TV on DVD 2/16/10 – King Lear, Barnaby Jones and Lincoln Heights

Shakespeare’s King Lear (Omnibus) (E1) is stripped down to a fleet 70 minutes for this landmark live TV event, staged for the prestigious CBS series Omnibus in 1953. Peter Brook, then the phenom director of British stage, was brought in to stage this production for the cameras, Virgil Thompson wrote a minimalist underscore and Orson Welles (not even 40 years old at the time) was brought in as the aged Lear, his theatrical stature still of some name value even if his marquee was not. This presentation, which was (after the introduction by host Alistair Cooke) played straight through without commercials on its original broadcast, is so whittled down that it feels almost abstracted from the play. Brook prepared this version specifically for TV, chopping out subplots and cutting away on secondary characters to focus on the deterioration of Lear. So while the slow build of the sisters’ schemes comes on pretty fast here, the slide of Lear into madness takes on a momentum that is thrilling. Arnold Moss channels the great profile and theatrical dignity of John Barrymore as the Duke of Albany as he becomes appalled at the scheme he has been a part of and Micheal MacLiammoir (surely brought in with the blessing, if not the urging, of Welles, who had just cast him as Iago in his film of Othello) is a deft Poor Tom, who brings a little soul to the tragedy with his wit and his loyalty.

Orson Welles is King Lear

There’s a reason that this production has stood the test of time: while it suffers in many ways as a Shakespeare adaptation, it also shows the possibilities of TV to combine theater and cinema with the intimacy inherent in TV, and the expressionist solutions to production challenges of live TV and multiple sets needed for such a production. Brook moves the production from the formal throne rooms and banquet halls of the royal castles to more expressionist locales created with the limitations of TV in mind: a storm on the heath on a bare hill of artfully windswept grass against a simple black cloth, the rickety gears of an ancient windmill in which Lear and his loyal followers take refuge, the abstracted suggestions of tents on a sketch of a beachhead. The sets become increasingly alienated and despairing as they get more stylized and expressionistic and lighting adds to the dark night of the soul with slashes of illumination and beams of shadows falling across the cast. Andrew McCullough directs the television portion with a visual sensibility beyond anything that was being done in live TV at the time, anticipating the dynamic staging and effective use of extreme close-ups that directors like John Frankenheimer would bring to live TV.

This production has been offered on home video for years in poor public domain editions, mostly on VHS tapes from video masters duped down so many times from the source that the image is blown out and deteriorated into a blurry haze. This edition is so cleaned up that the original technical limitations become apparent: imbalances in the live sound mix, focus issues in moving cameras and staging (especially with staging in depth in the shallow field of focus) and screen distortions introduced in the kinescope process itself. You can see the bend in the edges of the TV monitor as the camera pans over faces. In return, the visual contrasts look better here than ever before, the shadows have a weight to them and the sets feel carved out of the imagination.

Lincoln Heights: The Complete First Season (Shout! Factory) – LAPD officer Eddie Sutton (Russell Hornsby), struggling to find a home for his family where they won’t keep tripping over one another, takes a gamble on a department program and moves his wife (Nicki Micheaux) and three teenage kids out of their cramped apartment in the suburbs and into a former crack house in the inner city. It’s a real fixer-upper but the challenges are far more than architectural. The police are viewed suspiciously by everyone here, even other families on the block nervous about the gangs and street crime on their neighborhood, and Eddie’s presence in the hood (where he himself grew up) brings a lot of hostility on his family. That’s a lot of added pressure to add on to finding one place in a new school, a new neighborhood and, in a way, a different culture.

Created by Seth Freeman and Soul Food creator Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, Lincoln Heights is one of the few shows on TV centered on an African-American family in a largely black neighborhood. Needless to say, it’s not from one of the major networks. Rather, it’s another compelling family drama from the ABC Family Channel set in the complicated culture of the real world. As such the budget is more constrained than network shows but the creative staff is top notch. The director roster of the first season alone includes Kevin Hooks (also an executive producer), Bobby Roth and Michael Schultz, and Richard Roundtree guest stars in one episode as the kids’ maternal grandpa. The show, which debuted in 2007, just completed its fourth season. The DVD debut of the first season is bare bones: 13 episodes on four discs in a box set of two thinpak cases with no supplements but a program guide, which features a short introduction by the producer.

Barnaby Jones: The First Season (Paramount) – Buddy Ebsen is the retired private detective who returns to the father and son business when the son is killed on a case in this Quinn Martin series from the seventies era of crime television. William Conrad lends a hand (and his prime time fame) in the pilot episode, where his familiar Canon teams up with Jones to track down his killer, but from there on out it’s Jones, the plain-talking, milk-drinking, tough of son of a gun, and his daughter-in-law Betty (Lee Meriwether), who signs on as his secretary to get over her grief and never leaves, taking on the cases that walk through the door. It lasted for eight seasons and pretty much inaugurated the geriatric strain of prime time crime TV (kept alive through the nineties with Murder She Wrote, and Matlock and Diagnosis: Murder). The debut season numbered a short 13 episodes, collected on four discs in a standard case with a hinged tray. No supplements beyond the episode promos.

Buddy Ebsen is Barnaby Jones

Small Wonder: The Complete First Season (Shout! Factory) – “If a robot is raised as a real child, will it eventually be able to program itself to act as a real child?” More importantly, is there an audience out there who still thinks that this premise is worthy of even a season of sitcom situations, let alone four unbearable seasons? There is surely at least one fan out there for any and every piece of cultural detritus that has found a home on TV, but even so, this is probably one show that never needed a DVD package. On the other hand, I give Shout! Factory some credit for preserving the artifacts of tired kitsch TV, instantly dated items with a mild (if any) tug of sentimental remembrance to a few nostalgic souls. This early eighties syndicated sitcom about a suburban family with a robot girl (Tiffany Brissette) is cutesy family comedy at its worst. Think Bedtime For Bonzo by way of Bewitched, with nosey neighbors peeking in on the strange behavior and a canned laugh track working overtime to convince the home audience that any of this is funny. Dick Christie and Marla Pennington star but kid actors Jerry Supiran and Emily Schulman tend to get the bulk of the episodes. 24 episodes on four discs in a box set of two thinpak cases, plus commentary on five episodes (yes, they reunited members of the cast and the producer for this project, which just shows the respect that Shout! Factory gives anything it puts out, whether or not it deserves it) and a gallery of fan art.

Ben Stein hosts Game Show Moments Gone Bananas! (Mill Creek), a series of five TV specials originally made for VH-1 (the cable home of seventies and eighties pop culture nostalgia) featuring clips of goofs, gaffs and truly embarrassing moments of unscripted stupidity from American and British game shows. A game show vet in his own right, Stein is a perfect host for the program and the rapid-fire clips and comic detours keeps the energy level up. And if game show nostalgia is your thing, Mill Creek has plenty more to share, including multi-disc sets of The Best of Match Game (always good for a smutty joke on daytime TV), The Best of All-Star Family Feud (see the cast of Welcome Back Kotter take on the Barney Miller squad), The Best of The Price is Right (the Bob Barker years, of course) and The Best of Password (circa 1961-1967, including appearances by Jimmy Stewart and Woody Allen, though sadly not on the same program).

Also new: Cannon: Season Two, Volume Two (Paramount), The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Season Six (Fox), Lark Rise To Candleford: Season Two (BBC) and Head Case: Season 2 (Anchor Bay).

For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week and my featured DVD of the Week and Blu-ray(s) of the Week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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