Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
All sorts of groovy announcements in the last week or so, so that list I published in the last column is already totally out of date. I got somewhere in the neighborhood of 24,000 entries in 12 hours to the last DVD contest, so I’ll pick my winners this weekend sometime. I’m attending an amazing event next week to celebrate one of the year’s biggest DVD events. But all of this is just preamble to the reason we’re here, so let’s get right to some reviews today, eh?
As always, I’ve got my entire DVD collection set up at DVD Aficionado, a great site that I’ve enjoyed working with. With very few exceptions, I’ve been able to find all my titles in their archives. You can check it out right here if you’re curious, and I’ve made sure to point out what was purchased, what was sent as a screener, and what was a gift, since so many of your e-mails seemed to think that was so urgently important.
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THE ESSENTIALS: THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT – THE COMPLETE COLLECTION
THE VILLAGE and THE BURIED SECRET OF M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN
THAT MAN BOLT, TRICK BABY, WILLIE DYNAMITE, and MR. 3000
RIKKI TIKKI TAVI and THE WHITE SEAL
THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1985) SEASON 1, TAXI: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON, SOAP THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON, and WONDERFALLS: THE COMPLETE VIEWER COLLECTION
THE ESSENTIALS: THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT – THE COMPLETE COLLECTION
This may well be one of the most ridiculously joyous collections of material in my entire DVD collection, and even if you only vaguely like musicals, you should pick this up. You’ll get clips from classic films that everyone’s seen, clips from obscure films almost no one’s seen, and clips that never even made it to the bigscreen. More than anything, it’s a big wet sloppy kiss to an era of Hollywood Studio moviemaking that is long gone.
The films themselves aren’t terribly sophisticated as documentaries. They’re not particularly probing, and they don’t delve into anything resembling the darker side of Hollywood history. Nine different various MGM stars are brought out to introduce each section of the movie, and the most interesting part of those intros is looking at how run down and shitty the backlot is by that point. This was filmed just before they bulldozed down the backlot, and it’s like a ghost town, especially when they cut from that footage to the clips from the films, when the lot was still a thriving, vital place. Starting with a montage of all the times “Singin’ In The Rain” was used and ending with the gorgeous “American In Paris Ballet,” this film spends most of its time on the biggest moments, the biggest stars, and the broad strokes of the studio’s history.
For example, there’s a great tribute to the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films, a lovely look at the work of Esther Williams, and a series of dazzling Gene Kelly clips, just to name a few of the many highlights.
THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT, PART 2 is more of the same, but they manage to also pay tribute to more than just musicals. The stateroom scene from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is certainly the best-known moment from the career of the Marx Brothers, and it’s always a pleasure to see. Fred Astairs and Gene Kelly make engaging hosts for the film as they introduce great clip after great clip. The segment about Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and Jack Benny is a fave of mine, as is the look at Hepburn and Tracy. There’s a Sinatra montage that’s impressive, a look at visions of Paris, and a wonderful collection of immortal lines from great actors.
It took a while for them to get around to making THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT III, but it was worth the wait. It sort of feels like an entire film of DVD extras made before there was such a thing. Some of the material was cut from films and stored in the vaults, and there are plenty of gems that the producers have unearthed. For many of the nine hosts of these segments, this represents their last appearance on film. I was particularly smitten with Lena Horne, the personification of grace and style. These aren’t the best-known musical numbers from the biggest-name movies, but that’s the appeal of this film. Things like “Cleopatter” or “Mr. Monotony” or “Stereophonic Sound” or “Jungle Rhumba” might spur you to dig deeper into the MGM library than you might otherwise, and isn’t that the ultimate point of a collection like this?
The fourth disc in the box is two sides of extras, including a newsreel designed to celebrate MGM’s 25th anniversary, the 1974 premiere of the original film, a 1976 episode of THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW to promote the second film, studio promo featurettes from the ‘70s, and highlights from the premiere of the third film as well, including a discussion about how they unearthed and restored the cut musical numbers used in the film. Side B includes a piece that celebrates the directors, composers, and choreographers who contributed to these indelible movie memories. You can also play the “outtake jukebox” of deleted numbers. All told, you can spend over three hours just watching this last disc.
With the exception of that final bonus disc, all of these films have identical specs, and this is one of the few times that I would recommend the standard transfer over the widescreen. It’s actually a little misleading to label them that way. The standard transfers actually preserve every single clip in its proper aspect ratio, so if something was shot square, it fills the frame, and if it was scope, then they letterbox it. On the widescreen side, all the square clips are windowboxed while the film is matted at 1.85:1 for the most part. There are new introductions on each disc by Turner Classic Movies mainstay Robert Osborne, although none of them seem to contain any vital information you need to enjoy the films. The transfers are amazing, and the newly remastered soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1 should make your sound system spontaneously break into dance.
THE BURIED SECRET OF M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN
I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to say it. I have to do it for the sake of a friend. I’m making an intervention on his behalf. I’ll play the bad wrestler if it means I’m saving my buddy. So I’ll put a name on the white elephant in the room, and you can yell at me all day, but I know my heart’s in the right place when I say the following: If M. Night Shyamalan is a cult, then Harry Knowles drank the Kool-Aid. THE VILLAGE is many things, but an “incisive political satire” is not one of them.
I was too kind when this was released last summer. I still say the film is well-crafted on a technical level. What could I possibly have to say against the impeccable photography of Roger Deakins, whose work is reproduced here to stunning effect? The film’s cast all does exactly what they were hired to do. And there are some good ideas in the movie as well as some nicely played moments.
But I don’t think there’s any question that this is the weakest overall film that Shyamalan’s made since WIDE AWAKE. When I was sent a copy for review, I decided to give the film another look, watching it this time with my wife (who didn’t see it in the theater), and her sister and mother. I wanted to watch it again with a group of people who pay no attention to hype or marketing or Internet buzz... people who just want to be entertained. I’ve heard all the defenses people mount for this film. “Oh, it was marketed all wrong,” or “You just didn’t want to like it” or “it’s not really about what you think it’s about,” and I’d just like to say... hooey. Big ol’ hooey right on you. Here’s the thing about M. Night’s apologist army... I understand what motivates it. I really do. The guy’s got buckets of talent. But you’re not doing him any favors when you tie yourselves in knots to try to justify a misfire like this. Keep it up and you’ll trap him forever, turning him into a one-trick pony incapable of an honest impulse. He overthought the good ideas he had here, and he insisted on wedging it into a familiar shape, even though it ultimately turns the film into an empty surprise, and it’s okay to like those ideas and still admit that the film is a total mess.
When you try to explain this film away by simply saying that it was mismarketed, and that it was never really meant to be a thriller, you are, quite simply, wrong. Remember... the success of THE SIXTH SENSE bought this guy a lot of “fuck you” power. There isn’t a decision made in the production or the marketing of his films right now that he doesn’t have complete control over. If his film was sold as a thriller, then he damn well meant for it to be sold as a thriller. And if you think he’s about more than the twists, then why does the back of the DVD talk about “clues to the movie’s twists”? I mean, for god’s sake, the back cover calls the film a “thriller,” a “chiller,” “terrifying,” “frightening,” mentions “fear” and “oppressive evil,” calls it “frightening” again, then describes it as “one of Hollywood’s best psychological thrillers [that] ranks with the best of Hitchcock!”
Yeah. That’s how you sell a satire. Right. I know what you think the film was about, and those themes are in there, but he was not making a satire. Period.
The one time Shyamalan tried to move away from the overt thriller formula with the twist ending, with UNBREAKABLE, he had his first commercial stumble. SIGNS put him back on track, but it also reinforced the messae: follow the formula and have a hit. Stray from it and make something you care about, and you’ll fail. I can see how that might make you contemptuous for the audience, but what’s shocking is just how naked that contempt is, and how quickly it took root. It’s fairly obvious from the way THE VILLAGE plays its last third, as blatant a middle finger as I’ve seen from a filmmaker in quite a while. I wish he had left the original script’s ending intact, complete with the line “Crazy fucking white people.”
That certainly seems to be what he’s saying over and over with the bizarre, loathsome pseudo-documentary THE BURIED SECRET OF M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN, originally screened on the Sci-Fi Channel just before THE VILLAGE was released. If you didn’t see it, count yourself lucky. It’s a stunning embarrassment for everyone involved, a ham-handed attempt at myth-making. The most amazing (and heartbreaking) thing is that Shyamalan didn’t just piss on his own integrity with this film, he also managed to drag down Nathaniel Kahn, an Oscar-nominated documentarian who made the piercing, beautiful MY ARCHITECT: A SON’S JOURNEY just a year earlier. How he got involved in this shameless con job is the only real mystery about this film. The whole thrust of the thing is that M. Night Shyamalan has a real connection to the supernatural world because of a near-tragedy in his childhood. Some sub-BLAIR WITCH haunted house shenanigans and some preposterously phony interviews are supposed to convince us that Shyamalan is more than just a director; he’s a goddamn psychic shaman. At the same time, though, Shyamalan works really, really hard to sell the image of himself as an “aw, shucks” normal kind of guy who likes to shoot pool and eat Philly cheesesteaks.
When he’s not talking to ghosts, that is.
BVHE has done a nice job of putting the two discs together, but THE VILLAGE is actually fairly thin for a Vista Series release, due in large part, I’m sure, to Shyamalan’s notorious need for hypersecrecy. There’s a nice feature about Bryce Howard (the one indisputable discovery of the film), some behind-the-scenes material, and a few deleted scenes.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX mix is crisp and full, and there’s also a French language track and French and Spanish subtitles. THE BURIED SECRET disc is just the film with a Dolby 5.1 mix and French and Spanish subtitles, with no extras of any kind.
In the end, Shyamalan’s hardcore fans seem determined to support him no matter what he does, and if you’ll tolerate no criticism of this timeless genius, then you’ll love these discs. I’m sorry if it makes me sound like a Grinch to actually demand that Shyamalan treat his audience with the respect he feels everyone owes him. Sometimes, talent isn’t enough, and I’d hate to see that become the story of this still-young career.
THAT MAN BOLT
I’ve got a stack of noble-minded well-intentioned documentary fare sitting on top of my television right now, all of it sent to me to capitalize on Black History Month, but I’ll be honest... I’d rather just be entertained instead of overtly educated. Let’s just look at this fistful of films with strong black leads instead and see if progress of any kind has been made in the last 30 years.
Universal issued several titles as part of their SOUL SHOWCASE series last month, and so far, I’ve seen three of them. If you’re looking for an example of what has become known as “blacksploitation,” then look no further than THAT MAN BOLT, a Fred Williamson vehicle from 1973 about a bad mother ready to fight and fuck his way through a vaguely-defined adventure.
Even if it’s not a very strong script, the film sort of works. It’s fun. Credit Williamson with that. He’s a hugely charismatic lead, and he manages to make the various plot absurdities seem credible by sheer force of personality. Jefferson Bolt (Williamson) is a martial arts expert/professional courier who seems to be wealthy enough to own real estate around the world. As the film starts, Bolt’s in jail thanks to shadowy government agents to coerce him into a new courier job. All he’s supposed to do is transport $1 million in cash, but things quickly degenerate. Bolt figures out the money isn’t real, and neither is the job. He sets out to figure who’s setting him up so he can turn the tables on them so he can get a reward to go with his revenge. There are car chases, kung-fu fights, sweaty liaisons with beautiful women, and a parade of terrible one-liners that Williamson almost makes cool. Look... I’m not about to make the case for THAT MAN BOLT as some unsung landmark of cool, but it held my attention at three in the morning and entertained me more than I expected. Both Henry Levin and David Lowell Rich are credited as directors, and I’d love to know the story behind that. Levin’s the guy who directed all those godawful Dean Martin Matt Helm movies, but he also made the really groovy spy thriller KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE (which rocked the house at QT Quattro a few years back), as well as the James Mason version of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. I’d believe this is more his work than that of Rich, whose last theatrical film was the bizarre Carol Burnett comedy, CHU CHU AND THE PHILLY FLASH. The action scenes have real energy and the movie makes good use of location. More than anything, watching this just reminds me of how ill-prepared Hollywood used to be to fully utilize a black star. No matter how many films Williamson made, it wasn’t enough.
TRICK BABY is the best of the films Universal released in this batch, based on a book by Iceberg Slim. Fans of the elaborate con games in the work of David Mamet should love this movie, a great example of the “one last score” genre. Blue Howard (Mel Stewart) is a lifelong con man who’s getting old, and Johnny “White Folks” O’Brien (Kiel Martin) is his much younger partner. Hell, he’s practically Blue’s son. Even though O’Brien’s mother was black, he looks white, something that most of their scams as a team takes full advantage of, so this is almost like an urban version of the James Garner/Lou Gossett comedy SKIN GAME.
The scams they run are smart, playing off the willingness of their mostly white marks to take advantage of Blue. White Folks sniffs out a particularly lucrative set of potential “investors,” and he and Blue start setting them up. As they do, though, they can feel their luck running out, and they each respond in very different ways. Director Larry Yust doesn’t have anything else of note on his filmography, which baffles me. This is a really well-made film, and the chemistry between Stewart and Martin works well. If you know Martin’s work, it’s probably from his time on HILL STREET BLUES, where he played Detective J.D. LaRue. Here, he’s a man who doesn’t really fit into the black community where he was raised or the white community where he runs his hustles. He loves and respects Blue, but he’s also starting to realize that Blue is more worried about making money than he is about staying alive. Stewart (who also appeared in Fred Williamson’s defining star vehicle, HAMMER) plays his part just right. Overall, this is pretty much a perfect little ‘70’s gem, and if you’re going to try only one of the discs from this weeks’ column based on my recommendation, then take a chance on this one.
WILLIE DYNAMITE is a lifestyle movie, all about the rise and inevitable fall of a pimp played in high style by Roscoe Orman. For my generation, Orman was better known as Gordon on SESAME STREET. That makes it extra surreal when you see him make his entrance in this film to the driving funk of “Willie D.” wearing the most outrageous outfit imaginable, heavy on the fur. This doesn’t have the same kind of gritty documentary authenticity that THE MACK did, for example, but it’s pretty honest about the details of the seedy side of pimping. Willie Dynamite turns down a chance to sign up as part of a sort of Pimp Union. He’s determined to go it alone, sure that he’ll be able to manage the police, his competition, and his entire stable of girls. Little by little, though, Willie’s control slips away. Since pimping is all about the control, the film plays out like a slow-motion nightmare, and Orman gives a strong, affecting performance. The film’s pretty much a bummer from start to finish, but that’s by design. Director Gilbert Moses was one of the four directors of ROOTS, and he seems to determined to make this more than just an exploitation film, trying not to glamorize Willie Dynamite’s world at all.
There are a number of scenes early on that illustrate exactly how Willie gets his girls to do whatever he wants, and Orman really pours on the charm. Same thing when he’s with his family, who know what Willie does for a living even though they pretend not to. Gradually, though, the film makes sure to show the price of Willie’s hubris, and the people around him are hurt, his business is shut down, and his life ends up in great danger. As Willie’s world comes crashing down around him, he does whatever he can to stay afloat. The film lets Willie off the hook in the end, but up to that point, this is an atypically grim film for producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck, better known for crowd-pleasers like JAWS and THE STING.
All of the SOUL SHOWCASE discs feature English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mixes, as well as English, French, and Spanish subtitles, and they look surprisingly good for 33 year old films.
It’s interesting to look at those films, then look at MR. 3000. Bernie Mac is another of those outsized personalities that people are trying to figure out right now. His television show is a perfect fit because he built it to be, but his work in films so far depends on the people he ends up collaborating with. MR. 3000 feels like one of those ‘80’s-era Touchstone comedies, and it’s easily the best thing Mac has starred in so far. Director Charles Stone III (DRUMLINE and those “Whassssup?” ads) delivers a confident, colorful comedy, and Mac strolls through the film, owning every moment. Stan Ross (Mac) is a showboater, an ego with a great swing, and as the film opens, he’s just reaching an important landmark in his career, racking up his 3000th on-base hit. He quits, not even finishing out the season. He’s convinced that his place in the Hall of Fame is secure, and he’s ready to cash in. Ten years later, he’s managed to wring every dime out of his fame as “Mr. 3000” that he possibly can, but he’s still waiting on that Hall of Fame invite. When it’s discovered that three of his hits didn’t count, Stan has to step back into the game to reclaim his name under the disapproving eye of his old coach (Paul Sorvino), the skeptical eye of a sports reporter who also happens to be an old flame (the ferociously beautiful Angela Bassett, who seems to get more stunning with each passing year), and the reassurance of his best friend and former teammate (Michael Rispoli).
If you can’t figure out every beat of the rest of the movie from that set-up, then you’ve probably never seen a movie before, so what the heck are you doing reading this site? What makes MR. 3000 enjoyable is the particular personality of the piece. Everyone takes it just seriously enough, but they’re all also obviously having fun. In particular, I love the interplay between Mac and Bassett. She’s giving off major vibe from the moment she makes her entrance, and Mac can’t get enough of her. Mac’s transformation into someone worthy of respect is believable, and you can’t help but root for him by the end of the film. If all formula pictures played by numbers as well as this one does, I don’t think anyone would complain.
BVHE did a nice job with the disc, with commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, and behind-the-scenes footage to round things out. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is solid, and the DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are both pleasing, if unspectacular. There are French and Spanish subtitles. This one’s worth at least a rental, and maybe more if you’re a fan of the genre.
RIKKI TIKKI TAVI
THE WHITE SEAL
Thankyouthankyouthankyou, Lions Gate. As my entire childhood gets rushed out onto the market these days, disc by disc, there are certain things I’ve been eagerly anticipating, and others that I didn’t even realize I wanted. I’m having a kid of my own this summer, and I’m starting to think about all the great stuff I want to show him or her eventually. It was in this precise mindset that I was browsing the kid’s section of Amoeba Music a few Tuesdays back. When I spotted a DVD with the distinctive signature of Chuck Jones across the top, I looked closer. Three different discs, actually, and I picked all three of them up, new, for less than $25.
The first of the CHUCK JONES SIGNATURE EDITION discs that I put in was RIKKI TIKKI TAVI. I’d always remembered this as something I really liked, but I didn’t remember any specifics about it. I just know I saw it on TV a few times, and I remember one holiday in particular when I was watching it. Now that I’ve seen it again, I’m smitten. Based on the story by Rudyard Kipling, it’s a beautifully drawn adventure about a young mongoose who is rescued from drowning by an English family living in India. In return, Rikki begins to guard the family and the surrounding garden, determined to prove his worth. And does he?
Dude... he fights and kills snakes. Onscreen.
What else do you really need to know? The male and female cobras, Nag and Nagaina, are both terrifically menacing, and Chuck Jones doesn’t keep all the death and violence offscreen. It’s tastefully done, but it doesn’t soft pedal the idea that nature is full of these harsh struggles. Jones wrote, produced, and directed the 30-minute film, and Orson Welles provides the narration. Sounds like they gave him a glass of wine, a highlighted copy of THE JUNGLE BOOK, and spent about an hour knocking it out, but he can’t help classing up the joint just a bit.
The next disc was for THE WHITE SEAL, based on another Kipling short. I don’t think I’ve ever read the story, but it’s definitely a similar piece. Kotec is born the prince of a great herd of seals living on the rocky shores of Nova Scotia. He’s born pure white, the only one of his kind, and at first, his father wants nothing to do with him. Gradually, though, Kotec proves his worth to the herd as he addresses the problem of what to do about their most feared predator... man. Oh, yes. Make no mistake. Chuck Jones was a dirty tree-hugging hippie, so to speak, and there’s something really beautiful about the dream of a migratory destination where Man never goes, Kotec’s dream for the herd. As with RIKKI TIKKI TAVI, any fan of Chuck Jones is going to immediately recognize his style, and June Foray, whose voice is featured in both cartoons, adds to that sense of familiarity. These are both strong moral fables, more challenging than most children’s fare, and I suspect that hardcore animation fans will find themselves revisiting these discs frequently.
Each of the discs also features a secondary cartoon. On THE WHITE SEAL, Lions Gate included the 1973 short, A CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE, the cartoon that introduced a country cricket named Chester, a mouse (voiced by Mel Blanc) named Tucker, and his best friend, a tabby cat named Harry. On the RIKKI TIKKI TAVI disc, the 1975 follow-up YANKEE DOODLE CRICKET is the bonus, a playful look at American history featuring Chester, Tucker, and Harry again. All of this material was created for television, so all the transfers are full-screen in Dolby Digital 2.0. There are English captions, but no subtitling at all, and no foreign language tracks. A minor disappointment, but these discs are both terribly entertaining. I’ll make sure to review the third disc, MOWGLI’S BROTHERS, in my next column.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1985) SEASON 1
TAXI: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON
SOAP: THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON
WONDERFALLS: THE COMPLETE VIEWER COLLECTION
More collections of classic TV shows hit the stores each and every week, it seems, each of them with something very different to offer, and these are particularly worth your time.
It seemed like a really big deal to me when I was 15 and CBS decided to bring back TWILIGHT ZONE to television. I was a huge fan of the TZ magazine that was being published at the time, as well as the original show, and I was an avid viewer of this revival. I still love the creepy, ethereal opening titles and the Grateful Dead version of the theme song, and digging back into this six disc collection of the show’s first season, there are plenty of great moments that hold up, well worth revisiting.
Would you like one moment that stands out more than any other? Disc one, episode four, the third story. “Nightcrawlers.” Philip DeGuere wrote the script, adapting a story by Robert R. McCammon, but it’s William Friedkin who made this a classic example of how to scare the shit out of an audience with almost no money. Scott Paulin plays a Vietnam vet who ends up in a small roadside diner during a driving rainstorm. A local cop starts picking on him, and the vet ends up telling one hell of a ghost story. By the time he reveals that he brought some of the war home with him, Friedkin’s got you squirming in your seat. It’s a masterpiece of economy, one of my favorite episodes of any anthology show ever.
There are numerous other stories worth watching, of course. I mean, you’ve got writers involved like Harlan Ellison, David Gerrold, Rockne S. O’Bannon, Alan Brennert, Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, Arthur C. Clarke, Joe Haldeman, Robert Silverburg, Robert Crais, Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, and Roger Zelazny, and directors like Joe Dante, Wes Craven, Peter Medak, B.W.L. Norton, Martha Coolidge, John Milius, and... Alan Smithee? It’s a worthy series, and it does the memory of Rod Serling proud. There are several commentaries peppered throughout the box set and an interview with Wes Craven, but the reason to pick this up is the reason that the name TWILIGHT ZONE endures... all those wonderful stories.
I recently wrote a piece here about the first season of TAXI, a show I dearly love. There was one character who just didn’t work on that first season, the cabbie named John, and thankfully, he’s gone as this box set gets started. Even better, they introduced Reverend Jim Ignitowski as a regular character early on during this year. Christopher Lloyd is brilliant as Jim, and he adds all sorts of interesting dynamics to the show. Everybody started to get more interesting this season. Marilu Henner started to show the cracks in the way-too-tightly-wound Elaine Nardo. The desperation started to pour off Jeff Conaway’s Bobby Wheeler in waves. Louie became the most appealing scumbag on TV. And Judd Hirsch continued to refine Alex Reiger into a wholly original character, someone who could serve as a moral compass for everyone else in one episode, but who rarely knew how to manage the train wreck that was his own life.
There are some outstanding episodes here, like “Louie and the Nice Girl,” which introduced DeVito’s real-life wife Rhea Perlman as a recurring character, “Honor Thy Father,” which features one of the best punchlines of any sitcom episode ever, and “Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey,” featuring Jim’s classic driver’s license test. And those are just the first three episodes of the season. Most shows would be happy with three episodes that good over the course of their entire run. Other highlights include “The Lighter Side Of Angela Matusa,” “The Great Race,” “The Apartment,” “Latka’s Revolting,” “Shut It Down,” “Louie Meets The Folks,” and “Guess Who’s Coming For Brefnish,” which brought Carol Kane’s Simka to the show. The appeal of this series can be fully summed up in one episode, though, the beautifully-written “Elaine’s Secret Admirer,” which manages to balance humor and genuine heart without ever tipping over into sentiment. It features a tremendous performance by Lloyd and marks the precise moment where he became indispensable to the show. Paramount didn’t put any extras in the set, but they packed all four discs with great episodes. Pick it up.
SOAP: THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON captures a series at a moment of transition, and fans might argue that this was the beginning of the end for the show. For one thing, Benson (Robert Guillaume) left the show a few episodes into the season for his own spin-off, and there’s no getting around the feeling that he left a hole in the show that it never recovered from. Things started off silly, with Burt (the always-great Richard Mulligan) trapped on an alien spaceship, Jessica (the equally-great Katherine Helmond) trying to decide between her husband Chester (Robert Mandan) and Detective Donahue (John Byner), while Billy (Jimmy Baio) is in the clutches of a creepy cult whose members include a very young Robert England. Amidst all of the outrageousness, one storyline stands out, and even watching it today, it’s impressive how well it was handled. Jodie (Billy Crystal) started out as an easy gay joke, but by the time this season rolled around, Susan Harris and the rest of the writers seemed determined to paint him as one of the most daring characters on TV. The entire season deals with Jodie’s efforts to live as the single father of baby Wendy, culminating in a nasty custody battle against the mother, Carol (Rebecca Balding), who expertly manipulates everyone’s distaste for Jodie’s lifestyle to play the legal system.
Billy Crystal played Jodie with not only the required dignity, but also understandable anger and a surprising amount of self-deprecating humor. In short, he played Jodie as a real person, and I still think it stands as the best acting of Crystal’s career. This was the last full season of SOAP, and it ends with the best cliff-hanger of the entire series with Jessica dead (!!) and Mary giving birth to what may well be an alien baby. I can’t wait for the release of the fourth season so I can wrap up my collection of this landmark show.
Despite all of Herc’s admonishments, I never tuned in to see WONDERFALLS during its oh-so-brief run on Fox. I wasn’t a Nielsen family at that point, so don’t blame me for the show’s cancellation. Watching all 13 episodes over the span of two days, I was struck by just how smart and funny and – here’s the word that must have terrified Fox executives - original the show was. I’ve heard people compare it to JOAN OF ARCADIA, but that’s massively unfair. Even without the show’s hook, these characters would be rich and quirky enough to support the show. Caroline Dhavernas is a supremely engaging lead, and she plays Jaye as the ultimate example of what TIME magazine just recently dubbed the “Twixter” generation. She’s smart, but unmotivated. She seems to be determined to keep her life in park, scared to actually start living it. She also seems to live in direct defiance of her over-achieving family. When she starts hearing voices from inanimate objects, it finally gives her some sort of direction to her life, even if it does seem insane. Bryan Fuller and Todd Holland deserve high praise for creating a show that didn’t feel like anything else on TV. Holland has been directing damn fine TV comedy since THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, and he gave WONDERFALLS a pop cartoon sensibility that makes the absurd seem possible, and XTC’s Andy Partridge wrote a theme song that is compulsively catchy. The cast all nails it, with Tyron Leitso proving to be a perfect match for Dhavernas romantically. They both play it smart, and you find yourself really rooting for them to work things out, particularly once his wife (played by SERENITY’s Jewel Staite in several episodes) shows up. Katie Finneran, Diana Scarwid, Bill Sadler, and Lee Pace make for a very believable family for Dhavernas. You can see where she came from, and you can see exactly what she’s rebelling against. And as TV best friends go, Tracie Thoms is a darn good one.
There are some very engaging commentaries, a look at the clever visual effects, and a behind-the-scenes documentary, but what makes the box set great is the inclusion of the nine episodes that never made it on the air. “Safety Canary” features one of the last performances by character actor Kellie Waymire, and it’s a bittersweet reminder that she died too young. The five episodes on disc three show a series that was just starting to figure itself out, and if it had lasted, I have every confidence that it would have become one of the very best things on TV. As it stands, this gets filed on the shelf as further proof that the TV gods can be cruel. There’s a great Dolby Digital 5.1 mix as well as English and Spanish subtitles, and Fox did a very nice job with the transfer. Take a chance. Let the wonder fall on you.