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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

'Route 66' Complete Series Set: Good Marriage Between Steinbeck and 'Quantum Leap'

Shout Factory's upcoming release of a 24-disc complete series DVD set of the awesome four season 116 episode '60s drama "Route 66" reinforces Shout's role as classic television's savior. This release also shows that the range of Shout's catalog extends well beyond some of the best sitcoms ever and childhood favorite cartoon series.

Shout deserves a further shout out for its clever promotion of offering 66 cent shipping on the "Route 66" set.

Before discussing the  "Route 66" series, I would like to share a memory of that historic highway. A friend who I visited in St. Louis insisted that I try a Ted Drewes concrete at that small chain's Route 66 location.

Ted Drewes frozen custard stand is very typical of the Americana mom-and-pop businesses for which Route 66 is known. A concrete, which is a mix of the best frozen custard that I have ever eaten and one of numerous mix-ins, ekes out ooey gooey butter cookies as my favorite St. Louis treat.

"Route 66" the series would be memorable enough if its noteworthy (no pun intended) elements only consisted of its jazzy Nelson Riddle-composed theme song and of centering around two young men on a Kerouacesque adventure to simultaneously discover America and themselves. 

The show goes beyond being a great piece of art  to present highly literate and compelling stories that depict the plight of the oppressed and disenfranchised. This includes veterans who were injured in combat, wage slaves, and women who lacked the options and legal protections that they later earned.

"Route 66" additionally helped sell scads o' Corvettes by prominently featuring that car 20 years before Kitt bossed The Hoff around. 

The wonderful extras in the "Route 66" DVD set includes a special feature that reflects the car's role by celebrating Corvettes. An included 1990 Paley Fest panel is also worth a look.

"Route 66" is particularly special to me because it shares many characteristics with the early 90s scifi classic "Quantum Leap." On the surface, both series had highly addictive instrumental theme songs (and the "Quantum Leap" theme just got stuck in my head) and two well-cast male leads who play characters who share wonderful bromances despite vastly different backgrounds and outlooks on life.

"Route 66's" Tod and Buzz generally stumbled into a bad situation or witnessed an injustice that they felt needed correction; "Leap" took things a bit further by having Sam face being trapped in the past if he did not meet the deadline for putting "right what once went wrong." (Yes, remembering that phrase triggered the theme song anew.) 

"Leap," like "Route 66" also tackled social issues, but in a more lighthearted manner. Racial prejudice and the challenges that divorced women face are two of numerous examples.

A friend's comment illustrates another  similarity between these exceptional series. He told me that he liked "Quantum Leap" because it did not just have its characters sitting around the Regal Beagle week after week.

That comment relates to the terrific semi-anthology method of storytelling that was common in '60s dramas and that continues today in a modified format in the horror series "Supernatural," which has a larger number of regular characters than a traditional semi-anthology.

This format has one or two primary characters travel about and interact with characters who they meet. This one-shot-deal also facilitates bringing in talented and highly-regarded actors without a cheesy "special guest star" element.

The almost endless list of luminaries who appeared on "Route 66" includes Buster Keaton, Robert Redford, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and even Ronny "Opie" Howard.

In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that cheesy "Quantum Leap" episode that had both the "evil leaper" and "special guest star" Neil Patrick Harris as a despicable frat boy is one of my favorites.

The bottom line is that they truly do not make them like "Route 66" any more and very few shows share that series' cultural impact. 

I encourage anyone with thoughts or questions regarding "Route 66" to email me.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

'MIssion: Impossible Ghost Protocol' Give Away Prompts Thoughts of 46 Year-old Franchise

Receiving notice on Tuesday that ubiquitous movie rental kiosk company Redbox was promoting the DVD release of "Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol" was the latest event that made me wonder if the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) had conspired to get me to write about the two "Mission: Impossible" television series and four films. I will refrain from jokes about "Ghost Protocol" star Tom Cruise utilizing beards. 

One nice thing about today's quasi-sponsor Redbox is that it provides a good option for my fellow DVDophiles who want quick access to DVDs that they do not want to add to their collection. Being able to look up, and reserve DVDs, online before getting them at the closest Redbox kiosk is much more convenient than browsing one of the few remaining video stores.

Before addressing the subject at hand, I would like to offer the Redbox give-away DVD release poster and DVD of "Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol" to the person who best completes the assignment of emailing me brief memories of the two television series and the film series. Do not worry, this posting will not self destruct.

Debating a few weeks ago whether to pay a sawbuck for the DVD set of the first season of the original "Mission: Impossible" series or simply stream the episodes got me thinking about that franchise's largely unrecognized longevity and cultural impact. This also prompted thoughts of how the television habits of myself and my fellow sofa spuds have evolved. 

I started my television watching career looking at the 25-inch black-and-white console in my house's family room, am now embarrassed that our first color set with a very basic remote was exciting,  and have gone from first recording programs on a VCR in the late 80s to burning DVDs in the early 2000s and becoming a Tivo guy around 2005.

As a true TV on DVD guy, I ended up buying the "Mission Impossible" S1 set. I have plenty of options regarding streaming video on my  television but still prefer DVDs for the simple reason that they provide much more flexibility and reliability than streaming.

Two weeks after I bought the "Mission: Impossible" S1 set, Amazon ran a good sale on the complete DVD set of the original "Mission: Impossible" television series. I  resisted the temptation to add that to my collection.

I was also thinking about "Mission: Impossible" earlier this week when I watched my DVD of the "Bewitched" movie. The film versions of both shows provided a good chance to revisit beloved series.

The "Bewitched" film also brought to mind a remark by Jon Stewart that does not apply to the "Mission: Impossible" films. Stewart stated, I believe regarding the "The Dukes of Hazard" movie, essentially that concepts that were originally made television shows were not made films because they were not good enough to justify making a movie.

Having said that, the original seven-season "Mission: Impossible" series provided movie-quality scripts, production values, and acting. It also added the concept of self-destructing messages and other clever spy gimmicks that once dominated pop culture.

The two season mid-80s "Mission: Impossible" series is a successful example of the broadcast networks reproducing the scripts of older shows in response to a prolonged writers' strike. I vaguely recall a horrible"The Odd Couple" remake from the same era.

The earlier "Mission Impossible" films came out in a period in which films based on "The Brady Bunch," "The Addams Family," "The Wild Wild West," and other '60s shows largely enjoyed good reviews and commercial success. Those that succeeded followed the formula of staying true to the original, i.e., no mechanical spiders in the old west.  

All of this shows that "Mission: Impossible" may be the Rodney Dangerfield of classic television series in that it has not received the respect that it deserves.

Monday, April 9, 2012

'Dennis the Menace' S1: No Good Deed Goes Unlaughed At

The 1959 - 1963 classic kidcom is another literal Nick at Nite show that Shout Factory rescued from obscurity. This discussion will focus on the DVD release of the first season

Future postings will comment on the show's second, third, and fourth seasons.  

Before discussing "Menace," I would like to share my excitement on learning this morning that Shout Factory is releasing the entire series of the hilariously crude "The Sarah Silverman Program" in June. Silverman's gleefully childlike but raunchy character is what I could imagine Dennis growing up to be if he did not receive proper adult guidance during his formative years.

"Menace" was based closely (and successfully) on the popular comic strip of the same name. The show and the strip depicted the amusing antics of young all-American suburban boy Dennis Mitchell and the effects of his well-meaning antics on his middle-aged parents and retiree neighbor Mr. Wilson. A discussion of a more adult-oriented depiction of these characters, with a late teens Dennis, is unsuitable for this forum.

The after-school lineup of kidcoms in the Boston market did not include "Menace," and I confess that I was not a fan during its Nick at Nite phase but really loved watching the shows on DVDs.

My first impression was that I did not understand why this show was not as popular as the equally terrific "Leave it to Beaver," which Shout Factory has also granted great love. Shout has released individual season sets of "Beaver," but the  complete series set is one of my favorites.

Returning to "Menace," Dennis portrayer Jay North is wonderfully bright-eyed and hyperactive without being overwhelming. I was also surprised that the eight-year old North memorized the large amount of dialogue that he had in each episode. He had a major role in virtually every scene.

The show was also very appealing because it offered roughly 25 minutes of entertaining silliness and nostalgia during a time that a large number of us are experiencing a great deal of stress.

The pilot episode was particularly amusing and set a good tone for the show. An early scene had Dennis "helping" his mother by "fixing" the kitchen table with typically disastrous results. The main plot had Dennis developing a clever scheme to sneak out to a movie.

The other episodes were similar, with much less scheming by Dennis, and had plenty of scenes in which Dennis obliviously and innocently created chaos. The consequences of Dennis accidentally replacing a fallen street sign in the wrong position were particularly hilarious and catastrophic.

The best bit of nostalgia was watching Ron Howard playing an Opie-like character the year before "The Andy Griffith Show" premiered. I also enjoyed seeing movie popcorn costing ten cents, a Cold War era depiction of civil defense activity, people having shared "party line" telephone service, and a nice house in a good suburban neighborhood selling for $20,000.

The bottom-line is that "Menace" is a great "feel-good" escapist series for an era in which many of us need this type of video therapy.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Menace" is welcome to email me.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"I'm Dickens ... He's Fenster:" They're Awesome

The upcoming DVD release of the first 16 of 32 episodes of the 1962-63 sitcom "I'm Dickens ... He's Fenster" has so many elements of one of Shout Factory's terrific releases that it warrants a rare departure from only reviewing DVD sets from that company. 
I would have guessed that Shout had released this set if I had not known better. This set also seems out of place as the only sitcom set in Lightyear's catalog of obscure seemingly guilty pleasure films, such as "Jailbait." 

As Jerry Seinfeld would say "not that there's anything wrong with that," but Lightyear releasing "Dickens" seems akin to Shout Factory releasing a DVD set of a Kardashian sisters special. I am just excited beyond words to have discovered this "lost" show.

"Dickens" has all the elements of a hit show and likely would have succeeded if Tivo had been around then or its leads had not made it in their "before they were stars" era. I recall hearing about "Dickens" from time-to-time but had never watched it.

My curiosity was strong enough to start watching episodes the day that my review copy arrived, and the show was strong enough to watch several episodes in one sitting. Discovering it has been a real treat.

The future Gomez Addams John Astin was devoted husband Harry Dickens and well known character actor Marty Ingels played Dickens' best friend and construction crew co-worker/blue collar playboy Arch Fenster.

As a huge "I Dream of Jeannie" fan, I was thrilled to see Emmaline "Mrs. Bellows" Henry as Harry's wife Gloria.

The series had the simple but traditionally successful sitcom premise of Dickens and Fenster working and socializing together. They were also competent enough at their jobs to believable and not stooge-like but accident-prone enough to be amusing. I would not be surprised to learn that they were part of the inspiration for Tim Allen's "Home Improvement" character.

As one of the terrific Shout Factory quality essays stated, much of the "Dickens" quality is attributable to its creator Leonard Stern. Stern is perhaps best known for being part of the creative team of classic sitcom "Get Smart."  

In fact, "Dickens" seemed to be the love child of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Get Smart." Harry and Gloria have a very Petriesque modern marriage, and sight gags that largely revolve around construction gag mishaps are very reminiscent of Maxwell Smart's bumbling.

Stern helped create a great deal of the good blend of physical and spoken humor that made '50s and '60s sitcoms so special. One particularly great scene from "Dickens'" pilot revolved around Dickens attaching a comically strong magnet to a kitchen cabinet door.

A hilarious sight gag regarding the magnet had pots and other metal kitchen utensils flying up to attach to it. A spoken gag had Fenster making a remark to the effect that he hoped that the magnet did not pull a jet out of the sky.

The DVD set also took a page from the Shout Factory book by including hours of features that included interviews with the stars and series commercials.

I would love to have folks who experience the same thrill that I did on discovering "Dickens" to email me their thoughts.

Mr Magoo Complete Collection: Entitled to Blind Loyalty

To paraphrase cartoon legend Mr. Magoo's catchphrase "Oh, Shout Factory, You've Done It Again." That haven for classic television fans did an almost perfect job with "Mr. Magoo: The Television Collection 1960 - 1977." The absence of the typical valued "making of" or "history of" special feature was slightly disappointing but likely due to an effort to keep the price of the set low.

Another very excusable minor flaw is that Shout did not include the classic television special "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol," which was the first animated television Christmas special, separately. The reason for this is that another DVD company owns the rights to this classic.

Shout did show exceptional Christmas spirit by both promoting "Carol" in the wonderful booklet that accompanies Shout's collection and by including a flyer for that DVD in its set.

I do not blame Shout Factory at all for not including the theatrical shorts that launched Magoo's career in this set. Those cartoons are in another Shout Factory set that I look forward to obtaining.

The early television-era cartoons are the adventures of the near-sighted Magoo that baby boomers watched on Saturday mornings and Gen Xers like yours truly watched after school in the early '70s. I watched them as part of "The Uncle Gus Show," which aired on WMUR in Manchester, NH.

Like the creators of "Tom and Jerry," which has gotten more than 50 years of entertainment out of the simple concept of a cat chasing a mouse, Magoo's creators have kept the concept of a nearly blind middle-aged man literally stumbling through obstacles ala silent film star Harold Lloyd fresh.

The DVD collection includes the 1960 - 1961 "The Mr. Magoo Show," the 1964 - 1965 "The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo," the 1970 television special "Uncle Sam Magoo," and the 1977 reboot "What's New Mr. Magoo."

The original Magoo show is chock full of clever near-sight gags in which Magoo confounds those around him and/or narrowly avoids serious harm. Examples include stumbling into an armed forces recruiting center thinking that it is a men's clothing store and mistaking a working gravel pit full of dangerous construction equipment for a beach.

Shout Factory deserves special credit for not making any apologies for preserving an aspect of this series. 

I was pleasantly surprised that Shout did not either dub the voice of or otherwise alter the appearance of Magoo's horribly stereotypical Chinese houseboy Charlie, who hit every highly offensive point down to the buck teeth, racist accent, and straw hat. Shout deserves special credit as well for not including any form of warning or disclaimer regarding the depiction of Charlie.

I do not condone the racism that was rampant in cartoons through the '60s, and am glad that we live in more enlightened times,  but that was part of that era's culture. I believe that not altering those images on the DVDs that help preserve that culture is important and that people should be mature enough to understand the context.

Magoo's follow-up series "Famous Adventures" placed Magoo in the role of classic literary figures, such as William Tell and Robin Hood's Friar Tuck, in 30-minute episodes that often ran several parts. I only watched the Tell episode and enjoyed seeing Magoo in a more heroic role than typical. I additionally found Buttley the goat very cute and highly entertaining.

This series is particularly noteworthy for encouraging children to read; I confess that I would like to read "William Tell" after Magoo showing me that there is much more to the story that I had remembered.

"Uncle Sam Magoo" is a very condensed version of 200 years of American history with a Magoo slant. I am saving this one for a Saturday morning when I can enjoy it over a bowl of Apple Jacks. Alas, Quisp cereal has gone the way of the dinosaurs.

I also have not watched any DVDs of  "What's New Mr. Magoo" but remember the show fondly and recall that it captured the spirit of the original very well.

Anyone with comments or questions  regarding "Magoo" is encouraged to email me.