Perhaps it was just the particular combination of episodes but I was less than entertained by this latest tryptich of I Dream of Jeannie. What was worse was that it was the basic premise of the series, not the individual stories, that left me feeling disturbed.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Barbara Eden plays Jeannie, 2,000 year old Genie, devoted to her ‘Master’, Captain Tony Nelson, serious and dedicated astronaut, played by Larry Hagman, a long time before Dallas. It’s a similar principle as Bewitched, psychosexually healthier in that, unlike Darrin Stephens, Tony doesn’t spend all his time ordering Jeannie not to do any magic, but in these episodes especially, it’s humour comes from a more juvenile sense of mischief and disruption. Jeannie’s heart is in the right place, but her head is still operating twenty centuries back, and where the world of 1965 differs, it is in the wrong.
This came over most strongly in ‘Anybody Here Seen Jeannie?’ Tony will shortly be leading a three man mission into space, where he will become the first American to walk in space. We’re still four years away from the actual Moon Landing, so this is a serious moment. Perhaps that’s why I reacted so badly against the story? Because the moment Jeannie hears her Master is to go extra-vehicular, she determines to stop him because of the danger.
It’s perfectly in character. Jeannie loves Tony, and is desperate to protect him, notwithstanding that this is his life’s ambition and work and that he is adamant he’s doing it. So what she does is, when the sceptical Dr Bellows calls Tony in for another set of tests, Jeannie attends to manipulate tests and results in a crazy manner.
What got me was her girlish glee, and constant giggling, at every effect she produces. I couldn’t find it funny, it was little-kid japes in a context where they were not only uncalled-for but also dangerous, and simultaneously nonsensical and ineffectual. And counterproductive.
In order to get Tony out of the hole she’d dug for him, Jeannie had to play a similar series of pranks on Bellows, with the same childishness, glee and laclk of understanding. It was a mess on any level, insufficiently absurd enough to create its own logic whilst being too stupid to function in any realistic setting.
And the episode ended in similar form, with the astronauts launched, in the capsule, and Tony floating in spsce. Only to be confronted with Jeannie doing the same, in her genie outfit, with the absurdly long pink scarf wrapped round her concealing the evidence of Barbara Eden beng pregnant not every successfully. it was only to be expected, which was a good reason not to have done it, but it failed to have the comedic effect, being too far removed from the seriousness of the occasion. Or is that me, the child of the Sixties, the worshipper of Dan Dare, applying my own attitude to the Space Programme too seriously?
We were on a surer tack with ‘The Americanisation of Jeannie’, episode 8, except that much of its humour was again based in Jeannie’s lack of understanding of the modern world, in a manner that was faintly demeaning. That aspect was exacerbated by time. Jeannie reads a magazine article about being a modern American woman, independent, attractive, respected and desired, and ries to become one. We’re still pre-Feminism, so whilst Tony is generally supportive – imagine how useful it would be to him if Jeannie were to behave like a modern woman, whilst being utterly destructive to the series – but he still maintains a chauvinit set of assumptions, especially when Jeannie doesn’t do the housework or the cooking!
Again, it’s interesting to consider the set-up. Here is a healthy American male, physically fit and attractive, who is sharing his home with a woman who looks like Barbara Eden who spends 90% of her time wandering around the equivalent of half-dressed, who has made it very plain in a thousand ways, not many of them all that subtle, that she wants her Master to pull down her harem pants every night and he wants to treat her as a housekeeper. You can’t keep reminding yourself that this is a 1965 primetime sitcom forever without wondering just who’s kidding who?
The episode functions as an excuse to get Barbara Eden into various different modern day clothes, not to mention hairstyles – all of them doing her no justice whatsoever and I don’t just mean the curlers – but essentially the writers don’t have the wit to put her into a contemporary setting without humiliating her and presenting the whole thing as a defeat for Jeannie: you will never see that happening to Elizabeth Montgomery.
The last of these three episodes, ‘The Moving Finger’, was much more successful. Yes, it maintained the fish-out-of-water scenarion for Jeannie, emphasising her ignorance of the modern world and her jealous possessiveness about Tony Nelson, but this time Jeannie was allowed both dignity and empathy, with her defeat coming not from her ignorance of where she was, but rather an innate and inescapable aspect of her being that she could not control.
Basically, this was a change of setting episode, dispensing with the supporting cast. Tony’s detailed for a 10 day mission to Hollywood to act as technical advisor on an astronaut film (whose basic story is a very close riff on Fantastic Voyage). He’s trying to get away without Jeannie, who decides to accompany him whether he will or no, to protect him from the inevitable dangers that will assail him: principally film star Rita Mitchell (Nancy Kovack), who’s had six husbands and is looking for no. 7…
In Hollywood, Jeannie manifests as Tony’s secretary, Jeannie Jeannie. Being a beautiful woman, and one whom more males than Tony are prepared to recognise, and they wouldn’t be anything like so reticent about her harem pants, Jeannie attracts attention. But Tony’s still enjoying Rita’s attentions so, in order to get him away, Jeannie decides to become a film star too. Which she does, however improbably, by reciting The Rubayait of Omar Khayyam, spellbindingly, and I for one could have done with hearing a lot more of that than we did, because Barbara Eden was terrific.
It gets her a screentest, the results of which are to be shown to the Director at lunch, when Tony is on his date with Rita. But there’s a cruel moment coming: the test is a disaster. Jeannie is invisible to film. The Director blusters, the star apologises, and Jeannie sits there, silent. And Tony, who’s been watching from the back of the box, comes forward to commiserate with his friend, offering nothing but sympsthy and kindness and no snark about her dreams whatsoever. It’s a loving gesture much needed, and worth the wait, and it redeemed the morning quite happily.
So, there we have it. Next time I visit this boxset, I shall be looking to see if any lessons have been learned from that episode. Which, incidentally, was the first to abandon the overlong and didactic introduction that repeated the pilot at unnecessary length, and substitute the more familiar, and shorter, animated credits, though I’m still waiting for the classic theme music to appear.