Sony Pictures Television/Shout! Factory
The original cast of the Larry Sanders show, which ran from 1992 to 1998, included (from left) Rip Torn, Garry Shandling and Jeffrey Tambor.
The original cast of the Larry Sanders show, which ran from 1992 to 1998, included (from left) Rip Torn, Garry Shandling and Jeffrey Tambor. Sony Pictures Television/Shout! Factory
Let's get right to this: My favorite new box set of the year is The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series, containing every episode of the HBO comedy that starred Garry Shandling as a neurotic talk-show host. The series was televised from 1992 to 1998 and focused on the behind-the-scenes planning, scheming and absurdity that go into putting on a TV talk show.
That sensibility extends to the new box set, a Shout Factory release that includes a ton of behind-the-scenes elements of its own — including a random piece of audio from co-star Rip Torn, who played Larry's foul-mouthed producer Artie, recording a list of mild euphemisms meant as substitutions in case The Larry Sanders Show — the real one — ever was syndicated in a milder form. Hearing Torn read the list all at once is as ridiculously funny as the fact that he was asked to record it in the first place.
Also in the bonus material are lots of deleted scenes — most of them richer, longer and more entertaining than most material stuffed onto DVD sets as extras. In the show's brilliant finale, for example, Jim Carrey stops the show as a celebrity who serenades Larry the way Bette Midler sang to Johnny Carson on his penultimate show. But the DVD extras continue that scene through the pretend "commercial break," as Carrey drops his show-biz act and talks frankly to Shandling's Larry and his sidekick, Hank, played brilliantly by Jeffrey Tambor.
The list of co-stars and guest stars in The Larry Sanders Show is ridiculous. In that finale alone, the guests include not only Jim Carrey but Jon Stewart, Carol Burnett, Sean Penn, Jerry Seinfeld, Clint Black, Tom Petty, Greg Kinnear and David Duchovny. And over the course of the series, everyone from David Letterman to Jay Leno pops up. The regular cast members include Janeane Garofalo, Jeremy Piven, Bob Odenkirk and a lot more. It's a brilliant comedy, and the box set presents all five seasons for the first time.
For eight seasons, special agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) dealt with assassination threats, nuclear weapons, decoys or executions on Fox's 24.
For eight seasons, special agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) dealt with assassination threats, nuclear weapons, decoys or executions on Fox's 24. Kelsey McNeal/Fox
Another new complete set, from Fox Home Entertainment, I recommend not because most of it is new to DVD, but because it is complete. It's 24: The Complete Series and comes out Dec. 14 — just in time to give, or get, all eight seasons of Jack Bauer's very bad days. It's a huge set, and hugely expensive, but for rabid fans of 24 it's the ultimate package. (At least until a movie comes out.)
Another complete series, which has been out for two years on DVD but only now has been released on Blu-ray, is HBO's Deadwood, which ran from 2004 to 2006. It should have run for at least two years longer — even series creator David Milch now admits that, on the DVD extras. Giving a guided tour of the mammoth, realistic, now-deserted Deadwood set, he says, "I find all of this infinitely depressing."
But Deadwood is one of the best TV drama series ever made — and on Blu-ray, its trademark dirt and grit seem even dirtier and grittier. It looks simply astounding. Ian McShane, Keith Carradine, Timothy Olyphant, Molly Parker and the rest are truly amazing as residents of an outlaw Western mining town. To me, Deadwood is as good, and as infinitely rewatchable, as The Wire — and that's as high as my praise gets.
Actor Tom Budge plays Pfc. Ronnie Gibson in the HBO miniseries The Pacific. Filmed in Melbourne, Australia, the miniseries takes place in the Pacific theater during World War II.
Actor Tom Budge plays Pfc. Ronnie Gibson in the HBO miniseries The Pacific. Filmed in Melbourne, Australia, the miniseries takes place in the Pacific theater during World War II. David James/HBO
Another impressive new Blu-ray release is an HBO miniseries, The Pacific, the companion drama to Band of Brothers. On Blu-ray, the battle scenes in The Pacific are both jaw-dropping and teeth-rattling — and there's a lot of enhanced video on the Blu-ray, where you can be fed facts and stories instantly about the drama as you watch it. But don't do that the first time you watch it, or the accompanying annotations will spoil a lot of the dramatic surprises.
It's hard to imagine anyone being unhappy with at least one of these sets — but since they all come with rather hefty price tags, I thought I'd end with recommendations for two smaller, less expensive new releases that make for great gifts.
For any lover of musicals, there's Evening Primrose, the first-time-on-DVD release of Stephen Sondheim's 1966 made-for-TV musical. It stars Tony Perkins as a poet who avoids rent in New York by hiding illegally in a department store, and coming out only at night — along with other people who had the same idea. It's strange, and a bit dark — but it's also wonderful.
The 1962 holiday special Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol features music from Jule Styne and Bob Merrill.
The 1962 holiday special Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol features music from Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Classic Media
And finally, for the very young people on your list – or the old ones who are young at heart – there's another vintage TV musical treat. It's Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, the 1962 holiday special, with Jim Backus as Ebenezer Scrooge. The Classic Media release gives you both a Blu-ray and a regular DVD for one low price. The animation is so static that, to be honest, Blu-ray does nothing for it — but the music is by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, who at the time were collaborating on Funny Girl.
It's the first animated Christmas special ever made for television, and after nearly 50 years there's still something about it that's positively delicious. Maybe it's Tiny Tim singing about "razzleberry dressing." But I've road-tested it on today's young kids, and it still delights. Just like any of these DVDs would.
David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com. He teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.