The actress who played the down-to-earth center of the Brady Bunch household, Ann B. Davis, aka Alice Nelson the housekeeper, died Sunday in Texas, and baby boomers and latchkey kids across the country cried out "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!" in grief. Because there was no Alice catchphrase. Here at the Bon Appétit offices, we've vowed to never forget our favorite sassy TV domestic. So we spoke with walking television encyclopedia Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University about which fictional kitchens throughout TV history were the most important. "The television kitchen is mission control, the place from which the sorties are launched out of to the rest of the world," he says. And, yes, Alice once again takes center square.
Leave It to Beaver
"There you have the kitchen as the last gasp of the old gender identity," Thompson says. "June Cleaver is the remnant of the old female world order. The kitchen was where June would talk to the kids in her somewhat oblivious way. But it was in Ward's den where the episode would always end, and the children would receive the male wisdom. It was a very gendered thing going on there."
The Brady Bunch
"I always say that Alice Nelson was a '90s woman stuck in a '70s sitcom. She usurped the center of power in the house, the kitchen, which was so much more Alice's domain than Carol's. She was an unmarried, uncommitted woman who was better at the domestic territory than the mother was. The best advice came from Alice; she was the most competent person in that room."
"The Waltons' kitchen had almost a painterly quality. Whereas in most middle-class suburban sitcoms the kitchen was a place for activity or communication, in The Waltons, it was literally a place for sustenance."
The Cosby Show
"The traditional female kitchen space became the completely liberated public space that was the kitchen of the Huxtables, and there was no maid to usurp it, either."
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
"You can't just have characters just standing around having conversations, you have to give them something to do. Fresh Prince's use of the kitchen island was one of the best. It used that island the way a late-night talk-show host uses the desk."
"For one thing, it wasn't even a separate room. The kitchen was no longer a segregated space that implied men and women shouldn't be mixing. In Seinfeld, the kitchen was simply a utilitarian offshoot of a larger living space, where one of the most important things was to provide a space for everyone to stand when Kramer barged in, and that had those cabinets filled with cereal, one of the defining things about the guy who lived there."
"Monica was a caterer, once again one of those modern women, like Alice, who's skilled in the kitchen but being paid for it."
"The kitchen's Marge's domain, and she's still living in a world where the major part of her duty is raising the children. Homer only wants nutrition, and it doesn't even have to come from the kitchen. It could come from a donut shop or cellophane wrapper."
"Both Frasier and his brother were constantly doing these things against the traditional gender roles of the sitcom. Their puttering around in the kitchen established the kind of fussiness that was part of the characters and made them so different from the traditional male on television, who at that point was more likely to eat his food out of a flat cardboard box someone delivered to his door."
"So much of what defined the life of that family was based on food, right from the pilot. The domestic politics, the problems of the day bubbled right out of that kitchen, like arguments about whether Meadow was allowed to go out of town on a trip, or Tony's obsession with birds. An awful lot took place in that kitchen."
"The kitchen reminded us of the extraordinary dichotomy that made this whole show run. Walter was guy who wanted to make sure his wife and child were provided for because he was dying, and the kitchen represented what was originally most important to Walter White: his family, his kid eating cereal. Trying to protect the kitchen is what made Walter White break bad. The meth lab on wheels was the other side of his double life."
"Shows of the'60s spent so many hundreds of hours showing us idealized kitchens, like in Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, that had nothing to do with the reality. Mad Men retroactively shows us the kitchens we were never allowed to see during the '60s, and not the TV version. Instead of a wonderful place of nourishment and family, the kitchen was a heart of darkness."
Two and a Half Men
"The kitchen on Two and a Half Men is arguably the best symbol of the total collapse of the American family. For so long we had all these shows that were celebrations of the nuclear family, but this family is so dysfunctional that the kid ultimately is abandoned to the military to get his nutrition. Yet strangely enough, the kitchen is a very important set. But here, the kitchen is that of two incredibly hedonistic bachelors. And in a lovely ironic return, if Alice was the perfect housekeeper and emerging modern woman of the '60s coming into the '70s, now we have Berta on Two and a Half Men, who ought to be in charge of that kitchen but is in charge of nothing but her own self-indulgence. She is the anti-Alice. It's the end times of the American television kitchen."