By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
The amusing gimmick of NBC’s Chuck is that he’s the ordinary guy turned secret agent. Been there done that, Napoleon Solo might say. Robert Vaughn’s American James Bond from the ’60s series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (Solo being a name Ian Fleming gave the producers) was always notoriously recruiting average citizens for cloak-and-dagger work. In the never-aired color pilot for the show, when it was going to be called Solo — and part of the dossier of extras in the newly available briefcase-contained complete series set (TimeLife, $249.99) — he enlists a housewife who proves adept at wooing a THRUSH operative, signaling information, poisoning a target and running in high heels. U.N.C.L.E.’s tongue was firmly in cheek from the beginning, but it started to drill a hole by season three. U.N.C.L.E. nevertheless remains a frisky, suave artifact of Cold War–era entertainment, a universe of minis and microdots, gizmos and gray suits, sliding doors and stewardesses.
Another ’60s show that could help heal the TV-less pain is season one of Ironside (Shout Factory, $59.98), which has startling parallels with House. Both are brilliant deductive heroes with disabilities; they are cranky, they bend the rules and supervise a young multiracial team and battle addiction (although Ironside’s vice is the considerably less-threatening canned chili). Although finding out from the doctor that he’ll never walk again after surviving a sniper’s assassination attempt elicits a steely “That all?” from Detective Ironside — Raymond Burr surely relished the chance to work up a cynical bark after years of playing Perry Mason — he still arranges for the sweetest set-up in San Francisco for a wheelchair-bound cop: his own devoted (if occasionally irritated) investigators, roomy basement headquarters with pool table and fitted-out transport truck with motorized lift. He could have become Blofeld, I suppose, so we should be thankful he stayed on our side.
But maybe you’re a Prison Break fan, and enjoy the crushing twists of fate heaped upon the caged and the freed. I can’t say that German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s doomed-man opus Berlin Alexanderplatz (Criterion, $125.95) is the sanest of choices to replace the cliffhanger-silly mood of the Fox show, but in any case, this is the truly monumental TV-related DVD release of the year. Based on Alfred Doblin’s novel, Fassbinder’s 15-hour–plus miniseries from 1980 chronicles the struggles of Franz Biberkopf (a toweringly effective Gunter Lamprecht), an ex-convict on a long, strange, turbulent search for some measure of honest peace in corrupt Weimar-era Germany, a between-wars stretch in which a nation’s soul was being fought over while its demoralized citizenry had to fend for itself. Recently restored with invaluable help from cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger, the darkly lit images that notoriously didn’t transfer well from 16mm to broadcast (or the original videocassette release) have now become evocative pools of monochrome, lending interiors and night scenes a rich, twinkling dinginess. The seven-disc set is loaded, too, with the original 1931 film version of Doblin’s novel, a making-of documentary showing Fassbinder at work, and a behind-the-scenes look at the detailed restoration. Berlin Alexanderplatz isn’t easy going, but it’s the kind of epic experience — a treacherous wade into the swamp of humanity — that suggests all that television can accomplish when the creativity of artists is nurtured and rewarded.
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