Monday, June 07, 2004


Tomorrow brings a bunch of "complete first season" TV-on-DVD releases. It's getting to the point where every show ever made (except my beloved music-heavy WKRP) will have its first one or two seasons out on DVD. You'll notice, though, that a lot of shows get the first season and nothing more. The first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, released in September 2002, was one of the best-produced, best-rematered TV-on-DVD sets up to that point... and it sold so badly that none of the other seasons have come out. It's kind of a crapshoot, really, whether your favorite show will be one of the lucky ones that makes it past season 1. So here's a run-down of some of tomorrow's new sets:

SCTV: Volume 1 -- The must-buy release of the week, though I am (unpatriotically, as a Canadian) not quite as big an SCTV fan as some. The parade of knowing, in-jokey showbiz riffs and celebrity impersonations sometimes make me long for a pie in the face or a something funny in and of itself, rather than for its connection to some movie the writers saw on TV last week. But that's a quibble; there's too much good stuff in these episodes to preclude a recommendation. Note that these are the 90 minute NBC episodes, which means that the show is not starting with its first season (which consisted of 30-minute episodes shown only in Canada). A smart move, since the 90-minute episodes haven't been seen in their original form in years and thus have more scarcity value to fans; but I actually think the first season -- very low-budget but charmingly so, and with Harold Ramis as a regular cast member and head writer -- was the best.

M*A*S*H: the Complete Sixth Season. An improvement over the fifth season, mostly because it was the season that introduced Major Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers). Winchester was an improvement on Frank Burns, who started out as a potentially interesting character and wound up as a boring cartoon. The show continued to be somewhat sloppily written, depending mostly on unrelated wisecracks for the comedy. But then this was also true of the show during the Larry Gelbart years (seasons 1-4); it's just that the wisecracks were funnier then. The best episodes include the two written by the other main writer from the early years, Laurence Marks (a veteran of Hogan's Heroes who was arguably better than Gelbart at writing character comedy as opposed to one-liners).

Who's the Boss?: the Complete First Season. Nobody will ever believe me, but Who's the Boss? was actually quite a well-written show. The creators were two veterans of MTM Productions -- Blake Hunter of WKRP In Cincinnati and Martin Cohan of The Bob Newhart Show. Their influence is felt in the writing, which is hardly witty but quite character-specific and usually steers clear of one-liners and wisecracks. If M*A*S*H was a quality sitcom with often low-quality jokes, Who's the Boss is an example of what I'd call the "bad sitcom with good writing" -- a show with a low-quality look and feel but whose writing, characterization, story structure can be surprisingly good. I'm not exactly recommending it because, let's face it, good writing or no, it's still a vehicle for Tony Danza... but it's a well-written show.

Just Shoot Me: The Complete First and Second Seasons. Created by Frasier writer Steven Levitan, this show had certain Frasier-like elements: the premise of a lead character reconnecting with a father who is her cultural opposite, separate titles before each scene (in the form of "headlines" that appear on a magazine). It was at its best in the first couple of seasons, when the relationship between Maya (Laura San Giacomo) and Jack (George Segal) was at the center of the show; in later seasons more and more episodes were taken up by various romances and by the wisecracking sidekick Finch (David Spade). The best episode is probably "King Lear Jet," where an argument about who will get to go see a production of King Lear in England turns into a modern-day retelling of the story (with Jack as Lear and Maya as Cordelia).

There's also the first season of The A-Team, the great cultural shame of the '80s. I'll have more to say about that tomorrow.

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