Saturday, August 2, 2014

He Married a Witch: Review of Bewitched by Walter Metz

Walter Metz, 2007
TV Milestones Series
Detroit, Wayne State University Press
pp. 151, index, bibliography, illustrations
$14.95 (paper)

During its long run Bewitched (1964-1972)—a sitcom that focuses on the wacky situations that result from the “mixed” marriage (as Metz puts it) between a “mortal” and a “witch”—was one of ABC’s most popular shows during its run. The brainchild of Sol Saks, Harry Ackerman, and William Asher and starring Asher’s then wife Elizabeth Montgomery as the witch Samantha, Bewitched has been described by several critics as a “formulaic” sitcom (Metz describes it as I Love Lucy meets the films I Married a Witch and Bell, Book and Candle, pp. 30-33 which it most certainly, in part, is). Walter Metz’s monograph (one of the first publications in Wayne State University Press’s TV Milestones Series) tries to go beyond this “reductive” analysis of Bewitched and explore its industrial contexts, its textual form, and its theoretical implications instead.

In Bewitched Metz makes a number of important if perhaps obvious points—that academics need to get beyond their knee jerk perception of television as a vast wasteland (academics should know better given the similar caricaturing and stereotyping of film in an earlier era) (pp. 34-39), that before we can analyse a television show we have to place it in its historical and its industrial contexts (pp. 13), that before we can explore a televisual text we must closely investigate each and every episode of the show (all 254 half hour episodes in the case of Bewitched (pp. 2-3), that Bewitched was more than just a children’s show (pp. 3-7), and that Bewitched had a cinematic quality to it (pp. 52-77 and pp. 130-137). Despite Metz’s emphasis on the need for an industrial analysis of television shows, however, his monograph is, in essence, just one more example of the text as crystal ball criticism that dominates literary, film, and television studies today.

Many of the usual suspects associated with crystal ball textual criticism make cameo appearances in Metz’s monograph. There’s the emphasis on Bewitched as bourgeois text. Metz notes that Bewitched is about a working husband and a stay at home wife who live in the suburbs (pp. 84-92). There’s the emphasis on the contradictory nature of Bewitched’s “text”. For Metz Bewitched expresses “liberal” paternalism and feminism (p. 92), liberal pro-civil rights mentalities and “liberal” ethnic stereotyping (pp. 64-65) and “liberal” positive and negative reactions to America’s burgeoning counterculture (pp.106-114). There’s the emphasis on Bewitched’s queerness. Metz argues that the show is, to some extent, about outsiders where witches and warlocks serve as metaphors for bored suburban housewives, counterculture types, and gays and lesbians (pp 77-84). There’s the emphasis on Bewitched’s subversive aspects. Metz asserts that Bewitched satirises America’s consumer culture (pp. 90-91), critiques America’s Cold War surveillance culture (pp. 44-46), and expresses discontent with America’s patriarchal culture (p. 92). There’s the supposed postmodernist aspects of the show. Metz argues that the replacement of Dick York with Dick Sargent allowed the shows creators and writers to play with Bewitched’s themes of transformation and the threat of transformation (pp. 124-130). And finally, there’s the exploration of textual consumption by fans. Metz briefly mentions that the replacement of Dick York with Dick Sargent as Darrin is the primary means of fan camp identification with the show (p. 125) and explores how his attitude towards the show changed as he moved from childhood to adulthood (pp. 1, 5-6, and 124-130).

It is this text as crystal ball methodology that I find particularly problematic in Metz’s book. Text centred analysis, of course, has long been a central practice and core symbol of certain tendencies in biblical, literary, and film studies. Students of Biblical Studies have long made careers out of divining “documents” like “J”, “E”, “P”, and “D” from the Torah and “Q” from the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. They can, however, offer no extra-textual evidence from the broader Mediterranean world to support their hypotheses that such “documents” existed, however (I prefer to see the tales of the Torah as oral in nature a la Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey). Metz’s monograph has similar problems. Metz may talk the talk of historical and industrial analysis but he doesn’t walk the walk. Metz asserts that the change in actors playing Darrin necessitated by Dick York’s retirement from the show due to back problems led Asher and Company toward metatextual” terrain. But he offers no evidence beyond the text for this hypothesis (did the creators and writers discuss how to deal with this necessary change in casting during staff meetings? in discussions with network executives?). Metz speaks broadly of the “liberalism” of Bewitched (a liberalism, by the way, he views in too singular a form) but he provides no documentary evidence that the creators of Bewitched were “liberals” (apart from reference to the fact that Asher produced the birthday celebration for John F. Kennedy at which Marilyn Monroe infamously sang happy birthday to the president and that he and Montgomery felt particularly close to JFK and were shaken by his assassination (p. 14)) and that their liberalism impacted the show (were there discussions among the creators and staff about how they could integrate their liberal politics into the show?). Once again the only evidence Metz can point to for Bewitched’s liberalism is Bewitched’s “text” as he “reads” it. One of these days crystal ball critics are going to have to explain to me why I should regard their analysis as anything other than a form of ideological textual poaching (given its emphases and its lack of extra textual evidence) that tells us more about the social and cultural contexts academics find themselves in than the “texts” they claim to decipher.

Despite my reservations with Metz’s monograph (and it is a monograph with all the attendant limitations) his Bewitched is an important study of a television show that has received limited and limiting attention from scholars. For this reason alone I think it is an important book that deserves to be read alongside (though it will not displace) the more institutionally and narratively oriented guides to the show like Herbie Pilato’s The Bewitched Book (1992). Interestingly and perhaps ironically it is works like this by fan-scholars rather than those by scholar-fans which actually do a better job of exploring the institutional contexts and narrative terrain of television shows (a point Metz makes on p. 139). Metz’s monograph has not changed this state of affairs.

This review originally appeared in slightly different form as “Review of Walter Metz’s Bewitched, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 29:1 (April 2009), pp. 150-151.

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