July 20, 2007

Some very different TV shows on DVD


You can get almost anything on DVD these days. In the years to come, you'll be able to get pretty much any film or television show online or on your cell phone. But that is in the future.

Right now, most network television shows are offering season-by-season collections on DVD. The big sellers are the most popular shows - the CSI series, ER, The West Wing, Friends - the shows that drew viewers to their television sets every week.

As those top shows began to sell, other producers, studios and networks saw the marketing potential for their shows. Classic programs, like I Love Lucy, Leave It To Beaver and various collections from the Ed Sullivan Show, have been successful. There is a great collection of the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and a number of years of The Twilight Zone are available.

This week, however, we'll focus on a half-dozen television shows that you can experience again on DVD.

Let's start with the most current program. The Dead Zone, based on a book by Stephen King that was made into a movie, currently runs as a series every Sunday night on the USA Network. It is one of a number of character-driven programs that USA offers during the summer. There is The 4400, about citizens of Earth who were snatched by aliens and then all returned at the same time, without having aged at all and with special powers. And there is Monk, about a brilliant detective who is also an obsessive-compulsive.

The Dead Zone stars Anthony Michael Hall, who was a talented comic actor as a teenager in films like National Lampoon's Vacation, 16 Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science. He became a regular on Saturday Night Live at 17. Hall continued to appear in a variety of films in his 20s and 30s, jumping back into prominence by playing Whitey Ford in Billy Crystal's great film *61, about Roger Maris breaking Babe Ruth's record.

Hall plays Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone, a high school science teacher who goes into a coma after an automobile accident. After more than six years, he emerges from the coma with something new, the ability to see things that have happened or will happen just by touching the person involved or something they touched.

It is well written, well cast and very well done. Though Hall carries the load, he has a good supporting cast and some impressive guest stars. The show is currently in its fifth season and each of the first four is available on DVD. The Dead Zone normally begins its season in June and offers the previous year's shows on DVD a week or so before the new season debuts.

The oldest of the shows in our focus is The Andy Griffith Show. You certainly know about the Mayberry sheriff and his family and friends that was such a big hit in the 1960s. It is filled with great performances, led by the late Don Knotts as Deputy Barney Fife. Knotts won three Emmys as supporting actor on the show. Then, when he left the regular cast, he won two more Emmys for guest star performances as Barney.

The DVD collection is great. Not only do you get the funny vignettes at the end of each episode, frequently edited out in syndication packages, but these DVDs also include the sponsor pitches Griffith did, in character, at the end of each show.

Another show from the 60s, though not nearly as universally popular as Andy Griffith's show, is Gidget. This was based on a series of movies that featured the late Sandra Dee and other young actresses as a teenage girl who loves to surf and hang out with surfers. The show did not do very well in the ratings during the 1965-66 season. But, in the summer, when it was re-run, it was consistently among the Top 10 highest rated shows. Unfortunately, it had already been cancelled by ABC.

The best part of Gidget is the performance of Sally Field, one of the great actresses of our generation. Just 19 and making her debut as an actress, she creates a Gidget that is loaded with personality and unique style, also capturing the feel of the teenage girls of that era. Her weekly comments to the camera make the show even more charming. Field went on to win an Emmy for Sybil and Oscars for Norma Rae and Places In The Heart. She also is featured in an interview on the DVD, looking back on Gidget. And, with this show, you buy the one DVD and you get the entire 32-episode series.

Another show that holds up well, this time from the 1970s, is The White Shadow. It's the story of a white basketball player whose NBA career ends with an injury, leading to a job as the coach of an inter-city high school basketball team that is largely black (hence, the title).

Ken Howard stars and does his usual outstanding job. He is surrounded by a cast of talented, young actors - including Thomas Carter, who has gone on to be a successful director and producer. The White Shadow, which lasted three years on CBS, was created by the late Bruce Paltrow, the father of Gwyneth. The first two seasons are on DVD with the third likely coming later this year.

Then there is The Rockford Files.

The fans of this detective show have been clamoring for its release on DVD for years and finally got their wish last year. It was delayed largely because on contractual problems. The second season was released last month with four more seasons to come. Like The Dead Zone and Gidget, this show falls heavily on the shoulders of its lead actor. And James Garner is up to the challenge.

As Jim Rockford, he creates a private detective unlike any other. During interviews, Garner will tell you he remembers mostly being in pain during the six years of the show. He did many of the show's stunts, including a lot of the car chases. But Garner does more than just stunts. He does a fabulous job of creating a unique and memorable character, assisted ably by Noah Beery, Jr. as his father and Stuart Margolin as Angel, plus a lineup of impressive guest stars from Lauren Bacall and Joseph Cotton to Rita Moreno and Louis Gossett Jr.

That brings us to the biggest and most impressive television production in the history of the medium - the combined Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

These two mini-series were based on the books by Herman Wouk, who also wrote The Caine Mutiny and a number of other successful novels. This 45 hours of television was produced and directed by the late Dan Curtis, who had been known for creating the unusual soap opera, Dark Shadows. But nobody has brought together any production like this. In War and Remembrance, for example, there were 2070 scenes at 757 locations around the world employing more than 44,000 actors and extras.

The story is set during World War II and features the fictional Henry family, telling the incredible story of the tragic war through their experiences. And Robert Mitchum, as Pug Henry, brings all of his stature and ability to the lead role, even though he was past 70 when the series finished shooting. It is hard to imagine that there is any other actor who could handle the requirements of this role.

The supporting cast, including Emmy-winner Sir John Gielgud, Jane Seymour, Polly Bergen, Sharon Stone, Barry Bostwick, Victoria Tennant and Ralph Bellamy as Franklin D. Roosevelt, is also superb. And there is a tremendous performance by Steven Berkoff as Adolf Hitler plus way too many other impressive efforts to list them all here.

If you are a fan of history, especially WWII, this will become your favorite DVD. Schindler's List was a magnificent film and there have been others that tell the story of the holocaust. But the horror never seemed so personal as when Gielgud, as a Jewish author trapped in Germany whom you really get to know and like, becomes a Nazi victim.

All three DVD collections (War and Remembrance is separated into two boxed sets) contain some terrific documentaries and other extras. War and Remembrance has a little better cast than Winds of War but the combination of the two stories forms an all-encompassing and fascinating story that is the greatest television has ever produced.

When you are thinking about adding to your DVD collection, give serious thought to The Dead Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, Gidget, The White Shadow, The Rockford Files and the fabulous Winds of War and War and Remembrance. It is a diversified assortment that will bring you much enjoyment.