Television

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli starting the second half of the show with what I hope is a helpful guide for your holiday shopping plans. I have a short list of recent DVD releases of TV shows that you might want to give or drop hints to get this year.

Let's start with my favorite new box set of 2010. From Shout Factory, it's "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 goes into putting on a TV talk show.

That sensibility extends to the new box set, which 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. Torn is 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.

(Soundbite of "The Larry Sanders Show")

Unidentified Man: Miscellaneous wild line library take one.

(Soundbite of beeping)

Mr. RIP TORN (Actor): (as Artie) Crap. Crap. Friggin. Friggin. Friggin. Ass. Ass. Ass. Bull crap. Bull crap. Horse hockey. Horse hockey. Hell. Hell. Oh, hell.

Unidentified Man: OK. That's enough. Thank you.

Mr. TORN: (as Artie) What about this...

BIANCULLI: 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.

(Soundbite of "The Larry Sanders Show")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JIM CARREY (Comedian, actor): Can I be honest with you?

Mr. GARRY SHANDLING (Comedian): (as Larry Sanders) Yeah.

Mr. CARREY: I'm here for three good reasons: last show, big ratings, movie coming out. Bim. Bam. Boom. Whew. Otherwise I'd be sitting home watching "Nightline."

Mr. JEFFREY TAMBOR (Actor): (as Hank) As usual.

Mr. SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) It's too you, you don't mention anything about the movie.

Mr. CARREY: What?

Mr. SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) You didn't say anything about the movie. You didn't, you didn't say any...

Mr. CARREY: I didn't mention "The Truman Show?"

Mr. SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) No.

Mr. CARREY: Oh, my God. Oh, no. oh, my, God.

Mr. SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) He didn't say anything, did he, about "The Truman Show?"

Mr. TAMBOR: (as Hank) I didn't hear it.

Mr. SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) I don't think so.

Mr. CARREY: Oh, I don't believe this.

Mr. SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) I don't think you did.

Mr. CARREY: Do I have a clip too?

Mr. SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) Huh? There was a clip, yeah, but you didn't bring it out.

Mr. CARREY: See that's your fault as a host.

Mr. SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) You know...

Mr. CARREY: You should've led me in that direction. Even Jon Stewart can set up a frigging clip.

Mr. SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) Oh, that is not necessary. You know what? Why don't you stay and do another segment and then I'll bring and I'll show the clip?

Mr. CARREY: Nah. Shot my wad.

Mr. TAMBOR: (as Hank) Can I say something? Can I say something? "Cable Guy," underrated.

Mr. CARREY: Well, thank you very much, Henry. You ever get tired of kissing ass? You know, you're the most talented person on this show. I've always believed that, you have something very special and yet you squander it here. You know, this show going off the air could be a blessing in disguise for you.

Mr. TAMBOR: (as Hank) You think so?

Mr. CARREY: Nope.

Mr. TAMBOR: (as Hank) No?

Mr. CARREY: Good luck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Another new complete set, from Fox Home Entertainment, is recommended not because most of it is new to DVD, but because it is complete. It's "24: The Complete Series" and comes out December 14th - 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, which even series creator David Milch now admits 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, the dirt and grit´┐Żof "Deadwood" seems even dirtier and grittier. It looks simply astounding. Ian McShane, Keith Carradine, 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 re-watchable, as "The Wire" - and that's as high as my praise gets.

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.

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 there's something about it after nearly 50 years 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.

(Soundbite of music from "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol")

Ms. JOAN GARDNER (Actor): (as Tiny Tim) (Singing) Will we have again and then some razzleberry dressing, oh, razzleberry dressing would be nice. Will we have a pudding made of liver while we're guessing? Or maybe razzleberry dressing twice?

We haven't had a hen since I can't tell you when. We love our hen again, with a razzleberry dressing. We've been so awful good for me down to the baby and we're not made of wood or razzleberry gravy.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, new developments regarding an old controversy. This is FRESH AIR.

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