He don't know what he's up against, he don't know what it's all about, he's got so much to think about but—HEY!—Judge Dennis Prince thinks he loves this groovy new DVD.
"Ladies and gentlemen, America's latest success story—the Partridge Family."
Is it probable—even possible—that a recently-widowed mother of five can hold her family together through the regular triumphs and travails of suburban family life? Maybe, if they have an impenetrable bond that keeps them smiling and pulling together despite the toil and temptation that might seek to split them up.
"Hey, how 'bout a song?"
C'mon now and meet everybody,
Facts of the Case
Shirley Partridge (Shirley Jones, Oklahoma!) is struggling to keep her family afloat after the sudden death of her husband six months prior. Working as a bank teller, she labors to keep the household out of the debtors' sights, but it's not easy. If only there were another way to make ends meet…
In the garage, Shirley's talented enclave of kids continues their dreamy pursuits of making it big in the music business, each bringing their own flair and foibles to the group's sound and persona. Eldest brother Keith (David Cassidy, actual stepson to Shirley Jones) has a knack for songwriting and musical arrangement. Laurie (Susan Dey, L.A. Law) is deft on the keyboards and also quite vocal in matters of social injustice. Ten-year-old Danny (Danny Bonaduce) is a plucky bassist yet is even more adept as a precocious young businessman. Chris (Jeremy Gelbwaks) is still a little boy though quite handy on the drums while youngest sister, Tracy (Suzanne Crough) is cute as bug's ear as she rattles the tambourine and sings backup vocals with perfect pitch. All told, the kids are ready to make a go of recording a demo tape when outsider Gloria Steinman, the chosen lead soprano, is afflicted with a bout of mumps. The kids persuade Shirley to stand in and, in a flash of unexpected good fate, the Partridge Family has found its sound. Danny tracks down and badgers big-time record producer Ruben Kincaid (Dave Madden) and the family is signed to a recording and performing contract.
And so it has begun, this swingin' and singin' family embarks on the envious adventures of touring the country, performing their catchy numbers, all the while maneuvering the usual trip-ups of family life and the unusual trappings of life in the spotlight. Whether Keith's having girl troubles, Danny's entangled in the mob, or Shirley is courting suitors who might be auditioning for the role of "Dad," the Partridges trudge on with smiles on their faces and songs in their hearts, leaving a bit of groovy-good feeling wherever they go.
In 1970, a revolution was certainly afoot—the American family unit was in definite flux following much of the apple pie depictions of the previous two decades including Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and even The Flintstones. As the 1970s rolled around, the small screen began to experiment with the less-traditional unit led by the single parent such as The Andy Griffith Show, Family Affair, and The Courtship of Eddie's Father. And while, at the tail end of 1969, producer Sherwood Schwartz merged two incomplete families to form The Brady Bunch, playwright and television writer Bernard Slade decided to offer the single parent a different challenge—fame in the musical field. Unlike the bubbly and unblemished Bradys, The Partridge Family was injected with a well-calculated dose of dry wit and sly cynicism. From the outset, the show was sincerely different than that story of a lovely lady and the man named Brady; it imbued the kid characters with adult-like traits that made them genuinely funny and served to maintain credible comedic conflicts among them. At the head of the pack was Shirley, serving as the voice of the enlightened new generation of '70s parents, they who survived the enduring stupor of the '60s and recognized the need and usefulness of honest and candid relations, both within and outside of the family unit.
To be sure, creator and initial scriptwriter Slade had definite plans of how the show would launch and develop. Although he had previously written and produced a Canadian television one-shot, The Big Coin Sound, which featured a vocal group, he relocated to California with the notion to pitch a situation comedy about a musical family. After seeing real-life singing family The Cowsills ("Hair," "Love, American Style") late night on Carson, he decided to move forward with the pilot script and sold it to Screen Gems. Shirley was to be a widow as opposed to a divorcee at the insistence of the cautious studio brass. Also at the studio's pressing was the fact that this was to be a largely commercial venture that sought out "pretty actors" as opposed to bona fide singers and musicians. Clearly, they wanted a recognizable star to fill the role of Shirley and did so in the miraculous signing of Shirley Jones, a stage and big screen star who had previously turned down the role of Carol Brady, fearing that a TV stint would serve as the death knell of her successful career. The role of Keith was offered to Jones's stepson, David Cassidy, after receiving the green light from the respected actress and real-life mother. Susan Dey hadn't done any prior acting outside of TV commercials but fit into the role of Laurie with uncanny comfort and ease (the production team was duly impressed with her well-timed situational responses). Slade admits he hadn't pictured anyone like Danny Bonaduce in the role of Danny yet was struck by the redhead's unusual knack for comedic delivery. Jeremy Gelbwaks and Suzanne Crough were pretty much throwaway castings as they were considered too young to actually manage any performances that would entail more than a line or two (and Gelbwaks would be served his walking papers at the conclusion of the first season after his generally unruly and tiresome on-set behavior; Crough would stay on for the show's four-year run but would never evolve past her tambourine, triangle, and childish white leotards). Individually, the characters weren't particular interesting so Slade ensure each had a foible or "defect" that would serve as catalyst for interaction within the ensemble—and it worked. Laurie would spend the first season looking down her nose at Keith's self-enamored style and preoccupation with the opposite sex while he, in turn, would level assertions that Laurie was afflicted with the need to level Joan Baez-like social proclamations whenever and wherever possible. Danny would manage to pretty much get under everyone's skin in his quest for fame and fortune—collectively or individually—yet served as a most notable and insubordinate foil to the band's designated manager, Reuben ("Why do I get the feeling I'm dealing with a 40-year-old midget?"), the two continually feeding one another's ire. Shirley would remain generally calm and collected throughout the proceedings yet wasn't afraid to toss out a well-deserved barb when the need arose.
Initially airing on Fridays at 8:30pm on the ABC network, The Partridge Family became an immediate hit with both kids and adults. Thanks to the aforementioned character structure, young viewers were taken in by the Partridge kids' antics and adventures while mature viewers appreciated the often-biting humor that was interjected via the adult cast members, not to mention a bevy of well recognized guest stars such as Ray Bolger, Rosemary DeCamp, Jackie Coogan, Harry Morgan, Dick Clark, and more. Of course, the show also played host to several as-yet undiscovered stars-in-the-making that potentially appealed to both age groups; in this first season, those included Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, and Mark Hamill. Of course, there was plenty of toe-tapping tunes featured in each episode that would serve to punctuate the situation and go on to sell millions of record albums and singles.
So what about the music? As noted, Bernard Slade never intended the actors to actually be musicians with the exception of star Shirley Jones, whom he believed could lend a vocal chord or two to the overall sound. Never realizing that David Cassidy could actually sing (and play respectable guitar riffs, too), the pilot episode featured a song, "Let the Good Times In," that which was originally sung by The Love Generation, a '60s pop band headed by Tom and John Bahler, they who would re-record the song and, along with additional singers Ron Hicklin and Jackie Ward, would ultimately become the backup sound of The Partridge Family. Later, when the producers discovered Cassidy could belt out a song with his very distinctive voice, the lead sound of the Partridges came to full commercial life. Of course, while Cassidy would quickly bemoan the bubble-gum prison he was trapped in, there's no denying that the Partridge sound made him the teen idol and pop icon of his day (he's significantly softened his disdainful stance of late, admitting the show and the sound are responsible for his rampant success).
So whether you loved or hated The Partridge Family, there's no doubt you're quite aware of them and, finally, their original television escapades have found their way to DVD. Previously only available in four commercially-released VHS tapes as well as from Columbia House's Re-TV VHS collection, Sony Home Entertainment now presents The Partridge Family—The Complete First Season, which captures the entire canon of 25 first-season episodes across three single-sided discs contained in two slimline keep-cases and housed in a colorful slipcase. Here are the episodes you'll find on board:
• "What? And Get Out of Show Business?" (pilot
• "Did You Hear the One About Danny Partridge?"
• "Why Did the Music Stop?"
Each episode here is presented in its original 1.33:1 broadcast aspect ratio and, frankly, they look pretty good. Granted, this isn't the sort of material that would seem to merit a full-on restoration effort yet it's clear that some amount of care was taken in converting these episodes to the digital medium. It's sort of good news/bad news for videophiles because, while the images here are bounding with vibrant and well-controlled colors (just look at that bus as well as all the avocado and goldenrod interiors), there's a consistent low-level of grain and infrequent film dirt that remind us we're watching 35-year-old television. As I've mentioned in many other classic television reviews, I tend to embrace these imperfections as the welcome "texture," if you will, of a beloved era gone by and the programming that defined the period. Still, I would contend that this is the best these shows have looked in quite some time, probably as good as or better than their first run broadcasts (given the displays of the day were much less able to draw out elements of the original source material). If you're a TV purist, you'll probably especially enjoy the slight float in the beginning and end title sequences that give the images the look that they're being viewed through a telecine; I'm perfectly fine with it because, again, it delivers an honest depiction of the original viewing experience. As for the audio, it's offered in a quite energetic Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix that sounds better than you might expect. There are some moments of high-end sibilance, largely caused by the tacked-on laugh track, but by and large it's a clean mix that suits the image quite well.
I've only mentioned three discs so far and that's where you're going to find a very generous and enjoyable mix of extra features sprinkled throughout; clearly, Sony has shown a penchant to excel when it comes to bonus material in TV-on-DVD boxed sets (more on that later). Begin with the audio commentaries found on two of the episodes. The pilot, "What? And Get Out of Show Business?" found on Disc One has the inimitable Danny Bonaduce peppering the proceedings with his quick and quippy insights. Episode five, "When Mother Gets Married," features a pleasant but rather sparse commentary by Shirley Jones. Neither commentary keeps our attention with the sort of rapid-fire details many come to expect from such tracks, and it seems the Sony team's intention was to capture the actors' reactions from a "cold viewing;" I'd much rather have more insight and would hope future volumes would include a bit more egging on by the production staff or combine actors in a group setting to incite some lively chatter, anecdotes, and reminiscences. There are more goodies in store on this first disc by way of some honestly interesting and introspective featurettes. "Boarding the Bus" is a 20-minute look back at the creation and launch of The Partridge Family, including interviews with Shirley Jones, David Cassidy, Danny Bonaduce, Bernard Slade, and show producer/director Mel Swope. Next is "The Sound of the Partridge," an eight-minute excursion into the world of "augmented" music where Tom and John Bahler, along with Jackie Ward, invite us to learn about how the band's sound came about, who sang which kid's part, and more. And, as a final bonus here (and also to be found on discs two and three), you can select the various musical numbers and jump to them immediately via the fun animated menus. On Disc Two, you'll find a nifty bonus in the form of an episode of Hanna-Barbera's Saturday cartoon spinoff, The Partridge Family 2200 A.D. It's not such a terrific cartoon—it's kind of silly, really—but it's nifty that the Sony team thought to toss it in here. The cartoon features original Partridge actor voices of Dey, Bonaduce, Crough, Madden, and the second Chris, Brian Forster. Running at just over 21 minutes, the cartoon is absolutely complete, including the commercial break outros and intros (very important content to we classic cartoon nuts). Finally, on Disc Three is another complete episode of The Partridge Family 2200 A.D. Three discs with useful extras on each? This is a job well done, in my opinion. Ah, but there's still a bit more. A fourth disc is included in the second slimline keep case, an audio CD sampler that includes four songs from the newly released "Come On, Get Happy! The Very Best of the Partridge Family" compilation. The sampler includes re-mastered versions of "I Think I Love You," "I Can Feel Your Heartbeat," "Point Me In the Direction of Albuquerque," and the never commercially released theme song, "Come On Get Happy." If you're a fervent Partridge fan, this DVD boxed set strikes the perfect chord on all accounts.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The voices and music of the Partridge Family were augmented by other performers.
Yet there it was, that confounding statement that had every second-grader on my school bus scratching their heads wondering just what "augmented" was…and if it was infectious. No doubt, the toe-tapping, happy sound of the Partridge Family's music was quite infectious in its day (and still pleasant today, too), yet the truth we all came to begrudgingly accept is that the band was a bunch of frauds, stiffs dressed in maroon velveteen moving their mouths to someone else's groovy tunesmanship. To that end, the biggest downfall of the show, the one that has to be singled out, is the lip-synching and feigned musicianship. Look closely and you'll see Danny actually strumming his bass guitar at times (which absolutely infuriated David Cassidy to the point that he quickly calibrated the red-headed rube). Never in the four years of the show did Tracy ever appear to have a sense of musical timing when it came to banging the tambourine or tapping her triangle. Chris tended to play his drums with a slow left hand. The lip-synching was best among Keith and Laurie, yet Shirley performed with a near-manic enthusiasm so much so that it often appeared her ruffled dickie was in danger of bursting into flames at any moment. Okay, so the musical segments were often over the top and even cringe-worthy (I admit I winced more than once as I reviewed these 25 episodes). Still, if that was the program's greatest crime, then so what. It was feel-good entertainment for a confused era in American history. 'Nuff said.
As for the DVD itself, let's briefly revisit that previously-mentioned matter of adding bonus content to TV-on-DVD collections. Sony Home Entertainment has done a stellar job here by including some truly tasty goodies throughout the four included discs, yet still manages to keep the retail price at just $29.95 (and you can save a quick 25% off that sticker price at most online venues). Other studios—Fox quickly comes to mind—has delivered some nice boxed-set releases yet has done so at sky-high prices (See the first Mary Tyler Moore and Lost In Space releases), thinking that consumers weren't interested in extra features as sales were down. No, the answer is to include the extra features but keep the prices reasonable. I believe Sony is one studio that's leading the way in this regard.
So when the needle reaches the end of the record, I think you'll find that The Partridge Family—The Complete First Season is a fun set that captures much of the bubble-gum goodness of 1970. And while there are plenty of fun extras to be found in this release, it's clear that there is plenty more material being held back for future releases. If you're like me, you can't wait to see the family take the stage a second, third, and fourth time. As for now, the first set is highly recommended and considered a strong buy.
Hey, stop, stop! Look around. Somebody wants to love you.
This court finds there's nothing radical, disruptive, or dangerously saccharine about The Partridge Family and commends all involved in this stellar first season release that clearly sets the stage for other TV-on-DVD releases. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette -- "Boarding the Bus"
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