In the famous opening grid of The Brady Bunch‘s title sequence, the character who occupies the center square is not a parent or a child but Alice the housekeeper. (As a kid, I had a heavy diet of Hollywood Squares episodes and Brady Bunch reruns, and therefore forever had Alice and Paul Lynde weirdly conjoined in my mind.) Played by Ann B. Davis, who died after a fall on May 31 at age 88, Alice was the connecting tissue of the group that somehow formed a family.
As a kid watching the Bradys, maybe you identified with Jan or Bobby or another kid, maybe you had affection for Mike and Carol–but Alice was the one you loved. She was an employee, yes, but a friend and a confidante. She was the adult on the show who was most often allowed to be flat-out, broadly funny. Mike had to be patient and befuddled; Carol warm and wise. But Alice got to be smart, self-effacing, flustered, and straight-talking, and Davis played her with a comic arsenal of comic moves and gestures–that peppy voice, those talented eyebrows–and just a touch of relatable melancholy. (Oh, Sam the Butcher!)
The character was also a connection between TV eras. On the one hand, she was a throwback to the early days of TV sitcoms, when housekeeper and maid characters were more commonplace, from Hazel to The Jetsons’ Rosie. (While she had successors, like The Jeffersons‘ Florence, the wisecracking household worker isn’t so common anymore.) But on the other hand, she connected with a change that, in the early ’70s, was emerging in American families, in which figures other than two parents were central in kids’ lives.
Like a lot of childhood TV memories, The Brady Bunch is loved not so much for its artistry as for its emotional connections. The Brady family was big, it was blended, and it felt like there was room for everyone. Putting two families together on TV was unusual at the time, and it spoke to the number of kids who recognized divorce and remarriage from their own lives. Yes, Mike was a widower, and Carol’s status was never clarified–a compromise after Sherwood Schwartz wanted her to be a divorcée–but anyone watching knew what the show was really depicting. It turned something commonly depicted as tragedy into a triumph–a family coming together by choice.
And Alice–an employee, after all–was there by choice more than anyone. Nothing was making her stay, and yet she did. An early episode (see video, above), “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” addressed this directly, as Alice almost left (concocting a story about a “sick aunt”) because she worried the kids didn’t need her anymore. In typical Brady style, this led to hijinks–the whole family undertaking “Operation Alice” to convince her that she was needed–but really the necessity was plain in sight. The Brady house was an operation with a lot of moving parts.
Most of us watching The Bradys didn’t have full-time household help whipping up pork chops and applesauce. But we were, more and more, familiar with the parent-plus model of child-rearing: extended family, or paid caregivers, or family friends who occupied our lives and filled the gaps left by family breakups or busy work schedules.
For some of us, Alice reflected the accessory parents we had in our own lives. For others, she was one of those accessory parents–a familiar presence on the TV in an empty house, dishing out one-liners and companionship. We loved her because she made us laugh, and because she told us something we already knew: that you didn’t have to be blood to be family, you didn’t have to be related to relate. RIP, Ann B. Davis.