crap i have watched recently #16, or, why keith partridge matters

david cassidy and nikon

can a nikon boy and a canon girl ever find love?

The Partridge Family (1970-1974):  Sometimes I swear that Amazon knows me better than I know myself.  How better to explain its sly recommendation of this faded end-of-the-sixties fantasy of the suburban rock and roll lifestyle?   In any case, who am I to doubt its wisdom?  And so here we are, about to review The Partridge Family, a show which (for the younger of you in the audience) featured a widowed mom and her five musically gifted children who sang their way into the hearts of more than one pre-teen girl back in the dark ages of the 1970s.

I’ve now made my way through all of the show’s first season.  I suppose in these post-modern times I’ll be called a hipster (or something equally bad for inexplicable reasons) if I claim to be charmed by the show’s fresh optimism, by its thesis that the family that sings together stays together through thick and thin, by its belief that a sweet love song and groovy bell bottoms can soothe some of the worst beasts of society.   The smart ones will nod and wink and think to themselves “oh we are in for some epic snark,” and fetch themselves some popcorn.

But you know what?  I liked the show forty years ago and I like it now.  Perhaps for different reasons, but perhaps not entirely (Oh, those bell bottoms!)

The core of the show is Shirley Partridge (Shirley Jones), her children Keith (David Cassidy, Jones’ real-life stepson), Laurie (Susan Dey), Danny (Danny Bonaduce), Chris (Jeremy Gelbwaks, Brian Forster), and Tracy (Suzanne Crough), and their manager Reuben Kincaid (Dave Madden).  They live in a nice but not ostentatious suburban house with yellow siding, a white picket fence, and execrable shag carpeting.  It is basically just exactly like every single house I ever spent time in growing up.  In one episode an actual freaking Veg-0-matic is briefly featured (I didn’t even know they came in a black version).  They have a shaggy dog that goes on tour with them.  Mom is widowed and Dad is rarely mentioned.  The kids are clean, neat, polite, and not at all rebellious, although Keith wore his hair scandalously long by middle America standards and Laurie had an unfortunate penchant for ponchos.  Danny, with his focus on money and business, was a young precursor of Alex Keaton in Family Ties.

The problems this family faces are not those one might think would plague a successful singing group that sells out nightclubs all over the West Coast and even plays Caesar’s Palace in Vegas.  Keith needs money to take his girl to the prom.  Laurie gets braces and thinks she’s ugly.  Reuben gives up his fiancee because she doesn’t like kids and, well, he really does.  Shirley is a normal mom with normal kids in a normal neighborhood and she drives them around in an entirely normal school bus tarted up like a Mondrian painting to their entirely normal nightclub bookings.  All the kids’ money is put in a trust for their college educations.

In so many ways the show is a snapshot of a long dead era.  The numerous cameos are a mix of old-style character actors and up-and-coming new faces:  a very young Farrah Fawcett (playing “girl on the street”), her future Charlie’s Angels compatriots Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd, Morey Amsterdam, Stuart Margolin, Ray Bolger, Jackie Coogan, Richard Pryor, Lou Gossett, Annette O’Toole, Carl Ballantine, Harry Morgan, Bobby Sherman.  In the pilot, Johnny Fucking Cash introduces them at Caesar’s Palace.   How is that for street cred?

There are some strange anomalies.  No matter where they go they always appear to be in Southern California.  A sign plunked down on a Burbank street says “Welcome to Seattle”.  Old western movie sets with dirt roads and saloons stand in for modern New Mexico towns.   Downtown Detroit looks a lot like LA.  None of the kids actually seem to go to school or have friends outside the family, although Keith and Laurie date occasionally.  Mom doesn’t appear to have gentleman friends.  There’s no mention of Keith’s impending military service even though we weren’t out of Nam yet and this was still the era of the draft.  In fact, at least in the first season the extremely nasty war in Vietnam isn’t mentioned at all.

Generally speaking, each show revolves around two musical numbers and I will be honest, I can understand why, musically speaking, the Partridge Family might set some people’s teeth on edge.  The group was manufactured for television and as near as I can tell the only two people with any claim to actual musical talent were Jones and Cassidy.  The family was loosely based on the Cowsills and one of the Cowsill’s songwriters wrote many of the songs for the show  (ooo…how meta).  Most of the time it is obvious they are lip-syncing and occasionally the voices are clearly people other than those on the screen.  For an embarrassingly large number of performances this six person group manages to sound like an entire orchestra, even while practicing in their garage (the neighbors must have loved that).   Thankfully there is less of this crap as the show progresses.  Still, they never claimed to be anything other than a TV musical family and unlike the other “made for TV” group of the era (The Monkees, who were awesome) they never toured as an act.  They did, however, release a bunch of top-ranked singles spread across nine albums, one of which hit #4 in the Billboard 200.  Jones and Cassidy were the only cast members to perform on the albums and Cassidy launched a solo career that continues to this day.

So yeah it’s sappy, romantic pop music that went nowhere near the dangerous edges of the musical scene of the day.  But it hit its target audience pretty squarely and, as they say, “it had a good beat and you could dance to it” (sorta).  I liked it, all my friends liked it, and we not infrequently danced madly around the living room whenever the group lit into the show’s main song.  Every boy we knew hated them, although I suspect more than a few of them secretly ogled Laurie.  It’s the sort of music that makes you happy.  It is simple, infectious, and deals almost entirely with “first world problem” issues like broken hearts, first love, and disconnected phone numbers.

It’s possibly not fair to compare it to other shows of the time.  It followed The Monkees by a couple of years and had little of that show’s madcap inventiveness.   It was contemporaneous with The Brady Bunch (another nontraditional family sitcom), Adam-12 (cop show), and Bewitched (ummm…proto magical realism?); and  overlapped with the far superior Mary Tyler Moore Show, the brilliant Odd Couple, All in the Family (which drove it off the air in 1974), and M*A*S*H (which, at least in its first several years was absolutely the best show made for TV, ever).  Its demographic might have seemed narrow but one needs to remember that television options were far fewer in those days.  There were three networks and no cable.  TV actually went off the air at midnight or thereabouts.  Sitcoms were transitioning from the suburban-surreal plots of The Brady Bunch and Bewitched  to the edgy, satirical shows like All in the Family and M*A*S*H, whose humor was informed by current events (the Vietnam War, the civil rights and women’s rights movements).    There were certainly far better shows on TV than The Partridge Family and I certainly watched them all, but for all that The Partridge Family lingers more fondly in memory than many of its betters.

Although I remember the music quite well most of the plots slipped from my mind long ago, so rewatching the show now has been both nostalgic and instructive.  I forgot how talented Shirley Jones was, how utterly beautiful Susan Dey was and still is, how brash and innocent Danny Bonaduce was, how Keith Partridge made me feel.  The few episodes I do remember, particularly one about a young runaway trying to see her father and the episode about Laurie’s braces (which is in a later season), strike me now as poignant for some reason, perhaps because of their earnestness, perhaps just because back in those days every episode of every TV comedy had a happy ending, regardless of what was actually happening in the world.  That would all change in short order but back then we were all a little more innocent.  Television itself, especially in prime time, was a lot more innocent.

I wouldn’t go so far to say the show is deep but in its own goofy wholesome way it did make some effort to tackle serious issues.  There is, for instance, a show where the Partridges end up in inner city Detroit, at a failing club run by a couple of black brothers who are in debt to a gangster who will take the club from them if they don’t raise cash fast.   The Partridge solution is to throw a block party to raise money to save the club.  And so this endearing family of very white people goes door to door in Detroit soliciting donations of food and drink from the local merchants, Keith writes a new song with an “Afro” beat, and damn me if the whole thing isn’t a huge success.  Oh, and did I mention that the two brothers who own the club are played by Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett?

Was it painful to watch?  Perhaps a little, but not for the obvious reasons.  It was primarily painful because once upon a time, for a brief and beautiful period, people actually believed shit like this would work.  Say what else you will about it, there is not an ounce of cynicism in this show.  Whatever it puts in front of you it believes, even if that involves hip black people grooving to the sounds of a suburban white family’s interpretation of “urban” music on a sunny street in downtown Detroit.   In other shows they tackle teenaged runaways, labor relations, midlife crises, and body image issues, all with the same “we handle this as a family” can-do attitude.  Shirley Partridge was clearly the best mom ever.

Keith Partridge hit me at an awkward time of life.  Cusp of womanhood and all that.  But it was just an odd, jumbled, scary time in general.  I was too young to understand all the currents swirling around me but old enough to know they were there, old enough to see the hippies, and the protestors, and the war footage, the dead kids at Ohio State, and the endless stream of lies on the television, the looks my parents gave each other, the concern behind the lectures about music, drugs, strangers.  Keith was my first crush, my first glimpse into longing and romance, my first hint of sex.  And he was utterly and completely safe.  (I will note for the record that I’ve never been able to read more than a few pages of David Cassidy’s biography.  As much as I owe that man for some exquisitely happy childhood memories, there are just some truths I’d rather not know.)  His hair, those bell bottoms, that soulful look in his eyes when he sang, that sweet smile, his goofy look when Danny got the better of him, the way he looked after Laurie and listened to his mom, the ever so slight hint of bad boy (guitar player in a band…ooo!) in the suburban boy next door.  Maybe it’s trite but it was my life and I don’t think it was so bad.

I used to think that time and place was unique and special but from the vantage of now, after seeing the turmoil and despair of a world my younger self never imagined, I realize that every child comes of age in a world that terrifies them.  And it is a universal truth that no one understands them.  No one knows their pain.  No one sees the longing in their hearts, the confusion they feel.  And so we have our Elvises, our Pauls, our Justins (Timberlake and Bieber), our Keiths; those safely out of reach icons that let us explore dangerous feelings.  We outgrow them I suppose but they never really leave us.

I grew up, as everyone does.  I gave up Keith for John Lennon and I gave up John Lennon for Jimmy Page (well…maybe made room for him would be a better choice of words; one never really gives up John Lennon), and Jimmy Page gave way to real men, boyfriends, partners.  But I have the Partridge Family’s Greatest Hits on the phone and sometimes driving down the road a song of theirs will come up on shuffle.  Even after all these years I know all the words by heart.  As I’m singing along, arm out the window, sunroof open, warm sun on my head, I realize something.

I’ve never stopped looking for Keith.  And you know, I don’t think I ever will.

Score:  w00t!  (for auld lang syne)


~ by gun street girl on July 12, 2013.

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