Think of the lighthearted eighties spy series Scarecrow & Mrs. King: The Complete First Season (Warner) as a Hitchcock lark of an American innocent caught up in the machinations of Cold War shenanigans, all relocated to the eighties-era suburbia of network TV. At least that’s what the pilot episode aspires to. Dashing American agent Lee Stetson (Bruce Boxleitner), aka Scarecrow, on the run from deadly foreign agents drops a package in the hands of Amanda King (Kate Jackson). Suddenly this divorced mother of two and busy soccer mom in the suburbs of Washington D.C. is thrust into the world of international espionage and Stetson’s mission gets hopelessly tangled with this civilian’s life.
I can just hear the pitch: He’s a slick playboy, she’s the mom next door. He’s charming and worldly, she’s chatty and practical. She dotes on him and, despite himself, he becomes quite fond of her. Especially since his boss decides she’s just the stabilizing influence this risk-taking solo agent needs and drafts her help as a freelance operative whenever they need believable cover in “the real world.” Which, it turns out, is practically every week. Meanwhile she keeps her double life a secret from her mother (Beverly Garland, forever trying to get her remarried), her grade-school sons and her (unseen) dates. It’s hard to call the growing affection between them as romantic tension, but there is a slow build and couple of near-kisses (always interrupted by the timely arrival of a suspect or a world-shaking crisis) to string the viewers along to the next season of their very low-key flirtation.
You’d think Amanda would be too instinctively honest and empathetic to be an effective agent, but she’s a natural who instills a sense of trust in the folks that Stetson is assigned to protect (who better to befriend a princess sick to death of phony protocol and political gamesmanship?) and, in one episode, negotiates a Christmas Eve détente between armed and dangerous spies trying to kill each other. I’m reminded of John Steed’s description of Emma Peel in “The Avengers” TV series: “a talented amateur.” That’s Amanda King. “I think of my entire graduating class, I’m the only one who became a spy.” For a show full of assassination attempts and foreign terrorists with a late Cold War backdrop, it’s pretty unconcerned about putting a civilian in harm’s way over and over again, and the show’s breezy attitude (battling a conspiracy in a suburban enclave, Stetson duels with the spike ends of pink flamingo lawn ornaments) and underplayed romantic tension makes it work. You can probably chalk some of that up to executive producer Juanita Bartlett, who came to the show from The Rockford Files. Mel Stewart co-stars as Stetson’s boss and Martha Smith is the junior agent jealous that Amanda gets so many assignments without a lick of training. The show ran for four years. 21 episodes on five discs in a standard case with hinged trays. No supplements beyond the episodic previews.
Lee Horsley’s brief blast of TV fame hit its stride with Matt Houston: The First Season (Paramount), an eighties mystery series starring Horsley as a millionaire Texas cowboy in Los Angeles who balances the dull life of being a jet setting corporate honcho by freelancing as a private detective. Horsley is a southern charmer and who works his Texas drawl and colorful euphemisms on every case and gets an extra boost of southern charm from his sassy and sexy assistant C.J. Parsons (Pamela Hensley), who narrates the pilot episode (an experiment thankfully not repeated in the series proper). It’s a real snapshot of eighties network TV action, with chauvinism in full swing, comedy relief provided by colorful ethnic types, a computer right out of “Star Trek” and a millionaire bachelor pad with a waterfall and a mechanical bull. Yee-ha! 23 episodes on six discs in a standard case with hinged trays. No supplements beyond the episodic previews.
Tremors: The Complete Series (Universal) – After a series of direct-to-DVD sequels, the crazed subterranean eco-system of Perfection Valley became the location of a short-lived original series made for the SciFi Channel in 2003. Michael Gross reprises his roles as Burt Gummer, the survivalist gun-nut who refuses to leave his home even under the constant threat of becoming dinner to the underground omnivores, even after it has been turned into a sanctuary for the endangered species. But of course, the series finds ways around that protected status so that Burt and his new wingman (Victor Browne) can unleash arsenals of firepower at the various creatures that escape the confines of the valley. It’s your basic prehistoric gore-fest comedy adventure. Marcia Strassman and Dean Norris co-star. 13 episodes on three discs in a standard case with a hinged tray.
Greek: Chapter Four (Disney) – It’s a whole new school year for the college students of the ABC Family Channel series: golden girl Casey (Spencer Grammer) is trying to make the most of her senior year in the most exclusive sorority on campus, geeky little brother Rusty (Jacob Zachar) is balancing a science major with brotherhood in the college’s answer to “Animal House” and the Greek wars of house rivalries and dirty tricks continue unabated and even turns it up a notch when sorority queen bitch on wheels Frannie (Tiffany Dupont) starts her own sorority to spite her old house when she’s snubbed in the elections. Which makes it even more unlikely when rival frat presidents Cappie (Scott Michael Foster) and Evan (Jake McDorman) become brothers in a secret society. Plus Jesse McCartney guest stars as a new pledge that buddies (and fraternity rivals) Rusty and Calvin fight over. There’s plenty of backbiting and bonding and fumbling through the hard lessons of life and young love and youthful excess but I confess that (as if you couldn’t tell from this gleefully recounted checklist of melodramatic machinations) I’m a fan of this young adult college comedy-drama. At times it may play like a nighttime teen soap in a minor key but the young cast actually looks the part and the small scale show is filled with fun characters and all the pop culture references you could hope for. 12 episodes on three discs in a standard case with a hinged tray.
Stargate Universe SG-U 1.0 (MGM) actually came out weeks ago but my copy arrived late and I only recently caught up with it. I’ve never been a fan of the original Stargate SG-1 series (which began on Showtime and then moved to the SciFi Channel) and I never even dipped a toe into Stargate: Atlantic, but this show intrigued me. The Stargate franchise has become the Star Trek universe of the SciFi/SyFy channel (and, to take the metaphor to its logical conclusion that would make SG-U the equivalent of Star Trek: Voyager), but this latest spin-off was developed in the wake of Battlestar Galactica and that grittiness and dramatic darkness has been incorporated into the fabric of this series.
The pilot episode sends a group of officers, soldiers, scientists and civilians on a blind leap through an ancient Stargate and the previously inaccessible “ninth chevron” and the episode opens with them tumbling into dark room that turns out to be on an ancient spaceship—”Destiny,” according the English translation of the alien designation—flying faster than light away from the Milky Way, currently 7 billion light years from Earth (give or take a few million). The way back has been destroyed by an enemy attack that destroyed the base (and quite possibly the entire planet) and there isn’t enough energy on the ship to power a Stargate jump back to Earth even if they had the codes so the best they can do is learn all they can about this automated ship and its mission. But this is not the civil atmosphere of a Star Trek series, or even the necessary collaboration of Galactica. Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle), the scientific genius leading the investigation, is obsessive and arrogant, working from his own agenda and too self-absorbed to bother communicating his discoveries or his worries to anyone else. Neither the military nor the civilians trust him but they need him. Air is leaking from the ship and CO2 building up from their presence. They need food, water, energy, and information. “It’s essentially on auto-pilot,” explains Rush. “We’re just along for the ride.”
Colonel Everett Young (Justin Louis) puts the mission under military command but half these people aren’t military. There are power struggles for command. Only one person, civilian Eli Wallace (David Blue), a mathematics genius and laid back guy, is trusted by everyone, and his openness and optimism is sometimes all that gives them hope. Drawing the scientific magic of the Stargate universe, they have one communications lifeline back to Earth: the communications stones, which can send a consciousness across the galaxy and into another body for a period of time. And even that just creates more tensions as an officer back home (Lou Diamond Phillips) tries to take charge of the mission remotely without fully understanding the situation.
The series combines hardcore science fiction atmosphere of alien technology and mystery with a volatile atmosphere of human anxiety and desperation in a situation from which they see no way home and every day is another crisis. They are “the wrong people in the wrong place,” tossed into a mission that weren’t prepared for with no replacements on the way for anyone lost in a crisis. And the stakes become all too apparent in the final episode of this collection of ten episodes, when a murder investigation reveals rifts to deep they threaten to tear apart the leadership. The shift in tone and style has alienated some longtime Stargate fans while bringing in new viewers, like me. It’s still a show looking for its footing, but I like the atmosphere and the mystery and especially the focus on survival that so many shows ignore. It makes this universe a lot more real to me.
The DVD and Blu-ray releases both feature all 10 episodes from the show’s initial 2009 run, plus an alternate extended version of the three-part story that opens the series (with footage not seen in the broadcast version). There is commentary for each episode (by various actors and members of the production), numerous short featurettes on various aspects of the show, the production and the concepts brought over from the earlier Stargate shows, and extended versions of the “Kino Video Diaries” seen in the series. New episodes begin running in April, 2010.
Also new this week: Dalziel and Pascoe: Season One (BBC), In Plain Sight: Season Two (Universal) and Walker, Texas Ranger: The Seventh Season (Paramount).