Boomer Audit: Trying to Make Sense of ‘The Flying Nun’


From 1967 to 1970, ABC aired a strange little sitcom called The Flying Nun. The very existence of this show, which I discovered in passing just a few years ago, doesn’t make much sense at first. The title reads like a throwaway joke from an episode of 30 Rock, which routinely took clever potshots at NBC (and television in general) by expertly creating fake, empty programs that revolved around a hilariously straightforward title. The Flying Nun would surely fit right in with the fictional shows Tank It or, more appropriately, God Cop . The Flying Nun isn’t a punchline, though. It was a very real show, and even a somewhat successful one, that spent three seasons detailing the adventures of, well, a flying nun.

To be clear, she can’t actually fly. The premise, which is based on the book The Fifteenth Pelican by Tere Ríos, is as simplistic as it is silly: Sister Bertrille (Sally Field) is able to “fly” when the wind is right, thanks to a combination of her low weight (under 90 lbs) and her cornette. There are no explicit supernatural or divine elements at work, just Bertrille’s small frame and high wind speeds. After breaking up with her boyfriend, Bertrille decides to become a nun and moves from New York City to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she lives with fellow nuns in a convent.

Throughout the series, Bertille converts people, solves mysteries, catches robbers, and helps orphans. Throughout the series, Bertille regularly flies around. Sometimes it’s necessary, like when she flies out to sea to help guide a lost fisherman to fish, but other times, she flies even when a simple ladder would suffice, like when she just needs to retrieve a kitten from a roof.

That there were 82 episodes of Sally Field flying in the sky dressed as a nun is proof that television is magical.

The 1960s are still very much alive in our current television culture. For better or worse, boomers provided us with endless content that we can either enjoy revisiting — The Twilight Zone, Batman — or that we can remake or reboot for new, younger audiences (or beat into the ground). The Flying Nun debuted in 1967, the same year as The Carol Burnett Show, a beloved comedy program that directly inspired Maya Rudolph’s one-off variety show earlier this year; Ironside, a popular crime drama about a paraplegic detective that spawned a terrible remake last fall; and The Prisoner, a clever British spy drama that found a cult following, had a 2009 miniseries remake, and will probably get a film adaptation soon. During The Flying Nun‘s 1967-1970 run, TV would premiere Hawaii Five-O (a reboot of which is going strong on CBS), end Candid Camera (TV Land revived it for the umpteenth time last week), and prep for the debut of The Odd Couple (Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon will star in a reboot later this year). Without question, we have this era of television to thank for a great number of current shows and a ton of movie adaptations, both good and bad. So maybe the most telling legacy of The Flying Nun is that no one has ever bothered to touch it.

See, The Flying Nun is neither a great show nor a terrible one. It is confusing in its simplicity; it is amazing in its mediocrity. I think everyone should watch at least one episode, but I would never expect anyone to dive deeper. It inspires such conflicting feelings in me that I can’t even pin down the easiest parts: Depending on my mood, I think The Flying Nun has either the best or worst opening title sequence of any show ever. I’ve enjoyed watching stray episodes, but I still can’t make sense of it, or understand why it ran for so long. If you add up the total number of episodes of Happy Endings and Don’t Trust The B In Apartment 23 episodes that ABC actually aired, the total is still less than The Flying Nun. Then again, I can’t possible imagine The Flying Nun existing today as anything more than a failed pilot that never made it to air.

The Flying Nun is never chock-full of dramatic conflict. At times, it can seem like it was created with the goal of actively avoiding any drama or deep character building or interpersonal clashes. It flew by on the bare bones of storytelling, mixing silly visuals of Sally Field flying through the air with curiously plain and uncomplicated plots. A quick glance at the Wikipedia list of episode descriptions brings up some real gems that somehow sustained half-hour episodes every week: “Sisters Bertrille and Jacqueline try to hide a parrot in the convent,” “The nuns go into the bakery business,” “Sister Bertrille casts Carlos’ cousin in a play.”

By focusing on a group of nuns, The Flying Nun could largely ignore the romance plots that can, at times, lower the laugh quotient on current sitcoms. Sure, there are some exceptions, episodes that go a little deeper — in Season 2, Bertrille’s ex-boyfriend confronts the fact that he may have driven her to become a nun and, sometimes, the nuns deal with fugitives — but mostly, for viewers, it was enough to just see a flying nun coach a softball team for a half-hour.

Maybe that’s why The Flying Nun feels so off in 2014, decades after it went off the air, and also after decades of watching modern television shows that all too often feel like they are drowning in unnecessary conflicts. (To be fair, I asked an Official Baby Boomer — my mother — about the show, and even her praise was hesitant: she watched every week but admits it was always really cheesy.) The Flying Nun would be a strange show to exist in the current TV landscape, one that current viewers and critics would surely deem too boring or too religious (although, oddly enough, it is definitely not as religious as you would expect a convent-centric show to be). But it wouldn’t be bad; The Flying Nun was never bad. It just existed. Even if it doesn’t totally hold up now, it’s still a good example of a nice, simplistic side of 1960s boomer television, and one that is often overlooked.