Since yesterday was Ray Bradbury’s birthday, I will introduce this week’s Family Affair episode thusly:
Written by: Ed James. Directed by: Charles Barton.
We begin with mail call at the Davis apartment. Even Buffy and Jody receive mail.
Cissy reacts with alarm to a letter she receives.
Fran has written that she’s looking forward to seeing the children again. (“Mwah-hah-hah” is implied at the end of the sentence). The kids are relieved when Uncle BIll explains that Fran is talking about a visit, not a permanent move. It seems she’s hosting a family reunion at her home in Terre Haute and wants Bill and the kids to attend. Bill had already decide to decline because he fears the trip will stir up traumatic memories for everyone.
One can travel by air from New York to Terre Haute in about two hours–or five establishing shots.
…before arriving at Aunt Fran’s rather grand house.
Since it’s almost time for school to let out, Cissy heads off to the high school to surprise old friends, while the twins convince French to take them to their old kindergarten classroom.
That leaves Bill alone with Aunt Fran, who promptly confesses that she’s sorry to see the kids looking so well-adjusted. Yep, that’s our Aunt Fran. It seems she has hopes of stealing them away. How has she progressed from ditching Buffy, to wanting the girls, to wanting all three kids? Beats me.
When the kids return, they are bursting with excitement about their school visits. Cissy is anxious to get reacquainted with a boy named Harvey who has blossomed into a star athlete. Buffy and Jody saw their old kindergarten teacher, who gave them cookies.
(We get a good French-ism here: “I find it a matter of note that, in New York or Terre Haute, school cookies always seem to be oatmeal.”)
Out of the kids’ presence, Fran corners Bill and makes him promise that he will watch the kids over the next few days and consider whether they would be happier in Terre Haute.
The next day, Cissy heads off with Harvey to explore her old stomping grounds.
Harvey remarks on how she has changed since leaving Indiana–she’s now a sophisticated New York woman. He asks her to join him for the junior dance, but it’s more than two weeks away. Cissy says she can’t stay that long, and she doubts Uncle Bill will let her fly back alone for the dance.
No, Cissy replies. He just cares about her and the twins.
Cut to the twins themselves, who are showing French their old playground and that huge slide they remembered.
Back at home, the ever-gracious Uncle Harold is grumbling about grocery prices.
Cissy asks Bill about flying back for the dance. He says no, as she expected. Aunt Fran knows an opportunity when she sees one, though.
The kids can attend their old schools, she says, and French and Uncle Bill can have a break.
That night, fear of abandonment keeps all the kids up and drives Jody into the girls’ bed. The next morning, at the breakfast table, a breakthrough occurs: The kids tell Bill their worries, and he assuages them. (This is so much better than another round of misunderstandings about whether Bill wants to keep them and whether they want to stay with him.)
Bill tells Fran that he and the kids will be leaving on Sunday after the family reunion. As it turns out, even that isn’t soon enough, as bad memories begin to plague the kids.
Harvey and Cissy visit a local lake and she remarks on its beauty.
Cissy grows wistful as she remembers picnics at the lake with her parents in the years before Buffy and Jody were born.
Meanwhile, French is taking the kids for a walk down memory lane. (You’d think Uncle Bill, who anticipated that the kids might find their visit to Terre Haute traumatic, would spend time with them himself. Hell, you’d think he’d do it just to avoid being alone with Fran.)
Then they stop outside the very toy store where Buffy got Mrs. Beasley. (As French jokes, it should be marked with a plaque.) She remembers walking down the street with her mother, who spied the doll and thought it was the cutest thing she’d ever seen. She took Buffy into the store and bought her the doll on the spot.
Outside the barber shop, Jody remembers getting his hair cut side-by-side with his dad, who would joke that Jody might need a shave in a few weeks.
The twins decide they’ve seen enough of Terre Haute and ask French to take them back to the house.
Sadly, we don’t get to see Aunt Fran’s reaction to their departure. Or that of Head-Wrinkle Harvey.
And Bill, relieved that the whole ordeal is over, is eager for the drink that French promises to fix him.
This episode exudes the underlying sadness that makes Family Affair so unusual. Many shows of that era featured kids who had lost a parent and then promptly forgotten that parent ever existed. I love the fact that Family Affair revisited the kids’ grief every so often. The twins’ walk with French is especially moving and well scripted, with a realistic amount of detail surrounding each memory.
Fran Higer: Louise Latham. Harold Higer: Bill Zuckert. Harvey: Jim Henaghan.
Sadly, this was Latham’s last appearance as the aunt we love to hate. They should have brought her back once a year. By season five, she could have escalated to building a bunker prison for the kids in her basement.
The kids’ mother had a beautiful singing voice. Buffy has a goldfish.
The entire episode refers back to the show’s origin. Also, Jody’s turtle gets another shout-out–Scotty fed it while the family was out of town.
“When you come back, you remember all the little things you thought you’d forgotten, but you haven’t…you really haven’t.”–Cissy
A Pronunciation Digression: Terre What?
Terre Haute is pronounced Terre Hote–except on Family Affair. In early episodes, most of the actors pronounce it correctly, but Brian Keith calls it Terre Hut. By the episode, everyone was using that pronunciation. In his memoir, Family Affair Production Supervisor John G. Stephens relates a conversation he had with Brian Keith about this issue:
During the filming, Brian keeps pronouncing the town’s name “Terre Hut.” We try to get him to pronounce the name correctly. He’ll have nothing to do with that. “I’ll call it Terre Hut whether you like it or not.”
After the show airs, we receive a number of letters from Terre Haute, complaining about Brian’s pronunciation. We show him the letters, and he just says, “What the fuck do they know?”
“They live there!”
“Ah, screw ‘em.”