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Monday, March 4th, 2013

Watching 'Kelly's Kids', the Backdoor 'Brady Bunch' Pilot

Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, yet highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we cry in vain. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where “Brilliantly Canceled” comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t make it past their first season and saved us all a ton of grief.

The early 70s belonged to the Bradys. Co-opting flower power parenting and Leave It to Beaver wholesomeness, Brady Bunch-creator and TV-demigod Sherwood Schwartz turned the story of a lovely lady and some guy named Mike into a ratings dynamo and six kids into the archetypal American youngsters. And, of course, freedom rang for Brady Bunch lunch boxes, breakfast cereals, and knockoffs. And it was good.

Part of the Brady's appeal was that, from the time it premiered, it was hard to imagine something more familiar than The Brady Bunch — it’s basically the TV equivalent of apple pie, baseball, and the Fourth of July. But the kids’ rosy cheeks and doe eyes wouldn’t last forever; they grew older and less adorable by the minute. So during the show's initial run, producers introduced the world to Cousin Oliver, a younger, cuter, and more mischievous Brady child. Cousin Oliver was Schwartz's most famous attempt at freshening up the show, but throughout and after the show's life, the Brady kids found themselves starring in cartoons, variety shows, and vacations in Hawaii.

Networks, essentially, have to trick viewers into watching something new, and, to avoid the embarrassment of dismal ratings and quick cancellation, occasionally they sneak a pilot into regularly scheduled programing. These backdoor pilots appear under the name of a host show but center around a group of side characters. This sometimes works, too. Without backdoor pilots, we’d never have The Jeffersons, A Different World, The Facts of Life, or 900 Happy Days spin-offs.

One show that couldn’t get this off the ground, though, was The Brady Bunch. The Bradys might have been the first family of television, but they never recreated their own success. And that wasn’t due to a lack of half-hearted tries. On January 4, 1974, with eight episodes until the show’s finale, Carol and Mike Brady gave their 30-minutes of family warmth to two new characters, Ken and Kathy Kelly, next-door neighbors and childless couple. Still under the Brady title, the bunch provided guidance for an otherwise messy episode, which tackled everything from adoption to racism.

The episode, entitled “Kelly’s Kids,” shifts focus from Mike and Carol to Ken and Kathy who adopt Matt, a nine-year-old boy. From the time the episode begins to the conclusion under Alice’s watchful eyes, a lot happens. Too much, in fact. Aside from meeting Ken, Kathy, and Matt, Schwartz also introduces two more boys, Steve and Dwayne, as well as the Kathy’s racist neighbor Mrs. Payne. Kelly’s Kids could have been three separate episodes.

To convince viewers that a Kelly’s Kids series is worth their time, Schwartz loads up on Brady characterizations and themes, and tosses in a little Free to be You and Me for good measure, because it’s 1974. This leads to some awkward confrontations, particularly those involving the bigoted Mrs. Payne, which never seem to get the attention they deserve. For an episode of the Brady Bunch, these moments stick out like a sore thumb.

The inclusion of regular characters maintains the built in audience. Mike, Carol, and Greg Brady pop-up in this episode to introduce the Kellys and listen to them ramble. In this case, like Cliff Huxtable in early Different World episodes, the Bradys are brand recognition and it hurts the show. Ken and Kathy do their best to pose as Mike and Carol. They smile and joke at their kids’ frankness and present a warm, loving home for their adopted children. However, when Mike and Carol appear, they make Ken and Kathy look like the carbon copies they are. Mike and Carol make it known: This is the Brady residence.

Eventually, Schwartz would re-tool the idea into Together We Stand, a 1986 sitcom starring Elliot Gould, Dee Wallace Stone, and Data from The Goonies. Moving away from the Bradys worked for 19 episodes, which wasn’t bad for a show that premiered over a decade after “Kelly’s Kids.” The idea might never be a good one, but it lasted longer on its own accord than when playing second fiddle.

Backdoor pilots generally ring false, because a long running show needs time to develop its own beats. Piggybacking on another’s success can only go so far, and even with some new ideas on board, the similarities overbear the plot. “Kelly’s Kids” was a pretty bland attempt at continuing The Brady Bunch, and an example that many shows would learn from. Using a popular character to build an audience works, but throwing new ones into the show for the sake of a pilot is a frivolous waste of a 109th episode.

Check out the Brady weirdness right here.

Matt Schimkowitz is a writer, TV-watcher, and failed child actor, who once auditioned for the role of Scrappy-Doo but lost it to a cartoonist. Like you, he enjoys the finer things in life: drinking from coconuts, the latest Italian vogue, and complaining about movies, music, and TV on the Internet. Find more writing about canceled TV shows and other irrelevant nonsense on the twitter and blogosphere, respectively<.

  • Ryan

    Wasn't Cousin Oliver introduced in the last season?

    • Guest

      Thanks

    • http://twitter.com/borntoslug Matt Schimkowitz

      Thanks for catching that. We've updated the piece.

  • greystokememphis

    My favorite backdoor pilot was the episode of Emergency that got taken over by the Animal Control Unit.

    • http://twitter.com/borntoslug Matt Schimkowitz

      This sounds incredible. I'll have to track down a copy.

  • TheNewJanBrady

    Can you also update the intro to these to say "in vain" (which is correct) instead of "in vein" (which is not)? Love the Bradys, and this series, but that sentence stops me cold!

    • http://twitter.com/borntoslug Matt Schimkowitz

      I'll see what we can do. My copy desk is sort of imaginary at the moment, but I'll make sure to fix this for future installments. Thanks for reading (and editing)!

  • uofmguy423

    Don't forget the episode of "The Nanny" where they tried to spin off a pilot for "The Chatter Box"…a Queen salon owned by some male friend of Fran's. Didn't really go anywhere.

  • Paul

    Apparently the episode did so badly that it didn't make the Brady Bunch season 4 DVDs … at least not in the discs we rented from Netflix.

  • Paul Kersey

    This "Kelly's Kids" episode aired today on TV Land. First time I've seen it in many years.

  • Jack Taylor

    Another one they did this too was the Mary Tyler Moore show. Bill Daley (sp?) played some local politician. Golden Girls did it with an episode with Rita Moreno playing an ignored wife with her Dr. husband. I know there are others, I just can't think of them right now.