Monday, October 4, 2010

A Review: Rich Man, Poor Man: The Complete Collection DVD Set

Having conducted the contest over the past two posts for the prize of the newly released DVD of “Rich Man, Poor Man” The Complete Collection by A&E Home Entertainment, here are a few thoughts on the DVD and the miniseries that broke ground, broke records, but whose legacy was seemingly short-lived.

Short-lived mainly because, as the saying goes, they don’t make them like that anymore. The miniseries, a new and exciting form of television, is no longer produced. There are probably practical (money) reasons for this, but there are even more intangible ones, such as television today being vastly changed.

“Rich Man, Poor Man”, which aired on ABC for 12 weeks beginning in February 1976, was based upon the novel by Irwin Shaw published in 1970. It follows the family saga of the Jordache family, principally the fate of two brothers, from 1945 through the late 1960s.

For those of us who caught the series the first time around, we may first marvel that the era in which this saga unfolds was not merely history; at the time, it was memory. We ourselves were who teens or young adults in 1976 did not remember first-hand VE-Day or the political and social upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s, but we were not more than a generation separated from them.

To adults who experienced and were part of this colorful and tumultuous American popular history backdrop of the Jordache brothers, this miniseries was more than a 12-week prime time soap opera; it was a very personal trip down memory lane. Like the collage of memorabilia that decorates the opening titles of the beginning chapters, this show is a souvenir from our own lives.

A younger person today viewing the DVD set of this critically acclaimed and popular program will naturally feel a more remote attitude toward the events, but the pacing of the show may be even more difficult for them to appreciate. This was filmed long before the “attention deficit disorder” shots so common in film and television today, where the view is bombarded with a constantly moving camera. It was also filmed in the days where, though adult subject matter is portrayed, it is portrayed with discretion not employed today when we are bludgeoned with images to make sure we get it.

There is nothing exploitive or dumbed down in this series, and audience is given credit for having intelligence. In a much less cluttered television landscape (four channels), it was a show everybody watched about a book people were reading.

So much scope for intelligent discussion.

Nick Nolte, and Peter Strauss, who play the at-odds, different as night and day brothers, became stars as a result of “Rich Man, Poor Man,” and the cast roster is loaded with 1970s television characters, as well as giants from the Hollywood heyday popping in and out of the different episodes. Veterans Dorothy McGuire, Van Johnson, Ray Milland, Gloria Grahame, Dorothy Malone mix it up with newcomers Talia Shire, Susan Blakely, Dennis Duggan, and Lawrence Pressman.

Ed Asner took an astonishing 180-degree turn from grumpy-but-heart-of-gold Mr. Grant from the weekly series “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to scoop up an Emmy award for his bullying, morose, and tragic immigrant father, Axel Jordache.

Robert Reed, Dick Sargent, and Bill Bixby left the safety of nice guy sitcom characters the public had known them for and showed a range that illustrated these men were experienced actors and not really the cardboard cutouts we had taken them for on their other gigs that paid the bills.

And yet, if these years in the middle of the “American Century” and these familiar names of nearly 35 years ago are remote to audiences in 2010, the larger theme of the rise and fall of these flawed human beings is as strong and passionate as ever.

Do we smile, even ruefully, at bombastic Ray Milland, department store mogul for bellowing, “This country’s on the crest of a wave!” as he tried to lure Peter Strauss from a job in academia to join Big Business? We might truly smile at his disgust over his doctors telling him he has some new-fangled illness. What was it? Oh, yes. “High cholesterol.” Did you ever hear of such nonsense? High cholesterol. What will they think of next?

We re-live the fear many smaller store owners had, such as the Jordaches with their bakery in the cellar, of the coming of the “supermarket” era and the urban renewal that destroyed old neighborhoods. (I love the detail of the blotch of flour fingerprints on the light switch plate at the top of the stairs in the Jordache home.)

Much later on in the series, when the brothers are united in a tragic moment, the ne’r do well Nick Nolte, who has found peace with himself, urges Peter Strauss to fight the good fight and go get the bad guys. By this time, the “good” brother, who as excelled in business, politics, and publishing, has fallen short of his early promise of idealism, and he laments, “I don’t know who they are anymore. I think I’m one of them.” The series held a mirror up to an inquiring and introspective America at that time, and this was perhaps chief among its accomplishments.

“Rich Man, Poor Man” still has the power to move, to illuminate, and to entertain. The style of 1970s film work or the big names which are no longer big names should not make this series a museum piece. It needs to be seen again, and now it can be.

This set of 9 discs released by A&E Home Entertainment includes Book I, the original 12-episode series from 1976, as well as Book II, the 1977 sequel in 22 episodes. The transfer of the video to digital is good, however I noted in one episode of Book I, where the diminished quality remaining from the original tape showed a few brief flaws on the DVD.

Peter Strauss does the commentary track in Episode 1 along with television historian David Bianculli. His comments are especially interesting, and run from noting how the style of long acting scenes would not be used today, noting the immediate success of the series, “Monday was ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ night”, and the series’ profound view of America in the postwar years.

He also notes his luck at working with two Hollywood veteran actress in his early career: Teresa Wright in the movie “Hail Hero” (1969) (he confesses having fallen in love with her from watching “The Best Years of Our Lives”), and Dorothy McGuire here, whom he calls a “beautiful, beautiful, elegant, charming woman.” Clearly, Mr. Strauss is a really swell guy.

For more of Peter Strauss’ astute observations and his trip down memory lane in the audio commentary, see episode 1 of this DVD set.

For more details on the “Rich Man, Poor Man”: The Complete Collection DVD set newly released by A&E Home Entertainment, have a look here.


FCC disclaimer: for purposes of review, this DVD set was provided by A&E Home Entertainment.

4 comments:

quizshowbob said...

I remember watching this during my sophomore year of college while I was studying for a European History test.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for taking us down memory lane, quizshowbob.

Caftan Woman said...

I was a high school student when "Rich Man, Poor Man" first aired. It was glorious. The whole family was mesmerized.

The series has a special place in my memory and I've almost been afraid to see it again, but after your review...well, I'm heading back to the video store this week.

If I close my eyes I can hear the theme and see the credits.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Caftan Woman. I'd love to hear about your impressions this time around from a current perspective if you do get to see it again.