know? No matter which Darrin I say, the other Darrin's fan base will be unhappy. Plus somehow I feel it denigrates both Dick York's and Dick Sargent's performances – especially Dick Sargent's – to get into a discussion of which Darrin was better. They both did wonderful things with the role, and it wasn't Dick York's fault he had to leave the show because of his back injury. In the book, I say that if Dick York was the Darrin Stephens of the '60s, then Dick Sargent was the Darrin Stephens of the '70s.

That's a great way to look at it!

I'll quote George Washington when he visited the Stephenses: “There, I think I answered that question without lying.” (laughs)

All in all, what do you want people to take away from The Bewitched Continuum?

I guess it's twofold: I want to make sure people don't forget the show, yet I also want to help fans enjoy the show in a whole new way. Part of what excited me about writing The Bewitched Continuum is exploring the world of witchcraft, and the fiction, which hadn't been done before. Everything out there is pretty much about the actors and the filming and all the real-life stuff, but when you really break it down, it's the magic and the characters and the stories people love. Is my book going to cure world hunger? No. But it's a reason for new fans to discover the show and established fans to delve even further into it; you can have the book at your side when you watch and go through each episode in order, or skip around. Mostly, I wanted this book to be a celebration of a show we're still talking about 50 years later. It's truly a labor of love. That may be the biggest magic of all!

5 comments:

  1. Awesome! I loved Bewitched as a kid and have gone back and watched it many times over the years, currently on the FamilyNet network. It is a great show and you can just feel the sense of integrity put into it. This is a book right up my alley!

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  2. Definitely will be picking up this book - Bewitched remains one of my classic TV cornerstones. I think I'm going to enjoy the author's approach to the series, though I do not share his affection for "Sisters at Heart." It has a great backstory and a great message, but it was very in-your-face, whereas the show's many previous references to intolerance were more effective because of their cleverness and subtlety.

    And "Charmed" was just Buffy-lite - it had none of the supernatural charms of Bewitched - though it did air homage episodes to both that series and I Dream of Jeannie.

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  3. Fantastic interview, Mitchell and congrats to Adam-Michael for producing such an awesome book.

    Bewitched was my favourite of the classic sitcoms, though as a kid in the late 70s/early 80s I think I only watched it with cursory interest. Probably because it was in constant re-runs it became like part of the furniture. But I got a new appreciation of it in the '90s when I was a fair bit older. Now I've got them all on DVD and I do revisit them from time to time.

    I also have Herbie J Pilato's The Bewitched Book which is fantastic, and I'll be adding the Continuum to the library!

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  4. I also hated that Soap Box Derby episode!

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  5. The Darrin Stephens of the '60s was my favorite.

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