True Blood: The Complete Second Season (HBO) – HBO’s contribution to the vampire craze, a sexy southern gothic melodrama of vampires in the bayou adapted (and greatly expanded) from the novels by Charlaine Harris by Alan Ball, is the pay cable channel’s most successful original series in years. The first season was the top TV-on-DVD seller of 2009 and the second season should do as well with the true believers.
Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer continue to anchor the show as telepathic roadhouse waitress Sookie Stackhouse and soulful vampire Bill Compton, one of the many undead bloodsuckers who “came out” with the invention of synthetic blood and is attempting to find his place in human society. But the roadblocks to their love are great indeed: a supernatural beast on the hunt for Sookie, demi-god orgies casting a spell on her town and her best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley), whose response becomes something akin to an addiction (complete with an intervention and cold-turkey withdrawal), a religious cult war against the vampire nation that tangles up Sookie’s gullible brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten), Bill’s responsibilities as a “maker” to a newly turned vampire, and Bill’s warden (Alexander Skarsgård) making a play for Sookie (or at least for control of her unique talents). This is a sexy show, to be sure, but it’s also primal and feral (the humans as much as the vamps) and mix of prejudice and predators and cultural color gives it plenty to chew on. Guest stars this season include Michelle Forbes as a philanthropist with an agenda and Evan Rachel Wood as the vampire Queen of Louisiana.
12 episodes on five disc on both DVD and Blu-ray. Both feature commentary on seven episodes by creator Alan Ball, stars Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer and other members of the cast crew, and the mock-documentary featurettes “The Vampire Report: Special Edition” and “Fellowship of the Sun: Reflections of Light.” The Blu-ray edition features the “Enhanced Viewing Mode,” which is less an enhancement than a tongue-in-cheek collection of character commentaries (from supporting characters Hoyt, Pam, Karl and the Reverend Steve Newlin) and pop-up trivia-style facts and hints, along with “news updates” form the pro- and anti-vampire camps and instant access to appropriate flashbacks and flashforwards. Fact is, it’s more of a distraction than an enhancement, and certainly no alternative to a solid commentary track. The new season begins on HBO in June.
The Virginian: The Complete First Season (Timeless Media) – An anthology-style western in the Wagon Train mold, The Virginian, loosely based on Owen Wister’ 1902 western novel, was TV’s first 90-minute western. That gave writers the opportunity for more ambitious dramas—without commercials, it’s the length of a short feature—and it joined the ranks of the “adult westerns” filling the TV schedules, eventually running for nine healthy seasons through the 1960s. James Drury plays the title character, a ranch foreman who is (as they say) good with a gun, while Hollywood veteran Lee J. Cobb gets top billing as the ranch baron and local judge: the gun and the law. A lively Hugh O’Brian (TV’s Wyatt Earp) guest stars in the pilot and Sam Fuller writes and directs a stand-out episode: “It Tolls for Thee,” with guest star Lee Marvin as a ruthless gangleader who kidnaps the judge. 30 episodes on 10 discs, plus video interviews with star James Drury, co-stars Gary Clark and Roberta Shore and guest-stars Robert Fuller and Peter Brown, in a book-like digipak in a tin case.
The USA network “Characters Welcome” formula is alive, well and thriving in Royal Pains: Season One (Universal), a lightweight comic drama of an unconventional doctor to wealthy ner’er do wells in paradise. Mark Feuerstein is New York heart surgeon Dr. Hank Lawson, a man whose passion for patients over politics loses a high-profile patient and his hospital position (along with his fiancée and his future), but lands him a gig as a “concierge doctor” in the Hamptons, which his brother (Paulo Costanzo) helps market into a thriving business. It is formula, but it’s also fun, with characters that are good company and medical mysteries that are more down to earth than those on “House,” and Campbell Scoot is excellent as Boris, the mysterious aristocrat who puts Hank up in his guest house. 12 episodes on three discs in a box of three thinpak cases, plus commentary on select episodes, deleted scenes, a featurette and “Paulo’s Video Blogs.”
Leverage: The Second Season (Warner) – The second season of the lighthearted TNT original series—a modern take on It Takes a Thief with Timothy Hutton as a former insurance investigator now leading a team of colorful thieves (Gina Bellman, Christian Kane, Aldis Hodge and Beth Riesgraf) in missions of poetic justice—stumbles a little over too-cute scripts and overly comic complications in its heist plots and elaborate cons. But the show shakes things up a bit when Hutton hits the bottle again and Jeri Ryan joins halfway through the season as a temporary member, a con woman who likes to walk the tightrope and play dangerous and clashes with Hutton’s close-to-the-vest leader. 15 episodes on four discs in a standard case with hinged trays, with commentary on each episode, a Q&A with the creators and a handful of featurettes. New episodes begin in July.
Strange New World (Warner Archive) – “This is PAX space laboratory. We were working on an experiment in suspended animation…” If the introduction to this 1975 TV movie sounds familiar, especially coming from the mouth of John Saxon, it may be because it’s essentially a reworking of the Gene Roddenberry telefilm/series pilot Genesis II and its sequel Planet Earth (see reviews on my blog here). Saxon isn’t a scientist, of course. He’s a macho military officer turned astronaut with a sensitive soul. Just the man to lead the actual scientists (Kathleen Miller and Keene Curtis) through the post-apocalyptic jungle (it’s too lush to be wasteland) of Earth in a futuristic all-terrain vehicle 180 years after a meteor shower has destroyed civilization as we know it. Roddenberry isn’t actually involved in this film but you’d never guess from the script, which come right out of the Star Trek playbook. In fact, the telefilm plays more like two episodes of a never-sold series stitched together in the middle. In the first half, they come upon a seemingly utopian society (it looks like a medieval fair, with all the citizens in Roman togas) that has cloned itself into perpetuity, at the usual price of immortality (at least as seen in Roddenberry shows). The second plays out in a former national park where survivors have divided into feral packs of hunters and a group of holy protectors of the animals whose life is defined by their book of laws, handed down by the elders, which turns out to be the “Code of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.” James Olson (The Andromeda Strain) “guest stars” in the first story and Bill McKinney and Gerrit Graham are the guest cast in the second story. It’s unmistakably a Roddenberry show, even if his name is nowhere to be seen on the credits, and it delivers the same kind of humanist message and moral. No supplements. Available exclusively from the Warner Archive.
Also new this week: Bing Crosby: The Television Specials, Volume One (Infinity), which includes his 1954 debut special among the two-disc set of four programs, Hoarders: The Complete Season One (A&E), The Guild: Season Three (New Video) (an internet series rather than a TV series, but it seems appropriate here) and Waiting For God: The Complete Series (BBC).