I saw the new DVD set of the first season of Happy Days, which will be released August 17, and I can definitely recommend it. There are no extras, which is unfortunate, because creator Garry Marshall is really good at commentary tracks (listen to his commentary on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show). But the episodes are uncut, 25 minutes and 30 seconds -- ah, for the days when there were only four minutes of commercials per half-hour -- and they look better than I've ever seen them look in syndication. Best of all, unlike DVD sets of some TV shows, none of the music appears to have been changed.
This, of course, is the "good" Happy Days: filmed one-camera, with no studio audience, going for the look and feel of a '50s show to match the '50s setting, and focusing on Richie Cunningham, a smart, shy teenager dealing with the minor tribulations of growing up: buying a car, getting drunk for the first time, breaking up with a girlfriend. The first two seasons of the show are genuinely excellent; Marshall toned down the New York wisecracking farce style he had brought to other shows, and created a quiet, sweet, leisurely show that had more in common with The Andy Griffith Show than American Graffiti. I especially like the fact that it centred on the smart, kind of nerdy kid who gets good grades and plays chess; in most sitcoms, that kind of character is the sidekick at best.
Of course, most of you know what happened after the second season: after two seasons of unspectacular ratings, the show was completely revamped, with more of an emphasis on Fonzie, a corresponding de-emphasis on Richie, and perhaps most importantly, a complete change in format: the show switched from single-camera, no audience, to being filmed with three cameras in front of a studio audience. (There was actually one episode in the second season, "Fonzie's Getting Married," that was shot with a studio audience as a test; not co-incidentally, it's the worst episode of that season.) This led to the audience cheering whenever Fonzie walked in (and eventually, whenever anyone walked in), but it also changed the style and look of the show. They had to use mostly interior sets, redesign the Cunninghams' house, and, most importantly, change the acting and directing style to a more "theatrical" style to play to the live audience. Fonzie was originally a low-key character whose coolness came from the fact that he didn't say much or speak loudly when he did say something. But you can't do that with a stageplay-style, three-camera sitcom, so Fonzie became a loud showboat, posing and yelling so he could be heard and seen by the last person in the last row of the studio. Ron Howard, who had never performed before a live audience before, was clearly uncomfortable and it took him a while to adjust. It's actually a fascinating study in how the style of shooting changes a show, because the writing staff was still the same as it had been in the first two seasons, as was the primary director (Jerry Paris), but the feel of the show changed almost completely because of the difference between one-camera and live-audience performing.
Interestingly, Garry Marshall had previously saved a show by making the same switch: "The Odd Couple" was one-camera in its first season, but at Tony Randall's insistence, they went to a multi-camera, live-audience format in season two -- and it worked great. But that was different, because the material was based on a play and it starred two guys with stage experience; it was more appropriate with that "theatrical" style. The nostalgic charm and period feel of Happy Days was just all wrong for multi-camera.
Then again, if it hadn't been for the revamp, Happy Days would have gone off the air after two or three seasons and would be a fondly-remembered "lost classic." I suppose most of us would have done the same, if we'd been in Garry Marshall's position of having to choose between a succes d'estime and just a plain old success. But it's the first two seasons that I would recommend, so get the first season and hope that season two, when it comes, has a few extras.