DVD Times Favourite... TV DVDs

Noel Megahey: Twin Peaks
Created By: David Lynch & Mark Frost, 1990 - 1991

The act of filmmaking is a collaborative process, but few American directors had placed such a personal stamp on their material and uniqueness of delivery as David Lynch. So when it was announced that the director of ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Eraserhead’ was going to write and direct a primetime, mainstream US television series in collaboration with Mark Frost (‘Hill Street Blues’), there was the anticipation that we were going to see something on our television screens that had never been seen before. The early European video-only release of the feature-length pilot episode, with a specially created ending (as incoherent as the ending on any David Lynch film), certainly delivered an intriguing set of characters and the strongly recognisable hand of David Lynch in mood and treatment, but gave no real indication of just what was to lie ahead in the coming seasons...

Murder, torture, kidnapping, incest, prostitution, teenage drug and alcohol abuse, shady business dealings, talking logs, dancing dwarfs, serial killers, psychopaths, wife-beaters, transvestite FBI agents, visions, hallucinations, old Indian legends and mysticism, American diners, cherry pie and damn fine coffee… When FBI agent Dale Cooper is assigned to the little logging community of Twin Peaks in the American Northwest to investigate the murder of schoolgirl and local beauty queen Laura Palmer, whose body is discovered washed-up on the shore of the river naked and wrapped in plastic, he uncovers a hotbed of corruption, vice and mysterious occurrences under the power of dark mystical forces. What made ‘Twin Peaks’ such compelling viewing over two years was the sheer unpredictability of what could happen from week to week, with seismic shifts of tone from broad slapstick comedy to some of the most horrific scenes of violence ever shown in a mainstream television series. Lynch insinuated his ‘Blue Velvet’ outlook on American society in the guise of a sweet-as-cherry-pie soap-opera, while uncovering all the dark secrets, corruption and hypocrisy that small-town America is built upon. With the series taking darker and weirder turns into surrealism, the American public and TV executives eventually caught on to just how subversive the series was and abruptly pulled the plug after 29 episodes, leaving the town of Twin Peaks and its lead characters in an unresolved and nightmarish situation. Lynch returned to the series in 1992 with his astonishing prequel film, ‘Twin Peaks – Fire Walk With Me’ - an even darker, bleaker and more brutal vision that only created more mysteries than it resolved.

Season 1 of Twin Peaks is available as a DVD boxset, the UK release including the pilot episode not available for licensing reasons in the Region 1 set. The quality of the set is superb, fully restored image and sound and a first-class set of commentaries and extra features. Be warned – as the shocking revelations surrounding the killing of Laura Palmer don’t surface until Season 2, the extras on the first set contain serious spoilers. The release of the remaining episodes on DVD has been impatiently anticipated for a long time now.

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Region 1 - Season One Review
Region 0 (UK) - Fire Walk With Me Review

Anthony Nield: The Great War
BBC, 1964

When the BFI drew up their TV 100 list in the autumn of 2000 one egregious omission stood out. Made before The World at War (placed at number 19) and The Nazis: A Warning for History (number 93), 1964’s The Great War perfected the long-form documentary to which both owe a considerable debt. A collaboration between the BBC, the Imperial War Museum, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Broadcasting Commission, its 26 parts covered World War I from the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the Armistice. Yet whilst there is much to be said for the time the series allows its subject (six months worth of Wednesday nights on BBC2), its success lies in its simplicity.

Save for some intermittent interview footage with survivors of the conflict (drawing on both sides), The Great War consists almost entirely of archive material supplied by the Imperial War Museum. Beyond its illustrative powers, this wealth of black and white footage serves to focus the viewer on Sir Michael Redgrave’s exemplary commentary (ably abetted by the vocal talents of among others Powell and Pressburger favourite Marius Goring and Sir Ralph Richardson, plus Wilfred Joseph’s classic theme). His presence is integral, delivering each line with the command and respect that the subject deserves.

History may have clarified some of the areas discussed in the intervening years, yet The Great War still stands up and remains surprisingly fresh to this day. To celebrate its recent 40th anniversary, the entire series was treated to a repeat on its original home at BBC2, but scheduling problems made it difficult to keep with. No such hindrance is to be had with DD Video’s seven-disc box-set which comes with 64-page booklet (full of archive material from the Times and Radio Times), plus two other separate documentaries courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Michael Mackenzie: The Ren & Stimpy Show
John Kricfalusi, 1991 - 1995

It is impossible to exaggerate the profound influence that The Ren & Stimpy Show had on the television animation industry. It single-handedly revived the dead artform of cartoony cartoons - those that dared to embrace the unique visual medium of hand-drawn animation by allowing its character to do things that would never be possible in real life - and although its own success was short-lived, its influence lives on to this day. Ren & Stimpy brought back the style of cartooning used by the likes of Warner and MGM in the 1940s and 50s, ushering in a whole series of imitators and changing the landscape of television animation for ever.

Originally premiering on children's network Nickelodeon, Ren & Stimpy quickly developed a strong following among adults, who warmed to its sophisticated characterisations and retro visuals, and college students, who appreciated its subversive sense of humour, ensuring its place as a cult classic. With its surreal atmosphere, outlandish gags and unique visuals, the show was unique while still retaining the feel of a product of the 50s. Although control of the show was wrestled from the arms of its creator, John Kricfalusi, after less than two years, and it was ultimately cancelled after toiling along for three years in the form of a sub-standard shadow of its former self (although it ultimately did resurface briefly in 2003, again under the control of Kricfalusi, in the form of the raunchy Adult Party Cartoon), it has retained its staunch following and is destined to go down as one of the golden points in the history of animation, and indeed television.

Ren & Stimpy is currently available on DVD in a Region 1 3-disc box set from Paramount that includes the entire first two seasons (which are essentially the only seasons of its original 1991-1995 run that are worth bothering with) and proclaims itself to be uncut. In actual fact, a handful of episodes have suffered from syndication cuts, and thus the set is not as complete as one would like, but it does include a great number of goodies, as well as restoring various scenes that were censored from the episodes at various points. An earlier 3-disc set, by Time Life, featured select episodes from the first two seasons, but unfortunately suffered from a number of censor cuts. Long out of print, this set is really not worth tracking down, although it does feature something of an anomaly in its inclusion of the full-length version of Ren's Tootache, cut on the Paramount set.

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Region 1 - Seasons One & Two Review
Region 0 (US) - “Best Of” Review

Kevin O'Reilly: The Shield
Shawn Ryan, 2002 - Present

The Shield is to the TV cop show what 24 is to the action series: a powerful shot in the arm for a tired genre that desperately needed a boost. Set in a dilapidated precinct house in a gang-controlled suburb of Los Angeles, The Shield shows law enforcement on the front lines of the war against crime. Some of these cops have learned to fight dirty, notably Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), the leader of the precinct's plain clothes Strike Team. Mackey lies, steals, kidnaps, assaults, kills, frames suspects, plants evidence and takes a cut of drug dealers' profits. In the very first episode, he deals with an undercover cop who's been tasked with infiltrating his team by shooting him between the eyes. The Strike Team is based on the LAPD's real life Rampart Division, whose alleged misdeeds also inspired the films Training Day, Dark Blue, Cellular, Hollywood Homicide and the Assault On Precinct 13 remake. (It was cops from the Rampart squad who were rumoured to have killed the rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG and The Shield ran its own version of the story.)

What gives the show its edge is the way it sees morality in shades of grey. The Strike Team are portrayed not as villains but flawed men with both good and bad in them. There are times when we're appalled by what they do and times when we root for them. Vic Mackey's point of view is that in a neighbourhood so overrun by gangs that it's practically a war zone, the only way to make a difference is to operate outside the system. The series flirts with the possibility that he might be right. Similarly, Mackey's superior and his fiercest opponent, David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) is not a straight-shooting hero. A man with political ambitions, he's corruptible where his career is concerned and willing to form an alliance with his enemy when it suits him.

Everything about The Shield is first class and cutting edge. As an American cable programme, it's able to confront head-on issues that network shows would have to tiptoe around (rape, child abuse, homosexuality, racism) and nothing is ever dealt with in a pat, moralistic manner. The shaky, indie-movie-style camerawork gives the series a strong feeling of reality. Directors have included David Mamet (Heist), John Badham (Saturday Night Fever), Clark Johnson (SWAT), Gary Fleder (Kiss The Girls) and DJ Caruso (Taking Lives). There's a terrific ensemble cast. Mackey has the foreground but the supporting actors are fleshed out and given strong storylines of their own. The dogged hunt for a possible serial killer by nerdy detective Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) led to the best moment in the first series, a genuinely touching scene. Decent cops like Dutch, Danny (Catherine Dent), Julien (Michael Jace) and Claudette (CCH Pounder) add warmth and humanity to the show, give us people to care about and prevent The Shield from becoming too grim and sleazy. That's a fault of the otherwise excellent The Sopranos: it has no characters you can actually like. I also appreciate The Shield's 13-episode format, which means less padding and no dull episodes and makes watching a box set less of an ordeal. Season 1 is probably the best TV drama season I've ever watched. It's available cheaply - give it a try.

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Region 2 - Season One Review
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Daniel Stephens: Quantum Leap
Donald P. Bellisario, 1989 – 1993

Donald P. Bellisario’s ‘what if’ musings about a proposed television series about leaping around time would eventually culminate in the idea: what if a scientist was stuck in other people’s lives, traveling through time putting things right that once went wrong? It was probably the right time to create science-fiction that didn’t have spaceships and space monsters - to divert the television viewing public away from all things futuristic, centering on the hardly morally ambiguous adventures of a man entering real people’s lives and having to deal with problems that would change the course of their futures. In essence, the idea was hardly unique but as the series progressed the notion that Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) was some kind of modern day messiah driven by a higher source not that of a malfunctioning computer, was an interesting one.

However, for all its sub-text, Quantum Leap was a nostalgic sixty minutes that frequently took its viewers on time-capsule rides back to places in their own lives. For those that didn’t see the fifties, sixties and seventies, it perfectly offered glimpses of the period anchoring them with major historical landmarks from the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, to Watergate and John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Tiny little touches, or should that be splashes in time that went on to affect famous people’s lives and careers, were beautiful moments in the series from Sam helping Buddy Holly devise Peggy Sue and helping Stephen King come up with his ideas, to actually living the lives of Lee Harvey Oswold and Elvis Presley. Yet despite its overtly American heritage and the symbolism of the American Dream at its core, the show lived off the idea of optimistic hope and that was something, if nothing else, you could take from each episode.

Yet the show simply would not work without the chemistry of the two lead characters played by Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell. Bakula is scientist Samuel Beckett, who stepped into his own Quantum Leap experiment and is now stuck leaping from person to person. Stockwell plays Al, a hologram who only Sam can see who guides him during each leap. They both excel in their roles and their time-jumping banter is a joy to watch at times. Sam’s infamous line ‘Oh Boy’ shows off that clueless, ‘where the hell am I?’ moment at the end of each episode when he realizes he’s in someone else life again, and Al’s mind, frequently centered around having sex with the best looking women in each life Sam leaps into, offers great reoccurring comedy.

Each of the five series are set to be released on DVD, with the first and second season available at the moment. It should be noted though, that on the second season Universal has replaced some original music that it did not gain the rights for, which obviously displeases long-standing fans.

Iain Boulton: 24
Joel Surnow & Robert Cochran, 2001 - Present

“I’m Federal Agent Jack Bauer. Today will be the longest day of my life.”

He didn’t lie about it too. Successful action dramas haven’t been on television for a while so when 24 debuted in 2001, it gave the action drama genre a good kicking. Most genres had their new boosts, cop dramas had The Shield, comedy had Futurama and Family Guy. But nothing hit critics and audiences so well as 24 No one had ever thought a TV show with this sort of concept would work. It was show to be shown in real time (if you included breaks) that allowed each episode to cover every hour of one day. This day focused on the life of CTU agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) who discovers that an assassination attempt is to be made on a presidential candidate, David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), during the presidential primary election. Before Bauer has the chance to find those responsible, the terrorists behind the attempt kidnap Teri and Kimberley Bauer, Jack’s wife and daughter. With no one to turn to for help, Jack is forced to go above and beyond the law and his superiors to find his family and stop his terrorists.

24 was ground breaking for television and it quickly built up critical respect and mass fandom. Viewers have been hooked over the past three seasons with the situations that the writers have thrown Jack Bauer into. Let’s also not forget how viewers groaned in agony seeing Kim Bauer getting away without serious injury every season. Regardless of Kim Bauer, how bad is one man’s luck when he’s called in to help stop a nuclear bomb going off (Season 2) and also called in to help stop a deadly virus behind unleashed on the public (Season 3). This drama was must watch television and you would get lost in the story if you missed one episode. This is one of the most appealing aspects of the show as it certainly keeps people watching.

It didn’t just make action drama watchable again but it gave new life to Kiefer Sutherland’s career. This was a big improvement for Sutherland as he had been doing odd bits of movies, TV movies and some odd piece of film-making with Courtney Love. However, it is this role he will always be remembered for now having stealing the show every season as tortured CTU agent Jack Bauer which has rightfully deserved him some awards such as the Golden Globe and SAG award. Apart from Sutherland’s acting, the cast of 24 have been great through every season the show’s had. Unlike most American television shows, it never relied on a big name to get the audience in. The only major guest stars the show ever had were Dennis Hopper in season one and then Sarah Clarke who kept popping up and down seasons two and three as evil former CTU agent Nina Myers. It just shows how well the cast act in this show, they don’t need a huge A-Lister to get viewers.

While 24 keeps its clock running on season four, 24 has been extremely popular on DVD. Despite season one receiving a bare bones release, all following seasons have been lavished with an array of extras ranging from cast/crew commentaries to behind the scenes documentaries. Out of all the extras complied for 24, the best by far is season’s two 24: Exposed documentary. It lasted 90 minutes and focused on the filming of the final two episodes of season two. This extra put most film and TV documentaries to shame as viewers got into the production of season’s two finale with heavy detailed. There are some great moments in the documentary as well such as the ‘proposed’ finale for season 2 which acted as an April’s fools joke as well as the rigorous training Kiefer Sutherland goes through for a short hand to hand combat scene. Using the DVD format effectively, with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 sound presentation and widescreen video transfer, this is the only way for 24 to be seen without having to wait weeks or months for its conclusion.

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Region 2 - Season Two Review
Region 2 - Season Three Review
Region 1 - Season Three Review

Colin Polonowski: Alias
JJ Abrams, 2001 - Present

It was a difficult decision for me to nominate Alias for this feature. On one hand, the first two seasons were consistently enthralling, while the most recent seasons have become stale and a pale imitation of what it used to be. So, I'll try and make a case for Alias still being my favourite television show on DVD (only just beating Futurama)...

For the defence:
  • Alias stars Jennifer Garner, one of the best new actresses working in America
  • The first two years were tightly plotted with trademark twists and excellent set-pieces, made even more impressive by the fact that everything was achieved on a TV budget
  • For the first two years characters were hugely varied and three-dimensional, and it was easy to get drawn into the politics, emotion and action the series so expertly brought together. Other than Sydney Brystow (Garner), none of the other characters are black-and-white and even the most evil can sometimes have redeeming qualities.
  • Other than one exception, the series has moved forward at a huge pace, and in the one instance it slowed (the clip show in season one) there were still big plot developments.
  • At it's peak, Alias was unmissable - the weekly twists and cliffhangers meant you had to watch the next episode just to see how Sydney manages to get out of increasingly precarious situations
For the prosecution:
  • As the show progressed, the cliffhangers became more and more unbelievable - what started out as a fantastic device to keep the viewers quickly turned into a cliché
  • The 'Sark' show - what better way is there to remove a character's potency, other than over-use them. When Sark (David Anders) was a recurring guest rather than a series regular, he was one of the highlights of the show, however the 'Borg' factor which saw Sark having to appear in every episode eventually turned him and the CIA into a joke. You'd think that after one successful escape, the CIA would try a bit harder to keep him in custody the next time he's caught.
If I had to include Season Four in this feature (which thankfully I don't as it's not on DVD yet), Alias wouldn't be my nomination. We could add loads more to the prosecution case - rewriting of the season three cliffhanger, the plodding non-arc format, the god-awful new title sequence and the totally ridiculous concept of having Sloane in charge of a secret CIA branch! With JJ Abrams back in charge, season four should have been the big return to form that everyone was expecting but alas, it's not to be.

So, if you want to see one of the best American shows on DVD, get hold of the first two seasons of Alias. If you want to see a show lose it's magic touch get the third season, and if you want to be totally disappointed hang on for season four and witness just how far the mighty have fallen.

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Region 2 - Season One Review
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Nat Tunbridge: Star Trek: The Original Series
Gene Roddenberry, 1966 - 1969

No-one expected much from ‘Star Trek’ on its first release in 1966 but it’s status as a fixture in the global landscape of popular culture is now assured. Most film and TV buffs are familiar with the story of its inception, of Gene Roddenberry’s pitch to TV executives of a ‘Wagon Train to the stars’, its early cancellation and resurrection in the early 70s. With it’s multi-racial crew and imaginative storylines, the show was certainly pioneering, but what struck me on watching it again on DVD recently was another quality: warmth. Partly, yes, this is plain nostalgia; I was amazed how many aspects of the show – catch phrases, comments, mannerisms etc – had permeated my own life, and how watching the series again triggered many, often embarrassing memories. But it’s also due to the intrinsic qualities of the show itself; whatever offscreen tensions the famously combative Shatner may have engendered, the cast and crew of Star Trek shared a rare energy. Add tightly plotted, well written stories, terrific characters and great performances and you have a rare phenomenon in any TV age.

In a sense, Trek has been a victim of its own success. The Original Series has spawned an animated series, no less than four TV series to date (of steadily decreasing quality and success): Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise, as well as ten movies (the rule here being that the even numbered ones are generally better and I'll agree with that apart from the last one). Whatever might have happened to Roddenberry's concept in the four decades since its creation, the spirit of his vision is still present in all its luridly coloured glory in the Original Series.

Paramount released the first series of the original Star Trek on DVD last year in funky yellow tri-corder packaging. It included documentaries, special features and an English 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

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