Fringe: Season One (Warner) – From producer J.J. Abrams and co-creators and producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci comes this stylish trip into fringe science with X-Files trippiness but decidedly earthbound conspiratorial overtones. Anna Torv is the serious, straight-laced agent put in charge of a special unit dedicated to cases that defy rational explanation and conventional science, sort of a CSI team that Fox Muldar would have loved. Joshua Jackson is the happy-go-lucky rebel genius to her crisply dedicated agent, an international hustler pulled out of his underworld shenanigans to babysit his estranged father and the team’s star player: brilliant scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), who is pulled out of the high security psychiatric facility where he’s lived in isolation for 17 years. This is a show where freaky things happen on a weekly basis (Astral projection! Teleportation! Interdimensional travel! Humans transformed into hideous mutant creatures!), but the dark style and grave tone of the show is mellowed by Noble’s deft and playful as the eccentric Walter, whose already shaky social skills have long ago evaporated into the ether (“It’s like listening to a broken record but the lyrics keep changing,” describes his sardonic son). It’s one of the most expensive and visually impressive shows on TV, with wildly fantastic cases and a complex history that, like The X-Files, wraps all of the characters up in its web. Watch for the long-anticipated appearance of William Bell, the mystery man at the center of the web, in the season finale: you’ll love it when he finally reveals his face.
There are 20 episodes on seven discs (five discs on Blu-ray) with a nicely produced set of supplements. “Robert Orci’s Production Diary” is a tour through the shooting of the pilot episode and its lavish 31-day shoot, “Fringe Visual Effects” gives a sense of the scope of the show’s special effects by looking into a few key creations from select episodes and “Evolution: The Genesis of Fringe” charts the development of the show (it’s nice to hear Abrams describe how he drew inspiration from David Cronenberg’s films) . Also features commentary on three episodes (including the feature-length pilot) by the writers and producers, more featurettes and deleted scenes. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is “Fringe Pattern Analysis,” with comments on six select scenes by experts on the science and the theoretical ideas behind the applications in the show, and commentary by the writers on the season finale.
The eighties undercover thriller Wiseguy was originally released in a series of partial-season sets between 2003 and 2005 from StudioWorks, now out of print. The budget-minded Wiseguy: The Complete First Season (Mill Creek) brings the series back in a very affordable form. The video quality is a fraction hazier than the earlier, out-of-print StudioWorks releases, which is only a minor consideration, and this set features none of the interviews or commentary tracks, which is a fair trade-off for the price and the compact size.
Ken Wahl is rookie deep cover agent Vinnie Terranova and his first assignment is to penetrate the organization of New Jersey mobster Sonny Steelgrave (Ray Sharkey). He does his job almost too well, becoming Sonny’s right hand man, most trusted ally, and best friend. As he digs up evidence on the organization, he also becomes protective of his pal as rival mobs plot against him and even frame him for a cop’s murder, and Vinnie’s guilt over his upcoming betrayal starts to eat him alive. “I never thought we’d be friends,” he muses in the story’s beautifully written coda, where best friends and mortal enemies Vinnie and Sonny face each other and their own culpability. The first season is split into two major story arcs. In the second, Terranova goes looking for hired assassin Roger Lococco (William Russ), finds drug dealer, arms merchant, and manic depressive genius Mel Proffit (Kevin Spacey) and his sister Susan (Joan Severence), and ends up in a conspiracy to overthrow a third world government. Paranoid, unstable, and utterly ruthless, Proffit is the role that first gave Spacey the chance to fly with a part and he does so memorably, creating one of the most unpredictable characters on TV. His signature line, “Only the toes knows” (usually uttered as he wiggles them barefoot), is topped only by Lococco’s nickname for everyone: “Buckwheat” (uttered with a benign smile, though Lococco is anything but benign). Terranova ends up plunged even farther in doubt and despair. Jonathan Banks is Sonny’s thick-skinned handler Frank McPike (his weary, seen-it-all expression is the antithesis of the roiling emotions—guilt and anger and fear—that Vinnie radiates like a green street thug), and Jim Byrnes is the easy-going Lifeguard, Vinnie’s lifeline to the FBI and at times his best friend in a world where no one can be trusted. 22 episodes on four discs in a curious but effectively designed keep case that holds the discs in separate paper sleeves stacked in a snug holder. No episode guide, but the episodes are listed on each disc, which are easily accessed in the case.
Harper’s Island: The DVD Edition (Paramount) – Think of this limited series as a soap opera remake of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” by way of a modern slasher movie (with network levels of violence). A wedding party heads off to an island in the Puget Sound where serial killer John Wakefield took half a dozen lives years ago. “Seven years ago he just showed up on the island and started killing. He chopped, hung and burned anyone that was unlucky enough to get in his way.” There’s your set-up. Wakefield is dead, or so everyone keeps saying, so it couldn’t happen again, right? Right? Well, the murders begin even before they reach the island: one guy is tied to the boat’s prop, with a scuba tank keeping alive long enough to watch himself get chopped to chum as the boat heads out into the sound. There’s a body or two every episode, usually dispatched in some high concept manner, until a handful of survivors band together to fight off the crazy killer (just where did everyone else on this island community go?). It’s not much of a mystery but it is a handsome piece of contrivance and it could make for a good drinking game: knock one back with every murder, or better yet, make bets on which straggler or person heading off alone into the woods will get offed next. Extra points for predicting the method of death. 13 episodes on four discs, with commentary on four episodes (including the pilot and the finale), four featurettes, webisodes and deleted scenes.
Lie To Me*: Season One (Fox) actually came out a couple of weeks ago but I only just received the set. “Body language tells the truth,” is the mantra of Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth), the top “deception expert” in The Lightman Group, a firm that hires itself out as human lie detectors to corporate entities, private clients and government agencies who need their special talents. Lightman and his fellow experts (partner Kelli Williams and junior agents Brendan Hines and Monica Raymund) spend episode after episode explaining every detail to one another in babblespeak of dubious legitimacy (“In a fake smile, there’s no eye wrinkling”). Tim Roth holds the screen as Lightman, an arrogant investigator who has become disillusioned and cynical because he believes since everybody lies, then people aren’t to be trusted, and he isn’t above using his talents on his own team members, which carries inevitable consequences. But otherwise “Lie to Me” is just latest incarnation of the forensic formula popularized by “CSI” and its spin-offs and knock-offs, criminal procedurals that focus on specialized talents which, inevitably, turn out to be the ONLY tool that can possibly solve the case at hand. The formula is ubiquitous and while the science behind the show is real (inspired in large part by the work of Dr. Paul Ekman and his study of microexpressions), the characters seem to leap to conclusions based on the slightest evidence and the most awkwardly telegraphed “tells” that the supporting cast is counted upon to deliver each week. 13 episodes on four discs (three on Blu-ray) with a general featurette on the development of the show and deleted scenes.
In Parks and Recreation: Season One (Universal), Amy Poehler stars as Leslie Knope, the Deputy Director of the Pawnee, Indiana, Parks and Recreation Department, a dreamer in an environment that reveres power over public service and an idealist who believes in what she’s doing, even if she really doesn’t really know how to do it. This comedy of incompetence, office politics and petty turf wars in municipal government and small town bureaucracy comes from the creators of the American “The Office” and is shot in the same mock doc/reality show style. The abbreviated try-out season of six episodes charts her efforts to turn a dangerous open pit in a vacant lot into a public park. The project faces stiff opposition from not just her boss (“I don’t want the parks department build any parks because I don’t believe in government.”) but the public itself, none of which deters her quest. “The Office” alumnus Rashida Jones co-stars as a citizen who joins in her campaign and Paul Schneider is the city planner who hits on every woman who passes through the office except for the lovesick Leslie. The series has the same low-key humor and the comedy of discomfort and awkwardness of “The Office,” with Leslie only slightly smarter and more self-aware that Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott, but it never quite strikes out to find its own identity in the six-episodes season. The single disc features cast and crew commentary on every episode, an extended cut of the season finale and deleted scenes.
Also new this week is The Office: Season Five (Universal), where the fun never stops at Dunder Mifflin as long as blindly insensitive, blithely sexist, utterly ineffectual manager Michael Scott is running the show. This season he falls in love (with guest star Amy Ryan) and starts a rival paper company while no-nonsense company man (guest star Idris Elba) takes over the branch. 26 episodes on five discs in a digipak (four discs on Blu-ray) plus commentary on select episodes, a presentation from the “Academy of Television Arts and Sciences” and over three hours of deleted scenes among the supplements. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the interactive “One-Liner Soundboard.”