The TV Crank's Wish List 

A DVD gift guide for curmudgeons who think there's nothing good on TV anymore

Wednesday, Dec 17 2008

With the horrible economy instilling in nearly everybody a crusty, befouled yearning for more prosperous times this holiday season, what better way to augment that national mood than the gift of a television DVD that suggests, “Wasn’t this long-gone show better than the crap that’s on now?” No one’s saying you or your lucky gift recipient have to sincerely believe that TV is currently lacking in quality. It certainly isn’t, and if your presents must reflect the present, then go, give that set of 30 Rock: Season 2, or the first-season DVDs of the acclaimed but ratings-deficient Mad Men and the enjoyably original yet mostly unseen Reaper – all worthy of being spread by fans to the uninitiated so the shows can grow like plants — and leave to the rest of us the temporary disease of bitter nostalgia for an imagined, more culturally interesting past. This DVD gift guide is for them, the television cranks.

IT’S LIVE! IT’S ALIVE!: Wouldn’t forcing everyone to make their terrible shows air live expose the medium’s weightless heart? It’s a nice fantasy for television cranks, which makes the recently released Studio One Anthology (Koch Vision, $99.98) a perfect gift for Golden Age of Television connoisseurs (in this golden-parachute era) who bemoan the lack of weekly doses of literary adaptations and original teleplays performed by actors trying desperately in front of tens of millions of viewers not to trip over huge camera cables or their own lines. Running for nine years on CBS, starting in the late ’40s, the Emmy-winning Studio One rigorously put to work writers such as Gore Vidal (“Dark Possession”), Rod Serling (“The Arena”) and Reginald Rose, whose still-powerful “Twelve Angry Men” debuted on the show in 1954 and was long thought lost until a kinescope – the filming of a program from a monitor — was discovered in 2003. Its inclusion in this 17-program set, along with a 52-page booklet, interviews, a Paley Center panel discussion and early on-camera performances by the likes of Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Sal Mineo, Elizabeth Montgomery and Lee Remick, make for an invaluable mixed-bag artifact even for those unfamiliar with the tube’s early creative flowering.

FORGET THE MOVIE, REMEMBER THE SHOW!: Okay, so the Steve Carell Get Smart was – would you believe? — a hit and the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer crashed and burned at the summer box office. Television cranks will still always seethe with indignation that Hollywood even bothers to update vintage perfection, replacing Don Adams’ hapless Agent 86, or thinking our childhood fondness for choppily animated, hilariously dubbed helpings of ’60s manga kitsch could be faithfully updated with John Goodman, Christina Ricci and video-game editing. Which makes the ability to bathe in personal-rerun bliss with the 25-DVD juggernaut Get Smart: The Complete Series Gift Set (HBO Video, $199.95), or the six-disc Speed Racer: The Complete Classic Collection (Lionsgate, $49.98), packaged in a tin Mach 5, that much more appealing.

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NOW THAT WAS SPOOKY: Except for Nancy Grace, it takes a lot to creep out television cranks these days, so they were very excited about the release this year of The Invaders: The First Season (CBS/Paramount, $39.99), pulpmeister Larry Cohen’s fabulously eerie they’re-heeeere episodic from 1967. It starred Roy Thinnes — who’s all over the five-disc set, being interviewed and introducing episodes — as David Vincent, a regular dude who spends enough time desperately trying to convince people that human-form aliens have infiltrated the Earth (a global swarming), that paranoids of the era must have felt a representational victory at seeing their first series hero. (Mainly because, as depicted on the show, Vincent is correct.) Then there’s the eagerly awaited Night Gallery: Season Two (Universal, $59.98), the best year of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling’s lesser, ugly-stepchild follow-up, which includes the wonderfully odd lust/caution story “The Caterpillar” starring Laurence Harvey, with enraptured audio commentary by NG fan Guillermo Del Toro. Perhaps the creepiest thing about late-’60s old-school dread fests like The Invaders and Night Gallery is the unsubtle use of garish color: waxy scarlets and fleshy pinks, mean grays and Crayola blues that in the flush of a color-TV boom were intended to usher in a new broadcast reality but instead made for their own gaudily atmospheric unreality.

OH HBO, WHERE ART THOU?: Mourning the past doesn’t have to send television cranks back decades. It was only a few years ago that a single HBO calendar year could serve up Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen and Omar. Maybe because it’s well aware how hard those acts have been to follow that HBO Video is pushing your remember-when buttons with the extras-packed, 28-disc The Sopranos: The Complete Series ($399.99), including a new David Chase interview with Alec Baldwin, a photo album and a filmed cast din-din; Deadwood: The Complete Series ($179.97), whose goodies include David Milch musing on the show’s ending; and The Wire: The Complete Series ($249.99), which even without extras is as essential a keepsake of quality writing, acting and directing as can be gathered in one box.

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