The Anthony Horowitz-created British mystery series Foyle’s War ran from 2002 to 2008 in Britain and on public television in the U.S., and chronicled World War II from the homefront perspective of Detective Chief Inspector Foyle (Michael Kitchen), a World War I veteran assigned to solving domestic murders in rural villages in and around the coastal town of Hastings in Southeast Britain. The series of feature-length mysteries began in 1940, in the uncertain early days of the war while Fascist sympathies were still sounding off and America kept its distance, and moves chronologically through historical flashpoints (seen askew through the prism of Foyle’s own domestic challenges) all the way through to the end of hostilities and the closing of the station. Foyle’s War: From Dunkirk to VE Day (Acorn) gathers all of the previously released collections into a single, space-efficient 19-disc box set of five standard cases with hinged trays.
Foyle would rather be involved with the war effort than solving domestic murders in rural towns but his quietly incisive and soft-spoken manner provides a necessary service to the folks at home. His dogged pursuits are driven by a sense of justice yet haunted by his frustration and his apprehension at his son’s enlistment in the RAF. Foyle knows the horrors of war and would shield his grown boy if he could. The mysteries themselves are secondary to atmosphere and texture of British life and war jitters, and the slow development of Foyle’s team: war casualty Milner (Anthony Howell), who spends months coming to terms with his lost leg and the meaning of the war itself before settling in as Foyle’s right hand man, and driver Sam (Honeysuckle Weeks) as a would-be Nancy Drew with moxie and initiative—becomes one of the major pleasures of the low key series. Along the way, Horowitz explores the hysteria of nationalism and fear of foreign nationals, the unsettling domestic Fascist movement, the campaign to send the children out of London during the Blitz, the black market, looters, the uneasy tensions when the Yanks arrive and the mix of relief and tension as everyone awaits the official suspension of war powers after the surrender of Germany in the satisfying, bittersweet series finale. These shows are an intelligent and thoughtful look at a period not often plumbed for drama and stir historical events into the fictional stories, which gives the already smartly written shows a further injection of authenticity. It’s the rare series worth owning.
Life On Mars: The Complete Series (Disney) collects the one and only season of the American remake of the British crime drama about a police detective named Sam Tyler (played here by Jason O’Mara) who goes into a coma and wakes up in 1973. Did he travel back in time, is this all a coma-induced hallucination, some kind of limbo between life and death, or something else completely? To complicate things, he meets his mother and his pre-teen self and realizes that he’s arrived at the time that his father abandoned him: is he here to correct a past mistake? The show has a lot going for it: dynamic set design and costuming, a rockin’ soundtrack and a stellar, including Harvey Keitel, back on the mean streets of early seventies New York but this time as the tough, jaded, dedicated Lieutenant Gene Hunt, head of a Brooklyn homicide squad in a crime-riddled neighborhood. What it misses is the tone that the original British show caught so well on a significantly lower budget in Manchester, England. The American incarnation goes overboard in its seventies-philia and Sam’s constant editorializing about how in the future, there will be no more racism and sexism and we’ll respect civil rights of prisoners and yadda yadda yadda. It gets tiresome and the cast too often seems to be parodying rather than incarnating the seventies. Given that, Michael Imperioli (of The Sopranos) is terrific as a Brooklyn hardcase with an epic mustache and Gretchen Mol underplays the college-educated female cop undervalued by the macho boys club. It was cancelled and the producers had time to create closure (of sorts) in the final episode, but their solution is a disappointingly literal interpretation of the series title. 17 episodes on four discs plus featurettes and commentary on multiple episodes, including the series finale.
The Guild: Seasons One & Two (New Video) isn’t actually a TV series but a cult internet show that is now into its third season of 5-6 minutes episodes. Created by and starring Felicia Day (whose geek credentials include Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), this comedy about the eccentric and socially ill-equipped members of an online gaming community is a dead-on satire of obsessive gamers and online junkies who spend so much time communicating through virtual interaction and web cams that they’re not so good with actual social contact. Each season adds up to a 40-minute story, much of photographed like a video chat until forces beyond their control bring together in person. In season one, that force is the oblivious infatuation of Zaboo, a sheltered mama’s boy of a young adult gamer, with Day’s neurotic obsessive Codex (yes, they continue to use the names of their online identities). In season two, Zaboo moves in with unemployed, middle-aged guild leader Vork (Jeff Lewis) and the girls have a night out, which is always full of surprises with such an anti-social collection of misfits. You don’t have to be a gamer or a genre geek to appreciate this very funny show, but it helps, and word of mouth and fan buzz has made it an online phenomenon among gamers, young comedy fans and online tech nerds of all stripes. The two-disc set also features two commentary tracks per season, cast and crew interviews and audition footage among the supplements.
“They’re cousins / Identical cousins!” You can see the roots of the original The Parent Trap in The Patty Duke Show: Season One (Shout! Factory), the sixties sitcom starring Oscar-winning child star Patty Duke as boy-crazy Brooklyn teenager Parry and her shy, sophisticated, world traveler cousin Cathy. What a crazy pair! You may be surprised at how well the split-screen effects and simple body double tricks work in this almost fitty-year-old show. More interestingly, it took a few episodes for creators William Asher (Bewitched) and Sidney Sheldon to give Cathy something substantial to do in the show; apparently, a cultured, well-behaved, intellectually-inclined continental young lady just isn’t as much fun as an energetic American teen. William Schallert is the wise and savvy dad (and his own twin brother in a few episodes) and Jean-Pierre Aumont, Paul Lynde, Frankie Avalon, Charles Nelson Reilly and Jimmy Dean guest star this season. 36 episodes on six discs in a box set of three thinpak cases, plus a featurette with new cast interviews.
Also new on DVD this week is Cagney & Lacey: The Menopause Years (S’more), a box set of the four TV movies that reunited Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly in the nineties, the British sketch comedy Man Stroke Woman: The Complete Series (MPI), the cancelled series Kings: The Complete Series (Universal) from last season and two sets that came out a couple of weeks ago but just arrived at my doorstep: My Name is Earl: Season Four – The Final Season (Fox) and the cult comedy It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia: The Complete 4th Season (Fox).