We’re living in an IP hellscape. Superheroes dominate the box office, Disney shamelessly mimeographs their earlier animated offerings, and (although I turned it off an hour in) I’m pretty sure I saw Granny from the Looney Tunes edited into The Matrix in Space Jam: A New Legacy. Mainstream entertainment has become a cesspool of sameness where nostalgia is money and creative bankruptcy is the moment. But it wasn’t so long ago that a piece of intellectual property made an inspired, subversive transition to the big screen, and it did it with an unmistakable queerness.
Yes, it’s the story of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls. Gold hair, youngest in curls; man named Brady, three boys of his own. For the generation that grew up in the 1970s, that’s the intro to one of the most beloved sitcoms in television history. For a certain subset of ‘90s kids, though, it’s the theme song to two of the most bizarre studio comedies of the last 30 years.
It started with 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie, which made the simple but brilliant move of placing the Brady’s straight-laced conservatism in the midst of a modern ‘90s society with a more liberal understanding of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s effectively a one-joke premise, but a good one nonetheless. In truth, that film could probably use more of a contrast in the culture clash, and its most successful moments are the ones when it finds smart subversions of the Brady’s themselves, like the lesbian who’s fallen in love with Marcia or the demon voice in Jan’s head that stokes the fires of her jealousy toward her older sister.
Luckily, that film was somehow a box office success, grossing $46 million on a $12 million budget and paving the way for a sequel that could double down on that very subversion. In A Very Brady Sequel, Greg and Marcia make out, Jan invents a boyfriend named George Glass (née Tropicana), and Alice serves a guest pasta laced with magic mushrooms, leading to the immortal line, “I’m tripping with the Bradys!” The results were less successful both critically and commercially, yet the film has joined the ranks of Babe: Pig in the City, Addams Family Values, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch as sequels which took a potential franchise to Crazy Town and entered the annals of cultdom forever after.
We may never fully understand how Paramount so willingly transplanted the distinctly G-rated Brady family into a PG-13 satire that essentially spoofs their entire persona, particularly in our current moment where fanboys lead uprisings over Luke Skywalker throwing a lightsaber and Batman isn’t allowed to give head. Regardless, they entrusted this massively popular bit of IP to two female directors (Betty Thomas for the first, Arlene Sanford the second) and the openly gay writing team of James Berg and Stan Zimmerman.
What Berg and Zimmerman did was expose the queer underbelly of the Bradys. It was always there. Just ask RuPaul, whose appearance (in drag) in these major Hollywood films as school counselor Ms. Cummings is just one of their many inspired transgressions for the time. He’s always been a staunch supporter of The Brady Bunch, even going so far as to remake Season Two’s “Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” this past June with Drag Race alums. That original 1971 episode sported its own brand of drag, with Jan donning a black Afro wig to distinguish herself at a friend’s party, eventually learning the lesson that she doesn’t need to change who she is to be accepted. In Ru’s own parlance, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
And, of course, while the public didn’t know at the time, Mr. Brady actor Robert Reed was himself a gay man. After his tragic death to colon cancer, with his death certificate revealing he was also HIV-positive, Carol Brady actress Florence Henderson confirmed the struggles Reed faced under the squeaky-clean veneer of his television family man persona.
In a way, that tension was reflected on the show. Here was a family that seemed so perfectly happy, blissfully hand-waving away the historical context of the time. No Vietnam, no racial conflict, and absolutely no sex. Hell, Mr. and Mrs. Brady even brought the kids along on their honeymoon. This may have been just wholesome family entertainment for most, but queer people grow up having to read between the lines of major cultural texts. Most traditionally, that manifests as empathizing with a neverending parade of heterosexual romances and couplings. But it also can mean asking questions like, “If Greg and Marcia are two attractive people growing up together in the same house with no actual blood relation, and if the actors who played them actually did date, why wouldn’t they be hooking up?” Or “If Alice is a live-in maid but we never see her bedroom, where does she sleep?”
Enter Berg and Zimmerman, who did an uncredited doctoring of the original film but came onboard A Very Brady Sequel brilliantly exploiting this tension, reading between the lines of the series’ five season run and answering these questions and more. Some of this is achieved through sly innuendo (Greg and Marcia watching each other change in silhouette to the strains of “If Loving You Is Wrong I Don’t Want to Be Right”). But there’s also an element of surrealistic, Zucker Brothers style sight gags, like Alice retiring to bed through the refrigerator (Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker found dead in a ditch).
All this wackiness could verge on mean-spirited mockery of the source material, but somehow Berg and Zimmerman strike exactly the right tone of equal parts reverence and irreverence. Arlene Sanford and cinematographer Mac Ahlberg maintain an exhaustive affinity to the shooting style and look of the original series, and this cast, riding on the wave of the first film, understand so fully the style of this thing that it’s a bit of a marvel.
These essentially are drag performances. Shelley Long and Gary Cole never cross over into disrespect of Henderson or Reed, but one can’t help but notice Long pouring a seemingly endless amount of sugar into her morning coffee, or that Cole’s motivational speeches more often end in confusion than inspiration. The highlights of both films, certainly in this one, are the performances of Jennifer Elise Cox as Jan and Christine Taylor as Marcia. Cox’s awkwardly confident stride blows up original actress Eve Plumb’s gait and sends her hair swinging back and forth like a pendulum on the fritz. Taylor’s pronunciation of the word “school” as “Sküle” should feel ruthlessly savage to Maureen McCormick’s often bizarre diction. Instead, these dead-on quirks only serve to underscore the loving nostalgia of the film, and the inherent sweetness of these characters.
Interestingly enough, Cox and Taylor’s performances birthed one of the most popular memes of the Internet age: “Sure, Jan.” Sometimes mistaken for a moment from the actual television series, it’s in fact a defining quote of this very film, the one simple phrase that Marcia uses to shatter the illusion of Jan’s fake boyfriend George. The quiet destructive quality of the moment has become synonymous with “shade,” itself a concept originating from the Black and Latino ball culture of New York City in the 1980’s – yet another instance of queer culture winding its way through history and finding itself somehow in tandem with the Bradys.
The moment’s resurgence in meme form only reinforces the singularity of A Very Brady Sequel. In a year which featured studio comedies like Happy Gilmore, Black Sheep, and Bio-Dome, this is certainly the apple in the basket of oranges – a wacky high-concept comedy that’s as demented as it is darling. 25 years on, in the midst of a Hollywood which feels more like an industry of brand management than ingenuity, A Very Brady Sequel represents a moment where a major studio took a genuine risk with IP, trusted a woman and two gay writers, and delivered a radically queer cult classic.
Paramount Pictures released A Very Brady Sequel on August 23, 1996. It is currently available to stream with a Hulu subscription or to rent on Amazon, Google Play wherever you stream movies.