A little while ago, we took a look at the first episode of the short-lived Bewitched spin-off Tabitha, starring Lisa Hartman. That show aired in 1977, and it was a retooling of an unsold pilot for a series called Tabatha starring Liberty Williams.
We learned on Mother’s Day that spelling it “Tabatha” is painful to Elizabeth Montgomery’s soul, but that’s how they chose to spell it for this production, and we have to respect that? I guess?
Surprisingly, I like this pilot way more than the one that was actually sold. I’m of the opinion that it’s better to mimic story elements rather than character dynamics if you’re going to ease people into a show by knocking off your source material. This first pilot, helmed by Bewitched director/producer William Asher, captures the spirit of a ‘70s single girl update while keeping some fresh ideas in there, and he does this not by trying to recapture the “types” of characters, but by calling back to structure of “I, Darrin, Take This Witch, Samantha.”
The episode opens with scenes of steep hills and charming cable cars, letting us know that the newly grown-up Tabatha Stephens now lives in glamorous San Francisco. (When we see the size of her apartment, you’ll know that a hell of a lot of witchcraft is involved in keeping her rent down.) Tabatha herself looks every inch a career girl of the times, with her Dorothy Hamill haircut and her brown pantsuit, as she races across the street to hail a taxi.
I feel like I should explain that in days of yore, when our mothers were teenagers, there was a major Battle of the Haircuts. You were either a Dorothy – a variation on the short wedge cut made popular by figure skater Dorothy Hamill, or a Farrah – barrel curls and volume in the style of Farrah Fawcett. The Dorothy was shorthand for being practically minded, while the Farrah meant you liked to have more fun. This was a serious conflict, and I’m shocked that it isn’t taught in history class.
As Tabatha hurries, she knocks right into a baker on his way to deliver an intricate three-tier wedding cake. The cake goes sliding off towards the pavement, but Tabatha casts a quick spell and sets it to right, leaving the baker astonished and confused as she hurries along into the cab. Her spell casting isn’t nose-based like Samantha’s, or a variation on her own crossed-fingers cast from when she was little, it’s a lot more like Endora’s stuff in terms of movements. Very grand, very unsubtle.
It doesn’t really make sense, though, because all the over-the-top witches in the family were the ones that spent as little time as possible mingling with mortals. You’d think that somebody like Tabatha or her brother Adam would know what mortals expected to see and not see way better than an Endora or a Hagatha would.
Anyway, she hops in and tells the driver to take her to the Trend Magazine building. He asks if she’s a model who gets paid two hundred dollars an hour, and she tells him she’s an editorial assistant. This surprises the cab driver, because he doesn’t know the language of ‘70s haircuts like we do. Also surprising the cab driver is Adam, who decides to pop in and bug his big sis.
The driver is a little bit rattled by the man appearing suddenly in the backseat while he’s driving, and says that the guy is going to have to get out. Why? You’re getting paid, man, just drive the rig.
You might recall that on Tabitha, Adam was retconned into a stick-in-the-mud mortal to capture some of that Second Darrin charm. Here, he’s not only a warlock, he’s also cast off all of this “do stuff the hard way to build character” nonsense, and gone back to his milk-souring, weather-changing roots. He’s also got the dry sense of humour common on Samantha’s side of the family.
He’s come to see if Tabatha is still insisting on working as a secretary for some barely-known publication. She primly tells him that there are no secretaries at Trend Magazine.
“Tell me,” he smiles, “who answers the phones, opens the mail, and does all the typing?”
“The editorial assistants.”
Adam is of the opinion that nobody should be a flunky when the universe has given them the power to be the boss of whatever they want. He snaps his fingers, and the cab’s meter goes down to zero. The driver looks at it with scrunch-faced confusion. Tabatha tells Adam that she likes working her way up from the bottom, it’s like playing a video game on the hardest setting. It’s a challenge. Plus, she finds it to be morally correct for some reason. She resets the meter to what it was: $2.90.
The driver shakes his head and decides he’s losing his marbles.
(Knock it off, you two! People’s sanity is fragile! Haven’t you been watching The Twilight Zone with us?!)
Tabatha mentions that there’s a guy at the office she’s been seeing. His name is Cliff. He’s mortal. He doesn’t even believe in astrology, and he has no idea she’s a witch, and that’s how she likes it.
What is the deal with being into mortal guys? Sure, there’re some crummy warlocks out there – the one who got turned into a chair for sixty years springs to mind – but sometimes they’re Lloyd Bochner and drive ghost cars. You just need to shop around.
Adam warns that the longer she takes to tell Cliff the Mortal about her true identity, the harder it’ll be for everyone. Like, can you imagine if you left something like that until the honeymoon? Awkward.
For her part, Tabatha tells her brother to keep his nose out of her personal life. He tells her not to do anything dumber than she normally does, which is a pretty realistic parting blow for a younger brother, and disapparates out of the cab.
The driver is totally dumbfounded.
“Lady,” he says, blinking his eyes a few times, “I might be wrong about this, but wasn’t there a guy in here who wasn’t with you when you got in and ain’t with you now?”
Tabatha just kind of shrugs things off and leaves another shattered sense of reality in her wake. You know, Samantha always did her best to try and explain things so that people wouldn’t think they were having a mental collapse. I don’t think she’d approve of this.
The offices of Trend Magazine turn out to be full of potted geraniums in windows with vertical blinds, army green typewriters, harvest gold feature walls, and those desks with the faux walnut tops and metal legs with the side panels in avocado green. There’s also a generous amount of frosted glass.
It’s a place of its time. It’s so mired in the 1970’s, it’s probably haunted by a disco Casanova to this day.
Tabatha works for Roberta Armistead, one of the editors, and at the desk across from her, Rosetta (another non-secretary) works for Dinah Nichols. Rosetta calls Tabatha over just as she’s settling in. Apparently, Cliff the Mortal is down in the coffee shop with Dinah right this second, drinking coffee with her.
Tabatha shrugs it off, or seems to, saying that what Cliff the Mortal had with Dinah is ancient history. She trusts Cliff! Mortal men don’t philander like warlocks! Then she leans in close and asks Rosetta if she saw Cliff and Dinah sitting at the counter or at a booth.
“Booth. Same side.”
Uh-oh. Well, that’s that. Better turn Dinah’s hair white and jinx Cliff’s car so that the tires always spring leaks on the highway.
Or not. After all, Tabatha is above such petty jealousies. Just because two people are having coffee together snuggled up in a booth at 10:00 in the morning doesn’t mean she has anything to worry about. She’s going to be mature about this.
Mrs. Armistead buzzes for Tabatha, and we get our first look at the woman who’s bossing around a witch. She’s not that memorable. If you were hoping for something like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada or Bette Davis in June Bride, think more like a grandmotherly version of Marcia Wallace on The Bob Newhart Show.
First order of business, can Tabatha give Dinah a research packet that Mrs. Armistead has just finished with? The magazine is doing an article on contract marriages. According to Mrs. Armistead, that’s when the husband pays the wife a salary. (Remembering that this was 1976 and housewives were still common.)
“Having been married three times,” Mrs. Armistead quips, “and gotten nothing, I can’t say it’s a bad idea.”
Looks like she had a rotten divorce lawyer.
The other order of business is this month’s cover. There are two designs to choose from, one by an artist called only “Durant” and the other by Cliff the Mortal. Cliff’s is lousy. Tabatha has to tell him, but in a nice way.
In the interest of her love life, Tabatha tries to sell it to her boss it as vibrant, sexy, fun, and other adjectives that are pretty clearly describing what she thinks of Cliff and not what she thinks of the cover. Mrs. Armistead is no dummy, and says she’s glad to hear that Cliff is so much fun outside the workplace, we’re still rejecting his hideous artwork today.
Then there’s a weird Mary Tyler Moore inspired bit about whether high ranking professional women should feel comfortable asking other women to bring them coffee. I don’t know if it’s trying to be funny about office feminism, or if it’s trying to show that even though Tabatha works in a friendly environment, she’s still – as Adam called her – a flunky. Either way, it’s a misfire, with Tabatha’s Mary Richards act falling flat.
Time to meet Cliff the Mortal!
He’s coming back from coffee with the Junoesque Dinah, and he’s not what you may have been picturing. With all this talk of him being a vital, artistic type who’s been winning over all the women at the office, you might have been expecting somebody… how to say this without being too mean?
Here is a screenshot of Cliff standing next to Dinah:
Dinah is doing the shtick where she laughs elegantly about nothing, and tells Cliff that they really should get together more often. Cliff looks nervous as Tabatha listens in from her desk. Dinah then says some catty things to Tabs, who retorts with less venom than her mother would have, and soundly wins the battle of the burns.
It’s of concern to Tabatha, though. She’s already decided that, despite the fact that he spent the morning having coffee with his beautiful, Amazonian ex-girlfriend, he is The One. He deserves to know about the secret world of witchcraft.
She whisks him away to the Batcave to tell him her secret identity.
Okay, not really. She pulls him into the Xerox room under the pretense that she doesn’t know how to work the machine and tells him that they’re going to have an important dinner. A dinner at which there will be talking. Lots of talking. Cliff, to his credit, does not nod nervously as all the blood drains out of his face, which is most people’s reaction to the threat of an important dinner.
Rosetta comes in, and even though she says she knows better than to interrupt a Xerox lesson, she can’t help it. Mrs. Armistead is asking for Cliff.
Oh! That’s right! In all the hubbub about your love life, everyone forgot to tell you that your cover art was bad and you should feel bad. Sorry, Cliff.
The good news is these office shenanigans are over with for a little while, and it’s time to meet Bonnie.
Bonnie is the Rhoda of the show. Both Tabitha-based series were pretty sold on knocking off The Mary Tyler Moore Show, because everyone at the time was. It was a ratings monster. In the case of Tabatha, we get a friend across the hall who has a little trouble with romance and self-esteem.
One of the elements I very much prefer about this vision of the series is the uptick in female supporting characters. You get the antagonistic Dinah, the powerfully positioned Roberta Armistead, Rosetta the fellow office gal, and Bonnie the friendly neighbour.
The other thing I like is having a warlock Adam, and these two elements are about to collide.
Bonnie is hopping off the cable car with an arm full of groceries, on her way to the apartment building, when who should suddenly appear lounging on the railing of the steps, but Adam? He and Bonnie have so far never met, but it’s clear that the show was setting them up as a side-couple, and that would’ve been a lot of fun.
Her first response to seeing a warlock suddenly appear is to tell him to get lost. She doesn’t need any weirdo weirdy types trying to get fresh. She has groceries to put away.
Adam, who just materialized to wait for his sister, is amused by this.
If he tries anything funny, she’ll give him a dose of what she’s learned at her self-defence class. She tries to put her hands up karate style, and ends up spilling out a couple of her groceries. When a smirking Adam goes to help her pick them up, she tells him not to bother, because it’s probably step one of his master plan:
“I’ll have to say ‘thanks’, then you’ll say ‘you’re welcome’ and ‘what’s your phone number?’ And I don’t want any phone calls from weirdos!”
(Phone Calls from Weirdos is a good title for an autobiography.)
Bonnie hurries up to her floor, looking over her shoulder to make sure Adam isn’t following her. He isn’t, but that’s only because he can pop in right in front of her apartment door, which he does. Bonnie gasps, blinks a few times, then demands to know how he got up ahead of her.
“Did you ever hear the story of the tortoise and the hare?” He asks.
“How would you like to put on a pot of hot chocolate and tell it to me?”
Bonnie defiantly announces that she wouldn’t, and hurries into her apartment.
Once her door is closed, Adam shrugs off the encounter and decides he might as well let himself into Tabatha’s place. Which he does by walking through the wall. The only trouble is, Bonnie is peeking out of her apartment just as he fades out, and she does her own version of fading out. She carefully closes the door, then faints.
They’re cute. If Tabatha and Cliff were as cute as these two, they might have sold this version of the series.
That’s my segue into their important dinner. Tabatha is wearing an aqua jumpsuit/playsuit type thing with brown and green stripes on the sleeves, and Cliff is dressed in three different shades of brown. She’s has prepared a wonderful candlelight dinner, and he’s complimenting her on it, as she hems and haws and tries to figure out how to tell him she’s magical.
The trouble is that the New Age witchcraft movement was happening, and people self-identifying as witches were starting to increase in numbers, and the show does not acknowledge that. If they ever do that update with Samantha’s granddaughter that they’ve been threatening us all with for the last few years, they’re going to have to deal with the fact that we live in a world where thousands of people call themselves witches and can’t do what the Stephens clan does.
In the end, Tabatha kind of chickens out and tells Cliff that she’s not ready to tell him whatever this important dinner was orchestrated to soften the blow of. Cliff is all: “Yay! No news is good news! Let’s make out!”
Which they get started on right away, until Adam appears behind Cliff and starts gesturing at his sister to stop sucking face and start explaining her heritage. Tabatha flags him away, causing Cliff to turn around just as Adam is vanishing. Cliff doesn’t see anything, so he goes back to his favourite pastime. This leads to some comedy business of Tabatha trying to get rid of Adam who keeps popping up and making faces, and Cliff looking over and seeing nothing.
Finally, Cliff is no longer in the mood thanks to all of this back and forth, and he says he gets the feeling that they’re being watched or something. Tabatha tells him that it’s just because the walls of the apartment are so thin. A loud sneeze is heard from the bedroom, then a toilet flushing.
Cliff decides that this is a good time to hit the road. Tabatha can handle whatever needs handling, and they can talk tomorrow. She asks him to please stay, she’ll handle it right now, and they can talk tonight. She just needs like five minutes.
She finds Adam chilling on her bed, looking very amused with his little stunt. She’s not. She calls him a fink and tells him that his sense of humour is toxic. Look, Tabatha, you don’t really want to build a life with Cliff the Mortal. He has a terrible personality, he’s not very good at his job, and he’s probably cheating on you with Dinah. Who needs that?
Date a warlock, Tabatha. Sometimes they have ghost cars. Ghost cars.
Adam announces that he just wanted to be here for the big moment. He’s never seen a mortal’s concept of reality upended before. It could be funny.
Only sometimes, Adam. Only sometimes.
As the two of them engage in a whisper fight over appropriate behaviour, Tabatha hears Cliff leave the apartment. Annoyed, she casts a spell so that as he’s walking down the hall, he winds up right back in her living room again. Cliff is confused by this.
He’s further confused when he goes to leave again, and the apartment keeps flipping which side of the wall the door is on. Why he’s not lying on the couch and shouting for Tabatha to call 911 is beyond me. He’s had exactly one glass of brandy.
Meanwhile, Adam tells Tabatha to quit stalling and bite the bullet. She tells him if he doesn’t butt out, she’ll send him back in time to theSalem witch trials, and he can get pressed to death with rocks. This gets Adam to move it or lose it, though he mentions he would like a full report of the disaster when it’s over.
And what a disaster it will be!
Tabatha exits the bedroom and tells a disoriented Cliff that it’s time to talk. Then we get a quick cut to Cliff after the explanation being like: “WHAAAAT?!” (It’s significantly less funny than when First Darrin did it.)
In order to prove she is what she says she is, Tabatha summons a palm tree and a camel into the living room. It’s a little zero-to-sixty. You might recall that Samantha’s first big trick was moving an ashtray with her mind. And this is where we get into some trouble, because all of this is happening pretty fast, and we as an audience don’t really know Cliff. What makes him worthy of knowing the mystical secrets of the world that exists alongside our own?
I don’t trust him. That Dinah thing put me off.
He doesn’t react well to sudden camels, either, which is another point against him. He says he thinks he needs some air, so Tabatha creates a sudden gust of wind that blows through the windows, and then she shushes it to a close. Cliff says that he needs time to absorb all of this, and Tabatha gets a little uppity about that, even though she also tells him if he wants to break up, that’s okay.
I’m not sure she knows what she wants. I think the moral of this story is never do things just because your younger brother dares you to.
Cliff distractedly excuses himself and tries to leave by opening the closet, which was a stale gag by 1976. Hell, it was a stale gag by 1966. Once he realizes his mistake, he uses the proper door, and instead of saying goodbye like a normal person, he waves and goes:
This really upsets Tabatha, who slumps onto her hideous, tiny, living room sofa with a sigh.
Tabatha’s apartment is awful, by the by. Not even fun awful like the Trend Magazine offices. It’s like the set designer didn’t realize that a grown Tabitha would have different taste than a little girl Tabitha. Everything has floral prints or gingham prints on it, and the walls are covered in illustrations of antebellum debutantes and Victorian ladies.
Adam appears and threatens to turn Cliff into a toad for being such a jerk. Do it, Adam! Do it, do it, do it!
Tabatha tells him not to, because she doesn’t realize that this episode is sagging in the middle, and that there’s not nearly enough magic affecting the story. It’s all peripheral magic, and that’s not good enough. After eight years of Bewitched, it’s a safe bet that the audience is familiar with the idea of what witchcraft on television is going to look like.
That’s one of the stronger points of the Tabitha series. It starts off like: “We all know how this hocus pocus works, so let’s get started messing with city powerlines.” The other strong point is Lisa Hartman. She’s head-and-shoulders above Liberty Williams in terms of playing a grown Tabitha Stephens. But more on that later.
Adam tells his sister that Cliff will probably come around, and leaves her to mope about her terrible taste in men. Or, not even, because she’s totally unaware that Cliff is the problem here.
Cliff, for his part, is drowning his sorrows at a local watering hole when next we see him. He’s commiserating with Harry about women in general and witches in specific, although Harry thinks they’re speaking metaphorically.
Bartender Harry gives the best line delivery of the whole episode, when he’s sudden hit with a jolt of magic.
“I think I’ll go outside,” he nods cheerfully, putting down the glass he’s been drying, “Cuz if I don’t, I’ll turn into a swizzle stick.”
Then he just walks out, like it’s the most obvious thing to do.
Cliff watches him go, and fails to notice his new bartender – Adam in a bow tie and white apron – suddenly appear at the other end of the bar. Adam introduces himself as a “friendly substitute mixologist” and gets Cliff to pour his heart out about witches an inadequacy complexes and all that jazz. Adam tells him it’s a new world, full of myriad identities and opportunities. Feminism, gay rights, grey power, civil rights, public uses of witchcraft. People just want to live as themselves.
Either get onboard or get left behind.
The delivery is a little preachy, but the heart’s in the right place.
And it successfully opens Cliff’s eyes to his anti-magic bigotry, he seems resolved to make things work with Tabatha. Satisfied that his job is done, Adam disappears and wonderful bartender Harry comes back in, with a noticeable twinkle in his eye.
“Where have you been?” Cliff asks him.
“Well, I—“ Harry chuckles, with a sweet air of mystery, “I know this’ll sound strange to you, but I’ve been dancing. With the Queen.”
That was an unexpectedly nice place for Adam to send Harry. Huh.
The next morning, Tabatha wakes up to a weird banging noise on her walls. And when I say morning, I’m being generous. It’s 5:00, and Bonnie is up before the rooster, smacking the wall in the hallway, looking puzzled. Tabatha stumbles out of her apartment and asks Bonnie what she’s up to.
Turns out, Bonnie has been unconscious for the better part of the night thanks to yesterday’s shock of seeing Adam walk through this wall she’s assaulting. And the reason she’s assaulting it is because she’s looking for a soft spot of a hidden door or something to explain everything.
Poor Bonnie. She says Adam's disappearing act scared her so bad, she fainted onto her own groceries, and now she has a big bruise where she landed on the mayonnaise jar.
Never one to let other people’s problems get in the way of talking about herself, Tabatha asks the obviously bothered and injured Bonnie if she can vent to her about the Cliff thing.
Tabatha’s come to the right place! Bonnie says that she’s like the Julia Child of man problems.
That’s the actual analogy she picks. Julia Child. It’s a little weird, but it works.
They head into Tab’s apartment, where she proceeds to explain the Cliff situation without bringing up the subject of her confession, and Bonnie is very sympathetic. She says she’s never had a man be as into her as she was into him, so who knows? Maybe Cliff’ll get over whatever Tabatha told him about! And if he doesn’t, Bonnie promises not to whisk him off his feet now that he’s available. She’s not that kind of friend.
Tabatha looks like she feels a little better, and Bonnie makes her exit. On the way, though, she knocks over a glazed bust that Tabatha put on what looks like a patio table spray-painted butter yellow and positioned between the top of the stairs and the front door. Seriously. Everything about this apartment is the worst.
The bust breaks, Tabatha says it’s no problem, Bonnie leaves, Tabatha fixes the bust with magic.
Bonnie sticks her head back in for one last comment, only to find the magically repaired bust in Tabatha’s hand.
This time, Bonnie doesn’t faint, but she does look super confused.
A couple hours later, Tabatha leaves for work and finds Cliff sleeping on the concrete barrier by the hairpin turn next to her building. Cliff, that’s a great way to be killed by traffic. He walks Tabatha to the cable car, and says that he wants to make a go of it. A magical bartender told him some stuff last night, and he’s in this for the long haul now. Wherever the road may take them.
As they hop on the cable car, he just has one question: are his feelings for her real, or a spell?
Break up with him, Tabatha.
Tabatha tells him that once she decided to live as a mortal, she vowed to give up magic except for in emergencies. Emergencies like moving the front door so your boyfriend can’t leave, and summoning camels upon request.
The problem is that there’s no discussion of her childhood in a mortal-styled household, or her dad being a human, or any of the things that might contribute to why she’s chosen this life and why Adam hasn’t.
Anyway, Cliff hops off the cable car to go get freshened up for work, and Tabatha continues on, relieved that she won’t have to try and find another unattached straight guy in San Francisco.
Okay, so for the last few minutes of the episode, we fight with Dinah a little bit to set up the rivalry that was not to be. When Cliff gets to the office in the ugliest blazer of all time, Dinah corners him right away and says that Tabatha has “worked some magic” and gotten Mrs. Armistead to rethink his ghastly failure of a cover design.
Cliff automatically assumes that Tabatha used actual magic, and he corners her and flips out on her for trying to further his career through supernatural mind-control. Tabatha, basically, tells him to bite her, and swears up and down that no witchcraft was involved in Mrs. Armistead’s desire to reconsider his cover.
This is pretty well proven, when Mrs. Armistead emerges from her office and tells Cliff that his cover is still a ghastly failure, sorry, go back to art school and stop wasting everyone’s time. (She’s nicer than that, though the episode is missing some bite because of it.)
Tabatha tells Cliff that she’s going to go to the ladies room to cool off, and then they can discuss his malarkey like rational adults. Cliff goes to follow her, but Dinah swoops in and tells him that apologizing to women when you make mistakes is the worst. Women hate it. He should stay here and flirt with Dinah instead.
“Tabatha’s a cute kid,” Dinah says, “but she’s emotionally underdeveloped. Which goes nicely with the rest of her.”
She’s talking about her curves, but she might as well be talking about her characterization.
Tabatha returns just as Dinah is inviting Cliff over for dinner, and she uses her magic to black out one of Dinah’s teeth. (Only for emergencies, right?)
Cliff notices, then smiles and shakes his head at Tabatha, who quickly puts Dinah’s smile to right. Dinah goes into her office, and Cliff comes over to playfully scold Tabatha for her trick.
“It was worth it,” Tabatha decides. “But don’t worry, I promise that as far as we’re concerned, I won’t use my magic. But it’s alright with me if you use yours.”
They kiss, even though they’re in the workplace.
And that’s that!
So, over Tabitha, I like the S.F. setting more than the L.A. one, I prefer the supporting characters, with Adam and Bonnie being particular bright spots, and I like the idea of her working for a magazine better than her working for a TV station. Both shows suffer from trying too hard to be Mary Tyler Moore, but it’s a little less obvious when she’s at Trend.
Where Tabatha falls down is in the casting of the two leads. Liberty Williams is nothing like childhood Tabitha or Samantha or Darrin. She just feels like she’s from a different story. And Cliff would’ve had to have been made of pure charm and delight in order to pull off some of that anti-witch stuff (with much less provocation than Darrin had when you look at it).
Ideally, it would’ve been great to see Lisa Hartman playing Tabitha in a world that was more like this one, but that wasn’t to be.