Missed something the first time around? Check out the best of TV on DVD.
It’s amazing to think that many of us are willing to shell out money for TV shows on DVD — to pay for programming that we no doubt could have watched, or did watch, during its broadcast for free. Indeed, the recently-aired-shows-now-on-DVD part of the home-video industry reaps $4 billion annually, thanks to our boob-tube addiction. But there’s more to the TV-on-DVD revolution: There are many shows that have been resurrected for our viewing pleasure after having been off the air for years, and there are also many programs from other countries, programs that we were unable to watch when they originally aired, that are now showing up on DVD. This is what actually makes the whole trend so refreshing, as proven by the following selections.
Sitcoms have been disappearing rapidly from the airwaves, mainly because they’re generally lame. But there is plenty of vintage sitcom and sketch comedy to keep you laughing.
The long-awaited first season of WKRP in Cincinnati has finally surfaced after years of Fox’s wrangling with music publishers over the rights to the original ’70s rock used in the show. Both sides lost, so some of the music has been replaced with generic cues. But there are many reasons to watch this classic American sitcom: the chaotic WKRP environment, the animated antics of Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap, and the debate over who’s hotter, Bailey or Jennifer. Music (and greedy music execs) be damned — this is still a fun show.
A long-lost ’80s series that has been revived, thankfully without a laugh track, is Sledge Hammer!, which poked fun at the Dirty Harry archetype. David Rasche played a fascistic cop who relished dispensing justice, no matter how minor the offense, with his fists and his gun (which he spoke to). Only his partner, Dori Doreau, could help control his itchy trigger finger and keep their boss from having a coronary. The Witness parody, “Witless,” from season one, is absolutely brilliant.
The British have served up some incredible comedies over the years, most notably the surreal Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the department-store high jinks of Are You Being Served?, which made us reevaluate the retail experience. There are also lesser-known English treasures to be found.
Before Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry played Dr. Gregory House and Oscar Wilde, respectively, they had a sketch show called A Bit of Fry & Laurie, which premiered in 1986. For four seasons, the duo unleashed half-hour bursts of mirth and inanity; admittedly, they were sometimes too British for many Americans, but they still tapped some great moments. Season one highlights: A man goes to a bank, seeking a loan to sell drugs; a church-based duo performs “light metal” from the pulpit; and an elderly audience member keeps screaming to Fry and Laurie that they’ve stolen his material.
After Monty Python disbanded, Michael Palin and Terry Jones teamed up for Ripping Yarns, on which they delivered oddball short stories of adventure, mystery, and combat. Their Python sense of absurdity carried over, as Palin portrayed all manner of kooky characters, most notably a World War II secret agent who had to choose between stopping a dangerous German plot and taking a vacation, and a British soldier obsessed with constantly escaping German POW camps (and always failing), even when his fellow prisoners could care less. The latter, a parody of The Great Escape, is absolutely precious.
Lastly, there have been plenty of stand-up comics finding renewed life for their vintage work on DVD. Case in point: SRO Entertainment recently unearthed a collection of nine comedy/music specials by the legendary George Burns. Titled The TV Specials Collection, it dates from 1976 to 1986. If you’re a fan of old-school stand-up — and this is very tame compared with what’s out there today — you’ll enjoy the 450 minutes of viewing material featuring famous guest stars Johnny Carson, Milton Berle, Madeline Kahn, Don Rickles, and Phyllis Diller, among many others.
Horror is experiencing a major revival at the moment, and the small screen is catching up with Cineplex output as more international fear merchants invade our TVs.
The recent BBC hit series Hex is Charmed or Buffy for adults — less campy action, more drama. Cassie is a boarding school teen who discovers that she has magical powers and that she’s linked to a witch who was killed on those grounds 400 years ago. She must fend off her nemesis, the fallen angel Azazeal, and cope with her budding sexuality, made more complicated by the continual ghostly presence of her ghost roommate, Thelma, who had the hots for her. Hex is racy, spine-tingling, intelligent fare that will quickly have you hooked.
If you’re a fan of classic anthology series like Tales from the Darkside and Tales from the Crypt, the Japanese series Prayer Beads may be up your alley. In these creepy shows, naturally, people who’ve done bad things or tampered with mysterious forces get their comeuppance. Shot on digital video, they have tantalizing twists that place them a cut above like-minded fare. Trippy episodes like “Mushroom Hunting” (witches), “Real” (hallucinogenic freak-outs), and “Vending Machine Woman” (with a great H.R. Giger–inspired finale) will play with your mind.
There are still many great horror anthologies to exhume and put on DVD. Where are Tales from the Darkside, Monsters, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, and Darkroom? It’s time for them to come back to life!
When it comes to hip secret agents, the British have the market cornered. Nobody does it better than they do. Even before the digits 007 became permanently etched into our cultural consciousness, Secret Agent (aka Danger Man) and the Avengers were the suave but tough agents for NATO and England, respectively, and used cunning, stealth, and their wits rather than weapons to stop the bad guys. Even in black-and-white, they were cool.
Danger Man started as a fast-paced, half-hour spy drama in which John Drake (the intense and relentless Patrick McGoohan) traveled the world to help solve various crimes and crises, doing everything from hunting down slave traders in the Middle East to locating a former UK operative seeking to assassinate a former German torturer. After first airing between 1960 and 1962, it was resurrected in 1964 for four more seasons as an hour-long show, and it was then that it reached our shores. The box set includes the shorter episodes not aired in the United States, which include appearances by Lois Maxwell (the future Miss Moneypenny in the 007 franchise) and Honor Blackman (who went on to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger).
The Avengers will forever be associated with the dapper John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and his bold and beautiful partner, Emma Peel (Dame Diana Rigg), but the hour-long show actually ran for four years prior to Mrs. Peel’s arrival. Steed had a male partner in the first season, after which he paired up with Ms. Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) for two years of intrigue and adventure (’62 to ’64), made more interesting by the fact that she knew judo. In fact, Blackman studied it in real life and accidentally knocked out a stuntman during the 1964 season! While this later era of The Avengers was shot on videotape, as opposed to film, it still offered plenty of sass, charm, and wacky villains.
Both of these shows generated spin-offs. Many believe that the strange, surreal, and fascinating 1968 series The Prisoner, in which a former secret agent is abducted and taken to a remote island in order to keep him quiet, was a direct continuation of the character that McGoohan helped create with Danger Man. John Steed returned in 1976 to school two young agents in New Avengers for two seasons.
Worlds of Wonder
The realm of fantasy has become quite commonplace on television, but we’re still besieged by low-grade Cheez Whiz on cable. So travel to the past and check out some cool series that deserve another look.
When it aired for two and a half seasons in the late ’80s, Beauty and the Beast was a big hit with women. Before she kicked butt in T2, Linda Hamilton was a tough yet compassionate assistant DA who fought for justice and lived perched in a Manhattan high-rise. Before he kicked butt as Hellboy, Ron Perlman was a fierce yet gentle lionlike beast who dwelled beneath the city streets and aided the DA, though he shunned society because it feared him. Bonded by his telepathic empathy for her as well as by a platonic romance, the duo fought the denizens of a gritty Manhattan and grappled with the fact that they might never be together. Yeah, it was a little hokey at times, but it was still fun to get lost in.
If you’re looking for something imaginative but not too intense for kids, check out A Twist in the Tale, a series shot in New Zealand around 1997 and hosted by William Shatner. Yes, Captain Kirk beamed down from the stars to spin fanciful fireside yarns to young kids about time travel, ghostly possession, Arthurian mythology, and more. While supernatural in nature, there’s nothing outright scary about these life-affirming tales, which makes them perfect fare for the family.
On the flip side of that, who can forget the weirdness that was Twin Peaks? If David Lynch’s bizarre, award-winning series had launched today, it undoubtedly would have stayed on the air longer. But its story of an FBI agent seeking to find the murderer of teenager Laura Palmer in a suburb of Washington State was a little too sexy and strange for network television back in 1990. That’s okay — now you can enjoy Kyle MacLachlan, Sherilyn Fenn, Chris Isaak, and the rest of the cast traipsing through this unusual Lynchian landscape at your leisure. Just make sure Bob isn’t lurking nearby.
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