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Wednesday, June 13, 2012


A weird conglomeration of teen period musical, teen family drama, teen family sitcom, adult dramedy, and all-around idiocy, NBC-TV's RAGS TO RICHES: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1987-88) comes to DVD in a five-disc, 20-episode set that's like a grueling marathon of sheer teen "WTF?"

Actually it isn't totally bad once you get used to it, but getting used to it is a pretty major undertaking.  What we have here is Joseph Bologna (MY FAVORITE YEAR) as frozen foods tycoon Nick Foley, a "streetwise" New Jersey-born playboy circa 1961 who wants to improve his public image by temporarily adopting six orphan girls aged 8-17.  Naturally, their initial culture clashes and personality conflicts will evolve into mutual love and understanding as the odd sextet become a family, with everyone learning and growing and all that good stuff.

The movie-length pilot (which, for some reason, is called "Rags and Riches" and looks like a crudely-edited workprint) gives us six downtrodden Annies in search of a Daddy Warbucks while the hateful old spinster in charge of them threatens to ship them all off to juvy hall.  After being adopted by Nick--on the advice of his young assistant, played by an embryonic, Gumby-haired Bill Maher--their rough adjustment to the lap of luxury is complicated when they discover that Nick and his loathesome fiance' have planned to ship the girls off to a strict boarding school ASAP. 

Choosing what they consider the lesser of two evils, they run back to the orphanage, whereupon Nick realizes how much he now loves them and can't live without them.  He goes to the orphange to fetch them home, thus setting the stage for seemingly endless adventures in adolescent angst which often escalates to nightmarish proportions.  (The sixth girl, Heather McAdam as "Nina", disappears from the cast after the pilot.)

While "Brady Bunch"-type comedy abounds along with several of its plotlines (in one episode, 13-year-old Patti's big science project is--you guessed it--a volcano), a big factor here is broad, relentlessly overplayed drama.  Particularly in the earlier episodes, these young actresses are so doggedly intense that their scenes resemble really bad drama class exercises, with future "Martin" co-star Tisha Campbell as Marva often being the most freakishly overwrought. 

Not only that, but their characters often come across as total spoiled bitches, constantly screaming their lungs out at Nick and each other before stomping offscreen and slamming doors.  A typical example:  "Blah blah blah!!!  I am not going to [whatever Nick has told her to do] and there's nothing you can do about it!!!"  STOMP STOMP STOMP!!!  SLAM!!! 

Even as late as episode 12 ("Wilderness Blues"), Nick's insistence that they go camping as a family leads to his being mercilessly harangued day and night, to such an extent that I wouldn't have blamed him for lobbing a live grenade into the girls' tent after lights-out.  Of course, strong-willed Marva runs away to be with her college-aged boyfriend the moment Nick turns his back, ranting and fuming the whole time, while Rose (Kimiko Gelman, THE HUNGER GAMES) and ditzy blonde Diane (Bridget Michele) sneak off to attend a dance at the lodge. 

Later episodes begin to show a promise that the series' second-season cancellation would cut short.  "Dear Diary" features Robin Curtis ("Lt. Saavik" in THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK) as an unconventional teacher whom conservative dad Dick Van Patten wants fired for being an unhealthy influence on her students.  "Born to Ride" guest-stars David Paymer (GET SHORTY) as a con man faking an injury to gain insurance money after supposedly being hit by novice driver Diane. 

The final episode, "Sweet Sixteen", ends the series on a high note as the Cuban Missile Crisis drives the Foley's into their newly-built bomb shelter and those of us old enough to remember get to relive what the whole atomic bomb scare was like, complete with elementary school kids participating in "duck and cover" drills.  The song-and-dance stuff is mercifully toned down in this one, and we get the idea that the show might have actually evolved into something pretty worthwhile if allowed to continue. 

High points aside, however, much of "Rags to Riches" is business-as-usual dumb stuff straight outta Bradyville but with loads of bratty attitude that Mike and Carol never had to contend with.  In "Business is Business", Marva buys her own lunch wagon against Nick's advice and then, when the endeavor goes south, immediately drives it to a secluded area and douses it with gasoline so she can torch it and collect the insurance!  (Fabian and Ken "Eddie Haskell" Osmond guest star as her unscrupulous competitors.) 

"Foley vs. Foley" is the old saw of the girls protesting the closing of lovable Spiro's (Jack Kruschen) hamburger joint to make way for the new Foley building complex.  "Hunk in the House" has Rose and Diane both falling for Nick's visiting godson, played by a young Richard Grieco.  "Marva in the Key of Cee" is the show's version of the Marcia Brady-Davy Jones affair, but with Marva promising to get retired torch singer Cee Cee Smith (Margaret Avery, THE COLOR PURPLE) to sing at the prom without actually asking her first.  "Partridge Family" alumnus Danny Bonaduce shows up in "Guess Who's Coming To Slumber?", the old story of the illicit party that gets horribly out of control while Nick is due to return from a trip at any minute.

"Vegas Rock" and "Once Upon a Lifeguard" play up the girls' sexuality in borderline inappropriate ways.  In the former, they secretly follow Nick to Las Vegas because, as usual, they do whatever they damn well please, and end up performing onstage in showgirl costumes.  In the latter, Patti's desire to impress a hunky older lifeguard has her sashaying around in skimpy bathing suits and stuffing her bra to Mae West proportions.  (Future porn actor Scott Schwartz of A CHRISTMAS STORY guest stars.)  While this is ostensibly meant to draw in potential teen male viewers, it sometimes comes off as a tad creepy. 

For better or worse, however, what really sets "Rags to Riches" apart from other shows of its ilk is the fact that it's a musical.  This means that the girls break into song and dance numbers at the drop of a plot twist, and more often than not they're blaring, sassy-brassy covers of 50s-60s tunes (their lyrics altered to fit the storylines, as when "Please Mr. Postman" becomes "Hey, Mr. Foley") with lots of head jerking, hand jiving, arm flailing, and generally obnoxious choreography that would embarrass even Paula Abdul.  Even the youngest sister Mickey (played by perhaps the best actress of the bunch, 8-year-old Heidi Zeigler) gets into the act with her saxophone, which we're supposed to believe she can play like a pint-sized Tom Scott. 

When this happens, the girls suddenly turn into hopped-up speed-freak versions of the Pointer Sisters for a couple of minutes before going back to what they were doing as though nothing had happened.  As if that weren't bad enough, Joseph Bologna and Douglas Seale (as their overly-cutesy British butler, Clapper) sometimes add their rusty pipes to the mix.  On the rare occasions that a slow ballad is required, the girls display some pretty nice singing voices, as when Patti (Blanca De Garr) and Rose duet on "Anyone Who Had A Heart."  Some of the songs are anachronistic ("You're No Good", "Get Ready") considering the show's early 60s time frame, but since the whole thing's a fantasy anyway I suppose it doesn't really matter.

The 5-disc set (running time 18 hrs. 20 min.) from Image Entertainment has an aspect ratio of 1.33.1 with Dolby Digital sound.  There are no subtitles or extras.

Much of RAGS TO RICHES: THE COMPLETE SERIES finds Joseph Bologna struggling to figure out just how the hell to play this kind of teen-oriented nonsense while his young female costars chew up the scenery like a school of ravenous singing and dancing piranha.  And just when they all seem to be on the verge of finding their way, the party's over.  While I can't wholeheartedly recommend it as actual entertainment, I must say that this bizarre patchwork creation is one of the most perversely interesting train wrecks I've seen in a long time.

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