Sex, '70s style

Swingers, short skirts, blowup dolls and big hearts: "Love American Style" taught a generation of kids about sex. So how does it look now that we're all grown up?

By Amy Reiter

Published March 11, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

As a kid, I probably learned as much about sex from "Love American Style" as from anywhere else. Although the hodgepodge comedy show originally aired on ABC from 1969 to 1974 -- for a time alongside family-friendly fare like "The Partridge Family," "The Brady Bunch" and "The Odd Couple" -- that's not where I discovered it. It was a syndicated daytime staple for years thereafter, and I can distinctly remember faking sick (sorry, Mom!) to stay home periodically from school to watch it along with the soap operas a friend's baby sitter had turned me on to.

Tuning in to it -- upstairs, in my parents' bedroom, on our one color TV -- always felt vaguely titillating, a bit naughty, and OK, maybe a little shameful, as if I were peeping into a forbidden window. Was I in elementary school? Junior high? I really can't recall, but I do remember that zazz of excitement as the opening credits rolled: the fireworks, the groovy male and female voices commingling in song, the famous faces framed in hearts. Seventies sex was so darn cute!

Or was it? The recent release of the original series on DVD ("Season 1, Vol. 1" came out last November; "Season 1, Vol. 2" hits stores Tuesday) reveals a show that is at once more innocent and more pointed than memory conjures. Beneath the corny vignettes and the meandering, sitcom-y sketches that make up each hourlong episode lurk a few sharp observations about a culture and time in which gender stereotypes, institutions (like marriage), generational relationships and pretty much everything else were shifting dramatically. But even while all that was changing, the show seemed to say, love is a constant. Even as it winked at swingers and sex toys, "Love American Style" was as earnestly romantic as candlelight and Chianti.

Take, for instance, Season 1's "Love and the Legal Agreement," in which Bill Bixby and Connie Stevens play a couple whose marriage appears to be on the rocks: He's suiting up and going off to his law firm each day, drinking too much at night, neglecting her, flirting with other women; she's spending her days hanging around the house in bright-patterned muumuus, feeling unfulfilled, flirting with other men. They're always fighting and so, naturally, decide to separate. Since neither wants to leave their lovely home, they agree to share it. But when push comes to shove -- when each of them contemplates dating someone else, and worse, seeing their spouse date someone else -- well, wouldn't you know, they realize they're really in love with each other after all. See? Even in this crazy age of divorce, love offers a heart-shaped lifesaver.

Or how about "Love and the Unlikely Couple," in which a perfectly average-looking young man, Wally (Wes Stern), brings his bombshell fiancée, Bunny (Barbara Rhoades), home to meet his folks. His mother (Alice Ghostley), who before meeting the fiancée had been nervous about making a good impression, suddenly suspects that the young woman is after her son's (nonexistent) money. All his googly-eyed father (Lou Jacobi) can mutter is, "The lucky bum." But it turns out that, no, the lovely lady is loaded, too. So, asks the mother, what does this beauty see in her humble son? And for that matter, why is her son marrying this woman?

Wally: Why? Because I love her, that's why. Mama, you always said that when I met the right girl, something would twang inside me. Well, didn't you say that?

Mama: Yes.

Wally: Well, the minute I saw Bunny, I started twanging and I haven't stopped yet.

Papa: Attaboy, ya lucky bum!

Bunny: And I've been pinging. All time I'm with Wally, I'm pinging away!

Mama: They're in love! Can you believe it?

See? Even in these shallow, looks- and money-obsessed times, love turns out to be not only blind but independently wealthy and pinging away.

And then there's "Love and the Pill," in which Jane Wyatt and Bob Cummings play middle-aged parents who try to get their teenage daughter's boyfriend to slip birth control pills into her drink each day, telling him they're vitamins for a rare blood condition. Unfortunately for them, he's seen birth control pills before -- because his mother takes them -- and is aghast. He and the couple's daughter aren't having sex, he tells them, indignantly. "Why not?" they ask, confused. "It's just the way we happen to feel about it," he says, quietly, yet resolutely, "that's all." See? Even in these free-lovin' times, some young people still value love over sex -- no matter what the oldsters think.

To be sure, the show is anything but subtle, and all these variations on pretty much the same theme may grate on anyone who isn't willing to cut "Love American Style" a lot of slack for nostalgia's sake. Also, there are some serious clunkers to be found among the assortment of mildly flawed gems: "Love and the Doorknob," for instance, in which a man gets his mouth stuck on a doorknob on his wedding night (it's not what you think, but it's also not funny), and "Love and the Militant," in which a guy tries to impress his crush by threatening to blow up her boss's office, to name just two.

But the silly inter-sketch mini-vignettes, sending up the changing mores of the day, are still fun, even if they seem far cornier, more obvious and less edgy than they must have in their original incarnation. And the show's rotating cast of actors -- Flip Wilson! Larry Storch! Arte Johnson! Sid Caesar! Ozzie Nelson! Phyllis Diller! -- are a pip, as is the parade of groovy period décor, minidresses, leisure suits and teased hairdos.

So while anyone who tunes in expecting to be titillated may be as disappointed as those sex-preoccupied parents in "Love and the Pill," they may also find themselves just as pleasantly surprised. Because "Love American Style" evokes a time when sex seemed full of possibilities, gender roles seemed ripe for redefining, and making love seemed like a perfectly viable alternative to making war. And who couldn't use a little dose of that?

Amy Reiter

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