Judge Bill Gibron would rather have the rain than a barebones DVD of his favorite '70s singing sitcom.
Come On, Get Happy…Please?
Everyone has heard of the sophomore slump. You know, the notorious inability of musicians, directors, writers, etc., to follow up their stunning debuts with an equally viable and victorious sequel. In the world of the sitcom, however, a different kind of benchmark was being (and continues to be) discovered. You see, most comedies take an entire first season to get into gear. By the end of that first run, they are either poised to sizzle or fizzle. Most manage the former, finding their stride by the midpoint of their second set of episodes. Oddly enough, the most difficult time for a 30-minute laughfest is the third season. It's there where the show faces a "make or break" dynamic. Some series answer the call admirably. Others, like the suburban rock-star clan bake The Partridge Family, begin a slow and subtle decline. Thanks to two elements—one inside and one outside the series—the fresh and frothy fantasy was turning flat. By its final turn on TV, things would go from effervescent to desperate.
Facts of the Case
Spread out over three DVDs, The Partridge Family: The Complete Third Season consisted of 25 individual episodes. For those who still don't know about the show, the main premise 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, later Brian Forster). 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. Together, they become overnight sensations, with the family trying to balance a normal life with the rigors of being stars.
The storylines explored this time around include the following:
At this point in The Partridge Family's run, a clear critical connection can be deciphered. Simply put, the quality of the series as a solid, familial sitcom could be measured by the music offered each week. The original two seasons of the show drew directly from classic pop perfection like The Partridge Family Album, Up to Date, and the sensational Sound Magazine. But as the third season rolled around, the musical material was being lifted almost exclusively from Shopping Bag and Notebook, two lesser efforts for the show's songwriters. Like the Monkees before them, the minute the public found the P-Family's bubblegum lacking, they turned their backs and looked for something new to "chew" on. While the show would still offer some standout comedy, the lack of exciting music was a major missing link to any concept of continued success.
The other main issue affecting the quality of the show was the awkward growth spurt being experienced by lead comedian and series' "cute" kid, Danny Bonaduce. Where once he was an adorable redheaded ginger with enough chutzpah to hold his own with any adult, he was now a bloating teen with a weight problem and a face full of "puberty bumps." As a sitcom, The Partridge Family used to rely on the chemistry between Bonaduce and Dave Madden's Reuben Kincaid as kind of a generation stop gap. It carried many an episode. But with age rendering his young co-star more creepy than funny, the show needed to shift its emphasis. That's why, all throughout the third season, you see more involvement with Keith, more storylines for Laurie, a newfound focus on Mom Shirley, and the inevitable inclusion (in Season Four) of a new character—certified show killer "Little" Ricky Segall (ugh!).
Still, for all its possible pitfalls, Season Three offers some interesting, often winning installments. Disc One provides a few easy laughs when Reuben and Danny square off during "Each Dawn I Diet." While the humor is obvious, the actors bring it to life. Similarly, the feminism-tinged "This Male Chauvinist Piggy Went to Market" gives Susan Dey a much needed respite from her typical dour, wallflower persona, while David Cassidy once again proves his mantle as a bumbling straight man. Naturally, guest stars figure prominently, and we are once again treated to the sight of Rob Reiner as Snake, the lovelorn biker, and the blight of Ray Bolger as the Partridges' too square to be hip groan-inducing grandpa.
Disc Two delivers an equal combination of disasters and delights. Anytime an animal enters the picture, TV trouble brews, and in the case of "Nag, Nag, Nag," the combination of Bonaduce and a broken down horse is almost lethal. On the flip side of things, Cassidy gets his "Johnny Bravo" moment as he is cast (and then almost immediately fired) from a Hollywood film. Of course, no '70s sitcom was complete without some manner of stunt location/commercial marketing tie-in attempt, and unlike their fellow Bradys, who got a trip to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon, the Partridges had to settle for a sightseeing tour of Ohio's noted King's Island Amusement Park. Still, "I Left My Heart in Cincinnati" is one of the season's highlights.
Jodie Foster's appearance as a girl starstruck and pining for Danny starts off Disc Three with a bang. "The Eleven Year Itch" is not only a priceless bit of future Oscar winner nostalgia, but a funky and fun episode. The follow-up show, featuring '70s star William Windom as a fried chicken mogul also offers a nice balance of goofiness and pathos. Of course, when it's discovered that national Tiger Beat poster boy Keith Partridge is flunking sex ed, it's an innuendo-laced installment of "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex…But Couldn't Pronounce." The rest of the season finished off swimmingly, with John Astin as a Howard Hughes-like recluse and the always recognizable Richard Stahl as a mystery writer.
Yet as the connection between the music and the merriment merged with the problems posed by a moody, mutating Bonaduce, the hit-or-miss scriptwriting was definitely scrolled across the wall for the Partridges. As with any series driven by outside influences, the lack of chart success meant an equal lack of pop culture distinction. In addition, TV was still in the process of changing. All in the Family and its spin-off Maude were proving that provocative, socially significant material could be added to a sitcom and still be successful. While the Partridges were clearly outside the political paradigm, their lighthearted take on life seemed shallow compared to what was happening elsewhere. Again, there was no chance that this series would push the envelope, but it did appear out of sync with a souring society.
And yet, it's that very optimism, that sense of sunny day spring sing-a-longs that makes The Partridge Family so timeless, even in its troubled third go-round. We enjoy the sense of family, the foolish rivalries between kids and their personal peers. We may wince at the bad "playing" of these non-musical actors (especially Master Bonaduce's "bass as a percussive instrument" style) but also recognize that few outside the aurally trained would realize the ruse. And every once in a while, a song will start and that original feeling of joy and wonderment will wash over you. The Partridge Family found success (at least for the first few seasons) by taking the inherent pleasures of pop and the warmth of one's kin and combining them effortlessly. By the time Season Four was figured, something had to change, and it wouldn't be for the better.
As for Sony's treatment of the show on DVD, things could be better. Of course, the 1.33:1 full-screen image looks great—a little soft, but still infinitely better than any VHS or syndicated version of the show. The colors are crisp, the dirt and debris are kept to a minimum, and the overall look is polished and quite presentable. On the sound side of things, sadly, the Dolby Digital Mono is as flat and lifeless as one can imagine, especially in light of today's higher-tech tuners and outputs. Last, and definitely least, there is nary a single Partridge-related bonus feature here. Sure, Sony gives us something called "minisodes," but who really wants to see Diff'rent Strokes and Charlie's Angels, even if truncated. With so many in the cast still alive, and an active cult fan base on the web, you'd think they could come up with something better than nothing.
Truth be told, Little Ricky didn't really destroy The Partridge Family (though he came damn close). No, what really undid the series was the sense of change in America. In 1970, something as saccharine and surreal as a singing clan could be stomached by a populace still purging its palette of peace and love. In just a few short years, Watergate and the ongoing war in Vietnam would turn something this wholesome into a clueless collection of clichés. For two years at least, the music kept things meaningful, Billboard bolstering some already impressive ratings. But once the sound stiffened, so did the show. Some may argue that Season Three is the series at its best, but for others, the bloom was already off this amiable aural rose. The next time around, no one got out alive.
Not guilty. While occasionally enjoyable, this is one of the more workmanlike seasons of any '70s sitcom. Definitely not the series at its best.
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Scales of Justice
• Minisodes of Diff'rent Strokes and Charlie's Angels
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