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Thursday, March 22, 2012

'Bob': Vintage Newhart

The 33-episode 1992-93 sitcom "Bob" has terrific elements that warrant diverting from reviewing Show Factory releases to discuss CBS Video's April 3, 1990, DVD release of the complete series. Just having Bob Newhart in the show is a bonus.

I can offer the endorsement of saying that I pre-ordered the set and was eagerly awaiting it before being offered a review copy.

My strongest memory of "Bob," is Newhart joking in an interview that his first series was "The Bob Newhart Show," his second series was "Newhart," and that his series after "Bob" would be titled "The."

The original premise of "Bob" is that Newhart's character, Bob McKay, is hired to revive the Mad Dog superhero comic book character that he created in the 1950s. The earlier incarnation only ran for 12 issues.

The second season retooling has the comic book folding for the second time and Newhart returning to work for a greeting card company after quitting that job in the pilot. Current queen of the AARP generation Betty White stars as his boss.

I did not watch any second-season episodes for this review. That season lasting eight episodes indicates that audiences did not embrace the new premise. 

The show makes excellent use of Newhart's talents. My fellow fans will enjoy the many instances of his trademark schtick of talking on the telephone. Newhart also follows his tradition of playing a dry witted stoic among eccentric misfits. 

Unlike Newhart's earlier shows, all the misfits are his co-workers. Twenty-something stoner grunge dude artist Chad with a great dark sensibility from the Mad Dog episodes is the most amusing of the lot.

Chad is also one of the many early 90s elements that make this show particularly entertaining 20 years later. Newhart's telephone schtick during the pilot includes his effort to learn to use call waiting.

Other bits of nostalgia include bulky cell phones and early generation p.c.s.

Other great humor comes from pairing Newhart with a very talented feline actor with whom I would have loved to share a saucer of milk. At least one scene each show has McKay interacting with Otto the cat. 

Two particularly hilarious bits have Otto locking McKay out by pushing the door closed behind him and McKay letting a herd of cats in by leaving the door open for Otto.

The show does not rise to the same level of excellence as Newhart's earlier series but still meets my "one more test." I think that four episodes in one sitting ad six in one day was my record.

I do ask that those who are new to the series not judge it by its pilot. McKay seems atypically hostile for a Newhart character, and he lacks rapport with his band of misfit co-workers in the pilot. This changes during the second episode, and the series becomes more of an ensemble show within a few episodes.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Underdog: Cutest Superhero Ever

Watching first-season episodes of the 1960s' Saturday morning comic superhero cartoon series "The Underdog Show" for this review of Shout Factory's complete collector's edition DVD set that includes all three seasons of this classic was an incredible treat during the week in which I seriously was contending with a threat from the family of real-life  "Rock Throwing Teen."

The most noteworthy element of watching the episodes for me was that it triggered memories of dressing as Underdog for my first trick-or-treating excursion. I also remember pretending that red M&Ms, which had the tasty carcinogenic Red Dye #2 in those days, were the super energy pills that were the source of Underdog's powers in some episodes.

I have also shared with my Shout Factory friends that the lyrics "speed of lightning, roar of thunder, fighting all who rob and plunder" from the highly memorable "Underdog" theme have been stuck in my head since learning of the complete series release.

I will spare my readers from sharing my fate of having another memorable theme song from the series stuck even more firmly in their heads.

These episodes were additionally a special treat because Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade staple Underdog is an incredibly cute and endearing character. An early scene in the pilot in which Underdog's cape flops over his face when he lands to save the day made me laugh out loud and set a great tone for the series.

I can additionally say with complete sincerity that Underdog should appeal to everyone of every age. It is hard to imagine anyone not liking this very earnest hero who is brave, true, and clumsy enough to be entertaining.

An early scene of most episodes of this humorous parody of Superman shows "humble lovable" Shoeshine Boy transforming into Underdog in response to his super hearing picking up a cry for help. The episodes are typically broken into four chapters, which are divided into two episodes.

The first three chapters end with a cliffhanger in which the villain du jour, usually mad scientist Simon Barsinister or wolf gangster Riff Raff, has Underdog or the general population in peril regarding the latest evil scheme. Underdog saves the day in the fourth chapter, which usually ends with him crashing into an obstacle while he flies away.

I imagine that many of my fellow Gen Xers who were introduced to "Underdog" through the after-school syndicated version of the '70s that the Tennessee Tuxedo cartoons in those episodes were not part of the original run. Fear not good citizens, our heroes at Shout Factory have released a complete series set of "Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales."

Our other favorite cartoons that were sandwiched between the Underdog chapters are included in the set. First season episodes have "Go Go Gophers" and "Commander McBragg" cartoons. "Klondike Kat" shows up later in the series.

"Go Go Gophers" is a wonderfully un-pc cartoon that has two stereotypical Native Americans who are the last of the Gophers battling two dim-witted Calvary soldiers for possession of land that the Native Americans occupy. A neat twist is that the Native Americans always win.

"Commander McBragg" depicts a less offensive stereotype of an early 20th Century British adventurer/soldier who sits in his private club spinning tall tales of how he single handed saved the day in an adventure. 

Underdog and his friends are all very entertaining and pull off the tough trick of keeping the same premise fresh through roughly 60 episodes. Underdog particularly makes you feel for this animated character. I was rooting for him when Simon Barsinister's first attempt to turn him into a snow dog only partially succeeded.

Shout Factory deserves high marks for adding this show to the list of beloved classics that had only received limited release. 

I remember literally staying up all night searching online for reasonably priced copies of the discontinued three volumes of "Underdog" that were released on DVD several years ago. I recall that I ended up finding a set that was not too unreasonably priced.

Shout Factory also includes its standard well-written and interesting booklet on the series and a "making of" DVD extra feature. The extra feature's treats include explaining the "It's a bird." "It's a plane." "It's a frog." "A frog?!" element of the show.

Shout Factory further demonstrates its integrity by providing several notices that it tried really hard to get the original footage of the cartoons and that the picture quality varied. 

Although some of the "McBragg" cartoons looked a little washed out, none of the picture quality in any of the cartoons struck me as being of poor quality. This is particularly true considering that "Underdog" is a 50 year-old cartoon series that ran on network television.

I would love to receive other folks' vintage or new memories of "Underdog."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

'Designing Women" is to "Sex in the City" What "Friends" is to "How I Met Your Mother"

"Designing Women," which was part of CBS' Monday night comedy lineup during the era that that block batted a 1,000, is another example of a witty series that Shout Factory has made available to classic comedy fans. Shows from that lineup included "Newhart" and "Murphy Brown."

"Women" centers on four modern Southern women who own an Atlanta interior design firm. The humor comes from the cast discussing everything from stereotypical flaws of men to members of both sexes who are oblivious about presenting a humiliating and/or thoroughly inconsiderate face to the world.

A print interview in which Jean Smart, who played sweet and somewhat naive country gal Charlene, stated that the amount of dialogue in an episode of "Women" often required slightly speeding up the rate of speech demonstrated that this show was special. 

I am annoyed that many current shows draw out bits and/or have undue placement shots. This is on top of the content of most shows being a few minutes shorter than programs from "Women's" era of the late '80s and early '90s. 

In thinking of my review of the DVD set of the fourth season  of "Designing Women," "Sex in the City" came to mind. Both shows involve four liberated primarily single women who speak candidly among themselves. "Women's" Charlene is a true Charlotte down to having the perfect husband, and Delta Burke's Suzanne is a much classier and full-sized Samantha.

The primary difference between the two series is that "Women" is a funnier and less raunchy version of "Sex." A conversation in "Women" is much more likely to center on bad combovers than a kinky fetish.

The humor in "Women" is also great in that it relies on more subtlety than anything on television today. One of my all-time favorite television moments was Dixie Carter's well-educated, successful, intelligent, and out-spoken Julia Sugarbaker remarking that there were no female-to-male sex change operations because they could not find any donors.

The fourth season had some of the best episodes of the series mainly because I, despite being a man, can still relate to them and because the "very special episodes" were not too heavy handed. 

A prime example is a handful of episodes that season, and others, that dealt with highly unreasonable, and sometimes criminally cheap, "one-percenter" design clients.

One of my favorite fourth-season episodes was one of the dramedy installments with a wonderful emphasis on the comedy and involved bright and talented middle-aged working mom and Southern spitfire Mary Jo, played by Annie Potts, having to take a second job flipping burgers when her doctor ex-husband, played by dreamy Scott Bakula, fell behind in child support. 

Mary Jo did not become a shrew, as she justifiably could have been. She just responded reasonably regarding every aspect of the sit in that com. That episode was also good because it presented a still timely topic in a humorous manner. 

Another hilarious episode had cast members competing with a car salesman's sexism to not get ripped off buying a new car. Despite being a man, I openly admit that I am going to ask a friend who is a former car dealer to negotiate on my behalf when I buy my new Subaru in the next year or so. Male pride goeth before the sports package.

My fellow television historians will also enjoy the episodes that center on Burke's weight gain that played a role in her leaving the series after the fifth season. However, the best Suzanne episode involves her naivety regarding a lesbian's crush on her. This one alone is worth the price of the set.

As always, please feel free to email any comments or questions regarding "Women."

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Buy Mystery Sciecne Theater 3000 V. XXIII in the Not Too Distant Future

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" (MST 3K) holds a special place in my heart and the hearts of  fellow Misties. 

Learning of each DVD release of four two-hour episodes makes me smile and creates as much anticipation as I used to feel when sending in cereal boxtops for a special toy. 

Reading a few weeks ago that Shout factory is releasing Volume XXIII of this show on March 23 elevated my mood on what had been a pretty lousy day.

This unique, clever, and genuinely funny show was one of the first cool cable series in an era in which the scripted shows that MTV aired were reruns of  the classics "The Monkees" and the Beatles cartoon.

I initially would drive 30 minutes to watch the show at a friend's house every Saturday morning because my cable system did not offer the Comedy Channel, currently Comedy Central,  on which MST 3K first ran.

After I could watch MST 3K at home, I looked forward every week to eating my Saturday morning treat of a bagel and a bowl of Apple Jacks while watching the show.

The original premise, which was tweaked through its long run, of MST 3K was that a mad scientist and his child-like assistant shot a flunky named Joel, played by series creator Joel Hodgson, onto a space satellite to see how long Joel could watch wonderfully horrible (primarily '50s and '60s sci-fi) movies before he lost his mind.

Misties know very well that Joel "tried to keep his sanity with the help of his robot friends" that he built from materials that he found on the satellite. 

Each episode consisted of Joel, later replaced by  series head writer Mike Nelson, and the 'bots appearing in silhouette and making sarcastic comments while the movie rolled. They would also perform always hilarious, and sometimes bizarre, skits based on the movie before and after commercial breaks.

The range of remarks during the  running commentary ran from references to Voltaire to classic and newer programs and other pop culture items. Better known roles of actors, such as "Leave it to Beaver's" Hugh Beaumont, in the horrible film also provided good comic fodder.

Aside from being a truly awesome show, MST 3K is another example of a series that Shout rescued from the Island of Misfit Shows. It is also the series that started my long relationship with Shout.

The now-defunct Rhino division of Warner Brothers had been releasing DVD sets of MST 3K but stopped after 12 volumes. As I recall, I learned that Shout had acquired the right to produce DVDs of the show but had postponed the release of the 13th set of episodes.

My contact at Shout patiently endured my regular follow-up calls. The 13th volume, which was a 20th Anniversary Edition, demonstrated Shout's enhancements to the releases and was well worth the wait.

First, the set came in a collector's tin that is serving as a bookend for my Harry Potter DVDs. This release also included a figurine of 'bot Crow, which fulfilled an aggressively vocalized decades-long dream of mine for action figures from the show. (Later sets include figurines of fellow 'bots Tom Servo and Gypsy.)

Shout has also released a single DVD of the "very special" MST 3K episode that aired a film version of Hamlet. This episode was definitely a departure. I remember it being good but do not recall how it compared to the "Gilligan's Island" episode in which the castaways staged a wonderfully terrible musical version of that classic. 

Shout additionally makes every release even more awesome by including original mini-movie posters that insert the 'bots into the action of the films that they were skewering. I plan to eventually get these posters framed. 

These DVD sets additionally include highly entertaining special features. My favorite was one that showed the making of the show. 

A reference in the "making of" documentary to "Child Bride" being too tasteless for even MST 3K to run and a comment that that reference would prompt "freaks" watching the special feature to buy "Child Bride" did get me to purchase it. (I have not watched it yet.)

Also as is typical for other releases, Shout produces new MST 3K DVD sets every few months. All of them are wonderful, but I will stop bugging Shout when they release the transition episodes that had both Joel and Mike and the final episodes that brought the series to a satisfying conclusion. 

As always, please free to email questions or comments. I would love someone to let me know where I can find the hamdingers that were crucial to an MST 3K plot.