When Eyes on the Prize (PBS), a landmark six-part documentary series on the civil rights struggle between 1954 and 1964, first ran on public television in 1978, it was still recent history. The Montgomery bus boycott was barely thirty years before and is was only a couple decades since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law: not ancient history but events that much of the audience lived through. Many of the activists and protesters involved in those events are interviewed for the program, produced by Henry Hampton, but the power is in the rich collection of newsreel footage and news interviews from the day. This history was well covered by TV and newsreel crews, not just the sometimes violent confrontations but speeches by politicians justifying segregation and vowing to fight the federal government for their right to discriminate, interviews with protesters and civil rights leaders, even KKK rallies whipping up white audiences into a lather of fear and anger.
Political leader and civil rights activist Julian Bond narrates with a thoughtful calm that cuts through the anger onscreen and the injustice and outrage it rouses in the audience. Winner six Emmy awards and numerous other honors, it’s one of the most powerful documentary portraits of American history and it debuts on DVD in the wake of its rebroadcast on PBS: all six hour-long episodes on three discs in a box set of three thinkpak cases, plus an archival interview with creator Henry Hampton, who died in 1998.
The Abbott And Costello Show: The Complete Series – Collector’s Edition (E1) – Stars of stage, screen and radio, vaudeville comedy team turned comedy superstars Bud Abbott and Lou Costello took their act to the small screen in 1952. The first season of the show essentially transplants their hit radio series to television, with the boys stepping out from behind a theatrical curtain to introduce each episode, most of which incorporate at least one of their trademark routines (from “Slowly I Turn…” to “Who’s On First”) and all deal with this perpetually broke and unemployed guys trying to land a job or make a little money. It’s clean vaudeville in a TV format with an insistent laugh track and a collection of recurring characters Sid Field, a longtime A&C gag writer who wrote most of the first-season episodes, is a stand-out as their perpetually apoplectic landlord and dozens of bit parts, Joe Besser (a former member of The Three Stooges) plays the overgrown child Stinky, Hillary Brooke is the beautiful neighbor who makes Lou tongue-tied every time he sees her and Gordon Jones is Mike the Cop, who gets tangled up into all of their antics. The format changed with the second season, which did away with the introductions and many of the recurring characters, and this more conventional sitcom incarnation was subsequently canceled. The shows appear to be mastered from syndication prints and they look fine. 52 episodes in a nine-disc box set (with a rather unwieldy set of folds and clasps), with a collection of classic routines, Lou Costello home movies, the 1948 short “10,000 Kids and a Cop” (promoting Costello’s youth charity) and the 1978 TV tribute “Hey Abbott,” comprised mostly of clips from their TV show with comments by Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Joe Besser. Also includes a booklet with essays, stills and an episode guide.
Party Down: Season One (Anchor Bay) is a half-hour comedy in the mock-doc style of “The Office” inspired by the maxim delivered to the camera in an early episode: “If you want to be an actor in L.A., you better get used to catering.” This Starz original series follows the antics of a Los Angeles catering crew made up largely of struggling actors between auditions and roles and one actor (Adam Scott) who has given up the dream and resigned himself to a life in the service industry. The creative team includes Rob Thomas and some of his Veronica Mars writers, and they fill the series with veterans from the show, from Ken Marino as the overeager team leader and Ryan Hansen as a pretty-boy actor with a frat-boy sensibility to a very funny guest spot by Kristin Bell in the season finale. The ensemble cast also include Martin Starr as a struggling scriptwriter with sci-fi on the brain and Lizzy Caplan as the aspiring stand-up comic with an attraction to Scott (the most composed yet disinterested member off the staff), but the show’s secret weapon is Jane Lynch as the career extra who hasn’t let decades of walk-ons and bit parts dampen her enthusiasm. (Lynch since signed on with “Glee” and was replaced in the final two episodes of the first season by fellow mockumentary veteran Jennifer Coolidge.) Ten episodes on two discs, with commentary on one episode by creators/executive producers John Enbom and Dan Etheridge and actor Adam Scott, two very short promotional featurettes (made for the Starz channel), plus outtakes and a gag reel.
The tradition of the cheap creature feature that used to be a staple of drive-ins and juvenile matinees is kept alive by the Syfy Channel in their slate of original movies. High Plains Invaders (Vivendi), an installment of their “Maneater Series,” stars cult TV actor James Marsters (Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as a former soldier turned train robber who is inadvertently saved from the gallows when a swarm of giant metallic insects from outer space crash the one-horse town where he’s set to hang. It’s a mix of monster movie and frontier western shot in Romania with a small cast and a lot of budget-minded CGI effects for the big-ass bugs. The motley crew that bands together includes a scientist, a blacksmith, the sheriff, the outlaw’s old girlfriend (but of course) and a female bounty hunter ready to ditch them all to save her own skin or pick up an extra bounty. Not much story but lots of double crosses, heroic sacrifice and CGI bugs getting blown up with dynamite, which makes it a bit more entertaining than their usual generic offerings. No supplements.
Also new this week: Sharpe’s Peril (BBC), the latest installment in the 19th century adventure series, Kourtney & Khloé Take Miami: Season One (Lionsgate) from the E! Network, and Simon & Simon: Season Four (Universal).