“Donny and Marie” (1977)

In the interest of fairness, I must take some time to focus on at least one variety show that was implausibly a success. Despite the fact that, by the mid-70s, the genre was taking its last few ragged, dying breathes, there were a couple tough little scrappers determined to hang on, including The Sonny and Cher ShowThe Captain and Tennille, and, perhaps most unlikely, Donny and Marie, which ran for three modestly successful seasons.

If the Jackson 5 were just a little too “urban” for your tastes, you listened to The Osmonds. Originally consisting of five interchangeable brothers, The Osmonds briefly achieved bubblegum pop idol status in the early 70s, with youngest member Donny, along with only sister Marie, becoming the breakaway stars. Both managed to churn out some solo hits, but were eventually repackaged as a team and given their own variety show, a remarkable achievement considering they were all of 18 and 16 at the time. Donny and Marie featured America’s favorite things: light comedy, watered down covers of hit pop songs, celebrity contractual obligations, ice skating, and Paul Lynde, all with that apple-cheeked wholesomeness that made the Osmonds popular in the first place.

By the time the third season rolled around, however, the show’s ratings were starting to sink. Supposedly this was because Donny’s female fans were upset that, at age 19, he had the audacity to start dating, but more likely it was because the audience had simply grown tired of the show’s aggressively old fashioned corniness. And, oh boy, is it corny. That shouldn’t come as a shock, considering that the Osmonds built their empire on a mountain of cornpone and hokum, but this really has to be seen to be believed. It’s sort of charming at first, but quickly turns stifling and uncomfortable. To witness Donny and Marie’s relentless drive to show the audience at home a good time is to experience secondhand anxiety, made worse by the fact that, really, these are a couple of teenagers who should be at home going to high school (it doesn’t help that Marie’s unflattering hairstyle and wardrobe are more suitable for a woman twice her age). You can’t help but like them, while at the same time hating whoever it was (their parents, their agent, ABC president Fred Silverman, who knows) that convinced them this was a good idea.

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After a surprisingly groovy credits sequence, the episode I watched opens with Donny and Marie doing a cover of Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights.” In keeping with the show’s theme of taking something already pretty bland and wringing even more of the juice out of it, it eventually turns into a Busby Berkeley-style dance number featuring an ice skating troupe called the Ice Angels, who end up forming a kick line. After that, Donny and Marie play pool with Redd Foxx, whose presence on the show I can only assume was agreed upon after a blank check and a carton of cigarettes was exchanged. Much of Foxx’s dialogue is spoken in an incomprehensible, muttering growl, and Donny and Marie just smile a little harder to compensate for it.

Next, Kris Kristofferson, who must have emerged from the womb bearded and grizzled, appears to perform “Living Legend,” a song that seems to be about the plight of Vietnam veterans, and thus couldn’t be more out of place on Donny and Marie if Donny himself covered a Johnny Thunders song. After that, Donny, wearing an unbelievable mustard yellow suit, duets with Marie on their signature tune “A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock ‘n’ Roll,” although Marie is really a lot country, and Donny is so far removed from rock ‘n’ roll that he couldn’t find his way back with a map and binoculars. Despite his best efforts to convince the audience that he has “Motown in his soul,” even while wailing on a saxophone in the presence of a trio of black backup singers, there is no discernible rock ‘n’ roll to be found.

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We finally get to some “comedy” in the second half of the episode, when Paul Lynde appears as an unemployment office clerk who has to help Farrah Fawcett (played by Marie) find a job. Again, because this is supposed to be more wholesome than a loaf of Sunbeam bread, the jokes are so light as to be almost undetectable, and you can see Lynde all but champing at the bit to improvise something more bitchy.

After a puzzling bit where pre-filmed footage of unidentified teen skateboarders is cut with shots of the Ice Angels skating around in hot pants, we get to the highlight of the show, when the brothers who got left behind when Donny and Marie were made into solo acts, still collectively known as “the Osmonds,” perform a cover of “Shining Star.” Obviously four dorky Mormons singing and dancing to Earth, Wind and Fire is absurd, and yet, they give it their earnest all, and it doesn’t seem nearly as soaked in flop sweat as the rest of the show. It’s like watching a bunch of middle-aged dads just throwing all caution to the wind and letting themselves go at a wedding reception, and ends up being kind of adorable.

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It’s a swift decline from there as Kris Kristofferson appears again to duet with Marie on Lou Rawls’s “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.” Despite their near 25 year age difference (let alone that Marie is only 17 here), they stare longingly at each other the entire time, a bizarre blocking choice considering that barely a minute earlier Marie introduces Kristofferson’s then-wife, singer Rita Coolidge, and their young daughter, who appear to be watching this eye-fucking spectacle from just off stage.

Nearly the last fifteen minutes of the show is devoted to an atrocious musical parody of Star Wars, written by people whose knowledge of Star Wars seems to extend no further than vague familiarity with some of the characters. In addition to being woefully unfunny (Redd Foxx shows up as a character named “Okefenokee”), it’s cynical–you can almost hear the conversation in the writers’ room that went “What do these rubes like? That Star Wars thing, right? Let’s do something with that.”  They don’t even bother to make sure what they’re parodying is accurate, having Darth Vader refer to “my force” and escaping in the Millennium Falcon.

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Paul Lynde appears in the sketch as well, his facial expressions and body language shouting, as he must have thought before filming each episode of Donny and Marie, “What am I doing here?” Both Donny and Marie were likely thinking the same thing, but just did a better job of hiding it.

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