It’s not enough to just watch films; you have to watch DVDs of television shows until your eyeballs have glassed over into a creamy ping-pong ball color. But why watch anything made in the last 30 years when you can also view, in many cases, the prototype or even archetype original from the 50s, 60s, and possibly 70s?
For every boob tube maven who wants to praise Dexter or Seinfeld, I’m ready to raise them with The Wild Wild West and match their counter raise with Hawaii Five-0. But it’s known as the idiot box for a reason, so here’s my idiot wind of selections for television DVDs.
- Danger Man – the complete series on a shitton of DVDs (18). This British show starring Patrick McGoohan as John Drake ran three seasons, plus there was a two-hour closer that ran after the third but didn’t constitute a fourth season. The first season premiered in 1960 with 30-minute episodes and used a lot of spy scenarios that while familiar to audiences from James Bond books preceded the actual Bond films by two years. The show rebooted in 1965 and ran for a total of 86 episodes, and in America was known as Secret Agent. McGoohan would reprise this character in another highly lauded cult series, The Prisoner than ran for 17 episodes. To see how prolific television was note the fact the first season had 39 episodes. While all dramas like this usually have small degrees of accuracy the subterfuge certainly resonates stronger here than its American counterparts like Mission: Impossible. When Drake interacts with operatives, say on a Middle Easter mission we actually see cutaways that show Arabic script. In one ep during the second season Drake’s boss lies to him about the reason for picking up a defecting scientist in Greece and then leaves him twisting in the wind. Some of the guest stars include Kathleen Byron and Donald Pleasence.
- Rich Man, Poor Man was the prototype TV mini-series and the box set includes the two series, made as Book I and Book II, on nine DVDs (34 episodes). There are solid performances, an epic story than spans generations in a family against a backdrop of history and societal changes (from the late 30s onward). But among the huge list of stars who appear in various roles the real meat here is one of Nick Nolte’s first roles as the lead brother Tom Jordache. Nolte starred along with Peter Strauss and Susan Blakely. Nolte’s arcs and turns in RMPM, along with his early period work in Who’ll Stop the Rain and North Dallas Forty, stands alongside anything any actor ever filmed.
- Evening Primrose was broadcast in late 1966 as part of ABC Stage 67. It’s an hour-long stand-alone show that unrolls as a fantasy. A young man (Anthony Perkins) decides to live at Macy’s only he soon discovers that there’s a whole town of people living there. Only once he’s in he finds that he can never leave. The entire affair feels like a Twilight Zone with its fantastic and occasional comic take on a plot. But the show’s also a musical with composition from no less than Stephen Sondheim in what is considered one of his least heard and best works. Also starring is Charmian Carr (Sound of Music) and Evening Primrose could very well be considered an operetta. The archival print came from a kinescope print so there is some occasional video noise.
- Ellery Queen starred Jim Hutton and the character really is the American Sherlock Holmes, first appearing in print in the early 20th century and continuing in countless movies and television series of which this, from the 1975-76 television season, is the best. All 22 episodes as well as the original pilot from the first and only season are included in the box set, in addition to an interview with one of the show’s producers. Queen’s father played by David Wayne is a homicide and Queen himself is a celebrated crime novelist who solves his dad’s cases in his off time; the series takes place in the late 1940s. Each and every episode has multiple famous guest stars, many of which are long dead movie stars from previous eras, or even now renown as in the case of Betty White. White’s the lead suspect in an early ep. The magic of this show is that it’s interactive, or as interactive as this kind of entertainment can get. We start out each ep with the announcement of a murder and then the audience in addition to Queen are given various clues and introduced to many suspects. In one ep where another mystery writer has been slain Queen is even a suspect. About ten minutes until the end, Queen breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the camera and shares his thoughts on the case with the viewer. The show proceeds and you and Queen, but usually just Queen, succeed in solving the crime and outing the killer. This technique mirrors the original series of books, written under the pseudonym Ellery Queen by cousins Daniel Nathan alias Frederic Dannay and Manford (Emanuel) Lepofsky alias Manfred Bennington Lee. You can’t really break the fourth wall in a book like you can on stage or screen but the book, a few pages from the end of each adventure, would issue a challenge to the reader where you review the same clues that Queen had been collecting all along.
– Michael Bergeron