Thanksgiving TV on DVD Potpourri

Andy Reviews New Box Sets and More!
By Andy Dursin


Remember those days when you dreamed you'd run your own television station? (OK, maybe not, but do follow along for a moment). When you wished that you could run an "Afterschool Special" in the evening hours just to enjoy Scott Baio getting high on your own time? When you wanted to move a block of "Diff'frent Strokes" re-runs into the early morning hours just for the heck of it?

It's amazing, but those days are finally here. When you get to the point when "Afterschool Specials" are being released in double-disc sets (in cool-looking but impractical cardboard Trapper Keeper-esque packaging!), you know you can find virtually anything AND everything on DVD to fit a viewer's persuasion.

Although the series this season has been treading water (with virtually every week offering an identity switch or body-possession episode), SMALLVILLE has overall provided a satisfying and solid viewing experience, exploring the teen years of Clark Kent with interesting storylines and engaging performances.

Season Three (2003-04), which just concluded this past May, offers a strong array of episodes and story arcs, beginning with Michael Rosenbaum's terrific Lex Luthor suffering a mental breakdown. If you've watched "Smallville" on a regular basis, you know that Rosenbaum carries some of the shows single-handedly with his strongly charismatic Lex, whose demented cries for his deceased younger sibling ("Julian!!") make for great, unabashedly over-the-top theatrics in the episode "Shattered." Meanwhile, Clark's origins come back into question in the episode "Legacy," with the late Christopher Reeve again appearing as Dr. Virgil Swann, while Lex and Chloe try and send Lex's dad Lionel (the estimable John Glover) to prison for the murder of his parents.

Despite an odd appearance by cousin Supergirl (well, sort of) in the season finale, Season Three shows off "Smallville" at its best: as an entertaining mix of super-hero prequel and teen drama. Even when the program veers off course with the occasional clunker, the cast -- from Tom Welling to Rosenbaum and Glover, plus female leads Kristin Kreuk and Allison Mack, and vets John Schneider and Annette O'Toole -- keep you watching and satisfied.

Warner's Season 3 box set offers all 22 episodes in excellent 16:9 widescreen transfers. The Dolby Surround sound is robust and extras include commentary tracks on episodes "Exiled," "Truth" and "Memoria," with Michael Rosenbaum, Allison Mack, and the show's creators included among them. Other special features include several deleted scenes, a making of featurette "Producing Smallville: The Heroes Behind the Camera," plus "The Chloe Chronicles Vol. II" and a gag reel. Definitely recommended -- the show is far better than its detractors would lead you to believe, and DVD is the best way to go experience "Smallville" at your own pace.

Joe Dante, meanwhile, never dabbled in weekly TV all that much. However, the "Gremlins" filmmaker did team up with the producers of "Unsolved Mysteries" to create the fondly-remembered, albeit short-lived, NBC series EERIE, INDIANA (1991-92).

Omri Katz, who would later star in Dante's terrific "Matinee," plays a normal, everyday kid who moves to the oddball town of Eerie, Indiana and soon experiences all sorts of unusual goings-on: kids who never age and leave their mom in a gigantic tupperware container, a living ATM machine, zombies in pajamas, and indeed the fleeting appearance of someone resembling The King.

The show's gentle comedic tone and amusing writing compensate for execution that's not always up to Dante's usual standards: as a result, the show feels more like a weekly version of "The 'Burbs" than "Gremlins." Still, "Eerie, Indiana" did offer a refreshing change of pace on the weekly TV airwaves, and the program has its fans -- many of whom caught the show in Saturday morning re-runs on the Fox network in the late '90s (Fox later produced an in-name-only sequel series, which I don't believe shares any other connection with its predecessor).

BMG Special Products has issued a big box offering the complete 19-episode run of "Eerie, Indiana." The full-screen transfers look pretty good, if not a little soft, though that could well be the result of how the series was filmed. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is better, though I was always disappointed that Jerry Goldsmith wasn't brought in to tune up the show's pilot (Gary Chang's music sounds like a pale imitation of Danny Elfman).

The set is pretty sparse with no booklet and special features -- just five discs packaged plainly in similar-looking slipcases. Thus, the set is best recommended for "Eerie" die- hards and Dante aficionados.

A Suzanne Somers-less second pilot episode (which ultimately aired early in the actual run of the ABC sitcom) is one of the many superb extras packed into Anchor Bay's latest box-set of THREE'S COMPANY: SEASON 3 (1978-79).

Season Three finds "Three's Company" perfecting its manic comic nutiness, and Anchor Bay's box sports a nice featurette on the late John Ritter, plus new interviews, commentary by show expert Chris Mann on the rejected pilot episode, bloopers, promotional pieces (with John Ritter selling the syndicated run of the show for local stations) and more. The full-screen transfers are improved from Anchor Bay's earlier sets, and the mono sound is also fine.

Having grown up on the show as a youngster (I somehow was able to watch the series despite its controversial origins), I was pleased to see the special features and care that Anchor Bay took in general with this set. Star Joyce DeWitt is on-hand to introduce interviews with co-star Richard Kline (the original Leisure Suit Larry!) and director Dave Powers, while the Ritter retrospective includes many memorable and tear-inducing recollections from the show's production team and supporting cast.

Despite its sometimes "racy" content (which would, of course, be considered tame by today's standards), "Three's Company" managed to entertain a wide spectrum of viewers (and age groups) through its comic timing, infectious silliness, and the wonderful performance of Ritter at its core. Though some of the fashions may be sometimes dated, the show's energy and comedy still seem fresh and just as much fun as they were years ago.

Also new from Anchor Bay is the complete First Season of the fan-favorite series THE COMMISH (1991), the ABC series starring Michael Chiklis as upstate NY police commissioner Tony Scali. The series ran for several years and offered a solid blend of domestic drama and standard police procedural, and Anchor Bay's DVD of the Stephen J. Cannell series includes all 21 first season episodes, good-looking full-screen transfers, and interviews with Cannell, Chiklis, co-star Theresa Saldana and co-producer Stephen Kronish.

If it's more comedy you're looking for, Buena Vista this week offers a selection of sitcom box-sets for long-running, popular shows bowing on DVD for the first time (soon, there'll be no need to ever watch another truncated syndication re-run ever again!).

Top of the list is the first season of the long-running, Emmy-winning series THE GOLDEN GIRLS (1985-86), which Buena Vista has released in a three-disc DVD set.

Chances are, if you spent any time with your grandparents back in the '80s, they had "The Golden Girls" tuned in. With its top comedic quartet of Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty, "The Golden Girls" became a smash hit for NBC in the mid '80s, and ran through seven years on the Saturday night schedule. The series managed to also attract a wide array of viewers, both old and young, through its appealing look at four retired ladies living together in sunny Florida.

Like any successful comedy series, it's the chemistry between the cast that made "The Golden Girls" a ratings blockbuster and critical darling. The balance and contrast between Arthur, White, McClanahan and the acerbic Getty consistently generated big laughs, all the while the show's writers weren't afraid to throw in a serious topic or two (a la Arthur's "Maude") for good measure.

Buena Vista's DVD set includes all 25 episodes from the "Girls"' inaugural season (plus a featurette with Joan Rivers and daughter Melissa reflecting on the wacky fashions of the show), which began in the fall of 1985 and would remain a mainstay for NBC until it left the air in September of 1992. At that time, the show spun-off the short-lived "Golden Palace" on another network (CBS), but without Bea Arthur and the writing that had marked the series during its tenure on the air.

Another long-running sitcom also makes its debut on DVD this week: the massively popular Tim Allen vehicle HOME IMPROVEMENT (1991-92), which debuted on ABC in September of '92 and would remain on the air for the better part of a decade.

Though not my favorite sitcom, "Home Improvement" nevertheless found its niche among family audiences with its sometimes slapstick comedy, occasional "serious" story line, and zany hyjinks involving Tim "The Toolman" Taylor, his wife (Patricia Richardson) and kids, and his TV series, which early on co-starred Pamela Anderson as the "Tool Time" girl.

Buena Vista's Season One box-set includes all 24 episodes from the series' first season, along with commentary provided by producers Carmen Finestra and David McFadzean, a montage of the series' most hilarious moments, perfect full-screen transfers and Dolby Surround stereo.

BOY MEETS WORLD: Season 2 (1994-95), meanwhile, further chronicles the youthful adventures of Cory Matthews (Ben Savage), brother Eric (Will Friedle), his beloved Topanga (Danielle Fishel) and teacher Mr. Feeny (William Daniels).

Though nowhere near the massive success of "Home Improvement," "Boy Meets World" is a more satisfying series, with its wacky comedy being more appropriate in framing the 6th grade shenanigans of Savage and crew, and nicely capturing the essence of growing up.

Buena Vista's second season set includes a handful of commentary tracks from creator Michael Jacobs and various cast members, some of whom also appear in video commentary. The full-screen transfers and Dolby Stereo soundtracks are just fine.

Last but not least is the complete first season box set of LIZZIE McGUIRE (2001), the long-running and popular Disney Channel series which made a name out of young star Hilary Duff.

Disney previously released a handful of "Lizzie" compilation episodes on DVD, but this four-disc set is completely the way to go if your kid (or yourself) is a big fan of the series. With its colorful humor and appealing performance by Duff, it's easy to see why "Lizzie McGuire" was such a big hit for Disney, helping to re-establish the then-struggling Disney Channel cable network as a major home for original family entertainment.

Disney's DVD set includes super full-screen transfers, Dolby Stereo sound, brief episode synopsis, three episode commentaries, a cute cast retrospective, a featurette with the costume designers and another with co-star Ashlie Brillault.

Also new and recommended this week is Shout Factory's First Season box set of HOME MOVIES (1999-2001), the UPN series about a very young aspiring filmmaker (he's in elementary school) and his misadventures trying to survive life with his single mom, crazy soccer Coach McGuirk, school bullies and other obstacles.

"Home Movies" was not a ratings smash for UPN and eventually found its audience on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block, alongside cult faves "Space Ghost: Coast to Coast" and "Family Guy." Though not as consistently funny as "Family Guy" and animated in the same simplistic style as "Dr. Katz" (since it originated from some of the same producers), "Home Movies" is still an amusing and occasionally uproarious comedy that has developed a strong fan base over the years. Its improvised dialogue and use of comedians to voice the various characters results in a show that's sometimes as hit or miss as a typical stand-up routine, though when the program hits the mark it's pretty amusing.

Shout's superb three-disc box set includes the "First Season" of the show, portions of which were broadcast in 1999 and 2001. The transfers look as good as the source material will allow, and there are plenty of extras: 10 commentary tracks, animatic mock-ups, interviews with the cast and creators, animation galleries, and other shorts from producer- creators Brendon Small and Jon Benjamin.

Also New on DVD

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (**1/2, 2004). 142 mins., PG, Warner Home Video. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted Scenes, J.K. Rowling Interview, Cast Interviews, Trailers, Interactive Games; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Third cinematic adaptation of J.K. Rowling's books opened strong, but tailed off faster at the summer box-office than most prognosticators predicted. Some attributed the film's lackluster (though still profitable) receipts to non-Potter fans having grown tired of the series, but I actually think it has something to do with the film itself.

Here, Harry's quest to uncover the truth behind his parents' death takes a turn when the man accused of their murder -- criminal Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) -- escapes from prison. There's also the introduction of Haggrid's new pet -- the majestic Buckbeat -- plus the arrival of Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), who harbors a deep, dark secret.

Director Alfonso Cuaron ("A Little Princess") took over the directorial reigns from Chris Columbus for this installment, and many viewers who apparently subscribe to the auteur theory instantly bestowed kudos on his work in "The Prisoner of Azkaban." This is, after all, the same filmmaker who made the art-house smash "Y Tu Mama Tambien" -- not the director of mainstream blockbusters like "Home Alone" -- and more than a few folks seemed to go out of their way to praise this movie for doing things right that Columbus's preceding two films didn't.

Unfortunately, as much as I admired "A Little Princess," Cuaron's directorial stamp in "Azkaban" is all too obvious. Sure, the movie may be "darker" and "edgier," but it also lacks the magic of the previous two films. There's a certain warmth and humanity inherent in the earlier Potter adventures that's notably lacking here -- in its place, there's a lot of story, some delightful moments, but a certain dramatic flat-line to the drama. The performances of the now-growing youthful cast are all on the mark, David Thewlis and Gary Oldman are excellent (though I wish Oldman had more screen time), and I certainly was entertained for the most part. When it was all over, though, the film left me cold, as if something was missing from all the fuss about werewolves and the search for a killer wanted for the death of Harry's parents.

Surely some of the blame has to be placed on the director. Cuaron drains the color out of the film and often places the cast in modern day attire (jeans?), giving the movie a supposedly more "realistic" look which clashes with its fantastical story. He throws in the same fade-in and fade-out transitions he used in "A Little Princess," but they're used so often here that they're worn out before it's over. And speaking of the ending, the movie's last shot is a curious freeze-frame that ends the story on an unintentionally humorous note.

The disappointment carries over to John Williams' score as well. While not a catastrophe of any kind, Williams' music reprises so little of his original Potter thematic material that one must assume that characteristic came from Cuaron's marching orders for the score not to sound overly familiar. To be sure, Williams has done an outstanding job scoring sequels, often penning a wealth of brand-new material to compliment his previously written themes. Here, though, the original Potter themes are used SO sparingly that it's hard to connect with the music, and in their place is a mostly subdued, dense score that -- while effective in the film -- isn't especially memorable (and also makes for one of the most difficult Williams albums to listen to).

I realize I'm focusing on the negatives of "The Prisoner of Azkaban," yet there are certainly some wonderful moments in the movie. I just felt, when all was said and done, that the movie didn't resonate nearly as much as its predecessors, and Cuaron's attempts to differentiate this film from its predecessors robbed the picture of its heart.

Warner Home Video's DVD edition, out this week, includes a 2.35 transfer that looks better than I recall the film appearing in theaters, though it's still a dark-looking and pale picture to be sure. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is more accomplished, with a broad soundscape for the various effects, but even at home, Williams' score is mixed very low and is occasionally inaudible.

Special features are again heavy on the interactive games for kids, though some legitimate behind-the-scenes content is also included: a few brief deleted scenes are here, plus the featurette "Creating the Vision," offering comments from J.K. Rowling and the filmmakers. Cast bios, sing-a-longs, trailers (though sadly not the wonderful teaser for "Prisoner of Azkaban"), goofy interview segments, tours of the Hogwarts grounds, and more round out a fine DVD presentation.


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