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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Law and Order: Criminal Intent S7: Where the Elite Meet Their Defeat

Quirky Robert Goren's Holmesian technique of using close observation and obscure knowledge to make deductions sets "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" apart from both the other exceptional "Law and Order" series and run-of-the-mill police procedurals. Goren's angst and general alienation that are the price for seeing the world more clearly and for being smarter than the average detective is just icing on this very tasty cake.

Alicia Witt's Nola Falacci comes in a close second for favorite "Criminal Intent" character. That detective's dark sensibility and bulldog style remind me a great deal of Witt's wonderful character, the brilliant and Addams Family level dark late teen Zoey Woodbine in the unfairly maligned '90s CBS sitcom "Cybill." 

Seeing Falacci interrogate Zoey for murdering Zoey's preppy upbeat brother-in-law Kevin, played by Peter Krause, would have been a dream come true.

Shout Factory's recent release of the seventh season of "Criminal Intent" was a dream come true; thank you Shout for once again releasing seasons of one of television's best shows after a studio stopped doing so.

The seventh season is the year that "Criminal Intent" moved from NBC to the USA network and experienced budget cuts that reflected the difference between a broadcast television show and one that aired on basic cable.

The good news is that "Criminal Intent's" quality survived the transition and that the show received impressive ratings on USA.

Aside from having great actors portraying wonderfully damaged characters, "Criminal Intent" offered the terrific twist of having its major case squad devote its resources to solving crimes that involved New York City's elite.

The brutality of the often rich-on-rich violence and the pride that goeth before the fall of the arrogant malfeasors who thought that their position justified their crime and/or that the police were too inferior to catch them made for good television. This well-written and directed series was definitely geared to the 99-percent with a taste for intelligent programs.

Two particularly noteworthy episodes come early in season. The season premiere had Goren both recovering from a tragedy that occurred at the end of the sixth season and furhter alienating himself from his brothers in blue by using his exceptional detection skills to discredit another police officer's credibility. Seeing Goren literally left out on the street was tough.

A second "must-see" episode involved a respcted couples therapist, who was married to a divorce court judge, getting killed. Falacci's particularly dark humor and Hitchcock caliber twists made this presentation feature-film quality.

One of the better seventh-season "ripped from the headlines" episodes for which "Law and Order" series are well known revolved around charging college jocks with raping strippers who the athletes hired for a party. Having '80s preppy Andrew McCarthy play a prosecutor out to get the privileged athletes was a nice touch.

Given Shout's consistent history of releasing seasons of a show within a few months of each other, I will chanel my inner-Goren in eagerly anticipating watching eighth season episodes of "Criminal Intent" this October.

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

Monday, June 25, 2012

Speed Buggy: Mel Blanc's Car Talk

My chance to watch the awesome Warner Archive Collection's DVD set of the complete '70s Hanna-Barbera cartoon series "Speed Buggy" is the second time that getting an "Archive" set  coincided with a current reminder of the awesomeness of the archived show.

Seeing Linda Lavin, who starred in the '70s CBS sitcom "Alice," in the audience of the 2012 Tony Awards got me wishing for a DVD release of that series. Archive announcing the next day that it was releasing the first season of "Alice" was a dream come true. My review of "Alice" is in the archive section of my site.

My "Speed Buggy" moment occurred this weekend; I came across the wonderful 2008 documentary "Mel Blanc: The Man of a Thousand Voices." Aside from voicing Bugs Bunny and numerous other Looney Tune characters, this cartoon voice god brought the lovable talking crime-fighting dune buggy/race car Speed Buggy to life.

The documentary was a wonderful tribute to this genuine American idol, and did not have a negative syllable to say about this man with whom I would have loved to meet for a carrot juice. The only sad moment for me was that the documentary did not include a clip of Speedy Buggy in the portion on Blanc's career with Hanna Barbera in the '60s and '70s.

I knew before watching the documentary that Blanc was a legend and that he had voiced Speed Buggy. I did not fully understand why I felt such a connection to a Saturday morning cartoon car until the documentary helped me realize that that character's voice and appearance reflected the sweet yet fiercely loyal nature of Blanc.

For the benefit of those of you who missed out on spending your Saturday mornings eating Quisp cereal and watching cartoons on your parents' massive console television that seemed to take forever to warm up, "Speed Buggy" essentially was "Scooby Doo" for the NASCAR set. 

In addition to having an anthropomorphic star, the supporting characters in "Speed Buggy" greatly resembled the Mystery Inc. gang of meddling kids. 

"Speed Buggy" team leader Mark was a handsome stud with a toned bod and limited intellect; cowardly odd looking and lanky mechanic/driver Tinker was Speedy's best bud; the extraneous tomboy Debbie always reminded me of "Mork and Mindy's" Pam Dawber in appearance and spunky personality.

Each "Speed Buggy" episode began with Speedy and his crew traveling to the site of the race or exhibition du jour. Within a few minutes, the gang would encounter the stereotypical big bad du jour and spend the next 20 minutes foiling that evil scientist's or run-of-the-mill criminal mastermind's plot to pull off a major heist or rule the world. 

Each episode was highly entertaining and just darn cute. My favorite involved a plot to use the technology that created Speedy Buggy to build a fleet of robotic cars.

I also enjoyed an incredibly blatant rip-off of a plot from fellow '70s cartoon series "Josie and the Pussycats" that involved a mad scientist's acquiring an invisibility formula. I played wonderfully campy bubblegum music in my head during that episode's chase scenes. 

Incidentally, that "Josie" episode is my favorite behind one involving an aging formula in which the truly brave and bold cat Sebastian really saved the day.

I expect my Archive Collection set of the other terrific '70s cartoon variation of "Scooby Doo" "The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan" today. 

Anyone with memories of questions regarding "Speed Buggy" is encouraged to email me.  I am especially interested in learning if I am the only one who is adorkable enough to use Speed Buggy's catchphrase "va room a zoom zoom" in reference to rushing someplace. I do regret that my horrible imitation of Blanc most likely has that exceptional and badly missed man turning over in his grave.

Friday, June 22, 2012

'Alice' S1: Fans Not Being Shy Provides Reason to not be Sad

If asked a month ago when I thought that Warner Brothers (WB) would release the first season of the classic CBS '70s sitcom "Alice" on DVD, I would have channeled sassy break-out character Flo and replied "when donkeys fly." 

If asked in a nasty tone, my response would have been Flo's better known catchphrase "kiss mah grits." This is despite my still not being sure more than 35 years after "Alice" premiered if boys have grits.

I am thrilled to be proven wrong regarding the DVD release; one day after watching "Alice" star Linda Lavin on the broadcast of the 2012 Tony Awards and once again hoping that the show would come out on DVD, I learned that the first season had been released as part of WB's stupendous Archive Collection.

I truly appreciate the good folks at WB responding positively to my unbridled, if not youthful, exuberance on learning of the release.

WB also tolerated my enthusiastic praise for my "Funky Phantom" DVDs and other sets from the Archive Collection's release of '70s Hanna-Barbera cartoons that did not achieve Scooby Doo's and other classic characters' success. An upcoming review of "The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan" will discuss that aspect of the Archive Collection. The spoiler alert is that the "Chan" set's cover art would make a great poster.

Returning to "Alice," this a rare case in which a childhood favorite is even better than remembered. For the sake of those of you who do not predate mood rings and earth shoes, "Alice" is like its fellow '70s CBS sitcom the Norman Lear classic "One Day at a Time."

Both series revolve around newly single moms in an era in which that was just starting to become common. Alice Hyatt and Ann Romano both struggled with keeping a roof over their kids' heads and dealing with discrimination and unwanted sexual advances in the workplace.

The similarities in the show also included both women focusing more on their careers than on finding a man; Alice was a waitress in the greasy spoon "Mel's Diner" but dreamed of a singing career, and Ann had a more pink collar career in public relations.

Both shows additionally owe a great deal to their fellow CBS sitcom "All in the Family," which truly was groundbreaking. I cannot imagine "Alice" addressing the issues of prostitution, sex education, and not being as enlightened about homosexuality as you would have liked if "Family" had not already addressed "taboo" topics.

Lighter episodes in "Alice's" first season include one of my all-time favorites in which a restaurant critic visits Mel's Diner.

"Alice" also stands alone as a great typical workplace comedy. The aforementioned Flo is a sassy waitress who earned her own short-lived sitcom "Flo" I am hopeful that the Archive Collection releases that series before hybrid equines sprout wings.

Alice's other co-waitress was nervous quiet Vera, who provided one of the funniest moments of the show in the rarely seen pilot that the first season DVD set includes. This classic moment of spilling straws all over the diner's counter was added to later seasons' opening credits.

Diner owner Mel rounded out the crew. Like "Day's" Schneider, Mel was a gruff self-proclaimed ladies' man with a very good heart.

I encourage anyone with questions or comments regarding "Alice" to email me. Any sent in bad faith will prompt an invitation to kiss mah grits.

Monday, June 4, 2012

'Desinging Women' S6: Transition 'Sarah Palin' Year

Like an exceptional restaurant that has an occasional off night, the early '90s sitcom "Designing Women" deserves a mulligan for its very well-intentioned but somewhat ill-conceived sixth season. The good news is that watching episodes from Shout Factory's April 2012 release of that season showed those presentations are much better than I remembered.

The better news is that Shout Factory is releasing the improved seventh season of "Designing Women" in July 2012. Adding the great actress Judith Ivey as a well-written character equal to Dixie Carter's designing diva Julia Sugarbaker allowed the series to end on a good note. 

In many ways, "Designing Women" was a hybrid between "Sex in the City" and "The Golden Girls" in that the four women who owned an Atlanta design firm represented four standard types of women. 

Julia, the leader, was a well-educated sophisticated woman who did not suffer fools glad. Suzanne, replaced by Julia Duffy's Alison in the sixth season, was an aging beauty queen with an active dating life. 

Single mother Mary Jo reveled in adolescent hi-jinks and struggled with child rearing decisions. Moderately bright country gal Charlene, replaced in the sixth season by her less intelligent and sophisticated sister Carlene in the sixth season, was the most naive and trusting of the group.

Aside from generally good writing, "Designing Women" was notably for insightful candid analyses of current and evergreen issues. These included a classically hilarious episode about newsstands' right to display pornographic magazines and other episodes on domestic violence, religions barring women from serving as clergy, racism, and dead-beat dads.

The series' strongly feminist viewpoint further did not hold any punches regarding stereotypical bad male behavior. One of Julia Sugarbaker's best trademark rants commented on men who barge in on a quiet girls' night out was a highlight of the series. Having this outburst haunt Julia in a later episode made a hilarious storyline fall on the floor funny. 

In other words, "Designing Women" hit the trifecta of taboo topics; sex, religion, and politics.

As my review of the fifth season of "Designing Women" stated, that series became more of a standard sitcom that year but still was quite funny and included "issues" episodes. It was also the year that presented challenges in the form of series stars' Delta Burke and Jean Smart leaving the show.

Returning to the topic of "Designing Women" deserving a mulligan for its sixth season, replacing Delta Burke's Suzanne with Julia Duffy's similar Alison Sugarbaker was akin to the McCain campaign choosing Sarah Palin. The idea looked good on paper but was a bad move in reality. 

Duffy had just finished a long well-regarded run playing pampered insensitive Stephanie van der Kellen on "Newhart," which shared the CBS Monday night lineup with "Designing Women." Alison Sugarbaker is the character that Stephanie would have become if karma had caught up with her.

One difference, and flaw, was that Stephanie not-so-deep down had a better heart than Alison. "Newhart's" writers also humanized Stephanie by giving her a particularly soft-spot for the very caring and not-so-bright handyman George Utley. Additionally, all of "Newhart's" characters shared an affection for each other that was lacking between Alison and the other "Designing Women" characters.

Taking one more break from my review of "Designing Women's" sixth season, I want to get on my knees and ask Shout Factory to please, please 1,000 times please add "Newhart" to the list of "rescued" shows that it released.

On a larger level, "Designing Women's" sixth season suffered from the senioritis, or premature seven-year itch, that strikes many shows around their sixth season. 

The Thomasons, who created the series, were not very actively involved; the veteran cast members seemed to be losing steam, and the departures of two original cast members did not help. 

I consider this analogous to what occurred when Ron Howard and Don Most left "Happy Days;" I hate to think what would have happened if Henry Winkler had quit as well.

At the same time, the viewing public would have missed great moments in "Designing Women" if it had taken the common modern approach of deciding that having enough episodes for syndication justified calling it quits after five seasons.

The opening episodes of "Designing Women's" sixth season had hilarious moments; favorites included the veteran cast literally cutting Alison down to size and Julia cleverly turning Alison's "bird on your head" phrase against her.

Other good sixth season "situations" included episodes about a community theater production of "Mame" and Carlene moving into a seedy apartment in a dangerous neighborhood. An episode in which the cast traveled to Hollywood and invaded Charles Nelson Reilly's home is one of my favorite of the entire series.

"Issues" episodes from the sixth season included the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy, racial profiling, and artificial insemination.

Anyone who wants to share thoughts or questions regarding "Designing Women's sixth season is encouraged to email me.