Your Own Private Cable Channel
Thanks to DVDs, the shelves of many die-hard tube watchers represent millions of separate, distinct, personalized TV Land schedules, each a wellspring of specialized marathons for any particular episodic temperament. If I were to imagine my own 24-hour cable-channel block based on what’s available in my stacks (because I’m not organized enough to have shelves), it might go something like this: a Perry Mason/Columbo murder-mystery chunk in the insomniac hours, installments of The Muppet Show to kick off the day, the retro-variety stylings of The Captain and Tennille for the late morning, along with old Dick Cavett interviews at midday, affable afternoons of Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart, afterschool irreverence with Freaks & Geeks and The Simpsons, tense evenings of The Wire, MI:5 and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and late nights of edgy Britcoms like The Mighty Boosh and Nighty Night. That’s just one potential lineup.
Every year, of course, presents new library additions for the amateur home-theater programmer, and/or fresh gift opportunities for your pop-culture-ravenous friends. In 2006, completists might feel secure that the sixth season of The Dukes of Hazzard made its way into stores, and at the same time revel in the new box design for the entire run of HBO’s Six Feet Under — fake grass on top surrounding the title on a miniheadstone, brilliant! Unfortunately, if you’ve already bought seasons one through five, you can’t just buy the nifty box packaging, which doesn’t exactly hew to the idea behind a funeral home — I pay for the coffin and what goes in it?
HBO is surely hoping its release of Da Ali G Show: Da Compleet Seereez — four discs with both American seasons and assorted extra scenes that didn’t make it to air — will keep new and old Borat fans happy as they wait for the taboo-breaking hit movie to reach stores next year. And if you want a taste of what may lie ahead when Sacha Baron Cohen makes a movie with his gay Austrian fashionista persona Bruno, don’t miss the hilarious spring-break segment from season two, episode six. Frat boys everywhere, beware. I’m still holding out for an American surge in interest for Brit Steve Coogan’s brilliant C-list talk-show-host character Alan Partridge, which made BBC Video’s stateside release of I’m Alan Partridge: Series One this year welcome news for U.S. Partridge fans. Before Steve Carell, before Ricky Gervais, there was Coogan plumbing one man’s potential for humiliating behavior and egotistical oiliness, and the extras on this two-disc set include not only the obligatory unused bits but an incredible extended improvisation scene that Coogan and actress Felicity Montagu (as assistant Lynn) performed in a parked car.
In the classic-sitcom realm, I’m excited that there’s finally a box set available of one of the all-time greats, The Phil Silvers Show, even if it’s only an 18-episode sampler commemorating the 50th anniversary of the legendary comic’s Army swindler Sgt. Bilko, who viewed the Pentagon as his own personal ATM. (The show would no doubt be set at Halliburton today.) The three discs include a lot of extra features, including Silvers’ appearances on other shows, the original unaired kinescope “audition” show, and commentaries by Dick Van Dyke, George Kennedy (who got his acting start when he moved from the show’s on-set Army contact to bit player) and Larry Storch. Watching Silvers parry and thrust with any other actor is one of show biz’s lasting joys, as is basking in the twinkly chemistry between Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell in the landmark ’60s sitcom That Girl, which also saw its DVD emergence this year, from Shout Factory. This Holly Golightly follower and Mary Richards precursor was the original single-girl-on-her-own show — attached but unmarried, focused on a career, forever worrying her doting dad — and in her inimitably birdlike scratch of a voice, Thomas happily explains in audio commentaries and a bonus-feature interview how much she had to do with this minirevolution in 30-minute television. Wit was never the raison d’être of That Girl; instead, the show was a kind of big-city romance of feminine comedy, with careerist sprinkles, an inexplicably expensive but delectably tasteful Mary Quant wardrobe and a perfectly suited boy-girl pairing.
Shout Factory has also been releasing the legendary SCTV on DVD of late, but only this past year did we get to see the pre-NBC 30-minute shows when the series was still a Canadian comedy alternative seen mostly in syndication. The “Best of the Early Years” set spotlights 15 episodes from 1978 to 1980, but it’s mostly a third-season grouping, which means little of John Candy and Catherine O’Hara, who were absent then, and no first-year shows, so nothing of original member Harold Ramis. The thinking seems to be that rights clearances may make the early-early shows prohibitively expensive to put out — it’s what took so long to get any SCTV out in the first place. But third-season SCTV is better than no SCTV, and in this collection, you’ll see the beginnings of Guy Caballero, the McKenzie Brothers, Edith Prickley, and the real fruition of the show’s unique parody-merging, cross-genre aesthetic. Also included is “Thursday Night Live,” the gang’s wicked send-up of the heavy-lidded, attitude-conscious drug humor that turned comedy stardom into another form of rock-star worship (where whooping and clapping inevitably trump genuine laughter).
Of course, now it’s possible to chart the popularity explosion of the original Saturday Night Live cast yourself with the recent release of the entire first season of the NBC institution (even the famed Louise Lasser episode, which Lorne Michaels hated due to the actress’s unwillingness to appear in sketches). There are no commentaries, but it’s an invaluable compilation for comedy-philes that — if not necessarily eliciting deep laughs anymore — will still have you marveling all over again at John Belushi’s underrated nuances and Dan Aykroyd’s announcer-mania delivery and Gilda Radner’s scary commitment level, while scratching your head at Chevy Chase, whose smirky twitches have lost whatever fuck-you appeal they might have held for the cynical post-Watergate crowd. The original screen tests included are telling: Nearly everyone seems eager to entertain — even in a screen test — except for an impatient, unfunny Chase, who already looks like he thinks he’s slumming. Dreaming of his future as a solo talk-show host, perhaps?
As for ready-made twofers, Paramount Home Video smartly packaged the first seasons of guilty pleasures Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place into something called “The Good, the Bad & the Beautiful Pack.” (It’s cheaper than buying each set separately.) It’s strange how fresh the innocence of these shows still feels, from the former’s occasionally sensitive handling of teen issues (despite the unreality of it all) to the latter’s almost zoological iconography of young, beautiful people in their natural habitat: L.A.! Both shows would eventually morph into other things — in both cases, pure soap opera, which benefited Melrose but cheapened 90210 — but they were from the get-go, undoubtedly, era-defining light entertainment.
You’ve got to love the career arc of multitalented Oscar winner Rita Moreno, who in the early ’70s went from blowing Jack Nicholson at the end of Carnal Knowledge to helping kids learn how to read on PBS. Moreno was a member of the adult cast in the soulful, silly and finger-snapping PBS series The Electric Company, which is now available in two “Best Of” collections. They are undeniably fun to watch even as an adult with a firm grasp of long and short vowels, if only to listen for the cartoon narration of people like Mel Brooks and Joan Rivers, or to enjoy the ripe pronunciative tones of a young Morgan Freeman as street-swaggering Easy Reader, who perfectly exemplified the urban-positivity ethos of children’s television in that era: What else was graffiti, after all, but an opportunity to read? If you’d rather see kiddie TV as imagined by a hope-killing Satan, however, there’s always seasons one and two of MTV2’s disturbingly hilarious parody Wonder Showzen, maybe the darkest-hearted satire to be birthed from any corporate entertainment behemoth. It’s probably even funnier if you watch it right after a hit of The Electric Company, but, dear God, don’t get these discs mixed up if you have little ones around. If you’re going to have your own TV Land, program responsibly.
THE BEST OF THE ELECTRIC COMPANY | Shout Factory | Vol. 1, $49.98; Vol. 2, $39.98
DA ALI G SHOW: DA COMPLEET SEEREEZ | HBO Home Video | $49.98
THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE BEAUTIFUL PACK | Paramount Home Video | $116
I’M ALAN PARTRIDGE: SERIES ONE | BBC Video | $26.98
SCTV: BEST OF THE EARLY YEARS| Shout Factory | $39.98
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: SEASON ONE | Universal | $69.98
SGT. BILKO: THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW, 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION | Paramount Home Video | $39.95
SIX FEET UNDER: THE COMPLETE SERIES GIFT SET | HBO Home Video | $279.98
THAT GIRL: SEASON ONE | Shout Factory | $39.98
THAT GIRL: SEASON TWO | Shout Factory | $39.98
WONDER SHOWZEN | Paramount Home Video| $26.98 per season
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