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Eight Is Enough: The Complete First Season
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.
Schussboomer - is like a sea change for the show, without which it may never have survived a season. Grant Goodeve fills Hamill's shoes with dreaminess and danger. Brother Tommy magically turns into actor Willie Aames, and the film-look of the first show turns into what looks more like typical television. The wackiness suddenly appears too, since Mary (Lani O'Grady) has surreptitiously invited her unwed pregnant friend to stay with the family, while Susan (Susan Richardson) hopes to go skiing alone with her boyfriend. Bradford must put his foot down while maintaining some semblance of sensitivity, and the show immediately begins to find its stride as something both funny and affecting.
Pieces Of Eight puts Tom in jeopardy at his job, as he becomes acting Editor-In-Chief of the Register, during threat of a strike. Once again, the Bradfords find themselves housing someone else's child, and Joan (Diana Hyland) decides she wants to work as she helps daughter Nancy (Dianne Kay) with a potential modeling career. Will Bradford see the wisdom in all this 'women's lib' stuff?
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.
Turnabout brings a bit of sleazy stupidity to the show, meaning the episode is a standout. When a dumbed-down David and an older, refined legislator (Adrienne Barbeau) inexplicably fall for each other, all is groovy in an updated Mrs. Robinson kind-of scenario, until Barbeau's liberal politics rub long-time family friend Dr. Maxwell the wrong way. Meanwhile, Barbeau looks impossibly fantastic.
Quarantine finds the Bradfords locked in their own home for an indefinite number of days - with Nancy's would-be boyfriend, no less - as possible carriers of a rare South American disease. Though not much more than an hour-long sit-com, this episode relies heavily on the charm of the cast, luckily, it works just fine.
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.
Hit and Run Opts for three sibling plotlines: Tommy breaks a window, Joanie has a car accident, and Elizabeth overbooks for Prom. The sly reverse-sexism of Elizabeth's three dates dilemma is a high point.
The Gipper Caper ends the first season on a light note when the family gets into a touch football war with Tom's new dentist.
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.
With nine 48-minute episodes spread out across three dual-layer discs, this fullscreen, 4 X 3 ratio presentation both preserves the OAR of the series, and looks fantastic. One or two stock footage establishing shots looks slightly darker - more tired perhaps - but 99.9% sports a sharp image, good details, little-to-no damage, and decent colors. The first episode enjoys deep, rich film-look colors, while the rest of the episodes, more brightly lit, bring a little too much 'avocado' out of the avocado-colored appliances, if you get my drift.
English Dolby Digital Mono Audio - for obvious reasons - isn't a flashy sonic experience, however, the show sounds better now than it did through your punky, thin little console TV speakers, with no damage or distortion apparent from the source all the way out through your Sony system.
The first season collection comes in a standard size keepcase with a paperboard sleeve and a double-sided flipper for storing the three disks. Menu screens bring to mind the graphical interface of an ATM. One extra is included, a 16-minute Reunion Special (2010) from The Today Show. Of the remaining living cast members, Adam Rich and Susan Richardson are not present, which is just one of the things that makes this reunion a somewhat sad and uncomfortable affair.
Shout! Factory delivers a fine, albeit nearly extra-free, collection of the venerable family drama's first 9-episode season. In season one, the series works to establish its tone, eventually finding the right blend of drama and comedy, while tackling problems both realistic and TV-corny. Great picture quality and fine audio are about the only extras here, except for the 16-minute Today Show reunion special, so if you've gotta have the series on disc, this is a pretty good, but not great, way to go. Recommended for the hardcore fan.
- Kurt Dahlke