They were the most manufactured of all the fake pop acts. Compared to them, the pre-fab four failings of The Monkees sounded like the second coming of Sgt. Pepper. And their sitcom was more wimpy than winning, making wholesome homespun junk like My Three Sons play like a perverted version of All in the Family. In reality, the series was nothing more than a gimmick, a chance to sell some records – and perhaps score some ratings – while rock and roll was still a vital part of the American landscape (that is, before disco came along and boogie shoed it to death). Yet somehow, when that combination of harmony and humor came together, the product was powerful as well as pleasing. It held sway over the impressionable youth of a still smarting post-counter culture society, showing them that everything their pissed off parents said about popular music was wrong. And it even gave adults the chance to forgive and forget, letting them once again get lost in the joys of a good song and a nominal nuclear family.
Still, for some odd reason, The Partridge Family is not hailed as the TV classic that it is. While many misguided souls hang their hats on the musical brood's natural enemy, the false and fetid Brady Bunch, others merely dismiss this seminal work as an example of the boob tubes vast wasteland potential. Both sentiments border on sacrilege. Although it is by no means a masterpiece (hey, even the Mona Lisa is pretty mutt ugly), the exploits of the talented, tenacious Partridges deserves recognition for what it is: a highly professional and polished piece of magnificent mainstream entertainment. Add in the terrific tunes and the minimal music business satire, and you've got something that stands bass AND treble clef above its creaky competition. And proof of this postulate is as close as a trip to the video store. The Partridge Family: The Complete First Season is out on DVD, and you now have a chance to pay homage to – and penance for - not recognizing its amazing qualities in the first place.
There are certain disbeliefs that have to be instantly and permanently suspended before you and The Partridge Family can even consider getting along. If you can't buy into the premise of a multi-talented clan filled with sensational singers, songwriters and instrumentalists, if you can't look beyond the lip-synced vocals and off rhythm onstage performances (complete with chord fudging), then this show is definitely not for you. And if you know that you will balk at the notion of a nine year old financial genius, a teen idol whose more insecure than arrogant, and an adolescent daughter who's more concerned about social issues than boys, then the sitcom styles of this series will definitely chafe your hinder.
Most importantly, if you can't get behind the notion that, manufactured or not, the Partridge Family released some damn fine pop records in their short, TV timed career, then you have no sonic soul. You might as well go piss all over the 1910 Fruitgum Company and give both Tommy James and Tommy Roe a swat in the hummable chorus. As a clever combination of lighthearted, formulaic family humor and the very best tunes Hollywood had to offer, the Partridges were light years beyond their faux fresh trappings. This was a highly skilled song factory fleshed out into a 30 minute showcase for both the personal and performance aspects of some astonishingly gifted actors. True, they couldn't sell the conceit that they were playing the music they mimed. But never once did you ever doubt that this wasn't the group behind those unforgettable AM memories.
From the point of plot, The Partridge Family was very basic. Within the unified tribe was mother Shirley (Oscar winner and Broadway star Shirley Jones), a widow with an angelic voice. She lorded over her two eldest children, Keith (real life stepson David Cassidy) and Lori (Susan Dey). Following up the rear was wisenheimer Danny (Danny Bonaduce) and the seemingly talentless duo of Tracy (Suzanne Crough) and Chris (Jeremy Gelbwaks). Managing the band was human sad sack Reuben Kincaid (Laugh-In alum Dave Madden) perhaps the only successful record exec who looks like he sleeps in his one and only suit.
The narrative arc of the initial season was the Partridge's coming together as a family and as a band, and then how that concept played out both on the road, and in the confines of a comedy home. Unlike other sitcoms of the time, The Partridge Family was filmed, allowing locations to seem authentic and the caught in the act elements to resonate with a kind of legitimacy. This is still mimicked music, mind you, but the appearance of aptitude was all the Partridges needed to pseudo-sell their sensational brand of pop.
Before moving on with more analysis, it's important to discuss the episodes appearing on this box set. All 25 installments of The Partridge Family, Season 1 are present and accounted for. A small plot description is provided after each title:
Episode 1: "What? And Get Out of Show Business?" – Danny tries to track down manager Reuben Kincaid, hoping he'll sign on the fledging Partridge Family band.
Episode 2: "The Sound of Money" – When the family bus hits the notoriously litigious "Whiplash Willie", the group soon find themselves in legal hot water.
Episode 3: "Whatever Happened to the Old Songs?" – Grandpa Partridge decides to join the act, hoping to win over the younger generation with his old school ways.
Episode 4: "See Here, Private Partridge"- The government steps in and halts the production on the Partridges first album when 9-year-old Danny gets drafted.
Episode 5: "When Mother Gets Married" – The kids start to see green when Mom takes a liking to a nice, if slightly suspicious new man in her life.
Episode 6: "Love at First Slight" – Wouldn't you know it: Keith falls in love with the only girl on the planet that doesn't know who he is – and doesn't care, either.
Episode 7: "Danny and the Mob" – Danny gets in Dutch with the mafia when a crime boss discovers the pipsqueak has been tutoring his moll in monetary issues.
Episode 8: "But the Memory Lingers On" – A skunk almost scuttles the family's plans to play a benefit at a children's hospital.
Episode 9: "Did You Hear the One About Danny Partridge?"- After getting an inadvertent laugh onstage, Danny decides to become a comedian.
Episode 10: "Go Directly to Jail" – While playing a show in a prison, an inmate decides to hold the family hostage. His ransom? They must listen to his songs.
Episode 11: "This is My Song" – Keith and Danny compete to come up with the next big hit for the group.
Episode 12: "My Son, The Feminist" – Hoping to stay on good terms with his new girlfriend, Keith pledges the family's services to a local political rally.
Episode 13: "Star Quality" – Danny decides to go solo when a magazine article spotlights him above everyone else in the band.
Episode 14: "The Red Woodloe Story" – An old folk legend looks to make a comeback...with the Partridge Family's help, of course.
Episode 15: "Mom Drops Out" – There is only one thing preventing the Partridges from touring Europe: the promoter thinks Mom is too old.
Episode 16: "Old Scrapmouth" – Lori's new braces are a nuisance. They are ruining her appearance on a television show. And now they're picking up radio signals.
Episode 17: "Why Did the Music Stop?" – Mom is getting worried: the family seems overworked and dead tired. So she demands a rest...for everyone.
Episode 18: " Soul Club" – Two Detroit club owners thought they were getting the Temptations for an all-important gig. They get the Partridges instead.
Episode 19: "To Play or Not to Play" – Lori will not cross the picket line when she learns that the employees at the hotel they are scheduled to play at are on strike.
Episode 20: "They Shoot Managers, Don't They?" – Reuben wants to get married, but without him, the Partridge Family may be caput.
Episode 21: "A Partridge Up a Pear Tree" – In horrible financial straits, completely desperate Keith turns to the only person who can help: Danny.
Episode 22: "Road Song" – After picking up a hitchhiker, the family finds themselves smack dab in the middle of some domestic – and legal – hot water.
Episode 23: "Not With My Sister You Don't" – Much to her boastful big brother's chagrin, Lori decides to date Keith's rival on campus.
Episode 24: "A Partridge By Any Other Name" – Danny believes he is adopted, and there is nothing anyone can do to convince him otherwise.
Episode 25: "A Knight in Shining Armor" – Hoping that creative sparks will fly, the Partridges match up an aspiring musician with a geeky poet.
Season 1 represented the Partridges ascension into stardom, which was odd when you consider the "band" already had a #1 song on the charts ("I Think I Love You") before the series proper even started. Clever marketing and a killer hook had made the Family household names before a single episode had aired. This was both a boon and a curse for the show, since it meant that there was instant mainstream acceptance of the group ideal. But it also meant that star David Cassidy was unceremoniously thrust into the teen idol limelight, something the quasi-serious rocker was rather uneasy about. This tension lead to many of Partridge's best moments, as Cassidy could tap into his real life dissatisfaction to mirror Keith's sudden, unsettling show business coming of age.
In basic television terms, The Partridge Family borders between comedy and drama, but the tightrope act is never subtle or smooth. Instead, the series can occasionally careen from broad pratfall pandemonium to moments of extreme pathos. Apparently, the creative forces behind the show (Executive Producer Bob Claver and Creator Bernard Slade) wanted to cover all their entertainment bases. They had music and mugging, so what would a little melodrama hurt? Unfortunately, Season 1 shows the signs of trying to weave seriousness into the semi-stock show business storyline. Basically, anytime someone elderly, ethereal or ethnic arrives on screen, you can guarantee there was some underlying social or emotional issue at the core of their conundrum.
But when it stayed in the verse/chorus rhythms of regular situation comedy, The Partridge Family was a heck of a lot of fun. It was an escapist fantasy for both kid and parent alike, a chance to see what it would be like if that universal dream of rock and roll stardom actually came calling. Naturally, the "ancillary" elements of the music business – groupies, drugs, all night drunken parties and the wanton destruction of hotel rooms – is nowhere to be found in the realm of the Partridge. But for a show not really centered on the nuts and bolts of music, we still get a few nice montage moments involving the recording, promoting and rehearsing of that signature sound.
But it's the episodes, more than the overriding themes, that people remember most, and each disc here has its numerous highlights - as well as the occasional outing that tests the patience of even a certified Partridge-aholic. Disc 1's "See Here, Private Partridge" offers a unique chance to see the United States, still mired in Vietnam, using a mandatory draft with maddening inefficiency. When Danny is finally "discovered" to be ineligible (he is NINE after all), the reaction shots are pure slapstick sublimity. The pilot episode, "What? And Get Out of Show Business?" does a fine job of setting up all the characters, as well as indicating what both the musical and humor philosophy of the series would be.
Perhaps the best episode on this first DVD, and one of the classic Partridge storylines ever, is "But the Memory Lingers On". As a non-stop mixture of jokes and tear-jerking, the saga of a pop band sprayed by a skunk, and the various unsuccessful remedies to rid themselves of the odor, is what this sensational series is all about. However, if you want to see where the show would often stumble, look no further than "When Mother Gets Married". Oddly for a series built on home and hearth, The Partridge Family tends to stutter and stall when it gets overly domestic.
Disc 2 is a more consistent batch of buffoonery. "Old Scrapmouth" is the sole Lori highlight here, since Susan Dey seemed shortchanged throughout most of the first season. Still, her metal mouth issues (combined with a nifty Mark "Luke Skywalker" Hamill cameo) make for quality Partridge insanity. But the creators obviously knew that the little red-headed midget (as everyone in the show often refers to him) Danny was the bankable comedy star. So they crafted many resplendent episodes around him, including "This is My Song", "Did You Hear the One About Danny Partridge?" and "Star Quality". In each case, however, they were sure to always reel in Danny's dense ego, if only to guarantee a continued FAMILY focus for the series.
On a strange side note, another bow to present day politics (for early 1970, that is) makes an appearance as the relatively new social cause of gender equity draws the family into a community fray in "My Son, The Feminist". Disc 2 also shows another arena where the Partridge paradigm could stumble. "Go Directly to Jail" may seem harmless enough, but Stuart Margolin's campy, over the top tendencies really destroy the episode's potential charms. Guest stars would do that quite often during the show's run.
Consistency becomes the key to success on DVD #3. Dismissing the tired coupling conventions of "Not With My Sister You Don't" and the odd but affecting Bobby Sherman in "A Knight in Shining Armor", the rest of the installments here are prime Partridge pleasure. Lori's agenda based beliefs come to the fore again in "To Play or Not to Play", while Reuben gets a sentimental, as well as sensationally silly, solo outing in "They Shoot Managers, Don't They?". Anytime Keith finds himself under Danny's dictatorial auspices ("A Partridge Up a Pear Tree"), or when the wisecracking wee one would take center stage ("A Partridge By Any Other Name") the series would just soar.
But the award for best moments of the first season, and the DVD in general, goes to a pair of very peculiar episodes. Future Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr. co-stars alongside the greatest stand-up comic in the history of the business, Richard Pryor, as the desperate nightclub owners in "Soul Club". While the set up of the story is just surreal (the Partridges come to Detroit ghetto to play a gig, and don't check with their booking agent before motoring into Motown?), once they are there, the nods to racial understanding and equality are genial and well intentioned. Sure, it seems almost existential to see Danny leading the Black Panthers to the Partridge gig, but then again, this is a kid who is capable of just about anything.
On the opposite end of the emotional (and political) spectrum is "Road Song". Featuring one of the greatest songs the Partridge Family ever "recorded" – "Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque"- we get great acting as well as superb sonic bliss in a show that often borders on the saccharine. Yet it is consistently saved by the performances – especially of Cassidy and Jones.
Indeed, all fake playing aside, it is worth noting that, up to a certain point, the performers pretending to be the Partridges are all fantastic. Only sad Suzanne Crough (poor thing appears unable to do anything much except sway, zombie-like, while staring into the camera) and soon to be replaced Jeremy Gelbwaks (sorry, Jer, but there was very little of the Bewitched-style two Darrens discussion when Brian Forster took over the role of Chris from Season 2 on) were actors in name only. Jones is a delight throughout the first season, a combination of happy and harried that makes her both believable, as well as the perfect make-believe mom. Susan Dey, saddled with a horribly underwritten character (at least in the first season) manages to overcome the scripted shortcomings to shine as the quintessential cool big sister.
As two sides of the same male egomania, David Cassidy and Danny Bonaduce are the real stars of the Partridge world. Each one brings a similarly strong sense of self, as well as a dogged ability to kid each other and themselves. It is their chemistry and stubborn sibling rivalry that drives almost each and every installment of the series. Bonaduce was additionally lucky in that he got teamed with comedy veteran Dave Madden as often – if not more so – than he did with his vocally adept TV brother. This was a classic comic duo, a rube and his short sidekick, each one capable of holding their own when the bantering and the bravado got rich and ridiculous. As an ensemble, the actors in The Partridge Family seemed to click almost immediately, which says as much about the individuals involved as it does the casting or direction.
And then there are the songs. From a pure pop craftsmanship standpoint, they really can't be beat. Sure, they are not everyone's cup of tea. Indeed there will be many who dismiss the wall of sound sensations with the memorable choruses and singsong lyrics as nothing more than puke inducing pap. Of course, they'd be wrong. As we learn in the bonus material, The Partridge Family series took great pains to produce the best mainstream music they could, and that many of those tunes remain vital even after 35 years. It is a true testament to all the terrific talent involved. Only David Cassidy and Shirley Jones actually sang on the Partridge recordings (and Dave occasionally contributed a little guitar). The rest of the aural elements were produced by the best studio musicians and singers that mastermind Wes Farrell could come up with.
The results speak for themselves. Season 1 would feature such Partridge classics as "Brand New Me", "Bandala", "Point Me In The Direction Of Albuquerque," "Singing My Song", "Only a Moment Ago", "I Can Feel Your Heartbeat" and the hits "I Think I Love You", "Doesn't Somebody Want to Be Wanted" and "I'll Meet You Halfway". Most of the songs from this portion of the series can be found on the "group's" first two releases, The Partridge Family Album and Up to Date. But several tracks remain hidden treasures. Indeed, fan favorites like "Let The Good Times In," "Together ("Havin' a Ball)", "Baby I Love, Love, I Love You", "All Of The Things", "The Love Song", "Stephanie", or the full-length version of the show's theme song "Come On, Get Happy" (here known as "When We're Singing") can only be found on these episodes. The Partridge sound is not difficult to describe. Take the intricate harmonies of the Beach Boys, blend in a healthy dose of Phil Spector's overdubbed delights, and moderate with David Cassidy's kicky crooner delivery and you've got certified ear candy that only a crackpot curmudgeon could resist.
The series itself is equally hard to defy. While it's not the cleverest comedy ever created, and occasionally relies on the hokiest of clichés to craft its humor, it is still a warm and winning series, filled with great character interaction and lots of laugh out loud moments. Combined with the fantastic music and overall phenomenon-like feel, The Partridge Family was destined to replicate its rock star leanings. It was never built to last. It was always going to burn brightly and flame out quickly. So here's to getting a front row, first season seat to the fire at its grand, glowing beginnings. While the series would still soar in Seasons 2 and 3 (let's not mention Season 4 and the introduction of that Dondi-like dipstick, little Ricky Segall) this is where it all began. And just like the concept of the Partridge Family itself, this DVD box set is kind of unbelievable. Who would have thought that, 35 years later, the Partridges would be part of posterity. For something often accused of being disposable, seems like a fairly vigorous streak of longevity, wouldn't you say?
While it's hard to call these 1.33:1 transfers reference quality, they sure look amazingly good considering that the last time many of us saw them, they were filtered through the varying picture problems of a standard network broadcast. While Episode 1 is a little faded (it was the first thing shot, after all), the rest of the installments all have a clean, crisp feeling to their visuals. The colors are correct and the contrasts preserve important details. Most importantly, these are uncut, non-syndication versions of the show, so you get anywhere from two to four minutes of additional footage that is usually excised to make room for mindless Madison Avenue drivel.
With music being an integral – nay mandatory aspect of every Partridge Family episode, one would expect Sony to go all out and remaster the audio to provide optimum sound for both dialogue and songs. Well, the sad news is that The Partridge Family: The Complete First Season relies on technology from over three decades ago to present its aural aspects. The Dolby Digital Mono does sound clean and crisp, but there is overmodulation everywhere (especially during the opening episode and its main musical number "Together (Havin' a Ball")) and a real lack of depth. On a decent home theater system, the pure pop tones will definitely stand out, but everything else will remain flat and kind of lifeless. While one imagines that true aficionados of the show might have balked at the notion or remixing these "classics", the 1970s were just not a kind decade to the decibel set.
Each individual DVD in this set has a special feature or two to round out the overall Partridge Family experience. We even get a four song CD sampler, featuring "I Think I Love You", "Point Me In The Direction Of Albuquerque", "I Can Feel Your Heartbeat," and "Come On, Get Happy". Each disc also allows you to jump directly to the musical numbers (some, not all) in each episode. The first DVD houses the show specific content, with a pair of featurettes – "Boarding the Bus" and "The Sound of the Partridge". Providing interviews with most of the cast and crew, as well as some outside insights from TV "historian" Scott Awley, we learn a lot about the creation, and the chaos, that went into The Partridge Family's invention. Of the two, "Sound" is better, since it gives us a behind the scenes look at the people and the painstaking production that went into the making of the music.
Disc 1 also features two full length audio commentaries. Though she is a very pleasant person, genial and direct, Shirley Jones adds virtually nothing to the history of the series with her discussion on "When Mom Gets Married". Mostly, she watches along and laughs. Danny Bonaduce does a much better job on "What? And Get Out of Show Business?" Deciding that the best way to pass the time is to provide some insider Partridge trivia, Bonaduce can also be devastatingly funny when he wants ("There's something you don't see very often on the show", he muses, "Susan Dey actually EATING something!").
The rest of the added content is a hoot, since it proves the classic 70s adage that old sitcoms never really died, they just got reconfigured into futuristic Saturday morning cartoons. The Partridge Family: 220 A.D is more or less The Jetsons with a less cartoony look to the main characters. The two episodes included here ("Car Trouble" on Disc 2, "My Son, the Spaceball Star" on Disc 3) are colorful, crazy examples of the kind of bewildering brain rot the animation community thrust upon the impressionable youth of a tired post-Watergate nation. As footnotes in the Partridge mythos they are fun, but not necessarily mandatory viewing.
Granted, such excessive praise for an arcane artifact of Me Decade TV may seem unwarranted, or even ridiculous. But for many, the Partridge Family was a stepping-stone. Kids born in the 60s, unable to experience Beatle or Monkee mania in its prime, found a red-hot happening to latch onto with the emerging Partridge pandemonium. And even if you believe the music is nothing but mindless AOR crap, as artistic as a fart and twice as rancid, it is hard to deny the craftsmanship and creativity of the songwriting and performance. Beyond all its kitsch and camp value, the ultra-hip school bus with its modular, pop art paint job and the effete Paul Revere and the Raiders style stage costumes, The Partridge Family was a show of gentle humor and genuine heart.
If you've dismissed it in the past, perhaps now is as good a time as any to give the gang another try. And if you are, like this critic, hopelessly addicted to the series and its strangely evocative soundtrack, The Complete First Season DVD set will be like a time machine trip back to those initial influential salad days. Though they urge us to "come on" and "get happy" throughout the 25 episodes presented here, there is really no reason for the reminder. Re-experiencing this series again will produce enough bliss to last another three decades.
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