TV on DVD 04/27/10 – Survivors (then and now), John Mortimer before Rumpole and Rita Rocks on Lifetime
Survivors: Complete Seasons One and Two (BBC) – A worldwide pandemic rips across the face of the planet in what seems to be mere days, killing off over 90 percent of the population and leaving the rest to fend for themselves. The BBC remake of its seventies cult series of the same name is a plague thriller turned apocalypse conspiracy, a bit like the American show Jericho but without the comforting sense of community. British TV stars Julie Graham, Max Beesley, Paterson Joseph and Zoe Tapper are among the six strangers who band together can’t quite trust each other but must at least make the effort to survive a world gone tribal, where feral gangs prey on the weak and proto-societies become ruthless authoritarians who enslave outsiders.
BBC also releases the hugely popular Survivors: The Complete Original Series (BBC) on DVD this week. It unfortunately arrived too late to get more than a cursory look at the first couple of episodes, which moved at a much less hurried and harried pace, setting an atmosphere of loss and loneliness and fear of the unknown as the few Survivors go out looking for anyone left alive. But from what I could see (and glean from other commentaries on the show), the original series charted its way from scavengers and gangs of marauders to the attempt to creates a communal agrarian society.
The first two seasons of the 21st century incarnation remains in the culture of power struggles and predatory outfits, with the added element of a conspiracy drama involving a secret underground mix of political and corporate powers searching for a vaccine and sacrificing anyone and everyone for the cause as they see fit. The Survivors are immune, but this shadow government is not, and that makes them vulnerable, which is exactly where the end of season two leaves them. It’s not that deep but it is addictive, with its volatile group of characters (Beesley is a convicted killer whose loyalties are always in question) and the slow unfolding of the new social landscape, and it uses the best special effect of all to set the atmosphere: deserted urban locations, eerily bereft of human activity under the bright light of day.
Survivors: Complete Seasons One and Two features 12 widescreen episodes on five discs in a fold-out digipak. The 26-minute “A New World: The Making of Survivors” is your basic generic series overview with lots of interviews with actors describing how these issues are so relevant to today, plus there’s a featurette on the special effects and character profiles. Survivors: The Complete Original Series features 38 full-screen episodes in a six-disc set (five of the discs are double-sided flipper discs) and the BBC documentary “The Cult of Survivors.”
A Voyage Round My Father (Acorn) – John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, adapted his own autobiographical play for this understated 1982 British TV drama. On the surface it looks like a lighthearted tribute to his father’s eccentric joie de vivre with a healthy layer of social satire spread through scenes of public school education and courtroom theatrics (which, in this case, are indeed pure theatrics). Laurence Olivier cuts a memorable figure as the eccentric doting dad, a flamboyant and blind barrister who refuses to acknowledge his sightlessness (“He simply pretended that nothing had happened,” remarks our narrator), and Alan Bates is his grown son, who aspires to be a writer but diligently follows Father’s footsteps. Olivier brings a mischievous smile and an eccentric joie de vivre to the spiky Father, whether he is grandstanding in court or holding on some inconsequential subject at home.
You can see the origins of Rumpole in this odd duck of a barrister, but Mortimer also draws a significant distinction between his fictional hero, who follows the road to justice with a dry wit and a healthy sense of skepticism when it comes to the workings of the legal system, and his father, who keeps himself to divorce cases and is more concerned with winning than justice and having as much fun as possible in the process. Mortimer’s realization of his father’s imperfections as a role model is clear, but it doesn’t change his unconditional love for the man. But perhaps the author’s writings are a form of wish fulfillment, for his father’s career and perhaps even his own (the real-life Mortimer did indeed take a more passionate interest in the law and justice in later years, becoming a very active advocate for issues of free speech in particular). Mortimer is equally critical in his own self-portrait: the Son is earnest but passive, slowly turning into his father until he becomes a husband and father in his own right. Jane Asher co-stars as the Son’s supportive and loving but strong-willed wife, who challenges him to stretch himself as a man and an artist. The affection between Father and Son (unnamed in the film and identified only as “Father” and “Son” in the credits) is palpable throughout the low-key drama, but under the wry comedy of British manners and offbeat characters is a bittersweet portrait of a Father who uses humor to avoid serious emotional engagement (or any kind of seriousness for that matter) and a Son slipping into the same patterns. The deft direction by Alvin Rakoff and the strong performance keep the surface light while the more serious undercurrents churn underneath.
Rita Rocks: The Complete Season One (A&E) – MADtv veteran Nicole Sullivan stars as a harried (but humorous) wife and mother trying to juggle motherhood and a job while starting a garage band (literally, in her own garage). Though made for the Lifetime network, it’s a classic single-camera family sitcom, complete with smart-aleck kids and life lessons at the end of every episode (episode two: the perils of lying!). Created and produced by veterans of “Roseanne,” it’s very cute and sweet and not really my cup of tea (I’m not much of a sitcom fan) but I like Sullivan and appreciate the chemistry she has with Richard Ruccolo (as her husband), and it’s better than a lot of the network shows that I see for the column. And I can’t help but root for a mom trying to carve out a little time in a busy suburban life to feed her own muse. 20 episodes on three discs.
Pride and Prejudice (1995) (A&E), the definitive miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, was beautifully remastered for Blu-ray release in 2009. That digital restoration is now available on standard definition DVD.
Also new this week: Georgia O’Keeffe (Sony) with Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons, The Buddha (PBS), I Love Lucy: The Movie (Paramount), Sherri: The Complete Season One (A&E) and the British arts series Six Centuries of Verse (Acorn).