3/23/10

Life on DVD in TV - The 10 Best TV Series on DVD



TV and I...we've had our ups and downs. Growing up in the 80's, we didn't have cable, and I'm really glad. I had cable for the first time in the dorms at college, and then when I moved into my own apartment, my roomates and I had it briefly, and then a fallen tree took it out for us. Right in the middle of me watching Housesitter. We opted not to get it back, and movies became my TV. Pee Wee's Big Adventure and movies with action heroines and musicals and westerns and classic comedies and so forth.

For a few years after that, I went totally rogue. No TV at all, not even network. It was a nice phase filled with lots of music, and of course, more movies. After Jake and I were married, we had cable for about a year...but after a while, we noticed that there was nothing on that we couldn't watch for free on the internet. So we cancelled it, though I really miss the On Demand workouts. Since then however, we've been getting our TV like most people, from the internet and on DVD. It's been kind of a revelation.

I know mine is the generation of personalization, we can pick and choose exactly what we want. There are good things and bad things about that, and some geeks use it to hide from reality. I try not to be that girl. But when it comes to entertainment purposes, I find that TV on DVD seems to suit me best for multiple reasons. The biggest one being that I'm a writer, and so I can actually have a valid excuse to watch entire seasons at a time in order to study characters, arcs, what I like and don't, dissect what the writers are doing and find inspiration from it, etc. Now in order for this to all pay off someday, I guess that would mean I would have to write for television...we'll just see...

In the meantime, after a few years of being a cable hermit, barring the occasional cable gorging sessions when house-sitting for my in-laws, I find that there are some TV series that I return to again and again in phases, each for it's own special reason. Here are what I believe to be the ten best TV series on DVD. Feel free to debate away in the comments section, I know many will disagree and there's probably not much that I love more than talking with people about film and television, it can really show you the way we're bonded by pop culture, even when we disagree. I'll list the linked clip attached to every show title at the end of the paragraph for each show...



10. WonderFalls & Pushing Daisies - a tie - Both of these series are whimiscally designed, filled with quirky characters that manage to feel realistic somehow amidst all that fanciful magic, interesting visuals, and unpredictable storylines. They have something else unfortunate in common...both were cancelled well before they should've been. Be patient networks! Sometimes it takes a while to build an audience. (First ten minutes of Wonder Falls episode 1 & Preview of season one Pushing Daisies)

9. Burn Notice - We accidentally stumbled onto this show when Jake won the first season on DVD in a contest, sort of by accident. Long story. Otherwise, we probably never would've watched, despite all the people who know I love Bruce Campbell who were telling me to do so. It doesn't look like my kind of show, not nearly nerdy enough. (No space travel or bad 80s hair.) It looks like a CSI Miami rip-off if you only know it from the commercials. There was a skit done on SNL not too long ago spoofing this with a game show called, "What Is Burn Notice"? That would be because USA, the network that airs the show, pretty much sticks to glossy Miami Vice-like teasers. But this show has so much more to offer, if it had to be broken down by comparison, I'd say it's more like Miami Vice + The A-Team + MacGuyver + Ocean's Eleven if it were a TV show + Bruce Campbell (!!!) + A Strong Female Character. All in a beautiful escapist setting.

The best thing about this show is that the characters never stay cliche for long. The main character's Mom, played brilliantly by Sharon Gless, has been written outside of the typical "Mom" rules. Eventually, she becomes part of the crime-fighting team that is Michael, Fiona, and Sam. I've had my problems with Fiona in the past...her sultry nature can sometimes be isolating to female viewers, but again, the writers have really saved her lately, making her less needy and more independent of her boyfriend, Michael Weston, the main character. I could go on and on about this show, but when you get down to it, it's hard to explain it's charm. Just do yourself a favor and watch a few episodes in a row to see what all the fuss is about. (2010 Summer Season Announcement.)

8. LOST - Season One - This, I believe is one of the best seasons of TV ever done. The writing is tight and purposeful, each episode is like a film (Something that X-Files also managed to do, never to this extent, but we'll get to that later.) and the tone of the show is unlike anything else ever done. The mystery runs deep, the characters are lovable despite all their flaws, or perhaps because of them, and it's absolutely addictive. I first watched this in Romania with a friend from the Peace Corps, and we would actually craft slumber parties around this show. A tough thing to plan in Romania, I can tell you...but this show is worth the trouble it takes to sit down and get through the first season. I've had my qualms in seasons past, but these first episodes are exquisite in their execution. (First ten minutes of Episode One, Season One)

7. Magnum P.I. - I make no secret about my love of television from the 80's. I know it's largely due in part to pure nostalgia. This was a cool show when I was a kid, therefore warm feelings ensue when I watch it. But for me, despite some of the goofy wardrobe choices that may not have aged super well style-wise, this is a fun detective show with lots of action and a unique leading man. Selleck as Magnum is a truly nice guy, a war veteran, and he's the total opposite of Don Johnson in just about every way. Which is good. He fits a classic film noir style, and like all good shows, this show gets a lot of mileage out of the relationships within the show. Magnum and Higgins, Higgins and Magnum's friends T.C. and Rick, guest stars, etc. It's just plain fun, and I guess I'm a sucker for the adventure genre anyway, which makes this one a no-brainer for me. I'm still campaigning for a Magnum movie with the original cast on a regular basis. Please, join me...if you're on Facebook, I've started a group. We're three members strong now for over a month. Woo? (Magnum P.I. Opening Titles)

6. Medium - This is another show that I refused to watch for a long time. I don't like Ghost Whisperer, I'm not into the paranormal, I don't believe in ghosts, and I'm a general skeptic all around for the most part. But this show, despite it's title, isn't really about Patricia Arquette's character being a medium. Sure, that's the plot device. But what the show is really about, why I love the show, is that it focuses on a family. A husband and wife that are realistic enough to be your next door neighbors working hard to raise their three children and still maintaining a level of chemistry typically reserved for those "will they or won't they get together" type series.

The show focuses in on what really runs a marriage and relationships in general, trust. Will this husband continue to believe his wife, no matter how bizarre her dreams? The writing is all about balance, family, love, parenting...and it sort of suckers you into loving this family by disguising the show as a paranormal mystery. Though the mystery is there, and it's always fun, I can almost always call the ending within the first five minutes. But I watch it anyway, because it's never about the resolution of the mystery, unlike other similar shows. It's about what happens to the characters each week along the way.

Sometimes, you find yourself attracted to film and television specifically for a reason, even a subliminal one. Jake and I were at our height of Medium fascination for the first couple of years after we were married, and we still never miss an episode. Because for us, for the first time ever in life, we can relate to the married couple and not the kids. So it captures our attention to watch their relationship unfold and see a married couple portrayed as being faithful, funny together, and consistenly functional through all manner of wacky situations. A rare thing to see on TV today. ("Everything You Need To Know About Medium" Created by CBS to air before the current season of Medium due to the network change.)

5. Futurama - This is a highly underrated comedy that, thankfully, has been resurrected yet again for two new seasons. It's smart writing, contains a plethora of geek references, memorable characters and voice performances (Jon DiMaggio especially as Bender the rebellious robot), and it's just laugh out loud funny. As much as I hate to pull out such an over-used phrase. It's a funny and critical version of the future of Earth that, like any good well-disguised spoof, is highly relevant to culture today. (Season one clip from the introduction episode of Captain Zap Brannigan, the character spoofing William Shatner's Captain Kirk.)

4. The X-Files - Here's another one that I avoided as a kid, but grew to love during high school as the show crested in popularity in seasons 5, 6, and 7. The show began as one thing, a sort of cheesy Twilight Zone/Twin Peaks thing, and sort of morphed into it's own genre along the way. Again, the Mulder and Scully relationship is at the center of the show. But it managed to avoid jumping the chemistry shark, a la Moonlighting, which was sabotaged by it's characters finally getting together. Mulder and Scully get together alright, but it's a long slow process, and it's peripheral to the actual show.

The show is a movie every week, with two types of episodes. Those considered mythology, about the alien conspiracy (my least favorite) and episodes known as, "monster of the week". Those that feature a creature or an unexplained event and are solved by the end of the hour. (44 minutes on DVD) I actually have a list of the best X-Files episodes coming shortly, because there are so many exceedingly creative, high value productions within the show. Watch the show today, and even though it's well over a decade old now, it looks completely contemporary (minus a few details like shapes of glasses frames) because of Chris Carter's cinematic vision. The show is unexpectedly clever and many times features writing that's simply out of the park amazing, often disguised as allegory and hearkening back to those classic black and white monster movies with a message. It's clever, witty, unpredictable, and tonally unique. (A clip from one of the best episodes, "Triangle" in which Mulder is sent back in time to WWII when exploring the Bermuda Triangle. It's one of the best episodes, even though this particular clip is dark. The show is full of single take shots, clever montages, and Scully as a femme fatale.)

3. The Critic - Another comedy cancelled too soon. You can get the entirety of the show (2 seasons) in one box set. The leading character, mildly succesful cynical nerd movie critic (feels strangely familiar...) Jay Sherman, offers us a window into the ridiculous world of moviemaking. In fact, you know who he reminds me of? Liz Lemon from 30 Rock. He's the loner loser type, but not in an uncomfortable way. It's the hysterical voice performance of Jon Lovitz that put the show over the edge into cult classic status for people like me, fans that demanded it be released on DVD. If you are a movie geek, you will love this show. The humor is really off-beat and it blows Family Guy and South Park out of the water without being that oh-so-trendy pre-pubescent level obnoxious that's the standard today. The show is goofy fun, but it works for it. A rarity in prime time cartoons now, with the exception of Futurama, which also isn't afraid to be smart. My, aren't I the snob today? (Some of the most famous movie spoofs from The Critic.)

2. The Golden Girls - I've defended my love of this show in the past, so I'll keep it to a minimum here and just give you a link if you want to read my full rant. It's classic comedy, vaudeville style. It's the female Marx Brothers with heart and a sincere commentary on aging in modern times, it's guest stars galore, and the warm fuzzy feeling of watching TV with your grandma back in the day. It's comedy legend Bea Arthur at her best every single episode, and each actor firing on all cylinders amidst the set up, delivery, set up, delivery rhythm of rapid fire joke-telling. It's funny dangit, and if you say you won't watch it because they wear funny 80's clothes or make jokes about menopause...then it's your loss and I feel sorry for you. Seriously. (A classic Golden Girls mix-up perpetrated by Rose.)

1. Star Trek: The Next Generation - This is also a show I've waxed philosophical about many times in the past, so I'll try to spare you some giant speech. I talk about it all the time in real life. I have a Star Trek tattoo for Pete's sake...I. Love. This. Show.

It's social commentary all wrapped up in the shiny trappings of science fiction. Phasers and space ships and future technology, utopian socialism and the hope for a better future and respect for all. And it's FUN. It's adventure on the high seas, except no seas, just space. It's the future, but it's also about days gone by, when we all dream of what ship captains with integirty were like. (We all dream of that, right?)

It's a show that essentially featured every genre. There's mystery and intrigue, comedy of errors and mismatched characters, moments of death and drama, all played above a single note singing, "What if in the future it were okay to be a nerd, to be smart, to be ambitious, to wear spandex all the time and never have to worry about being made fun of?" It's the geek's perfect show, and with 7 seasons of goodness to offer, the NCC-1701-D can eventually begin to feel like home to you to. (A fun retro promo...I wonder who was directing that announcer though?)

So by all means, enjoy these shows on DVD. When you find yourself so incredibly sick of reality television that you can't take it anymore, when you feel the searing stupidity of entertainment clip shows sucking brain cells away when you accidentally encounter them while flipping channels, remember, not all television is bad for you. You just have to find the right shows.

What are yours?

4 comments:

  1. I haven't seen Pushing Daisies, but it did remind me of Dead Like Me, which is another show that takes a little bit of getting used to, but then you find yourself hooked on it (and then it suddenly ends after, what 20, 30 episodes?).

    Burn Notice is another one I always had a passing interest in watching (I loves me some Bruce Campbell), but never caught. I guess that's why they made DVD's, huh?

    I still refuse to watch Lost. I just plain don't like drama/mysteries, unless they have some other angle to draw me in -- the comedy and sci-finess of X-Files, the comedy and medicine of House, the superpowers (and comedy) of Heroes, the feministic superpowers (and comedy) of Charmed -- you know, I'm starting to sense a theme here :P.
    Never got into Medium, either. Same reason as above.

    Otherwise, I'd say you have a pretty awesome list there. I didn't watch the X-Files for years, either, because the first two episodes I did watch just happened to be particularly dark, gory ones. When I finally did start watching it because of my mom, I got really into it.
    TNG was an awesome show, as well. Those people just flat out knew good storytelling. It's also got one of the highest re-watchabilities of any show I've seen. There are many, many episodes I can watch a dozen times and still enjoy. Contrast that with Voyager, where I've actually caught episodes on TV that I had missed during the first run, and then switched to the TV guide channel during commercials to see if there was anything better on.

    So, I still would have put Buffy and The Simpsons on there, but for the most part, I agree with your list. Oh, and the '60s Batman would definitely be on there, if they ever released it on DVD.

    -Eamonn

    ReplyDelete
  2. The lack of Red Dwarf and Arrested Development on this list saddens me. Totally agree about LOST, though. Those DVD sets are top-notch quality, both in content and presentation.

    Also, HBO DVD sets are quite nice for those of us who can't afford premium cable (or cable at all!) Since I've been at BSU, I've been raiding Bracken library for TV on DVD that I was never able to access at home.

    Might I suggest for you some BBC shows? Everyone knows Monty Python, but Black Adder, Fawlty Towers, Red Dwarf, and Are You Being Served? are just a few examples of the high quality shows across the Atlantic.

    If I had to give my top ten DVD sets:

    10. Yes, Minister
    9. Dead Like Me
    8. M*A*S*H
    7. The Shield
    6. Black Adder
    5. The Sopranos
    4. Arrested Development
    3. Red Dwarf
    2. Six Feet Under
    1. The Wire

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm a sucker for bad reality TV. Bad is the new "just so good".

    I miss the Golden Girls-Star Trek the Next Generation days. Great post. Took me back but kept it real. Right on Audrey!

    ReplyDelete
  4. When you made the comment about the days watching TV with your Grandma, it made me tear up a bit. I can remember countless Saturday nights staying at my Grandma's house. She would fix me dinner and then we'd sit on the couch and watch Golden Girls and Empty Nest. It's one of my favorite memories.
    I pretty much agree with your entire list (duh) except I didn't have the priviledge of growing up with Star Trek, so I never latched onto that. Dont' hate me, but I really love the Friends and Frasier DVDs. Yeah, they're your classic multi-camera, studio audience sitcoms, but I find myself watching them over and over again and always laughing at the jokes.

    ReplyDelete