Harper Valley PTA started out as a 1968 radio hit for Jeannie C. Riley, about a widowed single mother who isn’t bothering to conform to small town standards because she wears miniskirts and laughs at jokes. According to the local PTA, this makes her a floozy and her degenerate ways must be stopped, so they send her a cease and desist order in the mail. She goes to their next meeting, airs the town’s dirty laundry and, metaphorically, flips everyone off before she goes back to living her life as she damn well pleases. Great song, very catchy.
In 1978, it was made into a drive-in movie starring Barbara Eden. If it had starred literally anyone else, it probably would have been lost to the sands of time. But the same piece of casting that saves it from obscurity dooms it to not making any sense. Barbara Eden, even in the most mini of skirts, doesn’t seem as a scandalous figure, or the kind of woman that other women would be venomously jealous of. Like, if she ever played a serial killer, the general response would be: “Aw, leave her alone, FBI! She’s fun!”
And when you’re turning a three minute song into an eighty minute movie, you have to pad the story. So there’s car chases and kidnappers are hired, and then people have to get disguised as nuns, and there’s a subplot about a real estate mogul who threatens to foreclose on women’s houses if they don’t make out with him, and it’s a lot. Which means when, in 1981, they decided to turn the film into a television show, they had to take a lot of stuff back out, and the end result is that the general premise gets a little lost in the shuffle.
For season one, the formula was like this: Stella does something that is misunderstood by the PTA, the PTA attempts to blow the event out of proportion as part of a scheme that makes no sense, Stella turns the tables and socks it to the Harper Valley PTA.
And that formula can be seen in full force for today’s episode, which begins with Stella grabbing her mail out of the mailbox and muttering about how something she was expecting hasn’t arrived yet. As she heads into the house, Dee predicts that “the check” hasn’t come, and Stella confirms that it hasn’t. Apparently, the people at AngelGlo are unreliable about sending out quarterly bonus checks, which is dumb because they’re a door-to-door makeup company, and saleswoman incentives really drive that business model. But whatever, it’s an 80’s sitcom, let’s save the ridiculous over-thinking for 50’s Westerns.
Dee ever-so-subtly reminds her mother that there’s a fabulous winter jacket in the window at Bassinger’s Department Store, and it would sure take some of the burden off of being the daughter of the town’s femme fatale if she could keep warm in style this year. (Despite not being in it much, Dee manages to act like an actual teenage girl when she does show up.) Stella tells her that she’s already in possession of a perfectly good winter jacket, and that the money is going in the bank.
Some staging weirdness is about to happen in the name of comedy. Dee is sitting on the sofa with her textbooks and notes, doing her homework on the coffee table when Stella enters. They talk about bonus checks and jackets, then Stella tells Dee to go upstairs and finish her homework, because I guess it’s not going to get finished if she keeps working on it in the living room? I don’t know. Dee gathers up her books and heads for the stairs, while Stella opens the rest of the mail.
Stella notices a thick manila envelope with no return address and finds that it contains a magazine. She flips open the magazine and gasps with shock, as she clutches it to her chest to hide its contents from Dee, who is now standing behind her. The cover of the magazine says SLEAZE and has a picture of a woman in lingerie on it. It’s pretty obviously not Better Homes and Gardens, and you don’t need to open it to figure that out. Regardless, Dee announces that she’s actually going to head for the library and pops out the door as Stella hides the dirty mag under a couch cushion.
Meanwhile, across the street, local busybody Willamae Jones is raking up some leaves and wearing a pair of what seriously look to be tartan plus-fours, rainboots, and a chocolate coloured cardigan. So if anybody should be getting letters from the PTA about their outfits…
Anyway, the local mailman saunters up, and it turns out he and Miss Willamae are having some kind of affair, or at least a pretty serious flirtation. The mailman compliments her hideous trousers, and tells her they’re his favourite colour: plaid.
It’s the funniest joke in this episode, and that’s sad.
They giggle and tease each other a little bit, and the mailman hands over a pile of junk and advertisements. Willamae is disappointed and starts to head into the house, when the mailman reports that the only person who got something good that day was Stella Johnson. Stella Johnson, source of local fascination, gossip, and disdain? Willamae whips around like a dog who just got told a piece of bacon was on the floor.
For all of two seconds, she pretends she doesn’t care to snoop in the private affairs of the local gossip magnet, but then she demands to know what was so interesting about Stella’s mail.
The mailman spills the beans about the Sleaze magazine, and Willamae is happy? Shocked? Scandalized?
Honestly, I have no idea what she hopes to do with this information.
“Some of the pictures in there would melt your knitting needles!” The mailman chuckles.
“I’m sure they would. But I bet that hussy can look through it all day long and not bat an eye.” Willamae answers, because she’s a terrible person.
Like, really. It’s a dirty magazine and you’re all grown-ups, what exactly is the scandal here?
There is one person who’s kind of upset about this turn of events with cause, and that’s Stella. She was clearly sent the magazine without ordering it, and she’s not keen on its content. Since it’s her life and her household, she has every right to be baffled and a little mad about this.
She thumbs through Sleaze on her sofa, eyes wide as she comes across some of the more imaginative spreads.
We do a commercial and a time skip, and when we get back, Stella’s BFF Cassie is hanging out in the kitchen with her. Cassie is played by Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. Stella is standing on a chair, fishing out the adult magazine from its new hiding place at the back of the cupboard over the stove.
It has to be hidden so that Dee won’t find it. I have no idea why, if it’s such trouble to own, Stella doesn’t just burn it in the fireplace. (I suggest burning it instead of merely throwing it out, because I suspect that at night her nosy neighbours paw through her garbage like raccoons.)
Cassie thinks it’s pretty funny that Stella has a copy of Sleaze and is hiding it in the kitchen. She also thinks the contents of the magazine itself are hilarious, and they probably are. 80’s porn was like Amazonian glamour girls with super teased hair and glittered body oil arching their backs in a fake rainforest in front of a painted sunset, maybe holding an automatic weapon. It was a weird time.
Anyway, it turns out that Sleaze has been sending out complimentary copies to consenting adults with a card that can be filled in for a long-term subscription. I’ve never heard of a publication with pornographic content doing something like that, but I’m going to level with you guys: I do not know a ton about ye olde girlie mags. Everything I can remember I heard from Barbi Benton in an interview about the process of restoring the Playboy mansion when it was first purchased. (I know, I know, I’m so edgy and risqué.)
Stella wants to know why Sleaze would think she, of all people, would be interested. Cassie says that they just pick names off of mailing lists for things like this. Which kind of points to why you wouldn’t do this marketing manoeuver with a publication full of distasteful nudity. You’re going to get so many angry letters from people who aren’t just disinclined towards your product, but on religious crusades to stop you from existing. I guess the only people more clueless about their business model than AngelGlo are the boys at Sleaze.
So, finally, Stella decides to rip the thing up, but Cassie stops her saying “they’ll just send you more!” Her plan is to take the magazine and write on it: “Not wanted. Return to sender.”
She promises she’ll drop it in the mailbox for Stella on her way home.
Time to get a look at the evil PTA members and their very official table, complete with name plates for everybody and a gavel. It looks like a rundown branch of SPECTRE.
Along with how to run a dirty magazine, I also don’t know much about PTA’s. We don’t have ‘em in Canada, so for all I know they really do have weekly meetings about how to ruin one person’s life, though I suspect it would be more about fundraising programs and homework hours.
Oddly, but not surprisingly, the order of business this week is discussing Willamae’s announcement that Stella Johnson subscribes to Sleaze magazine. There are murmurs and mumbles, and somebody’s monocle falls into their tea. (Not really, but might as well.)
Flora Simpson Reilly, PTA leader or chairwoman or whatever, is shocked. So is her daughter, Wanda. The mayor of Harper Valley lets everyone know that there isn’t a single page in this month’s issue he finds appropriate. Thanks for grossing everyone out, mayor.
In her gigantic hat, with her long strings of pearls, Flora looks less like the stalwart grand dame and more like the madam at a depression era brothel. Regardless, she stands and thanks Willamae for confirming what everyone already knew: Stella Johnson is not fit to live in Harper Valley.
It’s really hard to get why these people are so angry.
But, apparently, they need to “get evidence” of Stella’s naughty subscription so that…? They can… use it…? For their plan?
Look, the PTA is evil and they have really uptight moral standards and any deviation for those standards leads to some horrible fate. It’s almost like those horror films where the couple moves to suburbia and suburbia is full of robots or Satanists or people who use human flesh to fertilize their corn or something. I think the point is that the school in Harper Valley is amazing, and Dee needs it on her transcript, so Stella can’t let her be expelled and can’t just transfer her.
(This show is lacking the internal logic that I Dream of Jeannie had.)
The plan seems to be getting Willamae to rifle through Stella’s mail.
So, the next day, Willamae sneaks across to Stella’s house right after the mail delivery and pulls out all of Stella’s – wait. What? Isn’t Willamae getting some this-and-that from the mailman? Can she not use her feminine wiles to ask her original snitch to let her know if there’re anymore Sleaze deliveries? Also, how frequently does Sleaze send out issues? Didn’t Stella just get one?
Regardless of my Vulcan-like obsession with logic, the show carries on. Stella is walking down the street next to Dee, who is riding on a skateboard and wearing an Evel Knievel tracksuit. Dee is cooler than I am.
Willamae sees them coming, panics, and steals all of their mail. This is called Obstruction of Correspondence, and you can get five years in the slammer and a serious fine.
It’s worth noting that there were only slim white envelopes that day, so Willamae breaking the law is totally unnecessary, and she’s facing jail time because she’s an idiot.
Here’s what you do next time, Willamae: open the mailbox, then use your eyeballs to look inside and see if any of the contents are the size of a magazine. If not, close the mailbox and leave. If asked what you were doing, just say you thought you heard a wasp trapped in there, and those can be dangerous. If Dee suck her hand in and got stung, you’d feel just awful!
But, what’s done is done, and the ill-gotten letters are soon brought to Flora, who is busily trying to steam them open when next we see her.
She’s in her office, and she explains to her trio of cohorts – Willamae, Wanda, and Wanda’s lecherous husband Bobby – that this isn’t tampering, it’s reading. And it’s being done in the interests of protecting Harper Valley.
From Barbara Eden.
Who isn’t doing anything wrong.
I still don’t know why they hate her. She’s not half as risqué as the mother in the original song, and the mother in the original song was no worse than anybody else. That was the point of the song.
Flora hammers the last nail in the coffin of “they should go to jail for this” when she opens Stella’s bonus check. Now this is obstruction of correspondence, mail tampering, and good old larceny. Probably a bunch of other little things I’m missing. I really need to make friends with an expert on American law so that I can bother them about early 80’s sitcoms.
“What kind of services is it for?” Wanda asks, way to eagerly.
Why, it says “Prostitution and Fantasy Roleplay!” Because people would totally write that on a check if that were the case!
Wanda is an idiot.
And her grabby husband is no better as he laments the fruitlessness of their investigation. Maybe he was hoping to get a free copy of Sleaze after all this.
Finally, Willamae clues in to the whole size-discrepancy thing she failed to notice during the adrenaline rush of her letter heist. She asks Flora why they’re bothering with stuff that’s clearly not part of the magazine-related objective. Flora says they have to check everything because “who knows what might turn up in that hussy’s personal letters?”
It’s sad how the other women keep using words like “hussy” to describe Stella. And it’s also sad that in order to make this show work, the network or the writers felt like everything Stella got in trouble for had to be a wacky misunderstanding, instead of looking at ways to expand the perception of the responsibilities of a single mother. I wish they’d asked a question about why Stella would subscribe to Sleaze, or buy a copy of it. Maybe Dee heard boys at school discussing it, and she felt insecure, so Stella wanted to check out the content herself to have a more informed conversation? Maybe Dee herself bought it under Stella’s name because she was curious about what boys find attractive?
Anyway, the next day, Willamae exchanges the stolen letters with the ones just delivered to Stella. (Really feel like she’s not optimizing her connection to the mailman.)
The good news is that Stella gets her bonus check now, and she seems pretty happy about it.
She hurries into the house, calling excitedly to Dee, who’s hanging out in the kitchen working on a school project. Man, this kid is devoted to her studies. Stop trying to kick her out of school, you stupid PTA!
Stella asks if Dee knows what the bonus check means, and Dee replies: “A trip to the bank?”
Nope! A new winter coat from Bassinger’s Department Store!
“There comes a time in every woman’s life when spending money is more important than making money. And that time comes when her only daughter who she loves more than anything else in the whole world is simply burstin’ for a one hundred percent goose down jacket.”
Aw, Barbara Eden is a treasure.
And Dee is so excited! And she’ll be so warm! Goose down, woo!
The next day, Stella hits the pavement with her sample box. Her first appointment is at Vivian Washburn’s house, and she has some new night cream she thinks is just the thing for Vivian.
Vivian says what she really needs is vanishing cream to make the mess in her living room disappear. She’s just had a baby, and Dr. Spock says humour helps. Unfortunately, Vivian is really bad at jokes.
She changes the subject by complimenting Stella’s brand new dress.
Stella says it’s the first time she’s worn it. She just bought it.
“Out of your bonus check, I suppose.” Vivian nods.
Yup! With what was left over after Dee’s jacket – wait, how did Vivian know about Stella’s bonus check?
Vivian panics, says she suddenly has to go, and slams the door in Stella’s face.
Good job, Viv! Super inconspicuous! She won’t suspect a thing!
Later that afternoon, Cassie and Stella are strolling down the street, when what should they see but Willamae doing the ol’ mailbox switcheroo.
(Come on, Willamae! Do crime properly! There’s no excuse for your sloppiness!)
Instead of being like: “I see you, Willamae! I’m reporting this to the post office! It’s illegal to steal people’s mail, and it’s a federal crime! The FBI are coming! You can’t buy them off with lemon squares, Willamae! You’re going to the real prison!” which is what I feel the normal response to be, Stella just realizes that this is how Vivian knew about her bonus check. The entire town has been reading her mail.
She seems… not angry enough.
Cassie suggests that they’re doing this to find copies of Sleaze, which is an impressive deduction given how bizarre all of this feels. Cassie’s plan is to beat up Willamae, but Stella stops her.
She’s got a better idea.
A zanier idea.
Step one is to write herself a letter, and then send it. We don’t know the contents, but the outside says PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL. Just to get everyone really interested in what might be in there.
Stella and Cassie laugh as they slip it in a post box, then they do a friendship club secret handshake high five that involves snapping.
“Good heavens!” Flora Simpson Reilly cries, “I never thought I’d read anything like this!”
The entire PTA is gathered around the steamer, waiting eagerly for more sordid details of Stella’s paychecks and coupon programs. But what Flora’s got is beyond anything they’ve found so far. A fake Middle Eastern princess with a fake name from a fake country is coming to Harper Valley! I seriously did not catch any of the fake name of either the princess or country, so we’re going with Princess Baba Ganoush of Djelibeybi. It doesn’t matter because Stella made it up anyway.
Flora is super excited! Princess Baba Ganoush will be arriving tomorrow!
“I hope we don’t have to roll out the red carpet,” the mayor says. “It still has stains from the time Lassie came to town.”
The canned laughter loves that one for some reason.
Anyway, according to the letter, the princess’s husband, The Sheikh, has bought a whole bunch of American companies with his oil money, and one of them was AngelGlo cosmetics. The princess has decided to run the company herself, and is looking for real estate in several locations in order to make her American home. One of those places is Harper Valley, could Stella show her around?
This is a weird plan. When I heard the mail stealing plan, I thought it would be the strangest thing we’d encounter, but somehow the response to the mail stealing plan is even stranger.
Everyone in the PTA starts planning to sell their homes and businesses to Princess Baba Ganoush when she comes. And Flora announces that since she is the closest thing to royalty in Harper Valley, she will host a welcome party for the princess.
After the meeting, Flora goes straight to Stella’s house to see her.
Stella and Cassie are hanging out in ridiculous 80’s clothes. Stella is wearing a black velour jumpsuit, and Cassie is wearing an Irish cardigan over a cream turtle neck, with tan trousers and penny loafers. It’s really hard to say which is worse.
Do yourself a favour, and no matter what decade you’re in, just wear jeans. Nobody looks stupid in jeans.
So Flora tells them all about how great her next party is going to be, and Stella replies that it sounds awesome, what a shame she and Cassie aren’t invited.
But of course they’re invited! And they’re welcome to bring anyone else they think would enjoy it! An uncle, an aunt, a princess…
Oh! Do you think Princess Baba Ganoush might like to attend?
Flora insists that they all come, and that Princess Baba Ganoush will have a wonderful time.
That settles it. Princess Baba Ganoush will be at the party for 8:00, and so will Cassie.
“What about you, Stella?” Flora asks.
“Me? Oh, well, if the princess is there, sure as shootin’ I’ll be there!” Stella says with a mischievous twinkle.
You might be asking yourself if all of this is just so Barbara Eden can put on a genie-looking costume and stir up some trouble, and the answer to that is yes.
Yes it is.
The Sleaze aspect of the plotline goes nowhere. Forget about the magazine and the mail fraud, we’re doing Middle Eastern princess now. Get on board, cuz this train is leaving the station.
The next night, the party is looking really dull and kind of grand. Flora is wearing elbow length white gloves and a tiara because she’s crazy. Waiters bring everyone trays of tiny hot dogs with toothpicks in them, and the cocktails look like one of those cans of mixed fruit with some vodka in it?
At the front of the house, the limousine from the funeral parlour pulls up with Cassie and “The Princess” inside. Of course, it’s just Stella in a blue version of her famous Jeannie costume, but with veils obscuring her face.
Now, okay, on I Dream of Jeannie I think we all excused the fact that this woman doesn’t look Persian in the slightest by saying she has magic powers and can and does change her appearance. No big deal. But here? I guess you could say that she married into it, but that’s not what they’re going for with the name and look. And then, too, this is not a modern look with the veils and the harem pants.
Maybe everyone was worried that audiences wouldn’t be able to let go of Jeannie, but the way to solve that is not to remind everyone of Jeannie for no reason. Because then it’s just like: “Man, I wish I was watching the one where Jeannie and Roger get that newspaper that predicts the future…”
(Man, I wish I was watching that…)
Back in the house, Flora warns everyone not to make camel jokes, because, you know, here in North America all anyone does is make camel jokes and talk about local sports teams at parties. And you have to watch that with international guests, especially the ones from places like Djelibeybi, where camels are kind of a big deal.
When Cassie and the princess make their grand entrance, Flora bows super dramatically and says:
“A thousand subserviences to you, my princess!”
“That’s weird. Get up,” Princess Baba Ganoush doesn’t say. Even though that might actually be funny.
“I am known as Mrs. Reilly. Welcome to my home.”
I’m so glad that this isn’t an actual foreign dignitary.
A little later, they’re all gathered around the bar, and Flora asks the princess if she enjoys swimming. She says that there’s no water in her country, only oil.
Flora starts to tell her about lakefront property, and the princess announces she will buy the lake. Stella writes a fake check for a million dollars and gives it to Flora.
Well, now everybody’s done something illegal, so I guess nobody has. That’s how laws work.
Next up, Princess Baba Ganoush does a belly dance with the mayor, and gives him a fake check for four million dollars in order to purchase City Hall. And so it goes – check after check after check, until everyone is drunk on joy and fake money.
But, there’s one thing the princess wishes. And that is to meet Stella Johnson.
Flora says she invited Stella, and has no idea where she might be. The princess suggests that maybe the invitation wasn’t sincere enough, and grabs the check back from Flora.
“I wish Stella Johnson to be here now!” Princess Baba Ganoush stomps her foot and folds her arms, just like Jeannie.
The princess wants to tell Stella what a remarkable group of people her neighbours are, getting this party ready without even knowing the princess was on her way! What foresight! What ingenuity!
Everybody confesses how they’ve been reading Stella’s mail by steaming it open and so they totally knew she was coming.
“In my country, we have a saying: A person who opens someone else’s mail is like a camel without a hump. Easily mistaken for a jackass.” Apparently, in Djelibeybi, they cut your hands off for reading someone else’s mail. It is the highest crime committed only by the lowest of the low.
She takes all of the checks back and storms out of the party.
The PTA members argue and cry and blame each other, and Stella has her revenge.
She and Cassie sneak around to the window and have a good laugh at all the party guests crying into their weird chunky fruit booze.
And that’s a typical episode of Harper Valley P.T.A.!
Now, where did I put those I Dream of Jeannie DVDs…