Well, it's shocking to ME to see good ol' domestic engineer extraordinaire Hazel serving someone other than the Baxters. Oh, they call themselves "the Baxters," this 3-piece family Hazel and Harold move in with for the series' fifth and final season, but they are a weak substitute for the real deal, George, AKA Mr. B; and Dorothy, AKA Missy.
As Antenna TV winds up its first complete cycle of the series, I think it's fair to say that fifth season ain't getting any better. I've seen a good batch of these episodes, and while I enjoy them because it's still Hazel and because I've never seen them before, it just isn't the same. I find myself watching Mr. B's brother Steve, his wife Barbara, and their non-entity daughter Susie, and demanding the return of MY Baxters.
Susie is not the problem, as she means very little one way or the other, though in one episode I saw, she was terrorizing the family cat, wrecking Hazel's meals, and generally showing signs of a budding young sociopath. As for the women of the show, well, Lynn Borden as Barbara is gorgeous; Whitney Blake as Dorothy is...Meredith Baxter's mom. Fact is, the show never gave Dorothy much that was interesting to do, so she isn't conspicuous by her absence.
The REAL loss of season 5 is, of course, Mr. B. Nobody does "taken aback" like Don DeFore, and his quiet exasperation at Hazel's antics led to a handful of great sitcom actor "takes" in every single episode. As Steve Baxter, Ray Fulmer has a pleasant enough Dick-Sargentesque presence, but compared to DeFore he is--forgive me--a scrub.
One of the worst things about the "transition" from season 4 to season 5 is that the Baxters (the real ones, that is) leave off camera, and it's left to Hazel to tell the audience, via a convo with her busybody friend Rosie, what happened to force this jarring change. It's kind of funny, actually, because one by one, the two Sunshine Girl cohorts cover just about all the questions the audience has about what's going on. I know because my wife sat down with me to watch this one, and when I told her what was going to happen, she started peppering me with queries. I'm not saying Hazel answers them in a satisfying way, but she does answer them.
George and Dorothy, we learn, went to the Middle East for business. As far as Hazel knows (or is willing to tell Rosie), Mr. B is doing big-shot corporate lawyer stuff, blah blah blah. Personally, I believe he is conducting covert ops for a quasi-governmental "security" organization, which explains why he leaves the States so quickly and ditches his son. Ostensibly, Harold stays behind to "finish his schooling," and I realize American-style schooling may not have been as sophisticated in the 1960s as it is today, but still...COME ON! Harold's not in some kind of fast-track advanced college prep system, and he's not exactly Albert Einstein, besides, so one wonders why the Baxters are so eager to strand him in the USA. Perhaps after years of sharing living quarters with an inquisitive boy and an intrusive maid, George and Dorothy just want a little "us" time. Mr. B, you DOG, you!
For her part, Hazel stays behind because she can't bear to leave little Harold...or the Baxters threatened to auction her to a decrepit emir's harem if she tagged along, take your pick. Now, after hours of research at the Paley Center and the Library of Congress (not really, but that sounds better than "I looked at an online message board), I have discovered that behind the scenes, the Baxters were basically canned for financial reasons, and Shirley Booth soldiered on for this one last year before ending the show due to her own declining health. Even in season 5, we see an attempt to shift attention to some other characters, and we see less of Hazel's superhuman feats of skill, like kicking a football or bashing a gangster over the head with a frying pan.
This all makes more sense than the notion that someone thought it was a good idea creatively to replace DeFore and Blake, or that Booth pulled a power play and replaced them with some nonthreatening, less interesting players. Looks like it was just one of those stupid decisions. CBS did get one more season out of "Hazel," and because of Booth's health, any more would have been unlikely, anyway. That fifth season is easily the weakest, but it's worth a look just for the novelty value.
The unrecognizable Ann Jillian (only recognizable because I saw her in the cast listing) has a regular role, too, as realtor Steve's secretary. George's annoying sister shows up again as a foil for Hazel, too, which points out one of the show's problems at this point: The chemistry between Hazel and Steve just isn't there, which is of course in stark contrast to the Hazel/George relationship which drives previous seasons. There is a half-hearted attempt early on to position Steve Baxter as someone who will go toe to toe with Hazel, or at least try to, but predictably he fails, and Hazel soon becomes "one of the family." This was true with Mr. B, too, and no one ever really thought the two were truly at each other's throats, but at least they went through the motions and enjoyed playing the game. Steve isn't even in the same league.
So without DeFore, without even the way-overexposed Mr. Griffin, season 5 strains to provide that ol' Hazel magic. It's probably best that it's the last season. I would like to see a sixth season in which Mr. B dramatically returns and announces the family must go underground to avoid a congressional subpoena, but that will have to remain a figment of my imagination.