The NBC drama Rags To Riches ran for 20 episodes in 1987 and early ’88, starting out as a midseason replacement before sputtering its way to cancellation and obscurity. The Rags To Riches: The Complete Series DVD set doesn’t exactly reveal a forgotten gem. The show is solidly constructed family fare, with only a couple of big twists: It’s set in the early ’60s, and it features the occasional musical number. Television has had a mixed history with both musicals and ’60s nostalgia, and Rags To Riches doesn’t crack the code for how to combine the two. The songs are pretty good, but the ’60s setting often seems like an afterthought. And outside of a supporting performance by Bill Maher in the pilot, the show doesn’t even offer much in the way of “before they were stars” gawking. This DVD set will likely be enjoyed most by the few fans out there of Joseph Bologna, the veteran Italian-American character actor who here plays an irascible, up-by-his-own-bootstraps frozen-foods magnate.
In the first Rags To Riches episode, Bologna adopts a gaggle of orphaned teens to impress a potential business partner; the longtime bachelor develops an affection for the girls, and lets them keep staying in his mansion. In the episodes that follow, the kids—including one adorable elementary schooler, as was apparently required by the FCC back in the ’80s—make their way through the social minefield of private schools and country clubs. A couple of times each episode, the youngsters break into song, belting out early-’60s pop hits with lyrics modified to suit the plots. The musical numbers distinguish Rags To Riches from the other family shows of the era—but just by degrees. When the cast sings, the series is bright and energetic; otherwise Rags To Riches relies on the usual dot-connecting problem-solving of shows like Diff’rent Strokes (which Rags To Riches creator Bernie Kukoff also helped develop).
What’s especially fascinating about Rags To Riches now is how resolutely “’80s” it looks for a drama set in 1962. Outside of the odd bouffant, the hairstyles, clothes, and colors on Rags To Riches wouldn’t have looked out of place on Step By Step. And though Bologna’s adoptees include an African-American girl and a half-Japanese girl, the show rarely addresses racial discrimination, except as a subset of the snobbery that all these orphans face. It’s a strange one, this Rags To Riches: an ambitiously conceptual show from an era when television rarely took these kinds of chances, yet rendered so blandly that it faded into the pack.
Key features: Mostly rags, aside from an option to play only the songs and skip everything else. And nothing has been done to restore the original materials, which are so scratchy and poorly mixed that they look and sound like workprints.