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The Brady Bunch Goes to Saigon

eason One DVDs reveal some striking connections between the resilient clan and the Vietnam War

Vietnam is still with us. It has created doubts about American judgment, about American credibility, about American power—not only at home, but throughout the world. It has poisoned our domestic debate. So we paid an exorbitant price for the decisions that were made in good faith and for good purpose.
—Henry Kissinger, in Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History

Standing up for what you believe in is right, and knowing you have to defend it can scare anyone—even adults.
—Mike Brady (Robert Reed), in The Brady Bunch

It’s an odd confession to make, but whenever I watch an episode of The Brady Bunch I can’t help but think of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The landmark TV program ran during the same years that the conflict wound down—1969–74—so the two spectacles were presented side by side on TV sets across North America. The Bradys, of course, are now seen as an overdetermined representation of Good—an easily absorbed and digestible piece of cultural Americana. The Vietnam conflict, on the other hand, has come to signify the Evil that the United States represent outside their borders, coded in grainy news clips of people being blown apart and soldiers looking confused about why they’re fighting in the first place. There were two wars going on: one between North and South Vietnam; and the other, a cultural war, between starkly contrasting American values—both fought, via television, in the living rooms of America. It was the renowned Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan who once called Vietnam the greatest fiction ever told, which prompts the question: does that make The Brady Bunch reality?

Conflating the Vietnam War with a trite sitcom may seem like the half-baked mental exercise of a neurotic writer, but I am led to this cross-reference by no simple reason—indeed, I have found a smoking gun in the form of photographic evidence. In the pictures section of his book Growing Up Brady: I Was a Teenage Greg, Barry Williams (the actor who played the eldest son) includes snapshots from his time on the Brady Bunch set. Among them is an image that has haunted me since the day that I laid eyes on it: Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of state and the military architect of much of the Vietnam conflict and the secret bombing of Cambodia, stands amid the Brady clan with a couple of his own children. It is a shocking thing to behold, not just because Kissinger’s children look so very strange, but because it makes the role of this program so crystal clear: The Brady Bunch was the quintessential piece of pop-cultural denial about the state of American foreign policy.

Thus, as I watched the new DVD collection of the first season of The Brady Bunch, I could not help but think of Kissinger and Nixon and their military manoeuvres. For every glimpse of Astroturf covering the Bradys’ backyard, I thought of Agent Orange; for every mention of familial conflict (safely resolved after twenty-two minutes—thirty, including commercial breaks), I thought of bombs descending upon villages. In light of these glaring contradictions, I have chosen to screen this charming DVD box set through a timeline comparison—and indeed, there are some striking collisions between the Bradys and Vietnam. Certain dates stand out as particularly salient.

On September 3, 1969, Ho Chi Minh, that brazen thorn in the side of the American military, died. This was seen as a good sign for the US’s interests in the region, as it was hoped that Citizen Ho’s inspiring nationalism might be vanquished by his passing. A mere twenty-three days later, the Bradys would be celebrating. Though they used the Brady Wedding as a cover, it was quite clear that this premiere episode of the show was intended to wallow in the triumph of American values over insipid Communism. And things couldn’t have been crazier at the Brady household: the entire wedding was turned on its head as the Brady cat got chased by the Brady dog, with one unlucky groom landing in the wedding cake as a result! The new nuclear family, it seemed, had triumphed over a possible nuclear threat in Southeast Asia.

On November 15, 1969, over 250,000 people would arrive in Washington, DC, to protest the ongoing war in Vietnam. One night prior to the march, however, the Bradys offered a strange premonition about this massive outpouring of distaste for the foreign policies of the Nixon administration, when “A-Camping We Will Go” aired on ABC. In this episode, the male faction of the newly formed Brady Bunch set out on their annual camping trip. This time, however, the three young boys are horrified to learn that the exclusivity clause had been stricken from their contract. The four Brady women were coming along! This episode taught the Bradys—and, by extension, all of America—that getting along was no laughing matter. If people are left out, feelings could be hurt. The boys learned not to protest and to allow the Brady women to hoist a tent or two.

On December 1, 1969, for the first time since 1942, the US government reinstated the draft lottery as the primary means of deciding who would go to war. In an eerie coincidence, the December 5 episode of The Brady Bunch was titled “Every Boy Does It Once” and revealed how the Brady boys were contending with their own responsibilities as young men. The youngest son, Bobby, is increasingly afraid that his stepmother is evil, because she has asked him to clean out the fireplace. Lacking the emotional will to deal with this particular draft, Bobby chooses to run away from home.

By May 4, 1970, The Brady Bunch’s first season was in the televisual state of hibernation generally referred to as “summer reruns.” This was a good thing, as the clan was spared the rather gruelling spectacle of four young anti–Vietnam War protesters being shot dead by the National Guard at Kent State University.

The show would go on to reflect this entirely unpleasant conflict during its subsequent seasons, and there would be plenty of foreign-affairs shenanigans to inspire the family’s writing team: the secret bombing of Cambodia, shady diplomatic relations and the fall of Saigon. The final episode of the program would air March 8, 1974—exactly one month after the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives recommended that impeachment proceedings begin for Nixon. Resolution 803 was carried easily (410 to 4) and, on August 8, 1974, while the Brady Bunch’s fifth and final season was in summer reruns, President Richard Nixon resigned.

The conflict in Iraq and the re-election of President George W. Bush has only served to remind us that, as Marx indicated, history repeats itself: initially as tragedy and then, in repetition, as farce. The Bradys, too, would repeat themselves perpetually—both in reruns and in new forms and versions, including made-for-TV movies, Saturday morning cartoon programs and even a variety hour. And though they vacationed in the Grand Canyon and Hawaii, sadly, the family never made it to Saigon. Or Baghdad.

The Brady Bunch: The Complete First Season is now available on DVD.