[22 October 2007]
No medium is perfect. Film fails us at every turn, while it’s small screen sibling regularly lives up to its vast wasteland label. Radio regurgitates the same tween pap—that is, when its not cannibalizing cultures that came before, and print propagates a veiled intellectualism, the maxim “it must be true, I read it in the paper” playing fast and loose with reality. DVD is no different. Unlike its predecessor technology, the videotape, and more like that cast off commercial flop laser disc, there is still a certain selectivity when it comes to product.
While it may seem like every low budget, grade-Z, made for the Sci-Fi Network schlock fest or borderline amusing indie effort has found its way onto the digital format, the truth is more depressing. There are great movies—classic movies—sitting in vaults and warehouses worldwide, all awaiting transfer to the handy aluminum domain. All that’s preventing their release are complicated rights issues, lack of studio support, exorbitant remastering fees, and that most esoteric of rationales: limited fanbase appeal.
It’s the same with television. That most universal of entertainers—that living room companion that informs you in the morning, comforts you in the evening, and lulls you into semi-restful REM late at night—found a cash cow in the digital format’s expanded capacity and relatively inexpensive cost. Indeed, like reruns with a more permanent, proprietary impact, networks and other broadcast interests discovered that they could maintain syndication soundness while reaping a whole new set of box set rewards.
Not every company embraced DVD originally—some saw it as a threat to the very existence of their future Nielsen numbers. After all, if you could own a season’s worth of shows approximately six months after the series run, why would you bother tuning in? A little delayed satisfaction, and a day long marathon, provided instant narrative closure. Still, monumental sales for those who took the plunge proved that, no matter the affect on popularity, there was an audience willing to pay for the privilege of owning free TV. And still, we’re not satisfied.
Even after 60 entries and some 150 other suggestions, the PopMatters staff was stunned to realize that there are still hundreds of beloved programs that have yet to make the leap, legitimately, to this new frontier. During the creation of our Best of TV on DVD feature, a number of classic and cult programs that remain missing in action were discussed and debated. As a wrap up to that five-part foray into said vast inventory of available product, we therefore offer this partial wish list, this “where are they now” nod to some of our favorite forgotten shows.
Granted, many of these titles are obscure and rightfully marginalized. Some come with a cadre of unresolvable release issues (music publishing rights will do that to you). Some have made a limp, wasted appearance on disc before falling out of print. Others are just so limited in appeal, or lost in a fog of personal nostalgia, that to offer them for sale would do little except take up brick and mortar shelf space. Still, their exclusion from the medium proves that no format is flawless. It also makes for some fascinating “what ifs”.
So, in alphabetical order, here are PopMatters’ choices for TV (That Should Be) on DVD. We begin with:
The Hudson Brothers remains the most intangible of ‘70s entertainment entities. Obviously styled after the burgeoning media managed acts that began with The Monkees and ended with The Partridges, the trio of genial musical siblings was pushed into the variety format initially. Yet neither the primetime or Saturday morning kid vid version of their AOR appeal worked. It wasn’t until they traveled to the UK and hooked up with beloved British comedian Bob Monkhouse that they found some smattering of artistic merit. Combining sketches, blackouts, and the mandatory song and dance, this fast paced ITV farce—styled after The Muppet Show—had a short life in US syndication. It deserves a revisit.
OK, as I’m sure you’ll see from my other entries in this list and our massive Best TV on DVD feature, I’m a sucker for shows about lawyers, cops and teachers. That means I go for David E. Kelley shows in a big way and Boston Public is no exception. Based in his beloved Boston, like Ally McBeal, The Practice and Boston Legal, this FOX show revolved around a cast of slightly wacky high school teachers and students. Using humor to cushion the intensity of his issue-based scripts, Kelley had ample material to build a broad canvas in a setting as frought with drama and personal growth as the American high school. This show had many memorable cast members, but none more so than Fyvush Finkel as Harvey Lipschultz, who made the leap over from Kelley’s best-ever show Picket Fences. Anything with Fyvush Finkel in it should be on DVD, period.
Before Scrubs brought madcap non-sequitors into the American consciousness, that show’s writers, producers, and even some of its actors appeared on one of the single-greatest animated comedies of all time: Clone High. In short, all of the world’s leading figures were genetically cloned in the ‘80s and are now growing up in high school: Cleopatra is a self-involved diva, JFK is the horny jock, Abe Lincoln is insecure and awkward, Joan of Arc has a massive crush on him, and Gandhi is a crazed party animal (“If Mahatma Gandhi stands for one thing, it’s revenge!”). The show was a complete parody of those teenage dramas that once so dominated the WB (all the way down to playing music by Dashboard Confessional during “poignant” scenes), but the quality of the writing (and the guest stars, which included Michael J. Fox [as a kidney], Jack Black, Mandy Moore, and a very bloody Jon Stamos) never waned, and by the time the show gets to the shocking final episode (which leaves many unresolved questions—thank MTV for cancelling it), you realize that—amidst all the hilarity—you actually wound up caring about the characters quite profoundly. As Principal Scudworth would say, it was “the hottest thing since wheels on a bucket!” [DVD only available through Amazon Canada].
With virtually every new hit show appearing on DVD, it’s something of a mystery as to why this Sunday night crime hit hasn’t yet made the leap. Routinely appearing in the Nielsen top 20, Cold Case offers something of a novel concept: a crack team of Philadelphia police detectives solves long forsaken crimes while the story is told in present tense and flashbacks, soundtracked with the music of the era. Given that some of these crimes go back as early as the 1920s, there’s nearly the whole swath of 20th century American popular culture on display through tunes and fashions. It offers the show endless possibilities and variety, something sorely needed in the endlessly exploited cop genre.
By now Anthony Bourdain has turned traveling and eating into an occupation. But Season 1 of A Cook’s Tour felt, and looked, like an experiment. The show’s rough documentary style complemented Bourdain’s grizzled-romantic persona and awkward on-camera presence; it resembled off-the-cuff documentation of an actual person on an actual adventure. Minus the phony set-pieces of his more recent work, this was uniquely unpolished television. You could tell when he was seriously happy, seriously embarrassed or seriously drunk. DVDs of the show would prove it to be more representative of actual life than 99.9 percent of “reality TV”; the uncensored footage that never aired would be even better.
Coming off seven seasons starring in the comedy, Designing Women, Annie Potts threw herself into drama work with this series, a spin-off of the Michelle Pfeiffer movie of the same name, which was based on the autobiography of LouAnne Johnson, a former Marine turned teacher. Playing a well-meaning white teacher in Palo Alto teaching minority teenagers from the ghetto of East Palo Alto, Potts brought an unexpected level of toughness to the role and surpassed Pfeiffer’s portrayal in the original film. Lasting only a single season, the show has mostly been forgotten, perhaps only remembered for it’s true-to-life story, the Coolio hit “Gangsta’s Paradise” that soundtracked the show, and the movie and it’s place on Pfeiffer’s list of movie credits. It’s a shame the show never found an audience, because it was heartwarming without being saccarine, message-based without being overly preachy.
This Southern-based, estrogen-filled sitcom was the centerpiece of a must-see Monday night of comedy that included Murphy Brown back in the last ‘80s and early ‘90s. Full of sass and smarts, the four women leads—Dixie Carter, Delta Burke, Jean Smart, and Annie Potts—were one of the finest ensemble comedic casts of the decade. The first five of the seven seasons of this show, with its core cast, was the rare sitcom that lent itself perfectly to repeat viewing in a manner similar to Seinfeld and Fawlty Towers. The crackling writing from Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and crew dealt with all manner of real issues like racism, homophobia, and sexism while maintaining a consistently high laugh quotient.
Edward Woodward’s suave Robert McCall trolled the streets of New York in a jet black Jaguar, solving problems and serving up homemade justice for those in need. A former spy for a mysteriously unnamed organization, McCall offered his services free of charge and drew on a vast array of contacts and resources from his previously “dark” life. The calm, cool professionalism of a debonair Englishman who could get anything done was endlessly appealing. True, he was a vigilante at heart, but the punishment always seemed to fit the crime.
While Julia Child gets all the credit for popularizing the cooking show on broadcast television, it was this British dandy that turned cuisine into a pop culture catered affair. With his pints of cream, ever-present brandy, and rivers of clarified butter, he turned eating into a luxuriant experience while adding necessary kitsch value to the otherwise instructional DIY-style series. While he would later recant much of this early nutritional excess (due, in part, to wife Treena’s health issues), the series was so endemic of the late ‘60s that it’s as much a time capsule of the era as an examination of gastronomic delights.
It lasted 74 episodes and nine series. Yet the best these incredible Brit wits can manage when it comes to DVD is a scant dozen or so installments on some less than impressive DVD sets. What the BBC really needs to do is understand the enduring genius of this terrific trio (who were consistently downplayed in favor of their brothers in anarchy, Monty Python) and release full series sets ASAP. In the realm of UK humor, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, and Graeme Garden stand as surrealists supreme, spiking their humor with an inventive, self-referential sense. Sadly, few have had a chance to sample their choice cheek.
Before there was Comedy Central, there was the Comedy Channel. And before there were endless reruns of celebrity roasts and crass comic showcases, there was original programming like this stellar kiddie show spoof. Hosted by comedians David “Gruber” Allen and brothers Steve and David Anthony Higgins, the casual clip show (offering episodes of Clutch Cargo, Supercar, and Bob and Ray) was created by Joel Hodgson. It tweaked the convention of such programming by featuring the hosts sitting at a kitchen table, snidely swiping at their content as they drank coffee and chain-smoked. Though it looked so wrong, anyone who grew up with their own local children’s show understood the cynicism perfectly.
Sam Waterston’s first big TV role was not in Law and Order. It was in this stellar series set in the Civil Rights era South. Playing another district attorney, Forrest Bedford, with a bit more subtlety than he mustered later as Jack McCoy, Waterston fabulously conveyed the tightrope walk that a moral man had to perform in those turbulent times. His maid/nanny, Lilly Harper, played by Regina Taylor, was a nascent activist and gradually radicalized to action over the course of the series. I’ll Fly Away featured some of the finest television dramatic writing of the 1990s and approached challenging issues in American history with class and vision.
During the height of the video craze, English presenter Jonathan Ross (best known for his Late Night with David Letterman style talk show) traveled to America. His plan: create a documentary series on the great exploitation and horror filmmakers of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Landing sitdowns with such legends as Russ Meyers, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman, Ted V. Mikels, and Sam Raimi, among others, the result stands as one of the best overviews of the marginalized genre ever. In fact, with the current popularity of all things grindhouse, it’s unfathomable why this effort is still unavailable.
One of the most popular primetime dramas of its era, it’s quite shocking that L.A. Law has never made it to DVD. This was TV auteur David E. Kelley’s first TV work. He was a writer and later Executive Producer of the show after Steven Bochco left. All the later Kelley trademarks—law-focused stories, twisted humor, issue-based storylines, and comical characters in a dramatic setting—were present in spades. A compulsively addictive nighttime soap, L.A. Law featured a long list of top TV dramatic actors like Jimmy Smits, John Spencer (West Wing), Blair Underwood and the memorably sleazy Corbin Bernsen, playing the caddish Arnie Becker. Perhaps with the huge talent roster, it’s proven fraught with difficulties sorting out rights issues for a DVD release. Whatever. This is a very long overdue release for the shows legions of fans.
Todd Rungren, Nancy Griffith, Taj Majal, and Christian Marclay performing Gilbert & Sullivan together? Leonard Cohen accompanied by Sonny Rollins? Sun Ra, The Pixies, and Al Green in a single hour of television? That was Night Music, 40 episodes of ear-opening brilliance. Hosted by saxophonist Dave Sanborn, the show put together impeccably cool acts—Show 7: Marianne Faithful, John Zorn, and NRBQ; Show 39: Miles Davis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kronos Quartet, Abbey Lincoln—then encouraged them to play together. There is still time to fall in love with the greatest music show in the history of television.
David Lynch, riding high on the success of Twin Peaks, wanted to do the same sort of deconstructionist job on the hoary old clichés of the sitcom. So ABC ponied up the programming space and allowed the King of Quirk 30 minutes of prime time slottage. The results have become myth, the oddball auteur’s most memorable work of anarchic art. Lasting a mere three weeks (four of the remaining seven episodes were left unaired) and confounding everyone who saw it, this look at TV circa the 1950s is like a dazzling, difficult poem. A special edition DVD would do this filmmaker’s footnote quite nicely.
Okay, okay—A&E has released a few “Best Of” DVD compilations, and if you want to go the Downunder way, you can join an exclusive Prisoner fanclub and buy each episode (Region 4 only, however). No, what this novel Australian soap opera requires is a mainstream Dark Shadows like treatment—every single installment spread out over several, country compliant box sets. This stellar series, focusing on the various interpersonal intrigues in a somber woman’s lock down, had amazing acting, incredibly intricate story arcs, and characters that easily carried one through the inevitable pain and loss. It deserves to be experienced from addictive beginning to satisfying end.
The Real World (Complete Box Set) is the culmination of 20 seasons, picked to caricaturize a zeitgeist, compiled and processed on disc, all to find out what happens when Bunim-Murray Productions stops being hampered by music industry copyright restrictions and starts compressing its cash cows into a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Except not, because the complete The Real World on DVD doesn’t yet exist. Excerpts of the run are available without the original music (New York, Las Vegas, “The Real World You Never Saw” blooper reels for several casts). That’s not the same, though, as owning each episode someplace a little more tangible than your heart. The ability to purchase each season at unreasonable cost would be our last and perhaps greatest public service to the teeming masses of ex-“castmates” who have entertained us so.
Imagine Dave Eggers commentary for the San Francisco season. (He auditioned.) Imagine follow-the-bouncing-ball lyrics for “Come On, Be My Baby Tonight” (How do you spell “skwee bop ooh dwee,” anyway?). Hell, just imagine the discs plural devoted to other sitcoms’ parodies of the show. (What other excuse will we ever have to revisit Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl”? That’s on DVD, and the Real World ain’t.) It’s that or The Wonder Years, and when I dig down really deep I think The Real World has made me cry more times. With joy.
Robostory was one of those short animated series that comes and goes like a hallucination, fluid and strange, sowing confusion. “What was that?” you might wonder. “Did I dream it?” The show was originally French, then dubbed into English with the subtly askew comic timing and non sequiteurs that come from dubbers who have invented random dialogue to match characters’ lip movements. The French creators must have meant it to be appealingly goofy. Dubbing made it weird. Backgrounds were painted in sugary watercolours; the character designs were often nicely scribbly. A beautiful and odd show.
It would be a shame if the official Sessions at West 54th DVDs (including two ‘best of’s) become the complete representation of the show, a no-nonsense PBS live-performance showcase originally hosted by KCRW radio DJ/ all-around music expert Chris Douridas. Those DVDs do capture some excellent performances, but there were many more worthy of similar exposure. Releasing them all would amount to a pop/rock overview of the time, also revealing the show to be broader in scope than one might think. Will time allow us to forget, for example, that PBS aired 20 minutes of Sonic Youth playing instrumentals?
One of the least-gimmicky series ever to achieve greatness, the poignant late-‘80s drama Thirtysomething took the unprecedented step of focusing entirely on real-seeming people in quotidian situations speaking realistic dialogue. Impeccably directed, acted, and scored, Thirtysomething‘s reward for its depiction of two attractive but troubled couples, their single friends, and an advertising-agency milieu ruled by a cadaverously sinister boss was relentless critical scorn, invariably featuring lazy complaints about “whining yuppies.” Now that its principal actors, and some of its biggest fans, are fiftysomething, the series is long overdue for a DVD retrospective—and an un-whiny critical re-evaluation.
Must see TV, The White Horses has never been available to buy even on VHS. Originally a collaboration between BR-TV of Munich and Radio Television Serbia of Belgrade, and dubbed into English by the BBC in 1968, The White Horses was a 13-part serial that followed the adventures of 15-year-old Julia (Helga Anders) who holidays on her uncle’s stud farm where he breeds and trains the beautiful white Lappizaner horses. Blessed with the best TV theme tune ever—even more magnificent than The Flashing Blade‘s “Fight”—The White Horses combined simply storylines with beautiful scenery and cinematography to create an enchanting children’s TV classic. Sadly it is rumoured that the English-language soundtrack was lost long ago.
In an example of political-correctness stymieing creative expression, ABC pulled this 2000 show, set in a psychiatric hospital, after just two episodes, giving in to protests from advocates for the mentally ill. Given how much goes into creating a network series, it is ridiculous how reactionary networks are. In this case it seemed especially a shame, because the first two episodes were complex and compelling: less a portrait of the mentally ill than character-based drama about the tumultuous emotional and mental states of us all, with the show’s visual style emulating that same tumult but also the moments of calm.
Yo! MTV Raps’ 1988 debut was an important event in cultural history: it captured the rise of hip-hop at a crucial moment, and undoubtedly propelled that rise. It also was great television. Fab 5 Freddy—a key figure in hip-hop’s crossover, having helped bring it to Manhattan’s art scene—was a gregarious host, introducing videos in a smart, laidback way. And he was notably free from a studio, interviewing artists where they lived. The preservation of music videos and televised interview clips shouldn’t be left to home-tapers posting clips on YouTube; these early Yo! MTV Raps episodes are important enough to be released in their entirety.