Five Great TV Series to Discover on DVD

by Robert Moore

1 March 2010

One of the greatest benefits that DVDs have bestowed is the ability to discover great TV series that we missed the first time around. Here are five great shows that anyone who loves quality TV should see if they haven't already.

Editor’s note: Back in 2007, PopMatters highlighted the best TV shows available on DVD and also listed the ones we most wished to see make it onto the format. In this feature, Robert Moore suggests five more shows that belong among those special few.

One of the greatest things about TV shows having a second life on DVD is that we viewers get an opportunity to see the ones that got away. This never happened during the age of VHS. Unlike DVD, VHS had almost no impact on the rediscovery of TV because of the comparative bulk of the tapes and the greater cost of producing them; a show like the original Star Trek could take up several shelves and cost hundreds of dollars, whereas DVD box sets take up only a few inches. In addition, we can today watch shows that in the past would have been lost permanently because too few episodes were made to enable syndication.

This new era of DVD was ushered by Family Guy and Firefly. The former was so successful on DVD that FOX finally was pressured to bring the series back from the dead. Firefly’s strong DVD sales resulted in a feature film, which while a box office failure, has gone on to turn a substantial profit through its own sales on DVD and Blu-ray. Firefly became one of the most popular TV series on DVD of the past decade, even though only 14 episodes were made. But without DVD, it would have been forgotten.

Family Guy and Firefly are just two of the many shows that people have discovered for the first time on DVD. Below are five series that anyone looking for their next favorite show should consider. Three of the four were canceled prematurely, one was canceled after four seasons but was not readily available on DVD until recently, and the final one is currently running shown on a premium cable network to which most viewers do not have access. They are five series that deserve to be watched on DVD.

Slings and Arrows (2003 - 2006)

Arguably the best series that most people have never heard of, Slings and Arrows managed to be both an enormously entertaining comedy while also delving more deeply into Shakespeare than anything else ever made for TV. For those with phobias about the classics, this should not be a deterrent. The show makes Shakespeare accessible and unstuffy even while refusing to dumb him down like so many “modern” versions of the Bard’s plays. Set in a small fictional town in Canada with a struggling but well-known theater festival, each season is structured around the performance of a different Shakespeare tragedy, successively Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear. The genius of the show comes from the brilliant exploration of each play against a foreground of unceasing but brilliant comedy and drama.

Slings and Arrows features some high-profile performers like Rachel McAdams (just before she hit it big in Hollywood) and Sarah Polley (whose father helps supply the opening theme song each season and performs as part of the theater troupe), as well as a brilliant Season Three performance by veteran Shakespeare actor William Hutt as Lear shortly before his death. The regular cast is anchored by Mark McKinney (of Kids in the Hall fame), who is superb as the festival’s besieged and sometimes conniving business manager; Stephen Ouimette, who is delightful as the ghost of the brilliant director Oliver Welles; and Martha Burns as the aging but talented lead actress of the troupe. But the real star of the show and its dominating presence is Paul Gross, who plays Geoffrey Tennant, a brilliant actor who sabotaged his acting career by walking out of a legendary production of Hamlet, which led to a nervous breakdown and an increasingly less successful career. Geoffrey has been invited to return as artistic director of the festival following the death of his mentor and mortal enemy Oliver. Gross manages to project artistic genius while coming to terms with a host of personal demons.

The show will not only entertain, it will make most viewers reach for their Shakespeare. In fact, I strongly recommend reading each drama in between episodes.

Deceased director Oliver Welles has willed his skull be used in the grave digging scene in Hamlet whenever it is performed by the company.

Defying Gravity (2009)

Another excellent Canadian production, Defying Gravity was recently canceled after a brief run that most people didn’t even hear about. Thirteen episodes were made and more or less told a self-contained story, so that it does not end with an especially upsetting cliffhanger. The series is set only a few decades into the future and tells the story of the Antares mission, the first manned voyage to Venus and several other planets in the solar system. The focus is less on the space exploration than on the interpersonal relationships of the crew members, through their interactions with each other both on the trip and, through flashbacks, their early days of training. There are no aliens, no faster than light travel, few dire adventures, no guns or explosions or space battles, but there are great characters with entirely human problems. Though strictly speaking the statements about aliens may not be quite right; that will have to remain one of the show’s unresolved mysteries.

All of the crew members have their own personal dramas, though none so compelling as that of Maddux (Ron Livingston), who is on the Antares mission despite the stigma of having left under orders two crew members, one of them his girlfriend, on the surface of Mars in a previous mission, and Zoe (Laura Harris), who had to overcome a string of obstacles—including an unwanted pregnancy and being cut from the program (before later reinstation) in order to become the mission’s unexpected member.

This is quiet science fiction, one of the attempts to explore what options are available for the genre in the wake of its complete reinvention by Battlestar Galactica. It is a shame that the series lasted for such a brief period of time. It was a lovely show, one that everyone who loves science fiction should explore.

The official series teaser actually does a very poor job of revealing what an excellent series it was.


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