V: The Complete First Season (Warner) – “We are of peace. Always.” The 21st century reboot of the 1980s sci-fi mini-series about first contact and a fleet of aliens who arrive with a promise of benevolence and a plan to conquer Earth arrived last year in an abbreviated but furiously paced season filled with conspiracies, rebels, traitors, family crisis and melodramatic complications, not to mention secret experiments on human subjects, furry creatures devoured and lots of things blowing up. FBI Agent Erica Evans (Elizabeth Mitchell, Lost) leads the human resistance against the insidious PR campaign waged by ruthless Visitor queen mother Anna (Morena Baccarin, Firefly) and the players line up accordingly behind these warrior women.
Erica, a single mother who discovers that there’s an alien lizard under the human skin of her longtime FBI partner in the first episode, stumbles into the conspiracy and discovers that there are insurgent Visitors rebelling against Anna’s dictatorial rule. And there’s plenty of melodrama too: her teenage son (Logan Huffman) is sucked into the idealistic promise offered by the Visitors, in part out of infatuation with Anna’s daughter (Laura Vandervoort, who played a different alien visitor as Supergirl on Smallville), but even her allegiances are softened as human emotions seep into her lizard brain. Morris Chestnut is one of the deep-cover Visitors who has gone native, married a human woman (Lourdes Benedicto) and about to be the father of an alien/human hybrid, Joel Gretsch is a Catholic priest who sees nothing but false prophets in the Visitors, even as they rid the human race of disease, and Scott Wolf is a network newscaster who makes his name as a champion of the Visitors and ends up being fed exclusives in return for good PR.
The addition of an international terrorist (Charles Mesure) to the resistance cell gives it a little more grit, but attempts at dramatic dilemmas and tragic choices are more space opera melodramatics than human tragedy. It’s not the smartest or most original science fiction show on TV—and it’s certainly no Battlestar Galactica—but there’s no doubt that the network really went for broke by packing in plenty of action and spectacle in the abbreviated season debut and it remains a guilty pleasure for me: furiously paced, visually lavish and highly entertaining, with CGI work that gives this pulp sci-fi an eye-popping canvas and a grand sweep.
The second season launch has just been pushed back to January 2011 so you have plenty of time to catch up on the first season: 12 episodes on three discs (two on Blu-ray) in a standard case, with commentary on one episode by executive producers Steve Pearlman and Scott Rosenbaum, deleted scenes (aka “detached memories”) on numerous episodes and well-made featurettes on the actors (and the characters they play), the make-up, the visual effects and on reworking the mythology of the old series for the new show.
Men of a Certain Age: The Complete First Season (Warner) – As networks struggle to capture the ever-elusive youth market, cable has been the arena for most new adult shows. Men of a Certain Age is most certainly that: life from the perspective three college buddies (Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher) now in their late-forties and facing everything from career disappointment and failed expectations to poor judgment and gambling issues. Ramona (who created and produces the show with his Everybody Loves Raymond creative partner Mike Royce and writes much of the show himself) is the divorced dad living in such a state of denial he can’t bring himself to move out of his hotel room and into a permanent home. Braugher is happily married with two young kids but constantly clashes with his father, who happens to be his hard-sell boss at a car dealership. Bakula is a charming but underemployed actor who coasts through one-night-stands and part-time-jobs as if in a permanent state of “in between.”
As Braugher observes in the commentary: “A lot of people like [the show] because it resembles life in that very little happens but it’s all about how to deal with it.” But it’s also more than that. These three college buddies have held on to their friendship over the years and it serves as a foundation and as a reality check for them. There’s definitely mutual envy among them for what they see in one another’s lives, but they also offer a support network (between the good-natured insults and wisecracks). It’s funny and awkward and painful and a pleasure to see grown-up characters dealing with grown-up issues, even if they have their moments of childishness.
10 episodes on two discs in a standard case with a hinged tray. Romano, Bakula, Braugher and co-creator Mike Royce reunite (Braugher via audio hook-up in New York) to discuss the pilot episode and the season finale in lively commentary tracks, which are worth the time if only to soak in the off-screen chemistry that helps create the onscreen relationships. The featurettes, however, are simply repurposed promotional pieces and utterly disposable. Also includes deleted scenes and a gag reel.
Californication: The Third Season (Paramount) – While it would be hard to peg a definitive figure in today’s media landscape, I nominate David Duchovny’s Hank Moody, a novelist with writer’s block now teaching at a small college, as them most unapologetically hedonistic and hypocritical hero currently centering a television show. The show likes to show off his antics—which includes sleeping with a student (Eva Amurri), a graduate teaching assistant (Diane Farr) and his college dean (Embeth Davidtz) while raising a teenage daughter (Madeleine Martin) and wooing the love of his life and the mother of his daughter (Natascha McElhone) back home—for impish humor. But Duchovny (also a producer on the show) embraces the hypocrisy and plays him with no apologies: he is arrogant, rude, dismissive of the talent and responsibilities of the people around him yet hurt when he gets the same treatment, and utterly without remorse until his aggressively irresponsible behavior boomerangs back on the people that matter to him. The most visible backlash comes from his daughter Becca, once the self-aware, forgiving, circumspect mature child, now a rebellious and angry and defiant teenager. There’s no happy ending for Hank this season, and everything that comes back on him can be traced to his own behavior and the shame he feels when the truth is revealed to his wife and daughter. He’s no victim. He just doesn’t care until it affects his life. 12 episodes on two discs in a box set of two thinpak cases, plus interviews, bloopers and bonus episodes of other Showtime series.
Nip/Tuck: The Complete Series (Warner) – Before he tapped the pop culture zeitgeist with “Glee,” Ryan Murphy created this overheated made-for-cable soap opera of sex, fame, ego and elective surgery starring Dylan Walsh and Julian McMahon and best friends and professional partners in a plastic surgery firm. You can follow the entire six-season run of their adventures in self-absorbed hedonism and moral hypocrisy, from the sun and skin of Miami to the culture of surface values and fleeting fame in Los Angeles, in this set, which boxes up the seven previously-released collections in a simple, slick case: 100 episodes plus featurettes, deleted scenes and guest stars ranging from Vanessa Redgrave to Joan Rivers to Bradley Cooper.
Circus (PBS) – Look behind the sawdust and canvas of both the fantasy and the reality of the circus in this documentary mini-series originally made for PBS. It follows a season of the Big Apple Circus, a one-ring independent outfit that performs 350 shows a year across the United States, from rehearsals (complete with new acts learning the ropes of big-top performance) through touring the rigorous schedule, with all the artistic challenges, physical demands and personality clashes that comes with it. The complete six-episode series on three discs, along with performer profiles and bonus behind-the-scenes footage.
Also new this week: Bill Moyers: Genesis – A Living Conversation and Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason (both from Acorn) and Salt (PBS).