Friday, April 15, 2005

TV Writer Commentaries

I see that the DVD extras for the second season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (release date, July 26) include two commentary tracks with one of the show's most prolific writers in its first few seasons -- and one of the relatively few women in sitcom writing at that time -- Treva Silverman. It'll be interesting to hear what she has to say about the show, or, rather, it might be interesting. Commentaries with TV writers can be hit-or-miss because they worked on the episodes so fast and furiously that the structure, theme and content of an episode may not have been a conscious process. I don't mean that a good TV episode doesn't have good structure or a theme to it; I just mean that whereas movie writers and directors have time to sit and ponder about how to structure a movie, and therefore can tell you later what they were trying to do, whereas a half-hour sitcom episode doesn't get that sort of analysis, either before or after it's made.

The result is that many commentaries on TV episodes just consist of the commentators describing what's happening on the screen: they haven't seen the episode in years and they're just refreshing their memories, with the result that they don't seem to know much more about it than we do. Who would have guessed, before the Seinfeld DVDs came out, that Larry David would be so uninteresting when talking about his shows?

A surprisingly good TV-on-DVD commentary is delivered by Garry Marshall on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (season 4); he really analyzes every aspect of what it takes to make a scene or a joke funny, right down to the question of whether the actors' loud clothing detracts from the jokes. Alan Spencer, the creator of Sledge Hammer, comes off as thinking he's much more clever than he actually is (like the show itself), but gives a lot of good information and analysis, and of course Joss Whedon is a good and smart commentator. Otherwise, I can't think of a lot of really outstanding TV-on-DVD commentaries, but there are a lot I haven't heard, and a lot of the shows I collect on DVD don't have commentaries.

At this point I think it would make sense to do what is often done for older films and have critics do commentaries on TV-on-DVD sets, filling in the background of the show and analyzing it in the way that an outsider can often do better than someone who was on the inside. I'm told Three's Company has some commentaries by the guy who wrote a book on the show (yes, such a thing exists), but I haven't heard of any other examples of this.

There are also commentaries by TV directors. Since TV directors often tend to be traffic managers -- telling the actors where to stand, getting the script shot quickly -- they aren't often terribly enlightening either, but at least the director is more likely than the writer to have real, immediate memories of how the episode was made. And one hopes that if Bonanza ever comes out on DVD they'll get Robert Altman to comment on a few of his episodes.

By the way, the extras for season 2 of MTM were produced two years ago, before the first season even came out and sold disappointingly. While I suspect that season 2 will sell quite a bit better -- it's almost half the price of season 1, for starters -- and justify the release of later seasons, I wouldn't expect them to have as many extras, if indeed they have any. Too bad, because it was in season 3 that The Mary Tyler Moore Show really got good. Mostly because they started shifting the focus away from Mary Tyler Moore, but I've dealt with that before.

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