It’s been two weeks since I’ve checked in on the TV releases so we’ve got some catching up to do.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, DVD) – Norman Lear’s soap opera parody lasted only a year and a half in the mid-1970s and never received strong ratings, but it developed a loyal following and critical acclaim and 35 years later feels all the more contemporary and prescient.
Set in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio, it stars Louise Lasser as the unfulfilled housewife struggling with a sexually confused husband (Greg Mullavey), an oft-arrested father known as “The Fernwood Flasher,” a serial killer who wipes out a local family and takes Mary hostage, and the waxy yellow build-up on her kitchen linoleum. Debralee Scott co-stars as her sexually reckless sister, Mary Kay Place is her neighbor, a child bride and aspiring country singer, Dabney Coleman is the town’s scheming mayor, and Martin Mull plays identical twins, among the show’s notable co-stars. (Mull went on to star in the spin-off Fernwood 2 Night.)
The half-hour program was shot like a traditional soap opera and ran five days a week in syndication, mixing wild parodies of soap opera complications with sly cultural satire about changing sexual mores, consumerism, family dynamics, and media hysteria. But it also dug into more provocative issues, confronted sexual fulfillment and communication within families and relationships, and the episode where Mary suffers a nervous breakdown on TV, when she’s profiled as “America’s typical consumer housewife” by David Susskind and grilled by a panel of experts, is genuinely harrowing as the satire turns dark and her flailing defensiveness spirals into panic and disconnection.
The series holds up surprisingly well, thanks to smart writing, a superb cast, and its perfect evocation of the soap opera style. There’s not even a laugh track, which might have confounded some viewers who didn’t pick up on the tongue-in-cheek treatment, but it fits right in with the modern trend of TV comedies. The video quality betrays the age of the show, with discoloration and some distortion at the edges of the image, but that’s to be expected for seventies video technology. Features 325 episodes plus bonus documentaries and 10 episodes of the spinoff Fernwood 2 Night, a talk show spoof with Martin Mull and Fred Willard, on 39 discs in a box set. Also includes a booklet with essays and an episode guide.
Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) celebrates the 50th anniversary of the beloved British time travelling hero with an adventure in space and time the brings the last two Doctors, David Tennant and Matt Smith, together with the mysterious “War Doctor” (John Hurt) as they converge on the moment that destroyed the Time Lord home world and the Dalek race. The tragic past of the Doctor has been the dark shadow over his playful personality and frivolous front since Russell Davies first brought him back but this episode is the first to delve into the forge that orphaned the last of the Time Lords, and it gives him a second chance with the greatest Time Lord dream team ever.
Bringing multiple Doctors together was a popular gimmick for the original incarnation when it came to anniversaries or special shows but this is the first time for the reboot series and Steven Moffat, the cleverest of Doctor Who show-runners, approaches it with the same clockwork precision he lavishes on his season arcs, where every tossed-off curve or surprise twist is actually ingeniously woven into the big picture. Plus it’s great fun to see the personalities of Tennant and Smith bounce off one another. With two mini-episodes (previously available solely on the web) and two featurettes. The Blu-ray edition also features a Blu-ray 3D versions and a bonus DVD.