Bewitched: The Complete First Season Review
Bewitched is in the public eye again because of the new film starring Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman. To tie in with this, Sony have finally released the first season of the classic sitcom on a 4-DVD set. The plot is about as straightforward as it gets: Darrin Stephens is a successful advertising executive and newlywed. His wife Samantha is pretty, young, blonde and... yes... a witch. Darrin learns of his wife's arcane leanings on their honeymoon and asks Samantha to stop doing magic and act like a proper housewife. Because this was made in the 60s, she agrees to this request and much of the series' amusement and charm derives from Samantha trying desperately to act like a mortal but then having to rely on the odd bit of magic to help her every episode.
The magic schtick isn't overplayed and operates well in a sitcom environment. However, the things that really help to ensure this isn't just a show that revolves around a solitary gimmick are the likeable characters, clever script and inventive situations. Dick York (who plays Darrin) and Elizabeth Montgomery (Samantha) are truly great comedic actors and genuinely breathe life into their roles here, making both characters seem vulnerable, witty, loving and strong in their own ways and it's hard to imagine the show would have had quite the same impact without the chemistry between this pair. There are also, naturally, some superb supporting characters. Most key is Agnes Moorhead, playing Endora... the mother-in-law from, well, wherever witches are from. Endora adds a spark of wickedness and constantly bickers with Darrin while trying to persuade Samantha to use as much magic as possible and return to the witching community. Nosy neighbour Gladys Kravitz (played here by Alice Pearce) is always trying to find out what's up in the Stephens' household and yet can never persuade her long-suffering husband that anything is amiss. And finally Darrin's boss, Larry Tate (David White), adds another straight man for the comedy to play off. It's a neat and compact ensemble, which can be kept tight and performs well together. There's definitely some magic in the casting here!
The first season of Bewitched was originally shown in 1964 and is one of a pack of fantasy sitcoms that seemed popular at the time, if the sheer number of similarly-themed releases is anything to go by. These included The Munsters, I Dream of Jeannie and The Addams Family. Of the above, Bewitched was by far the longest-running and most successful programme. Interestingly enough, despite what must seem old-fashioned views about husband/wife gender roles to today's audiences, Bewitched was in fact quite 'modern' in its outlook at the time. For instance, Darrin and Samantha were one of the first TV married couples to share a single bed, Endora and her husband were separated, and the portrayal of Darrin and Samantha as a 'mixed' couple even touched on themes that were to become more prominent as the years went on. But beyond this, one strong thematic undercurrent in Bewitched is that Samantha is empowered enough to make her own choices regarding her role in their marriage, and isn't being coerced into suppressing her magic (and, by extension, her true personality) by an overbearing husband.
This first series ran to a rather stupendous 36 (!) episodes, and they're all supremely entertaining. When I offered to review Bewitched, I honestly had no idea that this little show from the 60s would be quite this long (being myself used to the more-usual 13- or 26-episode season runs seen in today's programmes), but even so I didn't tire of watching the adventures of Sam, Darrin and (mostly) Endora. It's a charming series and one that I hope will be rejuvenated by interest due to the upcoming film.
When Bewitched: The Complete First Season was released in the US, consumers were given the choice between the original black-and-white set and the colourised one. However, by some strange marketing logic, for the European R2 release it appears only the colourised one has been made available. So obviously die-hard purists will probably only be happy to purchase this show in its original black-and-white, and according to reviewers of the R1 set the black-and-white transfer has several quality benefits over the colourised version.
Overall, it will depend on what memories you may have of the first time you saw the show. Whilst Bewitched was originally broadcast in black-and-white, due to its popularity it was later colourised for syndication, and for many of us, the colourised version is the one we remember seeing as kids. Naturally there's also the issue of how you feel about the whole colorisation debate in general. My feeling after viewing these 4 discs is that, while many fans who read DVD sites will want the black-and-white versions simply for the authenticity and possible technical merits, the colourisation on this version of Bewitched isn't nearly as distracting or invasive as I had feared it might be.
To be specific, the transfer uses the same 4:3 master as the black and white version but adds colour... and yes, not always successfully. Flesh tones are a bit samey, and there's a fair amount of grain evident and a touch of fuzziness... though in both cases no more than any other show of that period. A further relief is that there's no heavy damage to the print, with only the occasional dust speck marring an otherwise clean master. Considering the age of the show, I'd say this was actually a quite decent transfer, with only the colourisation issue to actually distract on the picture side. At least it doesn't suffer the truly garish Technicolor treatment, and there are lots of true-to-the-60s pastel shades in the clothing and sets; it's just not as pure as the black and white treatment and it's a shame that R2 viewers weren't permitted to make that decision for themselves as their R1 equivalents were.
The audio track is mono for all languages (English, Italian and Spanish), but the English soundtrack was pretty decent despite the expected flatness of the soundstage – mono really is all that's needed here and frankly I'd rather this than a remastered 'bells-and-whistles' approach for a quaint, old show. Again, the age of the programme does come into play, but for something this old to sound this clear is good enough in my books. Dialogue is crisp throughout, music is fitting and there's those 'lovely' laughter-track moments which all add to the experience of watching an old sitcom!
The disc menus, whilst a bit on the pastel side, are certainly fitting with the show and draw upon the 'cartoon' motif from the intro credits segment of Bewitched. They are silent and static, but visually appealing and have fast access times, so they get the job done well enough.
As might be expected, there's not a massive deluge of special features available for a series this old, but at least the studio made some effort and we're treated to a two-part featurette called The Magic Unveiled, which is split across discs 1 and 2 and is about 15 minutes in total length. There are some interesting anecdotes about casting, shooting and writing Bewitched, including comments from cast and crew about the show. I was particularly intrigued to discover that Agnes Moorhead was a fundamentalist Christian (!), and that's the kind of snippet you can expect from this featurette. All clips from the show during this are in black-and-white and are the main opportunity you'll have to see the original broadcast colour (or lack of it) on this particular release.
There's also a segment named Magic and Mishaps located on the third disc, which shows some of the blunders that made it onto the air and also highlights some of the cameo appearances that are dotted throughout the first season of Bewitched. It's a neat little piece that works well and I'm glad they thought to include it.
Bewitched is a fun, whimsical sitcom that still entertains me even after having seen innumerable re-runs. The actors' comic timing is spot on, the situations genuinely amusing and the basic concept sound. Fans of the series will no doubt be glad it has finally seen a DVD release, though purists may want to hold out and get the R1 black-and-white version. (And I would appreciate it if those of you who feel that colourisation in itself warrants a Video score of zero refrain from attacking me simply because I disagree. Compared to contemporary shows that happened to be produced in colour, there is nothing seriously wrong with the look of this DVD release. It's just not the original B&W.)