TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Our TV critic David Bianculli says his stack of recent DVD releases of old TV series keeps getting higher. He's picked out four of them he feels are especially enjoyable, the TV equivalent of a good summer read.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: So much TV so little time. Even during the summer, when broadcast TV slows down and leaves mostly cable and satellite TV series, and now Netflix, to watch and review, the TV shows on DVD keep coming. And summertime is the perfect time to dive into some of them.
A great one, for starters, is a 21-disc Shout! Factory set called "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: The Complete Series." It's got lots of bonus features, but the core is the entire run of episodes from the CBS sitcom, which ran from 1959 to 1963. It was about a clean-cut, love-struck young man named Dobie, played by Dwayne Hickman. His best friend and sidekick, Maynard G. Krebs, was prime-time TV's idea of a beatnik: He wore ratty sweatshirts, listened to Dizzy Gillespie and was played by Bob Denver, long before "Gilligan's Island."
This show's joys, though, come from the entire cast, especially including, in the early episodes, two astoundingly shallow classmates in Dobie's high school English class, both played by future movie stars. One is a money-obsessed beauty named Thalia Menninger, played by the stunning Tuesday Weld; the other is a wealthy preppie named Milton Armitage, he's played by none other than a very young Warren Beatty. And as Thalia and Milton talk in class, Dobie and Maynard stare in disbelief.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE MANY LIVES OF DOBIE GILLIS")
: (as Thalia Menninger) Oh, isn't that nice?
: (as Milton Armitage) And coat hangers for my coats.
: (as Thalia Menninger) Oh, I'm so glad.
: (as Milton Armitage) And not the wire hangers, but the big wooden type that are shaped to fit a person's own shoulders.
: (as Thalia Menninger) Ooh, what a splendid idea.
: (as Milton Armitage) And I have a tie rack for my ties.
: (as Thalia Menninger) Oh, really?
: (as Milton Armitage) And shoe trays for my shoes.
: (as Thalia Menninger) Oh, how divine.
: (as Milton Armitage) Made in England.
: (as Thalia Menninger) The shoes?
: (as Milton Armitage) Oh, the shoes, of course. But the trees too. I mean you'd hardly put American trees into English shoes.
: (as Thalia Menninger) Into English shoes.
BIANCULLI: "Dobie Gillis," the TV series, is the first in a straight line of teen comedies from their point of view - a line that also goes right through "Gidget" all the way to "The Wonder Years." It's a comedy that holds up well and features plenty of familiar guest stars.
The Time Life set of "China Beach: The Complete Series" holds up well, too. This series, on ABC from 1988 to 1992, was a drama about an Army hospital and recreation and rehab center in Vietnam. It starred Dana Delany as a dedicated nurse and Marg Helgenberger as a pragmatic prostitute. As a TV drama series, it did for Vietnam what the sitcom "M*A*S*H" had done for the Korean War. But "China Beach," way back in the '80s, also was doing the kind of dark and meaningful stories and presenting the sort of complicated characters that today's best TV dramas get credit for showing. And this box set didn't skimp on paying for the music rights. The original '60s songs in "China Beach" are preserved in this box set, which is a crucial part of the mix. These episodes still tug at your heart a lot. It's a great set, and a wonderful show.
On the much lighter side is Acorn Media's "Dirk Gently," a four-episode BBC comedy series from 2010 and 2012. It stars Stephan Mangan of the delightful Showtime series "Episodes," and it's based on the metaphysical mystery novels by Douglas Adams, author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" stories. So I don't have to say much more about that one. If you've seen "Episodes," you'll want to see this. And if you're a Douglas Adams fan, you have to.
"Dirk Gently" has never been televised in the States, so you can give yourself an exclusive treat, watching him solve crimes with the most unusual methods since Dale Cooper on "Twin Peaks." Last - but to me, certainly not least - is Shout Factory's "The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes." These are episodes that, partly because they originally were preserved on Kinescope rather than film, were not included in standard home video and TV syndication packages.
So most of these particular shows haven't been available in more than 50 years. And for older TV viewers, especially, these are a blast to watch, precisely because they are so unfamiliar. You get a 1956 episode where Jack Benny plays violin while Spike Jones leads the orchestra, a 1960 episode where Jack rehearses a dramatic TV scene with Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, a 1959 episode in which Jack Benny visits former president Harry Truman.
And there's perhaps my favorite moment from this entire three-disc DVD set: from 1958, when movie star Gary Cooper shows up to promote his new movie. As a bonus, he brings out Jack Benny's regularly featured singing quartet at the time, The Sportsmen, to join them on a version of an Everly Brothers song that was a number one country hit at the time.
Yes, as Jack Benny looks on in disbelief, there's an intentionally stiff-looking Gary Cooper pretending to strum a guitar, trading vocals with The Sportsmen on "Birddog."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW " THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM: THE LOST EPISODES")
BIANCULLI: Yeah, they don't make TV like that anymore. Actually, they do. What Cooper did on the Jack Benny program in 1958 somebody like Robert De Niro or Christopher Walken could do on "Saturday Night Live" today. Funny is funny. And whether TV was made in the '50s or the '80s, or just a few years ago, good is good.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Coming up, an interview excerpt with Lindy Boggs, former congresswoman and the mother of Cokie Roberts. Boggs died Saturday at the age of 97. This is FRESH AIR.
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