IT'S EASY TO SCOFF at baby-boomer nostalgia until your own favorite television series gets added to the gold mine that is DVD. Then, even the most cynical of writers suddenly begins acting like a crazed collector of Franklin Mint porcelain figurines. I have to have it! Such was the reaction around the office to several TV titles new to disc, all of them Seattle Weekly picks, all of them essential in their own peculiar way to their own peculiar enthusiast. Eds.
Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series
There are no doltish, one-dimensional parents who just don't understand on this brilliant series, no soulless bullies or hopeless misfits. The short-lived show (1999–2000) makes every character count. Never mind the Scooby-Doo movies: Linda Cardellini brings astonishing intuition and emotional realism to Lindsay, a brainy good girl at a Michigan high school who gets curious, naturally enough, about being bad. During a particularly formative year (1980), she ditches the wholesome "Mathletes" to hang out with a band of stoners led by slacker hunk Daniel (James Franco). But Lindsay's rebellion isn't TV-typical: Despite occasional spats with her parents, her relationship with them rarely devolves into shouting matches. They're slowly growing apart, but she doesn't really hold it against them. Her freshman brother, Sam (John Francis Daley), has worries of his own; as a recognized geek, he dreams of a time when "PYGMY GEEK" won't be scrawled on his locker, all the while nursing a timid crush that involves never actually speaking to the object of his affection.
Even F&G's secondary characters are drawn with care. Hippie guidance counselor Jeff (Dave Gruber Allen) is laughable in his concerned efforts to befriend "troubled" students, yet he occasionally manages a startling insight. Among its extras for all 18 episodes, this six-disc set contains more than two dozen commentary tracks. Series creator Paul Feig's episode-by-episode remarks in the "collectible booklet" are funny and sweetly personal, but F&G stands perfectly well on its own as a rare and precious work. Much like a skinny, bespectacled high-school geek, it slipped by unnoticed before; today it deserves to be hoisted on somebody's shoulders and cheered. NEAL SCHINDLER
Horatio Hornblower: The New Adventures
A&E Home Video, $39.95
Horatio Hornblower is hot—well, at least actor Ioan Gruffudd is. Playing C.S. Forester's beloved British naval hero, he has all the dashing prerequisites: Adonis cheekbones, smoldering brown eyes, and a leading-man chin that might give Brad Pitt and Russell Crowe pause. Thankfully, he's back at the helm of the Hornblower series' two new installments: Duty and Loyalty. Both follow the winning Hornblower formula—disaster strikes and Horatio must save the day.
In Duty, during a short peace with France, Hornblower is left decommissioned and destitute in Portsmouth. Like watching Robin Hood clean the manure from the stables, one feels sorry for a man clearly working beneath his station. Back then, officers were given a lifetime to dedicate themselves to war—the Napoleonic wars lasted 50 years—and one would never think of Patrick O'Brian's Capt. Jack Aubrey (Master and Commander) having to hock his sword to pay the rent, yet Hornblower must. Fortunately, his landlady's daughter, Maria, (Ab Fab's Julie Sawalha), keeps him from homelessness. But before Hornblower can sink any lower, Napoleon's perfidiousness sends him back to sea, with the command of his own vessel, the Hotspur. Once again, he must save the British from the French.
Loyalty concerns Hornblower's subsequent mercy-marriage to Maria and his search for a missing British ship. Both films are as entertaining as the original A&E series, though this set doesn't contain any extras. You'll have to buy the Complete Adventures for those.
Considering this is a made-for-TV venture, the broadside battles and fighting sequences are well orchestrated and suspenseful. (Even when the Hotspur looks like it's slicing through the water, it's actually just the camera moving past the anchored vessel on a dolly.) But with Horatio at the wheel, the viewer is easily swept away by this attractive captain. SAMANTHA STOREY
The Jack Paar Collection
Steve Allen created The Tonight Show, but Jack Paar reinvented it as the modern talk show when he took over from 1957 to '62. (Then Carson succeeded him.) Scrapping the variety-show format inherited from vaudeville, Paar introduced the late-night host persona, the tone- setting opening monologue, the chair/desk/sofa setup, and young unknowns like a not-yet- sourly-arrogant Bill Cosby, a terrified, self-deprecating Woody Allen, the uproarious Muppets, and the free-associating Jonathan Winters. This delicious three–DVD set captures these skyrocketing stars and more, with emphasis on Paar's later prime-time show (1962–65). Also included, the PBS documentary Smart Television: The Best of Jack Paar offers a dandy assortment of clips and interviews with Regis Philbin and Dick Cavett (both Paar employees), Tom Smothers, and Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, who notes how much more journalistic Paar was than his successors. Would Leno or even Letterman have had the balls to sympathetically interview Castro when he was about as popular as Saddam? Or the brains to talk, seriously and at length, with JFK and Goldwater? And how the hell did Paar manage to talk Nixon into making his weird TV debut as a composer/pianist?
Other highlights provide points of entry into Paar's wonderful, very scary world. There are a series of remarkably long and freewheeling intro monologues and interviews with Cassius Clay (sparkly), Liberace (who improvises a tune to go with Clay's poetry), Billy Graham (dull), and Robert Kennedy right after his brother's death (tense, guarded, yet surprisingly emotional). Three episodes are presented in their entirety, with a few DVD extras—when Richard Burton appears, you can click to see his historic performance as Hamlet.
Talk shows today are smooth cogs of a vast infotainment state; in Paar's day, they were open to subversive combustion. When mildly looped Judy Garland appeared to duet with Robert Goulet, Paar mischievously reshuffled their cue cards, provoking mirthful chaos. Paar's spontaneity endangered himself, too: When censors cut his gag about a W.C. (water closet) being mistaken for a "wayside chapel," he bitterly resigned on-air from The Tonight Show. He walked away at the peak of his fame, a calamitous loss. This collection brings a few sweet hours of Paar's lost world back to life. TIM APPELO
Jonny Quest: The Complete First Season
Warner Home Video, $64.92
True, there is no hard evidence that hunky bodyguard Roger "Race" Bannon had a covert gay relationship with Dr. Benton Quest. However, sampling several of the 26 episodes from 1964 to '65 on four discs reveals that the low-budget signature look of Hanna-Barbera animation makes those frequent eyelines between Race and Dr. Q seem awfully suspect. Like H-B's Flintstones and Jetsons, Quest employed basically static background art and minimal movement to the fore. Whenever the two adults want to communicate something over the heads of son Jonny Quest and boy-companion Hadji, the frame tends to tighten, creating this curious stasis as Race and Dr. Q lock gazes. Presumably they're worrying about the danger from some Cold War foe—maleficent Oriental arch-villain Dr. Zin, perhaps?—and don't want to worry the boys. Today, however, it's more like the gaydar suddenly got turned up to 11. (Hmmm, just how many buttons are there to unfasten on Race's signature red double-breasted shirt? A scientist ought to know.)
On a short featurette, boomer animation geeks like The Iron Giant director Brad Bird explain how Quest derived from Dr. No, harder-edged action comics, and JFK–era international espionage. Dr. Q wasn't specifically a CIA agent, but he sure had access to lots of neat weapons, gizmos, and jets—all seemingly provided on the government's nickel. Boys like me who loved the hardware also loved the violence; as Bird observes, "That sense of danger was missing from most Saturday-morning cartoons." Villains actually died, usually in an explosion cheaply animated by H-B's simply jiggling the frame, followed by a rain of debris. "No one bothered to do debris before Jonny Quest," says Bird.
The irresistible Mancini knockoff theme by Hoyt Curtin is still a wake-up call to adventure. Originally aired in prime time, Quest was revived with new episodes in 1986 and 1996, by which time Jonny's original voice, Tim Matheson, had moved on to Animal House and better things. What became of Race, idol to so many impressionable lads? I'd like to believe he retired to Key West or Provincetown, where today he runs a nice little B&B and gives private judo lessons. BRIAN MILLER
The Kids in the Hall: The Complete First Season
A&E Home Video, $59.95
Until the 1980s and the emergence of Second City TV, it was possible for citizens of the United States of America to ignore the fact that the center of gravity of North American wit had moved decisively northward. In 1989, to prove this was no fluke, Saturday Night Live producer (and card-carrying Canadian) Lorne Michaels introduced a five-man Toronto ensemble known as The Kids in the Hall to North American TV viewers. In the past, when he encountered north- of-the-border comedy talent, Michaels had folded it into the ever-varying mix of his Saturday Night Live franchise. It is a tribute to his courage as well as his discernment that he realized that the Kids added up to more than a set of funny individuals. Even during the show's first season— produced in haste and overdependent on pre-existing stage-bound material— it proved the most unpredictable and liberatingly funny television comedy since the debut of Monty Python just 20 years before, and, as a side effect, demonstrated how stale the SNL formula had become.
The Kids were similar to the Pythons in one crucial area: Veterans of the highly competitive Toronto improv comedy circuit, the five wrote virtually all of their own material. But they transcended their august predecessors in a number of areas. When the Kids did drag, they did it with the same acuity and lack of condescension that marked their male characters. They also eschewed the media obsession of both the Pythons and the SCTV'ers. TV was just another absurdity for the Kids, who celebrated and satirized the typical middle-class Canadian's buttoned-up impassivity (and decency) in almost every sketch. It's astonishing how little these 20 half-hours have aged on this four-disc set. The only extra feature of any real interest in the package is a 45-minute interview with the Kids describing how they came together, but no lover of sketch comedy will feel shortchanged. Roger Downey
The Office: The Complete Second Series
BBC Worldwide, $24.98
Yes, the British are funnier than we are, and they're not afraid to cast regular-looking people in their television shows, either. Whereas our, um, Friends are stick-skinny, gorgeous, and just OK at delivering Gen-X clichés, the cast of this hilarious BBC mockumentary are pleasingly lumpy, unattractive, disabled, and perfectly sarcastic and subtle. This is the little sitcom that could; with a tiny budget and relative unknowns in starring roles, it's all but taken over the genre on both continents—but the best things aren't meant to last. Alas, the second season (2002–2003) is actually the final one. It's a good thing, then, that these episodes continue to be hilarious after repeated viewings.
Ricky Gervais stars as clueless middle-manager David Brent; he and Stephen Merchant co-wrote the six half-hour episodes for both seasons. Using the ultra-mundane setting of a paper company as a backdrop for the human experience, Brent and Merchant slyly satirize the soul-crushing inertia of working life. By poking fun at the ridiculous futility of cubicle dwellers daily defending their tiny fiefdoms, the comedy becomes much larger and, consequently, existential. Although the documentary-in-the-making framing device shapes almost every scene, the show is most often about nothing (thanks, Seinfeld, for establishing that precedent). The Office regularly skewers bigots and wanna-be smarty-pants, but never in a pretentious fashion. Brent and his Office-mates are smart enough to let the characters speak for themselves. In desperately trying to be politically correct, they are hilariously not. In trying to be hilarious, they are tragically unfunny.
The extra features, two of which are "hidden" but can be discovered via the show's www.BBC.co.uk Web site, consist of the usual behind-the-scenes funny stuff, blundered lines, and outtakes. They only prove how much more fun this office is than yours. LAURA CASSIDY
Smallville: The Complete Second Season
Warner Home Video, $59.98
Anyone who claims to be watching this WB update of Superman's teenage years for the incisive storytelling is either no one I care to hang out with or just a damn liar. Tom Welling plays Clark Kent; Tom Welling is so good-looking it makes you feel dirty and wrong.
Luckily, as this sophomore collection (2002–2003) proves, the series knows on which side its bread is buttered. The episodes frequently find quality time to gawk: In "Skinwalker," Clark's button-down is cut open by an American Indian shape-shifter who looks like a Gap model. In "Visage," Clark is doing some plumbing for sweetheart Lana (Kristin Kreuk) when a broken pipe results in a loving close-up of his wet T-shirt. And during "Rosetta," one of two episodes featuring commentary tracks, co-creator Alfred Gough casually notes that Welling "was supposed to have his shirt off, but it was too cold—so I apologize to all the fans."
In addition to Gough and co-creator Miles Millar's savvy commentary, the other extras are diverting enough. Recurring guest star Christopher Reeve, who first appears as enigmatic Dr. Virgil Swann in "Rosetta," reveals himself to be quite the Superman history buff in an interview extra. There's also a behind-the-scenes look at the commendable special effects, and a dopey Blair Witch–style fake doc has annoying teen reporter Chloe (Allison Mack) investigate the town's mysteries. (Buyer beware: One of the deleted scenes promised in the episode guide is missing, as are two commentary tracks featuring the show's stars.)
Oh, but flick back to the real guilty fun—Clark turned into a swaggering, amoral stud by the kryptonite in his class ring in "Red." He speeds off to commiserate with sexy, doomed Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum)—with whom he has more chemistry than that mealy-mouthed Lana—who suggests they run off to Metropolis together and crash in his penthouse. "Clark Kent and Lex Luthor," says Clark, mulling it over. "I like the sound of that." Oh, so do I, Clark, so do I. STEVE WIECKING
Strangers With Candy: Seasons One and Two
Wea Corp., $29.99 each
Candy was a regularly indigestible payload of pungent, acidic, satirical ejaculate; how fitting—and fortunate that the Comedy Central series (1999–2000) is about to self-replicate postmortem in the form of an assuredly lurid made- for-TV movie. Until that inglorious day, we can revel in the serviceable DVD packages of its first two seasons.
In painstakingly detailing the pathetic exploits of 46-year-old ex–"boozer, user, and loser"/current high-school freshman Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris, unrecognizable in a hideous "fatty suit"), the series took superficial potshots at the unfortunate early-'70s "after-school special" phenomenon. Candy fast evolved into a guilty cult sensation because it was often unbelievably foul and cruel in its broad, politically incorrect goofs on interracial dating, homosexuality, abortion, drug abuse, prostitution, and other prickly "issues." If it sounds like a live-action South Park, let's just say that Candy was certainly as charmingly inconsistent.
Our roundly reviled, bucktoothed heroine pees standing up, belittles minorities, and trades her newborn for a guitar, only to shove her tongue down his throat after a school dance 15 years later, when they're now classmates. Amazingly, Sedaris managed to inject just enough subtle, doe-eyed pathos into Jerri's loathsome, unsalvageable gargoyle to make us (gulp) care once in a while.
Bleah! Ptooie! That's brain food you can nosh on courtesy of both seasons' acerbic cast and crew commentaries (not to miss: Daily Show regular Stephen Colbert as closeted, dismissive history teacher Chuck Noblet). Back to the grodiness: Candy was far and away the undisputed basic-extended-cable champion of popularizing bizarre vaginal euphemisms. Question: Where would America be without "bacon strip," "crack in the Liberty Bell," "snack cake," "love cave," and "meat curtain"? Answer: Watching Chappelle's Show, waiting for more. Just don't forget: We choked on Candy first. Andrew Bonazelli