TVs, DVDs, And License Fees

Some notes on upcoming catalogue TV-on-DVD releases, most of them having to do with a) Special features and b) cuts.

Taxi, Season 4 is out today, and the fifth and final season is going to be released just before Christmas. It’s good that one of the great U.S. comedies will have its full run available on DVD, especially since in the last few years it looked like Paramount was going to stop with the third season. However, this being Paramount, it looks like they’ve made the release possible by cutting music-related scenes from several episodes. I don’t have the set yet, so I can’t say yet what’s been cut. It’s still worth it to get the many unedited episodes, like “Mr. Personalities,” perhaps the definitive Taxi episode — not the best, but the most typical combination of surrealism and realistic despair: Latka becomes convinced that he’s Alex, and manages to make it clear just what a complete failure Alex is at being himself.


Mister Ed, Season 1 (October 6) – If you’re wondering how bad an old show has to be before I can’t find anything interesting in it, this appears to be where I draw the line. I didn’t grow up watching this show; I did grow up watching the Francis the Talking Mule movies, which were better (with Chill Wills as the talking mule and Donald O’Connor as the hapless human, how could they not be?). I have never really been able to understand this show’s popularity, given what a horribly limited idea it was for a show: a show about a horse, taking place nearly entirely indoors and therefore providing no opportunity for the horse to do anything. Don’t get it; maybe it’s the theme song, but for the first season, the song done as an instrumental, so the show doesn’t even have the fun lyrics going for it yet. The show includes some commentaries, but the episodes appear to have some cut syndication episodes mixed in.

The Patty Duke Show, Season 1 (September 29) – Now this one I get. In watching it, you find yourself mostly fixated on the back of the head of Patty Duke’s stand-in; since Duke was playing “identical cousins,” her stand-in has her back to the camera in all but the split-screen process shots (which, thanks to master editor Ralph Rosenblum, come off pretty well). The show comes off well due to its good cast — including William Schallert, still alive to participate in the special features, as one of the better TV dads of his era — efficient comedy writing by the prolific Sidney Sheldon. But what it mostly has going for it is the truly unforgettable theme song by big-band leader Sid Ramin, and the slightly different atmosphere and collection of guest actors from other shows of its era; it shot in New York because L.A.’s child-labour laws wouldn’t have allowed them to make the show (Duke was only 16, and in L.A. she couldn’t have worked the long hours necessary to play two parts in one show), which means you see some New York theatre people in small parts rather than the familiar collection of California actors. The episodes appear to be uncut, 25 minutes and 30 seconds. Oh, and one more thing: one of the episodes I looked at has a plot that used to be really, really common: a character is told that he/she might be allergic to another character. Does this ever happen on TV any more? Not that it should; it’s such a strange idea for a story that I don’t understand exactly why so many shows did it, except that sneezing fits are considered funny.

Mr. Belvedere, Season 3 — I have already tried to puzzle out the question of why this show was by far the most popular of the catalogue titles Shout! released this year. The commentaries on this set may provide a partial answer: the cast is strangely acerbic and funny (and this even though Bob Uecker wasn’t able to participate this time around). Actually, these are — surprisingly — some of the better TV-on-DVD commentaries I’ve heard recently; there aren’t a lot of dead spots or “describing what we’re already seeing” moments, and instead the participants give a lot of practical and interesting information about the process of working on a television comedy: costumes, scheduling, warming up the audience, S&P issues, union rules, set layout, the role of the director (in this case Noam Pitlik, whom the producers brought with them from Barney Miller). Still no kind of a great show, but its extreme popularity is easier to understand after the commentaries. Also, the oldest kid does address the Marilyn Manson rumours at one point. However, he denies them. He’s not fooling anybody.

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