Ever since Matt Dillon nearly talked Michael Rapaport into skipping his ten year high school reunion to sit in front of his television to watch all twelve parts of Rich Man, Poor Man “with the commercials and everything” in Ted Demme's Beautiful Girls, I too have been tempted to track the illusive miniseries down.
My search for the groundbreaking production has been a journey that's lasted longer than a decade. For unlike readily available '70s and '80s award-winning miniseries masterpieces The Thorn Birds and Roots, NBC's adaptation of Irwin Shaw's acclaimed epic novel that chronicled roughly three decades in the life of an American family has never been released on disc until A&E produced this mega collection, which also serves up the intriguing yet less successful continuation of Rich Man... in Book II.
Near biblical in scope as it seemingly derives its core conflict of the young brothers who will eventually grow into the economically diverse men of Shaw's title as the series continues from the story of Cain and Abel, the original twelve chapters which were all written by Dean Reisner also manages to incorporate questions regarding “an eye for an eye” and weighs whether or not the sins of the father automatically get transferred to his sons.
And even though Peter Strauss is given the easily charismatic lead as Rudy Jordache from Port Philip, New York who manages to work his way up from inauspicious beginnings as the son of a German immigrant baker father (Ed Asner) and bitter mother (Dorothy McGuire) to grab the brass ring as the embodiment of the American dream, it's Nick Nolte's blue collar rebel Tom who steals the series and our interest throughout.
Engaging the female audience in the era of the '70s sexual revolution by presenting a young woman way ahead of her time in free-spirited golden girl Julie Prescott (Susan Blakely), Rich Man, Poor Man ensures that many different points-of-view will be offered as Rudy's sweetheart leaves her small town to explore her artistic, sexual and adventurous side in New York City as an actress, writer and eventual photographer.
Overall, it's tame by today's standards, save for the loathsome tyrannical psychopathic villain Anthony Falconetti (William Smith) whom we gather rapes Tom's male best friend offscreen before predictably the network and series producers avoid all future mention of this throughout the rest of the first and second book.
Nonetheless, in retrospect when you consider the sentimental favorites on the air at the same time, Rich Man was the type of programming that got people talking with its daring depiction of race, class, sex, and the way it subversively questions if whether or not there is such a thing as traditional wedded bliss or a marriage of equals without power struggles and one partner being more fulfilled personally and professionally.
Inevitably considering the amount of characters played by a talented, pitch-perfect cast of movie and television stars often in against type roles (a la Talia Shire as a town tramp and Ed Asner's abusive and abrasive turn), some of the subplots tend to fizzle a bit in the first book as it begins to set-up the start of a Tom/Rudy/Julie love triangle before dropping it altogether.
Likewise, far too much time is spent on Rudy's ambitious business dealings as opposed to the bigger picture of what's happening to him as a man so much so that the other characters get shortchanged yet we accept the balance as given because it's a high quality, downright engrossing American saga that needless to say most writers and similarly television audiences long for but only come around once in a great while.
Unfortunately, our willingness to allow Rich Man to spend far too much time with Strauss is put to the ultimate test in the nearly “all Rudy Jordache, all the time,” second book. By giving us lightweight plot lines surrounding the next generation of Jordache men in an obvious Tom/Rudy aka Cain/Abel spin with Tom's son Wesley (Gregg Henry) and Rudy's step-son Billy (James Carroll Jordan), poor Strauss has no choice but to take the reigns as he romances two ladies at once, becoming a one man version of the Watergate investigative committee as the lackluster conflicts continue.
In the process, Rudy becomes a near caricature of himself during some unintentionally humorous scenes as he tells off politicians, friends, relatives, women and anyone who happens to cross his path in the sort of “stop, turn, stare” delivery we usually see on soap operas.
Moreover, by foolishly expanding the otherwise gripping epic into a near spin-off television series wherein the second book lasts twenty-two episodes rather than the suitable dozen from the perfect previous installment, Rich Man overstays its welcome and nearly collapses on itself by turning the formerly solid foundation into a house of cards.
When you add in a maddeningly vague ending that leaves at least two characters left for dead and requires us to decide their fates for ourselves, which – while fine in theory goes against the straightforward approach of everything that had come before it – the second book does little more than serve as a bridge from the popularity of miniseries in the '70s to sudsy guilty pleasure evening soaps in the '80s.
Nonetheless and much like The Godfather, Part III, it's superfluous but fascinating to those who remain devoted to the first book and curious to discover how the next generation will learn from or fall back into the sins of the past as a watered down reworking of the previous installment. Flaws aside, both series boast stellar production values, high-spirited drama, mystery, romance and escape from the golden age of made-for-television entertainment.
A must for rare DVD boxed set collectors released in time for the holidays, Rich Man, Poor Man is of particular interest for those in desperate need of a truly engrossing, emotionally rewarding and thrilling experience in an era of too much play-it-safe, story-free, gimmick filled programming.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.
Labels: TV on DVD