It’s Garry Shandling’s Show: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory) – This is the review for Garry’s show, the silly, sophisticated and self-aware “stand-up sitcom” starring Garry Shandling as star and host of his own series. Originally made for the Showtime Network in 1986, this was not so much a spoof of sitcom conventions as a sitcom that invites the audience into the fabric of the genre: the star literally taking audiences into his home as his guest. That home just happens to be a three-sided set in front of a live studio audience, which is one point is itself invited to come down and hang out in Garry’s place between scenes. That awareness of the audience is fun, but it’s the awareness of the conventions of the sitcom itself—and the witty commentary that accompanies it—that makes the show so great. “All right, here’s where we are in the story…” begins one segment, and “I feel a dissolve coming on” makes Garry all woozy in a scene transition. As he waits for his best friends to give birth in second season, his apartment set becomes the sitcom version of “The Tonight Show,” complete with musical guest Tom Petty and Doc Severinsen arriving to deliver the baby. By the end of the show, they’ve worked through almost every sitcom trope there is, with good humor, great affection and some of the most ingeniously clever episodes of TV comedy ever made.
The show ran for four seasons and all 72 episodes are collected in this sturdy box set of 16 discs in eight thinpak cases. It’s worth pointing out that this is from Shout! Factory, the folks behind the great Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called-Life sets. They give this collection the same loving treatment, with a beautifully-produced collection filled with commentary, featurettes and archival goodies. There is commentary on 18 episodes with the show writers and producers, with Shandling himself participating in nine of them. “This is so the beginning of us starting to explore what this format would allow,” he explains as he finally loosens up in the pilot commentary. “There’s a stiffness to it that you don’t sense as the episodes go on and we loosen up.” Shandling and co-creator Alan Zweibel take us on the journey “Getting There: The Road to the Show” and the cast gets their say in “Being There: The Cast Remembers,” two of the six featurettes in the set. But the biggest vein of supplement gold is found in the outtakes, which are a window into the creative process and gives us an idea of how the live taping sessions went. Shandling plays the flubs as if they were part of the show, ad-libbing with the cast and tossing asides to the audience. There are also promos, show newsletters and segments from Michael Nesmith’s short-lived comedy series Television Parts written by and starring Shandling, sketches that first explored the approach that was realized in It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
Fawlty Towers: The Complete Collection Remastered (BBC/Warner) – Basil Fawlty, the brazenly rude hotel proprietor created and incarnated by John Cleese in his brilliant British sitcom, is the most insolent, boorish, hilariously obnoxious character in the face of customer disservice. He’s a man who treats his guests as an inconvenience to running his business, with the exception of rare visits from the aristocracy and other members of the upper-class, who bring out the insufferable toady in him. His screen wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) put it best: “You’re either crawling all over them, licking their boots, or spitting poison at them like some Benzedrine puff adder.” “Just trying to enjoy myself, dear,” he retorts with a tossed-off nonchalance. Cleese puts his contortionist comic ability to fine use, punctuating Basil’s outrageous faux pas with absurd gymnastics and slapstick ballets, while co-writer/co-star Connie Booth becomes his reluctant partner-in-crime as Polly, the maid forever enlisted to help Basil cover-up the disasters created by his penny-pinching shortcuts and ill-advised brainstorms. Scales’ Sybil is the obliviously chatty voice of reason whose disapproval terrifies Basil and Andrew Sachs mangles the English language as the Spanish bellhop Manuel, whose struggles with simple directions results in comic lunacy reminiscent of Robert Benigni. The ensemble is brilliant but it’s Cleese who makes every episode soar to dizzying heights of comic genius, punctuating Basil’s outrageous faux pas with absurd gymnastics and transforming Three Stooges-style pokes and kicks into a slapstick ballet, whether he’s berating an uncomprehending Manuel, flogging a temperamental car with feverish fury or launching into a stork-like goose-step in an impromptu (and outrageously inappropriate) impersonation of Adolf Hitler. The show ran for a mere six episodes in 1975, and then Cleese and co-creator Booth reunited the cast in four years later with a further six episodes without missing a punchline.
Those twelve episodes constitute the entire run of the series. They’ve been previously released on DVD but have been newly remastered for this three-disc set. John Cleese records new commentary for every episode, looking back with perceptive observations after more than 30 years, appreciative of what worked (especially of those contributions by his co-stars and collaborators) and frankly critical of every perceived slip and weakness of the script and his own performance. This is a master class in television comedy, from writing and directing to performance and execution. Also features newly recorded interviews with all members of the cast (including Connie Booth) in addition to the interviews with Cleese and co-stars Prunella Scales and Andrew Sachs from the previous DVD release, previously available commentary on each episode by the directors (John Howard Davies and Bob Spiers, respectively), outtakes and other supplements.
“My name is Dylan Hunt. My story begins on the day on which I died.” The opening to Gene Roddenberry’s 1973 TV movie Genesis II (Warner Archive Collection) takes a while to explain how scientist Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord in a really groovy mustache) went to sleep in 1979 and woke up in 2133, but once he wakes up we’re in classic Roddenberry territory of social commentary in sci-fi trappings, in this case a post-apocalyptic world where a (literally) underground society of idealists tries to preserve the art and knowledge of the past in the face of tribal groups fighting for dominance in the world above. John Saxon takes the lead in the sequel telefilm Planet Earth, where he’s taken prisoner in a matriarchal society of slaveholding women and immediately becomes valued as potential breeding stock (Saxon is, quite literally, a stud). The scripts, social commentary, idealism and minimalist futurism design come right out of Star Trek, and writer/producer Roddenberry even drafts Trek veterans to direct (John Llewellyn Moxey and Marc Daniels, respectively). It was Roddenberry’s intention to launch a new series but telefilms are all that he was able to produce. Unavailable on home video (one was released over twenty years ago on a long defunct video label, almost impossible to find even before the launch of DVD), they have developed a cult status over the years and make their DVD debut on the Warner Archive Collection, the no-frills, burn-on-demand service exclusively on the Warner website (Genesis II is here and Planet Earth is here). The prints are fine—preserved but not restored—and there are no supplements.
Robert Urich is in his element in Vega$: The First Season, Volume 1 (Paramount). He’s Dan Tanna, a Las Vegas private eye who zips around Sin City in a vintage Thunderbird with that swinging bachelor insouciance that only Urich can offer. He lives in a groovy bachelor pad where the garage is just an extension of the living room and showgirls do daywork answering phones, and between cases he’s on retainer to casino owner Phil Roth (Tony Curtis). But this Vietnam Vet has a way of making cases personal, and that makes this cool character get very hot-tempered. It’s dated, sure, but there’s a certain seventies attitude that makes this a lot of fun. Bart Braverman co-stars as his enthusiastic (if somewhat witless) legman and Will Sampson is an army buddy who helps out on occasional cases. The show launched with a smartly-written feature-length telefilm scripted by Michael Mann, which is collected along with the first ten episodes on three discs in a standard case with a hinged tray. No supplements, but you have the option to watch the episodes with or without the promos.
Also new this week: The L Word: The Complete Final Season (Paramount), Numb3rs: Fifth Season (Paramount), Hawaii Five-O: The Seventh Season (Paramount), Peanuts 1970s Collection: Volume 1 (Warner) with six half-hour TV specials and the newly repriced and repackaged Homicide: Life on the Street – The Complete Series (A&E).
For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.