TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Tomorrow, our TV critic David Bianculli will be with us to talk about the year in television, and to present his best of the year list. But now he has his recommendations of recent DVD box sets, collecting TV shows new and old.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I'd like to present a short list of some of the most exciting recent TV offerings on DVD. The best and biggest, and most recent of the bunch is "Breaking Bad: The Complete Series." Vince Gilligan's AMC drama, starring Bryan Cranston as a high school teacher turned criminal mastermind, arguably is the best TV series ever made, so getting or giving it in one gulp is about as good as it gets. Especially with Sony Picture Television's mammoth set providing so many extras, including a documentary on the final season which, among other things, allows us to peek in as Cranston hosts his co-star, Aaron Paul, and the two of them read the show's final script for the first time.
(SOUNDBITE OF DVD, "BREAKING BAD: THE COMPLETE SERIES.")
BRYAN CRANSTON: It's March 10th, 2013. We're at my house in Albuquerque. He's Aaron, I'm Bryan. We're reading the last episode of "Breaking Bad." We haven't read it yet. We don't...
CRANSTON: We don't know, and we're having beer.
AARON PAUL: I'm so unbelievably depressed that this is happening right now, so I know you all understand.
BIANCULLI: The other box sets I'm most excited about this year are all of a much older vintage. Some of them are released on home video for the first time and - to those of a certain age - will bring back lots of treasured TV memories. One of them is a series from Norman Lear, producer of "All in the Family," who wanted to satirize the TV soap opera by presenting his own nightly version. When the networks said no, Lear offered it to local stations in a new model of first-run syndication, and in 1976, the show was born, starring Louise Lasser as a fictional housewife from Fernwood, Ohio.
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(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
BIANCULLI: "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," takes a while to get going and, like a lot of Norman Lear comedies, holds up well in some episodes and seems horribly dated in others. But the cast that came to prominence is so much fun to watch that it's a pleasure to see them again. Dabney Coleman and Mary Kay Place broke out in this show. And so did Martin Mull, playing two roles.
After one character, Garth Gimble, was impaled to death by a Christmas tree, Mull returned as twin brother Barth Gimble, who hosted the local TV show "Fernwood Tonight." With sidekick Jerry Hubbard, played by Fred Willard "Fernwood Tonight" became a spinoff series, 10 episodes of which are included in Shout Factory's "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: The Complete Series."
Another TV treat from the '70s is Time-Life's new collection of the Dean Martin celebrity roasts which began during the final season of Martin's NBC variety series in 1973 and continued for another 11 years. Most were taped in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand where the alcohol flowed as freely as the insults. Today's TV viewers are familiar with the roast format because of Comedy Central's recent efforts.
But each one of these Dean Martin specials is an almost ridiculously deep cross section of pop culture of its era. You don't need to hear any jokes from the 1976 roast where Dean Martin himself is the guest of honor. All you need is the list of celebrity participants during the opening credits.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DEAN MARTIN SHOW")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as narrator) And tonight, guess what? It's going to be Dean. With tonight's guests Bob Hope, Orson Welles, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Kelly, John Wayne, Muhammad Ali...
BIANCULLI: These specials are so much fun because they move so quickly and feature so many stars. And since they're from an era when NBC erased most of its Johnny Carson "Tonight" shows, they're a valuable edition to the old fashioned show biz canon. An even earlier and even more rare television treat is the new MDV entertainment box set called "Here's Edie: The Edie Adams Television Collection."
It features the widow of Ernie Kovacs in shows from her 1962 to 1964 ABC variety series which was televised just after her husband's death. It presents all 21 episodes, including all of her Muriel cigar commercials intact. And it's the first time these programs have been seen anywhere since their original broadcast. Watching them for the first time, I was astounded by how inventive and original they are. Edie really did carry on the pioneering TV spirit of Ernie Kovacs.
But where he liked his music with a touch of the bizarre, she was a trained classical and jazz singer and her TV shows reflect her tastes beautifully. There's no pandering to a network TV audience here. In one show, her guests include Count Basie and his orchestra and Jon Hendrix from the jazz vocal trio of Lambert, Hendrix, and Ross.
Hendrix sings one of his group's numbers with Edie and guess Don Chastain as Basie's orchestra provides the backing.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HERE'S EDIE")
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
EDIE ADAMS: (Singing) Ah...
DON CHASTAIN: (Singing) Ah...
EDIE ADAMS AND DON CHASTAIN: (Singing) Ah...
BIANCULLI: And finally, there's a deluxe Blu-ray reissue, by Video Services, called "The Rutles: Anthology." It's all built around the Rutles, Eric Idle's spoof of The Beatles, and has lots of new extras and bonus snippets. But for me, nothing is as good as, or could be better than, the set's centerpiece: The 1978 faux rock documentary "All You Need Is Cash," telling the story of the fabulous Rutles.
If you like "Spinal Tap," you'll love "The Rutles" - and they got there first, using lots of original "Saturday Night Live" cast members as supporting players. For the holidays, if only for yourself, I can't think of a better gift. Not when you can enjoy such almost-hits as the title song of "Ouch," The Rutles' answer to the Beatles' "Help." Who needs to sing carols, when you can sing along with this?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUCH")
THE RUTLES: (Singing) Ouch. You're breaking my heart. Ouch! I'm falling apart. Ouch! Ow, ow, ouch. When we first met I must admit I fell for you right from the start. I must admit I fell for you right from the start. Now, now when we meet all kinds of things it seems upset the apple cart. All kinds of things it seems upset the apple cart. Ouch! Don't resent me. Ouch. Please don't hurt me.
(singing) Ouch. Ow, ow, ouch.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University. Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg considers how SATs measure vocabulary. This is FRESH AIR.
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