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Striking TV: DVD Sets for a Season Without Writers

When new episodes of your favorite TV series run out, and they will, even if the studios and striking writers settle their differences soon, you will turn to your DVD player. And after you go through the last season or so of the shows you already know and love, and TiVo starts overdosing on reality shows and cable news screaming matches, you may ask yourself, “Are there any other TV shows out there? Something I’ve been missing all these years?”

The answer is yes.

In the absence of Saturday Night Live, you’re probably looking for an Amy Poehler fix that even her rainbow-scarf Gap ads can’t satisfy. If so, you should seek out the first and second seasons of Comedy Central’s late-’90s sketch series Upright Citizens Brigade (Paramount, $26.99 each). This is where Poehler’s gift for trashy, absurdist brilliance — she’s forever tapping into the scary side of laughter — got its first momentous display. The rest of the Python-inspired show is as funny as ever too, a buffet of derangement that served up subjects tantatlizingly big (religion) and childishly small (the poo stick). And if it’s historic, male-dominant SNL you yearn for, there’s the immersion box set of Saturday Night Live: The Best Of (Lions Gate, $49.98) featuring Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy and John Belushi (also available as individual discs of each star).

Those who are missing the late-night parties thrown by David, Jay and Conan would do well to check out theHeeere’s Johnny 12-disc collection (R2 Entertainment, $99.99) of Carson clips that wishfully calls itself “definitive” even with 30 years of The Tonight Show to cull from. Comprised of previous releases — a disc of country music and rural-themed bits, a disc highlighting comedians’ appearances, a best-of set — plus a six-disc compendium called Timeless Moments, there’s enough here to remind us all what a great bedtime companion the dulcet-toned Nebraskan was when he ruled the post-prime-time airwaves. (He was that unique ringmaster whose enjoyment of the job was infectious when everything clicked, but who could also tease fun from an out-of-control situation with razor-sharp wit.) In addition, Shout Factory has a distinctive treat in its two-disc set called The Johnny Carson Show, full of long-thought-lost episodes from Carson’s short-lived eponymous CBS show from 1955-’56 (Shout Factory, $24.99). The show was remarkable for its breezily parodic tone, the wiry, ingrained affability of its then 29-year-old host, and a keen knowingness in its sketches of how to mock television’s ever-increasing grip. If Ernie Kovacs was the one memorably playing with the new medium’s artistic boundaries, in these half hours Carson was helping to stake satiric territory, humorously showing us its effect on our temperaments, behaviors and desires.

The squirm-inducing semi-improvisational comedy of NBC’s version of The Office may be on hiatus, but there are a couple of options to bide your time until Carell & Co. return. The magnitude of awkwardness presented by Garry Shandling’s Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show set (Sony, $49.95) is a humiliation-comedy aficionado’s dream — 23 episodes of the insider show-biz masterpiece, plus eight extra hours that include the neurotic comedian’s personal visits with Sanders guests like Alec Baldwin and Jon Stewart. You could also swap out the squirmy for the squiggly with Dr.Katz, Professional Therapist: The Complete Series (Paramount, $139,99), whose heft as a box set of 13 discs is its own kind of irony considering the low-key, shrug-like charm of the Comedy Central show’s comedians-on-the-couch humor. Plus, there’s a live version of Dr. Katz included, videotaped on a stage with the original actors, where I realized that Laura Silverman’s dismissive sultriness is the appropriate physical match to her cartoon-secretary doppelgänger, while a shorn H. Jon Benjamin (Katz’s loafish son) without an approximation of his Squigglevision sprout of black hair is strangely off-putting.

If, however, your TV loves lead you to Men in Trees, you’ll want to pick up the Alaskan-romance slack with the 26-disc anthology case of Northern Exposure (Universal, $199.98). Or perhaps five collected seasons of the sleek lines, gleaming pastels and Don Juan-son sleaziness found in Miami Vice (Universal, $199.98) will effectively sub for the saturated sunburst palettes and David Caruso’s Horatio Hot-Air-Blower righteousness on CSI: Miami. If you’re going to miss the amusingly heartfelt interfamily bickering you find on Brothers & Sisters and Samantha Who?, then the MotherDaughter of all such shows — Gilmore Girls, its seven seasons now bundled into one brightly colored, portable graduate course in banter (Warner, $258.82) — should be sufficient company. And can a massive, limited-editionX-Files collector’s box (Fox, $329.98) of every episode, the theatrical movie, interviews, deleted scenes, a comic book, a 60-page episode guide and making-of featurettes ever make up for a world temporarily without Supernatural? (Um, it should.)

You haven’t yet had a chance to have and then lose Lost — it’s more a matter of when its fourth season will start — so why not revisit another famously maddening exercise in isolated weirdness: David Lynch and Mark Frost’s groundbreaking 1990-’91 series Twin Peaks. A new “definitive gold box edition” (Paramount, $99.99) will let you relive the experience of thrilling to something disturbing and original — the Lynch-directed pilot is still a marvel of unusual rhythms, rich humor and oblique menace — then watch it devolve over 29 episodes into cardboard wackiness. It’s a true multiple-personality pack that in its inclusion of the patently ridiculous “case closed” version of the pilot (for international markets), a dreamily entertaining and enlightening 30-minute conversation between Lynch and three Twin Peaks cohorts, and testimonials that range from fascinating to self-congratulatory to brutally honest, feels like a minitutorial in what happens when avant-garde sensibilities and lightninglike TV success collide.

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.