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Thursday, May 24, 2012

'Designing Women' S5

Many fans of the early '90s sitcom "Designing Women" remember it as the season in which the series star Delta Burke was fired. Burke asserted that her significant weight gain prompted the termination; series creators and FOBs the Thomasons cited Burke's bad attitude as the reason. 

As is usually the case, the truth likely lies somewhere in between.

The fifth season, which Shout Factory released on DVD, is also memorable for having some of the series best episodes and being part of one of CBS's best Monday night comedy line-ups. Shows from that era from that lineup included "Murphy Brown" and "Newhart."

"Designing Women" is an exceptional workplace comedy about four women and a man who own an interior design firm in Atlanta. Episodes typically begin with an event in a character's personal or professional life that ties into an issue to which all of us can relate.

Before discussing the many merits of "Designing Women's" fifth season, I would like to devote this week's shout out to Shout Factory's very fan-oriented practice of releasing DVD sets of a show's season every few months. 

Shout released the fifth season of "Designing Women" in December 2011; it released the sixth season, which I will review soon, in April 2012. The seventh, and final season is coming out in July 2012. Thanks, Guys!

The clever issue-driven and/or topical dialogue started with the opening scene of the fifth season's first episode and continued to the final moments. I confess that I had remembered this season as not being particularly good; I was very pleased to discover that I was wrong.

As I have written in reviews of prior seasons, it is very nice that each episode of  "Designing Women" offers a solid 22 minutes of humor without resorting to explicit language or direct references to sexual behavior. I think that a line about finally taking the lid of the "cookie jar" after a long period of sexual abstinence was the raciest dialogue.

The duty of full disclosure requires sharing that "Designing Women" resorted to numerous sitcom cliches during its fifth season, but it still maintained its quality. It also achieved the difficult feat of  making what could be hackneyed plots topical and issue driven.

For example, a fifth season episode about country girl Charlene buying a haunted house was more about her anxiety regarding taking on the enormous debt associated with such a purchase than unexplained happenings. Another episode that had Burke's Suzanne inadvertently placing a winning bid at an auction also depicted the more common cliche of two sitcom characters going on a date but still kept things fresh and relevant.

Other well-depicted fifth season plots include women serving in far-off combat zones, warping historical facts for entertainment purposes, the effects of working mothers on their children, and the lighter topic of the inadequacy of women's rooms in sports stadiums.

The bottom line is the behind-the-scenes drama only affected the fifth season of "Designing Women" by reducing Burke's presence in that season's episodes. The writing was still top notch and the remaining cast did a very good job in Burke's absence.

Anyone with questions or thoughts regarding "Designing Women" is encouraged to email me.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

'The River' S1: Amazon.SOS

ABC's supernatural thriller "The River," the first season of which is being released on DVD on May 22, 2012, is a decent show that likely would have succeeded better if the network had learned from the past. (More on this later.)

My personal spoiler alert is that the series provides adequate entertainment, including inadvertent humor, to warrant shelling out a Jackson.

The show's "pilot error" is perhaps its largest handicap; the primary reasons that I did not watch the show when it aired were that my Tivo was already bursting at the seams and I figured that I could buy the DVD set. 

The bad news is that I probably would have stopped watching the show after its first episode if I had watched it when it aired; the good news is that later episodes improved to the point that I liked the series well enough to watch all eight episodes over a 24-hour period and predict that it would have done better if ABC had presented it more effectively. 

"The River" is a modern-day "Stanley and Livingstone" story in which a reality television producer recruits the wife and 30-something son of Steve "The Crocodile Hunter" Irwinesque explorer and beloved nature show host Dr. Emmett Cole's to launch a filmed search for Cole six months after Cole's mysterious disappearance in the eerie Bouina region of the Amazon. 

Series co-creator Oren Peli uses the hand-held camera and night-vision time-lapse filming that he utilized in his mega-hit film "Paranormal Activity."

Each episode had the cast following the last clue regarding Cole's whereabouts. Their tramping around angers a protective or vengeful spirit, a warrior tribe, or the "Others" who have many characteristics of the Black Pearl's crew. 

Elements of the show "Lost" beyond  including the "Others" include an isolated research center, a wonderfully loyal dog, and an underlying mysterious lore.

The problem is that pilot of "The River" was surprising uncompelling for an episode that was filmed to get people to want to watch the series; the characters were simply not very interesting, and did not improve much over the series, and the special effects were not especially creepy or shocking. 

Additionally, the plot holes were large enough to accommodate a sedan and the characters did not respond to the perils realistically. Most notably, the cast immediately calmly went about their business after being terrorized and discovering a gruesome supernatural murder.

This sub-par pilot reminds me of Fox's well-publicized fatal error regarding the failed Fox witty Joss Whedon sci-fi  show "Firefly." Rather than premiere with the pilot, which explained how the show's ragtag band of lovable outlaws came to live on a creaky spaceship, Fox aired a faster-paced episode that was hard to follow without knowing more about the characters. 

Like "The River," "Firefly" likely would have lasted at least a full season if the network had done a better job introducing it to the public.

I am certain that ABC would have combined the hour-long pilot with the improved second episode and presented it at a TV Movie of the Week and added the series to its weekly lineup a few months later if this was 20 years ago. A similar strategy worked more recently when Fox aired the pilot of "Glee" several months before showing the second episode.

I believe as well that involving the wrong Steve hurt "The River." The positive influence of Executive Producer Steven Spielberg includes entertaining focus on a young Lincoln Cole in vintage footage of Emmett's "Undiscovered Country" show-within-a-show and current "Jurassic Park-like" scenes of the Amazon. 

Although Spielberg's role almost definitely helped the ratings, another lesson from ABC's rich history would have been more beneficial. That network aired, mostly very good, Stephen King mini-series in the '90s. 

If I were in the big chair at ABC, I would have seriously considered bringing King in and editing "The River's" eight-episodes into a three-hour six-hour mini-series. I then would have considered making that event into a weekly series if the critics and audience showed it adequate love.

Anyone with thoughts or questions regarding "The River" is encouraged to email me. I cannot help regarding how a boat can seemingly run for more than one month on one tank of gas.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Amazon Spotlights Awesome Apatow

Member of the online universe's lords and masters is providing a great chance to buy two of the best shows on television. Its "TV Deal of the Week" for the week of May 14, 2012, is separate DVD sets of comic genius Judd Apatow's "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared." (Of course, my link is to my Shout Factory buddies who saved these hilarious shows from oblivion.)

Shout Factory did its usual great job with these sets, and I am glad that they are available for such a good price. My limited DVD budget required simply drooling over these sets until I found them for a bargain.

The lack of recognition that Apatow, for whom I would do virtually anything for the privilege of meeting, received for these  unfairly short-lived series should make Rodney Dangerfield turn over in his grave for claiming that he does not get any respect. I remember the 18-episode "Freaks and Geeks" making me feel alright about being a geek for staying home to watch this show on Saturday nights and "Undeclared" showing me that I was not alone in not having a stellar college experience.

"Freaks and Geeks" was an indescribably incredible hour-long 1999-2000 NBC dramedy that was set in 1980 and focused on the frequent downs and rare ups of geek Sam Weir, played by "Bones'" John Francis Daley, and his older freak sister Lindsay, played by "ER's" Linda Cardellini. 

"Freaks and Geeks" also launched the careers of James Franco, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen in their roles as Lindsay's fellow geeks. Segel walking around in bikini underwear long before showing off his Dirk Diggler quality attributes in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" was one of the numerous unforgettable hilarious moments in "Freaks and Geeks."

Aside from movie-quality writing and acting, "Freaks and Geeks" is incredible because it is does such a great job depicting the torment of high school. 

Like Lindsay, I was an intelligent and good kid who got tired during my senior year of high school of being told what to do. Unlike her, I did not not start hanging out with a group of kids who were outwardly teenage dirt bags. I did engage in symbolic rebellion that occurred before 4:20 on the day of my high school graduation.

My geek moments were more numerous. Unlike Sam, I never bought a pale blue leisure suit thinking that it made me look cool. However, I am sure that some items in my wardrobe ensured that I would never get a spread in GQ. I was also never thrown naked out of a locker room but witnessed a few of my cross country teammates, one of whom reveled in it, sustain that fate.

My "geek" confessions are that I enjoyed the same lame geeky humor as Sam and his friends and experienced a lesser form of the obsession that one such geek felt toward prime time soap "Dallas."

Judd Apatow went on to the equally hilarious and unfortunately short-lived Fox failedcom "Undeclared," which depicted the frequent ups and downs of college freshmen who shared a dorm suite. For the record, I am also a HUGE fan of the truly terrific fellow Fox failedcoms "Action" and "Kitchen Confidential" from the same general era.

The geeks definitely take center stage in "Undeclared," which also featured Seth Rogen and Jason Segel. Steven Karp and his three buddies suffer the same humiliations and stress as the rest of us did during college.

The excitement about big parties and celebrity visits brought back memories of my own college days. In my case, the freshman party was a fix your roommate up soiree which was an enormous disaster that had me retreat to my dorm room to watch "Dallas." Sex expert Dr. Ruth was the big celebrity guest that year.

I can also relate to Steven's British cutie roommate regularly kicking him out their room so that the roommate could enjoy the company of his girlfriend du jour. Steven joining a group of similarly displaced students, ultimately getting wonderful revenge, and Sir Cutie experiencing his own setbacks in later episodes was extraordinary television.

Seth Rogen's character realizing that he and his roommate pleasured themselves at the same time after the lights went out was another classic Judd Apatow moment. This reminded me of a college dorm mate whose private moment was very publicly interrupted when someone opened his door without knocking to tell him that he had a telephone call. Virtually everyone who lived on that floor witnessed that event and the rest of us knew about it within minutes.

Any man who could not understand the concept that something is comic when it happens to someone else and tragic when the same thing happens to you should be able to grasp that idea now.

Anyone who wants to share their high school or college memories or can help me explain why "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" failed is encouraged to email me.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

'All in the Family' S9: A Terrific End to a Wonderful Series

The '70s sitcom "All in the Family" has scores of  remarkable attributes, several of which I discuss below, but the series' awesomeness really hit home last night.

I had been watching Tivoed episodes of current shows but wanted to watch something on DVD. I confess to pulling out my set of the first season of the '80s sitcom "Bosom Buddies" but really craved something with a good mix of well-written comedy and a not too intense drama. While mentally reviewing the list of the plethora of series in my collection, I decided on the ninth season of "All in the Family" and am very glad that I did.

Before continuing with my praise for this season, I would like to give Shout Factory my standard shout out for releasing seasons of this show after another distributor apparently abandoned it. Shout adopted this series beginning with its seventh season.

Most of the recognition that "All in the Family" receives revolves around being one of the first shows that marked the shift from the '60s' rural and otherwise absurd comedies to more realistic and gritty ones. 

On a very basic level, "All in the Family" was the first show to include the sound of a toilet flushing. Another bit of trivia is that Danny "Danny Partridge" Bonaduce's father wrote for "All in the Family."

Adequately discussing the countless controversial and still relevant issues, which ranged from draft dodging to euthansia, that the series addressed would require writing a book. A Norman Lear hosted retrospective of the show in the ninth season DVD set is a good start.

However, CBS's good ratings for episodes of "All in the Family" that ran in prime time during a late '80s television writers' strike is evidence that the vast majority of the episodes would be relevant today.

"All in the Family" is also known for making producer Norman Lear a true household name. 

Aside from the seven shows, including the failedcoms "Checking In" and "704 Hauser Street," that I counted that spun off directly or indirectly from "All in the Family," Lear's '70s classics include "Sanford and Son" and "One Day at a Time." My second confession for the day is that Valerie Bertinelli-Van Halen was my first crush.

On a larger level, "All in the Family" was part of an unparalleled decade of great CBS sitcoms that extended beyond the Lear classics. Other great intelligent CBS shows from the era include "M*A*S*H," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and "The Bob Newhart Show." Even the not always great filler shows in CBS's Monday night 8:30 slot were above average.

I would additionally like to remind you whippersnappers out there who are tired of hearing grandpa prattle on about ancient history that the opening credits of "Family Guy" are a homage to the opening credits, which did not change for nine seasons, of "All in the Family." 

I feel compelled to mention as well that a college friend had close to a zero interest in any television from any era but regularly called a mutual friend Meathead and told the rest of us to stifle. Another friend barely has any DVDs but owns "All in the Family."

The theatrical nature of "All in the Family" episodes additionally made the show special. The sets, staging, and acting all have a nice element of live theater. Jean Stapleton's, who played devoted wife Edith, stage business with a telephone cord in the first episode of the ninth season was hilarious.

The ninth season of "All in the Family" was also special because it maintained the show's quality well despite already running more than 150 episodes and adding a "Cousin Oliver" element to the show in the form of the abandoned young daughter of Edith's cousin. Little Stephanie was neither too saccharine or too sassy; she was simply a typical blue collar kid.

The ninth season also made for good television despite leaning more toward feuding married neighbors and other typical sitcom plots than issue-related stories. This was likely due both to Sally "Little Girl" Struthers' and Rob "Meathead" Reiner's absences depriving Archie of verbal sparring partners and the fact that the series had already covered the weighty issues of the day and the centuries.

This is contrasts with the cartoonish nature that many excellent shows, including "M*A*S*H" and "The Jeffersons" developed in later seasons. Seeing formerly intelligent characters act buffonishly and often sustain serious harm to their person and property with absolutely no lasting ill effect always distressed me. 

I lost track of how many times Mel's Diner on "Alice" got wrecked only to look exactly the same as it did before the accident the following week. I also gave up on "Married With Children" once Al Bundy become a real-life Wile E. Coyote.

The final episode of "All in the Family" deserves a special note because it did not resort to any special gimmicks or big surprises. The even longer running "Cheers" was praised for having a similar element in its final episode.

Those of you who have enough interest in "All in the Family" to still be reading this "epic" review are encouraged to email me thoughts and/or questions.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

'Hazel' S3: The Mother of All Maids

Shout Factory's May 15, 2012, DVD release of the 32-episode third season of the classic '60s sitcom "Hazel" continues that distributor's practice of adopting beloved shows years after another company released one or two seasons. Shout's "Hazel" releases notably follow the packing style of the pre-Shout release of season one.

Although Shout is releasing "Hazel" S3 a few days after Mother's Day, a pre-order for that special day would make a great gift. I imagine that many moms remember the series fondly and can relate to the equal parts love and frustration that that program depicts.

Title character Hazel Burke is the live-in maid/cook for the suburban upper-middle class Baxter family. Much of the humor stems from Hazel interfering in every aspect of head-of-household "Mr. B's" life from his diet to his handling of his legal client's affairs.

Like a true mother, Hazel's highly frustrating nagging and meddling comes from a place of love. She reminds me of my grandmother, who literally chased me around her house with plates of food when I visited and never hesitated to telephone in the middle of the night when some aspect of my life bothered her.

Like the previous two and subsequent seasons, season three's humor is kinder and gentler than even many other shows of that season. Everything proceeds at a nice pace, and the jokes evoke a smile rather than a laugh.

An episode in which a badly damaged antique desk might have significant historic value was one of the more amusing of the season and had an above-average number of twists. It also had similar elements to one of my favorite "The Dick Van Dyke Show" episodes that revolved around an antique photograph.

Anyone with memories of "Hazel" or questions regarding this show is encouraged to email me.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

'Fantasy Island' S2: Tasty Video Comfort Food

Shout Factory's May 8, 2012 DVD release of the second season of "Fantasy Island" fulfills a fantasy of many fans of this mid-70s show that Tori Spelling's father Aaron created. This release adds "Fantasy Island" to the long and growing list of classic shows that Shout  rescued after another studio seemingly abandoned them after releasing one or two seasons.

Shout Factory adding "Fantasy Island's" companion show "The Love Boat" to its catalog would be a true fantasy come true.

Like most Aaron Spelling shows, "Fantasy Island" followed a trite but successful formula. Each episode had two or three independent story lines involving someone coming to the tropical island to live out a fantasy.

The second season fantasies are typical of those of the series in that they either involve enjoying the glamorous life of a dynamic figure or the more personal wish of improving an aspect of someone's personal life.

Examples of  second season "glamorous life" fantasies include living the lives of a pirate and a jewel thief. More personal ones include an MIA Vietnam vet wishing to reunite with his wife and child and a handful of guests seeking a "The Love Boat" style romance with a current or former significant other.

Also like many Aaron Spelling shows, much of "Fantasy Island's" appeal comes from casting minor league faded and upcoming stars. Season two guests range from '50s bad girl Mamie Van Doren to rising teen star Scott Baio. 

I would like to warn viewers that a couple of episodes include "The Love Boat's" highly annoying moppet Jill "Vicki" Whelan. Breathing deeply and saying that it is almost over will get you through those segments. 

Seeing Jonathon Frakes, who went on to play Commander William T. (Thomas not Tiberius) Riker in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" appear with "Fantasy Island" star Ricardo Montalban, who notably played "Star Trek" villain Khan was particularly fun. Only seeing Frakes roar "ROARKE!" would have improved the episode.

Revisiting "Fantasy Island" 35 years after being allowed to stay up late enough to watch it on Saturday nights made me realize how the show was an interesting study in contrasts. Having the suave and tall lanky Montalban play against the far less sophisticated short and stout Herve Villechaize, who came up to Montalban's waist, is an obvious example. These contrasts are also elements that makes many many classic comedy teams so great.

On a deeper level, "Fantasy Island's" depicting the contrast between the idea of a fantasy and its reality made moderately compelling television. This definitely proves the proverb of being careful what you wish for.

Many of us get to realize small personal fantasies that do not turn out as planned. Major Nelson learned that living with a beautiful devoted genie is not all that it cracked up to be and many of us start dream relationships and ideal jobs that transform into nightmares within a year.

Unlike real life, the "realistic" outcomes on "Fantasy Island" are still pretty darn good and leave the viewer with a warm fuzzy feeling.

"Fantasy Island" also had a strong cultural impact than is usually recognized. Just as "The Love Boat" helped revitalize the cruise industry, "Fantasy Island" almost surely helped spark a demand for fantasy baseball camps and rock band weekends. Like "Fantasy Island," these experiences provide a chance to revisit childhood idols.

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