Friday, December 19, 2014

Family Affair's Traumatic Little Christmas

Ah, the holiday season. The time when every TV series, sitcom and police procedural alike, trots out its annual Christmas episode. It's a time honored tradition that dates back to the earliest days of television.

Most Christmas episodes deal with someone yearning for a special gift, trying to make it home in time for the festivities or learning the true meaning of the holiday. Few of them ever deal with death and disease as a theme. 

That's where Family Affair comes in. Tonight we'll take an in-depth look at their holiday episode titled Christmas Came A Little Early.

Family Affair was different from most sitcoms of the time in that it went for gentle laughs instead of guffaws. There was quite a bit of pathos as well, and episodes didn't always have a happy ending. Nowhere is that more evident than in this so-called holiday episode, as you'll soon see.

For those of you who weren't around when the series aired over forty years ago, here's a brief rundown to get you up to speed. Bill Davis is a successful and wealthy construction engineer whose job takes him all over the world. He lives in a spacious high rise apartment in Manhattan, with his personal valet Mr. French.

Bill lives a carefree bachelor's life, dating beautiful socialites and attending numerous high society functions.

That life changes forever when his brother and sister-in-law are killed in a car crash (com-O-dee!), and their kids, fraternal twins Buffy and Jody, and teenager Cissy, move in with him. He and Mr. French are then forced to become instant parents to a house full of rowdy kids.

Technically this isn't really a Christmas episode, as it originally aired on Monday, November 11, 1968. But it's usually played during the holiday season, so I'm going to go ahead and count it as one.

Sorry about the image quality. This was the best (make that only) source I could find.

We open in Buffy and Jody's classroom, which is taught by Miss Cummings. God forbid she should be a Mrs. I'm betting this episode was made at the tail end of that period in which teachers were forced to quit after they got married.

The class is studying geography today and Miss Cummings asks if anyone knows what lies south of Mexico. Since this is a Buffy-centric episode, she stands and says the answer is South America.

Take a look at the way the kid on the right is sitting, with his straight-edge posture and hands folded on his desk. Does Miss Cummings make the kids sit like that all freakin' day? Isn't that against the Geneva Convention?

Miss Cummings says that Buffy's correct, then asks what lies between Mexico and South America. Wait a minute, she just said that South America lies below Mexico, but now she's implying there's something in between? Way to confuse your students, Miss Cummings.

Buffy says Central America, which is right, but... there had to be a better way to word the question.

Miss Cummings then asks Buffy if she can name the countries in Central America. Buffy looks abashed and says no, and sits down. Miss Cummings asks the class as a whole, but apparently no one read the assignment.

Suddenly an electronic voice pipes up from a speaker on Miss Cumming's desk. It's Eve Bowers, who will soon become the focal point of this episode. She attends Buffy's class from home through this highly sophisticated intercom system, which I'm betting was cutting edge technology in 1968. 

Eve correctly names the countries in Central America as Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, British Honduras, Costa Rica and El Salvador. 

Eve speaks in a very precise manner, oddly emphasizing each letter, especially the "T" in Guatemala. Correct, but annoying.

Miss Cummings praises Eve for coming up with the correct answer. No one brings up the idea that since she can't be seen, she's probably reading the answers out of an encyclopedia.

I should also point out that Eve's answer is technically correct-- for that time. In 1968 there was a British Honduras, but it was renamed Belize in 1973, Things like that happen when you're watching a show that's almost 50 years old.

As class is dismissed, Miss Cummings asks Buffy to stay behind. It seems she's been snooping in Buffy's file, because she somehow knows that she lives just around the corner from Eve. She asks Buffy to take their new schoolbook to her. 

A new text book? In the middle of the school year? Never heard of that one before. Why would you make parents have to shell out for another book in the middle of the year? Why not just have Buffy take her an assignment or some forms to fill out or something like that?

Buffy asks Miss Cummings if she's ever seen Eve, and she says yes. She says Buffy will get to see her too when she delivers the book, and she'll no doubt like her. Buffy's not so sure. She says it's hard to like someone who has all the answers. See? Even Buffy suspects Eve is secretly cheating.

Despite the fact that this episode takes place in 1968, Eve apparently lives in 1930s New York. There's even a gang of street urchins playing stick ball in front of the murky stock footage of her apartment building.

Buffy brings the book to the Bowers' apartment, where she meets Eve's mother.

Mrs. Bowers thanks Buffy, and asks if she'd like to meet Eve. Buffy is excited that she's finally going to see her mysterious invisible classmate.

Mrs. Bowers brings Buffy in to meet Eve. Buffy starts to introduce herself, but Eve says to let her guess. She says she knows all her classmates by voice, and correctly identifies Buffy.

We then see that Eve is played by none other than Eve Plumb, better known as Jan of The Brady Bunch fame. This episode aired a year before The Brady Bunch started up, so she looks pretty much like the Jan we all know and love.

Buffy says she hopes Eve feels better soon, and says she'd better get going. Eve begs her to stay, as she apparently doesn't get a lot of visitors. Buffy says OK, and calls Mr. French to tell him she'll be home late.

The laugh track gets in a few anemic chuckles in during these scenes, and then checks out for the rest of the episode. As you'll soon see, there's very little work for it here.

Buffy and Eve spend the afternoon playing word games and bonding.

Buffy asks Eve if she has to stay in bed all the time.

She says yes, because she's always tired. She says her doctors have tried to fix her, but can't do anything about it. Uh-oh. That sounds... ominous.

Buffy reassures Eve and says, "Well don't worry. I'll tell my Uncle Bill. He can do anything!" This fills Eve with a small ray of hope, which seems to invigorate her. Hmm. 

Just then Mrs. Bowers enters and tells Buffy it's time to go.

Buffy says it's nice to find out that Eve is more than just a disembodied voice in a box and takes her leave. 

Eve tells her mother that it's nice to finally have a real friend at last. Cheezus! How long has she been in that bed? Surely she had friends before she was sick?

Cut to later that night at Uncle Bill's luxury hi-rise, which is apparently located in the heart of Soviet Russia.

Ah, just soak in that beautiful 1960s architectural style. I believe this particular movement was known as brutalism.

The Davis family is enjoying dinner as Buffy tells Uncle Bill all about Eve.

Uncle Bill can scarcely contain his excitement, as he thinks about the way things were before these three kids came into his life.

Buffy says Eve has been sick for a long time, and she told her that Uncle Bill could make her all better.

This news makes him uncomfortable, but he doesn't do anything about it.

The next day Uncle Bill goes over to the Bowers' to pick up Buffy and Jody. Take a look at the way he's standing as Mrs. Bowers answers the door. Is he the ultimate in suave, or what?

Mrs. Bowers says she's grateful that the twins have taken a liking to Eve.

She's concerned though that Buffy's been telling Eve that he can do what the doctors can't, and cure her. She's afraid that may give her false hope.

Uncle Bill looks uncomfortable again.

Mrs. Bowers brings Uncle Bill into Eve's room, where Buffy and Jody are playing a game with her.

Jody manages to get in a couple of the very few lines he has in this episode. Buffy always seemed like a fairly intelligent child, but her twin brother Jody... oy. With his constantly furrowed brow and slow, strained delivery, I sometimes wonder if he's brain damaged.

Once again Buffy pipes up and tells Eve she won't have to stay in bed for much longer, now that Uncle Bill's on the case.

Eve gazes in wonder at this veritable superhero who's come to save her.

Uncle Bill looks uncomfortable again, as does Mrs. Bowers. This seems like a perfect time to set these kids straight, but he still doesn't do anything about it.

Later back at his apartment, Uncle Bill calls his old pal Doc Flanders and asks if he can take a look at Eve. 

He tells Flanders that he'll pay for any tests and medications she needs, whatever they cost, and to tell the Bowers the bill is being paid by a research grant. I guess maybe he's afraid they might be too proud to accept his charity if they knew he was paying. 

It's the least he can do after Buffy raised Eve's hopes.

Supposedly actor Brian Keith didn't like to rehearse, so he'd show up ten minutes before filming, glance at the script and then wing it. Nowhere is that technique more evident than in this scene. It's quite obvious that he's making up his lines as he goes along, but you know what? It works! He really does sound like he's talking to an actual person on the phone.

He also pauses for several seconds between lines, as if he's actually listening to the other party. It always bugs me when an actor will pause for two tenths of a second and then repeat what the person on the other end couldn't possibly have had time to say. 

Buffy and Jody then enter, dressed in their going out to eat clothes. There's a problem though. Jody wants Italian food, while Buffy has her heart set on Chinese.

These two brats have no idea how good they have it. When I was their age, I thought it was a treat just to get a small hamburger at McDonald's.

Uncle Bill solves the crisis by saying he knows a place that serves both pizza and chow mein. Must be one of those fusion restaurants.

For the twentieth time, Buffy says that Uncle Bill can solve any problem.

Uncle Bill looks uncomfortable again. He still doesn't set Buffy straight though. Maybe he's hungry and doesn't want to get into a whole big thing right now.

Cut to several days later, as Uncle Bill has coffee at the Bowers.' We finally see the elusive Mr. Bowers here. I was beginning to think Mrs. Bowers was a widow.

They thank him profusely for having his doctor friend examine Eve.

The Bowers say that to have a little hope again is a wonderful thing. Uh-oh...

Dr. Flanders arrives back at the apartment with Eve. He tells his nurse to take her to her room.

Mr. and Mrs. Bowers are anxious to hear the results of Eve's tests.

Dr. Flanders says he knows what they're hoping to hear, but that there's nothing to be done. 

What the audience has suspected all along has finally been confirmed. Eve is dying. 

You see, Eve is suffering from TV Syndrome, a rare and fatal malady that strikes characters on television shows. Never main characters mind you, but guest stars that have never been seen before. 

It's an "invisible" disease, as those suffering from it don't waste away into skeletons or lose their hair. The only visible symptom is fatigue, which gradually worsens until one day they simply stop living.

The Bowers both look as if they've been slapped in the face with a fish. Mrs. Bowers can think of nothing else to do but offer coffee to the Doctor. Mr. Bowers asks how long Eve has.

Dr. Flanders says, "No one can say, but... well." Oh, that long, huh?

The Bowers look about as stricken and crestfallen as two people can possibly look.

Uncle Bill glares at his so-called "doctor" friend, wondering why he the hell he bothered to call him in the first place.

Some time later, Mrs. Bowers pays a visit to Uncle Bill.

Get a load of that cinched-up coat she's wearing. What's she got there, an eighteen inch waist?

She says that Eve is becoming noticeably weaker (See? TV Syndrome!) and that she thinks it's time Buffy stopped visiting. She's afraid Buffy could be psychologically hurt, especially if Eve drops dead right in front of her while they're playing.

Uncle Bill asks if there's anything he can do. "No," croaks Mrs. Bowers, barely able to force out the words. "Not anymore."

After Mrs. Bowers leaves, Uncle Bill breaks the news to Buffy, telling her that Eve's too sick to have visitors.

Buffy doesn't understand. Why the hell is Eve still sick when Uncle Bill was supposed to make her all better?

Uncle Bill FINALLY deals with the situation, and tells Buffy that there's just some things that he can't fix. And this is one of them.

Buffy's disappointed of course, but points out that if Eve is really that sick, then she needs a good friend. She says Eve would do the same for her if their situations were reversed.

Uncle Bill agrees, and says he'll talk to Mrs. Bowers about it. He tells Buffy not to mention any of this to Eve.

The next day Uncle Bill waits for the kids to come home from school.

He tells them that unfortunately his job is most likely going to take him out of the country during Christmas, so he suggests celebrating the holiday a few weeks early. The kids go nuts and think it's a great idea.

Buffy's joy turns to concern though, as she'd like to invite her pal Eve to their early Christmas, but is afraid she'll be too sick to come.

Uncle Bill expertly manipulates Buffy by pretending to think about it for a minute, and coming up with an idea. Why don't they have their early Christmas at Eve's house, so she won't miss out?

As Uncle Bill explains this, Cissy shoots the kids a worried glance. It's obvious here that she's figured out the horrible truth behind this early celebration-- Eve won't be around by Christmas. Kudos to actress Cathy Garver for a subtle little bit of acting here.

Buffy thinks that's a great idea, and says that now Eve will get to have two Christmases this year!

Uncle Bill agrees and gives her a "thank god she bought it" look.

Cut to Buffy telling Eve the good news about the early Christmas party.

Eve's puzzled though as to why they want to have it at her house. Buffy explains it's because Eve can't leave her own house, so they're bringing the party to her.

Eve seems to buy that story. "Could we, mom?" asks Eve breathlessly. "Could we have the party here? Please?"

"Yes darling,' says Mrs. Bowers, her face an immobile mask.

Eve beams at her friend.

"Good!" says Buffy. "Then we'll pretend like it's December and have a real nice party."

Mrs. Bowers gives Eve a concerned look, as if she's barely able to hold it together. The background music takes a low, ominous turn here which is hilarious. Well, as hilarious as anything in this episode can be, that is.

Cut to a few days later at Eve's apartment. We see Uncle Bill putting the finishing touch on the Christmas tree.

Eve gazes at the tree in solemn reverence.

I'm assuming Uncle Bill must have sprang for the early Christmas decorations, as the Bowers' finances are probably stretched pretty thin these days, what with Eve's medical bills and all. Just look at those festive decorations! There's a tree, and a.. a tree, and... that's it. A tree. Festive!

Uncle Bill tells the brain-damaged Jody to turn on the tree's lights, which probably isn't a good idea. Thankfully he manages to do so without electrocuting himself. Everyone gasps in astonishment as what appears to be about seven lights flicker dimly into life. Uncle Bill certainly spared no expense!

Take a gander at that sad looking thing! I've seen Christmas trees dumped by the side of the road that looked better than that sorry excuse for a fir. 

It's probably an artificial tree, since this party's taking place a few weeks before Christmas and real trees probably aren't yet on sale. Surely though artificial tree technology was better than this even in 1968?

Despite how awful the tree looks, Eve admires it with awe. She says, "That's the most beautiful, the most wonderful Christmas tree I've ever seen." Yeah, well she's probably only seen six Christmas trees in her short life, so she's not exactly an expert.

I'll hand it to Eve Plumb— she does a very good job and really sells the "brave innocent" schtick here. She gives her character a real sense of dignity and grace, which of course makes her imminent demise all the more tear-jerking.

The Bowers and Uncle Bill stare in silence at Eve, unable to think of anything comforting to say.

Brain damaged Jody gets in his final line of the episode, saying the tree doesn't look so good to him, because there're no presents underneath it.

Once again, Cissy's solemn look demonstrates that she's seen through the charade and knows what's going on with Eve.

Just then the doorbell buzzes, and a shout of "Merry Christmas" is heard. An excited Buffy shouts, "It's Santa Claus, everybody!" How the hell does she know that? I guess in Manhattan, Santa doesn't come down the chimney but through the front door.

Buffy runs over and flings opens the door, which is a little presumptuous on her part, since this isn't even her apartment. What if it was a pushy insurance salesman or a pack of Jehovah's Witnesses? Fortunately we see that it is indeed Santa, who barges right in.

Santa says, "I had a note from the Davis family, telling me about an early holiday they want to hold at the house of their friend!" I guess that neatly explains his pre-holiday season appearance here.

Santa is of course being played by Mr. French, who's been pretty much sitting out this episode so far. Odd that he's wearing a fake beard over his real beard. It's like Inception, but with facial hair.

It's obvious to anyone with eyes that it's Mr. French under all that fake hair. But Eve has never seen him before, what with the having to stay in bed all the time, so she buys into the whole thing. 

Jody no doubt believes it's really Santa as well, because he's brain damaged. It's not clear if Buffy sees through the disguise or not. If she does, she's discreet enough to keep quiet.

I kind of feel bad for Mr. French. As Uncle Bill's valet, he ran quite a little tight ship. He laid out Uncle Bill's clothing and helped him dress, he kept the apartment spotless and organized his schedule down to the minute.

Then out of the blue he's forced to add nanny to his list of duties. Worst of all, Uncle Bill's job takes him out of the country for weeks at a time, so poor French is left at home trying to raise three kids. It's definitely not what he signed up for, and I hope Uncle Bill gave him a substantial raise.

This probably explains why at least once per season they'd do a "Mr. French Decides He's Quitting" episode.

"Santa" reaches into his bag and pulls out a gift. He reads the tag and says, "Why, it's for a little girl named Eve."

Hilariously, it seems to take Eve a few seconds to react as she slowly works out that Santa's talking about her. Maybe she's doped up on morphine or something and her cognitive abilities are running a little slow.

"Santa" hands her the present and she begins unwrapping it.

The adults soberly watch Eve while the unknowing kids smile.

Man, get a load of how everyone's standing around at this so-called "celebration." Yikes! I've seen cheerier morgues! What is this, a party or a wake? Oh... right.

Eve finally manages to open her gift. "Oh, a doll!" she gasps. "She's so pretty." She thanks "Santa" profusely.

Mr. and Mrs. Bowers stand like brittle statues, afraid to so much as move, lest they shatter. They can scarcely force themselves to look at their poor, doomed daughter.

Buffy, still ignorant of what's really going on, stares lovingly at her friend.

And we get one more look at Eve clutching her new doll as the treacly score rises to a crescendo.

Cut to later that night, back at the Davis apartment. For some reason Uncle Bill is in Mr. French's room, watching him take off his Santa suit. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

Uncle Bill tells French that he made a great Santa.

Mr. French asks Uncle Bill if he thinks the kids believed his little white lie about celebrating an early Christmas.

Uncle Bill says he thinks they did. "They seemed to go for it completely," he says. "They were carrying on just like it was Christmas day. I'm just glad they're too young to understand."

"Thank heavens for that, sir," says Mr. French.

"Yeah, if they'd known what was really going on, I don't think they could have gone through with it," says Uncle Bill.

Uncle Bill wishes French goodnight, and pats him on his ample, non-padded belly. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

Uncle Bill's about to go to bed when he stops. He hears quiet sobbing coming from the vicinity of Buffy's room.

He looks in on Buffy...

...and sees her clutching her doll Mrs. Beasley as she weeps bitter tears in the dark.

Once again the emotional violins are cranked up to eleven.

Uncle Bill embraces Buffy as she cries uncontrollably in his arms.


Apparently a lot of people don't understand the ending of this episode. I thought it was pretty clear. Buffy lives a privileged and sheltered life, so it never occurs to her that her friend Eve is going to die. That kind of thing only happens to other people.

But when Uncle Bill proposes an early Christmas and then suggests having it at Eve's house, she starts putting two and two together. Unlike her brain damaged brother, she's a smart girl. While lying in the dark she realizes the awful truth: Eve isn't going to make it to Christmas. Tonight was most likely her friend's last hurrah. That's why she's sobbing to herself at the end.

So ends Family Affair's festive Christmas episode. That Don Fedderson really knew how to brighten up the holiday, didn't he?

Kudos again to Eve Plumb for her performance as Eve. Props as well to Ivan Bonar for sticking with his family name and not changing it to something that would generate fewer snickers.

Family Affair was filmed a bit differently than most TV series. Producer Don Fedderson approached actor Brian Keith and offered him the part of Uncle Bill. Keith refused, saying he didn't want to be tied down shooting the show for nine months out of the year.

Fedderson then came up with an unusual plan. He'd shoot all of Keith's scenes first, then once he was done, he'd go back and shoot the ones in which he didn't appear. This meant that Keith would only have to work on the show for three months a year. Brian Keith accepted this offer an the rest is TV history.

Filming this way meant a lot of preparation. Every script for the entire season had to be completed before shooting could begin. And once they started, they were locked in-- no changes or rewrites were possible.

Fedderson would then figure out which scenes required Brian Keith's presence and shoot those, and only those. This meant that the cast and crew might work on four or five different episodes in the same week.

If they were shooting a conversation between Uncle Bill and Buffy, they'd film him asking her a question and then quickly move on. It might be months later before they'd film Buffy's response. And quite often she'd be talking to an off-screen stage hand rather than Uncle Bill.

It was an odd way to run a show, but it worked. Fedderson also shot his previous series My Three Sons the same way-- by shooting all of actor Fred MacMurray's scenes first and then finishing the rest later. Oddly enough, both shows were about two single men trying to raise three kids!

Hope you enjoyed this look at Family Affair's Traumatic Little Christmas Special. Try not to hang yourself by the mistletoe or drown yourself in the eggnog after watching it.


  1. tl; dr. (Seriously, Bob, you have too much time on your hands! Maybe go volunteer at a soup kitchen or something?)
    (I've never seen an episode of this show, by the way. Have I missed anything?)

  2. It's a typical 1960s family sitcom. The kind where someone learns a valuable lesson every week. I like it OK, but I think that's colored by nostalgia, as I used to watch it when I was a kid.

  3. Used to watch it regularly, but I don't remember seeing this episode. By the way, I HAD to look up that theme song, and took this nostalgic rathole: Hope you do the same.

  4. I remember everyone at my school watched it because the kids on the show, Buffy, Jody and Cissy, were from Terre Haute, which is where I lived at the time. That was a big deal to hear our home town mentioned on TV. Unfortunately they pronounced it "Terre HUT," instead of "Terre HOTE." Ah well.

    I didn't have time to watch that entire youtube deal, but I remembered quite a bit of the clips!

  5. This is a. Story on how childhood cancer ravages families and friends. ...portrayed as a sensative look on all points of view...childs snd adults....and their way of coping....i eoulf suggest you pay a visit to St. Jude research hospital. msy drop the sarcasm and lack of compassion that you have shown. Eve id suffering from Leukemia the 60s little or nothing could be done....of course today still alot cannot be done toward a permanent cure....especially ALM Leukemia which probably Eve is dying from.....ahead of its time this family affair episode did well in bringing about awareness of childhood cancer.

    1. Sandye, since you felt the need to publicly rebuke me on my own blog, allow me to respond in kind.

      Yes, I'm aware that Eve is probably suffering from childhood leukemia. I still submit that it's a very tidy, sanitized depiction of the disease. As for visiting St. Jude to presumably witness the horror of the disease, childhood leukemia claimed a relative of mine years ago. I don't need you to school me on how I should feel or react to the situation.

      As for my "sarcasm and lack of compassion," I still feel that the death of a child is poor subject matter for an Xmas episode. People want stories of comfort and joy during the holidays, topped with happy endings. They certainly don't want a story where they're forced to stare into the abyss of their own mortality (or that of their child's). There's room for such lessons the other fifty one weeks of the year.

      So my review of the episode stands, despite the fact that you found it offensive. I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding something else to fuel your easily activated outrage.

  6. I don't mind what you did here so much, but why-oh-why does everything we say or see about the past have to be put in such s snarky "see how much we know better" way. It adds nothing to the commentary or criticism, btw. But this is a good episode to show why Buffy Annisa Jones and her doll became sensations to young girls at the time. I knew a grown up woman in the 90s who still cherished her Mrs. Beasley doll. And let recall that actress Kathy Garver who plays Cissy - and who I saw at Nostalgia Con back in Sept. - was actually about 5-years older than the teen girl she plays here. Nothing wrong with this, pure 20th century TV schmaltz - but minus the snark please.

  7. Apparently my "snarkiness" has blinded everyone to my actual point-- this is a terrible, terrible excuse for an Xmas episode.

    Xmas is for family and good times. People want to see special episodes about their favorite characters enjoying the holidays. They don't want to see grim, depressing episodes about little girls dying of childhood leukemia on Xmas.

    We get plenty of misery the rest of the year-- keep the death and depression out of our Xmas specials, please.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts with Thumbnails
Site Meter