TERRY GROSS, HOST:
When shopping for the holidays, some people enjoy giving DVD sets of their favorite TV series to like-minded friends and relatives. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this year's list of his suggestions.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I'm biased, of course, because I'm a television critic, but to me, giving someone a gift of a TV show you yourself enjoy tremendously is somehow very personal. You're giving something that you love, and that in many cases, will occupy many hours, if not days, of their time. And during that time, they'll occasionally be reminded of you.
If you want to give the gift of something current, something that people are still talking about at parties and water coolers, there are three dominant choices, and they're all available on Blu-ray, as well as standard DVD. One is the first season of the Showtime series "Homeland," starring Claire Danes and Damien Lewis. It's a four-disc set from 20th Century Fox, and it contains some of the best storytelling, and certainly some of the best acting TV has given us in recent years.
The same can be said - so I'll say it - of season four of "Breaking Bad," a four-disc set released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. But that's only if your gift recipient already is a "Breaking Bad" fan - otherwise, season four is no place to start, whereas you're giving them "Homeland" from the beginning.
That's also what makes "Downton Abbey," the wonderful period costume drama, such a good gift. The PBS Video six-disc set includes every episode from seasons one and two. Give it to someone during the holidays, and they can be up to speed before PBS begins importing season three in January.
That's the best of the current stuff, but I also enjoy watching and giving the vintage TV collections. Vintage doesn't have to be really, really old: Warner Brothers just released, for the first time on Blu-ray, a big box set containing all 10 seasons, 236 episodes, of "Friends" in an oversized, 21-disc collection.
That's a generous gift for a 20-something or 30-something on your list. But if you're looking for gifts for older folk, several recent releases should fit the bill, if you can afford it. Time Life has a set called "The Carol Burnett Show: The Ultimate Collection," and that's pretty much what it is: 22 discs full of material selected by the actress herself.
Full disclosure: I provided a couple of appreciative essays for the set's companion booklet. I'm recommending the set because, disc for disc, it's hilarious, and it's true full-family viewing, a treat to watch together with whoever happens to be around.
Image Entertainment's new Blu-ray set of "The Dick Van Dyke Show: The Complete Series" is a revelation. Not only is it one of the funniest and most modern sitcoms of the '60s, but on Blu-ray, for the first time, it's a high-definition transfer from the original 35 mm negatives. Once it was the comedy that was razor-sharp. Now it's the image, too.
And the same stunning visual quality can be seen and enjoyed in another Image Entertainment release from this year: "The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series." It's 24 discs of iconic TV brilliance. And why sit through a crammed-with-commercials cable marathon each New Year's when you can watch Rod Serling's wonderful stories uninterrupted and beautifully restored and upgraded?
Another iconic piece of TV history, though not on Blu-ray, comes courtesy of Shout Factory: a new 28-disc box set called "All in the Family: The Complete Series." I will say that while some of these episodes are entertainingly outrageous, as well as historically fascinating, a lot of them don't hold up so well four decades later. But the episode where Sammy Davis, Jr. visits Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker, well, that's about as classic as TV comedy gets.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")
CARROLL O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) Now, no prejudice intended but, you know, I always check with the Bible on these here things. Yeah. Now, I think that - I mean, if God had meant us to be together, he'd have put us together. But look what he done. He put you over in Africa. He put the rest of us in all the white countries.
SAMMY DAVIS, JR.: Well, you must've told 'em where we were, 'cause somebody came and got us.
BIANCULLI: Shout Factory has two other collections for the true comedy fan that are examples of TV archiving at its best, presenting not just one series, but many pieces from a person's entire career. "The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2" continues the astounding work done in volume one. And this one, as one of the extras, includes a great find: from a Canadian TV program, it's an in-depth television interview with Kovacs, the only one known to exist.
And finally, there's my favorite of the bunch, another Shout Factory set. But this one is so crammed with fun stuff, it's almost all extras. It's called "The Incredible Mel Brooks," and the sprawling set - five DVDs, one CD - makes a strong case for him being precisely that: incredible.
It's ridiculous how much comedy gold is crammed in here, from Brooks telling new stories about all of his old movies, to sketches he wrote for that golden age TV classic, Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows." There's even his TV debut here, from Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater."
His infamous appearance on "The David Susskind Show," which I reviewed previously on FRESH AIR, is included, as are generous samples from Mel's wild appearances on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show." There are unsold pilots and forgotten TV specials, and there's my very favorite treat of all.
It's the 1963 Oscar-winning film short written by Mel Brooks, whose voice is heard throughout. He plays a moviegoer watching a cartoon full of abstract, moving drawings, and trying to make sense of what's going on on the screen. From 1963, it's called "The Critic."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE CRITIC")
MEL BROOKS: What the hell is this? Must be a cartoon. Shh. What? Must be birth. This looks like birth. I remember, when I was a boy in Russia, it was biology. It was birth. Oop, it's born. Whatever it is, it's born. Look out! Too late. It's dead already. What's this? Oh, sure. This is cute. This is cute. This is nice. What the hell is it?
BIANCULLI: Maybe I like that so much because I am a critic. Who knows? I saw it for the first time when I was in college, so maybe it even inspired me to become a critic. But I love it. And if you're buying a gift for someone who laughs at the humor of Mel Brooks, they will, too. And remember, there's one selfish bonus to giving DVD sets as gifts: Later on, you can always try to borrow them.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPE FOR THE BEST, EXPECT THE WORST")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Hope for the best, expect the worst. Some drink champagne, some die of thirst. No way of knowing which way it's going. Hope for the best, expect the worst. Hope for the best, expect the worst...
GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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