Monday, November 21, 2016

Three Classic Sitcoms Killed by Marriage

In real life marriages are a cause for happiness. And while a good number of those marriages end in divorce, many people will stay married for the rest of their lives. While marriage is often a happy event in real life, for some television shows it was the beginning of the end. There are at least three classic sitcoms from the Sixties whose cancellations came shortly after their lead characters married. The episodes in which they got married may have gotten high ratings (many people love weddings), but after that it was all downhill.

The first of these sitcoms to face cancellation after their lead characters' marriage was the now almost forgotten comedy The Farmer's Daughter. The Farmer's Daughter  was very loosely based on the 1947 Loretta Young film of the same name. It aired on ABC from September 20 1963 to April 22 1966. It centred on  Katrin "Katy" Holstrum (played by Swedish born Inger Stevens), the product of a Swedish American farming family from Minnesota. Katy went to work as the housekeeper for Congressman Glen Morley (played by William Windom).  Congressman Morley lived with his mother Agatha Morley (played by Cathleen Nesbitt). Quite unlike the movie, Congressman Morley was a widower with two young sons, 14 year old Steve (played  Mickey Sholdar) and 8 year old Danny (played by  Rory O'Brien).  Many of the show's plots were based on the conflict between Katy's down to earth, rural common sense and Washington, big city culture.

The Farmer's Daughter received moderate ratings at best, although it did receive some recognition at the Emmy Awards in its first season. Inger Stevens was nominated for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Series (Lead). The show also received nominations for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy and Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy or Variety.

The Farmer's Daughter received respectable ratings in its second season, enough to warrant the show's renewal. Unfortunately, it would see its ratings drop in its third season. Its slip in the ratings would seem to be due to two factors. The first was a shift in time slot. The Farmer's Daughter aired on Friday in its first two seasons. For its third season The Farmer's Daughter was moved to Monday night. While none of its competition during the entirety of its run was necessarily very strong, it is possible that the move in time slots could have hurt the show's ratings.

The second factor that may have led to the cancellation of The Farmer's Daughter was the marriage of Katy and Congressman Morley. In the last episode of the second season Katy and Congressman Morley became engaged. They were married during the third season in the show's November 5 1965 episode, "To Have and to Hold". Any hopes that the marriage might have helped the show's ratings would quickly be squashed, as The Farmer's Daughter continued to drop in the ratings. ABC ultimately cancelled the sitcom in its third season. Given ABC moved The Farmer's Daughter from Friday night to Monday night, it is difficult to say definitively that it was the marriage of Katy and Congressman Morley that ultimately killed the show. That having been said, it certainly did not help.

The second sitcom of the Sixties that might have dropped in the ratings due to the marriage of its two lead characters was the classic spy spoof Get Smart. Get Smart aired on NBC from September 18 1965 to  September 12 1969, and then on CBS from September 26 1969 to September 11 1970. The show centred on Maxwell Smart (played by Don Adams), a bumbling secret agent for CONTROL. His partner was the beautiful and intelligent Agent 99 (played by Barbara Felton), who for whatever reason was in love with Max. The two of them reported to the head of CONTROL, simply known as "the Chief (played by Edward Platt)".

Debuting at the height of the spy craze, Get Smart proved to be one of the biggest hits of the 1965-1966 season. Its catchphrases soon entered into American popular culture, so it was not unusual to hear individuals quoting such lines as "Sorry about that, Chief," "Would you believe..," "Missed it by that much," "the old (fill in the blank) trick", and "I asked you not to tell me that."

Get Smart also performed very well with critics. The show was also nominated for four different Emmys for the 1965-1966 season: Outstanding Comedy Series; Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series (for Don Adams); Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy (for Paul Bogart's direction of the episode "Diplomat's Daughter"); and Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy (for Mel Brooks and Buck Henry's writing on "Mr. Big"). It received more Emmy nominations and even wins every single season except its last.

Get Smart slipped slightly in the ratings in its second season, dropping to no. 22 for the year. Unfortunately for its third season it dropped even further in the ratings. For the the 1967-1968 season it did not even rank in the top thirty shows for the year. Much of the reason for Get Smart's ratings may have been due to new competition from popular family comedy My Three Sons, which CBS had moved opposite Get Smart at the start of the 1967-1968 season. That having been said, a large part in Get Smart's falling ratings may have been the fact that the spy craze that led to its creation seems to have ended in 1967. That year several spy movies (including Billion Dollar Brain, Casino Royale, Fathom, and The President's Analyst) bombed at the box office. On television the various spy dramas were also faring poorly in the ratings. Even the days of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the show that had brought the spy craze to television, were numbered. It would then perhaps have been surprising had ratings for Get Smart not dropped.

Unfortunately NBC's solution to the declining ratings of Get Smart was to demand that the show's creative team have Max and 99 get married. The two got engaged in the first episode of the fourth season, "The Impossible Mission". It was in the episode "With Love and Twitches", aired during the November sweeps month, that Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 married. The wedding episode provided Get Smart with a slight boost in the ratings. Unfortunately the ratings plummeted almost immediately and NBC ultimately cancelled Get Smart at the end of the fourth season.

Get Smart received a reprieve when it was picked up by CBS for a fifth season. Unfortunately the show would never recover in the ratings. Much of this may have been due to some major changes on the show. Nearly every secondary character on the show was dropped except for The Chief's assistant Larabee. Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 had twins (born during the November sweeps period), although the twins swiftly fell by the wayside. Ultimately CBS cancelled the show at the end of the season.

There can be little doubt that Get Smart fell in the ratings during the third season due to a combination of new competition in the form of My Three Sons and the end of the spy craze. That its ratings continued to fall in the fourth season most likely seems to be due to the marriage of Max and 99. Quite simply, it entirely changed the dynamic of the show. Much of the humour of the show derived from the beautiful, glamorous, and intelligent 99 being wholly smitten by the bumbling Maxwell Smart, who treats her as nothing more than a fellow agent. To have the two of them get engaged and married then changed Get Smart a good deal, perhaps enough that long-time viewers lost interest in the show. While the marriage of Max and 99 probably played a large role in the show's ultimate demise, it was to a large degree historic. 99 may well have been the first female character on TV to keep her job after getting married!

The third sitcom to fall victim to the marriage of its lead characters could in some ways be considered a sibling of Get Smart. I Dream of Jeannie debuted right before Get Smart on NBC on September 18 1965. I Dream of Jeannie centred on astronaut Captain Tony Nelson (played by Larry Hagman), who while stranded on an island finds a bottle containing a 2000 year old genie. Despite her age the genie, named Jeannie (played by Barbara Eden), looks and behaves like a twentysomething woman. And despite the fact that Tony immediately frees Jeannie from serving him, the lovestruck Jeannie insists on returning with Tony to his home in Cocoa Beach, Florida. It aired from September 18 1965 to May 26 1970.

Unlike Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie was not a ratings smash. And unlike Get Smart, the only Emmy Award for which it was nominated was the Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy award for creator Sidney Sheldon. That having been said, it received very respectable ratings for its first four seasons. In fact, in its fourth season it received the highest Neilsen ratings that it ever had. It ranked no. 26 for the year. This was particularly impressive given it was scheduled against Gunsmoke on CBS, then the no. 6 show for the year.

Despite the fact that I Dream of Jeannie performed the best it ever had in its fourth season, NBC moved the show from Monday night to Tuesday night. Worse yet, Mort Werner, then NBC's  senior vice president for programming and talent, expressed the network's desire for Jeannie and Tony to get married. There was a very strong implication that the show might not be picked up for a fifth season if they did not. The show's creator, Sidney Sheldon, strongly opposed the idea, believing a marriage between Tony and Jeannie would destroy any sexual tension between them. What is more, in the second season episode "The Birds and Bees Bit" it was made clear that if a genie gets married to a mortal, then he or she loses his or her powers. Not only was Sidney Sheldon opposed to the idea of Jeannie marrying Tony, but so was the cast. The cast even went so far as to call Mort Werner to express their disapproval. Unfortunately, Mr. Werner stood firm on his insistence that Jeannie and Tony would be married.

It was in the fifth season episode "Guess Who's Going to Be a Bride?: Part 2" (which aired on October 7 1969) that Tony proposed to Jeannie and Jeannie accepted. It was in the December 2 1969 episode, "The Wedding", that the two were married. Unfortunately, just as Sidney Sheldon and the cast believed it would, I Dream of Jeannie plummeted in the ratings. NBC cancelled it at the end of the season.

It might be debatable if marriage was the primary factor in the drops in ratings for both The Farmer's Daughter and Get Smart, although it seems likely it was a factor in the demise of both shows. That having been said, in the case of I Dream of Jeannie it is almost certain that it was Jeannie and Tony's marriage that killed the show. While it is true that I Dream of Jeannie had changed time slots that season, it must be pointed out that I Dream of Jeannie changed time slots every season it was on the air. What its more, its final season would see it in a less competitive time slot than it had in some of its previous seasons. While it was opposite no. 23 ranked The Mod Squad on ABC, it was opposite the low rated Western Lancer on CBS. Given I Dream of Jeannie had faced Gunsmoke the previous season and actually got its highest ratings ever, it seems as if it should have performed well in its new time slot.

Indeed, those involved with the show firmly place the blame for its demise on  Jeannie and Tony's marriage. In his autobiography The Other Side of Me Sidney Sheldon wrote that "...with their marriage the relationship had changed and much of the fun went out of the show." In her book Jeannie Out of the Bottle (co-written with Wendy Leigh), Barbara Eden wrote that, "Today we would say that when Jeannie and Tony got married, the show 'jumped the shark.'" In an interview with the Today show, Miss Eden said flatly, "It ruined the show." Even Mort Werner, the man who instigated the marriage, had to admit afterwards that it was a mistake to get them married.

Following The Farmer's Daughter, Get Smart, and I Dream of Jeannie it is difficult to find many other shows that might have been killed by the marriage of their lead characters. Part of this is probably due to changing trends in television sitcoms. In the late Sixties sitcoms like Get Smart and I Dream of Jeannie gave way to family comedies like The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. The early Seventies would see a new trend in situation comedies--socially relevant sitcoms such as All in the Family and Maude. By the time television returned to romantic comedies it seems possible that the networks had learned their lesson when it came to marrying off their lead characters. In other words, Sam and Diane never married on Cheers.

That having been said, since the Sixties there is one comedy on which the lead characters got married. The Nanny centred on a "flashy girl from Flushing", Fran Fine (played by Fran Drescher), who is hired by wealthy, British, Broadway producer Maxwell Sheffield (played by Charles Shaughnessy). Much of the comedy on the show stemmed from the sexual tension between the attractive, if lower class Fran Fine and the upper class Max Sheffield. It was at the end of the fifth season that Fran and Mr. Sheffield married. Much of the sixth season then dealt with their marriage. Much like The Farmer's Daughter, Get Smart, and I Dream of Jeannie, ratings for The Nanny dropped after the marriage. That having been said, it can't quite be counted as a show that whose demise came about because of its lead characters getting married. Quite simply, the producers decided to end the series, rather than CBS deciding to cancel it. Even so, the drop in ratings The Nanny experienced after its two lead characters got married demonstrates the very real possibility that marrying off lead characters on a sitcom might not be wise if one wants to continue receiving good ratings.

In the case of The Farmer's Daughter and Get Smart there were other factors that could have also led to their cancellations. That having been said, it seems quite likely that the marriage of the two shows' lead characters was a contributing factor in their demise, particularly in the case of the once popular Get Smart. In the case of I Dream of Jeannie it would seem that Jeannie and Tony's marriage was the primary reason for the show's declining ratings and ultimate cancellation. The question is why did the marriages of these shows' lead characters have such a negative effect on their ratings?

The answer to that comes down to sexual tension.  Each of these shows relied heavily upon sexual tension between their two leads for much of their comedy. At its heart The Farmer's Daughter was a romantic comedy centred on the relationship between Katy and Congressman Morley. While Get Smart was primarily a spy spoof, much of its comedy stemmed from the relationship (or lack thereof) between Max and 99. I Dream of Jeannie was a fantastic comedy, but much of its humour stemmed from the sexual tension between Jeannie and Tony. The moment each of these pairs of characters got married, any sexual tension that existed between them disappeared. Indeed, as noted above, Sidney Sheldon believed this to be true of I Dream of Jeannie and thought that it took all the fun out of the show. Both star Barbara Eden and former NBC executive Mort Werner also thought the marriage was what ultimately killed I Dream of Jeannie.

In the end the marriages between lead characters that took place on The Farmer's Daugther, Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, and even The Nanny should perhaps serve as cautionary tales for producers and network executives. If you have a show built around the sexual tension between two single, lead characters and you want to maintain our ratings, by no means ever have them get married, unless perhaps it is in the final episode of the show. To do otherwise could mean seemingly inevitable declining ratings.

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