Friday, January 4, 2008

Top 10 Television Series DVD Releases of 2007

The following are in no particular order, and you will notice a predisposition for shows of a certain vintage…

The Streets of San Francisco (Season 1, vols. 1 & 2)
In spite of falling in line with the massively irritating practice of splitting seasons into 2 volumes, we were so jazzed to see Streets arrive at all that forgiveness came quickly. Karl Malden and Michael Douglas play perfectly off each other, and the terrific location shooting more than made up for the by-the-numbers Quinn Martin scripts. The DVDs have about as sharp an image as any 35 year old show is likely to have, and the episodes (for the most part) appear to be the original, full length versions.

Hawaii Five-O (Seasons 1 & 2)
The first (and still one of the few) television shows to shoot entirely on location, Hawaii Five-O made a superstar out of Jack Lord, and ignited the still thriving tourist pilgrimage to America’s newest State. The show would suffer in later seasons as Lord continually pushed the supporting cast into the background (none would remain through the show’s final season in 1980) but the early years were flush with solid, well written storylines that touched on every imaginable element of the criminal world from muggings to international espionage. Paramount’s DVD sets feature impeccable transfers that are obviously the result of some pretty expensive digital restoration work, and we hope that the lack of extras changes with future sets, as the behind the scenes stories are rather infamous.

South Park (Seasons 9 & 10)
Defying every conceivable comedy trend, South Park actually gets funnier with each passing season. Season 9 features Trapped in the Closet, Ginger Kids, Marjorine, Die Hippie Die, and Wing. And Season 10 features The Return of Chef, Cartoon Wars, Go, God, Go, and the favorite episode of many a gamer, Make Love, Not Warcraft. There isn’t a more perceptive comedy on television, animated or not. The DVDs features the usual “mini” commentary tracks from creators Matt and Trey that always merit a listen.

Twin Peaks (Complete Series)
With the exception of the episode commentaries from the previous editions, this release turned out to be everything promised – the definitive visual and aural presentation of the series ever released. Co-creator David Lynch worked closely with Paramount, and the attention shows; the newly created supplementals feature candid remembrances from the cast and crew (particularly in regard to the famously weak mid-section of season 2). Another TV winner from Paramount.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 2)
The first season of this groundbreaking series about a pair of Secret Service agents traveling the old west by train was a clever combination of the classic TV oater combined with the then white hot, gadget-stuffed spy-travaganzas of James Bond. While the first season flirted with elements of the fantastic, the second virtually exploded with flying saucers, alternate dimensions, haunted houses, and a megalomaniacal midget who takes losing very personally – all in eye-popping color. Even the weaker scripts were redeemable in the hands of stars Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, who, unlike many of today’s stars actually seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience. No extras (Conrad’s audio intros from season 1 are missed) but another 4 star DVD transfer from Paramount.

Mission: Impossible (Seasons 2 & 3)
Perhaps the most densely plotted hour since the end of Playhouse 90, a season of Mission: Impossible really does feel like a box set of 25 short spy films. With very few exceptions, the shows followed a rigid formula under the supervision of producer/writer Bruce Geller, and the lack of continuing story arcs made for a very viewer-friendly experience (missed last weeks show? No problem!). Unlike many other shows of the era, much of the original cast are still with us, and it’s a shame that Paramount isn’t making more of an effort to corral them for interviews, but the more than 4 decade old show looks luminous on the Paramount DVD sets.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Entire Series)
Where Mission: Impossible concerned itself with the nuts and bolts of spying, UNCLE took the lead of the more escapist Flint and Bond film series. Robert Vaughn and David McCallum starred as “enforcement agents” working for an international group devoted to preserving law and order. It’s amazing to look back on a time when people had so much faith in the United Nations (for which UNCLE was clearly an armed, autonomous stand in) that it embraced the notion that they could send agents all over the world whenever it saw fit! This set (produced by Warner but distributed exclusively through Time Life) features all 4 seasons, beautifully remastered with hours of bonus footage – it’s always great to see McCallum and Vaughn together – encased in a geekgasm worthy briefcase replica.

The Incredible Hulk (Season 2) / The Fugitive (Season 1 Vol. 1)
The debt that Hulk producer Kenneth Johnson owes to The Fugitive had never occurred to me until I watched these sets at around the same time this past year. Today, season-long story arcs are old news, but in 1963 it was a damn near revolutionary. You kids today know The Fugitive’s plot from the Harrison Ford film from ’93 – an affluent doctor falsely accused of the murder of his wife escapes on the way to death row, and goes on the hunt for a one-armed man seen leaving the scene of the crime, always having to stay one step ahead of the police. David Janssen brought an epic world-weariness to Dr. Kimble (his sad eyes and pained expression made him the perfect pitchman for Excedrin in the 70s) and London-born Barry Morse turned the potentially one-note Lt. Gerard into a nuanced, sympathetic character – in spite of the fact that he was out to put the hero back on death row! While the pursuit of Kimble formed the spine of the series, each episode brought him to a new town with a new identity, making it very easy for new viewers to catch up. Each episode appears to be the complete version as originally broadcast, and looks terrific. Sadly, Paramount has again seen fit to split the 1st season into halves (the second is due in Feb) making the cost of a single season well over $60 – and that’s with Amazon’s discount price. Well thought-out supplementals would have helped to put one of America’s most important TV shows in some context, but there are none.

With the exception of a Gamma mutation that turned the hero into a green monster of pure rage, The Incredible Hulk stuck to the Fugitive formula very closely. While experimenting on the human capacity for great strength during times of distress, Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby, one of television’s most believable intellectuals) ODs on Gamma radiation that transforms Banner into the eponymous creature (former Mr. America, Lou Ferrigno, doused in green body paint that comes off much more often than I had remembered as a child) whenever he’s made angry. Most episodes followed Banner (“Believed to be dead!”) to a small town, often while on his way to another doctor or professor experimenting on aggression control or some such, finding menial work that allows him to hide his identity – all the while being pursued by tabloid reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin). The not-so-secret charm of both shows was watching how two extremely intelligent men eek out an existence on the outskirts of society; working for the bare necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, etc) in menial jobs where any display of intellect brings suspicion. Harassed nerds everywhere found their spirit animals in Banner and Kimble, who constantly find themselves in situations where they must use their considerable brains while pretending outwardly to be plain, simple folk. Though quality control on later Hulk episodes was known to be spotty, the first two seasons are almost uniformly great. Although the “factory” look of Universal television shows of the 70s is something that no DVD transfer can hide, both Hulk seasons look quite good. As for extras, including a full episode from the next season is a nice thought, but anyone who buys one full season of The Incredible Hulk is likely in for the whole ride (I like the second season episode “Stop the Presses” quite a lot, but I don’t need it twice).

Banacek (Season 1)
This lackluster DVD presentation makes it into the top ten only because we never thought that Banacek would ever see the light of digital day! Formerly a two season cog in the Wednesday Mystery Movie wheel on NBC, Banacek brought George Peppard to series television in the title role of a wealthy insurance investigator and proud Pole who works freelance for 10% of the value of the item stolen (diamonds, rocket cars, and even an airliner were just some of the items recovered by Banacek during the course of the series). The role was a perfect fit for Peppard, whose innate smugness meshed perfectly with Thomas Banacek’s confidence. Each episode would famously end with all the suspects gathered at the scene while Banacek breaks the caper down in classic drawing room mystery fashion – television comfort cuisine at its finest. This DVD set, however, is another matter; the pilot episode is MIA and the remaining 8 are rather poorly encoded and look far less sharp than the A&E reruns from the late 90s. Season 2, due Jan 22nd, is said to contain the missing pilot and have several extras, which will be several extras more than season 1.
Next - the HD wrap-up for 2007...