Bottle Up and Explode
A is for Aardvark
Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.

"Today, lunch. Tomorrow, the world."-Endora (Agnes Moorehead)

Sometimes its hard not to think that early sitcoms are better consumed by children than adults. Partially this is due to the heavily censored nature of these programs, which eschewed entendres and even benign references to sex (like, say, how the Ricardos don't sleep in the same bed and never actually say the word "pregnant" on I Love Lucy), often prefer puns, and regularly present cultural mores that are incredibly, occasionally even offensively outdated when viewed now. None of this matters to a kid, though. When Nick at Nite used to run summer marathons of old TV shows, I was in heaven. I distinctly remember, in fact, that reruns of Bewitched were shown Wednesday nights, leading to promotions referring to it as "Bewitched Bewednesday." I consumed so much old television during the few summers those marathons ran that to this day they form the bedrock of my knowledge of the formative years of television.

What I never realized as a kid is just how sexist many of these early sitcoms are. I've grown to see I Love Lucy as a sort of satire of this sexism, with the scheming wife always trying to break out of the confines placed on her by her husband (and, gasp, occasionally getting one up on him), but there are still plenty of moments of the classic series that make me a bit queasy. Bewitched, on the other hand, goes much further toward outright offending me. The premise of the show, for the uninitiated, is that Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery), a witch, marries Darrin (Dick York, for our purposes, though he was later replaced by Dick Sargent) a mortal man and the two try to live normal lives despite interventions from the magical realm, most often by Samantha's mother Endora (Agnes Moorehead). Darrin requires that Samantha not use witchcraft to facilitate this normal life, and many episodes involve him getting angry at her for breaking her promise to restrain her powers.

I don't think its reading too much into this premise to see Darrin's restraint of Samantha's natural gifts as a metaphor for the restraint men exercised over women at the time, but unlike I Love Lucy, no one, including Samantha, seems to have much of a problem with that. Darrin believes Samantha should do her housework without the aid of her "natural talents" because that is what a woman should do; anything beyond that would be overstepping her bounds. If you accept my reading of Bewitched as a show often about the limited role a woman should play in a "proper" society, then "A is for Aardvark" is an essential episode of the show, indicating the ways in which it could quickly have become progressive, and showing instead that the show's gender politics would remain (reasonably) conservative throughout its run. Even if you disagree, the episode is an important one for the series, but we'll get to that in a moment.

All of the "˜60s supernatural sitcoms (the most prevalent other example being I Dream of Jeannie) were incredibly expensive to produce given all of the "magic" that had to be incorporated into every episode. Such an effects-laden premise generally guaranteed high production costs, and the obvious solution to this was to shoot a few bottle episodes a season to cut down the price tag and keep the show under budget. That "A is for Aardvark" is one of those episodes makes its success all the more impressive. The episode manages to play with the show's central premise and twist it for all its worth, all without leaving the house its two central characters occupy.

Written by Earl Barrett and directed by the great Ida Lupino (who paved the way for female directors and should theoretically have been less than impressed by this show's politics, if people took to reading into sitcoms as much back then as they do now), "A is for Aardvark" explores perhaps the central question of Bewitched, and comes up with answers that are both satisfying and frustrating in the process. When Darrin stumbles down the stairs and sprains his ankle, he is left recuperating in bed and constantly calling on Samantha to help him out. This distracts Samantha from her housework and the constant trips upstairs annoy her to no end. And so, she casts a spell that makes the house do Darrin's will, giving him a taste of what her power really means.

Of course, Darrin quickly begins abusing said power and soon realizes that he has been keeping Samantha from using her powers for just one reason: ego. He believed that if he couldn't provide for Samantha, she shouldn't have something, but now he realizes how foolish that is. He decides she should use her powers for whatever she wants, and promptly retires from his job so that they can use her magic to travel the world and provide for themselves for the rest of their lives. Darrin is a changed man, and he hopes to never worry about anything again. Until the anniversary gift he bought her a few weeks earlier shows up. A simple box of roses and a watch engraved "I love you every second" reminds Darrin that he enjoys actually worrying about things and working to provide for his wife, and he asks her to turn back time so that he will forget what it was like to know her powers and to want her to provide for him (wait. Holy shit! Samantha can turn back time? This should really be a more important power than the episode lets on, but oh well It was the "˜60s).

Setting aside Samantha's world-altering ability to set the clock back (the moral questions that raises about having her be a house wife instead of a literal superhero averting deaths left and right by turning back the clock, and the practical ones it brings up about why she didn't just stop Darren from hurting himself in the first place), this resolution is satisfying on the surface and deeply unsettling when examined more closely. That Darrin's love for Samantha leads him to desire to work in order to please her is sweet and all (even if the power so corrupted him that Samantha has to literally erase it from his memory to keep him from taking advantage of it), but really, the return to the status quo undercuts any of the subversive or progressive messages the episode was capable of putting across.

Darrin came to a real and meaningful conclusion about his wife's potential value, realized that his relegating her to the role of housewife was only to serve his own masculine ego, and decided to free her from the shackles of early-"˜60s domesticity and allow her to blossom to her full potential. All of this is fantastic, but the episode's end undercuts that revelation, and in fact indicates that both Darrin and Samantha would be happier if the status quo were maintained. If Bewitched can be viewed as a statement on gender politics (and clearly I believe that it can), "A is for Aardvark" is the episode where the show flirted with the idea of becoming progressive in its views of feminism. Even if you don't buy my argument, though, "A is for Aardvark" is still an essential episode of the show, allowing Darrin a taste of the power his wife possesses and playing around with the consequences that might hold for their relationship. The premise of the episode is so clever and so tantalizing, it had to be done at some point, and "A is for Aardvark" does it about as well as can be expected. That an episode that stretches the show's premise so much was shot entirely on existing sets is an impressive feat. That Bewitched toyed briefly with taking a strong feminist stance and championing its capable, intelligent and extremely powerful central female before putting her back in her housewife chains and subservient role is nothing if not frustrating. For twenty minutes, Bewitched threatened to challenge views of masculine ego, but when push came to shove, the show seemed more comfortable playing into the idea that men and women alike preferred women in a powerless position of subservience. Samantha could vastly improve her life and her husband's. She could even save the world. But Bewitched would have us believe that we are all better off if she stays behind that vacuum cleaner, pushing it with all her mortal strength while the power of a titan courses, unfulfilled, through her veins.

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

5/6: "Day 5: 7:00 pm-8:00 pm," 24

5/20: "The Next Phase," Star Trek: Next Generation

6/3: "The Beast in the Cage," One Foot in the Grave

6/17: "Objects in Space," Firefly
Tags: Bewitched
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