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A Couch Potato's Guide to TV On DVD

By the time you first found yourself in possession of a single album in four or five formats, it had probably already crossed your mind that the real point of technological revolutions in entertainment media is to sell you things you already own and make you pay a premium for the privilege. Yes, CDs and DVDs are great. More to the point, as far as their makers are concerned, they are less expensive to produce than the formats they replaced. Starting with the introduction of the compact disc in the mid-1980s, that lower-cost, higher-price-point formula has spelled windfall profits. The CD's astonishing success posed the two main questions with which entertainment-industry philosophers have wrestled ever since: How many times can we sell them the same thing? And how often dare we try?

The DVD business in its infancy has already outstripped the music industry in the brazenness of its hustle. Think of any popular movie from two to five years back, and chances are it has already been released in two or three packagings, including the now-obligatory "collector's edition" (who were the others for? friends and family?) or the near-obligatory "director's cut." Other common bonus features include interviews with anyone who happened to spend time on the set, blooper reels featuring fabulous-looking, fabulously paid morons, and lengthy compendia of scenes even shittier than the ones that made the movie.

But there is one saving grace to the DVD age. We speak of television, glorious television. Back in the before-time, when VHS walked the earth, it was impractical to produce sets containing entire seasons of TV shows; only Quality Television (think--blech--Ken Burns) and cult hits like The X-Files and Twin Peaks got the tape treatment on a regular basis. Since DVD sets are so relatively compact, lightweight, and cheap to produce--and because, God knows, there's a lot of product in the can--TV on DVD suddenly abounds, and there is a fresh glow round the electronic hearth. Old trivia disputes can be settled once and for all; families may be drawn together in hypnagogic bliss once more. Gather near.

21 JUMP STREET, THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Welcome back to 1987. High schools are dangerous places filled with felons who are intent on corrupting their peers: junior loan sharks, scary drug dealers, and the muscle to back them up. To the rescue come four young cops of ethnically diverse backgrounds who work out of an old church. Thank you, fledgling Fox network!

Nostalgic fondness is easy to muster here. The look of the show is oh-so-'80s, with Holly Robinson sporting huge hair and a bejeweled jean jacket, and Dustin Nguyen representing the epitome of high style in pastel blazers, bright shiny shirts, and ear cuffs. It doesn't matter what Johnny Depp is wearing in the role that made him famous. He's Johnny Depp! That said, of the four, Peter DeLuise seems like the only actor who would go on to something better. (Do SeaQuest DSV and Stargate SG-1 count?)

The young cops/homeroom infiltrators are originally led by Captain Jenko, a hippie with a fondness for Jimi Hendrix. But then the seventh episode begins with a funeral and we learn that Jenko has been killed by a drunk driver. His hard-assed opposite, Captain Fuller (Steven Williams), takes over and almost immediately has to face down an entire high school held hostage by teenage gangstas armed with guns--and with jeans tightly rolled at the ankles.

This is one of the four or five episodes worth viewing. Otherwise, you may want to cut a few of these classes. Seen today, the show has obvious flaws: The cops, though supposedly undercover, have a habit of discussing police business in hallways filled with students. That said, class clowns should find plenty to appreciate, and honor-roll types may yet write an A+ term paper on the treatment of Serious Social Issues--sexual molestation, addiction, underage prostitution--in the late-'80s popular media. This is a show that made narcs seem cool, just as the D.A.R.E. program was beginning to blanket the nation's youth with heavy-handed lectures--and T-shirts.

The extra dialogue tracks find Stephen Williams sounding stuck in those years. The actor is quite boastful in his interview, repeatedly extolling his own experience and leadership amid a cast of newbies: "Any time I'm on the set, morale is going to be excellent." I'm sure it was, Captain. Now can I have a hall pass? --Bridgette Reinsmoen

FARSCAPE
ADV Films
Could Farscape be the sexiest television program ever created to regularly feature muppets? The plot of this Sci-Fi Channel cult hit is basic Buck Rogers: Earthling astronaut John Crichton shoots into uncharted realms of the universe and tries to find his way home. This being sci-fi, the bad guys come with latex f/x faces and the ladies know how to handle a pulse rifle and don't mind getting it on with aliens. But the show, which lasted four seasons before its cancellation, is something that most sci-fi programming isn't: a soap opera.

 

The usual tumult of space travel--running out of food cubes, spiraling into wormholes--affects the characters on an emotional level, and changes what they want and how they act. When our hero endures torture at the hands of the skeletal, lisping military commander Scorpius, he emerges shaken and damaged...right into the next episode and even the next season. Show by show, season one's naive scientist in a NASA flight suit becomes season four's black-leather-clad intergalactic hottie.

Farscape's take on the cosmic future comes without too many gadgets or techno novelties; unfortunately, so do the DVDs. The pathetic extras for the first few seasons include a few drawings of creatures and some quickie interviews with lead actor Ben Browder and other regulars. By the fourth series, we get some bloopers and deleted scenes. But in one way, the lame extras serve a purpose. Without the promise of an extra audio track by creator Rockne O'Bannon explaining, say, how the blue-skinned high priestess Xan is based on his prom date, there's less temptation for the Farscape addict to watch all 88 episodes from the beginning again. --Stephanie Curtis

HOME MOVIES, SEASON ONE
Shout! Factory
Brendon Small is a filmmaker. He may only be in the fourth grade, but this animated auteur sees material all around him and has endless imagination and range. With help from friends Jason and Melissa, he creates, among other things, police dramas (such as The Dark Side of the Law), a documentary on Melissa's grandfather featuring the senile subject unknowingly dressed in drag, and an educational film cautioning against putting marbles in one's nose.

Home Movies, which shares an animation style and some talent with Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, originally aired on UPN in 1999 (for five episodes), then became a hit on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim in 2001. Its drawing style is, uh, casual: Bodies are shapeless, with hands and feet appearing as extensions of clothing. Some items are drawn but not filled in; they're just outlines over the background color. That visual approach finds its match in some loping vocal performances--St. Paul comedian Mitch Hedberg wanders in occasionally and to hilarious effect, his stoned drawl depicting both a cop and a hippie cat lover.

The show mostly employs a low-key and subtle humor, but occasionally switches to the more obvious gross-out end of the spectrum, always at the hands of the sniffling, scratching, lice-ridden Jason. But that character also gets some of the best punch lines in this often-funny show. In the aforementioned marble episode, he explains why he once tried eating through his nose: "I read that to be truly human is to be constantly exploring." If you're not up for any exploring beyond your couch this winter, let Brendon, Jason, and friends do the work for you. --Bridgette Reinsmoen

HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS, SEASONS 1-5
A&E Home Video
I've always had a schmaltzy, delusional crush on Charm City. Growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, I visited Baltimore a couple of times each year, mostly to take in Orioles games or to visit fish at the aquarium. Through the years that love affair has been transferred to John Waters, H.L. Mencken, Diner, and just about anything else remotely associated with Baltimore.

Of course my Baltimore-philia is completely fraudulent. I've never even lived in the city and probably couldn't find my way from Fells Point to Mt. Vernon with a street map.

Homicide was made for poseurs like me. It revels in the many quirks of Charm City: Fell's Point bars, urban hillbillies, crab cakes. I'll grudgingly concede that the show offered diminishing returns over its seven seasons. As these DVDs make clear, there's no topping the first 13 episodes, with Ned Beatty and Jon Polito as sad-sack homicide detectives. And there's no better episode in my mind than the third one to air, in which Beatty and guest star Luis Guzman contemplate love and loss while utilizing a casket as a bar.

But even after those two heavyweights departed, the guts of the terrific cast remained in place. Presiding over the flock of dysfunctional homicide detectives was Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), the glowering yet soft-hearted black Sicilian who was constantly waging noble (if futile) battle with the department brass. None of Giardello's charges gave him more heartburn than the schizophrenic detective duo of Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor). The former a cold-hearted, volatile perfectionist, knocked off murder cases like they were littering charges. The latter--scatter-brained and naive, yet relentlessly dogged--remained haunted by his first case, the murder of an 11-year-old girl that he'd failed to solve.

 

Homicide finally ran off the rails in its final season, with the departure of Braugher. By then the show was testing even my (affected) affection for the charms of Baltimore. --Paul Demko

IN LIVING COLOR
Fox Home Entertainment
In 1990, Keenen Ivory Wayans set out to avenge the squandered talents of Danitra Vance, Garrett Morris, and other Saturday Night Live cast members-of-color who spent most of their tenure on the show riding the bench in the green room. The result was In Living Color, an edgy prime-time sketch-comedy program that kept the Fox censors on their toes and provided an ideal venue for the brilliant, zeitgeist-crystallizing choreography of Rosie Perez. Running Man! Cabbage Patch! Repeat in sequence!

Unless you're still cabbage patching, the newly released season DVDs will likely reveal a cultural document steeped in early-'90s consciousness-rhetoric (and cringe-inducing fashion). Some sketches, however, still provoke genuine smirks and snorts, and many of the cast members (Damon Wayans, "James" Carrey) live up to their now-platinum showbiz reps. (Who knew In Living Color would prove to be an Outsiders-esque cornucopia of undiscovered talent?)

Show icons like Homie the Clown and Handi-Man have aged surprisingly well, the former supplying all the pathetic hilarity of an episode of Chappelle's Show, the latter resembling a genial ancestor of South Park's Timmy. I suspect this show's influence on today's crop of writer's-room whippersnappers is not to be underestimated.

The Wayans brothers certainly think so. Amid a minimal package of DVD extras, the writer commentary proves to be of the worst kind: both self-congratulatory and totally unenlightening. Still, it's good to have this set at the ready if you're craving a dose of Fire Marshall Bill--or a glimpse of Fly Girl Jennifer Lopez when she had black hair, big legs, and no engagement bling to speak of. --Diablo Cody

M*A*S*H: SEASON SEVEN
Fox Home Entertainment
Robert Altman grumps that his breakout film about army doctors serving in Korea (read: Vietnam) turned into a sitcom about, get this, war. He should thank his silver stars the project landed in the capable hands of writer Larry Gelbart (Your Show of Shows, Tootsie) and escaped the fate of movie-to-TV train wrecks such as Delta House, 9 to 5, and Ferris Bueller. As a result, every Monday night at 8:00 p.m. brought those repeating five notes on the guitar, the thuppa-thuppa-thuppa of the helicopters coming over the hills of Korea/California, the nurses running toward the helipad. It was 11 years of war and medicine, as well as minefield golf, exploding latrines, and the hairiest human being alive wearing a Scarlett O'Hara gown.

The recently released season seven nearly completes the transformation of M*A*S*H from smartly written farce to melodrama. Company clerk Radar O'Reilly finishes his tour of duty in these shows, following the other broadly comedic characters: Trapper and Col. Blake (honorably discharged after season three), and Frank Burns (season five). The show's more tempered and sober tone can be seen in notable episodes such as "Point of View," which was shot entirely from a patient's view from triage to surgery to recovery; and "Preventative Medicine," in which Hawkeye removes the healthy appendix of an incompetent colonel in hopes of preventing unnecessary casualties.

The M*A*S*H DVDs don't have much in the way of extras. But given the meatball surgery these shows have endured for the purposes of syndication, seeing these 25 episodes in their entirety is like scoring a weekend pass in Tokyo with Hot Lips. --Corey Anderson

MILLENNIUM
Fox Home Entertainment
Millennium, newly available on DVD, takes place in a land of eternal night. Frank Black (the superbly age-worn Lance Henriksen) listens to the voices coming in through the whine like some pagan Wichita Lineman. But he's not your everyday profiler. The purpose of X-Files capo Chris Carter's too-short-lived Fox series--imagine Rupert Murdoch having to write checks for this!--is not to pound out that old tune about how the cop and the creep Are As One. Like a dank and froggy Buddha in a mold-encrusted grotto, Frank opens himself to the wishes and silent yearnings of the evildoers to ease the suffering of the unprotected.

Carter, Henriksen, and company have taken great pains to put Frank and his beloved, Jordan (Brittany Tiplady, the thinking man's Amy Brenneman) on the side of light. And somehow, the shots of Frank and his lady hugging their innocent child don't possess the usual smarminess. The truth isn't out there, only an ever-falling darkness. And Black's victories are equivocal, more spiritual than practical. In "The Well-Worn Lock," a thirtyish woman fights off the advances of her molesting father, a politically connected, wealthy real estate agent. In "522666," a terrorist plants bombs in local haunts because he thrills to imagine the co-workers who ignore him recoiling in terror at the whoosh of wind that precedes their immolation.

 

Generally scored to the sob of a single, plaintive violin, Millennium, born and bred in Clinton's sunny boom-era America, augurs the hour of darkness that is now our permanent home. --Matthew Wilder

SAVED BY THE BELL
Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Listen up, Los Angeles: I'm taking back the Bell for everyone in flyover country. See, contrary to its fictional SoCal environs, Saved by the Bell is actually the most Midwestern show imaginable. Class babe Kelly Kapowski is more Dairy Princess than honey-roasted surf slut, Zack Morris looks like half your homeroom homies at Chaska High, the local drug of choice is meth (okay, No-Doz), and there's only one hangout in all of Bayside! If that's not a note-perfect depiction of life in our suburban sticks, I don't know what is.

The show provided a blast of sunshine for the tragically unhip on Saturday mornings, and its contributions to television ought not be forgotten. Frankly, I wish the far-more-convincing Californians of the O.C. would attempt to assemble their own "Zack Attack" (with Mischa on air-sax.) In case the exhausting schedule of SBTB reruns on cable hadn't sated your appetite, there are now DVDs available.

Sadly, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Elizabeth Berkley, and Tiffani Thiessen declined to participate in the audio commentary (because they're huge A-list stars), leaving us with the underwhelming trinity of Lisa, Screech, and Mr. Belding. Listening to this crew solemnly discuss their "craft" as actors is both funny-weird and funny-ha-ha. But they also ain't too proud to dis the outfits.

One can easily while away an afternoon watching the Bayside gang awkwardly hit their marks--and, of course, snickering at the realization that Jessie Spano will someday flail nude in a pool with Kyle MacLachlan. --Diablo Cody

SCTV VOLUME 1: NETWORK 90 AND SCTV VOLUME 2
Shout! Factory
For more than 20 years I have maintained that SCTV was the funniest, and thus the finest, show ever on television. Granted, this position was largely a guess. I've heard good things, for instance, about episode three of UPN's Pig Sty, which I missed (cosmetic surgery). What's more, until this week I hadn't seen SCTV since I was in my 'tween years. During that period, my other favorite program was The Dukes of Hazzard.

Oh, the Sorrell Booke-sized questions raised by such reminiscence! Is the child father to the man? Are today's digitalized boob-tube madeleines the sweet paths to reclaimed youth or the crumby road to disillusionment? How's it goin', eh? But first the facts. At present, the first 18 episodes of SCTV's two-season, early-'80s stint on NBC are available on DVD, spread out over ten discs in two volumes. (You can buy them as boxed sets or rent them as single discs). These episodes feature the classic cast of John Candy, Joe Flarerty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Catherine O'Hara, and Dave Thomas.

In the past 24 hours, I have watched or skimmed 10 of the currently available episodes. The experience has disabused me of some of my perhaps inflated regard for the show. Comedy, some say, is tragedy plus time. Sketch comedy plus time, I've learned, isn't funny. There's a lot of stuff here that hasn't worn well. There are also, however, some convincing testaments to my earlier best-show-ever claim. Start with Volume One, Disc Three, which includes the flawless "Moral Majority" episode.

This and other more hit-and-miss episodes have their share of good jokes, impressions, and premises (a favorite: Benny Hill Street Blues). Rooted in improv theater, SCTV trucked in behavioral comedy more than joke comedy. There were no straight men, only idiots, heels, and misfits. The fun came simply from watching these characters be their unwittingly clownish selves. SCTV's cast, unlike most of the current and recent SNL players, weren't comedians required by precedent to act, but serious actors compelled by nature to wear stupid clothes and be funny. --Dylan Hicks

STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES, SEASONS 1-3
Paramount Home Video
Paramount finally gets wise. For years, classic Trek was only available as single discs containing two episodes--which sucked if you wanted, say, "Amok Time" and didn't feel like getting saddled with the campy "Who Mourns for Adonais?"

If you bought all of those I'm truly sorry, because the season box sets are magnificent. The packaging--a primary-colored clamshell--looks like an artifact from the show's '60s future. And the extras are keen, featuring plenty of self-effacing commentary from Shatner and Nimoy, and loads of ephemera from the writers, producers, and actors.

 

Which season to spring for first? Well, season one powers up the warp drive: "City on the Edge of Forever," with a soft-focus Joan Collins, is regarded as a zenith. Season two has the classic "Trouble with Tribbles" and "Amok Time," as well as the tense "Doomsday Machine."

Season three (out December 14) is where the show's camp elements took over. But it still has "The Tholian Web" and the weird anti-racism metaphor "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" to recommend it. Pardon the geek-speak, but you'll have to set your phasers on all three. --Jon Busey-Hunt

THE TICK
Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment
Is this what Jerry Seinfeld watched after going into celebrity reclusion? Though it was only viewed on Fox by tens, perhaps hundreds, during the 2001-2002 season, The Tick would have made a fitting friend for the sitcom star.

The Tick DVD set, with all eight episodes plus a Lynchian pilot, carries on in the void left when Seinfeld went off the air. The four main characters--the Tick, his partner in crime-fighting "Duocracy" Arthur, Latin-lover Batmanuel, and comic sexpot Captain Liberty--play out an existential life together in a diner that would feel familiar to Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine. Executive producer Larry Charles was part of the Seinfeld brain trust. And Patrick Warburton fills the plastic-muscled body suit (and floppy antennae!) of the Big Blue Bug of Justice, having previously filled Elaine's bed as the hunk-of-manhood love interest David Puddy.

Mostly, though, it's the countercultural streak and the attention to minutiae that recall what was once actually Must-See TV. "I am the wild blue yonder," the Tick intones in each episode's opening sequence, "the frontline in the never-ending battle between good and not-so-good." It's a signal that there won't be much triumphing over bad guys here. (Batmanuel, for one, is too busy finding hookups on his cell to worry about actual criminals.)

What there is, instead, is plenty of failure, rooted in self-absorption. The Tick himself routinely brutalizes inanimate objects. Captain Liberty, as one villain puts it, has a "fear of being loved." And poor Arthur quits his dead-end accounting career to don a moth suit with bunny ears--and then feels like a mere sidekick. The Wild Blue Yonder--a master of the comic non sequitur--does his best to reassure the lesser half of the Duocracy: "Arthur, you're on a first-name basis with lucidity. I have to call him Mr. Lucidity."

Whereas the Seinfeld characters reveled in their lack of meaningful connection--no hugging, remember?--the Tick's posse is rooted in a Bizarro World where they are chronically searching for love, acceptance, and even justice. Is it any surprise the show only lasted for eight episodes? --G.R. Anderson Jr.

THE WIRE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON
HBO Home Video
Only some of The Wire's greatness can be measured by how thoroughly it demolishes the "realism" of other TV public dick shows and gangsta soaps. Every trick of television verisimilitude has a freshness date, and makes way for a new set of clichés (think of the shaky camerawork in the now rote Law & Order franchise). Even FX's The Shield, once the cutting edge of morally ambiguous cop heroes, demonstrates the diminishing returns of constantly defying viewer expectations. In the end, its extremism is about nothing but other cop shows.

HBO's The Wire, however, is about work. And the genre it subverts isn't just the crime one, but the nameless category of TV and film that might be labeled "people who are great at their jobs and work like maniacs." Most characters in this emergent genre of the overworked '90s and '00s are judged by how well they serve their institutions. Yet in The Wire, it's the institutions that are the problem--including the illegal ones. Running a housing project in West Baltimore like a death squad might run a food court, local gang members adhere to a demeaning organizational hierarchy. There's no Bonnie and Clyde fantasy of freedom to this murderous pecking order, which exists only to perpetuate itself. (In one poetic touch, the kingpin's right-hand man takes macroeconomics at the community college. At the core, he's a company man.)

The narcotics detectives have their own parts to play, and it doesn't seem remotely heroic when they buck authority. McNulty, the romantic lead among cops (he carries a liquor bottle and spits when he talks), admits at one point that he's pursuing the gang as an ego trip. If characters find dignity anywhere in the Sisyphean drug war, it's in their duties to each other, and in their craft.

Created by a former Baltimore Sun reporter (David Simon, who also gave us Homicide: Life on the Streets) and a former Baltimore Police detective (Ed Burns), The Wire is clearly a work of journalism. But it never pretends that the truth can set you free. --Peter S. Scholtes

 

THE WORLD OF SID AND MARTY KROFFT VOL. 1
Rhino Home Video
Smurfy twentynothing hipsters, of the tribe that ten years ago could be seen at a rave with an outsized pacifier hanging above their sternums, groove on the psychedelic cornpone of Sid and Marty Krofft. And why not? Rhino Video's collection The World of Sid and Marty Krofft Vol. 1 features a sexy 16-year-old girl in pink tutu, morphed into a june bug; skulls and satanic texts that not only speak, but spout cheesy sitcom gags; and a parallel universe where every man, woman, and child physically manifests herself as a funny-shaped hat.

The Kroffts voyaged into Yellow Submarine heaven--and beyond--with their most timeless work, the indefatigably psychedelic H.R. Pufnstuf. The literally soft-headed cartoony creatures are voiced in a style that would soon be ripped off by the McDonald's corporation's Mayor McCheese and Hamburglar. An actor in an overstuffed Kabuki suit nods his head, a fake jaw waggles, and dialogue spills out over the top.

This aura of very barely disguised trippiness would never pass muster in the Nickelodeon era. (Nor would a scene in Lidsville--essentially, The Prisoner with funny hats--where Charles Nelson Reilly, dressed up as a girl bunny, bats his eyelashes at Raunchy Rabbit and coos, "Moonlight turns me on!")

Hepcats may giggle at the lightly concealed LSD of it all. But what makes these shows so gently reassuring to watch is the way they remind us of a pre-marketing-department era, when children's entertainment was handmade, low-to-the-ground, and centered on your uncle's corny jokes. --Matthew Wilder


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