Actor Adam Rich was one year older than me when the massively popular family dramedy Eight Is Enough premiered in 1977. On this show, which for five short years formed my entire understanding of life, Rich, as little Nicholas, was the closest thing to an avatar available for boys my age. As such, I learned my role in life was to contribute a little comedy relief, wander around sadly alone while constantly making my own lonely meals in the kitchen, and to have adorable hair. I guess that's a metaphor for the show itself, which presents a potent blend of idealized realism, comedy, and topical drama that holds up remarkably well today.
Dick Van Patten plays Tom Bradford, one of many in a long line of lovable-but-firm patriarchs to grace American TV over the years. Editorialist for a Sacramento newspaper, Bradford is in over his head with eight children and a lovely wife. Eldest son David (Grant Goodeve) lives outside the home, while youngster Nicholas, teenager Tommy, (Willie Aames) and five sisters of remarkably different temperament (yet who all seem to be within about two years of age) still call the Bradford residence home. While based on an autobiographical novel, after the pilot the show quickly began veering toward more 'entertaining' television plotlines. The death of Diana Hyland (Bradford's wife Joan in four first season episodes) inadvertently added further drama to subsequent seasons.
A light dusting of magic realism makes you want to buy into the drama, and the comedy. No household ever ran as smoothly as the Bradford house. Of course much of the time, an air of sniping chaos pervades, (while Nicholas wanders around eating a sandwich) but it's a tightly scripted, choreographed chaos. Scenes of everyone going bananas in the kitchen are like little ballet performances, with Van Patten acting as the perturbed conductor. Van Patten, then and now, seems an unlikely TV Dad, with his round face and comb-over, yet it's remarkable to see him in his prime. Slimmer than you remember, Van Patten demonstrates perfectly calibrated serio-comic chops as Bradford. Van Patten is never less than believable as Bradford, whether angrily lecturing his kids, delivering heartfelt, homey wisdom, or defending his inability to pay his bill to an architect, he's either in gripping form or displaying deft comic timing. Bradford, clearly outgunned (most of the time) by his family, and constantly exasperated, is the engine that keeps the show cruising along.
Of course there are the kids, too, all get storylines to tackle from time to time, starting off in typical dramatic fashion with episode one:
Never Try Eating Nectarines Since Juice May Dispense - The first episode (titled after Bradford's mnemonic device for remembering his kids' names) finds little Nicholas having his tonsils removed, and elder David moving out of the house. It's about time, since David is 22-years-old, even though it seems weird to ditch one of the kids at the start of the series. Of course David remains an important fixture of the show, but not the original actor, Mark Hamill, who both messes up his face in a car accident between episodes, and messes up his career by starring in one of the biggest movies of all time. It's for the best, since Hamill's petulant, effete attitude ultimately would have been a terrible fit for the character.
Women, Ducks, and the Domino Theory centers around Tom and David's irrational need to go on a duck hunting trip, leading to tension that ripples throughout the family. Tommy (Aames) has his heart broken by the popular girl, and the notion of creeping curfews underscore's Bradford's troubles marshalling his troops effectively. This episode in particular begins brewing the DNA of the kids in the family as a self-organizing unit, paving the way for later awesome family dramas like Party of Five.
V is for Vivian begins as another sit-come scenario, when Tom's kooky, rich, free-spirited sister arrives, stirring up the household. Her Pied Piper's tune to the Bradford kids brings in some serious wish-fulfillment drama to thicken the mix.
From the fairly big shift in tone and casting between episodes one and two of Eight Is Enough, to the wide variety of plot types, it's clear the series was still working out its footing on the way to becoming a dramedy powerhouse. Perhaps something about that ballet of chaos in the kitchen - which could never happen in real life - or the way the kids' characters begin to deepen as they each get a turn at a dramatic storyline, makes Eight Is Enough serious comfort food; both in a nostalgic sense, and as an example of good TV. The fashions might not hold up - Mary's hair and glasses being the most distressing reminder - but the series holds up just fine.