TV on DVD 05/25/10 – A British Minder, Louis L’Amour Westerns and The Greatest American Hero

Minder: Seasons One and Two (BFS) – I was initially dubious when I read the description on the case: “One of the best-ever British TV series.” I’d never even heard of the show before this release. Now I can’t imagine how I’d missed it. A comic drama set in the smudged lines between opportunistic hustling and criminal schemes, this is a marvelous show with the sensibility of a Rockford Files in the London urban underworld. Dennis Waterman plays Terry McCann, a former boxer and ex-con who gets by as a “minder”—bodyguard, bouncer, collector, driver, as long as it’s legal and he’s not expected to start anything. He’s a guardian angel with grit, underworld experience, smarts and a wage, but he’s he soul of generosity next to sometime partner Arthur Daley (George Cole), a used car dealer and full time hustler always playing an angle or planning some scam. They invariably tangle Terry up in some kind of trouble.

George Cole and Dennis Waterman in "Minder"

The writing is witty, the characters colorful and conniving and the guest cast generally quite good: Derek Jacobi is a coolly effective con man in one episode and George Baker an intimidating crime boss in the first season finale, “You Gotta Have Friends,” which opens like a British version of “The Long Goodbye” but ends up with its own story,. Launched in 1979, this hour-long series favors higher production values than the seventies British shows that have recently been showing up on DVD, shot completely on film and featuring plenty of street scenes and location shooting. The Second Season also debuts in a separate set this week. Both sets feature 11 episodes on three discs in a double-wide case with overlapping figure-8 design. No supplements.

Two of the three adaptations of Louis L’Amour novels in the three-disc The Louis L’Amour Collection (Warner) are among the best westerns ever made for TV. L’Amour’s own easy voice and gentle rhythm sets the tone and pace of The Sacketts, a loping, rambling three hour-plus TV movie adaptation of his novels The Daybreakers and Sackett. Sam Elliot stars as the elder Sackett, a nomad hunting and trapping in the mountains who happens upon an ancient treasure, and Tom Selleck and Jeff Osterhage are his younger siblings, forced to leave home to avoid a Hatfield and McCoy situation. As the Sackett brothers winds their way across the Midwest prairies and mountains we join them on cattle drives and gold hunts, gunfights and fistfights, and a climactic showdown as they find their place in the world. This 1979 TV film meanders like a lazy river winding through a beautiful landscape of peaks and plains and forests, punctuated by the occasional gunfight and enlivened by story that celebrates both the open range and the taming of the towns. Elliot almost looks young but flashes his savage eyes behind a thick black beard, while Selleck’s easy-going manner is backed up with a stone faced determination. The excellent cast includes a veritable who’s who of western character actors: Glenn Ford, Ben Johnson, Gilbert Roland, Gene Evans, Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, Mercedes McCambridge, and Pat Buttram.

Sam Elliot aged beautifully into the even more rough-hewn lead of the 1991 Conagher, a laconic character piece set on the simultaneously beautiful and brutal frontier. Elliot’s gravely drawl, flashing eyes and bushy mustache made him the great wandering survivor of the old west, and here he plays a cowhand who drifts into the life of widowed frontier wife Katharine Ross (the lonely, random death of her husband defines the film’s portrait of life on the untamed western plain). The lovely direction (by former cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos) of their rough-hewn lives captures a unique rhythm of life, and the delicate direction of the performers gives a grace rarely seen in the genre. The set is filled out by the 1971 feature Catlow with Yul Brynner.

The Greatest American Hero: The Complete Series (Mill Creek) – Believe it or not, William Katt is walking on air and it’s up to Robert Culp to keep him from tripping in Stephen J. Cannell’s tongue-in-cheek superhero series about mild mannered high school teacher Ralph Hinkley (Katt) who has a close encounter with aliens who hand him special suit that endow him with superhuman powers and an instruction manual. Which he promptly loses. Much to the frustration of hard-headed FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Culp), who discovers that it only works on Ralph. With the help of his attorney girlfriend Pam (Connie Sellecca) and Agent Maxwell, he tries to figure out how the darn thing works. There is much crashing into walls as he works out the details. Michael Paré and Faye Grant co-star. The series ran three seasons and the third and final season reunites Ralph with the aliens and finally sees him married to Pam. The show has been available in a deluxe set previously. Mill Creek now offers a bargain collection featuring all 43 episodes on nine discs in a curious but effectively designed keep case that holds the discs in separate paper sleeves stacked in a snug holder. Also includes a new interview with creator Stephen J. Cannell.

30 Days: The Complete Series (Virgil) – Morgan Spurlock takes the premise of his hit documentary Super Size Me, where he spent 30 days on a diet of McDonald’s fast food, and applies it to other facets of American life in this reality series with a social undercurrent. He and others are challenged to spend 30 days living well outside their comfort zones. In the first season alone, Spurlock and his fiancée try to survive on a minimum wage job, a devout Christian moves in with a Muslim family and immerses himself in their culture, a homophobe goes to work in San Francisco’s largely Castro district, a typical idle class consumer couple moves to a Missouri “eco-village” and loves “off the grid” without any fossil fuels or oil by-products. Originally made for FX, the series lasted three seasons and 18 episodes. This six-disc collection (in a double-wide case with hinged trays) features the entire show, including the DVD debut of “Season Three” (also available separately). Also includes commentary on select episodes and “Diary Cam” from Season One episodes.

The Jeff Dunham Show (Paramount) – It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Jeff Dunham has made ventriloquism hip—his act is nothing if not old fashioned comedy with contemporary references (Achmed the would-be terrorist—what a card!)—but he’s made it popular again. After sold-out tours and TV specials he launched a (short-lived) series on Comedy Central with his familiar cast of characters: Walter, Achmed, Bubba J, Peanut and Jose Jalapeno. All seven episodes of the 2009 show are on the single-disc release, along with an unaired sketch, behind-the-scenes footage and bloopers.

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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