"You witch, you witch, one thing is for sure. That stuff you pitch just hasn't got a cure . . . "
-- "Theme from 'Bewitched,' "
by Jack Keller and Howard Greenfield
Afunny thing happened on the way to the movies: Millions of people never quite got there. Americans have begun the summer of Ought-Five by rendering unto Hollywood its worst box-office slump in 20 years, a development that's causing panic, especially among exhibitors, those who own the theaters. Studios are still mopping up money that pours in regardless -- from the sale and rental of DVDs, a technology that Hollywood largely opposed when it first emerged late in the last century.
Except for a few big-budget action blockbusters, films are flopping or posting disappointing grosses one after another. What happened? Maybe the moviegoing public -- even that seemingly undiscriminating youthful mass that makes up the bulk of it -- has finally tired of seeing the same movies every year, albeit with special effects ratcheted up several notches each time.
If people aren't going to their local quadriplexes and sextuplexes, meanwhile, the obvious question arises: Where are they going? We can probably eliminate public libraries as a possibility. Most likely, folks are staying home and watching television -- or, more specifically, staying home and using television, turning it into a special delivery system for one of the ancillary technologies like video games or, more to the point (and there is one, honest), the DVD machine.
On DVDs they watch movies they didn't want to go out to see five or six months ago (or even less) when the films were released to theaters. The studios don't really care where people see movies, since the DVD market has been a bonanza for them and has rescued many a picture from drowning in red ink. But viewers aren't just watching old movies. They're also, in increasing numbers, buying and watching recycled television -- DVDs of current, recent or downright ancient TV shows. They are paying to watch reruns -- but reruns with the commercials removed and with sound and picture quality as good as, or better than, a multiplex shoebox theater could offer.
And that brings us -- at last -- to "Bewitched," a harmless charmer about a middle-class suburban witch named Samantha who tries to adjust to life among mere mortals such as you and I. The show may be fairly standard as gimmicky kidcoms go, but the case is unique: "Bewitched" is making its DVD bow at roughly the same time as a new, updated remake of the show is opening in movie theaters throughout the country.
On Tuesday, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released the first season of the 1960s version of "Bewitched" on a four-disc DVD set. On Friday, Sony's Columbia Pictures released a new theatrical version of "Bewitched," starring Nicole Kidman as Samantha -- the role made famous by Elizabeth Montgomery on TV -- and Will Ferrell as her smitten but exasperated husband, Darrin, played first by Dick York but later, in 1969, by Dick Sargent.
Even if "Bewitched" were to do a nosedive in theaters (first-weekend grosses, to be released tomorrow, traditionally decide a film's fate these days), it may end up an official success when it is itself released on DVD later this year. The prospects for sales of the TV series on DVD are excellent, based on sales of previous TV shows, especially sitcoms that found favor with baby boomers. This one begins to look like a rare case of everybody wins -- with "everybody" possibly excluding theater owners.
That miraculous doohickey the DVD caught on much faster and more profitably than VCRs did, even though DVD players that can also record are only now hitting the market in a big way; they're still too high in price and too clunkily undependable in operation. The DVD succeeded as a pure playback machine, one that persuaded consumers to build their own home libraries of favorite movie titles -- something that the VCR, with its relatively lousy picture quality, managed to do in only a handful of households.
The studios scrambled for content that could be released on the shiny little discs and, since movie studios and TV production companies are now often owned by the same sprawling conglomerates, old TV shows had promise -- whether classics like "M*A*S*H" and "All in the Family" or recent hits like HBO's blockbusters "Sex and the City" with Sarah Jessica Parker and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" with Larry David, as well as "Chappelle's Show," which aired on the lowly Comedy Central cable network but turned out to be the best-selling DVD release of a TV show ever.
Quality is not necessarily the critical criterion when it comes to releasing old TV shows on DVD. Anything that strikes a responsive chord with viewers who remember a show as part of their adolescence can tote up big sales on DVD, be it "The Brady Bunch" or that most commonly besmirched of all screwball sitcoms, "Gilligan's Island."
In its TV incarnation, "Bewitched" was no breakthrough or landmark, but it had an uncommonly infectious charm and, for its time, an endearing gentle nature -- both largely attributable to its star and guiding light, Montgomery. Feminists may complain that Samantha had no career aspirations and devoted herself to husband, home and, eventually, children -- starting with a cutie-pie daughter, Tabitha, who got her own eponymous spinoff sitcom in 1977, five years after "Bewitched" was begone. The sequel promptly flopped, but all 13 episodes are available on a separate Sony two-disc set.
The movie "Bewitched" is not technically a remake of the series. Its plot, cooked up by director Nora Ephron and her writing sister, Delia, is about a TV network trying to make a new, updated series based on "Bewitched" and accidentally casting a real witch in the role of Samantha. As all good baby boomers and many of their offspring know, Samantha could make a pink elephant vanish or landscape an entire front yard just by wiggling her nose, to the accompaniment of the tinkly twinkle of a xylophone on the soundtrack.
The show was, unquestionably, silly -- a slapsticky comedy in the same vein as "I Dream of Jeannie" (astronaut marries cute lady genie), "Mr. Ed" (architect discovers his horse can talk), "Topper" (stuffy banker inherits two madcap ghosts and their drunken St. Bernard when he and his wife buy their house) and many others. If "Bewitched" stood out, Montgomery was the main reason.
And whereas the TV show caters to kids with its primitive but funny special effects, the emphasis in the Ephrons' romantic comedy is, indeed, on the romantic, the type of thing that makes kids go "eeeuuww."
I watched the original "Bewitched" episodes with a very tough, impeccable and discriminating audience: my godchildren, ages 10, 8 and 5, beautiful geniuses all -- but don't get me started. They loved the show, took the DVDs with them on their vacation and have all been practicing their nose wiggles. Will they love the movie if they see it? Probably not "love," but like. So far their favorite old TV series on DVD is Norman Lear's "Diff'rent Strokes," starring Gary Coleman. They like it as much as "SpongeBob SquarePants" and "Fairly Odd Parents," two of their favorite current cable cartoons.
I've learned to love "Bewitched" again, or at least to love watching it with them and hearing the sound of their laughter. The great asset of many of the old shows, however ridiculous their premises or dopey their scripts, was, indeed, their willfully idealized worldview. Social and political realities rarely intruded. Nobody swore at anyone else or lusted after anyone else. Few if any kids came from broken homes, and no one had a sibling shooting smack.
None of this is to say that squeaky-clean naivete is automatically better than a little token realism or topicality. Indeed, "Bewitched" zoomed off into the sunset just about the time Lear began his revolution of television comedy with the masterpiece "All in the Family," a breakthrough in the subject matter discussed, the realism of the dialogue, the acknowledgment of dark undercurrents in the American dream. It was even revolutionary that the Bunker family's bathroom had a toilet -- heard if not seen when Archie would flush and then come trundling down the stairs.
Change was overdue; the medium couldn't stay sugary forever. On television, programs in many genres of varying sensibilities can comfortably coexist, but it would be awfully hard to find a prime-time sitcom on any major broadcast or cable network today that could be said to embody and impart a sense of innocence. The most recent episode of Fox's supposedly family-friendly 8 o'clock sitcom "That '70s Show," a rerun that aired Wednesday night, brandished repeated jokes about sex acts of almost infinite variety, include a chuckle or two about male-on-male prison rape.
To find a show you can watch with children and never suffer red-faced embarrassment, you really have to explore the DVD archives, and the good news is that those archives are growing. For example, there are seven more seasons' worth of "Bewitched" episodes that can be released on DVD. I say, "Bring 'em on, and the sooner the better."
Wouldn't it be interesting if, having made the film, Kidman and Ferrell really were talked into doing a new "Bewitched" series for television? It might even work. But chances are, no matter how hard the producers and actors tried, they'd never be able to recapture the old magic -- and the old innocence -- not if Kidman wiggled her nose until it fell off and hit the floor.