Oct 26 2009

TV on DVD 10/27/27 – Python histories, small screen Stanwyck and revisionist Galactica

Monty Python: Almost the Truth – The Lawyer’s Cut (Eagle Rock) – If Monty Python is the comedy world’s equivalent to The Beatles, then this six-part documentary mini-series (originally shown on the Independent Film Channel) is their Beatles Anthology, an epic of a documentary featuring new interviews with the five surviving Pythons and as many colleagues and friends as the producers could track down. Each episode focuses on a particular group project—the series, The Holy Grail, Life of Brian, etc—and the final episode is a touching tribute to Graham Chapman’s death and memorial, marked by (in their own words) “very little reverence and a lot of laughs.” The show loses that focus in the second episode when it takes an interminable detour into contemporary comedians recounting their favorite episodes but get back to the real purpose of the series, which is to explore the creative inspirations and working dynamics of the group.

Life with Python

Life with Python

After all these years, the Pythons have no trouble being completely frank about the strengths and weaknesses of one another and why that balance worked so well (and, in some cases, didn’t work so well). They all pretty much agree that it was the creative conflicts between Cleese and Jones that kept the balance of the TV series (if Jones had a weakness it was that he “cared too much,” according the Cleese, and Gilliam explains that Jones “fights doggedly and he thinks he’s right all the time and he’s not”) and when Cleese left in the fourth season, the balance was thrown off and the show suffered. But the most telling revelation is how little they were involved in one another’s lives outside of the show. They were friends, of course, but not as close as I always believed, or at least imagined. The three-disc DVD features an hour of extended interviews with the five surviving Pythons, 50 minutes of deleted scenes (including a visit to the Spam museum!) and six famous sketches (some of them cut short as they are removed from the larger fabric of the episode). The Blu-ray edition fits it all on two discs.

Making a perfect companion release to this set is The Rise Of Monty Python: The Other British Invasion (A&E), a two-disc collection with a pair of hour-long documentaries previously available exclusively in a “Collector’s Edition” box set of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. “Before The Flying Circus: A Documentary On Black And White” charts the formative years of the six men who would become Monty Python and makes adds to the information in Almost the Truth. “Monty Python Conquers America” is exactly what it promises: the story of Python’s rocky road to recognition in the U.S., where they were an underground phenomenon that the mainstream just didn’t understand. (“They couldn’t quite get what we were on about,” is a typical Python understatement about their appearance on The Tonight Show with Joey Bishop.) The story of how the series got picked up by PBS stations (after pitched battles with public boards and conservative viewers) and became a staple of public TV programming in the seventies is fascinating and could be the lost chapter of Almost the Truth.

The Barbara Stanwyck Show: Volume 1 (E1) – In 1960, Hollywood legend Barbara Stanwyck followed the lead of fellow leading lady Loretta Young to the small screen to host and star in her own TV series. After turning 50, she had a hard time finding substantial roles in the movies, but television was wide open and ready to develop a project to suit her stature and her abilities. “The Barbara Stanwyck Show,” a half-hour anthology drama with Ms. Stanwyck, lasted only a single season. It’s a standard anthology show with decent writing and undistinguished stories notable mainly for giving Stanwyck strong set of different characters to play every week. Though she introduces each episode in a glamorous gown (in the Loretta Young mode), she plays a range of active characters, from tough businesswomen to frontier wives to modern middle-class housewives struggling to protect her family. In “The Key to a Killer,” one of the best episodes in the set, she’s a deputy sheriff who has to outwit a killer (Vic Morrow) who tries to escape while handcuffed to her. (Other guest stars include Charles Bickford, Julie London and Lee Marvin.) Stanwyck attracted top directors, among them big screen veterans Jacques Tourneur (“Out of the Past”) and Robert Florey (“Mad Love”), and cinematographers like noir veteran Nicholas Musuraca, as well as solid guest stars, but these are simple short stories produced within the economies of TV, performed on small sets that could have been created for a stage production and directed with the intimacy that the small screen invited. The stories are less interesting than the star and Stanwyck is a class act throughout. E1 collects 15 of the show’s 36 episodes in a three-disc set, plus the unaired pilot, titled “The Sponsor’s Theater” (apparently standing in for whatever sponsor might pick this up), and a brief clip of Stanwyck’s acceptance speech for Best Actress from the 1961 Emmy Awards telecast. Film historian Robert Osborne contributes an essay to the accompanying booklet, which also featuers a nicely detailed episode guide.

The 21st century revival and revitalization of the campy science fiction series has come to an end but the creators have one last chapter for the fans. The direct-to-DVD feature Battlestar Galactica: The Plan (Universal) is neither sequel nor prequel to show but an imaginative bookend, a retelling of the saga in digest form from the Cylon perspective. Dean Stockwell, who plays the anti-human fanatic behind “The Plan” to eradicate the human race and infiltrates the human survivors as a man of the cloth. Every major character of the series winds through this project, which is woven from seemingly unconnected threads from the first two seasons of Cylon attacks and human resistance, both within the fleet and back on Caprica. Rather than a story of human resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, this perspective reveals the evolution of the Cylons from monolithic force to individual beings, irrevocably affected by their relationships with the humans. It’s a movement from mythic movement—the Cylon “children” of the humans rise up to destroy their parents—to personal journeys. This new perspective adds a retrospective resonance and poignancy to stories we’ve already seen, revealing the sacrifice of Cylon double agents to protect the humans they have come to love. This DVD feature doesn’t make sense outside of the mythology of the series, but it makes a marvelous new chapter to the epic tale. Edward James Olmos, Admiral Adama himself, directs and provides commentary with producer/writer Jane Espenson. Other supplements include a 19-minute featurette on the visual effects and three very brief behind-the-scenes featurettes. Also available on Blu-ray.

Black Adder Remastered: The Ultimate Edition (BBC) was released last week but it took me some time to catch up with it. Just for the sheer quantity of laughs in its wild comic situations and outrageously extreme characters, Black Adder is one of the great British TV comedies. Rowan Atkinson and Cambridge buddy Richard Curtis (later of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill fame) created the original series, with Atkinson as Edmund, the sniveling, prissy youngest son of King Richard IV who remakes himself as the dastardly villain, The Black Adder and attempts to murder his way to the throne. It’s like a college revue spoof of Shakespeare’s British history and ends with a cast decimation right out of Hamlet, but death didn’t stop Black Adder from continuing his romp through history in three subsequent shows, written by Curtis with Ben Elton (creator of The Young Ones). The descendents of Edmund Blackadder are a sharper, smarter bunch all around and Atkinson leaves behind the sniveling of the first generation for the razor wit of a cultured, cunning man surrounded by incompetents. He’s a gentleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth I (hilariously played by Miranda Richardson as an infantile party girl) in Blackadder II, the advisor to the buffoon of a Crown Prince of England (Hugh Laurie) in Blackadder III, and a captain trying to survive the trench warfare of World War I in the face of an oblivious commanding General (Stephen Fry) and idiot underlings in Blackadder Goes Forth. Tony Robinson is the eternal loyal servant Baldrick, a man barely ahead of protozoa on the evolutionary scale. The last series concluded in 1989 with only 24 episodes (plus the specials Blackadder’s Christmas Carol and Blackadder’s Cavalier Years) but remains one the most revived and celebrated comedies ever produced by British TV. The regular case reunited for one last special: Blackadder Back and Forth, a time travel farce. The six-disc “Ultimate Edition” features all of these incarnations, plus the “Baldrick’s Video Diary” collection of featurettes and behind-the-scenes peaks and Blackadder Rides Again, an hour-long retrospective of the show, originally made for the BBC in 2008 and featuring new interviews with the cast and crew.

Futurama: The Complete Collection 1999-2009 (Fox) – The second animated series from “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groenigs a sci-farce about a modern day human frozen and thawed out in the wacky future of the year 3000, was never as popular as his first and it came to end after five intergalactic seasons. The humor is in the same anything-goes vein of popular culture trawling, but in the words of Groenig: “‘The Simpsons’ is fictional. ‘Futurama’ is real.” Here are all 72 “real” episodes—plus the four direct-to-DVD features—featuring Cyclops space pilot Leela, carping robot Bender, crackpot scientist Professor Farnsworth, tentacled Dr. Zoidberg, dizzy airhead Amy and thick-headed 20th century pizza delivery boy Fry (who has been inadvertently preserved and resurrected in the 31st century). I never warmed to the show, but I do appreciate the way Groenig tosses the pop-culture gags around into a Twilight Zone of sci-fi weirdness, a day-glo world of technical marvels serving the same human absurdities of today. Fox drops them all into a conversation piece of a 19-disc box set collected in a plastic replica of Bender’s head. Just open up the door on the back of his dome and you’ll see DVDs where his brains should be (that would explain a lot). Needless to say it won’t fit on your DVD shelf but it will brand you a real geek when you put it on display. Features commentary on every episode, deleted scenes, storyboards, animatics, “How To Draw” galleries and oodles more supplements. Unfortunately, the robot-head disc compartment doesn’t include an episode guide.

The Guardian: The Complete First Season (Paramount) – Before he became “The Mentalist,” Simon Baker was Nick Fallin, a superstar corporate attorney in Pittsburgh humbled by his own hubris and taught a lesson by his punishment. Fallin is a classic character—a brilliant young lawyer with an ego to match his talent and an arrogance that gets checked when he’s arrested for drug abuse and sentenced to serve 1500 hours community service as child advocate at Children’s Legal Services—in a classic redemption drama, working for his father’s approval by being the most cunning lawyer in the firm. When he begins representing children at risk of being chewed up in the system, he rediscovers the conscience that has been unexercised in his corporate practice, but his hardball methods remain the same. Alan Rosenberg (of “L.A. Law”) plays Fallin’s passionate boss at Children’s Legal Services and constantly butts heads with him, Raphael Sbarge is a junior partner at the corporate practice who balances Fallin’s ruthlessness with a savvy understanding of the client (and is the closest thing Fallin has to a friend) and Dabney Coleman is Fallin’s protective father, a respected jurist and head of the firm who, by the end of the season, is nominated to become a judge. The series is a familiar legal show that mixes hardball legal dramatics and the melodrama of complicated personal lives with a social conscience. It’s a fine show with a good cast but is no more distinctive than the other legal dramas of the era. The series ran for three seasons between 2001 and 2004. This collection features all 22 episodes of the debut season on 6 discs in a standard case with no supplements.

Other notable DVD releases this week: Life After People: The Complete Season One (A&E), On the Road with Charles Kuralt: Set 1 (Acorn), The Fugitive: Season Three, Volume One (Paramount), Tales From the Darkside: The Second Season (Paramount), Mannix: The Third Season (Paramount) and a pair of late arriving sets from Fox: Bones: Season Four and The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Season Five.

For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.

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