It only fits that Florence Henderson of The Brady Bunch passed away on Thanksgiving.
Described almost universally as the “upbeat” mom of the hit series, her death came on a holiday long-revered by Americans for its emphasis on family—although, post-election, this Thanksgiving didn’t have the most Brady Bunch feel to it. As my family made our way up the I-95 corridor to the tune of intermittent toddler screams and iPad screeches, my husband remarked on the number of articles about Thanksgiving this year that coached families on how not to kill each other over the dinner table when the topic of politics came up. He’s right; I had lost track of the number of these articles, all of which cast a gloomy shadow over the coming festivities.
But it’s not just the election dividing families; today it seems like just about everything is dividing families. On my favorite parenting blog, half of the posts in the week leading up to Thanksgiving were about how to mitigate family feuds. My jaw hung open for a few minutes after reading one post by a woman whose Thanksgiving involved her daughter finding two unmarried relatives in the basement having intercourse, a mother-in-law fainting, an argument about the inheritance, a burned dinner, and a flurry of profanities and epithets. “We all get pizzas for dinner. Will NEVER EVER forget this Thanksgiving,” the post ends.
My Thanksgiving was mercifully tranquil, but we all settled in after dessert to the onscreen muted mayhem of a Toys’R Us stampede for those who simply couldn’t wait until Black Friday to begin their frenzied shopping. Throw in the statistics about broken families, and today feels like anything but a Brady Bunch world.
And yet the 1970s sitcom has lessons that are relevant today, and Florence Henderson’s death gives us an opportunity to ponder them. Here are five things about the Brady Bunch that still ring true today:
- Not everything needs to be political. As The New York Times pointed out about The Brady Bunch in its obituary of Ms. Henderson, though the show ran “during a period of extreme social change and the Vietnam War,” none of that “touched the Bradys’ world.” The show had its fair share of critics because of this, but Henderson herself never tired in her defense of the show’s innocence. “It was really a show that was seen through the eyes of a child, and it was supposed to have a little soft glow about it,” she said. In an era where even my kid’s cartoons have subtle political messages and the kid’s section of our local library insists on the most political displays possible, there’s something to say for a show that actually insists on a child’s right to innocence.
- Clean sells. Unsurprising to some of us who don’t want our kids drinking from a firehouse of filth, this seems to be a perpetual enigma to Hollywood today. Last Christmas I was prompted to write about the boom in clean and feel-good television after Dolly Parton’s biopic, Coat of Many Colors, broke viewership records, besting the equally clean, feel-good, and family-oriented 2013 live remake of The Sound of Music, featuring Carrie Underwood. The Times was forced to tip its hat to the enduring success of The Brady Bunch despite its clean and stubbornly innocent approach, noting that, “The show took on new life in syndication. In the end, it spawned television movies and reunion specials, short-lived spinoffs (including “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour” in the mid-’70s) and eventually two feature films.”
- Big families are fun. The Brady Bunch, Coat of Many Colors, and The Sound of Music have one thing in common: they feature a big happy family. The Bradys were six, the VonTrapps seven, and the Partons, twelve. And while none of these families was without their issues, the keyword here is fun. Most of the entertainment value of the Brady family came from their day-to-day living and the magic and mischief that comes with having three girls and three boys under one roof. Those of us from big families can attest that each additional sibling makes the production value of family life go up, and it’s all the more magical when you are living it in real-time. Henderson knew this well; she was the youngest of ten kids herself.
- A cheerful mom makes all the difference. I say this as a mom who is basically constantly freaking out. But I will never forget when a priest told me and my soon-to-be husband that if the mother can keep her sense of humor through all the insanity, she will lighten and brighten her home. USA TODAY connected the dots, writing that Henderson’s role as “the cheerful matriarch of The Brady Bunch” made her into “one of TV’s most beloved moms.”
- Family is timeless. Even those who’ve never seen The Brady Bunch know what the reference means. Henderson probably put it best when she told the AP in 1999 that The Brady Bunch “represents what people always wanted: a loving family. It’s such a gentle, innocent, sweet show, and I guess it proved there’s always an audience for that.”
Here’s to a legacy that represents something very much alive in the hearts of every person who loves family and entertainment that exalts it.