The Odd Couple - The Fourth Season Review

When we last left Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, in season three of The Odd Couple (reviewed here), they were bickering at one another while maintaining a good-natured and warm friendship. And so it goes. Season four picks up just where the previous batch of episodes left off, which was the same place the season before got interrupted and so on. Throughout the course of the show's 5 seasons and 114 episodes, the viewer can largely poke his or her nose in at any time without missing a beat. Some episodes are obviously better than others, but the series' consistency remains impressive. No real drop-off in quality and hardly anything to distinguish from year to year. Season one did have a different feel due to being filmed with just a single camera while the others utilised a studio audience, and certain supporting characters pop up with more frequency depending on when the show aired, but that's about it. Otherwise, the programme runs, runs, and runs like a well-oiled machine that's stood the test of time.

And that can't be stressed enough. I don't think I'm in any way biased when I emphasise how exceptional these episodes remain, thirty-five years now since they were originally made. The snide sarcasm that passes for laughs nowadays has the shelf life of a banana. True humour should be timeless. Chaplin, Keaton, the Marx brothers, Preston Sturges - their work is still funny because it plays upon basic human situations taken to a ludicrous extreme. The same applies to The Odd Couple. The inherent premise of the show - Felix's fussy neat freak and Oscar's nonchalant slob - can absolutely fail if not for good writers and actors. Neil Simon's original idea to pair these two opposites was obviously an inspired stroke, but the success of the television version hinged on much more. New situations had to be created, and, more importantly, Felix and Oscar had to find actors who could do the characters justice.

Of course, that happened in spades with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. Their performances are amazing, incredible, and probably unequaled in an American sitcom focussing on only two primary characters. One of the more intriguing and successful aspects of the show is its ability to portray Felix and Oscar as two sides of the average male personality. Oscar is the thoughtless goof with beer and women on the brain, while Felix is the more cultured, organised half who's able to charm when he's not being annoying. It's sort of perfect, really. The flawed, but somewhat well-rounded man will most likely possess many aspects of both. He'll recognise the characters as competing forces in everyday life. Is this the day we cook, clean, and explore culture, or is it time for the more primal activities of sports, snacks, and debauchery. If these two halves aren't competing with one another inside the average male brain, you're missing out on some interesting internal monologues.

Therein lies the show's brilliance. It's funny, of course, but it's also mildly revelatory by illustrating these separate, ultimate parts of what men go through every single day. All male emotions are exemplified in either Felix or Oscar. Their seemingly simple, over the top behaviours combine to form the epitome of male life. Both divorced, both struggling against middle-aged crises, the two men appear to otherwise be polar opposites, the likes of which were rarely given much attention on popular American television of the seventies. Felix wants his ex-wife Gloria back while Oscar would just like a relatively attractive woman when the opportunity presents itself. The latter has probably given up on the former Mrs. Madison and suffers little neurosis. But Felix, his entire existence is some half-assed way of winning back his family. He can't really grasp the fact that it's his own shortcomings that drove them away in the first place. He struggles on, occasionally attempting to kick his Charlie Brown football to no avail.

It's a bit pathetic, but no more so than Oscar's misdeeds or, indeed, most of ours. Both men are certainly exaggerated versions of the male psyche, combined to form that average happy medium. Exaggeration equals more successful comedy. Oscar falling asleep while writing, typewriter buried somewhere in his bed, is funny. Felix insisting on the manufacture of broccoli-flavoured bubble gum is likewise hilarious due in part to its absurdity, but also because the bit is so consistent with the character's infallible confidence. I find it impossible to not marvel at Randall's performance over and over again. It's pitch-perfect every time, on cue, on the mark, with bells on. Ultimately, he just sells it. Regardless of what "it" is, time and again, Randall plays it immaculately. Klugman is near his equal, but the two actors have noticeably different styles. Klugman is more subdued, straight, and unassuming. His low-key delivery is always effective, eternally on target, but Randall aggressively tackles Felix and tends to elicit more laughs and probably more cringes, too.

These kinds of moments are on full display here in season four, albeit with a neutered and now wordless opening theme. Though perhaps not as perfectly hilarious as the previous set of episodes, the 1973-74 year was another mostly consistent effort with its fair share of excellent entries. The show's old stand-by, the flashback, is used on a few occasions, including separate episodes revealing how Felix wreaked havoc both at the very beginning of Oscar's marriage and when the couple were dissolving. In another, we find out why Felix loathes Playboy magazine, including a guest turn from Hugh Hefner. Other guests are put to good use, as well, with football star turned actor Alex Karras delivering a funny performance as just about the last man whose wife Felix should inadvertently cozy up next to. Even better is the appearance of Oscar's old pal Bobby Riggs, who proceeds to repeatedly hustle the roommates before an on-camera reunion with his infamous "Battle of the Sexes" foe Billie-Jean King.

That particular episode, "The Pig Who Came to Dinner," is one of the season's stand-outs. Anytime we get to see Felix overconfidently falter, we know we're in good hands with Randall. Thankfully, that's a tried and true favourite in The Odd Couple. A couple more examples of this happen in the very funny "A Barnacle Adventure," which finds the duo on the losing end of a prospective glue fortune, and "New York's Oddest," with Felix cajoling Oscar into joining a civilian police squad. A pair of awkward episodes written by Mickey Rose fare less successfully. Rose had been Woody Allen's writing partner early in the filmmaker's career and then moved on to scripted television work, starting but not ending this season as story editor on the show. His "Felix Directs" episode has its moments, but doesn't really work on the whole. It feels out of place having Felix suddenly decide to direct movies only to inadvertently agree to make a pornography film. The same lack of rhythm hurts the other Rose-scripted episode, "The Insomniacs," as Felix can't sleep for several nights because he saw Gloria with another man at the grocery store. In both of these episodes, Felix is made uncharacteristically stupid instead of just blind to his own faults.

Thankfully, the show mostly stays on target in the other 20 episodes from the season. Here's a rundown of titles and their disparate lengths on this release:

Disc 1

"Gloria Moves In" (25:20), "Last Tango in Newark" (25:52), "Odd Decision" (25:45), "That Was No Lady" (25:07), "Odd Holiday" (25:14), "The New Car" (26:05)

Disc 2

"This Is the Army, Mrs. Madison" (26:03), "The Songwriter" (25:32), "Felix Directs" (26:00), "The Pig Who Came to Dinner" (26:04), "Maid for Each Other" (26:04), "The Exorcists" (26:04)

Disc 3

"A Barnacle Adventure" (26:02), "The Moonlighter" (25:14), "Cleanliness Is Next to Impossible" (26:02), "The Flying Felix" (25:21), "Vocal Girl Makes Good" (25:21)

Disc 4

"Shuffling Off to Buffalo" (25:23), "A Different Drummer" (24:18), "The Insomniacs" (24:46), "New York's Oddest" (25:23), "One for the Bunny" (25:24)

The Discs

Pink it is on the fourth season cover. Inside the case are four dual-layered discs and efforts have apparently been made to improve the CBS/Paramount television on DVD packaging. Instead of a disc on each side of the inner case and two on a tray, all four discs can now be found on two trays, still without overlapping. Ideally, this should keep them in place better than the slippery discs I've frequently found loose inside the older type of package. Episode names, airdates, and descriptions can be seen on the inside of the cover art.

The quality of these 22 episodes is pretty good, and on par with the previous season I reviewed. The film stock used and other inherent limitations have most likely prevented the show from looking exceptional, but the content here certainly appears better than the nightly syndication showings still running in my area. It's a bit soft, as expected, and colours are often muted, with some episodes looking a tad better than others. The level of grain is usually visible, with some white speckles mixed in, but looks appropriate. Bottom line on the picture quality is that it yields no significant complaints and is consistent with other seasons' releases. Original 1.33:1 aspect ratios are used and all episodes are transferred progressively.

Audio is an untested English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. Dialogue, laugh track, and theme song are all clear and easily heard. Volume levels are even and strong. It's not necessarily a full type sound, but this is typical sitcom audio. The omission of subtitles seems to be a consistent, but still disappointing policy.

Speaking of CBS/Paramount policies, I'm bothered by the cuts more on this set than I was for season three. Running times are all over the place and there are at least two glaring instances where something seems amiss. The standard disclaimer - "Some episodes may be edited from their original network versions. Music has been changed for this home entertainment version." - is buried in tiny, tiny print on the back cover and could not be more vague. What I can discern for sure is that the longest episodes consistently run right at 26 minutes, the same as in previous seasons. However, half of the episodes are at least 30 seconds shorter than that mark, with "A Different Drummer" the shortest at just 24 minutes 18 seconds. It's maddening trying to figure out what was cut and where. The good news is that really only two times do the cuts seem obvious. In "The Flying Felix," near the 5-minute mark, there's an awkward jump. Also, "A Different Drummer" opens at what seems to be the end of a musical number. Otherwise, ignorance can be bliss. These all seem to be minor snips in the whole grand scheme of things and a few seconds missing here and there is preferable to nothing at all. Unfortunately, the scenario for fans is akin to wanting to make sure the studio doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. I'm mostly content to keep little Felix and Oscar even if CBS/Paramount insists on taking out pieces of the show.

As with seasons two and three, there are no extra features in the season four set.

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