Best DVD gifts, Sopranos series DVD, The Wire series DVD, Iron Man, Dark Knight, SportsNight, Godfather
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The holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year for TV and movie geeks, because it's when the studios bombard us with special editions and wacky re-packaging of complete series sets. The reissuing of material that's previously been released is always annoying for those of us who've bought the stuff the first time around, but you have to give them credit: they really go out of their way to make it worth our while to purchase them a second time. The holidays are also the perfect time for the release of the summer's biggest hits onto home video and, boy, do they take advantage of that. Take a look, if you will, at our picks for some of the best bets on DVD and Blu-Ray; some of them have been plastered all over television and the ‘net, but we've also tried to include a few items that might've flown under your radar. And don't forget: they might be too expensive for you to buy for someone else, but you can always put them on your own Christmas list.
Every guy should own a copy of the greatest guy movie of all time, and quite possibly the best film ever made as measured by any standard. With "The Coppola Restoration," we finally have a DVD set that is worthy of the original material, which also makes it the perfect gift.
The set includes all three films (not that anyone cares much about "The Godfather Part III"); each has been beautifully restored and re-mastered, and the results are stunning. Director Francis Ford Coppola asked Steven Spielberg to get behind the restoration when Spielberg arrived at Paramount, and Spielberg was able to get the expensive and time-consuming project going. This back story and the restoration process are covered in the DVD extras.
Along with the three films, the set includes more than four hours of supplemental features. Most of the features are fascinating, while only a few are a waste of time. Many fans don't realize the sorry state of the film industry at the time the first Godfather film was being planned by the studio, so the story behind the making of the film is particularly compelling. We hear from many of the major players, including studio head Robert Evans, who had epic battles with Coppola during the making of the film. Fortunately, this set also includes Francis Ford Coppola's original commentaries for each of the three films, which appeared on previous releases and are highly recommended for anyone who loves film or wants to be a filmmaker.
When "The Dark Knight" first hit theaters in the summer, all anyone could talk about was its unexpected box office success. (To this date, it's teetering on a worldwide gross of $1 billion). Well, that and the fact that the movie would be Heath Ledger's last finished performance. Now that we've entered award season, however, "The Dark Knight" is at the top of everyone's list to be nominated not only for Best Supporting Actor, but Best Picture as well. It's certainly deserving of such an honor, and the good fortune shouldn't stop there. What about director Christopher Nolan, the man responsible for rebooting the wayward franchise? Or Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart, who deliver just as memorable of performances as their late co-star? You'll get a chance to revisit everything that's great about "The Dark Knight" when it rolls out on DVD and Blu-ray just weeks before the holidays, and while we can't imagine it'll be very hard to find in stores, we suggest pre-ordering the limited edition copy that comes packaged in a Batpod instead.
It wasn't very long ago that comic books were seen as something only geeks appreciated, but with the recent superhero boom in Hollywood, the comic industry has become more engrained in the mainstream than ever. Take a film like "Iron Man," which transformed a second-tier Marvel character into a pop-culture icon overnight. The movie has everything you could ever want (action, drama, comedy) including a cast of talented actors like Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges. The former, in particular, delivers one of the best performances of his career, and it's all thanks to a role that, had the movie been made even a year earlier, he would have never even been considered for. The two-disc DVD and Blu-ray release makes the movie shine even brighter with hours of extras including an extensive making-of featurette, screen tests with Downey Jr., and the extremely funny "The Onion" news skit about the "Iron Man" trailer being adapted into a full-length film.
It's no secret that the James Bond series is the most popular movie franchise in history. At 22 films and still going strong, there's just something about 007 that keeps fans coming back for more. Whether or not that means they're just as willing to invest every time the movies are re-released in a new box set (which by my count is nearing double digits) is a completely different subject, but it's a question they'll have to ask now that the movies are available in HD. Purchasing the same 20-odd films can get a little pricey after a while, but for as great as the 2006 digitally remastered versions looked, it's nothing compared to their Blu-ray counterparts. Only six are currently available ("Dr. No," "From Russia with Love," "Thunderball," "Live and Let Die," "For Your Eyes Only" and "Die Another Day"), but between the 1080p high-def video transfer and lossless audio, each movie looks and sounds like it was made yesterday. Regrettably, the bonus material is exactly the same as on the 2006 editions, and the decision to release some titles before others is a bit confusing ("Die Another Day," really?), but if you really are a diehard fan, it doesn't get any more hardcore than this.
The standard DVD release
will be more than enough for most people, but hardcore "Animal House" fans who don't own a proper special edition of the film will dig this 30th Anniversary set. Of course, it's pretty much another superfluous offering from an industry that loves to repackage and recycle its products every few years, so forget about replacing a previous special edition with this one. In fact, the enjoyable 98-minute documentary on the set's second disc is the only new feature worth mentioning here, and most of the extras were included as recently as 2003 in the "Double Secret Probation" edition. But none of these gripes diminishes the legacy of the movie itself, one of the truly essential guy comedies ever made and a movie that most people are still introduced to during their college years, if not sooner. And while making the included "Faber College Yearbook" a hardcover edition rather than a thin paperback would have been an easy upgrade, there's enough here to justify the set's reasonable price tag. We could've done without the oversized packaging – cardboard replica of the Delta house that's far too big for the book and standard DVD case – but as an addition to a DVD collection rather than a substitution, this is a must-buy.
You probably already know this, but just in case, here's fair warning: for God's sake, do not
go into Oliver Stone's "JFK" expecting a definitive answer to the question, "Who shot President Kennedy?" It can only end in heartbreak or, worse, full-fledged anger. If, however, you thrive on paranoia and conspiracy theories, then you will be absolutely ecstatic to get your hands on this new Ultimate Collector's Edition of Stone's masterpiece. The two-disc version of the film itself appears to be the same as the Director's Cut that emerged not so terribly long ago, but also included in this set is a new documentary, "The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings
," based on the book by Thomas Maier, plus a whole bunch of collectible memorabilia, including a special 38-page hard-cover book and reproduced letters written by President Kennedy. Some would say that it's not enough to make it worth buying the movie again, but given the nature of those who are obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, the inclusion of anything
new clearly makes it a must-own.
For years it was just another a cult film, but this wryly good-natured and sweetly dark-humored 1983 family comedy drawn from the childhood reminisces of writer and legendary radio humorist Jean Shepherd seems to have replaced another ex-cult classic, "It's a Wonderful Life," as the popular choice for the ultimate American Christmas movie. While classicists may still prefer Frank Capra's 1946 fantasy, this modest treat from the late director Bob Clark -- whose other best known works were, believe it or not, 1981's "Porky's" and 1974's "Black Christmas" -- is extremely funny and blessed with sharp writing and spot-on performances by young Peter Billingsley, the great Darren McGavin ("Kolchak: The Night Stalker"), and Jean Shepherd as the narrator. We also can't deny that any truly
hardcore fan of the film/Christmas-devotee would appreciate this tchotchke-riffic special edition which, in addition to a host of DVD special features left over from the 2003 release, now includes a logo-emblazoned red apron, five "Christmas Story" themed cookie cutters, a recipe book, and more – all packaged in a 1950's style cookie tin. Still missing: the Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Lightning Loader Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock.
The front cover of the new 20th anniversary edition of "Heathers" proclaims that "without [the 1989 cult classic], there would be no ‘Jawbreaker,' no ‘Mean Girls,' and certainly no ‘Juno'." That last mention probably could have been left out, as the two films have very little in common other than that they star angsty teenage girls, but if that's what it takes for the underappreciated black comedy to reach a new audience, bring it on. While it may be difficult to get past the ridiculous costume design and casting (is it just us, or does every character look like they're 30?), "Heathers" is one of those movies that only gets better with age. The Blu-ray release isn't nearly as polished as you would expect from an HD transfer, and the bonus material is the same as on the 2002 DVD (including the revealing documentary "Swatch Dogs and Diet Coke Heads"), but don't let that deter you from picking this up for the Veronica Sawyer in your life. It might not be the definitive high school film, but it ranks pretty high up on the list.
It's hard to imagine that the kid who played Opie Taylor on "The Andy Griffith Show" and Richie Cunningham on "Happy Days" is the man responsible for directing some of the best movies of the last 20 years. It's also hard to imagine that of all the movies he has
directed, Ron Howard has only been nominated for an Oscar once. Granted, he won the only time he did make it to the Big Show, and when you're going up against the likes of Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood almost every year, that alone is an accomplishment. Compilations like "The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection" are a dime a dozen these days, but if there's one that would make the perfect gift for the cinephile in your family this season, it's this eight-disc box set featuring "Apollo 13," "A Beautiful Mind," "Cinderella Man" and "Backdraft." You won't find any new bonus material on any of the films (they're essentially just re-releases of the most recent edition of each), but if you know someone who still doesn't own them on DVD, this is a surefire way to boost their personal collection – and at a remarkably low price.
Not every actor can make the claim that they made their motion picture debut as a leading man, but that's exactly what Gregory Peck did in 1944, starring alongside Tamara Toumanova in "Days of Glory." By 1950, he had already received four Academy Award nominations for Best Actor. Talk about settling into your career quickly! Unfortunately, none of the movies for which he was nominated are included in "The Gregory Peck Film Collection," but it does feature the one that actually earned him his Best Actor Oscar – "To Kill a Mockingbird" – along with the other most familiar film on his resume: "Cape Fear." Yes, the set could pretty well coast on these two films, but while the other four flicks included in the collection may not possess the same stature, they all have merit. "Arabesque" teams Peck with Sophia Loren for a romp that's directed by Stanley Donen ("Charade"), "Mirage" is a cracking thriller, "The World in His Arms" finds Peck on the open seas once more, and as for "Captain Newman, M.D.," how can you go wrong with a cast that includes Tony Curtis, Angie Dickinson, Robert Duvall, Bobby Darin, Dick Sargent, Larry Storch and Eddie Albert?
The phrase "from the makers of ‘30 Days of Night' and ‘The Grudge'" is not only printed in big letters on the box of this eight-film collection but is also highly prominent on each individual DVD contained therein. This isn't terribly surprising, since it would take a real horror aficionado to recognize most of the actors and directors responsible for these motion pictures, but if you cite two of the more popular creep-fests in recent years, that'll make even a casual fan take notice. It would be false advertising to claim that all of the films in this box set are destined to be remembered as classics of their genre, but if you enjoy being scared and/or grossed out, then you'll find lots to enjoy nonetheless. There are ghosts, vampires, deformed madmen, inter-dimensional monstrosities, and -- zombies attacking a high school prom? Sweet
. Turn off the lights, warm up the home theatre system, and prepare to be petrified.
Say what you will about the weirdness of David Lynch's filmed oeuvre, but you can't say his is not an original vision. It's unlikely that we'll ever see a 100 percent complete collection of Lynch's work, due to it being spread across several studios, but this is definitely a set that no fan will want to be without. In addition to a re-mastered version of "Eraserhead" (along with its soundtrack), "The Elephant Man" (with a new bonus disc of special features), "Blue Velvet" (with a new Lynch-approved 5.1 sound mix), and "Wild at Heart," you can also thrill to "The Short Films of David Lynch," the DVD debut of "Industrial Symphony No. 1," and all of the chapters of Lynch's Flash animation series, "Dumbland." There's also what is described as a "Mystery Disc," which apparently includes a wealth of deleted and extended scenes from "Wild at Heart," along with Lynch's other online series, "Rabbits." If there's anyone in your family whose name is usually accompanied by the adjectives "eccentric" or "quirky," then this load of Lynch has probably got their name written all over it.
Where were you when it all went black? If you were like millions of other fans watching the series finale of "The Sopranos," you were sitting on a couch somewhere wondering what the hell just happened to your TV. With HBO releasing "The Sopranos: The Complete Series," fans now have a chance to judge the show in its entirety, from the eponymous pilot to the much-maligned finale. Assuming, of course, they can afford this formidable 33-disc set. Creator David Chase pounded out 86 episodes over six seasons, and they're all here in a sleek 56-page hand-assembled album. HBO ain't messing around. The book itself is beautiful, with each season's episode list and credits included, and magnificent black & white photography scattered throughout. The last 16 pages of the book are dedicated to a comprehensive episode guide and even more photos. Aside from the 28 episode discs, there are three CD soundtracks featuring 38 songs from the show (with complete track and credit listings) as well as two more discs of bonus features. And that's on top of the extras that are included with a few of the single-season sets. In other words, this is anything but a barebones collection. Many will still bemoan the black screen finale and claim "The Sopranos" lost the magic toward the end of its run, but some quality time with this collection may just be enough to change their minds.
If you're like most people, you didn't hear about "The Wire" until it was too late. That or you didn't want to spend the money on the individual sets when you knew that HBO would be releasing one of their complete series extravaganzas sooner or later. Thankfully, that time has finally come, and while the packaging for the 23-disc box set isn't nearly as special as those created for shows like "The Sopranos," "Sex & the City" or "Six Feet Under," it's what's inside that counts. Sure, there isn't a whole lot of new bonus content (only those mini-prequels shown in promotion of Season Five, and the long-awaited gag reel that David Simon has been promising for years), but that's to be completely expected. After all, "The Wire" wasn't exactly HBO's most popular show on the air (even if every critic in the country called it one the best shows ever made), but if you like good television and you're looking for something to distract you from the slew of terrible shows currently on TV, you can't do much better than "The Wire."
Fans of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" tend to be unfailingly polite, presumably because of the troupe's unabashed Englishness, but surely even the most well-mannered Python aficionado must be growing tired of the number of times the group's material has been reissued on DVD with new material, necessitating yet another purchase. As silly as it may sound, however, "The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus Collector's Edition" is worth your time and money. For one thing, even though it features more content, it's actually far more compact in size than the previous version (known as the "16-Ton Megaset"), so it'll fit far better on your shelf. As for the new items, yes, the "Personal Best" segments are a bit redundant, since the Pythons introduce sketches that already appear elsewhere on the set, but the two new documentaries – "Before the Flying Circus" and "Monty Python Conquers America" – are fantastic, particularly the latter, which details how the grass-roots success of the Pythons in the States came to pass.
Despite his best efforts in theaters this summer, Steve Carell is still at his funniest when he's pushing paper supplies at Dunder Mifflin. Don Adams, on the other hand, was
Agent 86, a.k.a. Maxwell Smart. This box set, now available for the first time through retail and online outlets (having concluded its stint as a Time-Life exclusive), is still the best way to experience this loony concept from Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. Boasting all five seasons - which equals 138 episodes on 25 discs, lots of gratuitous Barbara Feldon sexiness, and more than eight hours of bonus material, including commentaries, interviews, and bloopers – about the only thing missing from this set is the complimentary shoe phone. There's no doubt someone on your Christmas list (a weird uncle, perhaps?) would kill to get his hands on this material. Granted, these goods don't come cheap, so a pooling of finances might be in order to accomplish such a mission, but in any case, the phrase "I only shot him once, Chief!" will never sound the same again. Oh, wait a minute: you've never heard
that phrase before? Then you definitely
need to "Get Smart."
It's far too easy to look across the landscape of television history and find series that deserved success but never found their footing, but it isn't always quite as easy to determine why
those series didn't succeed. If you sit down and watch "Sports Night: The Complete Series," however, you won't need to possess TV-critic credentials to produce a few theories about why it never earned a huge viewing audience. Almost all of those theories, when boiled down to their essence, will equal approximately the same statement: "Sports Night" is a sitcom that doesn't feel like a sitcom. That's only appropriate, though, since "Sports Night" also isn't really about sports. It's about characters who just happened to work for a sports-news program, and although it'll teach you way more about the television industry than it will about organized sports, the series has far more intelligent and thought-provoking matters on its mind. That's probably why it never managed to find a mainstream audience and left the airwaves far too soon. Fortunately, however, you can still appreciate it in the privacy of your own home, and now you can enjoy the added bonus of all of the special features Shout! Factory has pulled together, including commentaries, featurettes, outtakes, and new interviews with the cast and crew.
Looking back at the full run of "The Cosby Show," there's no way around acknowledging that the early seasons of the show were indeed the classic years. You had Cliff (Cosby) and Clair (Phylicia Rashad), and you had the four kids who lived in the house – Denise (Lisa Bonet), Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), and Rudy (Keshia Knight Pulliam) – plus the eldest child, Sondra (Sabrina LeBeauf), who came home from college to visit once in a while. Cliff's parents, Russell (Earle Hyman) and Anna (Clarice Taylor), would also stop by on occasion. That's the era when the series was at its best and still felt like something new. Although the level of excitement within its eight years – all of which are included in this set – wanes here and there, with jump-the-shark moments like Denise getting married and bringing home a new stepdaughter (Raven-Symone), it's still one of the most consistently enjoyable sitcoms in TV history. Given the special packaging, which includes retrospective interviews and featurettes, a hardcover booklet, and an Al Hirschfeld print of Dr. Cosby himself, if you have any interest in "The Cosby Show" whatsoever, you might as well just skip the single seasons and just pick up this set.
It can't be a surprise to anyone that the new "Knight Rider" series turned out to be a complete waste of time, but it did at least manage to accomplish one important task: it spurred NBC-Universal to release "Knight Rider: The Complete Series," compiling all four seasons of the original ‘80s classic into one big box set. Granted, it's pretty damned cheesy in its own right, but it's more a finely aged cheddar. You can't argue with the awesomeness of The Hoff; William Daniels' voice gave KITT just the right touch of class, and Edward Mulhare's performance as Devon Miles was -- okay, you're right: it's pretty much all about the car and the Hoff. With this set, however, it's about the box as well, since there's a button on the front that, when pressed, turns on a reproduction of KITT's back-and-forth red lights and plays the show's theme song. Granted, there isn't anything in this set that wasn't already included on the original individual season releases, but the box itself is so awesome that, frankly, you may never even get around to taking the DVDs out, anyway. I know I
haven't. But I'm planning to, I swear.
As line-drawing questions go, it's not on par with whether you're a Beatles man or an Elvis man, but you can definitely tell a lot about a guy by whether he sees more of himself in Jim West or Artemis Gordon. West was the charming ladies man who was as quick with his fists as he was with his weapon, while Gordon, though never quite as successful a Romeo as he would've liked, was a genius with gadgets and a master of disguise. No matter who your favorite might be, "The Wild Wild West" was one of the coolest series of the ‘60s, taking the Western genre and turning it on its ear by melding it with the secret-agent stuff that was all the rage at the time, thanks to one J. Bond. The show's black & white years are arguably better than the color era, which got a bit too silly at times, but it's all good fun. If you've already bought all of the single-season sets, you'll be thoroughly pissed to hear that the "Complete Series" set is the exclusive home to the two TV-movie sequels to the show, but it's still nice to have them on DVD at last. (Plus, the set's saddlebag-style packing is pretty cool, too.)
If you grew up in the ‘70s, then you almost certainly watched "Little House on the Prairie." Looking at the statistics, the viewing experience generally played out like this: if you were a girl, you loved it, and if you were a guy, you tolerated it out of necessity because your parents ruled the only TV in the house. (Well, except for that creepy Halloween episode, where it looked like Mr. Oleson had killed his wife. That one was awesome
.) You'd never be able to get a series like "Little House" on a major network today; it's too clean-cut and sweet at heart to make it anywhere other than PAX or the Hallmark Channel. Those who were raised on the show, however, view it through the sort of rose-colored glasses reserved for their fondest childhood memories, and it's those folks who will positively freak out when they see this set. Not only does it come packaged in a covered wagon that includes all nine seasons of the show plus the post-series TV movies, there are a ton of interviews with cast members, featurettes on the making of the series, and several audio commentaries from Nellie Olesen herself, Alison Arngrim. If you've been hearing the theme song in your head ever since you started reading this write-up, then this set will make your Christmas very merry indeed.
When "Spaced" finally made its Region 1 debut this summer, there was quite the to-do surrounding the event, yet there's still a very good chance the Anglophile in your life didn't get around to picking up this oftentimes riotously funny 14-episode series that first played on the BBC back in 1999. Starring Simon Pegg ("Hot Fuzz") and Jessica Stevenson as flatmates Tim Bisley and Daisy Steiner. He's a struggling comic book artist, she's an out of work writer, and along with a posse of bizarre friends and enemies, they manage to get into all manner of strange situations. The series is slickly directed by Edgar Wright of "Fuzz" and "Shaun of the Dead" fame, and for as out there as the show can be, it also has a heart, and that makes it some seriously Must See TV. Plus, the DVD set is loaded with extras, including an 80-minute documentary and commentaries from confessed "Spaced" nuts Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Diablo Cody, Matt Stone, Bill Hader and Patton Oswalt.
Everyone has a favorite cartoon that they loved as a kid, and while they're usually never as good as you remember them being when you see it again as an adult, it's still fun to reminisce about your childhood. At least, that's the idea behind the onslaught of classic cartoons being released this holiday season, with favorites spanning every decade from the ‘60s ("The Flintstones: The Complete Series") to the ‘90s ("Batman: The Animated Series"). For the older generation, there's "Speed Racer," packaged in a collectible tin Mach 5 with all 52 original episodes and a new host of bonus material, while the 30-and-under crowd gets Time Life's incredible "The Real Ghostbusters" box set, including all 147 episodes housed inside a mini-replica firehouse. If you're into special features, the latter collection is undoubtedly the better of the two, but it's hard to deny the pop culture appeal that "Speed Racer" still has to this day.
It'll likely go down as the only watchable piece of entertainment Paula Poundstone was ever involved in, but there's much more to "Home Movies" than that small piece of history. A staple of the Adult Swim lineup before the late night animation block became as mainstream as Saturday morning cartoons, "Home Movies" is without a doubt one of the funniest animated series ever created. Some people have complained about the show's low-budget animation, but if you can make it through the first season without sucking down an Advil every 30 minutes, you'll be happy to discover that the rest of the series is produced sans Squigglevision. This is also around the same time that the show hit its creative stride, providing secondary characters with more screen time and ramping up the quality of Brendon's home movies. Shout! Factory's single-season DVD releases of "Home Movies" were always loaded with great extras, and their 10-year anniversary set is no different. Along with all four seasons of the show, the limited edition set also includes a 52-song soundtrack, director clapboard, and a black tote bag featuring Coach McGuirk, the only man to rival Randy Marsh as the World's Worst Role Model.
Based on David McCullough's 2002 biography, "John Adams" provides a detailed examination of the life of America's second President, with the title character played by -- Paul Giamatti? Giamatti might seem on the surface to be an odd choice for the role, since he's known more for the comedic rather than the dramatic, and hasn't done all that many period pieces, but you'd never know of his lack of his experience from his work here. The phrase "acting tour de force" doesn't begin to describe how substantially Giamatti owns the role of John Adams; it's a measured performance, showing a man who loves his wife and family but struggles to find a way to keep them close while building a new nation. The relationship between John and Abigail Adams (played by Laura Linney) is the thread that runs throughout the events of the entire miniseries. He is a man who is often uncertain of his talents and abilities as a lawyer, confident in his knowledge but -- on occasion -- prone to offering too much information when making his arguments. She stands behind him at every opportunity, helping him to tweak his oratory without tramping on his masculinity. Calling this series a "costume drama" is to sell it short. With "John Adams," the combination of top-notch performances and period accuracy results in history truly coming alive. It deserves every award it has won, and if you don't already own it, then it deserves to sit under your tree this Christmas. Or your Menorah. Or, well, you get the idea.
For the dad or grandfather who loves history, war and boating but finds "Pirates of the Caribbean" just a little too silly, this is an ideal purchase that will most certainly swab the deck. Based on the novels of C. S. Forester, this box collects all eight of the Hornblower films starring Ioan Gruffudd (Reed Richards of "The Fantastic Four films) as the oddly named seafaring officer serving in the British Royal Navy during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The series positively drips with authenticity, and the movies are so thorough in their storytelling that they genuinely feel like literature come to life. But make no mistake, there's also action aplenty, as the fearless Hornblower combats the French, mutiny, and an insane captain played by David Warner. Other players include Paul McGann ("Doctor Who"), Jamie Bamber ("Battlestar Galactica") and the prolific Robert Lindsay. Plenty of extras, too, including a guide to royal warships and an interactive 3D naval cannon!
Discerning TV buffs who have already devoured such ultra-acclaimed modern fare as "The Wire" and "Mad Men" may cherish this six-disc box from television's first
golden age. This famed pre-videotape CBS anthology series, which ran for 10 years starting in 1948, presented live hour-long plays that ranged from high comedy, to politically charged drama, to opera -- with results that ranged from so-so to magnificent. The quality of the restored kinescopes (essentially the result of pointing a film camera at a television monitor) is also highly variable, but the mix of craftsmanship and chutzpah is always visible even if the picture is often muddy. It features early acting performances by Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Art Carney, Sal Mineo and the seriously underrated Elizabeth Montgomery ("Bewitched"). Considering the circumstances, there is astonishingly nimble direction by Paul Nickell and Franklin Shaffner ("Patton," "Planet of the Apes"). Notable episodes include a truly creepy adaptation of George Orwell's "1984," the original TV production of "12 Angry Men," as well as scripts by future "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling, and some biting early work by novelist Gore Vidal. Like live television itself, it's highly imperfect but consistently exciting.
It requires a deft hand and a considerable amount of restraint to do a period piece. Those who can't exercise self-control quickly fall back on the obvious, smacking the viewer in the face with punch lines about the differences between then and now that are underlined with the biggest, thickest marker possible. Matthew Weiner, the man behind "Mad Men," understands this, choosing to integrate these differences in a truly organic fashion, weaving them into the storyline rather than blatantly drawing attention to them. The place is the Sterling Cooper advertising agency, and the time is the early 1960s, an era that causes most guys to puff up their chests and talk about how men were men. And, okay, given that we're talking about a time when ad men were spending their time in the office smoking cigarettes, pouring mixed drinks, committing rampant acts of sexual harassment, and once in awhile actually writing a bit of ad copy, then, sure, maybe there is
a little something to be said about those bygone days. So why haven't you picked up this set already? After all, "Mad Men" is already a pop culture phenomenon, having been parodied on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons." But if you're one who still hasn't yet been swayed by all the plaudits, then, hey, isn't asking someone else to buy it for you the perfect way to finally take a chance on the show?
Americans who love British sci-fi tend to really, really
love British sci-fi, but the problem is that once you get past the diehard Anglophiles and the complete geeks, a lot of casual sci-fi fans can't be bothered to try anything with an accent, and that's a shame, because there's a lot of great new stuff out there. "Torchwood" is the "Doctor Who" spin-off that is darker than the show that spawned it, spotlighting a covert investigative team monitoring alien arrivals and the usage of alien technology in the UK. To use a pop culture SAT question, "Torchwood" is to "Doctor Who" what "Angel" is to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," though it's just a coincidence that James Marsters turns up in the show's second season. (He played Spike on "Buffy," you know.) As for "Primeval," it's clearly designed for the same mainstream audiences who thrilled to "Jurassic Park," but seeing incredibly realistic dinosaurs popping through rifts in time and running rampant through present-day England makes for pretty cool viewing for just about anyone.
What better way to celebrate this religious time of the year than to ask for a TV show about the Devil? "Reaper" is the tale of a guy who discovers on his 21st birthday that his parents sold his soul to the Devil before he was born, thereby dooming him to serve as Satan's lackey for the long haul, tasked to recover escaped souls and send them back to Hell. The show got instant street cred by corralling Kevin Smith to direct its pilot episode, but even if you're not a fan of Smith's cinematic oeuvre, his work on "Reaper" is a big reason why it was widely considered to be one of the strongest pilots in recent memory. Then again, he also had quite a talented cast to work with. The decision to cast Ray Wise as the Devil cannot be praised enough (where's that Emmy nod, dammit?), but Bret Harrison had honed his comedic chops on several seasons of "Grounded for Life," and he's a master of the look of befuddlement. Although "Reaper" looked to be falling into a formulaic rut in its early episodes, the show recovered handily at the halfway point. If you made the mistake of giving up early on, now's the perfect time to play catch-up and see what you missed.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, Jim Henson had already secured immortality through his work on "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show," but he wanted to expand his universe even further. First came 1982's "The Dark Crystal," a feature film geared at an older audience. But not to leave his young fanbase unappreciated, Henson came up with a brand new series for HBO: "Fraggle Rock." The adventures of the Fraggles, the Doozers, and the Gorgs lasted for 96 episodes, and fans thrilled as they began to see the release of full-season DVD sets in 2005, but after the release of Season 3, someone within the chain of command decided to cut to the chase and release this "Complete Series Collection" without releasing any further single-season sets. While this is undeniably a real pisser for those who've already bought Seasons 1, 2 and 3, this collection comes in cool 3D packaging that does indeed look like rock, contains 100+ minutes of bonus material and featurettes, and even provides a map of the territories covered in the series. If you're a fan of the show, just go ahead and sell your single-season sets, then suck up your pride and buy this box set. You won't be disappointed.
While working with Robin Williams on "Popeye," Shelley Duvall happened upon the idea of doing a television series that would adapt classic fairy tales using big-name actors in the leading roles. First up: an adaptation of "The Frog Prince," with Williams tackling the title character. There would be 26 episodes to follow, featuring more celebrities than you could shake a stick at. You've got Paul Reubens playing Pinocchio, Harry Dean Stanton as Rip Van Winkle, Carrie Fisher as Thumbelina, Tatum O'Neal as Goldilocks, Jennifer Beals as Cinderella, Eric Idle as the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and Hervé Villechaize as Rumplestiltskin -- and that's just to name a few. It's good, clean fun for the kiddies, but all the star-spotting will keep parents happy throughout the proceedings.