Looking at the Magic in the Mundane in ‘Bewitched’s First Season Bottle Episode
‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined
“Today lunch, tomorrow the world.”
Bewitched is a classic sitcom telling an age-old story: Darrin Stephens (Dick York), an advertising exec in his prime, marries Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery). Sam’s a beautiful blonde, the woman of his dreams, and…oh yeah, is also a witch. NBD.
As outlandish a premise as this was for a sitcom in the early ‘60s, Bewitched miraculously worked, and it largely had to do with the impeccable sort of storytelling that Danny Arnold, the show’s producer for the first season (before shifting to writing) was interested in exploring here. These Danny Arnold episodes were more concerned about the idea of using fantastical magical elements to tell a relatable, human story, than just reveling in the spectacle of it all.
Accordingly, the episode singled out here, “A is For Aardvark” (a Danny Arnold-produced entry), is one of the least claustrophobic bottle episodes that we’ve looked at. Everything about this episode is focused on hiding artifice. It might be using magic to solve problems, but it wants you to forget that, just like it wants you to forget you’re in a technically impressive bottle episode here.
Really, the only reason we’re in this bottle episode is because the house Darrin is lodged in due to his sprained ankle is imbued with magical powers. It’s one thing to tell a sort of bottle episode that limits your storytelling because of its restraints, but this particular bottle episode nearly has limitless potential as Darrin is allowed anything he desires. The bottle might be trapping these people, but it’s also full of magical powers, which is an interesting idea to explore.
As previously mentioned, Darrin finds himself with a sprained ankle for the episode, which naturally turns to Samantha wanting to use magic to aid him through this (and lighten her workload at the same time, as her constant trips upstairs to help Darrin begin to enter the sixties). Eventually the compromise is found that Samantha will enchant the house, making it follow Darrin’s every whim (which is a clever enough loophole through the “mortals not being allowed to use magic” principle). We see a very simple, conventional Bewitched first act here where Darrin is hesitant — even dismissive — of using the assistance of magic. Of course, by the second half of the episode he’s gone power crazy with it all.
Endora, Samantha’s mother, tells her at one point that mortals aren’t allowed magic because they’re inherently greedy and would get corrupted by it. She doesn’t seem to be wrong either once Darrin goes as far as quitting his job and getting ready to sell their home so that he and Samantha can travel the world and be free and invincible together. It’s also a pretty inspired, albeit minor, moment that one of the few times that Endora actually gets Darrin’s name right is once he’s become a selfish, maniacal magic user. Suddenly now he’s finally the man that’s good enough for her daughter. Of course she’s going to remember the name of this more egotistical version of her son-in-law.
This reflexive episode of the show was written by freelance writer, Earl Barret, and directed by Ida Lupino, who was one of the first pioneering female directors in television. Without her we certainly wouldn’t have our modern day equivalents, like Pamela Fryman. But it’s especially bonkers to think that such a knockout episode of the series, that is looked at so favorably by the show’s creative team, was made by two people who had never previously worked on the show. Perhaps that’s why the show’s mission statement is so entrenched in this installment and it feels so fundamental; Barret and Lupino are almost approaching it like their pilot of the series, jumping into it all for the first time.
It’s almost a little disappointing that such a winner would ultimately be attempted again/perverted years later in season six’s “Darrin the Warlock, Part 1 & 2”, with it at least being done with a different Darrin this time around (with Dick Sargeant in the role by this point).
Barret, who surprisingly would not join the show permanently, still managed to freelance for Bewitched. He turned out just as consistent work later on, like in the impressive, “Charlie Harper, Winner,” which almost acts like a pseudo-sequel to this episode.
While this entry seems to pride itself in being such an un-bottle bottle episode, one element it does share with many of its brethren is the emotional wallop that’s packed at the end. It’s incredibly simple, but when Darrin just gives Samantha normal, mortal gifts that he had already gotten her for their anniversary, she’s touched far more than any magical gift ever could. It’s honestly a move that could give Jim and Pam a run for their money as he presents her with a watch with the inscription “I love you every second” (awwwwww). It’s really a touching ending and I defy you not to be moved once Elizabeth Montgomery turns on the waterworks, a move even more rare for a sitcom to be doing at this point in the ‘60s. It’s doubly impactful too, as even if the proximity of the bottle hasn’t worn out Samantha, the magical elements and what they’ve done to Darrin certainly have. This is the culmination of all of that and finally she’s ready to shatter this enclosure.
This ends up enforcing some large, poignant issues that are prevalent throughout the entirety of Bewitched with this not only acting as a stellar episode from their first season, but also a reminder of why it’s one of the show’s best installments. This episode is all about the decision between earning the life you have or taking the easy way out in every situation. That’s what the series boils down to in Samantha’s decision to try and live a mortal life bereft of magic, and it’s reinforced by Darrin not wanting magic anywhere within the house. This is an entry that subverts all of that by putting Darrin on the magical side of it all and letting everything come easy to him. It’s not until he finally works at something and gives Samantha a sincere present rather than magicking up her something, that this spell can be broken.
It’s no coincidence that Darrin’s sprained ankle that sets all of this off in the first place is because Darrin trips going down the stairs to lock the back door because Samantha just wants to use magic to close it. It’s that act of easiness that disrupts the status quo, however, once everything has been learned by the end of this, once the same situation presents itself, Samantha still chooses to use magic to lock the door, but goes through with it this time unbeknownst to Darrin. This isn’t to say that everything will be fixed with magic from now on, but rather a balance has been found as it’s used as a sparse guilty pleasure of Samantha’s. Who wants to walk down the stairs and lock the door in the middle of the night? That’s the perfect use for magic!
Elizabeth Montgomery and producer William Asher have said that they consider this to not only be the best episode of the series, but the definitive Bewitched episode too. It’s easy to see why, with not only how simple “A is For Aardvark” is, but how many of the show’s themes and mantras are baked into it.
While most of the bottle episodes on this list so far have concentrated on the magic trick that they’ve tried to pull off, Bewitched is simply interested in using the device as the most efficient means of hammering its message home. “A is For Aardvark” not only hints at the benchmark for what sitcoms of this era could achieve, but that something that is often so silly could still be just as powerful and emotional as anything else.