By James Plath
FIRST PUBLISHED Feb 6, 2009
Some sitcoms lose steam, but “The Partridge Family” just kept chugging along, buoyed by teen idol David Cassidy’s mega-stardom and shows this season that featured his character, Keith Partridge, in all his big-hair, hair-flipping glory.
The Cowsills started it all in 1967 with a family act that featured a mother and her four sons and daughter performing, while the musically-challenged dad managed the group. People in the industry suspected they were a fake family, but they were the real thing, blending Beach Boys’ harmonies with a straight soft-rock beat. Their success inspired “The Partridge Family,” which aired between 1970-74.
Singer-actress Shirley Jones was a natural to play the mother–attractive, talented, and comfortable around children. In fact, Cassidy, age 16, was her stepson, while Susan Dey (who would go on to star in “L.A. Law”) was 15, and red-headed Danny Bonaduce played the precocious 10-year-old who fancied himself as the businessman of the group. In the first season, Jeremy Gelbwaks played seven-year-old Christopher Partridge, but he would be replaced a year later by Brian Forster. Young Tracy Partridge, age 5, was played by Suzanne Crough, while David Madden played the group’s manager, Reuben Kinkaid. So the mix was pretty close to what the Cowsills had, and the group was marketed as a real pop act, same as The Monkees. Cassidy achieved screaming-fan status with a number of hit singles, including “I Think I Love You.”
Week after week, the Partridge family sang at least one full song during the half-hour sitcom, but unlike the group that they were patterned after, the family’s music was “enhanced” by studio musicians. Only Jones and Cassidy did their own singing, anchoring the group. What made the show interesting, though, was its blend of “real family” sitcom life with show biz. The Partridge Family lived in an ordinary neighborhood with ordinary neighbors and typical encounters, but, of course, they were also “stars.” That contrast still provided plenty of original episode ideas this fourth and final season.
By the time “The Partridge Family” debuted, the U.S. had already begun its slow-but-systematic withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. Still, this squeaky-clean “Come on Get Happy” themed show felt like a bit out of synch, in an “Austin Powers” sort of way. In fact, Austin Powers fans will get a kick out of some of the outfits that the family wears, which look as if they could have been inspirations for the randy one.
I was 20 when the show came out, and well past that bubble-gum sound of the 1910 Fruitgum Company and groups like The Partridge Family. But I do remember seeing episodes when they first aired, and I expected to be heartily amused when I popped these DVDs into my player. What surprised me is that these shows are actually entertaining. The campy, bust-a-gut moments come when Cassidy makes love to the cameras while he’s singing, with his cloyingly sweet and trying-too-hard expressions so obviously aimed at anything in a skirt under the age of 16. And, of course, those outrageous outfits, and moments that will remind you of Elvis films (as when the group sings and suddenly the staff pours out of the kitchen and everybody starts movin’ and groovin’. But the plots themselves are surprisingly diverse and inventive, while the writing is an easy combination of believable and contrived-for-the-sake-of-humor. The family kind of grows on you, with Bonaduce especially fun to watch as he spars with Madden to produce much of the show’s humor.
But you could tell this show was on its last legs. The telltale sign was that the writers brought on a four-year-old kid named Ricky Stevens who wants to be a singer and whose mom relocated right next door to the Partridge family–how convenient. Watching years later, it’s hard to believe that the producers gave this kid entire, LONG songs to sing. It’s like watching your neighbor’s home movies. Other seasons of “The Partridge Family” merited a 7 out of 10, but the descent into The Amateur Hour this season merits no more than a 6.
Twenty-two episodes were produced for the final season, and they’re included on three single-sided discs in two slim clear-plastic keep cases and housed in a cardboard slipcase. Here’s the rundown:
1) “Hate Thy Neighbor.” Wannabe singer Ricky Stevens moves in next door, but his mom hates show people, and calls the police when the Partridges try to practice in their garage.
2) “None but the Only.” Keith tries to manipulate Laurie (Dey) into getting him a date with his dream girl, but it backfires big-time.
3) “Beethoven, Brahms, and Partridge.” When a new girlfriend tries to convince Keith to stop writing pop songs and start writing “serious” music, it threatens the family band.
4) “The Strike-Out King.” Shirley urges Danny to join a little league team, and he turns out to be a pitching sensation with a fatal flaw: he can’t pitch under pressure.
5) “Reuben Kincaid Lives.” A sudden show of appreciation makes Reuben think he’s dying.
6) “Double Trouble.” Keith has two dates for the same beach party, and his juggling act backfires, leaving him dateless–big surprise.
7) “The Last of Howard.” Laurie has a rich suiter aboard the S.S. Fairsea (where this was filmed), but of course he’s not what he seems.
8) “The Diplomat.” Everyone gets a turn at romance this season. It’s Shirley’s turn in this episode as an ambassador takes a shine to her.
9) “Heartbreak Keith.” When Keith falls for an older college student, he leads himself to believe she’s in love with him too. One problem: he’s wrong, and she’s married.
10) “A Day of Honesty.” Danny is caught sneaking into a movie theatre, and it leads to a lesson in honest for the whole family . . . that backfires.
11) “Al in the Family.” Reuben’s nephew Alan is a failure, but the Partridges try to encourage him to follow his dream of becoming a stand-up comic.
12) “Maid in San Pueblo.” Shirley’s parents make an appearance again this season, and they’re still battling. This time their bickering splits the family along gender lines.
13) “Art for Mom’s Sake.” Shirley’s art teacher says her work is fabulous, but that’s not the take the rest of the family has, as they conspire to keep her from entering the art show.
14) “Two for the Show.” Reuben has two new 14-year-old twin clients who have a single crush on Laurie.
15) “Danny Drops Out.” Shirley uses reverse psychology with disastrous results: Danny decides to drop out of school.
16) “Queen for a Minute.” Laurie’s friend tries out for the basketball team but is discriminated against because of her sex. So the homecoming queen contest becomes a rite of revenge.
17) “Danny Converts.” Danny falls in love with a rabbi’s daughter, and decides to convert to Judaism.
18) “Miss Partridge, Teacher.” Laurie ends up student teaching Danny’s English class, and their new relationship threatens to jeopardize the family’s upcoming summer tour.
19) “Keith and Lauriebelle.” Keith convinces Laurie to pose as his southern girlfriend to make a girl jealous.
20) “Morning becomes Electric.” The Partridge Family tries to become poster family for energy conservation, but Danny’s meter-reading error forces the family to live without electricity for two days.
21) “Pin it on Danny.” When Danny finds a diamond brooch and gives it to his mom for her birthday, all is well . . . until he realizes it was lost by his English teacher.
22) “S.O.S.” Shirley dates her high school sweetheart, now a Navy captain, but Keith and Danny suspect something’s not as it seems.
For a 1970 show, “The Partridge Family” has really held up well, with nice clarity and color separation–no fuzziness, no graininess, no bleeding, and no haloes. It’s presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The soundtrack appears to be Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, but it still has a nice resonance, especially with the songs. In a way, since the songs are spotlighted, it’s surprising that they weren’t remixed for a 5.1 soundtrack, but it’s not a significant problem. There’s no hiss or distortion, but mono is mono, and so the audio just isn’t as strong as the video.
No bonus features.
Today’s overscheduled families might respond especially well to “The Partridge Family,” where family togetherness takes a front seat, no matter where the bus is headed or how overcommitted the family gets. It’s a warm-hearted show that still holds up for audiences today. Kids who see the long-haired Disney heartthrobs will see in Keith Partridge a comforting familiarity. But the difference is in the attitude. You get the “cool” without the attitude, and that’s refreshing for parents.