Better Call Saul: Season One (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) – Bob Odenkirk is Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer trying to get both respect and clients in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in this prequel series to the award-winning Breaking Bad. He was Saul Goodman in that show, the shady lawyer who helped Walter White hide his drug money, but Saul was once Jimmy, a conman (he earned the nickname Slippery Jimmy) who cleaned up his act, got a law degree from a dubious school, and set out his own shingle in a utility closet in the back of a strip mall beauty shop.
Better Call Saul takes a different tone from Breaking Bad, playing it is a dark comedy and character piece that shows Jimmy’s struggles. He’s the younger brother of a once successful and respected lawyer (Michael McKean), who is now holed up with a phobia for electrical signals, trying to prove himself to his brother while chasing clients with more bravado than confidence and watching schemes backfire. The series also feature Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the ex-cop who will become Saul’s reliable field man and fixer. Odenkirk is a mix of salesmanship and desperation as Jimmy, who isn’t taken seriously by clients or other lawyers, and he lets us see the person under the pose. For all his schemes, he wants to play it straight and prove himself. It’s the beginning of an odyssey that will eventually turn him into the morally untethered Saul Goodman. The series was nominated for seven Emmy Awards and Odenkirk’s performance earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations.
10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with uncensored versions of three episodes, cast and crew commentary tracks on each episode, and the featurettes “Better Call Saul: Day One” and “Creating the First Season.”
Exclusive to the Blu-ray are bonus featurettes “In Conversation: Bob Odenkirk & Michael McKean,” “Good Cop, Bad Cop: Becoming Mike,” and “In the Studio,” the montage featurettes “Jimmy in the Courtroom” and “Jimmy Kaleidoscope, a table read for the pilot episode, deleted scenes, and a bonus commentary track in character by Craig and Betsy Kettleman.
Peaky Blinders: Season One (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD), set in North England industrial city of Birmingham in the years after World War I, ” is a British TV gangster drama starring Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby, who applies the lessons of warfare to turn a crime family into a major criminal enterprise, and Sam Neill as his nemesis, an Inspector from Belfast brought in to clean up the corrupt and ineffectual police and stop the IRA presence in Birmingham. The battle becomes personal when Grace (Annabelle Wallis), an undercover agent who takes a position a barmaid in Shelby gang saloon, refuses the Inspector’s romantic overtures and falls for Thomas. The series title comes from the name of Shelby’s gang, so called because they sew razor blades into the peaks of their caps.
Created and written by Steven Knight, the writer of Eastern Promises and writer/director of the acclaimed Locke, it’s a sharp, smart, gritty show and a vividly realized period piece set in a volatile culture where the IRA and the communist union organizers are both targeted as terrorists, the Italians and Gypsies fight to keep their piece of the underworld as Thomas schemes to expand the Shelby family business, and the cops are as thuggish as the crooks. The shadow of the war hangs over it: the friends and family lost, the women who ran things while the men fought and aren’t so quick to hand things back over, the victims of shell shock reliving the war with every loud noise, and the disillusioned working class men who fought for their country and came back to poverty and hard times. Though set close to hundred years ago, the soundtrack is filled with energetic modern rock songs from The White Stripes, Nick Cave, and others. The series went straight to Netflix in the U.S.
The first season of six episodes debuts on Blu-ray and DVD, with a featurette. It’s a very handsome show and the Blu-ray gives you a better opportunity to appreciate the terrific textures of the production.
Masterpiece: Home Fires (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) is another period piece from British TV, this one set in a rural village 1940, just as Britain was sending off its young (and sometimes not so young) men to fight in World War II. Home Fires is about life on the homefront and it focuses on the women, from wives and mothers looking to fill their lonely days by contributing something to the war effort to community leaders taking charge of the transformation to a wartime society.
Samantha Bond takes the lead here as Frances, who challenges Joyce (Francesca Annis), the elitist, upper-class leader of the Women’s Institute, and transforms it from an exclusive social club to an open communal society devoted to supporting the war effort in every way they can, from sending letters the boys on the front to increasing food production to creating a communal air raid shelter. Inspired by the book “Jambusters” by Julie Summers, the show presents a large canvas of characters and issues, some of that follow a familiar formula (a young woman working in the war office has an affair with a married officer), some less predictable, and along with the expected portrait of chauvinism is the issue of class played out through the snooty aristocrat Joyce sabotaging the efforts of Frances at every turn.
There’s no surprise that the six-episode series, which takes in a year or so in their lives, emphasizes how the communal effort overcomes conflict to foster acceptance, understanding, and mutual respect. It’s more uplifting and affirming than challenging or surprising, and it is handsomely made with convincing period detail and a fine cast delivering top notch performances. It played in the US on the PBS showcase “Masterpiece” and a second series of the drama has been announced.
Six episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, no supplements.
The six-part Australian mini-series The Code (Acorn, DVD) is a political thriller about a government conspiracy uncovered by web reporter Ned Banks (Dan Spielman) and investigated with the help of Ned’s younger brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman), a genius, borderline autistic hacker on parole for cybercrimes. It opens on a car accident in the outback that leaves two Aboriginal students critically injured and a video recorded by one of the students that their teacher (Lucy Lawless in a small role) sends to Ned. His investigation leads to a biotech company and secret illegal activities and he and Jesse are attacked and intimidated into dropping the story.
It only makes them more determined to uncover the truth, which reveals connections to the government and a cover-up ordered by Minister David Wenham. The series, created by Shelley Birse (who also wrote episodes of the hit Aussie series “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”), combines a drama of corporate corruption and government complicity in covering up illegal behavior that it secretly sanctioned with a journalistic investigation in the internet age, and the web-based communications and cyber-hacking is incorporated into the storytelling by bringing the text into the images. It’s nothing new but it is effective and helps make the digital elements part of the physical drama. The series goes back and forth between the city, the halls of Australian government, and the dusty, empty outback, which makes it something different for American audiences, but it’s also well written and effectively directed, and the six-hour format brings it to a satisfying conclusion.
Six episodes on two discs on DVD, no supplements.
Hannibal: Season Three (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), the final season (at least as of this writing) of the unlikely NBC take on the Thomas Harris novels, moves from series developer and show-runner Bryan Fuller’s original stories inspired by the books and characters to incorporate story elements from the novel Hannibal and adapt Red Dragon directly over the course of the final six episodes (making it the third screen version of the novel). Mads Mikkelson is Hannibal Lecter and Hugh Dancy is Will Graham, two men locked in a perverse kind of battle of wills as Lecter treats Graham as a test subject in a perverse psychological experiment, as if tempting him to give into the dark side. The season opens with Lecter in Europe with his psychiatrist (Gillian Anderson) posing as his wife, somewhere between prisoner and reluctant conspirator in his continued murder-as-fine-art spectacles, clues that draw Graham and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to follow. This is a unique kind of show, a work of visual beauty in service to stories of gruesome violence and mad murderers, more European art movie than American crime procedural. Fans cursed NBC for cancelling the series, an international production shot in and around Toronto, but it’s amazing than an American network supported a show this strange and surreal and aesthetically unique as long as it did.
13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on ten episodes by Bryan Fuller and various members of cast and crew and the two-hour documentary “Getting the Old Scent Again: reimagining Red Dragon” leading the substantial menu of supplements. There are also two short featurettes, all of the “Post Mortem with Scott Thompson” webisodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the entire season (SD for the DVD release).
Inside Amy Schumer: Season 3 (Paramount) is the season where Amy Schumer’s acclaimed Comedy Central series leapt from cable hit to cultural phenomenon thanks to acclaimed skits that went viral on YouTube. This is the season that satirized sexual double standards with guest stars Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrating that latter’s “last f***able day” and parodied sexualized music videos with the song “Milk Milk Lemonade.” The episode “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” parodied the famous movie, this time with an all-male jury (including Jeff Goldblum, John Hawkes, Vincent Kartheiser, and Paul Giamatti) passing judgment on Schumer’s sex appeal and physical appearance. In another skit, she’s the perfect undercover cop because she is so plain that no one every notices her. In much of the show, Schumer presents herself as a hard-drinking, sexually reckless woman, but her humor cuts both ways as she takes on body shaming, pay inequities, birth control, sexual assault, and other issues through often provocative skits.
10 episodes on two discs on DVD, with uncensored versions of the episodes, a bonus unaired sketch, a collection of unaired interviews, and outtakes.
Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season Steelbook (HBO, Blu-ray)
Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season Steelbook (HBO, Blu-ray)
HBO’s sprawling, muscular adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic is arguably the pay cabler’s biggest success since The Sopranos became the water-cooler show of its day. It’s also been one of the best-selling TV shows on disc. So it’s not surprising to see a Blu-ray upgrade of the first two seasons.
Sean Bean is the ostensible hero of Season One as Eddard Stark, ruler of the northern kingdom and the Hand of the King (Mark Addy), a once fearsome warrior married to a ruthlessly ambitious queen (Lena Headey) who plots to put her clan on the throne and eliminate Stark. But that’s just the broadest strokes of a very complicated story with where family dynasties plot their way to power through marriages, war, and political gamesmanship, and an exiled princess (Emilia Clarke) unites the barbarian hordes of a land across the water to take back her family legacy. And it doesn’t begin to trace the equally compelling story of Tyrion Lannister, the debauched “black sheep” of the ruling family played by Peter Dinklage (who won an Emmy for his performance). Like a medieval answer to I, Claudius, he’s a dwarf with a sharp mind and a fierce understanding of the ways of power that he hides under his court jester antics. It’s a form of protection as well as escape; he’s not perceived as a threat.
Season Two uses the foundation of that season to build an increasingly complex narrative with characters that become more interesting with every challenge. And the biggest challenge: a free-for-all civil war after the sniveling little prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is elevated to the throne by his cold-blooded mother (Lena Headey) and the scheming Lannister family, and their struggle to keep him in power as the boy turns every tantrum into a brutal display of his rule and multiple claimants to the throne make their play for the crown as the balance of power shifts with every alliance and betrayal.
The fantasy elements are still merely grace notes in a fictional historical epic that otherwise plays like a fanciful take on Europe of the Dark Ages, and the scale of the production – in particular battle of King’s Landing, which takes up the entire penultimate episode of the season – suggests feature film values. The series is shot in Ireland, Morocco, Malta, Croatia, and Iceland, with striking, dynamic landscapes defining each fictional land represented in the show. But it wouldn’t mean much without the strong writing, vivid characters, and superb cast. Show creators/producers David Benioff and D.B Weiss know how to keep the show focused on story and character. Storytelling matters, and this is a fiercely-told story.
Each season is ten episodes on five discs. The video master appears to be the same but new to disc is a theater-quality Dolby Amos soundtrack for high-end systems. The supplements are the same: seven commentary tracks on the first season, twelve on the second (there’s some doubling up), featuring a mix of participants including developers / show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (on the series premiere) and most of the stars and major creative collaborators at point or another, numerous production and interview featurettes, interactive guide modes with offer background material and “In-Episode Guides,” a viewing mode with pop-up factoids and guides running through the episodes. These are well-produced extras and worth the visit for fans of the show.
The steelbook case is small and sturdy—it’ll fit neatly on the shelf with your other volumes—and the discs are stacked on short spindles inside: three discs on one side, two on the other. I’m not fond of spindles and it can scratch the disc it any grit gets caught between them, which can be an issue in a family household, but if you’re a careful collector it should be fine.
And each features a sigil magnet with the crest of the Starks (First Season) and the Lannisters (Second Season).
The Great American Dream Machine (S’more, DVD), produced for PBS in the early 1970s with an unconventional format that mixed comedy skits with documentary segments, animated interludes, and satirical shorts, was an early victim of political pressure on public television. It seems that Congress didn’t like public funds spent on political or social satire. But for two years, this unusual, almost forgotten mix of variety show and offbeat TV newsmagazine presented clever comedy bits by Albert Brooks (his “Famous School for Comedians” anticipates the shorts he made for Saturday Night Live), Chevy Chase (one of the musical faces that opens the show), Charles Grodin, and Marshall Efron between profiles of fringe figures (from Evel Knievel to roller derby athlete Ann Calvello to custom car innovator Big Daddy Roth) and byways of American culture (visits to both “Honeymoon Hotel” and “McDonalds University”).
Dick Cavett recites Carl Sandburg and Mark Twain, Andy Rooney offer his wry kvetching opinions years before it became a staple of 60 Minutes, and Studs Turkel discusses the issues of the day with Chicago citizens. There are short documentaries and musical performances and animated interludes and interviews with folks on the street, adults and children alike, but no host and no studio audience. Compared to modern shows this takes its time—even the animated opening credits are unusually long—but it is a TV landmark and a fascinating time capsule of American culture in the early 1970s and its offbeat approach is still interesting. The programs presented on this four-disc box set appear to be taken from “best of” revival episodes and there are no broadcast dates or episode numbers on the cases or in the booklet, but the collection presents thirteen hours of original segments, most remastered from videotape.
On four discs on DVD, each in a separate case with a menu of segments (it does not, however, separate the episodes from one another) filled with typographical errors and an accompanying booklet with an essay by David Bianculli, all in a paperboard slipsleeve.
The Whole Story
McHale’s Navy: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, DVD), a service sitcom about a misfit PT boat crew in the South Pacific during World War II, is notable mostly for its ensemble. Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine is the fun-loving, big-hearted McHale, a former tramp steamer skipper commissioned as a Lt. Commander with his own ship and crew because of his knowledge of the islands and seaways, Tim Conway is his lovable but incompetent executive officer, and the great Joe Flynn the eternally exasperated Captain who hates the way McHale flaunts rules and discipline despite his superb record fighting the Japanese. Carl Ballantine is the top grifter in the crew and Gavin MacLeod co-stars. In the fourth season the entire cast is relocated to a small Italian village to patrol the waters of the Mediterranean with the liberation of Italy.
Most of the episodes are variations on the same theme: McHale’s crew hatches some scheme or gets caught up in some activity that breaks navy rules and then they have to cover it up before the Captain can catch them in the act. There’s nothing original here but the ensemble timing is superb. The series was moderately popular and a syndication staple through the 1970s, giving it some nostalgia appeal, and it launched Conway’s career.
In addition to the complete four seasons, this box set features the two big screen movies featuring the original cast, both directed by series producer Edward Montagne and released when the show was still on the air. McHale’s Navy (1964), which doesn’t bother even bother coming up with a variation on the series name, is like a feature-length episode revolving around a horse racing scheme. Borgnine is absent from McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965), which slips Conway in the lead when Parker gets mistaken for a pilot and assigned to duties in the Air Force.
Justice League Unlimited: The Complete Series (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – The signature superhero series of the Cartoon Network was developed by Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series) in the early 2000s for the Cartoon Network as a more mature take on the all-star superhero team that counts Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as charter members. This is no happy-go-lucky group of seventies-era “Super Friends” saving the world with a smile and a chummy sense of togetherness. Choppy relationships, clashing personalities (the grim Green Lantern, lighthearted jester The Flash, grim, haunted Martian Manhunter and, of course, Batman, who explains himself with the line: “I’m not really a people person”), and lots of suspicion make these teammates an often contentious and always interesting group.
It was simply called Justice League for the for two seasons of the series who but it became Justice League Unlimited in 2004, adding new charter members (among them Green Arrow, Supergirl, and Black Canary) and shifting from multi-episode stories to more self-contained episodes, though a long-running battle with Lex Luthor, the super-villain who turns the government against the supergroup and creates a powerful nemesis, Cadmus, to take down the heroes, runs through the first half of this collection.
39 episodes on three discs, with commentary on episodes “This Little Piggy” and “The Return” with producer Bruce Timm and others and three featurettes: “”And Justice For All,” on the revamping of the show with its new characters and a new direction; “Cadmus Exposed,” with Timm, Mark Hamill and others discussing the entire Cadmus storyline; and “Justice League Chronicles, with series writers, producers, and directors discussing their favorite moments among final-season episodes.
Also new and notable
Outlander: Season One – The Ultimate Collection (Sony, Blu-ray) collects the episodes previously available in two separate releases. Adapted from the bestselling historical romances by Diane Gabron, it’s the first Starz original series to be both a bonifide critical and popular hit. It’s intelligent and interesting, full of historical and cultural detail, and builds on a situation that calls upon magic yet remains grounded in a very real world where the threat of violence and death are ever present. And it’s all told from the perspective of a smart, observant, modern (circa 1945) British woman magically transported back to 18th century Scotland who is doing all she can to stay alive long enough to escape back into her world. 16 episodes plus supplements.
Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD), the prequel series to AMC’s hit zombie apocalypse drama, begins at ground zero, or at least time zero, with the first outbreaks of the undead virus in Los Angeles. It launched with a six-episode season that centers on an extended family around Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis and ends with the city collapsing into chaos. With two featurettes.
Marco Polo: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) of the Netflix original series features 10 episodes plus featurettes, deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, and galleries of art and stills.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIV (Shout! Factory, DVD) presents four more episodes never before released on disc: The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957) and The Undead (1957) directed by Roger Corman, Bert I. Gordon’s War of the Colossal Beast (1958), and The She-Creature (1956), all produced by American International Pictures. The four-disc set includes new introductions by Frank Conniff, the original documentary It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine: The American International Pictures Story (2015), and four mini-posters.
From the 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives comes the debut seasons of three recent shows: the ABC comedy Cristela: The Complete Season 1 with Cristela Alonzo (22 episodes); Legends: The Complete Season 1, the TNT deep cover thriller with Sean Bean, Ali Larter, and Morris Chestnut (10 episodes); and Kingdom: The Complete Season 1, the DirecTV boxing drama with Frank Grillo and Matt Lauria (10 episodes).
And the entire run of a couple of shows that didn’t make it past a first season: the behind-the-scenes showbiz comedy The Comedians: The Complete Series with Billy Crystal and Josh Gad (13 episodes) and the sitcom Weird Loners: The Complete Series with a mere six episodes. These are all DVD-R releases.