TERRY GROSS, host:
If you're looking for gifts for the holiday season, our TV critic David Bianculli has a few suggestions - recently released DVD sets of old and new TV shows. Match the right shows to the right recipients, he suggests, and they're giving hours and hours of pleasure.
DAVID BIANCULLI: The TV-shows-on-DVD landscape is changing. The economy is down, stores have less shelf space, and producers are being more cautious about what and how much they release into the marketplace. And year after year, there are some omissions that frustrate me to no end. Where oh where is �The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,� with Blair Brown? Where are all those missing seasons of �St. Elsewhere�? But rather than complain like Scrooge about what's not around this year, I'm here to celebrate what is. There are a few releases I didn't never expect to see on DVD, and some special complete sets that would make great gifts for the right person. So here we go � a fast romp through my recommended DVD holiday list, starting with a very welcome voice from TV's distant past.
(Soundbite of archived recording)
Mr. CHARLES KURALT (TV Journalist): Hello, I'm Charles Kuralt. We're off again to meet a few people on the back roads of America. These are people you know, not from the front pages, they've never been on the front pages. They're people you know from next door down the block. Their stories are some of my favorites from 25 years on the road.
BIANCULLI: If you don't recognize that voice, you won't be as excited about Acorn Media's �On the Road with Charles Kuralt� set as you should be. Beginning in the late �60s, Kuralt and his crew traveled across America in a motor home, stopping in small towns in search of small but uplifting stories for CBS. It's the kind of TV they really, truly don't make any more. And they're as sweetly nostalgic to watch now, after all these years, as an old Norman Rockwell painting. Another new DVD set collects TV that is even older. �The Golden Age of Television� was a PBS series that ran about 25 years ago, presenting a small but stellar collection of live TV dramas that had been broadcast in prime time some 25 years before that.
So we're talking old. But we're also talking great - �Patterns and Requiem for a Heavyweight� by Rod Serling, �Bang the Drum Slowly� with Paul Newman, �The Days of Wine and Roses� with Jack Lemmon. And from 1953, the first Golden Age drama to realize the full potential of live TV, Paddy Chayefsky's �Marty.� Rod Steiger starred in that drama as a lonely middle-aged butcher who goes to a local dance hall in search of a possible date. He meets a woman there, all right, another lonely outcast, whom he's just watched being dumped by her date in favor of someone more attractive.
Marty asks the woman to dance, and they slowly, quietly connect. It's a wonderful, intimate scene, made even greater when you realize the young woman playing opposite Rod Steiger is Nancy Marchand, who ended up playing Tony Soprano's horrible mother, Livia, on �The Sopranos.�
(Soundbite of TV broadcast, �Marty�)
Mr. ROD STEIGER (Actor): (as Marty) I guess, I guess I can recognize (unintelligible) a mile off, you know. My brothers and sisters, they're always saying to me what a good-hearted guy I am, you know, you don't - you get to be good-hearted by accident, you've got to be kicked around long enough and hard enough and then you get to be like a real professor of pain, you know? So I know exactly how you feel. And I want to tell you something else too. I'm having a very, very good time tonight. I'm enjoying myself. So you see, you're not such a dog as you think you are.
Ms. NANCY MARCHAND: (as character) I'm having a good time too.
Mr. STEIGER: (as Marty) So there you see, that means I'm not such a dog as you think I am.
Ms. MARCHAND: (as character) I think you're a very nice guy.
BIANCULLI: This is the first time this retrospective has been released on DVD, and it comes from Criterion. So it's the full treatment - beautiful transfers, beautiful packaging, even an informative booklet. For anyone who cares about TV's salad days, it's the perfect gift. For slightly younger TV fans, though, there are other choices. BBC Video has just released remastered, complete-series editions of two fabulously funny British comedy classics, loaded with new interviews and other bonus material. One is �Black Adder,� with Rowan Atkinson, showing every series and movie incarnation of that bizarre character study.
And the other is �Fawlty Towers,� with John Cleese, which I still consider one of the funniest TV series ever made. Another quirky comedy, closer to home, is the complete series DVD set from Shout Factory of �It's Garry Shandling's Show.� This is the show Shandling did for cable before �The Larry Sanders Show,� and the entire conceit of the series was an ahead-of-its-time satire of reality television. Even the theme song was hyper-aware of itself.
(Soundbite of song, �It's Garry Shandling's Show�)
Mr. BILL LYNCH (Singer): (Singing) This is the theme to Garry's show, the theme to Garry's show. Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song. I'm almost halfway finished. How do you like it so far? How do you like the theme to Garry's show? This is the theme�
BIANCULLI: Other new complete series sets this year include the sci-fi series �Farscape� from A&E, a terrifically inventive and entertaining series, finally collected in one place. And perhaps the year's biggest treat of all, Fox Home Entertainment's nicely packaged complete-series set of �Ally McBeal.� This is a set that not only holds up but seems just as fresh as before. Fans of writer-producer David E. Kelley, or of �Brothers and Sisters� star Calista Flockhart, will be especially happy with this one. And finally, there's Time-Life Video's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum collection, which gathers induction speeches, performances and jams from the Hall of Fame's entire history � including many that have never been televised anywhere.
The DVDs are set up so you can watch them in their entirety or just go straight from one song to another. And Time Life gives you another valuable option as well. The set comes as a nine-disc mammoth offering on the Internet, or with the first three discs loaded with great music, available as a smaller, more affordable set in stores. That's where you'll hear, among other things, Crosby, Stills and Nash with Tom Petty performing Buffalo Springfield's classic, �For What It's Worth.� And for what it's worth, I recommend this set, and all the others I mentioned, as being eminently gift-worthy.
GROSS: David Bianculli writes tvworthwatching.com, teaches TV and Film at Rowan University, and is the author of the new book, �Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.'�
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