The Simpsons and more...
Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer
(Fox; US: 17 Dec 1989)
While Cormac McCarthy may have chosen to end his literary hermitry by going on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Thomas Pynchon, the postmodern master of satirical surrealism, ended his by going on The Simpsons. Probably the most iconic television show of the last 20 or 30 years, it’s a challenge to try to write something new about a show that has become enough of a cultural institution that the disillusioned Gravity’s Rainbow author would grant his sole public appearance to it. These days, it’s difficult to locate exactly what originally made The Simpsons so special: The Daily Show has it beat on satire, Family Guy on political incorrectness, and The Sopranos on likeable unlikable characters. Still, the show exists as more than just a historical document. Its weighted measure of each of these elements is what makes it so unique; that it uses warmth and affection to balance out its brutal satire is what has made it so consistently popular.
The Simpsons, more than any other comedy show, has created a world for itself. To watch The Simpsons is to enter a world of hundreds of references, characters, and classic and repeatable jokes. Yet for all its parodies, jabs, and one-liners, it never feels like it takes a cheap shot at any of its characters. For all that The Simpsons satirizes the modern American family, they also make them likeable and affectionate. And for all that it mocks and ridicules, it even-handedly dishes out an equal amount of understanding and sympathy. The Simpsons regularly accomplishes the impossible: it exposes the flaws of contemporary America while at the same time making us love them.
Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Mädchen Amick, Dana Ashbrook, Richard Beymer, Lara Flynn Boyle, Joan Chen, Sherilyn Fenn, Warren Frost, Piper Laurie
(ABC; US: 4 Apr 1990)
It was never necessary to understand Twin Peaks. Innovative and beautifully strange, Twin Peaks was a soap opera of the surreal. Shattering the picture-perfect small-town American dream with the horrific murder of a homecoming queen, creators David Lynch and Mark Frost introduced a wide-eyed observer from beyond and set about peeling back the layers of innocence and beauty that Lynch, at least, is convinced always conceal secrets of the darkest kind.
Stylish, cinematic, marvelously well-written, hugely quotable, and populated by a uniformly excellent ensemble cast, the first season of Twin Peaks was must-watch television back in 1990. Indeed this show was so good that Kyle MacLachlan, for one, really should have given up acting after Twin Peaks. Everything he has done since has been tantamount to pissing on the memory of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper.
Although the second season lost focus and slowly disappeared in its own conceits and over-egged weirdness, The Definitive Gold Box Edition is still a better investment than the flawless Twin Peaks: The First Season (Special Edition) simply because it contains the original two hour pilot—which could not be included on the first season boxset for ownership reasons—as well as both full seasons of the regular show. It’s also worth noting that the technical quality of these DVDs is simply breathtaking. The colors are glorious. The sound is beautifully mixed. And the Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack is rendered perfectly.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Anthony Stewart Head, James Marsters, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, Charisma Carpenter, David Boreanaz
(The WB; US: 10 Mar 1997)
It’s true that the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was just a warm up for bigger things to come, and the show did become frustratingly uneven towards the end. But when it was at the top of its game it managed to capture lightning in bottle and proved itself as one of television’s most unlikely masterpieces. Today serialized dramas are commonplace, but when Buffy debuted back in 1997 television shows were still usually designed to be watched on an episode by episode basis. Creator/geek messiah Joss Whedon wasn’t the first person to explore television’s potential to tell long-form stories (Hill Street Blues had tried it as early as the eighties), but he helped promote the idea that a lowly TV show could offer the sort of epic plotting and gradual character development that even the best movies can’t match.
Just as importantly, Whedon used his time at Buffy to craft a number of episodes with a level of individuality difficult to achieve when you have to turn out 22 hours of entertainment a year. The show reached the peak of its emotional resonance in “Innocence,” when Buffy lost her virginity only to realize that sex transformed her boyfriend into a sadistic monster –- a brutally direct metaphor for our own fears of how we’ll be treated on the morning after. “Hush”, a nearly silent episode that resembled a nightmarish fairy tale, saw Buffy and her friends robbed of their voices by a pack of heart-stealing demons. The characters confessed their innermost feelings via song in the musical “Once More with Feeling”, and Buffy was forced to deal with the sudden horror of finding her mother dead from a brain aneurysm in “The Body”, an introspective, largely monster-free episode. Its individual pieces and storylines are impressive enough, but taken together Buffy the Vampire Slayer is among the greatest coming-of-age stories ever made.
The collector’s set puts all seven seasons on DVD together in one box and even adds an extra disc of bonus content not available anywhere else (frustrating suckers like myself who purchased all of them when they were first released). The extras are too numerous to list here, but among the best are the audio commentary for “Wild at Heart”, which features Whedon, writer Marti Noxon and actor Seth Green making fun of themselves and catching up; a fluff piece on the previous jobs of the cast and crew called “Buffy Goes to Work”; and a making-of-documentary on the musical that’s long enough to be an episode by itself. Taken together, seven years of Buffy and a multitude of extras in one package make this a must have for any serious DVD collection.
If Buffy was about the trial of getting to adulthood, battling through the hell that is adolescence and its attendant horrors (which, in the Buffyverse, are manifest as actual vampires and demons), Angel was about the hell of adulthood. Its hero, and often its antihero, was a vampire cursed with a soul, neither man nor beast, yet profoundly both, who loved Buffy so much he had to leave her. It’s all very romantic stuff, especially when you throw in the exquisite twist that, should he ever experience even a moment of true happiness, he would lose his soul and revert back to his damned, homicidal state. (Something that happens to great dramatic effect every once in a while…)
As Angel sets about trying to atone for his sins, he teams up with a variety of characters, all of whom have pasts they are trying to overcome. There’s Cordelia, the ex-über-bitch, Doyle, the ne’er do well half-demon, Wesley, who could never do enough to impress his parents, Lorne, a show tune spouting ambiguously gay green demon from a hell dimension, and Gunn, who couldn’t save his own sister from an early death. Together they run what amounts to a paranormal detective agency, helping the helpless. As with everything in the Buffyverse, magic, mystical elements, ghosts, kung-fu violence, and hugely witty banter abound.
Super cool, right? No? Incredibly geeky and kinda sad? Whatever –- this is exactly what TV on DVD is all about. These are eminently re-watchable shows, each of them a self-contained mini-film but, taken as a whole, season by season, comprising a steadily-developing series of arcs, each built around a particular theme. And, as with all things created by Joss Whedon (of Buffy and Firefly fame), faithful viewers are rewarded for their pleasure and interest. It all adds up, always, and because of that, getting to know the characters and falling under the whammy of the unfolding narrative is actually worthwhile. In this meticulously-constructed fantasy world, everything is realistic, and everything pays off. It’s a DVD collection that you’ll actually not be wasting your time watching more than once.
Season Seven (Collector’s Edition)
(Fox; US DVD: 7 Dec 2004)
When you consider the source, it seems impossible that anyone thought this idea would work. Robert Altman had to fight the studio tooth and nail to get his vision of Richard Hooker’s Korean war novel onscreen. Then TV/Broadway scribe Larry Gelbart decided to turn the pro-peace farce into a standard half hour sitcom. With a clear satiric agenda—the futility of combat between people and political powers—and a cast of talented but relatively unknown actors, the television version of M*A*S*H made a less than impressive debut. In its first season (1972-1973), it barely registered on the Nielsen ratings.
But when Watergate hit with all its Catch-22 bureaucratic scofflaw, the blackly comic series suddenly skyrocketed in popularity. With the exception of the 1975-76 run, the show never fell out of the top 10. Even better, the basic premise (the travails of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and its contrasting collection of doctors, nurses and officers) allowed for the exploration of issues outside of battle, like human dignity and the value of life. Though it was set in the ‘50s, M*A*S*H was clearly addressing America’s long slog in Vietnam. It was a position that, until syndication, kept the show from the top of the popularity charts.
When it finally left the air in 1983 (the culmination, entitled “Goodbye, Farwell and Amen” remains the most watched single episode of any television series EVER) fans remained content with a daily dose of reruns. In fact, throughout the last 24 years, M*A*S*H has had an I Love Lucy like legacy. It’s always playing somewhere on the planet. And DVD has done the classic proud. Initially, Fox tried to fool around with ‘volume’ presentations of the series - dividing up seasons to maximize profits. But when fans balked, they beefed up their output, turning each new box set to a treasure trove of content.
The crowning achievement was 2006’s Martinis and Medicine Complete Collection. It offered up all 11 seasons, the original M*A*S*H movie, as well as two entire discs of bonus features. There are still those who dismiss the decision to move the show in a more serious direction. Indeed, after Gelbart left, the levity and lightness M*A*S*H once excelled in fell victim to a preplanned preachiness that occasionally marred the message. Yet even in its more somber mode, it stands as masterful television.