Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season (Sony) – The second season of the skewed cable crime drama about a meek middle class high school chemistry teacher who takes up a new career as a crystal meth cook and aspiring drug kingpin shakes up his life—and his moral equilibrium—even more. Walter White is one of the most fascinating characters on television, a once-promising research chemist who gave up his Nobel Prize dreams and ambitions to take care of his wife (Anna Gunn) and son, mired in the disappointments of his unfulfilling career as he fights terminal lung cancer and throws caution to the wind to build up a financial stake for his family before he dies. Now this one-time retiring fellow faces violent drug dealers, rivals and an investigation by the FBI (led by his own brother-in-law), not to mention the fatal inexperience of his drug-addict partner (Aaron Paul), a small-time dealer trying to play in the big leagues.
Written and created by X-Files veteran Vince Gilligan, the show has a wicked sense of humor and a bleak sense of disappointment. In a strange way, this dangerous new lifestyle gives White an indomitability and daring that he never had before and his new life burns with an intensity that he’s missed all these years. All it costs him is an ethical equilibrium. Bryan Cranston won Best Actor Emmy Awards for the second year running as White, making the character both vulnerable and fearless as he crosses moral lines with every step up to the big time. The transformation riveting and haunting: we can’t help but like and care for this guy, thanks to Cranston’s very human and at times comic performance, even as he loses his humanity and becomes less sympathetic to the lives that get chewed up in his wake. 13 episodes on four DVDs or three Blu-ray discs, each with commentary on four episodes (including the first and final episodes of the season), plus deleted scenes, webisodes and a lot of short promotional featurettes. Exclusive to Blu-ray is “The Writers’ Lab: An Interactive Guide to the Elements of an Episode.”
This week also see the Blu-ray debut of Breaking Bad: The Complete First Season (Sony), the season that earned Cranston his first Emmy Award and launched Walter White’s career as the most sought-after meth cook in the southwest. This is the season where he shaves his head and faces down the local drug kingpin with a bag full of homemade explosives. The initial season ran a mere 11 episodes. The two-disc Blu-ray set also features colorful and often hilarious commentary by Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston and key members of the cast and crew on the pilot episode and episode six (the penultimate episode of the season). The 11-minute “The Making of Breaking Bad” and the 14 “Inside Breaking Bad” shorts are all standard promotional featurettes originally made for American Movie Classics. Somewhat more informative is the 16-minute segment of “AMC Shootout” episode with Gilligan, Cranston and co-executive producer Mark Johnson (among others). Also features deleted scenes and screen tests.
Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub), America’s OCD Sherlock Holmes, comes to terms with the jungle out there in Monk: Season Eight – The Final Season (Universal). The hopelessly phobic detective works as an investigative consultant and private detective in San Francisco with the help of his straight-talking Girl Friday, Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard) and the support of his former boss Captain Leland Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine), a true (and still sometimes exasperated) friend to Monk, and the socially awkward but earnest Lt. Randall Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford). Sharona (Bitty Schram), his first nurse and Dr. Watson, comes back for an episode where she trades notes with his Natalie, Stottlemeyer gives marriage another try (with guest star Virginia Madsen) and even the Disher makes a major life change. But it all leads to the two-part series finale, which brings Monk back to the murder of his wife Trudy (incarnated flashbacks and video recordings by Melora Hardin) that has haunted him all these seasons. The episode gives us a glimpse of Monk’s life before her death triggered his OCD overload and it’s marvelously played. Don’t expect a simple cure-all for Monk, though. It’s just another step to normalizing his phobias.
16 episodes on four discs in a box set of four thinpak cases. Tony Shalhoub, who is also an executive producer of the series, joins creator/writer Andy Breckman and episode director Randall Zisk for a video commentary version of the final episode. They use the opportunity to revisit the show as a whole, but the format is frustrating, with the episode boxed in a skewed quadrangle in a small section of the screen and the trio mirrored opposite while half the screen filled with dead space. An inset picture surely would have been a better solution. Also includes the ten-minute featurette “Mr. Monk Says Goodbye” (a retrospective piece partly shot on the last day for production), a collection of set tours conducted by co-producer Doug Nabors and EPK-style interview clips with creator Andy Breckman and stars Shalhoub, Traylor Howard and Jason Gray-Stanford.
South Park: The Complete Thirteenth Season (Paramount) – Superheroes and Smurfs, the Jonas Brothers and Kanye West, reality TV and Fox News all get the South Park treatment in the thirteenth season of the primitively animated, cheerfully rude, scatologically minded adventures of four foul-mouthed tykes navigating the treacherous snows of adolescence. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s crudely animated series made for Comedy Central is decidedly not for kids, despite the cut-out animation and construction-paper color. But under the vulgar comedy is a smart and clever blast of sharp (and hilarious) social satire and Trey Parker and Matt Stone are equal opportunity farceurs: they take on excesses and absurdities on both the right and left of the political spectrum, though this collection is less politically topical than previous seasons. Targets this time around include purity rings, Somali pirates, Glenn Beck and the death of Michael Jackson, and they are lampooned ferociously with aggressively politically incorrect humor. All 14 episodes are uncensored on DVD and Blu-ray, which means that all the language that is otherwise bleeped out on broadcasts is intact, and a lot of very foul language emerges from the mouths of these incorrigible kids (with one exception: Ike’s outbursts in the episode “Dead Celebrities” are kept, preserving this toddler’s innocence). I can’t help but admire their ability to blast through the boundaries of good taste and “acceptable” subject matter with such ingenuity and inspiration. Also features seven deleted scenes and a tour of the South Park studios
Clash of the Gods (A&E) – The deities of myth and legend are given the historical documentary treatment in this series created for the History Channel in 2009 and released to DVD just in time for the Clash of the Titans remake. It’s the familiar History Channel documentary series format: an authoritative narrator lays out the stories while interviews with college professors and scholars fill in details and offer interpretations. It gets more hokey and overwrought as pageant-like scenes, silently played out by hammy performers posturing against appropriate backdrops, are offered as illustration while flashy visual punctuation, ominous musical stings and cheap digital effects add to the drama. But rather than a refresher course on mythology, each of the ten episodes profiles a god, hero or monster of classical mythology, from Zeus, Hercules and Hades of Greek myth to Odysseus, Beowulf and Thor (with a single episode dedicated to the mythology created by J.R.R. Tolkien), and sets the stories against historical events and experiences that may have inspired them: “So goes the myth,” repeats our narrator, “but what is the link to reality?” Myths were a way for primitive cultures to “explain the unexplainable,” so the flood of the Greek plateau at the end of the Ice Age may have inspired the great flood of Zeus (and, by extension, the story of Noah’s Ark), and a enormous, hugely destructive volcanic eruption on a Greek island is explained as a war between the gods. It’s speculative, of course, but it is the work of history to make such connections and this series is rich with such observations, as well as recognizing and exploring the stories, motifs and references that are found across cultures and religions. 10 episodes on three DVDs or two Blu-ray discs, each in a standard case. No supplements.
Also new this week: Wish Me Luck: Series 1 (Acorn), a superior 1980s British series about civilian women who become British agents working with the French Resistance in World War II (I only had time to get through about three episode but I like what I saw), the 11-disc set The Ruth Rendell Mysteries Collection (Acorn) and Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XVII (Shout! Factory), which features screenings of The Crawling Eye, The Final Sacrifice, The Beatniks and Blood Waters of Dr. Z on the Satellite of Love.