By Kerensa Cadenas
Teen shows function, for me at least, like a security blanket. Despite any scenario, I can go to them knowing that the basic concepts will always be there—it’s comforting. It’s also one of the things that make teen TV compulsively watchable even though the execution of these concepts can waver dramatically. But even if it’s terrible, I still watch and so do you.
The Partridge Family is an example of the dull teen show. The one you continue to watch despite lack of investment in the characters, plot… hell, everything, really.
The Partridge Family aired from 1970-1974 on ABC and ran concurrently with another popular “teen” show, The Brady Bunch. I’m using teen loosely here because what I had mentioned in last month’s column holds true for The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch as well: they were marketed towards teens but were much more rooted in a family sitcom dynamic. The Partridge Family revolved around a widowed mom (Shirley Jones) who begins a band with her extremely musically inclined children. They find a manager, end up with a top-40 hit single, and go on tour in a colorfully painted bus. To say it has made a footprint on our pop culture landscape would be an understatement. From the highs (bringing us rousing pop anthems and, years later, introducing us to a young Emma Stone) to the lows (making Danny Bonaduce’s sexual exploits and drug use into news, paving the way for Glee) it’s impossible to ignore its enduring impact.
The episode I watched, “My Son, the Feminist” from the first season, takes a typical teen concept—dating a person who is terrible for you or who your family doesn’t like—and frames it directly in terms of gender politics. When the episode first aired on Dec 11, 1970, discussing feminism was especially timely. It was the year Bella Abzug was elected to Congress and Sisterhood Powerful (a fundamental feminist text) was published; just two years later, Ms. magazine published its first standalone issue and the Equal Rights Amendment was reintroduced to Congress. While “My Son, the Feminist” was timely in its topic choice, the discussion is exactly as thin as you’d expect it to be.
Keith (David Cassidy, father of CW mainstay Katie Cassidy) begins dating Tina, who is involved with the women’s liberation movement. Tina asks Keith if the band will play a rally that her group, Power of Women, is hosting. Keith agrees without consulting his mother or the rest of the band. When the local morality watchdogs find out, they attack the family and hilarity ensues.
Tina is painted as a humorless shrew whose desire for Keith contradicts her politics. Even though Keith agrees with her stance, he uses it against her after a disastrous dinner with his family during which Tina expresses her disgust with the dehumanizing family unit. When Tina asks if he’s going to walk her to the door, he responds, “I don’t know. I’ve been thinking that it’s a condescending gesture. I mean, you never walk me to the door. If I’m really committed to the movement, the most I should do is stop the bus.” And then he won’t kiss her goodnight because it “objectifies” both of them.
The band plays the POW rally, despite Tina’s protests against their women-hating songs, and Keith asserts himself against Tina, telling her that she’s just as bad as the morality watchdogs. Luckily, we also learn that the song stylings of The Partridge Family can unite political groups. Despite Hollywood’s often left-leaning attitude, this episode stuck with a noncommittal attitude regarding feminism. The writers continue to keep things balanced by having Danny (Danny Bonaduce) sign the family up to play for the morality watchdogs at the end of the episode. This neutral viewpoint factors into the comfort of these dull shows—the stakes are always very low and everything ends up being okay (unless it’s sweeps).
And what a dull teen shows lack in interest, it usually makes up for with another hook. In the case of The Partridge Family, those hooks were a dreamy heartthrob and pop music—both teen TV staples.
David Cassidy’s flowing hair paved the way for future teen idols. He was the reason you watched. I spoke to a David Cassidy superfan, my mother. She told me she didn’t watch The Partridge Family because it was any good or because she was invested in the plot. It was because Cassidy was “cute and sang well.” Since a lot of teen TV is primarily female-oriented (hi, WB!), featuring safe—even occasionally generic (sorry, Chace Crawford)—man-candy is a draw for your budding audience. And at least Cassidy could actually sing! Without Auto-Tune! Dudes, never forget the appeal of being in a band, even if it’s with your family.
Cassidy’s appeal and actual singing capabilities translated into big bucks when a series of records coinciding with the show were released. “I Think I Love You” was a number one hit in December 1970 and sold over five million copies. Music has always been an integral part of teen culture, so merging that into the concept of a show was, at the time, genius. Now it’s standard for teen shows to market exclusive soundtracks (Dawson’s Creek, The O.C.), do episodes that stick the cast in a band (Saved by the Bell), or center the whole show on making pop music (Glee). While my mother couldn’t afford those Partridge Family records, that didn’t stop her from listening to “I Think I Love You” and daydreaming (the original Tumblr fan fiction) about David Cassidy—despite his terrible show.
The Partridge Family completed its run in 1974 and led to an animated spinoff series. It repeated in syndication on Nick at Nite, and it spawned The New Partridge Family on VH1 (which didn’t last past the pilot). Despite its dull and hokey beginnings, The Partridge Family was a precursor to many of the things we love about teen TV (hot guys! bad music!). Sometimes the experience of the teen show isn’t in the show itself—merely in the comforting components of it.
Previously on Teen Dreams: Dobie Gillis, Gidget, Never Too Young, and the Origins of Teen Television
Kerensa Cadenas writes for Women and Hollywood and is the Research Editor for Tomorrow magazine. You can find her other published writing at her website. She tweets her feelings about seeing Friday Night Lights stars at bars in Los Angeles. She is still watching 90210. Yes, the new one.