Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Best TV Series of My Life: The Partridge Family (1970 - 1974)

I was eight when The Partridge Family debuted. Of course, back then, and so young, I just thought it had always been there, was just part of the inner workings of the television set, as though one of the wires in there was The Partridge Family wire.

Its direct competitor was The Brady Bunch, which ran concurrently, and for the same length of time. The Brady Bunch was, even then, a bit too painful for me to watch most days. The parallels were too close, though one line was bright, and the other--ours--dark, disjointed, and toxic.

The Bradys were a happy family. Mine, most decidedly, was not. The Bradys cared about each other. Mine never did. The Bradys weren't drug abusers and alcoholics; they didn't incest one another or get midnight abortions or rob stores. Mine did. The Bradys' father was a gentle man, one who listened and disciplined his charges with love. Mine beat us, humiliated us at every turn, abandoned us, then sued us into near-abject poverty. We had a maid, just like the Brady Bunch did. Ours was assigned by the court to look after us, the five kids, and my mom, who was slowly dying of a rare form of muscular dystrophy. Alice was wonderful; Beatrice was wonderful as well. Alice was appreciated by her family; Beatrice was routinely abused by my siblings and father. She was eventually "fired" by him when he won yet another lawsuit against my mother, and left entirely--and understandably--bitter.

Most days the Bradys were just too much for me. Not because they were campy or schlocky--they were, even then. But because they provided a model of home life that mine would never, ever come close to. My siblings took delight in making fun of the characters, especially when they showed love and decency towards one another. They lashed out at them, and then turned their poison on each other, and on me. That's how it was in the Helbert house.

The Partridge Family was easier to watch; and again it took me many years to suss out why in comparison to the Bradys. In contrast to the Bradys, they weren't adopted, for one, but all blood relations. I and two other siblings were adopted into the Helberts--just as the Bradys were, in essence, "adopted" into the same household. That provided a level of emotional remove for me that was precious. Another was their common interest and goal: being a musical band. That was another remove. I could enjoy the music without considering just how fucking impossible such a scenario would be in my so-called family.

A third was their manager, Reuben. He was an "odd man out" in many ways, though still involved with them. I found myself rooting for him, hoping he'd always be around, wanting him never to get romantically involved with the mother, Shirley. He was a best friend to the family, an anchor, a strong, secure individual who was also painfully human, flawed, and silly. Reuben's sarcasm informed my own when I was growing up to a great degree. He was in many ways an unsung hero to the family, a glue that kept them together, but one that was only occasionally recognized as such.

A fourth was Laurie. She was the very first crush of my life. I distinctly remember the first time I watched the show. I saw her, and pretty much everyone and everything else just ... went away. I couldn't understand my feelings, of course: I was eight when the show debuted, and twelve when it was canceled. Today, I can understand the attraction. What a gorgeous girl.

I have begun a derivative work titled Laurie. Not a fan fiction, it updates and re-envisions Laurie's life in the modern day, and with modern problems and a family not too far removed from the nightmare that was my own.

She was the most enigmatic character in the series, and yet the richest one. She was a bubbling volcano and yet struggled to conform and do the right thing. She was unfailingly kind, but just beneath the surface you occasionally caught glimpses of something quite dark. I think she suspected she was drop-dead gorgeous, but refused to believe it most days. I'd like to explore these quirks and cracks in my own way and through my own imagination and background.

Of course, I could just be bullshitting myself. Perhaps I'm seeing only what I want to see. I don't think it matters.

The fifth and most important was the mother, Shirley. I loved her dearly. The reason why is because she too was single and raising a big family on her own. She also behaved just as I thought my mother, who was sick in bed most days, would have acted were she not dying of a wasting disease. In fact Mom did act that way a great deal when, on rare occasion, she felt good.

Shirley Partridge was a healthy version of my mom, and I clung to that like you wouldn't believe. They acted the same; they dressed the same; they had almost the same smile (Mom's was swollen from prednisone). They were gentle with their children, but firm. They both had wonderful senses of humor; they concerned themselves with their children; and they took delight in the small doings of the day.

Of course, my mom was daily abused by four of her five kids. My sisters and brother would smoke pot in the house while she struggled for air, an oxygen mask on her face; they would play music to a hundred decibels while she lay in bed, begging them fruitlessly to turn it off; they would laugh at her weakness and take advantage of it at every turn, stealing from her and eventually joining my father in believing she was "insane" and faking her illness in order to suck him dry financially.

Through all of that, and the progression of the disease, she held to her faith and her positive attitude, and refused to do anything but see the good in her children, despite my many entreaties that she stop and see them for who and what they truly were. It was, in my opinion, both one of her greatest gifts and also her greatest curse, one that would, in the end, break her heart irreparably. Which nearly broke me irreparably. It has only been in the past few years that I have managed, finally, to keep my head above that murky, sullen, bitter, cold, rageful water longer than it is submerged.

The two younger Partridges, Chris and Tracy, despite being my age at the time, I could never relate to. And as far as Keith Partridge went, I just hoped I'd grow up even a tenth as good-looking and popular. If you weren't alive at that time, you'll have no conception just how crazy girls went for David Cassidy, who played him. I've seen fan-girl crushes in the decades since. Many, in fact. None, in my opinion, have ever come close to what David Cassidy had to deal with. I can see how it made him somewhat nuts. As for Danny, he was very funny, and I, being approximately his age (he's a couple years older), thought him a genius as well. Always looking for an angle, he kept the family on their toes.

In the end, though, it comes down to Shirley and Laurie. We own the series and keep it on rotation, meaning we don't go too long before watching another episode. We laugh at their show uniforms and the schlocky, hammy songs; I comment on how heavily covered the producers kept Laurie, practically draping her in hippy-style circus tents each week (God forbid you dress a pretty girl in any way that might make you think, Oh, wow. She's so pretty! Despite that, she still knocks my socks off); we enjoy the canned applause and the well-behaved, immaculately dressed crowds who attend their shows; we enjoy the happy resolution at the end of each episode; and we both feel there are genuinely funny moments that play out during many episodes.

The show makes zero mention of Vietnam, but it does occasionally glance topics like equality (the notions of it back then will make your head spin), wage slavery, and the peace movement. (The video below is a good example of how they dealt with a contentious political issue.) It isn't lost on me that most of the kids back then who were agitating and protesting for peace and for the troops to come home voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016, a damning fact that proves that only a tiny percentage were ever truly committed to social justice, peace, and equality. The vast majority were only about sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. Very sad. And tragic. As we see.

"I Think I Love You" was a monster hit for David Cassidy. Enjoy.