Category: Television

Aug 14 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘The Marx Brothers TV Collection’


Shout Factory has been the greatest home video archivist of classic TV treasures in recent years and The Marx Brothers TV Collection (Shout Factory, DVD) is quite the treasure chest, as long as you understand exactly what this set offers. This is a potpourri of unusual projects and unexpected appearances by Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx on TV from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, from full-length programs to variety show skits to TV commercials, with the aging comedy stars both solo and teamed up (though all three are never together apart from one delicious surprise). And while none of these projects rival their best work on the big screen, there are genuine treats to be had. “The Incredible Jewel Robbery,” for instance, a 1959 episode of the half-hour anthology show General Electric Theater with Chico and Harpo as a heist team in what is essentially a silent movie comedy short for TV with music and sound effects but no dialogue. Harpo guest stars on the premiere episode of “The Red Skelton Hour,” playing a whimsical guardian angel and performing a comic pantomime duet. And Groucho takes his only dramatic TV role in another General Electric Theater episode, “The Hold Out” from 1962, with guest stars Brooke Hayward and Dennis Hopper.

While Groucho tried out different characters and comic personae in his many TV appearances and Chico toned down his screen personality to varying degrees and even broke character to some extent (on the BBC talk show Showtime in 1959 and the specialty show Championship Bridge with Charles Goren in 1960, plus a delicious turn on I’ve Got a Secret), Harpo was always Harpo. He never spoke. He does, however, lost the wig and hat and tooting horn, for “A Silent Panic,” a 1960 episode of The DuPont Show with June Allyson starring Harpo as a mechanical man in a department story window. Among the many other goodies, let me highlight the outtake reel from the final season of You Bet Your Life and the 22-minute collection of family home movies from all three brothers, narrated by Harpo’s son Bill Marx (who is also the executive producer of the set).


Harpo Marx in 'The Great Jewel Robbery'

It comes with a 40-page booklet with an essay, photos, and an annotated program guide. And if you order directly from Shout Factory, you can get a limited special edition with an additional bonus disc and a poster.

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Aug 14 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘Low Winter Sun’


Low Winter Sun: The Complete Series (Anchor Bay, DVD) – Some of the most interesting American TV shows are, curiously enough, adapted from European programs. This one is adapted and expanded from a British mini-series starring Mark Strong as a police detective who conspires to kill a corrupt colleague and is then assigned to investigate the murder.

Strong reprises his role in the American version, made for the commercial cable channel AMC, this time as Detective Frank Agnew, a Detroit officer who conspires with the frustrated partner of a brutal detective to kill the bad cop and make it look like suicide. Lennie James is the partner in murder, Detective Joe Geddes, and as the perfect crime unravels they discover that they have their own motives and secrets and they simply do not trust one another, a situation that gets worse when Internal Affairs starts its own investigation. Meanwhile an upstart gang leader (James Ransone) and his wife (Sprague Grayden), a bar-owner who was once married to a Detroit cop, are muscling in on gangster territory with big plans and a small fortune in stolen cocaine.

The contemporary Detroit setting gives the show a desperate environment of poverty and collapse and Ernest Dickerson, who directed episodes of The Wire and Treme, sets a gritty style and grim atmosphere in the first couple of episodes. The show did not get renewed for a second season but it ends with an appropriately cynical closure that satisfactorily wraps up the story. I found it more compelling than I expected, with excellent performances and interesting characters who are trying to hold on to their souls as they get mired deeper in their compromising situations. But there is so much dark drama on TV that it sometimes gets to be too much and this is dark stuff.

10 episodes on three discs on DVD, with promotional featurettes and deleted scenes.

It’s also streaming on Netflix.

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Jul 18 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘Endeavour: Series 2’


Endeavour: Series 2 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD), the Inspector Morse prequel set in 1960s Oxford, opens with the young Detective Inspector Endeavour Morse (played by Shaun Evans) recovering from a gunshot wound that almost killed him at the end of the previous series. His superior officer and mentor DI Thursday (Roger Allam) worries that Morse has lost the passion and commitment to police work that made him stand out in a department filled with compromised and corruptible officers, but in his first investigation back on the job, Morse discovers evidence that a suspected suicide is actually murder.

He tends to alienate the veteran officers with his intellect and his abrasive, argumentative attitude and Thursday protects him from the older commanding officers, though by the final mystery of this set Thursday is pressured to retire, which leaves Morse with little incentive to remain. More interesting than the personal conflicts of this series is the way that the four mysteries reveal an environment of intolerance and abuse and, in the final mysteries, a culture of corruption that goes back decades and reaches to the most powerful people in Oxford. And on a lighter note (because it can’t all be gloomy and dire), Endeavour starts dating a nurse in his apartment building. This series forges its own identity unique from the beloved “Inspector Morse” series and the second series develops the show into one of the best British mysteries running today. Four feature-length mysteries on two discs on Blu-ray and DVD. The discs offer the complete British versions of the shows, which are longer than the versions broadcast on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS.

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Jul 17 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘Orphan Black’ is Back


Orphan Black: Season Two (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD) confirms what I suspected back when I binge-watched the first season on disc last year: this BBC America original series (which is, of course, produced in Canada by a Canadian creative crew) soars almost entirely on the wings of its star Tatiana Maslany, who not only plays the five clones at the center of the conspiracy drama but a few others who have drifted in and out of the show in its initial two seasons. It’s more than simply an impressive performance, or rather collection of performances, as each character has a distinct and different personality. Maslany brings the show to life with the intensity of each of the characters and the evolution of their relationships to one another, often acting against herself through digital trickery. The characters are far more engaging than the conspiracy storyline, which runs through familiar cycles of shadowy corporations and treacherous agents working for their own devious ends.

The second season opens with Sarah (the streetwise orphan) searching for her kidnapped daughter and Cosima (the scientist) working with the shadowy group run by Rachel (the cold, manipulative one) to find a cure for the illness that is beginning to appear in the clones. Maslany also plays an alcoholic suburban mom and a crazy assassin who is only slowly learning to trust her sisters, and amazingly she makes all five these characters riveting. The complications include a survivalist religious cult that wants to give birth to more clone offspring, a former boyfriend (Michel Huisman of “Game of Thrones”) who helps Sarah hide out from the research group, and the accidental murder of a manipulative scientist. The cover-up of this crime oddly enough helps repair a failing marriage, just one of the bits of dark humor that helps it overcome the otherwise familiar collection of mix-and-match tropes.

And it’s not just Maslany who energizes the show. Jordan Gavarish is quite winning in a splashy role as Sarah’s devoted foster brother and Maria Doyle Kennedy is wonderfully enigmatic and ferocious as Sarah’s shadowy foster mother, a member of a resistance group that she realizes is also untrustworthy. Like so many conspiracy thrillers, these folks learn that the only ones they can trust are family, however they define it. That’s what ultimately has made the show a cult favorite.

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with a “Cloneversation” interview hosted by Wil Wheaton, deleted scenes, and four behind-the-scenes featurettes among the supplements.

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Jul 04 2014

Videophiled TVD: Lifetime’s ‘Witches of East End’


Witches of East End: The Complete First Season (Fox, DVD) may qualify as my guilty pleasure of the season. This Lifetime Channel original series is not a remake of The Witches of Eastwick, mind you (creator Maggie Friedman already tried that) but a femme-centered supernatural series centered on a family of witches beset by a curse. Joanna Beauchamp (Julia Ormond) is immortal and doomed to watch her two daughters die before the age of thirty, at which point she becomes spontaneously pregnant again and the cycle comes back around, so this time around she hasn’t even told her girls, Freya (Jenna Dewan-Tatum) and Ingrid (Rachel Boston). Her more adventurous sister Wendy (Mädchen Amick), who has nine lives and a black cat alter-ego, arrives with news that Joanna and her daughters are in danger and sure enough, Joanna has an evil doppelganger show up and Freya is dragged into a netherworld by a centuries-old warlock. Time for a talk about their legacies. Protective mom Joanna reluctantly oversees their magic education and fun Aunt Wendy teases them with the fun side of magic. And of course there are the usual growing pains of mishaps and backfires along with the curses, attacks, and other weapons of magical warfare.

The series runs on Lifetime, where women are the focus, but it also borrows from shows like The Vampire Diaries and Once Upon a Time, where attractive stars and hot and sexy romances spice up the drama. The cheesecake is spread evenly across the sexes here, with Dewan-Tatum in revealing blouses and steamy sex scenes (lots of them dream sequences) with not one but two hot guys, her rich fiancé (Eric Winter) and his rebellious, bad-boy brother (Daniel DiTomasso), who is clearly trouble because his face is in perpetual five o’clock shadow. And the two “matrons” of the show, Ormond and Amick, are just as confident and gorgeous, with Amick’s Wendy constantly losing her clothes after shapeshifting into a cat and back again (it’s commercial cable so no nudity, just a lot of skin and suggestion). It makes you wonder if the creators were hoping to snag some male viewers into the estrogen drama, or maybe just acknowledging lesbian viewers along with the straight audience.

Whatever the demographic appeal, the show is fun and winning thanks to the strength of the four actresses and the family bonds that grow and strengthen along the season of discovery for the two daughters and the reconnection of the estranged sisters overcoming past conflicts to bond over their pact to break the curse and protect the two girls from death this time around. Virginia Madsen co-stars as a Freya’s future mother-in-law and Enver Gjokaj, Jason George, Tom Lenk, and Joel Gretsch co-star.

10 episodes on three discs, plus a featurette, deleted scenes, gag reel, and a collection of bloopers with the cat. Also available to stream from Netflix.

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Jul 03 2014

Videophiled TVD: The American ‘The Bridge’


The Bridge: The Complete First Season (US) (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) – The U.S. has a long and complicated history of remaking foreign shows, with a lot of failures but also a lot of success stories. The Bridge is one of the more natural imports. The original show, a dark murder mystery procedural from Denmark, throws a cross-border complication into a case where the victim is found lying across the borderline on a bridge between Sweden and Denmark, just the first of many twists. The American reworking drops the premise into the border crossing between El Paso and Juarez, the Mexican side being the murder capital of cartel-dominated territories along the border, and comes ready-made with political, social, cultural, and personal issues to complicate the investigation of what appears to be the murder of an American judge with an anti-immigration record but turns out to be part of a serial killing spree.

The volatile culture of the setting enriches the procedural but it’s the partnership of American homicide detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger), an obsessive, brilliant, by-the-book cop with borderline Asperger’s symptoms, and Chihauhau State Police detective Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir), a moral cop in an amoral system who latches on to this cross-jurisdictional case because it may allow him to do real police work unencumbered by corrupt bosses, that defines the show. They are a great team, with his ability to charm, cajole, and put people at ease teaching her a thing or two about the human side of the job and her genius putting together disparate clues into a pattern that eludes everyone else.

I also appreciate how the show doesn’t keep playing games with the identity of the killer and even solves the case before the season is over. Because the show, with its diverse cast and multiple storylines intertwining, is about more than this one case. As we get pulled into the characters and the tension between the cultures on either side of the border crossing, it reminds us that there is far more wrong here than a serial killer targeting a few victims and leaving the clues out for the detectives. There are hundreds of murders and missing women on the Mexican side that Americans never confront because that problem belongs to another country. Except that the relationship between the territories is much more complex than that and the series explores the way the cultures and economies and criminal enterprises are intertwined. Ted Levine, one of my favorite character actors, plays Sonya’s protective commanding officer, Annabeth Gish is the widow of a landowner who discovers her husband’s underworld activities after his death, Matthew Lillard and Emily Rios are reporters, and Catalina Sandino Moreno is Marco’s wife, who plays a more central role in the story as it unfolds.


13 episodes on four discs on DVD, with commentary on the pilot episodes, two featurettes and deleted scenes. Also available to stream from Hulu Plus.

This is a good time to remind you that The Bridge: Season One (Denmark) (MHz, DVD), the original Scandinavian series, is also now available. The show opens with a murder victim found in the middle of a bridge between Sweden and Denmark, but that’s only the beginning of the complications. Police from both countries discover that it’s actually two bodies cut in half and stitched together into a single corpse, and have to work together across borders. 10 episodes on four discs on DVD, all in Swedish and Danish with English subtitles, with cast and crew interviews.

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Jun 20 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘Ray Donovan’


Created by Ann Biderman, whose L.A. cop drama Southland was a critical favorite that was picked up and sustained by TNT for four years, the Showtime original series Ray Donovan: Season One (Showtime / CBS, Blu-ray, DVD) is ostensibly about the dirty business of covering up the scandals and crimes and bad behavior of the rich and famous of Los Angeles but it is centered on the family drama of a Boston clan that moved west after their criminal father Mickey (Jon Voigt) went to prison on a murder conviction.

Liev Schreiber is the title character, a tough, emotionally unflappable fixer for LA’s celebrities, the man who makes scandals and legal problems for famous clients go away, or does what he can to mitigate the damage of their misdeeds when it’s too late to cover them up. He’s also the protective brother who looks after Terry (Eddie Marsan), a former boxer damaged by his years in the ring now running a gym, and Bunchy (Dash Mihok), an alcoholic in rehab who has never gotten over the abuse he suffered at the hands of his priest. He loves his wife (Paula Malcomson) and children and is determined to keep them apart from the celebrity culture of excess and entitlement, but is so committed to his work that he has little time to spend with them, which puts a strain on the marriage. And he has never forgiven his father for his neglect and abuse, which creates tensions when Mickey gets out of prison early and tries to get back into his sons’ lives, reopening old wounds and creating new ones along the way.

It’s an interesting mix of cultures, the dark family drama with Boston Irish crime connections and the show business scandals in the shadows of sunny Los Angeles, and it gives the series an outsider’s perspective on it all. It’s also a rather grim and downbeat show, without much humor to leaven the heaviness of the family turmoil, centered by a strong performance by Schreiber. One of Hollywood’s most underrated actors, he carves out his version of the familiar anti-hero with a ruthless dedication to his job, a temper he mostly keeps in check, and a moral code, a man who will do almost anything for a client but will cross the line for family. Steven Bauer co-stars as Ray’s right hand man and James Woods guest stars as a vicious Boston hitman modeled on Whitey Bulger.

12 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, no supplements.

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Jun 19 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘True Detective’


True Detective (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD) tells a single, self-contained story told over eight hour-long episodes, technically a miniseries but more like an original novel for television: focused rather than sprawling, intimate rather than epic. Created and written by novelist Nic Pizzollato and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, it stars Matthew McConaughey as Detective Rust Cohl, a smart detective with a fierce psychological insight to criminals but poor collaborative and social skills, and Woody Harrelson as Detective Marty Hart, a family man with a more traditional approach to police work but rather loose definition of fidelity.

They aren’t so much an odd couple set of partners as simply colliding personalities who have to work to get along enough to solve cases, but they both agree that something is not right with their current case, which has similarities with other unsolved murders, cryptic clues with cult dimensions, and a murky trail that leads them to a regional church, a white supremacist organization, and a legacy of corrupt cops who have muddied the waters with bad police work and cover-ups. It jumps back and forth through time, framed by interviews with the two detectives years after the investigation ended without an arrest, and seems to be heading into supernatural territory, but ultimately the scariest revelation of the story is how such evil can continue for decades because of corruption, special interests, and institutional incompetence.

Harrelson and McConaughey inhabit rich, complicated, terribly flawed characters and Michelle Monaghan plays Hart’s wife, frustrated by his affairs and his lies, but also unable to deal with his failure to communicate as the case takes a toll on his psyche. It is beautifully written and directed, with haunting imagery and challenging subject matter, and it delves into dark territory. Not just the worlds they investigate but their own instincts and impulses and self-destructive choices. Pizzollato is working on a second series which will feature new characters and an entirely new story. Not a sequel as much as a follow-up television novel in the same spirit.

Eight episodes on DVD and Blu-ray, with commentary on two episodes by creator Nic Pizzollato and select collaborators, short “Inside the Episode” featurettes on each episode, the brief “Making True Detective,” interviews featurettes with stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and creator / writer Nic Pizzollato with music director T Bone Burnett, and deleted scenes. Both feature an UltraViolet Digital HD copy of the season.

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Jun 05 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series’


The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, DVD)

“Hi, Bob!” Button-down comedian Bob Newhart plays TV’s most famous therapist, Chicago psychologist Bob Hartley. It was the comedian’s first TV show and he was perfect casting for the ever-calm (at least on the outside) in the center of the neurotic storm swirling around him, be they friends — the insecure airline pilot neighbor Howard Borden (Bill Daily) and overconfident orthodontist Jerry Robinson (Peter Bonerz, who also directed many episodes) – or patients. Bob only seems like a rock of stability until he’s next to his down-to-Earth wife, elementary school teacher Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), who has the corner on normalcy in this professional couple.

It may not have seemed like it at the time, or even necessarily in retrospect, but The Bob Newhart Show was a pioneering sitcom in ways similar to Mary Tyler Moore, and it’s no coincidence that it was created by two veteran writers from Mary Tyler Moore, Lorenzo Music and David Davis, and produced by the same production entity, MTM Enterprises. Bob and Emily were a happily married childless couple in a Chicago high rise condo and in a break from age-old conventions, where every married couple slept in separate beds, they shared a king sized bed and a continuing sex life.

Marcia Wallace co-stars as his lively receptionist Carol, yet another distinctive personality in the defining mix of the series, and Jack Riley, Florida Friebus, and John Fiedler were among the regulars in the weekly group therapy sessions in Bob’s downtown office, where Bob Hartley did what Bob Newhart did best: watch, listen, react. As series co-creator Lorenzo Music observed, “Bob listens funny…” Newhart’s muted delivery and blank stares make him not only the funniest straight man on TV, but a master of the deadpan gag, the slow motion stammer, and the delayed reaction laugh.

The hit sitcom ran for six seasons, anchoring CBS’s unbeatable Saturday night comedy block from 1972 to 1978, when Saturday nights were still a major ratings bonanza for the networks. The show even spawned drinking game: knock one back every time someone says “Hi, Bob.”


Seasons One through Four have been previously released on DVD by Fox. This set makes the entire series available for the first time: 142 episodes of the show’s six seasons on 19 discs in a box set, plus the original unaired version of the series pilot episode, the “Bob Newhart Show 19th Anniversary” reunion special from 1991, and the new interview featurette “Group Therapy” with Newhart, stars Peter Bonerz, Jack Riley, and Bill Daily, and producer / director Michael Zinberg. Carried over from the previous disc release are commentary tracks by Bob Newhart, Suzanne Pleshette, Peter Bonerz, Marcia Wallace, Jack Riley, Tom Poston, writer / co-creator David Davis, director James Burrows, and others, on 13 episodes across seasons two through four. The set’s only design flaw is failure to identify the commentary tracks on episode listings, the episode guide booklet, or the discs themselves. You have to go through the “Bonus Material” section of the disc menus to find them.

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May 27 2014

Videophiled: ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ – The Birth of Doctor Who


An Adventure in Space and Time (Warner, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is a TV movie made for the BBC but it is a movie nonetheless, a bit of pop culture celebration that takes on the creation of Doctor Who in 1963 (just in time for the 50th Anniversary!). Scripted by veteran Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss and produced by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, it’s sweet, it’s sentimental and it’s nostalgic. It’s also unexpectedly engaging as a piece of light historical drama made with an affectionate passion and more than a hint of the BBC series The Hour in its observations of the inner workings of the broadcaster half a century ago.

David Bradley plays William Hartnell, the aging veteran actor who reluctantly takes on the role in what he sees as just a kid’s show, and Jessica Raine is Verity Lambert, the former production assistant given the assignment of creating a prime time family show by her mentor (Brian Cox), now a ranking executive at the Beeb. She’s the first female producer at BBC and her director, Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), was a rare director of Indian descent, and their stories are a small but important part of this portrait of an institution in transition. Together they overcome budgetary limitations with flights of fantasy and creative special effects and the show recreates iconic events in the first four years of the series, from the series debut getting clobbered when it had the unfortunate luck of showing the night (British time) of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the first appearance of the Daleks to the explosion of Who-mania in Britain.

The Hartnell we’re presented here is a prickly old man who isn’t always easy to deal with but brings a warmth to the role of The Doctor. Bradley has played his share of grumpy old men, notably the caretaker Filch in the “Harry Potter” films, but he’s quite touching here as the frail veteran who, in the last years of his long career, becomes a pop culture sensation. It’s a late reward that takes its toll—he’s old, losing his memory, and exhausted by the demands of the role—and he offers a poignant performance.

For fans of the show, it’s a loving recreation of the original series art design and special effects along with key moments and characters of the show, but it’s more than simply an extended exercise in insider fandom. If all you know is the current incarnation, this is an entertaining, informative, and rather moving introduction to the birth of the phenomenon.

The Blu-ray+DVD Combo includes a featurette, deleted scenes, recreations of original Who scenes using original Marconi camera, and a bonus DVD featuring the first Doctor Who adventure, “An Unearthly Child,” starring William Hartnett at the Doctor and directed by Waris Hussein.

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May 22 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘Orange is the New Black’ Debuts on Disc


Orange is the New Black: Season One (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) – Netflix followed up the acclaim of House of Cards with this original series, a different kind of prison drama based on the memoir by Piper Kerman and developed by Jenji Kohan, the creator of Showtime’s Weeds. Taylor Schilling stars as a middle-class entrepreneur sent to prison for an old smuggling charge that goes back to her young and reckless days when she dated a drug smuggler (Laura Prepon), who it turns out is also serving time in her facility.

We’re not talking supermax here, and there’s nothing out of Oz or a seventies women-in-prison picture here. This is a mix of social drama and social satire, with a low key humor running under the very real sense of threat hanging over the entire situation. Schilling’s Piper Chapman comes from affluence, a college education and a young adulthood that allowed her the freedom to travel around the world and rebel against everything her parents stood for without worrying about little things like making a living. She’s since gotten that out of her system and is getting ready to marry (to Jason Biggs) and start her business when her past catches up with her and turns herself in to serve a year in women’s prison where she meets women who have been looking after themselves any way they can all their lives. It takes a few weeks to get her expectations adjusted and her missteps and unguarded comments have a habit of getting her into trouble.

What makes this so good is the rich cast of diverse characters who bring with them experiences not usually seen on the screen. The fact is, the prison population is racially mixed and dominated by poor and working class women who got caught up in crime out of desperation, not some youthful lark. There are some angry women in here, a few unbalanced and unpredictable as well. I much prefer this to Kohan’s “Weeds,” which played criminality for laughs and made light of the violence inherent in her world. The humor is more barbed and troubling here, the characters have the weight of lives behind them, and while it favors Piper’s experience, the show is at its best an ensemble piece and every character gets to tell her story along the way. Uzo Aduba’s “Crazy Eyes” stands out as a fan favorite, a truly unpredictable character who seems to enjoy letting people think she’s crazier than she is, and Kate Mulgew, Natasha Lyonne, Danielle Brooks, Taryn Manning, and Michelle Hurst are among the fellow inmates.

Netflix doesn’t share its viewership numbers but all indications suggest that Orange is the New Black is actually watched by more subscribers than their marquee series House of Cards. It certainly offers a much more diverse cast and a less rarified culture on the screen. You won’t mistake this for a social realist drama, but the microcosm of this community offers characters and experiences we can relate to more easily than the Cards culture of power brokers and political players.

13 episodes on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital formats. The disc editions include producer commentary on two episodes and four featurettes. The second season debuts on Netflix on June 6, with entire season available at once.

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May 08 2014

Videophiled TVD: Back on the Beat with ‘Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series’

HillStreetBluesHill Street Blues: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, DVD) – Steven Bochco had racked up over 15 years of writing and producing credits when he revolutionized the cop drama with this groundbreaking series, an ensemble serial set in an unidentified inner city precinct, that he co-created with Michael Kozoll. The culture of poverty, rampant crime, racial tensions and the combustible presence of volatile gangs sets the tone of this big city beat while the handheld camerawork gives it a docu-look and feel unique among primetime shows (and later to be picked up by such shows as Homicide, NYPD Blue, The Shield, The Wire and any number of series). But it didn’t just change the face of police dramas. It set the stage for shows of all genres to present stories that play out over multiple episodes or weave in and out of the season, gave us characters that evolved over the course of the show, and focused more on the lives of the men and women in blue than on the case of the week. It wasn’t about solving a mystery, it was about engaging with suspects, victims, civilians, and each other.

The style and tone is established right in the series pilot, which opens on the defining morning roll call, the noise and jovial chaos of the precinct house—a first on TV cop shows—and the trademark “Let’s be careful out there” (uttered by Michael Conrad) and ends with officers Hill and Renko (Michael Warren and Charles Haid) shot by drug squatters in an abandoned building and left for dead. In between we get Precinct Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), his emotionally frayed ex-wife (Barbara Bosson), a hostage situation and a colorful squad of detectives, uniforms and officers alike, including the indefinable, cigar-chomping Det. Belker (Bruce Weitz), who looks like a derelict and growls (and sometimes bites) like a dog. Veronica Hamel is the hardcase defense attorney who makes Furrillo’s job harder by day and then meets up as his secret love by night and the squad is filled out by Joe Spano, Taurean Blacque, Kiel Martin, Rene Enriquez, Betty Thomas, Ed Marinaro (who joins the cast mid-season) and James B. Sikking as the military vet who runs their tactical unit.

You can spot young David Caruso as an Irish gang member popping up in the first few season and Dennis Dugan guest stars as the self-styled long underwear hero Captain Freedom, an addled innocent who winds up in an unusual relationship with Belker, in a major arc in Season Two. When Michael Conrad found out he had cancer, his character faced it on the show and his death reverberated through the squad as much as it must have through the cast. Dennis Franz appeared in the third season and then joined the cast in its final seasons with a character who was an early draft of his NYPD Blue anchor Sipowicz. And the show’s staff of writers and producers launched the next generation of grown-up American TV, David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), Dick Wolf (Law & Order and spin-offs), Anthony Yerkovich (Miami Vice) and Mark Frost (Twin Peaks) among them. David Milch won an Emmy for his first episode of the series: “Trial By Fury,” the opening episode of the third season. The volatile storyline—the rape and murder of a nun by a couple of thieves—is set in the sweltering atmosphere of a heat wave and a neighborhood fanned by the flames of fury into a veritable lynch mob out for blood.

The show picked up 26 Emmy Awards (including Outstanding Drama Series four years running), all in its first five seasons (Bochco was fired after that and the show never recovered), and while it was never a ratings powerhouse (it was almost cancelled after its first season) it was a prestige program with a desirable demographic. I watched the first few seasons religiously when I was in high school and I am happy to report that the show remains as strong decades later. Smart writing, rich characters, great stories and a superb ensemble makes for an enduring show.

The first two seasons of Hill Street Blues were released by Fox back in 2006 but none of the other seasons have been available until this release from Shout Factory: all 144 episodes and seven seasons on 34 discs in a box set with seven cases (one per season, of course). There’s commentary on four episodes (all carried over from the earlier disc releases) and a bonus disc with new supplements: the hour-long “The History of Hill Street” with Steven Bochco and members of the cast, the 20-minute “Writers on the Hill” with Bochco and staff writers Jeffrey Lewis, Robert Crais and Alan Rachins, and interview featurettes “Benedetto and Buntz” (with Dennis Franz) and “Lt. Howard Hunter” (with James B. Sikking), all produced for this release. Carried over from the 2005 DVD releases are the 50-minute retrospective featurette “Roll Call: Looking Back at Hill Street Blues” with a reunion of cast members Barbara Bosson, Veronica Hamel, Joe Spano, Ed Marinaro, James B. Sikking, Bruce Weitz, Michael Warren and Charles Haid, and the interview featurettes “Belker Unleashed” (Bruce Weitz), “A Cowboy on the Hill” (Charles Haid) and “Confessions of Captain Freedom” (second season guest star Dennis Dugan). The accompanying 24-page book features an essay by Tom Shales along with the episode guide.

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