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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
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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.

LARDY LARDY: TV cooks used to be large and ugly, because the point was a camera trained on a simmering pan of heart-stopping yum, not a perky, cute mug whipping an audience into a frenzy over “healthy alternatives.” Make your television crank happy with the complete collection of Britain’s beautifully filmed, oddball ’90s-era cooking show Two Fat Ladies (Acorn, $59.99), a calorie porn extravaganza in which Clarissa Dickson Wright and the late Jennifer Paterson – witty, lumpen gourmands with aristocratic “R”s and a hilariously open disdain for vegetarians, who traversed the U.K. on a sidecar-outfitted Triumph Thunderbird, cooking in a succession of fantastically rustic countryside kitchens — showed a sturdy adoration for the dish-augmenting power of cream, bacon and butter. (Recipes included! Lipitor, unfortunately, not.)

LAUGHS FROM THE SOURCE: Comedy isn’t groundbreaking anymore, television cranks like to say, not like it was when the BBC took a chance on an Oxbridge gang of zanies in 1969, or Comedy Central snapped up a bunch of pop culture–savvy Z-movie belittlers from Minnesota 20 years ago, or sitcom stalwart NBC allowed a bittersweet hourlong show about unpopular, outsider kids with straight As in Awkwardness on the air at the turn of the millennium. DVD can make these cranks whole again. For Python fans who’ve been wondering if A&E’s packaging addiction was over, The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Collectors Edition Megaset (A&E, $159.95) puts that question to rest. All 45 episodes are included, as are the entire “Personal Best” collection of members’ favorite sketches, live performances, Terry Gilliam discussing his title animations clip-art by clip-art, and two interesting new documentaries, one that traces the troupe’s individual pre-Python influences and formative gigs – from The Goon Show to working for David Frost — and another which relays how they infiltrated North America (thank Dallasites Owen and Luke Wilson’s dad, in part)! My favorite oddity, though, may be this credit at the end of the influences doc: “Dudley MooreT is a trademark of the estate of Dudley Moore.” Some new young sketch group needs to name themselves that immediately. The whip-smart Minnesota hecklers behind MST3K, meanwhile, chose to honor fans of the Peabody Award–winning salute to cheeseball cinema with Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition (Shout! Factory, $59.99), featuring four never-before-on-DVD episodes – including the uproarious “First Spaceship on Venus” – footage from the participants’ panel at ComicCon, and a three-part doc featuring new interviews with Joel Hodgson, Jim Mallon, Mike Nelson, Trace Beaulieu and everyone else. As for Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s heartbreakingly funny Freaks and Geeks, Shout! Factory has made the previously limited-run, extras-crammed Yearbook Edition ($169.99) available again. (Not so limited anymore, I know, but come on, cliques suck!) Packaged like it says, it’s an eight-disc invitation to host your own living room high school reunion, with an awesome, short-lived show that not only kick-started the careers of Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jason Segel but also probably helped you to put to laugh-filled, teary-eyed rest those indelibly awful teenage years.

ONE MAN, MANNING UP: Television cranks look at today’s ensemble crime dramas and think, why does it take a whole team of people to catch one scumbag? And when did the yoyos who examine hairs take over? What happened to hard, loner investigators who hit the pavement, the pool halls, the smoke-filled bars and seedy apartments by themselves (save for a brassy underscore), who sometimes had to get information, using a wisecrack, a left hook, a few trigger pulls and a high-speed car chase? Mike Connors’ Joe Mannix didn’t need no stinkin’ computer to catch a killer, as Mannix: Season One (CBS/Paramount, $54.99) entertainingly reminds us. The inaugural year (1967-68) of this long-running show introduced the scuffle-loving P.I. as working for Intertect, a corporate detective agency whose reliance on statistical analysis didn’t jibe with Mannix’s street smarts. (As a joke, the title sequence shows his name boldly imprinted on a hole-dotted readout card, as if to say, Punch this!) The crisply made pilot episode is a brutally efficient kidnapping yarn that includes brawls in a mud pond and on a hillside, and ends with Mannix chasing someone through Palm Desert and onto the greenest golf course you’ve ever seen (there’s that saturated ’60s color again) while a helicopter attacks him. Among the extras on this set is a new interview with a still virile-looking Connors in which he talks about how shooting the action in the pilot tore him up good. Somehow I don’t think CSI: Miami star David Caruso is wrecking himself by repeatedly taking off those sunglasses. Even Weeble-sized William Conrad got into occasional scrums with bad guys as private L.A. dick Frank Cannon, as if to show an action side to match the actor’s celebrated booming voice. (Yes, that was Conrad narrating the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, as well as The Fugitive.) On his early ’70s Quinn Martin–produced show, recently introduced on DVD with Cannon: Season One, Vols. 1-2 (CBS/Paramount, $64.99), the then-middle-aged Conrad had no problem suggesting a sharp-minded, intuitive crime-solver – investigating a corrupt small town in the pilot, he picks out a ceiling fan in the background of a menacing phone call, pinpointing which bar it came from – but he also proved that fat guys could have a physical intensity beyond playing motionless figures of power and intelligence.

LOCAL COLORLESS: Television cranks know black-and-white is never coming back – wouldn’t it help toughen up some of those crime shows? — which leaves DVD to turn our plasma flat screen HD space-age media windows into monochrome-radiating Philco consoles from yesteryear. At the top of that transformative list should be the 15-disc M Squad: The Complete Series (TMG, $119.98), hard-case movie icon Lee Marvin’s three-year TV stint in the late 1950s as detective Frank Ballinger, a rangy, moody and dedicated Chicago cop. (Before Mod Squad, this M stood for . Murder!) Bullet-hard half-hours set to jazzy music (Benny Carter, a young John Williams and Count Basie were variously involved in its score, a CD of which is part of the set), this black-and-white corker made gritty, documentary-like use of actual Chicago settings, not to mention the great Marvin’s angular form and heavy-lidded gravity. Then there’s the groundbreaking location work evident on the gray-looking yet gray-themed wanderlust classic Route 66, about a thoughtful Yalie named Tod (Martin Milner) and his hard-knocks Hell’s Kitchen–raised friend Buz (George Maharis) on a cash-strapped drifter’s tour of America in a Corvette convertible, now captured in Route 66: Complete First Season Television Series (Roxbury/Infinity, $49.99). A time capsule of the then-popular anthology format (this was the early ’60s) that allowed for a wide variety of stories, it’s a bracing show to watch in these shaky times, since so many of Tod and Buz’s encounters are with the country’s strugglers and strivers, apprehensive about their future.

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