[1 March 2010]
PopMatters Features Editor
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.
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.
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.
Like Defying Gravity, Wonderfalls lasted only 13 episodes, but thanks to defensive writing by show creator Bryan Fuller, show runner Tim Minear, and executive producer Todd Holland, the show (also like Defying Gravity) tells a more or less self-contained story. Two other Bryan Fuller productions could easily have made this list, Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies. He has now produced three of the most magical television fantasies of the past decade, none of which has managed to find enough of an audience to stay on the air more than two short seasons. One could make an argument that there is something profoundly wrong with the current television industry if shows as brilliant as these cannot find a network on which to thrive. Television simply does not get better than this.
Wonderfalls tells the story of Jaye, a recent Brown graduate who is underemployed as a gift shop employee in Niagara, New York (though anyone who has visited Niagara Falls will knows that the series is filmed on the Canadian side). One day a slightly malformed wax lion unexpectedly begins to talk to her and from that time on she receives messages from all manner of inanimate animals. Each episode sees Jaye obeying the inexorable and frequently baffling commands of the animals (if she doesn’t do what they command they torture her by endless droning of songs like “A Bicycle Built for Two” until she finally cracks and gives in) that force her to engage in behavior that not only alienates her from her friends but destroys her romantic prospects. Wax lions, cow creamers, plastic pink flamingos, cocktail bunnies on cardboard boxes, buffalos embroidered on aprons, and, most importantly, a brass monkey bookend that finally gives her some clues as to why they talk to her.
Along with the shenanigans of the animals, Jaye has to cope with her brother’s prying investigations. Played by Pushing Daisies’s Lee Pace (who starred as Ned the Pie Maker), brother Aaron is not certain what precisely is going on with Jaye, but he gains a fairly decent idea. Between her family and her slacker job and the trailer park she lives in and the unending weirdness surrounding her animal spirits, the show is an endless series of delights.
A segment of the pilot, “Wax Lion”.
Although it lasted for four seasons and extended to a miniseries that wrapped up the show’s main storylines (although creator Rockne O’Bannon is currently continuing the story in comic book form), Farscape has had until recently a checkered history on DVD. The original DVDs were among the most expensive in the relatively short history of the medium, the multi-volume box sets for each season listing for hundreds of dollars. Later there was a more reasonably priced (though still expensive) Starburst edition that unfortunately went out-of-print too quickly for many to have a chance to buy. Recently, however, A&E has brought out a new complete set that is as cheap as the others were expensive. The new Farscape set is, in fact, one of the great DVD bargains out there. Veteran fans of the show now have a reasonably priced set that they can recommend to would-be fans.
Farscape tells the adventures of American astronaut John Crichton, who while flying an experimental space craft in the Earth’s orbit is inadvertently sent through a wormhole to the other side of the galaxy. There he finds himself on a leviathan (a species of living spaceships) named Moya with her crew of escaped prisoners, all of whom are, like Crichton, trying to find their way home. Much of the action is driven by various factions attempting to extract from Crichton what he knows about wormholes in order to gain the military upper hand over their interstellar rivals. The series on one level is about Crichton and his friends as they run from ruthless adversaries like Scorpius, one of TV’s greatest villains, part James Bond bad guy, part reptilian vampire, part Phantom of the Opera.
But the heart of the show is the epic romance between Crichton and the alien hottie and former space Nazi Aeryn Sun. Their story is far and away the finest romance ever seen in sci fi, whether on TV or in movies or books, and is as tragic and compelling as any love story ever found on TV. John and Aeryn’s story in particular and the series as a whole reaches a crescendo in Season Three. The twists in that season are shocking and astonishingly original, and are guaranteed to break any sensitive viewer’s heart. In my opinion, Season Three of Farscape is one of the five or six greatest seasons of any series in the history of television, regardless of genre. The other seasons are not quite on the level of that season, but even so the result is a great SF series surpassed in overall quality only by Firefly and Battlestar Galactica.
Initially the series received much of its notoriety because of the use of Muppets (albeit highly sophisticated ancestors of Kermit and friends—the Henson Company was deeply involved in the show and intended it as a showcase for what could be done with puppetry). It was also the first SF series to take full advantage of CGI, using software packages that vastly outstripped those used, for instance on Babylon 5, and the effects on the show still hold up remarkably well. Farscape is a great series that will appeal not merely to fans of sci fi, but to anyone who loves quality television.
After flying through a wormhole and into a space battle, John Crichton finds himself on Moya with a strange group of aliens. Definitely not in Kansas.
Of all the shows listed here, Party Down is the only one currently in first run, but because the vast majority of viewers do not have access to Starz, where it appears, seeing the show on DVD will be the only option for many. And it is definitely an option that should be exercised. Party Down is the flipside of Entourage, focusing on a group of would-be actors, writers, or entrepreneurs who are still struggling to get their first break. Created in part by Veronica Mars’s creator Rob Thomas, the show is littered from beginning to end with veterans from that show. Virtually every VM regular appears in Party Down as either a regular or a guest star (Kristen Bell, Veronica Mars herself, appears in the season finale and is rumored to be back in Season Two), and even many who were one-time guest stars on the earlier show appear as guest stars on this one.
Each episode focuses on an event for which Party Down Catering has been hired, giving us a fresh platform for comedy each week as well as a gradual way of getting to know each of the characters. None of the Party Down employees seem destined for success in Hollywood, either in or outside the film industry. Ron Donald (Ken Marino, who played the seedy private eye Vinnie Van Lowe on Veronica Mars), the manager, yearns to own his own fast food franchise, and his ambitions are perhaps the most realistic of the group. Well, perhaps Henry’s (Adam Scott) goals are realistic because easily obtained, but only because he has given up, having abandoned all hope for an acting career after his lone achievement: having a famous tagline in a commercial (“Are we having fun yet?”). He and Casey (Lizzy Caplan) share a mutual attraction, though she still hopes to have a career.
The funniest person on the show in Season One will sadly not be back—at least not fulltime—in Season Two. Jane Lynch left to garner a Golden Globe nomination for Glee, but on Party Down she stood out as a veteran of B-films and lots and lots of parties. The highpoint of the first season may have been when a Russian mobster in awe tells her of seeing a beautiful woman (Lynch) in a movie, marveling how beautiful she was and how deeply the entire scene affected him. Mouth agape, both shocked and amazed, Lynch marvels, “You saw Dingleberries?”
Party Down: Season One releases 6 April 2010 in the US on DVD.
The wonderful Season One promo.
“You saw Dingleberries?” “A hundred times.”