Part 5 – Beyond the Envelope

Cable countermanded it. Digital subdivided it. DVD drove its late stage spin into artistic experimentation. Indeed, the micromanaged mission of post-millennial television is to find a formidable viewership and hang on for dear life. On the other end of the spectrum, new shows and the minds behind them want to remake the medium in their own, equally unique image. So what we end up with is a battle of nonconformist wills, neither side anxious to accept the triumph of the other. It’s a contest that constantly pushes TV to areas of originality heretofore unheard of. It’s not just pushing the envelope — it’s moving beyond the set-ups of a half century to redefine the realm.

TV Show: Lost

US release date: 2004-09-22

Network: ABC

Cast: Naveen Andrews, Emilie de Ravin, Matthew Fox, Jorge Garcia, Josh Holloway, Daniel Dae Kim, Yunjin Kim, Evangeline Lilly, Dominic Monaghan, Terry O’Quinn

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/l/lost.jpg

Website: http://abc.go.com/primetime/lost/index

MPAA rating: N/A

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Lost (2004-2010)

Lost has become nothing less than one of the defining works of art of our time, a complex allegory for the confusion of living in our hyper-accelerated, media-saturated culture. While on the surface it’s about a group of plane crash survivors exploring the bizarre island they’ve been stranded on, the show is really about the experience of being bombarded with sensory information at all times and the way our personal biases distort our attempts to process all of these clues, with the end result that everyone has a fragment of the truth but not the whole deal. It’s the perfect metaphor for an age of Wikipedia, Fox News vs. the “liberal media,” and the power of the internet to turn the voices of the people into a screaming cacophony. A decade ago The X-Files captured the paranoid zeitgeist of the ’90s with the catchphrase “The Truth is Out There,” insisting that we were living in a web of lies and needed to break free. Lost posits a more complicated scenario: we’re surrounded by truth and lies all the time, but who can tell which is which?

Not surprisingly, the demanding complexity of Lost is also one of its greatest weaknesses. The show has become notorious for frustrating those who want answers to its mysteries: every question turns out to be a Chinese box that opens up to reveal yet more questions inside. It’s taken the show’s creators a while to strike just the right balance, but the third season managed to bring together a headlong narrative momentum, more compelling flashbacks, and an ever-present sense of dread from the island’s secrets.

And the season builds to a staggering finale that turns our perceptions inside-out and changes everything about where we thought this story was headed. The subtle genius of the finale is that its biggest plot twist is hidden in plain sight for anyone paying close attention, yet most of the audience was too busy following the red herrings. The real answers will come in time, but for now the greatest achievement of Lost is the confusion and terror it forces us to share with its characters.

Although the Season Three DVD set won’t be released until this December, it already looks like it should keep up the high level of quality set by the previous DVD releases. Extras will include deleted scenes, audio commentaries, additional flashbacks, and special features on “The Others” and the show’s cryptic literary references.

Jack Rodgers

Lost

TV Show: The Office

Subtitle: Third Season Finale

US release date: 2007-05-17

Network: NBC

Cast: Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, B.J. Novak

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/t/the-office.jpg

Website: www.nbc.com/The_Office/

MPAA rating: N/A

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Otbquy5KokA&mode=related&search=

Airtime: Thursdays, 8:30pm ET

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The Office (UK: 2001-2003 / US: 2005-present)

Here’s an interesting fact to consider: the original UK version of The Office has already inspired four different spinoff versions for US, French, French-Canadian, and German television. It would seem that creators Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais have tapped into something sadly universal about modern life: our work forces us to spend more time with our co-workers than our friends and loved ones, even as corporate jobs are becoming more meaningless and designed to make workers easily replaceable.

It’s no wonder then that our office workplaces are breeding some pretty strange, desperate characters, and the cast of The Office are only extreme reflections of the sort of people who might be your own co-workers. The everyman role of the series is filled by Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), who passes his time as a paper salesman by playing practical jokes and pining for secretary Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis). At the other end of the spectrum is his boss David Brent (Ricky Gervais), a monstrously self-absorbed buffoon who likes to imagine that everyone in the office is his best friend in order to compensate for the loneliness of his personal life.

While the American version of The Office -– excellent in its own right –- tends to exaggerate its absurdities for comic effect, the BBC original is a bit more subdued, preferring to carefully balance itself on the knife’s edge between cringe-inducing humor and genuine pathos. Ricky Gervais does a masterful job making Brent seem just pathetic enough to inspire our pity (as when he begs not to be fired after realizing he has nothing worthwhile other than his work), and then turning around and showing that he is truly clueless and incapable of appreciating the feelings of others. Although The Office does give us an ending that provides hope for the future of all its main characters, its underlying message stings: although you can tell yourself that your job is only what you’re doing until something better comes along, you can’t live your life on hold forever.

This DVD set contains the entire run of The Office, which includes twelve episodes and a feature-length Christmas special (British shows tend to run for much shorter than their American counterparts, sacrificing quantity for consistency). Among the best of the extras are outtakes which showcase Gervais’s total inability to keep a straight face while the camera is rolling, a candid making-of documentary, and David Brent’s hilariously awful music video for “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”

Jack Rodgers

I should probably admit up front that I’ve never seen an episode of the British Office — shameful, I know — even though friends have testified to its genius…and my brother very generously gave me the complete series on DVD. (I’ll watch it one day, Bri, I swear!) Approaching the U.S. version with no preconceptions or expectations, I was immediately taken with its funny, perceptive (often painfully so) depiction of office-park drudgery at Dunder-Mifflin, a midlevel paper company in Scranton, PA. The first season featured just eight half-hour installments, but the second is a full cycle and contains 22 of the most sharply written and acted sitcom episodes in recent memory. (A testament to The Office’s brilliance, the deleted scenes included among the DVD extras are just as stellar as those that made the final cut. So watch them!) As the show skewers Corporate America’s handling of hot-button issues, like sexual harassment, e-mail surveillance, and drug testing, it also keenly mines the awkward, tenuous nature of workday relationships.

Though in this season the possibility of layoffs looms overhead, the biggest threat to the employees are the bumbling antics of branch manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell), who can be hapless, self-deluded, and often cruel, especially to his right-hand man, Dwight (the hilarious Rainn Wilson). On the rare occasion when Scott’s foot isn’t in his mouth, he’s scalding it on the George Foreman grill he keeps by his bed (“I like waking up to the smell of bacon — sue me.”) In Season Two, Scott’s shortcomings were tempered by more endearing traits, like his playfulness, good intentions, and desperate need for approval. Carell is a remarkable comedian, to be sure, but he’s also a truly fine actor, seamlessly merging Scott’s strengths and flaws into a coherent, believable, and ultimately lovable character. And speaking of lovable, let’s not forget The Office’s irresistible, unconsummated romance between receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer) and salesman Jim (John Krasinski). The surprising, tender finale of Season Two, “Casino Night,” will make you gasp out loud. It might even make your heart ache a little. But that won’t keep you from watching it again and again; it might even be the reason why you do.

Marisa Caroll

The Office

TV Show: Arrested Development

Network: Fox

Cast: Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor, Portia de Rossi, Michael Cera, Will Arnett, Tony Hale, Jessica Walter, David Cross, Alia Shawkat, Ron Howard

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/a/arrested_development-2006.jpg

Website: http://www.fox.com/arresteddev/

First date: 2003-11-02

Last date: 2006-02-10

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Arrested Development (2003–2006)

“It’s not magic, Michael. It’s an illusion!” Will Arnett says, his lips curling into his faux-pathetic grin, his emphasis placed in all the wrong places, his long thin head drawn in such a way that it should seem menacing, but occurs merely as some absurdist Dadaist painting. He is Gob (pronounced Jobe), one of a cast that is best described as a supergroup of comedy -– and though that term is generally used for music groups like Velvet Underground and the New Pornographers, it is a perfect fit for the comedic genius that was represented in the short-lived, but absolutely brilliant three seasons of Arrested Development. Just listing the principle actors of the series beckons the impossible achievement of creator Mitchell Hurwitz; Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor, Ron Howard, on and on and on. Every episode was a multilayered in-joke, sending up Hollywood, the audience and themselves. Henry Winkler jumping over a shark, Liza Minelli and her fainting spells, Charlize Theron playing an MRF (Mentally Retarded Female).

Is it any surprise that the show couldn’t survive past three seasons? It eventually became too much for audiences, too many in-jokes, too much inside humor, sarcasm, self-parody. Eventually, to understand many of the jokes in the third season, you had to have watched every single episode in the first two seasons. Eventually, Arrested Development began parodying the fact that people could no longer follow the show; “Are we relatable now?” Eventually, not only did you have to watch every episode, but you had to read all the news surrounding the show as well. You had to know that HBO was passing on buying the show, but Showtime was in talks -– just to understand central premises of each episode. Rather than turn off longtime fans, though, it sent them into frenzy. The episodes became biblical, or like Dylan’s garbage: We dug through each episode, searching for each inside joke, each possible reference. There are websites dedicated to dissecting every single sentence spoken. Arrested Development was like an éclair, and we sucked the crème from it. Thus the necessity now for the DVDs –- which always sold better than the show did on Network Fox. You can watch and rewatch them, divining each and every instance of humor. And hell, maybe if enough of you buy the DVDs, the show will be revived. And I can stop pining for what is, likely, the funniest television run of all time.

Mordechi ShinefieldArrested Development

DVD: NYPD Blue

TV Show: NYPD Blue

Network: ABC

Cast: Dennis Franz, David Caruso, James McDaniel, Sherry Stringfield, Amy Brenneman, Nicholas Turturro, Gordon Clapp, Sharon Lawrence, Gail O’Grady, Jimmy Smits, Kim Delaney, Bill Brochtrup, Justine Miceli, Andrea Thompson, Rick Schroder

First date: 1993-09-21

Last date: 2005-03-01

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/dvd_art/n/nypd_blue.jpg

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NYPD Blue (1993-2005)

Steven Bochco’s NYPD Blue broke taboos and was instantly shocking and game-changing in the television industry. The rough and honest language, herky-jerky camera movements, abrasive and compulsively rhythmic music, nudity, raw realism and gritty characters were unlike anything ever seen previously on US television. Hill Street Blues may have been the beginning point for this approach and certainly helped set the template, but NYPD Blue is the show that elevated the cop and crime show genre to it’s highest pinnacle. It certainly helped pave the way for later critical favorites like The Shield and The Wire by whetting the appetite of US audiences for a new level of televisual realism.

Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz framed the show from beginning to end. Setting the tone and intent for the series right from its opening episode, Sipowicz was boozing and smoking big-time, assaulted a mobster, slept with a prostitute, got shot, and got put on modified assignment, having to surrender his badge and gun. That’s about as low as a cop can go and that all happened in the first 45 minutes of this ground-breaking series.

As the years went on, Sipowicz ‘s bigotry and anger mellowed as he kicked the booze and got married and had a kid. But Bochco couldn’t let his complicated hero experience too much happiness. Eventually losing almost everything dear to him –his oldest son, his wife, and his partner (Jimmy Smits) — all in the line of duty, Sipowicz labored with heavy ghosts haunting him and old problems and vices constantly threatening and challenging him. Franz’s long tenure in one of the most memorable lead roles in television drama will long be remembered.

Alas, only four seasons of the multiple Emmy Award-winning NYPD Blue are currently available on DVD. That’s quite shameful given the piles of dreck one routinely encounters on the TV on DVD shelves in the world’s big box stores.

Sarah Zupko

Life on Mars and more…

Display Artist: Jane Featherstone, Stephen Garret, Delia Fine

Creator: Jane Featherstone

Creator: Stephen Garret

Creator: Delia Fine

TV Show: MI-5

Network: A&E

Cast: Matthew McFayden, Keely Hawes, David Oyeolo

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/mi-51.jpg

MPAA rating: N/A

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET

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MI-5 (2002-present)

The stateside explosions of 9/11 sent shockwaves crashing all the way to the shores of England. In the entertainment industry, the stalwart Brits responded to this violence — only the latest in centuries of threats to the Motherland — with the usual shrewd aplomb and cool, stiff upper-lip determination. Whereas the US’ Robert Cochran created the death-defying, ridiculously tireless lone hero of Jack Bauer in 24, England’s David Wolstencroft gave us MI-5 (known as Spooks on its native shores), and a cast of characters and a storyline so gripping viewers might feel compelled to hit ‘pause’ on the remote for a moment, just to catch their breath.

Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen), Danny Hunter (David Oyelowo) and Zoe Reynolds (Keeley Hawes) are but three highly-trained intelligence officers at Thames House who slip into your TV screen and creep around in cutting-edge technology fashion in Series 1. The MI-5 spies are forced to lie to family and foe alike, and it takes its toll. With resolve they struggle with their conscience and doubt. Warning: you will grow very attached to these characters. Sometimes, they beat the terrorists. Other times, they crack under the high-pressure of their extreme lives, a lifestyle that allows little room for their human frailty to catch a breath — before it’s their last.

If the excessive implausibility of 24 has you rolling your eyes, this is a British spy drama that will keep them wide open during the night. If feels that real. MI-5 is unnervingly effective in broadening the notion of what terrorism is, in all its many forms: this is far more sinister than gun-wielding, buff men with ‘foreign’ accents wearing black ninja outfits.

Jack Bauer might last two short seasons with his overseas colleagues in MI-5 … but not an hour more. Winner of BAFTA, Royal Television Society, Broadcast, and BBC Drama Awards for Best Drama , Series 1 through 4 are available on DVD in the US.

Karen Zarker

MI-5

TV Show: Life on Mars

US release date: 2006-01-09

Network: BBC

Cast: John Simm, Philip Glenister, Liz White

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/l/life-on-mars.jpg

Website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/lifeonmars/

MPAA rating: N/A

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Life on Mars (2006-2007)

Life on Mars is the best TV mystery since Twin Peaks. It goes like this: After an accident, present day cop Sam Tyler (John Simm) lands in a 1973 Manchester police station led by Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). We must deduce whether Sam is comatose, time-traveling, or deluded, while reveling in their battle over how best to police the city. The writing and direction of Life on Mars benefits from a strict two-series-and-out structure and from casting as precise as that of another BBC series,The Office. While the fashion, gadgetry and music are well-researched and poignant, the character of Gene Hunt is the stuff of TV legend. When Sam tells him he’s an “overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding”, Hunt replies, “You make that sound like a bad thing.” Hunt’s political incorrectness is a joy to behold, and his loyalty, affection, intelligence and unflinching desire to protect the innocent public lift him above the level of a one-dimensional bully. The writers also make good use of Sam’s (and our) knowledge of the future; I spat food across the room when he went undercover with his girl-next-door love interest/confidante WPC Annie Cartwright –as Tony & Cherie Blair– to a wife-swapping party.

Throughout the series, Sam receives messages through his TV and radio, just as we relate to his 1973 through our own TV, and unconsciously acknowledge the power of the media to form a landscape around our lives (even though we know ‘it’s just a TV show’). Will Sam be stuck in the past, or will he land back in 2006 surrounded, Dorothy-like, by the real characters from his dream? Is Gene Hunt really a sensitive teetotal anti-racist and feminist empathizer who eats organic? The answers are in doubt until the final few seconds of the last episode. This series is beyond cop parody or sci-fi, and the creators of Life on Mars are correct to suggest that the “template of a journeyman going through the looking glass into a magical world is an archetypal story, and people respond to archetypal stories.”

The DVD has interviews with cast and writers and the UK version is truest to their vision. It’s worth investing in a multi-region DVD player for Life On Mars alone. Then you can also rent The Sweeney, the square root of its parody.

Duncan Edwards

Life on Mars

TV Show: Family Guy

Network: Fox

Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Alex Borstein, Seth Green, Mila Kunis

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/f/family-guy-2005.jpg

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET

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Family Guy (1999-2002, 2005-present)

Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy remains one of the single most unique entities in television history, trading in The Simpson‘s family values for a cut-and-paste surrealism that disregards both continuity and political correctness. No joke was ever too risqué, no topic was ever off-limits, and controversy wound up being just another word for publicity. Love it or hate it, Family Guy‘s effect on the television landscape is undeniable. The adventures of Peter, Lois, Chris, Meg, Stewie and Brian are always outrageous, but the way that the show gets laughs is profoundly unique: Family Guy preys upon our pop culture sensitivities, culling on references as far-reaching as The Electric Company and Logan’s Run in order to make a good joke. Cynics accuse the show of being random for the sake of random, but that’s also a part of its charm: a cut-away sequence to an unrelated sketch can be about anything, and rarely are you prepared for what’s going to happen (killing a flying, fire-breathing Cybil Shepard is one such moment).

Yet there’s still some class in this dirty martini of a program: MacFarlene’s love of Sinatra shows through not just in booze-hound Brian, but also in the show’s many, numerous, and uniformly excellent musical numbers. Songs have riffed on everything from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Grease, but the best number might be “You’ve Got a Lot to See” from Season Three (Volume Two on the DVD set). Updating dying jingle-singer Pearl on the major events of the past few decades, Brian launches into an up-beat, jazzy (and Emmy-winning) number that The Simpsons staff would no doubt be jealous of. Later, as Pearl is dying in a hospital, she and Brian share a tour of their life as it could’ve been: children, dying together with dignity and love, and all over a swelling, emotional score. Pearl finally passes, Brian says goodbye, and then a doctor walks by and shouts out “Hey! Who wants to see a dead body?” As MacFarlane and crew well know, comedy need not know any decency. Family Guy will never know show any proper dignity, and for that we can be grateful.

Evan Sawdey

Family Guy

TV Show: The Adventures of Pete and Pete

US release date: 1993

Network: Nickelodeon

Cast: Mike Maronna, Danny Tamberelli, Alison Fanelli, Hardy Rawls, Judy Grafe, Toby Huss

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/a/adventures-of-pete-and-pete.jpg

Website: http://pnp.norecess.org/

MPAA rating: N/A

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The Adventures of Pete and Pete (1993–1996)

The Adventures of Pete & Pete is the kind of show you want your kids to grow up watching, the kind that seems to have struck all the right chords with everything that’s important in childhood. Filmed in bright, mid-’90s cable pastel, the color of a washed-out Jolly Rancher, the show focuses on the Wrigleys, a crumpled, modest version of the classic American nuclear family. Pete & Pete is weird and unique without feeling pretentious –- all the best qualities of early Nickelodeon shows. The attempts at quirkiness don’t always work but are adorable even in their failures. The dialogue is hilarious even today (in one episode a little girl remarks to her mother: “I can smell his fear, mommy. It smells like bacon”), but mixed in are genuine insights into family and friendship, as when Big Pete remarks that “the amount of elbow dad has out the car window is directly proportional to how full of himself he is.”

Like any good kids show, Pete & Pete is irrefutably cozy, but the coziness doesn’t lie in an ideal, natural landscape, or in consistently warm, generous characters, but in the successful efforts of the various characters to turn the grey elements of ’90s suburbia into something familiar and unique. The characters learn not when they try to be the best but when the try to be themselves, and despite all its oddities, Pete & Pete feels more realistic than almost any other kid’s show of its era. The chubby Little Pete, frequently decked out in a lumberjack hat and black boots, looks like a real kid, one who eats what he wants and has yet to care enough about what other people think of him to alter his ill-fitted, mismatched wardrobe and lose weight. Big Pete always looks like he knows something you don’t, even when he’s running across school with chocolate stains covering his face. Problems arise in one episode when Pete’s friend Ellen focuses too much on being the dot in the “i” of her band class formation instead of focusing on spelling the entire word. The word? Squid.

Brian Bethel

The Wire and more…

TV Show: The Wire

US release date: 2002-06-02

Network: HBO

Cast: Dominic West, John Doman, Frankie Faison, Aidan Gillen, Deirdre Lovejoy, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/t/the-wire.jpg

Website: http://www.hbo.com/thewire/

MPAA rating: N/A

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The Wire (2002-2008)

“You just got to see that junk is just another nine to five gig in the end,” Jim Carroll once wearily observed about the drug life, an outlook that quietly informs HBO’s The Wire. Where most “cop shows” offer predictable pen-and-ink cartoons of their law and disorder antagonists, HBO (empowered by the success of its complex and ambiguous “mob show”) allowed David Simon and his writers to create a sprawling, full-color mural of a harsh Baltimore neighborhood where the police aren’t always the heroes and the drug dealers aren’t always the villains: Everyone has a job to do, and whether it’s keeping the drugs flowing or trying to sandbag against a tide that rises from every direction, it’s just another nine to five in the end. Where other police dramas present the officers and the perps as separate entities who meet for the first time on a particular episode, The Wire takes a different tack: In season one, a junior pedaler goes to the movies and sees two of the cops who regularly harass him when he’s dealing and the adversaries talk like co-workers who will be seeing each other at the office the next morning. We come to understand “the game” is simply a way of life, without convenient 55th minute closure and telegraphed moral certainty.

But to call it a cop show is a gross injustice: While the show delves deeply into life on the streets, over the seasons they’ve explored Baltimore’s public schools, the machinations of City Hall, and the various struggles of over 50 significant characters. (Yes, an org-chart would help, but you get to know them all easily just by watching every episode.) More so, The Wire pushes HBO’s penchant for fully-realized character studies to new levels: What the show is really about its 50-odd characters; Baltimore just gives them all a place to collide. The first three seasons are currently available on DVD, with season four arriving in December. (Season Five, rumored to be the last, will air on HBO in 2008.) For “extra feature” junkies, the offerings are scant: Audio commentary on only three episodes of season one, two for season two, and five for season three, as well as a brief but helpful episode guide for each season. But neophytes will soon understand that the value of The Wire discs isn’t extra digital fodder, but the episodes themselves: Engaging story lines, exceptional dialog, and thoroughly riveting characters. (All DVDs should be so generous.)

Bill Reagan

The Wire

TV Show: Aqua Teen Hunger Force

US release date: 2000-12-30

Network: Cartoon Network

Cast: Dana Snyder, Carey Means, Dave Willis

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/a/aqua-teen-hunger-force.jpg

Website: http://www.adultswim.com/shows/athf/

MPAA rating: N/A

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Aqua Teen Hunger Force (2000–present)

Surrealism doesn’t get any better than this. Featuring no water, teens, or actual plotlines, Aqua Teen Hunger Force is the kind of show that Luis Buñuel would’ve made if he was a teenager growing up in California in the ’80s while living on a diet of nothing but Crunch bars. The show — with each episode lasting only 12 minutes long — defines surrealism: a lovable meatball (Meatwad), an intellectual hovering box of fries (Frylock) and a smart-ass, narcissistic milkshake (Master Shake) hang around their low-rent New Jersey house, occasionally harassing their perpetually jobless and hilariously rude neighbor, Carl. That’s it. That’s all it is. And you know what? It still manages to be one of the funniest shows still running today.

What’s most compelling about ATHF is the pitch-perfect balance of power of the main trio: Master Shake continually trying to humiliate/kill Meatwad, Meatwad’s misguided quest for knowledge, and Frylock’s strong-willed peacekeeper status. It’s this framework that allows the Force to deal with Atari-graphic aliens (the recurring Mooninites), a confused-yet-evil rapping spider (Season One), a knowledge cube that spouts bumper-sticker slogans (Season Three), and a one-time shot when Meatwad wins tickets to the Super Bowl and decides to take his sass-talking, Shaft-imitating cardboard box friend, Boxy Brown. It sounds like the stuff of strange dreams (or even stranger acid trips), but it all miraculously works out before Schooly D’s top-notch theme song gets thrown on during the credits. You never walk away from an Aqua Teen episode with new philosophical quandaries a-brewin’ in your mind, but the show has become the unofficial mascot for the ADD Generation; providing tons of unique, original laughs in a very short amount of time. Harvey Birdman, Robot Chicken, and well over half of the Adult Swim lineup owes its very existence to ATHF. Years after its debut, Aqua Teen Hunger Force is still the single greatest show ever made about anthropomorphic food products, and that’s saying something.

Evan Sawdey

Aqua Teen Hunger Force

TV Show: Veronica Mars

Network: UPN

Cast: Kristen Bell, Percy Daggs III, Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/v/veronica-mars-050928.jpg

Airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm ET

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Veronica Mars (2004-2007)

Only the first two seasons of this great ambitious ambiguous show are out on DVD, and neither one is what you’d call generous with the extras; a few fluffs here and there, a handful of deleted scenes and featurettes, but no commentaries or anything like that. But one does not come to Veronica Mars for the bells and whistles, but rather for the whip-smart dialogue and the stinging observations about class and race and privilege in Neptune, California. Very few shows have ever dared to look as honestly into the dark heart of the American dream as Veronica Mars did… gee, I guess in retrospect it’s not so hard to figure out why viewers stayed away in droves, or why the CW canceled it in favor of some of the dreck infesting its fall schedule.

Any examination of this show must start, as always, with Kristen Bell, who plays the title role with wicked wit, intelligent sexiness, and great pathos. She manages to make the central conceit — private eye’s daughter helps him solve cases and investigates her town’s darkest secrets — not just plausible, but actually believable. The first two seasons used splashy horrific crimes to kickstart the rest of the plot, but the fun of watching the DVDs is the realization that these arcs were less important than the interactions between the well-drawn characters. Special nods to all the show’s young actors and actresses, who put heart and soul into Rob Thomas’ wisecracks and pop culture references; Jason Dohring’s poor little bad boy Logan Echolls is etched into the hearts of thousands of us forever. But the show’s true rock was Enrico Colantoni’s performance as Keith Mars, an awesome detective and sheriff who also just happens to be the greatest TV dad ever. This was brought home in the final episodes of the unfairly-maligned season three, when Keith sacrifices all — oops, don’t want to spoil anything, especially when the DVD is hitting stores next month. But it would have been one hell of a fourth season.

Matt Cibula

Veronica Mars

DVD: Undeclared

TV Show: Undeclared

Subtitle: The Complete Series

Network: Fox

Cast: Jay Baruchel, Carla Gallo, Charlie Hunnam, Monica Keena, Seth Rogen, Timm Sharp, Loudon Wainwright

MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 2001

Last date: 2002

Distributor: Shout! Factory

US Release Date: 2005-08-16

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/u/undeclared-the-complete-ser.jpg

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Undeclared (2001-2002)

The story of Judd Apatow’s rise/fall/resurrection from a failed TV producer of two of the most genuine sitcoms in the last decade of television to replacing Ivan Reitman as the Czar of the summer movie blockbuster is one of the most satisfying yarns to grace Hollywood in many a year. Especially for those of us who cherished both his 1999 early ’80s-set dramedy Freaks and Geeks and its 2001 college-based follow-up Undeclared and have the well-worn DVD box sets to prove it. Though not as critically revered as Freaks, nor as decried upon its swift cancellation from Fox’s fall lineup shortly upon its premiere the week of 9/11, Undeclared nevertheless stood out amongst an embattled season as perhaps the most accurate depiction of real college life ever captured on television. From getting saddled with a roommate who gets all the chicks and makes you sleep on the couch every night to the imperfectly sexy girls you tend to fall in love with and their psycho ex-boyfriends who cock-block you to the strange weirdos in the dorm who try to get in with your crew, Apatow nailed that shit. Perhaps its because many of the plots were derived from actual events that happened to the cast, which made Undeclared all the more real and appealing.

And the cast is top notch, from the placement of Apatow veterans like the now-larger-than-life Seth Rogen as lead character Stephen Karp’s sarcastic suitemate, Jason Segel as Stephen’s love interest Carla Gallo’s crazy ex and Martin Starr as Karp’s uber-dorky best friend from home who comes up for a surprise visit, to the inclusion of Dawson’s Creek hottie Monica Keena and Loudon Wainwright III as Stephen’s recently-divorced father. But its Jay Baruchel who was the absolute star of this series, perfecting the role of loveable freshman geek who seems to have everything and nothing going for him almost simultaneously. Everyone has a little Stephen Karp in them, especially those of us who hold both Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks so near and dear to our hearts. Here’s hoping this DVD, which is packed with extras, including two previously unaired episodes and an extensive interview with the entire cast (minus Keena). Here’s hoping Apatow’s recent success on the big screen inspires him to reconvene his ace troop of actors for the boob tube once again.

Ronald Hart

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