MPI seals the deal with ‘Family Affair’

During the Writers Guild of America strike, I was solidly behind the writers. Movies and TV shows need them far more than the corporate bean counters across the table — and so do viewers and fans. But now that it’s done and the dust has cleared, it’s clear that the strike took a big toll. Even shows that are allowed to rush back to work are losing episodes and story arcs originally planned for this season, while some series on the bubble may not return at all.

In effect, DVDs have an equivalent to this, especially for long-ago-finished old series. That’s because DVDs, produced and distributed by a variety of studios and labels, have no set rules for releasing and completing a series’ run. As a result, vintage TV is often left in the lurch, with token or sporadic releases that can be even more limiting and damaging than if writers in their day had gone on strike too.

Take beloved sitcoms such as Leave It to Beaver, Hazel and My Favorite Martian. Each has had DVD exposure, but only to a point. Beaver ran six seasons, but only two are on DVD, with no sign of a third since the second season reached disc almost two years ago. Martian ran three seasons, and Rhino released the first two but has no plans to complete the process. Hazel ran for five years, but since the first season hit DVD, that’s been it.

It’s as if such shows are victims of a retroactive strike which dragged on for years. They might as well be.

Yet some vintage series beyond the obvious cash cows (Star Trek, The Andy Griffith Show) are sealing the deal with complete DVD runs, and one is Family Affair. On Tuesday Feb. 26, MPI will issue that series’ fifth and final season, thus completing its entire five-year run on DVD at regular intervals over the course of just 20 months. And they’ve even got extras, including catch-up interviews with the cast.

Now that’s the way it should be done, instead of issuing shows piecemeal as random-episode collections (Mr. Ed) or stopping and starting, as with Beaver and many others.

A compressed release pattern also allows you to savor a series in the same way DVD allows you to savor seasons — about as often as you’d like. One of my great TV experiences was plunging through the entire first season of Lost on DVD over the course of a couple of weeks. Since then, the show has “lost” much of its appeal for me, as I’ve joined regular viewers at one-week intervals and, out of season, waited many months for the story to resume. Years from now when the series has ended, imagine how satisfying it will be for anyone who didn’t watch during telecasts to absorb the entire series on DVD, start to finish, whenever they choose. It might take more than two weeks, but it won’t take several years.

Family Affair now can be savored in the same way, though Family Affair, by contrast, changes little over the course of five seasons. And that, in a way, is a problem. Twins Jody (Johnny Whitaker) and Buffy (Anissa Jones) aren’t allowed to age much beyond their cutely innocent costumes and characterizations, as if they’re locked in a time warp while 1966-71 America blasts through tumultuous changes (some of which are touched on by the plots). In fact, Jones was a teen-ager at  13 when the series ended, yet was forced to play a sweet little kid to the end, wearing pigtails and clutching Buffy’s beloved doll, Mrs. Beasley. Whitaker, two years younger, also remained as wide-eyed and naive as if he were 5, not 11, when the series wound down.

That doesn’t mean the kids and the show lacked charm. Brian Keith’s loving and devoted Uncle Bill, a bachelor who adopted the twins and older sister Sissy (Kathy Garver) when their parents died, is the glue that holds the show together. And Sebastian Cabot’s Mr. French, as his butler, is dutiful yet properly distant as a stern ad hoc nanny who’s as much a part of the family as anyone.

More dramedy than sitcom, Family Affair also made valiant, well-meaning efforts to advance tolerance and diversity at a time when such things weren’t widely accepted. Though its ethnic stereotypes can be painfully dated, including Asian ones in a season five episode, at least it was inclusive, giving varied people a chance to be part of its tapestry of life.

Like any old show, the series also offers perverse pleasures which surely weren’t intended originally. My wife and I often are amazed by the plots’ mixed messages and contrivances (family members would fly anywhere at a moment’s notice), and we love to laugh at its patently false settings beyond the apartment’s cocoon. Apart from frequent stock-footage shots of Manhattan, it’s clearly a studio production, with Central Park becoming what looks like an Astroturf-covered interior. Back-lot streets lack a speck of litter and show few pedestrians, while exteriors of the family’s high-rise apartment look like they’re in sunny So Cal, with a solitary station wagon at the curb in front. Empty parking spaces — in New York? Forgetaboutit. And don’t get me started on the fake skyline backdrops beyond the family’s balcony.

But one thing Family Affair didn’t fake was its heart, and for that we should be thankful. It easily could have been cloying and sentimental, but instead it was warm, winsome and tender — and how often do you see that today? Too, given MPI’s devotion to duty in releasing the entire run promptly, “often” is the operative word. You now can enjoy Family Affair often — from start to finish, and with no strike or start-and-stop release pattern to thwart you. Such constancy and fulfillment are worth worlds, in and of themselves.

— Bruce Westbrook

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