NCIS Los Angeles: The First Season (Paramount) – A spin-off of a spin-off, this is “NCIS Undercover,” a slicker, sexier version of the military investigative procedural warhorse chock full of sun-baked outdoor action, a younger set of players than NCIS original recipe and better tech. Chris O’Donnell, who never before in his career suggested any hint of grit or hard-boiled intensity, is quite effective as the tough team leader with a mysterious past, and LL Cool J matches him for action and tops him for personality as his top field agent and best friend.
The series was essentially launched in a two-part NCIS story from Season Six (which ends with O’Donnell’s character in a near-fatal event) and those episodes kick off the DVD and Blu-ray release, which begins with O’Donnell’s recovery and Linda Hunt taking over the role of L.A. unit commander. O’Donnell and Cool J (or is just J?) have a fine rapport and Hunt makes her part as colorful as can be, tossing off stories of a wild past with perfect nonchalance between kick-ass and providing sage leadership, but the rest of the cast is stock: driven, eccentric, awkward, overeager, pick your mix. It’s all about the energized action, the cool tech and the momentum, all of which made this a top ten show and the number two rated scripted drama in TV (right behind the original NCIS) in its debut season. Rocky Carroll provides some continuity reprising his role as NCIS Director in numerous episodes and Pauley Perrette’s Abby (everyone’s favorite forensic tech on TV) guests on two episodes.
24 episodes on six discs (five on Blu-ray) plus the two original NCIS episodes, which makes this a pretty packed set even before the supplements. There’s the usual behind-the-production featurettes—in particular the 16-minute “Inspired Television: NCIS: LA” and the 21-minute “The L.A. Team: Meet the Cast and Crew,” both of which are informative and interesting enough—but the most enlightening is “Do You Have A Visual? Inside the Ops Center,” a ten-minute featurette that covers everything from creating the surveillance footage to showing how the interactive computer screens actually function (and yes, the actors really learned to use the screen). Also includes commentary by creator/producer Shane Bennan on the official debut episode, a set tour, a stunt featurette and a music video. The Blu-ray is BD-Live enabled.
“For over a century, I have lived in secret. Until now.” The Vampire Diaries: The Complete First Season (Warner), the buzz show on the CW for the 2009-2010 seaso,n isn’t exactly a Twilight copycat—”The Vampire Diaries” book series was around before the “Twilight” and this is decidedly Southern Gothic rather than Northwest gloom—but one tortured teen and tormented vampire melodrama certainly helped get the other on air. This one is more of a True Blood: 90120, with the One Tree Hill small town vibe. Or maybe a teen Dark Shadows. Or you can fill in your own mix-and-match comparison.
The show is about Cain and Abel vampire brothers (Paul Wesley as the good Stefan and Ian Somerhalder as the bad, darkly seductive Damon) who, despite being over 160 years old, both fall in love with high school girl Elena (Nina Dobrev) who is the spitting image of the southern belle who turned them both into bloodsuckers. I found the first few episodes insufferably bad and gave up on it back when I first checked out the series in Fall 2009. Revisiting the show on Blu-ray I stuck through the purple prose and goopy adolescent romance of longing looks and hormonal impulses until the creators calmed down and let the characters settle in and the mythology and melodrama take hold. Flashbacks give us the origins of Stefan and Damon and the legacy of Elena’s 19th century doppelganger, while back in the present her best friend Bonnie (Katerina Graham) turns out to be descended from a long line of witches and goes all Willow on the show. And just to add some daylight to the otherwise nocturnal palette, there are all sorts of mythological additions that allow our undead heroes and villains to walk in the sunlight (and without sparkling!). By the end of the season, broody heroine Elena discovers a deep, dark legacy and a Buffy-sized army of ancient undead ready to take their revenge on a town with a lot of secrets behind the shadows.
It’s still pure teen soap opera, with all the pretty young kids and jealous boyfriends and girlfriends you can shake a stake at, with the added bonus of supernatural players and gothic depths of atmosphere and vampire seduction. And a body count. This is one young adult romance where giving in can have fatal consequences. But I still have one question: what is so romantic about men who are over a hundred years old crushing on teenage girls?
22 episodes on five discs, plus the very good 25-minute featurette “Into Mystic Falls,” which delves into the inspiration, creation and development of the series with author L.J. Smith, producers/creators Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec, supervising director Marcos Siega and the stars. Also includes commentary on the pilot episode, featurettes on the casting and the popularity of vampires in popular culture, webisodes, gag reel and a downloadable audiobook reading of the original novel.
It’s always been a tricky balance to keep House interesting while hewing to what has become a familiar formula: medical mystery, failed attempts at diagnosis and cure followed by inspiration, insight and cure, flavored by the House blend of insults and sarcasm. House: Season Six (Universal) opens with TV’s favorite Vicadin-popping, soap opera-addicted, misanthrope medical genius (Hugh Laurie) in rehab, or rather in a psychiatric hospital, where he duels with his doctor (Andre Braugher) and plays mind-games with the staff and patients. He’s in as a voluntary patient but his medical license is at stake, which gives Braugher’s doctor leverage to get beyond the physical addiction and give House the tools to manage the rest of his life.
Suffice it to say that, after initial resistance, he returns to his old position a changed man… but not too changed. Some addictions can’t be conquered, like his addiction to solving medical mysteries (which is about the only thing that distracts him from the pain in his leg), and to sarcasm, manipulation and raging arrogance. Once he gets his medical license back, he proceeds to hound his old crew members, all of whom initially refuse to come back and work for him, so mercilessly that he eventually reunites his old team (well, almost everyone) and breaks up a marriage in the process. Which for House, even the “clean” House, is two for two. 21 episodes on five discs, plus an original short featuring Laurie, commentary on three episodes and new featurettes, plus exclusive supplements and BD-Live features for the Blu-ray edition.
The Middle of The Middle: Season 1 (Warner) doesn’t refer to the middle child but the middle of nowhere: Orson, Indiana, home of the world’s largest polyurethane cow and the Hecks, a sitcom family barely squeaking by on credit and shenanigans. Patricia Heaton stars as the overtaxed mom and narrates the tales of parenting challenges in the modern world of working parents and weird kids, but otherwise is plays like a warmed over version of Malcolm in the Middle, with its cartoonish humor and contradictory narration. Neil Flynn (the janitor from Scrubs) is the blithely honest but unendingly supportive dad, playing straight man to Heaton’s cheerfully overworked shenanigans, and Chris Kattan co-stars as Heaton’s buddy at the used car lot. 24 episodes on three discs in a standard case, plus two featurettes, deleted scenes and a gag reel.
I review Thriller: The Complete Series on the blog here.
Also new this week: Parenthood: Season 1 (Universal), the second TV series based on the Ron Howard family comedy, Flashforward: The Complete Series (Disney), Brothers and Sisters: The Complete Fourth Season (Disney), The Simpsons: The Thirteenth Season (Fox) and Agatha Christie’s Marple: Series 5 (Acorn).