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Sunday, February 16, 2014

'The Jimmy Stewart Show' DVD: Mr. Stewart Goes to TV Land

The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Complete Series
Warner Archive's recent DVD release of the 1971-72 24-episode sitcom "The Jimmy Stewart Show" is another example of how Archive often "out shouts" the competition. Other examples of this include recent Archive releases of the second season of "Dr. Kildare" and the complete series set of the uber-rare sci-fi spy drama "Search," both of which Unreal TV is reviewing in the next few weeks.

The similarities between "Stewart" and early seasons of the late-60s sitcom "The Doris Day Show" extend beyond starring genuine film legends. Both series are family-oriented comedies set in small quasi-rural northern California communities outside San Francisco.

Stewart stars as Professor James K. (for Kessel)  Howard, who teaches anthropology at Josiah Kessel College. The folksy narrative that Stewart employs throughout the series includes explaining in an early episode that his wealthy self-made grandfather founded that institution of higher learning but did not leave him anything other than his middle name.

A similar bon mot from "Stewart" is that the college boasts 800 students and has another 800 of which it does not boast.

The pilot episode sets this down-home tone by beginning with Stewart breaking down the fourth wall between the actors and the audience by introducing himself as "Jim Stewart" and then providing a primer on the series and the episode. He follows this trend throughout the series and ends each episode with a similar message that wishes audience members peace, love, and laughter. (This awesome series hits this trifecta each week.)

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, of the opening moments of an episode titled "Identity Crisis" provides a good sense of the vibe described above; a cameo appearance by future "Charlie's Angels" and "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" star Kate Jackson is a nice bonus.
 
The pilot establishes the traditional (and dominant) "home" portion of this sitcom; Prof. Howard and his much younger wife/former student Martha are enjoying a relatively quiet existence with their late-in-life eight-year-old son Teddy when a crisis of a non-financial nature transforms Teddy's older by roughly 20 years Peter into a boomerang kid.

Peter moving his wife Wendy and his eight-year-old son Jake into the family homestead contribute to hilarity related to this crowded house. Examples of this include inadequate bathroom facilities and Jake's snoring disrupting the household.

An unintentionally creepy aspect of this homelife is the moderately uptight Teddy demanding that his nephew Jake call him "Uncle Teddy" or "Uncle Theodore" and show Teddy the same respect to which an adult uncle is due from a child-aged nephew.

Proverbial veteran character actor John McGiver fills the (not-so) wacky neighbor role by playing Prof. Howard's colleague/BFF physicist Dr. Luther Quince.

McGiver plays Quince in the same haughty and superior manner in which he portrays most of his roles. Watching his G-rated banter with his colleague over his great love for Martha is amusing and a nice change from the racier  modern-day "bang" related humor that characterizes most current friendly infatuations for the woman of your bro.

Other wonderfully nostalgic touches of "Stewart" include separate amusing episodes in which plans to give Prof. Howard a new briefcase take several very funny turns and in which a Soviet-era plot has a visitor from behind the Iron Curtain bond with the Howards. Aside from a moderate piece of heavy-handed American propaganda, the latter episode is one of the better in a very good lot of offerings.

Considering the caliber of talent in front and in back of the camera, it is surprising that "Stewart" jumps the shark a few times in its sadly only season. The first one involves a female student aggressively pursuing Prof. Howard, who is old enough to be her grandfather.

A later episode evokes a sympathetic groan when the Oscar-winning and oft-nominated Stewart comes walking in with a monkey; this is reminiscent of the humiliating torture that Lucille Ball endures in the '80s sitcom "Life With Lucy."

Fortunately, the aptly (and humorously) named series finale "A Bone of Much Contention" ends "Stewart" on a high note. It puts an interesting twist on the sitcom chestnut of finding an ancient bone at a construction site and has the most clever resolution of any sitcom episode with that central plot.

Any effort to discuss the plethora of awesome guest stars in "Stewart" would fail as much as an Oscars acceptance speech that attempts to thank everyone who contributes to that win; the number of contemporaries of Stewart and '70s era stars who appear in the series is truly exceptional. However, having Beulah Bondi once again play Stewart's mother and do as well in the role as she does decades before cannot go unmentioned.

The best way to wrap up this review is to state that Stewart once again shows that he is the best at playing an everyman but is hardly an average man; it is also depressingly inexplicable that two-and-a-half men whose series has already lasted a decade longer than Stewart have so outpaced a man who is much more of one then all of them combined.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Stewart" is encouraged to email me; you can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.