The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (PBS) – The latest documentary epic from America’s chronicler Ken Burns explores not just the beauty and legacy of America’s National Parks, but the history of the unprecedented concept (Yellowstone, we learn, was not just the first National Park in America, but in the world). This is the story of the people who championed the parks, explored the wilderness and dedicated their lives to preserving the natural treasures of the country for all of its citizens from 1851 to the present, and the political reality they battled to make it happen then and continue to battle today (just try to preserve any piece of land that someone thinks they can exploit for profit in some way and watch the battle erupt). As with all of Burns’ documentaries, it is filled with a wealth of historical photos and excerpts from letters and memoirs of the people intimately involved with the projects, as well as beautiful footage of the parks today. But this is more than a nature documentary or a social history and Burns more than a dispassionate observer. He’s a champion of the parks system and makes the case for why it is important, what it represents and why it needs to be supported now more than ever.
The twelve-hour plus series debuts on DVD and Blu-ray mere days after the completion of its debut run on public television, with all six episodes on six discs. Supplements include “The Making of The National Parks,” bonus mini-documentaries on different parks and their champions, outtakes and behind the scenes footage. Both the program and the supplements are presented in HD for the Blu-ray edition, which is efficiently packed into a thick case with hinged flaps.
I hadn’t heard of Murphy’s Law: Series 1 (Acorn) before the DVD arrived for review but it was well worth acquainting myself with it. Launched in 2003, the British crime series stars James Nesbitt as Tommy Murphy, a drunk of an Irish cop when we first meet him. His wife and child were killed by the IRA in retaliation for his work and he’s spiraled into a well of self-pity behind his smart talk and jovial front. He’s a maverick constantly bucking orders and taking changes, a fairly common crime show trait for American shows but less familiar on British TV, and his quick wits and unconventional approach makes him a pain in the butt for his superiors but a natural undercover agent, which he proves well enough when his vice-squad investigation leads him to the heart of the London mob. The gritty series is very well written and full of color, in large part due to Nesbitt’s energetic portrayal, but the feature-length episodes also send him into volatile and violent situations, where he has to think on his feet and improvise under pressure to keep himself alive and civilians unharmed during his undercover assignments. Five feature-length episodes on three discs in a box set of three thinpak cases.
The British Van der Valk Mysteries: Set 1 (Acorn), starring Barry Foster is Commisaris Piet van der Valk, an unorthodox police detective on the streets of old Amsterdam, was a cult series in the seventies. Inspired by the novels of Nicolas Freeling and largely shot on location in the Netherlands, it’s from the era when British dramas were largely shot on video (with exteriors shot on film) and the style tends to keep the episodes stagebound, but then van der Valk was a more cerebral type of detective and Foster made his cagey engagement with suspects the focus of the show. This set features the first six episodes.
If you’ve a yen for sitcom nostalgia, then Mister Ed: The Complete First Season (Shout! Factory), the hokey series about a talking horse who passes advice on to his human buddy Wilbur (Alan Young), may be of interest to you but otherwise it’s more curiosity than unearthed treasure.
And of course the latest seasons of current TV hits are rolling out as the 2009 TV season begins. Medium: The Fifth Season (Paramount) continues to be one of the most interesting shows about family in addition to a compelling crime series. Nip/Tuck: Season Five Part Two (Warner) continues its overheated mix of melodrama and elective surgery. And arriving at my doorsteps to late to review were How I Met Your Mother: The Awesome Season Four (Fox), with the absolutely fabulous career revival of Neil Patrick Harris, and The Unit: Season 4 – The Final Season (Fox). A “Complete Series” collection of The Unit is also due out.