TV on DVD 2009 – The Great, the Rediscovered and the Timeless

What I love about TV on DVD is the sense of discovery, of rediscovery and celebration of great television from all eras. You’ll not find Lost or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles or even The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency on this list. Those shows and other hit series and cult shows and top-notch special presentations, as superb as their DVD presentations may be (and yes, Lost and Terminator are beautifully produced DVD and Blu-ray sets), are well represented and don’t need me to draw attention to them. Here’s a collection that includes classic drama, contemporary comedy, timeless non-fiction, stand-out science fiction and various points in between. Not necessarily “the best” of TV on DVD, it’s a selection of shows, old and new, archival and ephemeral, that been given a new life on DVD and a whole opportunity for audiences to discover them.

Sesame Street
Sesame Street

10. Sesame Street: 40 Years Of Sunny Days (Genius) – Celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the longest running children’s television show in history with a combination video scrapbook and greatest bits compilation. After an intro that eases us into the cultural flashback with snapshots from each season we join Gordon leading a child onto Sesame Street, promising that it’s a street like no other, for the show’s debut episode. Ernie sings “Rubber Ducky” and Kermit sings “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” there’s an orange Oscar the Grouch (he went green later; apparently, it was easier for Oscar to be green, the color of mold), and Alistair Cookie (Monster) introduces Monsterpiece Theater’s production of “Me Claudius,” all in the first half hour.

There’s a greatest hits of musical guests from Diana Ross and James Taylor to Destiny’s Child and Alicia Keyes (plus the crazy quilt of guest stars imploring Ernie to “Put Down the Ducky”) and Muppet skits (spotlighting the great comedy chemistry of Ernie and Bert and the surreal humor of Jim Henson’s crew) sprinkled through the programs. Pop culture flashbacks—R2D2 and C3PO help Big Bird to count, The Fonz teaches us the difference between on and off in his own inimitable way and the Cookie Monster discos—place the show unmistakably in its various eras. And touchstone moments of the street portion of the show are revived, including the day the grown-ups finally see the Snuffleupagus, the marriage of Maria and Luis and the birth of their daughter, and most touchingly the discussion with Big Bird as they try to explain the death of Mr. Hooper (after the real-life actor, Will Lee, passed away). That’s the draw this show has for baby boomers who grew up on the show. For the current crop of tots, we get closer to the present with the first appearances of Elmo and Abby Cadabby and the contemporary guest stars, from Robert DeNiro explaining his own brand of method acting to Elmo to Neil Patrick Harris singing and dancing as The Shoe Fairy. The nostalgia factor is pretty irresistible for adults and playful approach of education and gentle tenor of its skits makes it perfect of children of any generation, making it one of the few kids DVDs that adults may enjoy just as much as (if not more) than their kids. The two-disc set also includes a half-hour of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews (which can be accessed while watching the show or viewed as a separate supplement), an optional pop-up trivia track and a few bonus bits.

9. Genesis II / Planet Earth (Warner Archive) – “My name is Dylan Hunt. My story begins on the day on which I died.” The opening to Gene Roddenberry’s 1973 TV movie Genesis II (1973) takes a while to explain how scientist Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord in a really groovy mustache) went to sleep in 1979 and woke up in 2133, but once he wakes up we’re in classic Roddenberry territory of social commentary in sci-fi trappings, in this case a post-apocalyptic world where a (literally) underground society of idealists tries to preserve the art and knowledge of the past in the face of tribal groups fighting for dominance in the world above. John Saxon takes the lead in the sequel telefilm Planet Earth (1974), where he’s taken prisoner in a matriarchal society of slaveholding women and immediately becomes valued as potential breeding stock (Saxon is, quite literally, a stud). The scripts, social commentary, idealism and minimalist futurism design come right out of Star Trek, and writer/producer Roddenberry even drafts Trek veterans to direct (John Llewellyn Moxey and Marc Daniels, respectively). It was Roddenberry’s intention to launch a new series but these two telefilms are all that he was able to produce. They may not be brilliant but they are a distinctive slice of seventies sci-fi TV. Unavailable on home video (one was released over twenty years ago on a long defunct video label, almost impossible to find even before the launch of DVD), they have developed a cult status over the years and made their DVD debut this year on the no-frills, burn-on-demand service Warner Archive Collection exclusively on the Warner website (Genesis II is here and Planet Earth is here). The prints are fine””preserved but not restored””and there are no supplements.

8. Torchwood: Children of Earth (BBC) – On one otherwise lovely morning, every child on the face of the planet Earth points to the sky and chants in unison “We are coming.” It’s a creepy close encounter with Children of the Damned flair, one of the most insidious alien invasions chronicled on sci-fi TV. You might think is a job for Torchwood, Britain’s answer to The X-Files, until the government sends a hit squad to kill the team and reveals a conspiracy that haunts its leader, the eternal Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). Torchwood, a spin-off of Russell T. Davies’ revived and revitalized Doctor Who (note the name is an anagram of Doctor Who – it took me two seasons to notice that), began as a vehicle for Captain Jack, an American space pirate and charming rogue whose ambiguous loyalties are revealed under pressure. In this series, he leads a British covert group responding to alien visitations via space and dimensional passages (it turns out Cardiff is an intergalactic and interdimensional convergence point, the Doctor Who universe answer to a Hellmouth, which makes these guys a grown up Scooby Gang). And he becomes a much more complex figure in the first two seasons of the series, not just the first openly bi-sexual action hero on TV (which is something by itself) but a haunted eternal man with the torments of a modern Prometheus. Jack has died multiple times and he feels it, as well as the pain of regeneration, each time. He’s suffered worse than Job over the years, surviving terrible imprisonments and outliving every love of his life. His happy-go-lucky demeanor and reckless love life (passionate but uncommitted) is his way of trying to keep emotions at arm’s length, for all the good it does. Longevity doesn’t make loss any easier.

Children of Earth is a five-part mini-series within a series (which originally played over five consecutive nights on British TV and BBC America), a complete story with a scope and the ambition that recalls the Quatermass shows of old. But it’s also a terrific character drama, with Jack facing yet another family growing old before his eyes (his daughter now looks older then him) and watching his loved ones die in the eternal war. For the first two seasons it was a colorful series on a cable budget that slowly found its footing and balance of charged mystery and cheeky attitude through the high-concept adventures: alien viruses, rampaging giant monsters, rips in the space-time continuum. This self-contained story has its own wobbles, but by the second episode it takes no prisoners, and by the end of the show, he’s sacrificed yet another piece of his soul to save the Earth. This is the best science fiction TV you’ve never seen.

7. Sons Of Anarchy: Season One (Fox) – I missed the first season of this FX original series when it originally ran on TV in 2008, but I never realized just what I was missing until I caught up with it in on DVD this year. Created by The Shield veteran Kurt Sutter, it has a similar sensibility to that edgy cop drama, but transposed into total outlaw culture. The Sons of Anarchy is a motorcycle club that practically runs the desert town of Charming, California in a mix of paternal protectiveness and criminal design. Ron Perlman is club leader Clay, who has twisted the rebel philosophy of the original gang into a criminal enterprise of gun running and other illegal activities for profit, and Charlie Hunnam is his heir apparent Jax Teller, son of the gang’s original leader and Clay’s son-in-law. Jax is a loyal lieutenant and a smart kid, but a chance discovery of his father’s memoirs leads him on a philosophical change of heart at the direction the club has taken what was once an idealistic rebellion against conformity. Which doesn’t sit well with his hell on wheels of a mom (a fierce Katey Sagal), who is now married to both Clay and his criminal enterprise. (“That love’s going to kill me,” Clay mutters with a mix of adoration and resignation.)

The series takes a sharp turn into Hamlet on wheels by the end of the season, but mostly it straddles the line between the idealism of men with a code that is their one and only guide and the selfishness of their lifestyle and the violence and damage they leave in their wake. These men are fiercely protective of their town, but part of that defense is a determination to keep it small and controllable, a home base where outside business is scared to enter and expansion is aggressively discouraged, by blackmail if necessary. “Time for a change,” agrees one grizzled, disillusioned veteran member by season end, disgusted with how the rebel philosophy of the original SAMCRO motorcycle gang has soured since his time. The great cast (including Kim Coates and Mark Boone Junior as fellow members, Deadwood alumnus Dayton Callie as the sheriff in their pocket, and Maggie Siff and Drea Matteo as the women in their orbits), smart writing and raucous, raw stories makes this an addictive show. And just for the record, the show got even better in season two (which should show up on DVD sometime in the summer of 2010).

6. Dollhouse: Season One (Fox) – Joss Whedon’s new series had a rocky road to TV. The network rejected his original pilot and he created a new one from scratch – same concept, same characters, same cast, even the same sets but a new way into the story – that resembled a more traditional action series. The series was a slow starter as a result and I confess I stuck through largely out of loyalty to Whedon and confidence that he was developing something interesting behind the more conventional episodes. And it paid off: the high-concept show about a (quite literally) underground company that imprints entire personalities and sets of skills onto its otherwise blank roster of operatives developed into one of the most unusual shows of the 2009 season. Eliza Dushku stars as Echo, the star player in this lineup (they’re called actuals) who are programmed to be everything from sexual fantasies to secret agents, but she may be holding on to pieces of her imprints as she goes through her assignments. Harry Lennix is her handler, protective of his charge and suspicious of the moral implications of the business, and Olivia Williams the company boss, though we discover that she’s merely in charge of this franchise in a covert business with locations all over. The show was a surprise renewal (the higher rated Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles didn’t survive, thanks to its much more lavish budget) and Fox has rewarded the fans who stuck through with a pretty special DVD release.

In addition to all twelve official episodes, both the DVD and Blu-ray releases feature the rejected pilot and an unaired episode. The original pilot Echo is darker start, more like a feature film than a TV episode, and it jumps the viewer into the conspiracy, the murky morality and the philosophical and moral debates that unwind more slowly in the series proper. It’s also, true to Whedon, less a classical action show and more of a murky drama with a genre framework, just the kind of show that would have hooked me immediately. The unaired thirteenth episode Epitaph One is a Dollhouse apocalypse set in 2019: and end of the world scenario that rivals the Terminator future, thanks to the Pandora’s Box unleashed by the technology of the Dollhouse, which can wipe minds from a distance and implant directives and personalities into entire populations. Flashbacks pillage a piece from the unaired pilot, but the rest of the flashbacks are new to this conception of the world gone wild and the decline of civilization thanks to the arrogance of the company, and the 2019 cast includes Felicia Day, a familiar Whedon face from the final season of Buffy and the internet musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. As you discover in the supplements, it was a contractual obligation that Whedon needed to fulfill after the network asked for a second pilot, and used as a potential bookend in case the show was canceled. The show was renewed and the episode never broadcast and it now stands as one of the coolest DVD exclusive ever. Unfortunately, dismal ratings in the second season led to an early demise. Which is still a better record than Firefly.

5. Playing Shakespeare (Athena/Acorn) – One of the finest nonfiction series about art, Playing Shakespeare is a 1984 production written and presented by Royal Shakespeare Company founder John Barton and featuring members of the company. More than simply a master class in acting (as if that’s not enough in itself), it plays out in the manner of an actor’s workshop and then shifts into a Socratic dialogue: exercises are staged with actors and the results discussed by all involved. But it’s also about theater today and in Shakespeare’s time, about conventions and ideas of realism, about language, about history and culture, about how actors try to bring them together, and finally about getting to the heart of the words and characters of Shakespeare and illustrating how and why his work lends itself to multiple interpretations, each with its own insight to the art. It’s a remarkably approachable documentary with brilliant insights into the craft of acting from the likes of Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley, Judy Dench, David Suchet, Patrick Stewart and Sinead Cusack (among many other equally fine if less famous performers), who don’t merely illustrate the lessons with performances but discuss their approach and their tools with Barton and with each other.

Particularly insightful is episode four, focused on a single character – Shylock in The Merchant of Venice – with two actors who have played the role on stage and prepared their interpretations for this episode: David Suchet and Patrick Stewart. The entire show is Barton (who originally directed them both in the role) with the two actors, and it is riveting television and a brilliant discussion of art and theater as they address the five scenes in which Shylock appears in the play. And it’s serious without becoming self-serious; an episode on Shakespeare’s language, and his words, is introduced by way of a comedy sketch by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. As in the best of documentary presentations, it is both a brilliant study in its subject – theater and the work of Shakespeare – and an illustration of the power and importance of art. In the words of Shakespeare, it is as if a mirror held up to nature. Nine episodes on four discs along with a 20-page study guide.

Middleman and apprentice
Middleman and apprentice

4. The Middleman: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory) – This is my TV-on-DVD discovery of 2009. The show ran a brief but brilliant twelve episodes on the ABC Family Channel in the fall of 2008 before it succumbed to dismal ratings. Perhaps it would have found its audience on SyFy. Perhaps a cult audience will likewise discover this deliciously tongue-in-cheek spy fantasy series on DVD and the groundswell of support will revive it like Family Guy. (I can dream, can’t I?) All I know is that it was canceled before I had really heard about it, let alone ever seen an episode, yet it had me in the first ten minutes of the pilot episode. Matt Keeslar is a Boy Scout of a special agent – part Men in Black operative, part Doctor Who freelance good guy with a faceless boss and a crotchety receptionist robot stuck in battle-axe mode – who specializes in unconventional cases (aliens, demons, a genetically enhanced super-ape that aspires to be a mafia Don). Natalie Morales is Wendy Watson, an art-school grad and sidekick in training scouted by The Middleman (it’s apparently his name, his job and his rank all in one) from her adventures in temping. Keeslar is both colorful and clean, like Jack Bauer with impeccable manners and a PhD in fringe science and supernatural phenomenon, while Morales is Piper Perabo with a dash of Rosario Dawson. And by jiminy, it’s gosh-darn great, absolutely hilarious and marvelously inventive, a rare gem of genre TV that both lovingly quotes and hilariously parodies its inspirations. Plus, any TV show that references the cult westerns of Budd Boetticher accurately, creatively and appreciatively has my eternal respect. This deserves to be seen by everyone who likes their genre TV funny, clever and hip as they come.

3. Life on Mars: Series 1 & 2 (Acorn) – “My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident, and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?” I disliked the American version of Life on Mars, the try-so-hard-it-hurts American revision of the through the looking glass British cop show that became a stateside sensation of BBC America. No, that’s not quite right. I hated the American version, with its pious commentary and exasperatingly preachy hero. Thankfully the original arrived on DVD in 2009 and it is superb. Life on Mars: Series 1 stars John Simm as the 21st century Manchester DCI (that’s Detective Chief Inspector to us yanks), the newest member to a rough and tumble 1973 detective squad with a hard-drinking boss (Philip Glenister) who isn’t particularly worried about the civil rights of his suspects but is dead serious about protecting the people of his working class jurisdiction by any and all means at his disposal. In the first season, Tyler is convinced he’s there for reason, and maybe if he finds that reason and fulfills his destiny, he can get back, but there are no answers in those eight episodes, only moral quandaries, quantum conundrums and revelations about the dad that abandoned him when he was four”¦ in 1973 Manchester.. In the second and final series (also a mere eight episodes), the answers start coming and when he thinks he’s found a way to get back home, he’s ready to risk everything. The writing is superb, the setting perfect working-class industrial grunge, the characters are right out of badass seventies cop shows and the performances refreshingly free of self-conscious affectation or cliché (unlike the American incarnation). The strong, satisfying conclusion ties up the mysteries with a most unexpected journey that leaves the show with enough enigma to reverberate long after it ends.

2. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory) – This is the review for Garry’s show, the silly, sophisticated and self-aware “stand-up sitcom” starring Garry Shandling as star and host of his own series. Originally made for the Showtime Network in 1986, this was not so much a spoof of sitcom conventions as a sitcom that invites the audience into the fabric of the genre: the star literally taking audiences into his home as his guest. That home just happens to be a three-sided set in front of a live studio audience, which is one point is itself invited to come down and hang out in Garry’s place between scenes. That awareness of the audience is fun, but it’s the awareness of the conventions of the sitcom itself—and the witty commentary that accompanies it—that makes the show so great. “All right, here’s where we are in the story,” begins one segment, and “I feel a dissolve coming on” makes Garry all woozy in a scene transition. As he waits for his best friends to give birth in second season, his apartment set becomes the sitcom version of “The Tonight Show,” complete with musical guest Tom Petty and Doc Severinsen arriving to deliver the baby. By the end of the show, they’ve worked through almost every sitcom trope there is, with good humor, great affection and some of the most ingeniously clever episodes of TV comedy ever made. (Read my interview with Garry Shandling here.)

The show ran for four seasons and all 72 episodes are collected in this sturdy box set of 16 discs in eight thinpak cases. It’s worth pointing out that this is from Shout! Factory, the folks behind the great Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called-Life sets. They give this collection the same loving treatment, with a beautifully-produced collection filled with commentary, featurettes and archival goodies. There is commentary on 18 episodes with the show writers and producers, with Shandling himself participating in nine of them. “This is so the beginning of us starting to explore what this format would allow,” he explains as he finally loosens up in the pilot commentary. “There’s a stiffness to it that you don’t sense as the episodes go on and we loosen up.” Shandling and co-creator Alan Zweibel take us on the journey “Getting There: The Road to the Show” and the cast gets their say in “Being There: The Cast Remembers,” two of the six featurettes in the set. But the biggest vein of supplement gold is found in the outtakes, which are a window into the creative process and gives us an idea of how the live taping sessions went. Shandling plays the flubs as if they were part of the show, ad-libbing with the cast and tossing asides to the audience. There are also promos, show newsletters and segments from Michael Nesmith’s short-lived comedy series Television Parts written by and starring Shandling, sketches that first explored the approach that was realized in It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.

1. The Golden Age Of Television (Criterion) – The title is no hyperbole: For a brief period in the 1950s, as television was coming of age, a handful of showcase anthology shows turned live television theater into the vibrant center of original American drama. It came from New York rather than Los Angeles, where ambitious producers pushed young writers to writer dynamic contemporary teleplays and drew casts from a new generation of hungry young actors (many of them trained in the Actor’s Studio) and New York stage veterans alike. And in the days before videotape and before filmed programs were the norm, these were all performed and broadcast live, partly because of the attitude that live TV was not just a program, it was an event). (The accompanying booklet, written by TV historian and Paley Center for Media curator Ron Simon, gives a much more complete background to the culture of live TV.) The production realities of live multi-camera shoots were both a restriction and an opportunity for creative solutions: an expressive visual language was born and evolved for a brief period, until film became the TV drama standard and brought a more conventional style with it. But it was only when the focus shifted from adaptations of classic novels and plays to original contemporary stories, written by a new generation of writers who watched the evolution of American society in the years after the war and wanted to get their observations into their stories, that everything came together: stories that viewers could relate to, scripts that inspired the best from the directors, drama that rose to the levels of the most gripping contemporary stage plays and actors who devoured the roles in a one-night-only performance.

Patterns
Patterns

This collection features eight landmark productions from that short-lived era, from the original Marty (1953), written by Paddy Chayefsky and starring Rod Steiger as the lonely working class butcher, to the original Days of Wine and Roses (1958), directed by John Frankenheimer (the most fluid, dense and dynamic of live TV directors) and starring Cliff Robertson. Both of these production were expanded into acclaimed feature films, as were many other productions featured in this set: Rod Serling’s dissection of corporate culture Patterns (1955) and his poignant Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956), the bumpkin comedy No Time for Sergeants (1955) that made Andy Griffith a star (in both versions), and Bang the Drum Slowly (1959), with a pre-stardom Paul Newman learning his craft in front of the camera. Because they were live and unseen since their original broadcast (at least until 1980s revival on PBS), these original were largely forgotten next the polish of the feature film adaptations, but live TV brought out something unique to these dramas: an intensity, an urgency, an intimacy, and an expressive storytelling language combining theater conventions and film technique with the intimacy of the small screen and the creative solutions to production limitations. “It was live,” explains Keenan Wynn in the introduction to one drama. “Not perfect, but live.” A Wind from the South (1955) starring Julie Harris and Rod Serling’s searing show-business drama The Comedian (1957) fill out of the collection. The Comedian is a perfect illustration of these limitations turned into strengths, with its feral performance by Mickey Rooney and the almost claustrophobic intensity created by director John Frankenheimer, who fills the screen with a density of background detail and a flurry of action while zeroing in on the dramatic center with laser-like precision. It couldn’t be more different from Marty only four years earlier, where Delbert Mann pulled the camera back to show characters almost isolated in their drab environments, rarely going in for the close-up, letting Steiger’s body language communicate not just his loneliness but his resignation to living out his life as “a fat, ugly little man.” You can see the evolution of language and technique in four short years, but also just how defining the director’s eye can be on live television.

There are eight live TV dramas on three discs, landmark productions all mastered from kinescope recordings filmed live directly from a TV monitor. It’s low-fidelity and good monitors will reveal the visual distortions of filming from a cathode-ray screen, but the dramas are so involving that you get past the surface weaknesses and into the intensity of the productions. The shows were unseen since their original broadcasts until the 1980s PBS showcase series The Golden Age of Television, which framed the shows with an introduction hosted by a major star who worked on live TV (Eva Marie Saint, Cliff Robertson, Carl Reiner and Julie Harris, among them) and interviews with many of the directors and stars of the original shows (including Rod Steiger, Andy Griffith, Julie Harris, Kim Hunter, Richard Kiley, Piper Laurie, Nancy Marchand, Jack Palance, Cliff Robertson, Mickey Rooney, Carol Serling, Rod Steiger, and Mel Torme). Criterion’s release includes all of these introductions, plus commentary by director John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann, Ralph Nelson, and Daniel Petrie (originally recorded for the mid-1990s laserdisc release) and a fine booklet with essays and notes by TV historian Ron Simon.

(includes material previously published on seanax.com)