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Aisle Seat TV on DVD Blow Out

Andy tackles eight box sets primed for viewing consumption
Plus: DVD Appetizers for HULK Fanatics!

By Andy Dursin

Before we get to this week's long, long-promised round-up of TV on DVD, I have to take a moment to recommend a pair of discs for those HULK fans out there, trying to get pumped up for the release of Ang Lee's film this Friday.

Universal has released a superb DVD of THE INCREDIBLE HULK: THE ORIGINAL TELEVISION PREMIERE (***, 1978, 98 mins.), Kenneth Johnson's initial adventure for his Dr. "David" Banner (Bill Bixby) and his green alter-ego (Lou Ferrigno).

The Pilot introduces the formula for what would become a successful, four season run for the CBS series, as Banner falls for a beautiful scientist (Susan Sillivan), only to tragically lose her in a futile attempt at controlling his newfound rage, which triggers a gamma ray- induced transformation into the big green one.

With Johnson directing and Joe Harnell providing the first of many memorable scores for the show, the episode is a must on DVD, where it looks crisp and colorful -- and hopefully will be the primer for full-season Hulk box-sets to follow (well, I can dream, can't I?).

Not to be simply content with issuing one episode, though, Universal has sweetened the pot by including the memorable two-parter, "Married," guest starring Mariette Hartley, and -- more impressively -- special features like an introduction from Lou Ferrigno and commentary track by Kenneth Johnson.

Johnson, who previously supplied a lengthy and fully informative chat track on "V," here gives another terrific overview of the production on both the pilot and "Married." Unlike some filmmakers, Johnson remembers actual dates, giving a constant and fascinating talk about the genesis of the series -- and detailing everything from Bixby and Ferrigno's casting to Harnell's score. It's a terrific discussion that fans of the show will love, and more great work from Johnson, who seems to truly care about preparing notes for his commentaries (I wish most filmmakers would do the same on their tracks!).

The disc also includes an overview of the Ang Lee film, while the full-frame transfers and mono sound are both terrific. Again, if the film is a huge success, perhaps Universal will be prompted to issue the show itself on DVD in the near future (hint hint).


Also well worth seeking out for Hulk fans is THE INCREDIBLE HULK (83 mins., 1996, Buena Vista Home Entertainment), an animated compilation of episodes from the 1996 cartoon series.

What makes the DVD worthwhile isn't the animation so much as it is the disc's supplements. As with their "Spider-Man" DVDs, Buena Vista has included supplementary materials for Marvel fans of all ages: episode introductions by Stan "The Man" Lee himself, with the added benefit of an interactive "Hulk" mode that takes the viewer to branching segments hosted by comic book author Peter David.

David, who authored recent "Hulk" comics as well as the revamp of "Supergirl" among other books, provides an overview of the title as well as its various incarnations on TV over the years. He provides details of the story's evolution from Jack Kirby's original drawings (which Lee points out were utilized in the "Origin" episode from the 1966 series, also included on the DVD) through the early '80s and mid '90s cartoon series, as well as the Marvel comic itself. David provides plenty of trivia for all Hulk fans, making the DVD a must for aficionados.

Buena Vista's DVD offers 83 minutes worth of episodes from the 1996 series, plus the 1966 "Origin" episode, Stan Lee's "Soapbox" commentary, and full-frame transfers with stereo sound.

So, if you're looking to HULK out with Friday's premiere, both discs come highly recommended for their special features alone. 'Nuff said!


TV on DVD

I've previously written that the release of full-season TV shows on DVD has to be one of the most enjoyable developments to occur in the medium. Studios were surprised by the reception given to shows like "24," which followed its success on DVD to bigger ratings during its second season, in addition to classic series like "M*A*S*H" and "Star Trek," which predictably met with solid sales on disc. Now, we're seeing all kinds of programs released on DVD -- classic and niche shows alike, something truly for every viewer's taste.

In addition to the freedom you have to watch a series at your leisure, the DVD format enables studios to release full-length episodes as they originally ran on network TV -- not as they appear in re-run syndication, where several minutes often has to be edited in order to accommodate additional commercial breaks. When you sit down and watch CHEERS on disc, there aren't any more jarring edits in the middle of scenes. CHARLIE'S ANGELS runs smoother, THE MONKEES is less fragmented (if that's possible) -- further adding to the value of collecting your favorite program on DVD.

I've promised an Aisle Seat rundown of the best recent TV box sets for a few weeks now (it's nearly become a running gag!), but it's taken a few weeks for me to screen enough of the programs to get a full grasp of both the shows and their presentation. So, without any further delay, here -- finally -- are the best of the current crop of TV series to appear in the digital medium, grouped by decade for your viewing pleasure--
 


The '60s

THE MONKEES: The Complete First Season. Rhino, 1966, 830 mins. ANDY'S RATING: Fun for fans. CAST: Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith. DVD FEATURES: Remixed stereo sound; commentaries on episodes by Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, and director James Frawley; original Monkees Kelloggs commercials; interview with songwriter Bobby Hart; memorabilia gallery; 16- min. Monkees Pilot. TECHNICAL SPECS: Original full-screen format; 5.1 surround and original mono sound.

A staple of weekday afternoon TV on Boston's WLVI Channel 56 when I was growing up, THE MONKEES is one of those cult shows that has lost little of its fan appeal over the decades since its original run on NBC. Some 30+ episodes were produced for the program's first season alone, and Rhino's deluxe DVD box-set includes them all, along with a variety of special features that Monkee-addicts should love.

First off, the transfers are remastered in their original aspect ratio (no 16:9 necessary here, folks), and generally look very good. The colors are strong and the prints are mostly in great shape. Directors like Bob Rafelson and James Frawley worked on many episodes of THE MONKEES, resulting in a good-looking show that owed its success as much to Richard Lester's work with The Beatles as it did to its own playful visual style.

The self-contained programs are a blast of '60s nostalgia, with wacky plots, goofy slapstick, and of course, plenty of songs (like the classic "Last Train To Clarksville" and "Daydream Believer") and good spirits to carry the day. Sure, the Monkees were a concept and marketing idea more than a "real" musical group, but at least their show was produced with a bit of fun and style, as Rhino's extensive, informative booklet notes point out.

Rhino's box set offers audio commentary on nearly a dozen episodes by members of the original cast, plus goodies like the group's original Kelloggs ads, an interview with songwriter Bobby Hart, a shorter version of the show's original pilot, and memorabilia galleries. The 5.1 remixed sound is terrific, sounding like vintage stereo and evoking the same feel as Rhino's cute package design (the DVDs are each housed in self-contained sleeves resembling mini 33's).


TV on DVD: The '70s

CHARLIE'S ANGELS: The Complete First Season. Columbia TriStar, 1976-77, 1164 mins. ANDY'S RATING: Nostalgia freaks rejoice. CAST: Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith, Farrah Fawcett (Majors), David Doyle, and the unmistakable voice of John Forsythe. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Featurette. TECHNICAL SPECS: Original full-screen format, Mono sound.

When you think of TV in the 1970s, a myriad of images can flash in your mind. Inevitably, if you've got any pop culture history in your soul, a snippet -- however fleeting -- from CHARLIE'S ANGELS would have to be one of them. One of those scenes when the Angels would have to work out of a jam, wearing sexy, skin-tight outfits that captivated America's youth and turned the show into a phenomenon of the period.

Back then, such moments were tantalizing, provocative, and yes, even controversial. It was, after all, 1977, and TV had yet to regress into the pit of depravity it more closely resembles these days on most of the major networks.

Now, though, CHARLIE'S ANGELS is a campy action-adventure show that's best appreciated by those who experienced it the first time around -- however young they may have been. Whatever novelty the program may have had in 1976, these days you can find scantily-clad females on nearly every channel, at ANY time of the day (heck, "Baywatch" itself is seen at any hour somewhere in this country). It's not to say that CHARLIE'S ANGELS isn't still fun, though -- just that, for viewers who didn't live through the show on network TV or in re-runs, it might be hard for some to understand what all the fuss was about without knowing its pop culture significance.

Kate Jackson (the "smart one"), Farrah Fawcett (the "athletic one"), and Jaclyn Smith (who fell someplace inbetween the two) starred in the series as three former police detectives hired by a mysterious, wealthy benefactor for the betterment of mankind -- or, at least, young heterosexual males in the late '70s. With his honorable assistant Bosley (David Doyle, not to be mistaken with Tom Bosley) running his operation in the flesh, the never-seen Charlie spent each week sending the three girls out on various missions, where each would get entangled in SOME kind of crazy predicament.

The plots were routine, dealing with kidnapping to murder in locales like Vegas and Hawaii, enabling the Angels to dress up in disguise and save the day. Along the way, of course, the trio would get involved in circumstances that dictated a bit of romance or at least the wearing of sexy wardrobes, which were the key ingredient to CHARLIE's success.

Columbia's 5-disc DVD box-set includes all of CHARLIE'S ANGELS' first season episodes, best known for being the only season that starred Farrah Fawcett, who shot to stardom and quickly took off for greener pastures. A flock of lawsuits, though, followed Farrah, forcing her to return for various one-shot guest appearances during the turbulent seasons that followed, which introduced Cheryl Ladd, Shelley Hack, and Tanya Roberts into the show, respectively.

The first season at least lays the formula down and remains enjoyable for fans, especially since the shows are unedited and look terrific on DVD. The Pilot episode (which includes David Ogden Stiers in a role dropped from the series) has its source material problems, but the series proper is colorful and in great shape. The mono sound is also fine, and Columbia's booklet includes descriptions of all the episodes, which are each housed in colorful, slim plastic cases.

While not a significant moment in TV history, CHARLIE'S ANGELS is nevertheless goofy fun for nostalgia fans, and Columbia's presentation -- while lacking in special features aside from a featurette offering an overview of the show -- is a package that does full justice to the program in all its candy-coated, '70s glory. Now -- where's WONDER WOMAN?


THE JEFFERSONS: The Complete Second Season. Columbia TriStar, 1975-76, 624 mins. ANDY'S RATING: More classic comedy. CAST: Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, Marla Gibbs, Paul Benedict, Roxie Roker, Franklin Cover. DVD FEATURES: Episode descriptions. TECHNICAL SPECS: Full frame, mono sound.

Second season of Norman Lear's groundbreaking sitcom marked the first full season of THE JEFFERSONS on the air. After premiering in January 1975, CBS brought the program back in the fall of that same year, running it on Saturday nights before shifting it to Mondays in January of '76.

While the show took some time finding its audience (CBS kept shuffling it around the schedule during its first few seasons), THE JEFFERSONS continued to keep the laughs on coming, as it further settled in, developed its ensemble cast and premise of an African-American drycleaner named George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) whose success enabled him to "move on up" to a deluxe apartment on Manhattan's East Side.

Having grown up on the re-runs and later seasons of the program, I can say that I've grown quite fond of Columbia's "Jeffersons" box-sets on DVD. The ability to re- watch the program as an adult, at my leisure, on disc makes the purchase of these sets especially worthwhile, and THE JEFFERSONS is one of those shows that's perfect to pop in the player and watch an episode or two for a few laughs. The timing of the cast and the various comic situations were perfectly exploited during the show's long run, and while the program's cast made it a groundbreaking sitcom in its time, few other shows have ever surpassed it for sheer belly laughs and overall fun. No other series, for me, has been able to tap into important social and economic themes like race and class while maintaining its sense of humor the way the JEFFERSONS did over its decade-long run.

Columbia's three-disc set includes all 24 episodes from the second season. Shot on video tape, some grain is apparent at times, but overall the show looks as good as it possibly can. More importantly, the shows are uncut, and freed from the edits that syndication required (as a result, each program runs 25 minutes each). Extras are limited to episode descriptions in the accompanying booklet.


S.WA.T.: The Complete First Season. Columbia TriStar, 1975, 564 mins. ANDY'S RATING: Vintage '70s action and a cool theme song. CAST: Steve Forrest, Robert Urich, Rod Perry, Mark Shera. DVD FEATURES: Trailers. TECHNICAL SPECS: Full frame, mono sound.

For a show that boasted a wildly popular theme song and is being turned into a big-screen movie this summer, S.W.A.T. didn't last very long on the airwaves.

This routine but entertaining action drama focused on the efforts of an L.A. task force team coordinated by Lt. Dan Harrelson (Steve Forrest), which gets into sticky situations that the cops can't control. He's joined by a team of police vets, including Robert Urich's Jim Street, who joins the S.W.A.T. team after his partner is gunned down in the pilot episode.

Produced by Aaron Spelling, S.W.A.T.'s theme song (composed by Barry DeVorzon) was more durable than the show itself. ABC debuted the program in February of '75 for 13 episodes, all of which are contained in Columbia's three-disc DVD box-set. The show would return to the air the following fall for its second -- but ultimately final -- season.

S.W.A.T. isn't a great show, but as '70s police dramas go, it's entertaining for what it is. The show is a bit dated in its characterizations and themes (one episode features a group of student activists who have been overly "enlightened" by a philosophy class Urich attends), but it's straight-ahead TV action that nostalgia buffs should enjoy.

The episodes look fairly good on Columbia's DVD, which, like the two titles reviewed above, includes episode descriptions in the enclosed booklet. Groovy, man!
 


The '80s

CHEERS: The Complete First Season. Paramount, 1982-83, 9 hrs. ANDY'S RATING: Norrrrrrrrrrmmmmmmmmmm! CAST: Ted Danson, Shelley Long, Nicholas Colasanto, Rhea Perlman, George Wendt, John Ratzenberger. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Ted Danson interview; featurettes; trivia game. TECHNICAL SPECS: Full-frame transfers, stereo sound.

I tried a handful of ways to open up my review of CHEERS, but if you know anything about TV comedy, what is there to say that hasn't been written already about this series?

If you grew up in the '80s or watched network TV at all during that time, chances are that you spent just a few Thursday nights at the Boston watering hole where bartender Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and company always knew your name. Utilizing the perfect mix of ensemble talents like Danson, Shelley Long (as over-educated employee Diane Chambers), Rhea Perlman (the sassy waitress Carla), the late Nicholas Colasanto (Coach), and frequent customers Cliff (John Ratzenberger) and NORM! (George Wendt), CHEERS was and still is a classic sitcom that had one of the most durable runs for any series on network TV.

Like any show with a long lifespan, CHEERS ran out of steam towards the end of its run, but how many programs endured as well as this show did? The recipe for its success was simple: take strong, smart writing, throw in a cast of appealing characters that complimented each other beautifully, and create specific episodes tailored for each performer. At least, that's what the show's producers ultimately did with CHEERS, and as a result, the program ran for over a decade on NBC, often at the top of the Nielsen charts in its heyday.

Paramount's first season box set of CHEERS' first season features all 22 episodes, including the pilot. While a lot of programs, even successful ones, have a tough time taking off, it's surprising how together CHEERS was right from the start. While in later seasons the producers would take greater advantage of its supporting cast, CHEERS' first few years concentrated on the slowly developing relationship between Sam and Diane -- resulting in some memorable interplay between the couple and a few cliffhangers along the way. While I'm of the opinion that show actually improved after Shelley Long left the show, the early seasons of CHEERS are still filled with the crisp writing and perfect timing that became mainstays of the series.

What's especially great about Paramount's DVD box set is how good the show looks. The transfers are immaculate and show no signs of grain or other artifacts -- you've never seen CHEERS look this good, and the stereo sound is likewise perfect. Supplements are limited to a ten-minute interview with Danson and some clip montages, but the box set is well worth it for the quality of the series and its presentation alone. [My favorite bit of Cheers trivia is that the networks allegedly tested three pairs for the leads -- Danson and Long, Fred Dryer and Julia Duffy, and William Devane and Lisa Eichhorn. I'd love to see that Devane/Eichhorn footage--SB]


Recent and Current Favorites

FRASIER: The Complete First Season. Paramount, 1993-94, 9 hrs. ANDY'S RATING: Some of TV's smartest comedy, before it wore out its welcome. CAST: Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, John Mahoney, Jane Leeves, Peri Gilpin, Dan Butler. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary on the pilot episode; featurettes. TECHNICAL SPECS: Full-frame transfers, stereo sound.

TV spin-offs are bountiful in the annals of small-screen history, but only a select few of them became big-time hits ("The Jeffersons," reviewed above, being one of them).

FRASIER was one of those special shows that went onto carve out its own niche in TV history, something that came as little surprise to a lot of viewers. After all, with the same staff behind "Cheers" nursing the program into its own, and one of the most adaptable characters from that series taking center stage -- Kelsey Grammer's irrepressible Dr. Frasier Crane -- FRASIER had all the makings of a success right off the bat.

The first season of the show certainly confirmed its promise, as Frasier effortlessly moved from one ensemble cast into another. Leaving Boston behind for his hometown of Seattle, Frasier moves in with his dad (a paralyzed ex-cop splendidly played by John Mahoney), who's attended to by the lovely, sassy English maid Daphne (Jane Leeves). When Dr. Krane isn't trading barbs with his old man, he's on the air, hosting a talk show coordinated by producer Roz (Peri Gilpin), or in a café, trying to cope with his brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce), who's amazingly more stuck up than Frasier is.

The cast, which rightly copped a slew of Emmys over the years since its initial season, is absolutely perfect, and while the show itself has worn itself out (especially in the Niles-Daphne romance), it's still one of the brighter shining lights on sitcom TV -- even as it approaches its final season and a decade on the air. The first season, though, in many ways remains the best season of FRASIER: the introductions to the characters and Frasier's growing respect and admiration for his brother and father, in spite of their arguments, ring true in nearly every episode. There's a quiet emotion to the series that gives it an added dimension, separating it from "Cheers," and of course the laughs are just as abundant.

Paramount's four-disc DVD box set offers all 24 first-season episodes, in good- looking full-screen transfers with stereo sound. Supplements include commentary by creator-producers Peter Casey and David Lee on "The Good Son" pilot episode, a half- hour Making Of segment that gives a solid overview of the program's genesis, and a segment on the various celebrity voices who called into Frasier's show (a device that never worked as well as it sounded). All in all, a terrific package for FRASIER fans.


XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS Season One. Anchor Bay, 1995, 1080 mins. ANDY'S RATING: Camp fun for everyone. CAST: Lucy Lawless, Renee O'Connor; guest appearances by Ted Raimi, Bruce Campbell. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: "Xena Chronicles," trivia, photo gallery, screen savers, actor and director bios. TECHNICAL SPECS: Full-frame, 5.1 Digital sound.

Designed as a companion series to the Sam Raimi/Bob Tapert produced "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," XENA took the goofy, campy fun of its predecessor, added a female presence in Lucy Lawless' reformed villainess, and ultimately became even more popular in some circles than the show it spun off from.

Xena, once an evil "warrior princess" who took on Hercules, spent the better part of her fantastic travels trying to make good for all the pain and suffering she had inflicted on the world. This meant traveling along with "pal" Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor) and running into villains, creatures, lost civilizations, and roguish characters like Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi's brother, Ted, who popped up in recurring guest star stints.

Shot in New Zealand, XENA was a guilty pleasure, but in some ways was more interesting than "Hercules" simply because of the more complicated nature of its central heroine. Lawless' trademark yell felt like the modern equivalent of Johnny Wisemuller's old Tarzan call, and the shows offered the same sorts of forgettable, and yet dependable, action entertainment for viewers of all ages. Sure, there was a bit of lesbian subtext blown up by special interest groups that over-analyzed the series, but the good spirits of the show established a memorable action heroine in pop culture with a fan base that continues to grow even today.

Anchor Bay's 6-DVD set contains all 24 episodes from XENA's first season. The full-frame transfers look a bit grainy, but I'm not entirely sure if this wasn't the result of how the program was shot, especially in its early days. The 5.1 stereo sound, boasting scores by Joe LoDuca, fares better, though the extras are relatively light aside from a "Xena Chronicles" featurette and text-based features like trivia and biographies. The packaging, though, is nice enough, and well worth a purchase for Xena fans.


DARK ANGEL: The Complete First Season. Fox, 2000-2001, 965 mins. ANDY'S RATING: Solid sci-fi action from a show that later went downhill. CAST: Jessica Alba. DVD FEATURES: Audio commentary on selected episodes; featurettes; audition tapes; interviews; blooper reel; video game trailer. TECHNICAL SPECS: Full-frame format, 2.0 Dolby Surround.

James Cameron's first foray to the small-screen didn't last long -- only a pair of seasons -- but DARK ANGEL was a fun ride, especially in its initial run of episodes, while it lasted.

Set in a Blade Runner-esque future, the fetching Jessica Alba stars as a seemingly ordinary, attractive young woman who's actually the product of a government project to engineer DNA-enhanced humans with super powers. Alba's on the run from the bad guys, but finds help in the form of a paralyzed young rich guy (Michael Weatherly) who tries to hack through the repressive state and bring freedom to the masses.

While you might think DARK ANGEL sounds like a gloomy, dark sci-fi program from reading that description, the reality is that the series nicely balanced its futuristic vision with warm, human characters and a fair amount of romance, provided by Alba and Weatherly's slowly developing relationship.

The only trouble is, despite Alba's good looks, the show's strong production values and neo-"Wonder Woman" like plots, DARK ANGEL succumbed to that unforgivable sin that dooms any TV series: bad writing. Near the end of season one, the producers and writers started to run out of ideas, introducing Nana Visitor as a villainess when the show's initial bad guy would have been enough, and further cluttering the plot line.

It's not bad, but it is unfortunately totally routine -- a feeling that was only exaggerated in DARK ANGEL's ridiculous second season, when Alba's "Max" ran into animal-humans who looked like Ron Perlman in "Beauty and the Beast." Thanks, but no thanks!

Fox's DVD box set offers the complete first season with excellent full-frame transfers and active Dolby Surround soundtracks. Joel McNeely is credited with scoring the episodes, and his soundtrack adds to the high-budget look and feel of the series (which ultimately turned out to be the main reason for its cancellation). Extras include commentary by the likes of pilot episode helmer David Nutter among others on selected episodes; promotional featurettes; audition tapes and a blooper reel.

Despite its disappointing end, DARK ANGEL is a sleek and highly entertaining show that deserved a better fate than it received -- from both its writers AND the network. Sci-fi fans should have a good time with it just the same, and I'm fairly certain we'll be seeing Alba materialize somewhere, hopefully with better material next time.
 


NEXT TIME: Back to the beach with the later JAWS sequels, IS PARIS BURNING?, and more! Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then.


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