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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > TV on DVD Reviews > The Partridge Family - The Complete First Season

 

The Partridge Family

The Complete First Season (1970-1971) (Sony-2005)

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Copyright ©2007   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 14, 2007.

The Partridges were the original garage band, and they were also the Bradys’ prime-time neighbors (Friday nights on ABC from 1970-1974 – the prototype TGIF!). However, unlike the Bradys, who were insular and innocent, the Partridges were extroverted and world weary.

Billed as “the family who plays together, stays together,” and based on the 60s’ pop-music family group The Cowsills, the Partridges had seen it all in their travels: smoky nightclubs, hookers, gangsters, union strikes, morality watchdogs, a Detroit ghetto, a women’s lib rally, unscrupulous promoters, a prison, unstable hippie chicks and most importantly of all, Las Vegas.

The Bradys, cozy and content in their suburban womb, would only venture as far as the pedestrian soft spots of Hawaii, the Grand Canyon and King’s Island amusement park (when not fixing their bikes or drinking their milk).

Still, the Partridges, like the Bradys, were decidedly upper-middle class. They lived in Northern California (San Pueblo) in a more-than-comfy split-level (tasteful except for the brown shag carpeting and the avocado refrigerator; however, the Partridge crib had nothing on the famous Brady house). The kids, though supposedly mentioned in fan magazines, still attended public school, scraped their own dishes and washed their own considerable hair.

Their famous touring bus was an eyesore in the driveway (The “Careful! Nervous Mother Driving!” warning was for real: Shirley Jones really drove that bus – she was taught by teamsters!). And no neighbors ever complained as the clan diligently practiced their rockin’ craft with great discipline in their garage. On weekends, however, the Partridges squawked on the wild side.

Their story goes somewhat like this: a widow named Shirley (Shirley Jones) quits her bank-teller job in order to join her kids’ pop band (working mothers were a rarity on TV in those days; our hearts were meant to sink due to their unfortunate fate of having to toil outside the house). That most adolescents would rather die than even be seen in public with their parents – let alone have them rock out with them on stage for all the world to see and hear – is not explained or addressed.

According to Shirley’s narration, her husband died six months earlier (he was never named or mentioned again, ever) and, as a result, the Partridges were up a pear tree, desperately trying to make ends meet. With the help of a neurotic, hangdog, W.C. Fields-like manager, Reuben Kincaid (the terrific Dave Madden), they land their very first gig at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas (?!).  The effect: they become a minor sensation with a good vibration, allowing them to make both the mortgage and the Top 40.

The rest of their story is far more sketchy: the episodes fluctuate between the group being a) wildly famous and b) struggling nightclub performers earning a modest paycheck. One week, they have a hit record on the radio; the next week, they are toiling in relative obscurity. The writers are undecided as to the clan’s degree of fame and fortune, and they toggle carelessly back and forth to fit the current storyline.

In addition, they seem to play for The Kids in one episode, but in the next episode their audience seems to be sophisticated, jet-setting adults in bouffants, evening gowns and tuxedos (we’re almost always subjected to the same footage of a nightclub crowd seated at long tables, smoking and rattling their jewelry to the music).

Okay, so the Partridges do keep us guessing, but one thing we know for sure is that their only huge hit, “I Think I Love You,” brings all the people together and gives a happy ending to the turbulent sixties (in real life, this record will outsell The Beatles’ “Let It Be”). When they’re singing and playing, the lion lay down with the lamb; peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars, even though the brood does the worst job of lip synching this side of Milli Vanilli.

The kids in this household are not as interchangeable as the Bradys: there is Keith (David Cassidy), the teen idol who looks like a chick; Laurie (Susan Dey), the poncho-wearing, model-like oldest sister, who asks us to find it adorable that she is a radical activist (and we do) and who never, ever eats, even when food is placed in front of her; and Danny (Danny Bonaduce) the red-headed scamp who is supposedly ten-years old but has a freakish command of business, publicity and the stock market. It’s supposed to be funny, but it’s uncomfortable.

Bonaduce is still a rascal even today, in the hilarious commentary track. In a scene where Laurie is leaning over Danny, Bonaduce exclaims, “If she had breasts, that would have been a pivotal moment for me!” He also observes, “We’re five white kids dressed up like Superfly!”

Then, of course, we have the dilemma of the problem children, Chris and Tracy (Jeremy Gelbwaks and Suzanne Crough) who are easily the very worst child actors in the history of television (in this golden era of breeder comedies, how difficult could it have been to cast two child actors with some acting chops, a la Bobby and Cindy Brady?). Gelbwaks will eventually become the Pete Best of the group, being unceremoniously replaced by Chris Foster in the second season. Unfortunately, Suzanne Crough was not replaced, and she was the one who most needed to go. And like Tiger on The Brady Bunch, the family dog is fired after the first season.

The list of guest stars (and stars to be) is rather impressive. We see The Scarecrow himself, Ray Bolger, playing the grandfather who is experiencing a “youth kick” (we know this because he sports mutton chops and an ascot around his neck, and takes a joyous bite of a hot dog). He jams with the Partridges (knowing every word to their song even though it’s the very first time he’s ever heard it). We also get pre-Charlie’s-Angels Jaclyn Smith and Farrah Fawcett playing various pieces of ass, and a pre-Rookies Michael Ontkean as a hunky high schooler.

You’ll also witness a before-he-was-goofy Richard Mulligan (Empty Nest) as the concerned family doctor; Star Wars’ Mark Hamill as an awkward teen with a crush on Laurie; and a hootable William Schallert (Patty Duke’s TV poppo) as a Will-Rogers type folk singer on whom the Partridges bizarrely obsess and are determined to make a star, even if it kills him.

However, the standout episode of the collection is the one featuring Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett, Jr., in the 1970 obligatory Black Folks Are People Too offering. Get this: the Partridges’ touring schedule is somehow mixed up with the Temptations’, and the lily-white clan arrives smack in the middle of a Detroit ghetto (really a non-menacing Screen Gems backlot), complete with a woman in orange leather pants and an “African-American Cultural Society” (known in real life as The Black Panthers). To make a long story short, the Partridges get soul (“I have an idea for a song,” Keith suggests. “It’s kind of an Afro thing.”). The tension between the races is healed forever as The Partridges get hot pants and the neighborhood responds rhythmically.

A word about the music: it’s fan-TAS-tic. The unsung heroes of this series were the studio musicians who pretended to be The Partridge Family (only David Cassidy’s voice was used for real, and they sped it up slightly in order to make him sound younger. Shirley Jones would add her harmonies after the recordings were finished, and it’s always a trip to watch her perky/rockin’ body language when she’s performing).

The year was 1970, and the charts featured such mellow rock acts as The Carpenters, Bread, Chicago and James Taylor (you do the math). Most of their songs tended to use the word “together” one too many times (a very important word -- nay, a groovy concept -- at the end of the sixties), but each tune is like three minutes of sunshine.  In fact, the DVD offers terrific Partridge songs that should be beloved standards, monster hits and party favorites, but never achieved that status thanks to the rock bullies who insisted that we pay attention instead to Led Zeppelin.

The DVD also features boring commentary from Shirley Jones (“What a great song.” “I remember that very well.” “That bus!”) as well as two episodes of the inexplicable, unhackable animated cartoon series The Partridge Family, 2200 A.D. This junky filler was created by the cheap-bastard Hanna Barbera team, who stubbornly stuck to their Jetsons-like vision of the future (cosmic malt shops, record stores and tape decks. And when are we getting those flying cars?). The only positive thing to come out of this cartoon is that Tracy seems to be more animated than she is in the original series.

What works best besides the music is the writing, which is surprisingly cynical and highbrow. The Partridge Family, unlike The Brady Bunch, is more often than not downbeat and dark, but often out-loud funny, not always automatically sinking into the adorable. Some of the jokes are dated (references to Abbie Hoffman, Woodstock, Berkeley, and Myra Breckenridge), but credit must be given to the writers who were not afraid to go over The Kids’ heads.  

Some examples: while headlining at the local prison, Shirley muses before her captive audience, “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a convict. But I think in some real way, we are all prisoners.” Also, just like Camus, she advises Keith, “It’s human nature. You’re unhappy then. You’re unhappy now.” Dare Carol Brady to try that advice. Or contemplate Reuben musing, “Free speech is great until somebody else starts talking.” And when an embarrassed Laurie experiences radio broadcasts being transmitted through her braces, Danny incorrectly states, “The Rolling Stones don’t make personal appearances in a person’s mouth.” And count the kids on your one hand who would understand the following criticism from Danny to Reuben: “If you’ve been Toulouse Letrec’s manager, he would have been known as the World’s Greatest Short Order Cook.”

The following three seasons would see a considerable downsizing, as their big-budget traveling and road locations would be traded in for more domestic and less radical situations. Disco and arena rock were on their way in – while filmed breeder sitcoms with laugh tracks were on their way out. By 1974, the Partridges were transported to the ghetto of Saturday night and then cancelled.

However, we’ll always have their stunning Screen Gems backlot neighborhood. The Partridge home was only a broomstick ride away from the famous Bewitched residence, in which all the Partridges’ boyfriends and girlfriends seemed to dwell and confuse our television worldview by doing so. And even though it would seem like a natural progression, Shirley and Reuben never hooked up; rather, they remained strangely, infuriatingly platonic.

As the Partridges themselves might say, this DVD is “heavy.” And they would mean that in a good way.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2007   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 14, 2007.