The TV-shows-on-DVD landscape is changing. The economy is down, stores have less shelf space, and producers are being more cautious about what, and how much, they release into the marketplace.
And year after year, there are some omissions that frustrate me to no end. Where, oh where, is The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd with Blair Brown? Where are all those missing seasons of St. Elsewhere?
But rather than complain, like Scrooge, about what's not around this year, I'm here to celebrate what is. There are a few releases I didn't ever expect to see on DVD, and some special complete sets that would make great gifts for the right person. So here we go — a fast romp through my recommended DVD holiday list, starting with a very welcome voice from TV's past: Charles Kuralt.
If that name isn't familiar, you won't be as excited about Acorn Media's On the Road with Charles Kuralt set as you should be. Beginning in the late '60s, Kuralt and his crew traveled across America in a motor home, stopping in small towns in search of small but uplifting stories. It's the kind of TV they really, truly don't make any more — and they're as sweetly nostalgic now, after all these years, as an old Norman Rockwell painting.
Another new DVD set collects TV that's even older. The Golden Age of Television was a PBS series that ran about 25 years ago, presenting a small but stellar collection of live TV dramas that had been broadcast, in prime time, some 25 years before that. So we're talking old, in TV terms. But we're also talking great: Patterns and Requiem for a Heavyweight by Rod Serling. Bang the Drum Slowly, with Paul Newman. The Days of Wine and Roses, with Jack Lemmon. And from 1953, the first Golden Age drama to realize the full potential of live TV, Paddy Chayefsky's Marty.
Rod Steiger starred in that drama as a lonely, middle-aged butcher who goes to a local dance hall in search of a possible date. He meets a woman there, all right — another lonely outcast, whom he's just watched being dumped by her date in favor of someone more attractive. Marty asks the woman to dance, and they slowly, quietly connect. It's a great, intimate scene — made even greater when you realize the young woman playing opposite Rod Steiger is Nancy Marchand, who would end up playing Tony Soprano's horrible mother, Livia, on The Sopranos.
This is the first time this retrospective has been released on DVD, and it comes from Criterion, so it's the full treatment: beautiful transfers, beautiful packaging, even an informative booklet. For anyone who cares about TV's salad days, it's the perfect gift.
For slightly younger TV fans, though, there are other choices. BBC Video has just released remastered, complete-series editions of two fabulously funny British comedy classics, loaded with new interviews and other bonus material. One is Blackadder, with Rowan Atkinson, showing every series and movie incarnation of that bizarre character study. And the other is Fawlty Towers with John Cleese, which I still consider one of the funniest TV series ever made.
Another quirky comedy series, closer to home, is the complete set of It's Garry Shandling's Show. This is the show Shandling did for cable before The Larry Sanders Show, and the entire conceit of the series was an ahead-of-its-time satire of reality television. Even the theme song was hyper-aware of itself.
Other new complete sets this year include the sci-fi series Farscape, from A&E — a terrifically inventive and entertaining series, finally collected in one place. And perhaps the year's biggest treat of all, Fox Home Entertainment's nicely packaged complete-series set of Ally McBeal. This is a set that not only holds up, but seems just as fresh as before. Fans of writer-producer David E. Kelley, or of Brothers and Sisters star Calista Flockhart, will be especially happy with this one.
And finally, there's Time-Life Video's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum collection, which gathers induction speeches, performances and jams from the Hall of Fame's entire history — including many that have never been televised anywhere. The DVDs are set up so you can watch them in their entirety, or just go straight from one song to another.
And Time Life gives you another valuable option as well: the set comes as a nine-disc mammoth offering on the Internet, or with the first three discs, loaded with great music, available as a smaller, more affordable set in stores. That's where you'll hear, among other things, Crosby, Stills and Nash, with Tom Petty, performing Buffalo Springfield's classic, "For What It's Worth."
For what it's worth, I recommend this set, and all the others I mentioned, as being eminently gift-worthy.