Ellery Queen Mysteries (E1) – Ellery Queen is both the pseudonymous author of and the main character in the scores of novels and short stories that made him the most well-known detective in American fiction. Both sides of the identity come together in this 1975-76 TV series, set in the late forties and starring Jim Hutton (father of Tim) plays the bestselling mystery author who steps out from his typewriter to help out his police detective father (David Wayne) in particularly intriguing cases. Their rapport is perfect, the flinty old professional with a grudging admiration for his son’s talents and the modest, good-natured and often distracted writer with a knack for observation and gift for puzzling out complicated mysteries. He’s the classic absent-minded genius, spotting the smallest detail out of place but always misplacing his glasses. John Hillerman has a recurring role as radio detective Simon Brimmer always attempting to match wits with Ellery (and always getting it wrong) and Ken Swofford is a hard-boiled reporter who also tries (and fails) to beat Ellery at his game in numerous episodes.
Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators of Columbo and the kings of seventies mystery TV, developed the show, wrote the pilot and produced the series, an old-fashioned mystery show with a wonderful stylistic trick: just before he solves crime, and right before the show fades out for the final commercial break, Ellery turns to the audience and gives them a hint to solve the crime before he does. Along with its period setting, the episodes feature a grand cast of old Hollywood stars and familiar character actors, including such all-star victims as George Burns, Eve Arden, Rudy Vallee and Walter Pidgeon and grand suspects as Ray Milland, Don Ameche, Ida Lupino, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, Vera Miles and Mel Ferrer. And movie buffs will want to note that cult director Jack Arnold directed three episodes. It only lasted a single season but it’s a great season.
Along with the 22 episodes is the TV-movie pilot “Too Many Suspects,” which introduced the characters and format (including the direct address to the TV audience before the final commercial and revelation of the criminal) in a lively mystery where the worlds of radio drama and the fledgling TV industry (“It’s a fad, it’ll never last”) play a central role. Also features a new video interview with series co-creator William Link (who discusses the adaptation and the changes he and his writing partner Richard Levinson made to the character and milieu for TV) and an episode guide booklet with introductory essays and episode credits. Six discs in a fold-out digipak.
Secret Agent / Danger Man: The Complete Collection (A&E) – Before he was The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan was John Drake, the maverick agent of Britain’s top secret M9 security force. The original Danger Man (1960-1961) is a cold war spy series with the cool, clever undercover operative Drake sneaking into Eastern bloc regimes and Latin American dictatorships to flush out traitors and assassins, recover stolen secrets, and dabble in a little espionage himself. McGoohan has the aplomb of a small screen James Bond with a much smaller arsenal of gadgets but all confidence and charm of the big screen super spy. In the subsequent hour-long incarnation, renamed Secret Agent (1964-1967) for American TV, the realpolitik shenanigans are played out as elaborate espionage shell games and diplomatic chicanery with McGoohan’s Drake as the ingenious con man behind the bluffs and feints. But as the show continues an ambivalence of cold war politics sets in (see “Whatever Happened To George Foster” and “That’s Two of Us Sorry”) and Drake less assuredness and a creeping sense of futility, as if anticipating the disillusionment of The Prisoner. In fact, two episodes even anticipate The Prisoner directly: in “Colony Three” he stumbles upon a spy school in a manufactured town that could be the inspiration for The Village, and “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” features a mind game worthy of the new Number 2. Both episodes were directed by Don Chaffey, who helmed his share of The Prisoner.
Oddly this collection features the original British version of the series, with its harpsicord theme and Danger Man title, but organizes them according to the order of the American broadcasts. The complete run of both incarnations—86 episodes on 18 discs, including the only two episodes made in color—are collected in this box set. It’s been collected before but this set is more efficiently packaged in a box set of nine thinpak cases. Also includes the U.S. opening featuring the Johnny Rivers rock theme “Secret Agent Man.”
The Cleveland Show: The Complete Season One (Fox) – Cleveland Brown of Family Guy spins off into his own family sitcom, and gets an instant family in the process: a wife and her two kids (including a too-coo-for-preschool swinger) from a previous marriage along with his own sweetly stunted son. The humor is pretty in the same vein as Family Guy with more racial humor added to the mix and it was a big hit in its debut season. Which is great for fans of Family Guy but not so much for me. South Park is more clever and more subversive in its approach to such humor. 21 episodes on four discs (all in uncensored versions), plus cast and creator commentary on select episodes, deleted scenes, a 24-minute featurette on the show and its characters with the creators and voice cast and video of the complete table read of the episode “The Brotherly Love” (with guests Kanye West and Taraji P. Henson) among the featurettes.
Scrubs: The Complete Ninth and Final Season (Disney) – One of the funniest, goofiest, most creatively energetic sitcoms on TV, Scrubs was all set to end after eight seasons—they even shot a series finale—when it got a last-minute renewal and a makeover. The focus shifted to a cast of young interns in a teaching hospital, with the old cast (namely Zach Braff, Donald Faison and John C. McGinley) taking teaching duties and less screen time, but it still plays like a sitcom ER with a Looney Toons sensibility. 13 episodes on two discs, plus the featurette “Scrubbing In” (on the changes in the final season), deleted scenes and bloopers.
Also new this week: Rich Man, Poor Man: The Complete Collection (A&E), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation – The Tenth Season (Paramount), How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Season 5 – The Suited Up Edition (Fox), Party Down: Season Two (Anchor Bay), Legend of the Seeker: The Complete Second Season (Disney), South Park: A Little Box of Butters (Paramount), and the 1982 documentary series Middletown (Icarus).