Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
APPLY HERE APPLY HERE
APPLY HERE APPLY HERE

Part 3 – The New Networks

It was an unfathomable concept, even in light of cable. For what seemed like an entertainment eternity, there were only three broadcast networks, memorable corporate giants with easily memorized alphabetical logos. Then Australian entrepreneur Rupert Murdock arrived on the scene, and subverted the standards as only a free thinking market pirateer could. His newly minted entity, known as Fox, would play the upstart for the first few years, barely eking out moral victories against the behemoth of old school scheduling. But thanks to a now famous family of yellow skinned satirists, and a desire to test the very limits of legitimate programming (reality TV???), the Down Under dynamic worked. It even inspired an additional pair of pretenders to the VHF throne.

TV Show: Red Dwarf

US release date: 1988-02-05

Network: BBC2

Cast: Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Norman Lovett, Hattie Hayridge, Robert Llewellyn, Chloë Annett

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/r/red-dwarf.jpg

Website: http://www.reddwarf.co.uk/

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

Red Dwarf (1988-1999)

The beer-soaked byproduct of the brains belonged to Doug Naylor and Rob Grant, the idea for Red Dwarf seemed destined to underwhelm everyone who came in contact with it. Using one of their old radio shows (“Dave Hollins: Space Cadet”) combined with a pilot episode’s plotline sketched out on the back of a lager mat (how apropos), the duo were determined to bring science fiction and comedy together in a way that had never been tried before. Executives lucky enough to hear the pitch understood how funny, clever, and confident it was. But they thought there was no way a half-hour sitcom could be fashioned out of an abandoned ship, a lowly service technician, and his idiotic non-human companions. The script shuffled around the BBC for a while, with everyone praising it (and no one touching it). Then young hotshot Paul Jackson, who had just wowed the comic cosmic universe with his own hyper-surreal sitcom about a group of university students on the dole in Thatcher’s England (The Young Ones), got a hold of it. Instantly, Red Dwarf got the go-ahead.

When casting was completed, noted UK comedians Chris Barrie and Norman Lovett were hired to play Rimmer and Holly, respectively. Accomplished musical comedy and stage actor Danny John-Jules was brought on to find the right balance between the suave and silly for Cat. But the role of Lister seemed a tough one to personify. When the creators saw Craig Charles’ comedic skills showcased on the British version of Saturday Night Live, they realized they had found their man. Later on, they would add Robert Llewellyn in the crucial role of a subservient robot named Kryton. The character would round out the cast perfectly, giving Naylor and Grant untold satire possibilities. Since its 1988 debut, the show has had a scattered if successful run. Made whenever the cast and crew feel up to it, the eight series created so far (with more to come, supposedly) have spanned almost two decades. While local PBS stations still air the import, DVD is the best place to get acquainted with interstellar masterwork. Each full season set contains so much added content (including a complete oral history via in-depth interviews) that it’s like rediscovering the show all over again.

Bill Gibron

Red Dwarf: The Trial

Red Dwarf: Rimmer & Cat Inquisition

Red Dwarf: Delayed Fight

Red Dwarf: Psychiatric Counsellor

Red Dwarf

TV Show: The Ben Stiller Show

US release date: 1992-09-27

Network: Fox

Cast: Ben Stiller, Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/t/the-ben-stiller-show.jpg

Website: http://www.warnervideo.com/benstillershow/benstillerother.html

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

The Ben Stiller Show (1992-1993)

The most worthwhile collections have always captured that fleeting show or film or event that was so magical, so touched by manic inspiration (and usually so overlooked in its time), that if you didn’t have the DVD to back you up you’d never be able to convince anyone that the thing even existed. So it is with The Ben Stiller Show. This collection is of the show’s entire single-season run on Fox (including the never-aired 13th episode), filled out with commentary by Stiller, Executive Producer Judd Apatow, and cast members Janeane Garofalo and Andy Dick.

Skits could be so impossibly brilliant that you rewatch them more in amazement than hilarity. This is good and bad. Hopelessly specific and dated in their references (Beethoven the dog movie and not the composer, Five Easy Pieces, Yakov Smirnoff, Melrose Place), as Stiller points on the commentary to Episode Nine some viewers will be easily lost. But the best skits; “Oliver Stoneland” (“If it’s musical merriment that you want, don’t miss “Platunes;” a rabel-rousing salute to a war we’ve never stopped fighting as performed by the Combat Rollers”), the re-imagining of Husbands and Wives with Frankenstein and the Mummy (“She holds onto my bolts when we do it”), Charles Manson recast as Lassie, (“Oh no Bernice, he’s not in anyone’s children, he just likes to say that”), U2’s Zoo TV set as a late night talk show with Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford as guests, “Kill Doug Szathkey,” and David Cross’s “The Legend of T.J. O’Pootertoot’s,” are like transmissions from another world that you think you’re the only one receiving… that is until you find someone else who gets it too. So if the show was all about “getting it,” than it’s not for everyone. Which is fine. With send-ups of Metallica, Cape Fear, COPS, Tom Cruise, the Seattle music scene in general, and with a sometimes unforgiving eye towards the various ways that we all puff ourselves up in general, The Ben Stiller Show is a massive mess of ideas that came and went so fast, that without this essential document to record its passing, we’d almost never know for sure that we saw was actually real.

Jon Langmead

The Ben Stiller Show

TV Show: The Kids in the Hall

US release date: 1988

Network: CBC

Cast: Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/k/kids-in-the-hall.jpg

Website: http://www.kithfan.org/

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

The Kids in the Hall (1988–1994)

The Kids in the Hall existed in a sort of parallel universe to the much more popular, much less brilliant Saturday Night Live. Though comparisons between the two are inevitable, perhaps because of the Lorne Michaels connection, Kids in the Hall should be appraised — and appreciated — as part of the crooked line connecting Monty Python, which preceded it, and Mr. Show, which followed. While attracting an intense cult fan base, the Kids faced at least three major obstacles that made crossover success pretty much an impossibility. They were Canadian and had a pronounced — and, for fans, most welcome — quirkiness. They were disarmingly intelligent, yet always willing and eager to embrace the oddness of life. Their one-two punch of ingenuity and eccentricity could be like Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons — you either got them, immediately, or you did not. Lastly, they dressed in drag. Often, and convincingly. Too convincingly, perhaps, for the average American sensibility circa 1990-something.

Although only one member of the ensemble is gay, queer culture was featured prominently — or, at least unabashedly — waaaaay before it was as widely accepted, or commonplace as it would thankfully be less than two decades later. Perhaps the primary reason it was easier for some to describe, or dismiss the show as a bunch of dudes in dresses is because it was, and remains, pretty difficult to pinpoint what they were up to. Precious few impersonations, less than a little political pot-shotting, The Kids in the Hall managed to consistently skewer piety and send up our ever-uptight social mores through the creation of insanely indelible characters: they understood that to effectively ridicule the world they had to make themselves ridiculous. In one skit, fur trappers cruise office buildings, killing yuppies in order to sell their “pelts” to a high-end haberdashery. In another a harried corporate big shot, in the midst of a stress-driven cardiac arrest, rips his heart out of his chest, pouring coffee on it and yelling “Get back to work!” And how inadequate would our world be without the Head Crusher, the Chicken Lady, Buddy Cole or Cabbage Head?

The definitive sketch? Every fan will claim one, but it’s difficult to deny the exceptional “Retelling of a Complicated Italian Movie”, which features everything that made The Kids in the Hall so inimitable: as two guys in a bar discuss a foreign film, the happy hour crowd slowly assumes the roles being described. All of a sudden the storyteller is holding a pistol and melodramatic shots ring out. “Wow, what a complicated plot!” his friend says, still holding his buffalo wing as he collapses, clutching his bleeding stomach. You have to see it to disbelieve it, but it manages to be clever, surreal and, as always, hysterical. Naturally, one character is dressed in drag.

Sean Murphy

The Kids in the Hall

TV Show: The Larry Sanders Show

Network: HBO

Cast: Garry Shandling, Rip Torn, Jeffrey Tambor, Penny Johnson, Wallace Langham, Janeane Garofalo

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/t/the-larry-sanders-show.jpg

MPAA rating: N/A

Trailer: http://www.sonypictures.com/homevideo/thelarrysanderscollection/index.html

Display as: List

The Larry Sanders Show (1992–1998)

Having successfully guest-hosted for Johnny Carson, saturnine comedian Garry Shandling coulda been a contender in the late-night chat league. Instead, he punched his way to the top of the heavyweight sitcom division with this genre-busting, convention-capsizing work of splenetic, unparalleled comedy genius. A sitcom/talk-show hybrid, chat segments are interspersed with behind-the-scenes sequences which expose the bare wires and raw nerves underlying the showbiz veneer. Larry Sanders (Shandling) conducts interviews with real celebrity guests, who drop their anodyne on-air masks during breaks in filming, revealing personalities ranging from needy to monstrous. It’s riveting, often cringe-making viewing, and half the fun is in guessing to what extent they’re sending themselves up. Hilariously illuminating a world we normally only glimpse through heavy media filtering, the show really ignites when it moves backstage to reveal a landscape populated by herds of elephantine egos, in which guests, hosts, producers, and crew come together like colliding storm fronts of narcissism, neurosis, jealousy, selfishness, and misanthropic rage.

An incredibly talented ensemble cast gives vivid, hyper-realistic performances, but the real stars are Shandling, Rip Torn as gruffly cynical producer Artie, and Jeffrey Tambor as Sanders’s emotionally volatile sidekick Hank Kingsley. Differing radically in style, all three share the happy attribute of having a great face for comedy. Hank has the look of a Midwestern preacher with a heavy porn habit, and Tambor’s deadpan playing accentuates both his buffoonish and tragic aspects. Torn resembles Benny the Ball from Top Cat, after an alcohol problem and a spell in prison. Most extraordinary of all however is Shandling’s oddly pneumatic face, seemingly custom designed for expressing discomfort and social awkwardness.

Comparisons with Seinfeld are unavoidable, both shows sharing a sardonic worldview and vaguely post-modern self-referentiality. But The Larry Sanders Show is darker, edgier, hipper, and spikier. Put it another way: if Seinfeld is like cocaine, Larry Sanders is amphetamine sulphate: cheaper, nastier, and leaving a much more bitter aftertaste. It’s the sort of thing Woody Allen might have written if he’d been born with the sour sensibility of a Lou Reed. It’s also the greatest satire on the media since Network in 1976, reveling in picking apart the dysfunctional dynamics of celebrity and office politics.

The show has been ill-served (qualitatively and quantitatively) by DVD releases, but the recent Not Just the Best Of collates 23 key episodes and adds some truly essential extras, notably Shandling’s interviews with celebrity guests such as Alec Baldwin and Sharon Stone (with whom both the fictional Larry and real Shandling had affairs). If anything, the always-aloof Shandling is at an even further remove in these uncomfortable encounters, and like the guests who graced his fictional show it’s hard to say if he’s acting or being ‘real’. A jumping off point for every subsequent worthwhile TV show, all available Larry Sanders DVDs should be snapped up by anyone with a sense of near-the-knuckle humor. As Shandling says, “it’s like ringing an authentic Buddhist temple bell, and saying why does that ring so clearly? Well, it’s because, it’s the real thing.”

John Carvill

The Simpsons and more…

TV Show: The Simpsons

US release date: 1989-12-17

Network: Fox

Cast: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/s/simpsons.jpg

Website: http://www.thesimpsons.com/index.html

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

The Simpsons (1989–present)

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.

Brian Bethel

The Simpsons

TV Show: Twin Peaks

US release date: 1990-04-04

Network: ABC

Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Mädchen Amick, Dana Ashbrook, Richard Beymer, Lara Flynn Boyle, Joan Chen, Sherilyn Fenn, Warren Frost, Piper Laurie

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/t/twin-peaks.jpg

Website: http://www.twinpeaksgazette.com/tp/

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

Twin Peaks (1990-1991)

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.

Roger Holland

Twin Peaks

TV Show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

US release date: 1997-03-10

Network: The WB

Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Anthony Stewart Head, James Marsters, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, Charisma Carpenter, David Boreanaz

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/b/buffy.jpg

Website: http://www.buffyworld.com/

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

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.

Jack Rodgers

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.

Stuart Henderson

Buffy, the Vampire Slayer: A&E Biography (Part 2-9)Buffy the Vampire Slayer

DVD: M*A*S*H

TV Show: M*A*S*H

Subtitle: Season Seven (Collector’s Edition)

Network: Fox

Cast: Alan Alda, Mike Farrell, Harry Morgan, Loretta Swit, David Ogden Stiers, Gary Burghoff, Jamie Farr, William Christopher

MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 1978

Last date: 1979

US Release Date: 2004-12-07

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/mash.jpg

Display as: List

M*A*S*H (1972-1983)

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.

Bill Gibron

My So-Called Life and more…

TV Show: Firefly

US release date: 2002-09-20

Network: Fox

Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/f/firefly.jpg

Website: http://www.fireflyfans.net/

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

Firefly (2002-2003)

Few shows are more difficult to quickly summarize than Firefly. It was a science-fiction western action comedy with a cast of nine unique characters, an undercurrent of existential despair, and a futuristic culture that blended Wild West and Chinese aesthetics. A show this idiosyncratic would have been a tough sell on any network, much less FOX. Their executives were baffled by the series that creator Joss Whedon had given them and cancelled it halfway through the first season.

While the show thankfully found its audience on DVD (it even sold well enough to inspire the cinematic continuation Serenity), it’s still frustrating to think of the episodes that we’ll never get a chance to see. Whedon’s gift as a storyteller has always been his ability to slowly draw us into the lives of his characters, earning our sympathy with their humor and routine adventures, before turning our empathy against us and making us feel the emotional gut punch of sudden tragedy. Firefly never got to pay off its various plot threads or the tension between its characters, and so while many of the episodes are excellent on their own, there’s a lingering sense of loss that they never get to build to anything greater.

Still, maybe that’s an appropriate fate given the show’s themes of loneliness and continuing on in the wake of defeat. Even though Firefly and its crew went up against a monolithic authority (the Alliance, the FOX network) and lost, they’re both still flying for anyone who wants to catch a ride.

The DVD collection combines the 12 episodes that FOX actually aired, along with three episodes that were never broadcast, and puts them all back into their correct order. FOX has the unfortunate habit of randomly reshuffling the episodes of their shows, usually at the expense of continuity. Perhaps the best of the special features are the seven audio commentaries, which benefit from the fact that the cast of Firefly -– unusually for actors -– are articulate and interesting. Nathan Fillion in particular is hilarious, which makes his commentary with Whedon on the pilot the most entertaining of the bunch). Also, included are the standard behind-the-scenes documentary, a truncated gag reel (look online for the full version if you can, which is much funnier), and a tour by Whedon of the ship’s set, which was build as a continuous space rather than a series of disconnected rooms.

Jack Rodgers

TV Show: Freaks and Geeks

US release date: 1999-09-25

Network: NBC

Cast: Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, Becky Ann Baker, Joe Flaherty, James Franco, Samm Levine, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/f/freaks-and-geeks.jpg

Website: http://www.gbdesigns.com/freaksandgeeks/

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)

It was clear during the run of Freaks and Geeks that its creators loved the show like no show had ever been loved before. For 18 episodes (only 12 ran during the show’s actual run), Paul Feig and Judd Apatow assembled an amazing creative team and faithfully recreated the way it was to go to a suburban high school in 1980, except that they made it funnier and more poignant than real life ever could be. (I know, because I would have been in the same freshman class as Sam and Neal and Bill.) For years, I have blamed NBC’s schedule-makers for jumping Freaks and Geeks around too much and making it impossible for viewers to find it, and I find no need to alter my view now. But I also want to parcel out a whole bunch of blame to all the people who tried to watch it and got confused because it was both a comedy AND a drama, and to anyone who wanted the two main characters — siblings Lindsay and Sam Weir — to be stereotypical in any way, and to anyone who just decided that they’d rather watch Touched by an Angel instead.

The DVD set is a whole lot of overkill, and I mean that in the best way possible. Every single episode is given at least one commentary track, and usually two — commenters range from the usual (actors, writers, directors) to the unusual (superfans, the parents of three of the actors) to the extremely unusual (three actors commenting in character as high school teachers, actual network executives). We get to see the original screen tests for many of the young actors (Seth Rogen nails his character of Ken right out of the box), great behind-the-scenes stuff like Judd Apatow stuffing Samm Levine in a locker, and more easter eggs than there are on Easter itself. There are so many extras here that, frankly, it gets a little creepy. But the shows themselves are so funny and sad and shocking (Lindsay’s final scene STILL provokes huge arguments in my household) that it doesn’t matter. There was genius here, and the DVD set will help preserve that forever.

Matt Cibula

TV Show: Millennium

US release date: 1996-10-25

Network: Fox

Cast: Lance Henriksen, Terry O’Quinn, Megan Gallagher, Klea Scott, Brittany Tiplady

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/millennium.jpg

Website: http://www.fourthhorseman.com/Abyss/

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

Millennium (1996-1999)

It seemed like a sure fire idea. X-Files creator Chris Carter, riding an enormous wave of critical and popular success for said scary science fiction show, was asked to add another doom and gloom drama to his career canon. Looking at the recent success of Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, he struck upon the idea of an ex-government agency profiler who is forced into early retirement when the job becomes too much for him. Recruited by the foreboding Millennium Group as a “consultant” on cases, this reluctant detective soon learns that all the horrible crimes, the terrorist acts and mass murders, are the result of a Biblical battle between good and evil, with the Group’s loyalties teetering somewhere in the middle. Mixing the mythology-heavy storylines that made Mulder and Scully’s searches for the truth all the more terrifying with the real life horrors of abhorrent misdeeds, the show could not possibly fail. And for a while, it looked like this new series would defy the odds and turn its Friday night death slot on Fox into a ratings winner. But as with most TV experiments that are too morose, morbid or just manufactured before their time, Millennium died a slow and painful death over the course of three erratic seasons.

Careening wildly from straight ahead crime drama to bizarre religious Rapture fable, the series never really got serious scenario legs underneath it. Now finally, after milking The X-Files like the cash cow that it is, Fox favors us by issuing every episode of this sensational, scattershot show on DVD. While by no means perfect, there is a rare power and an uneasy sense of evil in every installment of Millennium. It transcends its limits and missteps to become something truly remarkable in the tenets of television. Granted, there are some fans who can’t stand Season Two, when the narrative took a turn for the twisted and fond hero Frank Black battling portents of Armageddon week in and out. And then there are those who will never forgive Carter and his cohorts for writing the series into a corner (mostly out of rumors of cancellation) only to forcibly reinvent the entire thing for Season Three. Still, with all its faults and failing, television was rarely as eerie, or engrossing, as this.

Bill Gibron

TV Show: My So-Called Life

US release date: 1994-08-25

Network: ABC

Cast: Bess Armstrong, Wilson Cruz, Claire Danes, Devon Gummersall, A.J. Langer, Jared Leto

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/my-so-called-life.jpg

Website: http://www.mscl.com/

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

My So-Called Life (1994-1995)

Airing on ABC for 19 groundbreaking episodes in 1994, My So-Called Life charted the growing pains of 15-year-old Angela Chase (Claire Danes) and her group of friends in a Pittsburgh suburb. With its naturalistic dialogue, complex characterization, and deeply attuned portrayal of teenage angst, My So-Called Life caught on with critics, if not by a mass audience. Danes—whose pale, pretty face registered every flicker of adolescent emotion, no matter how slight—was absolutely luminous as Angela.

Devon Gummersall (as Brian Krakow, Angela’s overachieving neighbor) and Wilson Cruz (as her best friend, Rickie Vasquez) were also standouts. Fans developed an abiding affection for these characters, who were bright, witty, and observant, but not preternaturally articulate like the kids on Dawson Creek, not even Brian, the resident honors student. Most of the time, their intentions were well-meaning, but they were often undone by the urgency of their feelings, which made them agonizingly human. Most sympathetic of all was Rickie, who struggled with his sexuality throughout the series. In the “Life of Brian” he expressed his despair to Angela when his crush on another boy went unrequited. “I belong nowhere, with no one … I don’t fit.” Though the series aired 13 years ago, Rickie still stands as the most richly rendered gay character ever on television.

Sensitive and intuitive, his insights about his friends were always the most perceptive, sometimes uncomfortably so, but his advice was embraced because it was delivered with an outsider’s hard-earned compassion. His vision was clear, but he never judged, and for that, he was the moral heart of the series.

Every once in a while, I’ll settle in for a marathon viewing of this DVD set, and afterward I find myself wondering what became of the characters. Indeed, they almost feel like old friends with whom I’ve lost touch. And so, I wish them well, Rickie most of all. He’d be 28 years old about now. I hope he’s found the place where he belongs

Marisa Carroll

My So-Called Life 1×01 Pilot scene

PopMatters