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Demographically, most American TV watchers have only ever known The Brady Bunch in syndication — a phenomenally successful rerun that reruns even now, 40 years after the show was canceled at the end of its fifth season. Beneath its perpetual ability to keep us aghast at the fashion, décor, lingo, and the most corny and tentative notions of counterculture in the 1970s, The Brady Bunch remains a permanent touchstone.
Hearing about the death on Sunday of 88-year-old actress Ann B. Davis, who is remembered best for playing the fictional Brady family’s live-in housekeeper, Alice Nelson, I immediately and wistfully thought of what it felt like, in grade school and middle school, to come home every afternoon to an empty house.
Like The Brady Bunch, being a so-called latchkey kid was a byproduct of the ’70s.
Some of us knew it was our job to fend for ourselves for a couple hours between 3:30 and 5:30 each day.
But we were not entirely alone when we had reruns. No matter how empty the house was when you got home, you could turn on the TV just as the theme song began (“Here’s the story. . .”) and Alice was there, in the center of that joyful, blended-family Brady Bunch grid. She offered cookies and milk and sound advice.
The years went by, the 117 Brady Bunch episodes kept rerunning (the Grand Canyon trip, the Hawaii trip; Davy Jones dropping by, Joe Namath dropping by; Jan buying a wig, Peter’s voice cracking) and Alice kept filling some need for nurture. The entire premise of the show seemed to acknowledge, at least in subtext, that Alice was filling the need that Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) could not fill: Ann B. Davis was the better mother.
But television could never let on about that. The jokes they wrote for Alice had an outdated and intentionally broad and hammy quality to them. Davis was already a two-time Emmy winning comic actress (as Schultzy, the Gal Friday character on NBC’s The Bob Cummings Show in the 1950s) when she took the Brady gig. She made Alice’s wisecracks and goofy physicality seem perfectly natural.
Robert Reed, who played father Mike Brady, went to his grave still grumbling about the insipidness of the show; Davis seemed to exult in it.
Viewers, especially children, were meant to understand that Alice was “old,” or was at least feeling the first pangs of decline. (In fact, Davis was in her 40s during The Brady Bunch’s run.) Dancing the hula or unwisely having a go on a trampoline, Alice seemed prone to lower-back strain and assorted pratfalls which caused her employers and their children to squeal with laughter at her expense — oh, Alice.
People look at The Brady Bunch now and bring too many questions to it: Why did the Bradys need a full-time, live-in housekeeper? Why did Mike Brady, an architect, design the house with just one bathroom for the kids? If they loved her like family, why did they make Alice wear a uniform?
I hardly questioned it as a child. I envied the activity, the noise, the laughter, the good cheer, the sunshine, the talent shows, the vacations.
I envied the brothers, the sisters, the cohesion, the Alice-ness of it all. Latchkey kids were especially attuned to The Brady Bunch’s nonsense, but we sensed the safety in it.
So Alice was imaginary.
What a wonderful person to have around anyhow, if only on TV, just in case we felt alone.