Based on The Fifteenth Pelican by Tere Rios
Created by: Max Wylie, Harry Ackerman
Starring: Sally Field, Madeleine Sherwood, Marge Redmond, Shelley Morrison, Alejandro Rey, Linda Dangcil, Vito Scotti
Number of Episodes: 83 (3 Seasons)
TV on DVD: Saints
In Short: There’s this nun. She can fly.
SISTER JACQUELINE: You play cards often, Sister Bertrille?
SISTER BERTRILLE: No, I just learned about three weeks ago. Helped pass the time while I was in jail.
SISTER JACQUELINE: Prison?
SISTER BERTRILLE: Yeah, I was arrested at a free speech protest rally.
SISTER JACQUELINE: [voice over] It was at this point I had the feeling the Convent San Tanco would never be the same again. That turned out to be the biggest understatement of the year.
– “The Flying Nun” (01.01)
In one of the funnier moments of Family Guy funnyman Seth MacFarlane’s perhaps overlong introduction to the 2013 Academy Awards, he accosted nominee Sally Field in the green room and reminisced about his early attraction to her as Sister Bertrille, the Flying Nun. He pondered whether it had been the forbidden aspect to it that had made her so hot, and hovered above her head on a wire, reenacting her famously ludicrous flight scenes. He then managed to convince her that she wasn’t going to win the Best Supporting Actress award that evening (he would turn out to be right; inside information?) and so enticed her into leaving with him after a steamy embrace, doubtless living out a boyhood fantasy in the process.
It had been years since I had even recalled the existence of The Flying Nun right up until that moment, but when I did, oh the flood of memories! A rerun staple of my formative years, just the sound of those three little words and I was instantly transported back to the Puerto Rican abbey at which the novice Sister Bertrille and her fellows lived, overcoming crisis after crisis with the help of Betrille’s bizarre power of flight.
How could Sister Bertrille fly, you ask? It was a question I wondered then, too. I mean, obviously it had something to do with the very aerodynamic headdress she wore, but for the life of me I couldn’t recall the specific mechanics of the action itself, and why Bertrille could fly but not any of the other, similarly-behatted, nuns. And of course, if I couldn’t remember such an important plot point as that then clearly I needed to watch the show again, from beginning to end, because I hate not knowing stuff like that. (And no—Wikipedia would, in this instance, have been cheating.)
Fortunately, the first two seasons of The Flying Nun are out on DVD (with most of the episodes of the third season to be found on YouTube and similar), and so it was with great ease that I revisited this blast from the dim, dark past, and found it to be everything that I had vaguely remembered it to be. Funny, absurd, sweet, bizarre, wholesome and yet a little risqué, and utterly anchored by the consummate likability of the then-ingenue Sally Field.
Our story centers on the sisters of the Convent San Tanco (which I thought was called the Convent San Taco when I was a kid, and which I then mentally placed in Mexico – apparently I was a bit racist as a youngster) who are joined by a new novice, the aforementioned Sister Bertrille, who has only recently given up her worldly ways to enter into a life of service to God. For all that this is a show about Catholic religious dogma, there is really very little real Catholicism in it, and so with evidence like this sunny locale and the green rolling hills of Maria’s convent home in The Sound of Music, it was a life that seemed quite appealing at the time. (Hey, I just had a thought – what happened to the nuns of that convent after the Nazis invaded Austria? It can’t have been good, right?)
Anyway, Bertrille soon meets her fellow sisters, from the stern Reverend Mother Placido (Madeleine Sherwood) to the dryly humorous Sister Jacqueline (Marge Redmond) to the Puerto Rican Sister Sixto (Shelley Morrison), whosa Inglish isa nota so good. (Maybe this is why I was a bit racist?) But just as Bertrille is settling in to do some real good in the community as a kindergarten teacher, what should happen but she begins to fly!
Oh, you wanted to know how Sister Bertrille can fly, didn’t you? It’s because… wait for it… she is really light. Yes, because she is short and only weighs about 90 pounds or so, and the winds are really strong in San Juan, when the currents are right and her nun’s habit is on, she simply takes off – indeed, most of the time she has no control over it at all. Ludicrous, isn’t it? I mean, in one third season episode the nuns get different habits to wear, which do not include winged bonnets, and all of a sudden she’s the Non-Flying Nun. I have to say, I really expected there to be more here. No wonder I forgot about it.
Her power of flight gets Sister Bertrille into all kinds of adventures over the course of the next 83 episodes, including finding herself on a restricted army base and finding herself at the center of a UFO cult. Some episodes deal with the mundane (Betrille goes fishing; a donkey comes to the convent; an pelican thinks it’s found it’s mate), while others take on a grander scale (Bertrille is trapped in a mine; a tabloid reporter is looking for a scoop; Bertille is stranded on a desert island with her friend, the lovable scoundrel Carlos, played by Alajandro Rey – he’s just a friend, you’ll be happy to hear, though I am sure there were plenty of proto-shippers for the pair at the time, and if this show were on the air today, hooboy. Bertrillos? Cartrille? I have no doubt of it.). Season 2 had a lot of episodes about stealing for some reason, and a lot of the time Bertrille was a suspect… because nuns do that kind of thing, you know.
Revisiting this simple, yet simply insane show, was a lot of fun, and it had me chuckling along constantly in both genuine amusement at some of the writing and the antics as well as in very real bemusement at its very existence. Vaguely-recalled moments would pop up on screen and I would be flooded with fresh nostalgia, while previously unremembered instances of comic brilliance (like Bertrille rocking out on stage to a stately hymn) make me smile just thinking about them now. Quite how this show ever got made I do not know, and how it lasted three seasons is also something of a mystery. With any other leading lady having donned that be-winged headdress I think both would have been unlikely outcomes, but Fields’s fresh-faced sweetness, comic expressiveness and merry twinkle made this show a moderate hit back then, at the end of the decade that gave us fantasy sitcoms the likes of The Addams Family, Bewitched and My Mother the Car, and she is still a big part of the reason it is so watchable, and oftentimes hilarious, today.
So thank you, Seth MacFarlane, for the reminder about this fun, fun show. For this reason alone, I’m glad you hosted the Oscars this year. Well, this and “We Saw Your Boobs.”
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