[9 January 2007]
Forget Tivo. DVDs have changed the way we watch TV. Whether it’s to reminisce on series past or get pumped for seasons to come, TV on DVD enables us to view whole seasons commercial-free and back-to-back.
One allure of watching TV on DVD is nostalgia, and no set in 2006 satisfied this quite as well as 90210: The Complete First Season. Poofing and pouting back in 1990, Brenda, Brandon, and the rest of West Beverly show off their pre-grunge wardrobes and indulge in pre-irony plots. It’s an engaging and authentic time capsule, laced with solid extras that underscore why 90210 was such a seminal show: it treated adolescents like adults. I mean, Brenda even got to have sex in high school, and liked it.
As satisfying as it is to watch a show like 90210 epitomize its time, it’s equally satisfying to see one ahead of it. Mr. Show: The Complete Collection comprises all 30 episodes of the HBO sketch comedy show that ran 1995-1999. Where the Walshes are antiquated, David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s material could have aired in 2006. With its tightly themed shows, using bits like the “What to Think Network,” and “God and Jesus and the Bible,” not to mention a rotating cast of some of today’s comedy hipster elite (Sarah Silverman, Brian Posehen, Jack Black), Mr. Show avoids current events and recurring characters, which works as a sort of comedic preservative. The result is satirical, edgy, and very smart.
Also satirical is the politically subversive gem, Homecoming, directed by Joe Dante as part of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series (released to DVD as 13 individual titles). Just as Republicans assure the nation that Iraq War soldiers are proud to die for their country, the same soldiers begin to rise from the dead, in order to vote in an election in pursuit of regime change. Once again, the zombie provides a means for hashing out social issues, and though the intention is clearly to provoke more political awareness than goose bumps, Homecoming wields its genre in ways not seen since ‘70s George Romero.
TV on DVD also allows you to play catch-up with a returning show in one fell swoop. The stunning second season of Lost, released just one month before the third season began airing this fall, delivered big time. Rewatching it, Lost seemed to know what it was doing in Season Two, with the hatch mystery unraveling, interspersed with hour-long character studies and grounded in some damn fine acting. With loads of commentaries and extras, the set actually set up too much expectation for Season Three. Truth is, I’ve already spent more time re-watching last year’s Lost than I’ve even thought about the third.
Also holding up to multiple viewings isNighty-Night, a six-episode BBC series that I stumbled across earlier in the year. This across-the-pond black comedy tells the story of strangely sympathetic narcissistic hairdresser Jill (Juila Davis), who milks her widowhood as hard as she can in an effort to seduce her ambivalent neighbor. This even though her perfectly healthy husband remains stowed away in hospice, having been convinced by Jill that he’s terminally ill. What unfolds is daft, dark, and unforgettable, recalling the absurdist tradition of classic British comedy and the contemporary “cringe comedy” characters of Larry David and David Brent. Jill’s exploitation of her femininity complicates her in ways largely unexplored in HBO’s The Comeback, a similar series with a flawed female lead. But Nighty-Night is one you’ll want to see before the U.S. version airs on Showtime next year, because we may not get as lucky as we did with NBC’s The Office, as British humor yields a notoriously awkward American translation.
Finally, one of the best perks of TV on DVD is watching a series from start to finish. As Six Feet Under‘s series finale ended and Claire Fisher drove her Prius through the montage to end all montages, I was already anticipating the release of The Complete Series Gift Set, all 63 episodes, 25 offering commentary tracks, and accompanied by multiple featurettes. First off, at roughly $200, it’s a real bargain, as individual seasons will run $89 and up. Better still is the series’ coherence. There’s hardly a throwaway episode; themes overlap and coalesce, characters develop and grow (one of my favorite aspects of the Fishers is how retentive they are, becoming increasingly damaged, instead of starting each week with a clean emotional slate). Though Six Feet Under is, ultimately, an episodic drama, its setting, writing, and cast all reinforce deeply complex and philosophical underpinnings, embracing death even as it comprehends our deep cultural fears. Without watching the series in succession, this important thematic consistency can get lost in the melodrama. And even if you don’t have 50 spare hours to watch the Fisher family implode, you can always just watch that last montage over and over.