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Armchair Cinephile

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Discs To Convelesce With

A buddy of mine is having back trouble at the moment, and while he is an invalid, his friends are shuttling over with food and music and, in my case, movies. Looking for diverting ways to occupy the largest possible chunks of his sofa-bound time, I naturally am delighted at the bounty of good new TV series box sets.

I don't know if it's the best-selling TV set on DVD, but the single most-borrowed item from the DeFore library is The Sopranos (HBO), which just put its fourth season on disc. A glimpse at TV Guide shows that my cable-subscriber friends are still awaiting the fifth season's broadcast debut, and here the non-HBO masses are already caught up with them. With Tony and Carmela on the outs, and relationships everywhere in a tizzy, Season Four isn't the happiest time for Jersey mafiosi, but who said a life of crime is fun?

OK, well, a lot of people must think it is, to judge from all the mob series floating around. NBC's pitch to the Sopranos crowd, Kingpin, has been out for a little while, as has Wiseguy (Studioworks), one of the genre's forerunners. Airing way back in the '80s, Wiseguy was prescient in its use of story arcs, getting viewers used to the idea of long-form plots that would last between six and 10 episodes at a stretch. The first arc, the much-praised Sonny Steelgrave and the Mob, is out now, with the Mel Profitt storyline due in about a month.

The Sopranos, Mr. Show (HBO)
Kingpin (NBC)
Wiseguy (Studioworks)
The Outer Limits (MGM)
Homicide (A&E)
Alias (Buena Vista)
Run Ronnie Run! (New Line)
The Looney Tunes Golden Collection (Warner Bros.)
The Honeymooners (Paramount)
At the opposite end of the spectrum is The Outer Limits (MGM), which not only kept plots contained in one episode, but introduced a new cast each week. The new box of Season Two completes the run of original episodes, and while the series had begun to suffer from a focus on space monsters and the like, it also contains favorites like "Soldier," which predated The Terminator by decades.

Having never seen the show back when it was a critics' darling, I'm delighted that A&E has put out the third season of Homicide so quickly after the first two. Oddly, this season contained more episodes than One and Two combined, giving the series' writers plenty of time to develop some of TV's most intriguing cop characters - minus Jon Polito's Crosetti, who had left the show.

With the second batch of Alias (Buena Vista) discs due out any minute, I finally got around to checking the first set out. Now I understand the fuss: The series is a lot of fun: stylish, paranoid, and a feast for the hordes of new Jennifer Garner fans out there. The plots are too flimsy to be taken seriously, and toward the end go seriously cuckoo, but that didn't stop me from watching the whole thing compulsively, waiting to see how many costume changes the producers could fit into Ms. Garner's busy schedule.

But it ain't all mobsters and secret agents at the video store. There is comedy as well, like a new batch of Mr. Show (HBO), one of the strangest things to ever make it to non-cable-access TV. Mr. Show hosts Bob and David also are finally seeing the release of their bastard cinematic stepchild, Run Ronnie Run! (New Line), which played at Sundance a couple of years ago and very few places since. It's a mixed bag, for sure, but fans of the show have been dying to see it for themselves.

Significantly more widely anticipated is The Looney Tunes Golden Collection (Warner Bros.), a non-chronological set of 56 classics from the Chuck Jones/Friz Freleng heyday of the late '40s/early '50s. Made for theaters and later repackaged as a TV series, these cartoons are some of the studio's most beloved - "Duck Dodgers" or "Rabbit of Seville," anyone? - and are so beautifully restored the colors leap from the screen.

Finally, the recent death of Art Carney makes the release of The Honeymooners (Paramount) - featuring Ed Norton, his most famous character - sadly timely. The adventures of the Kramdens and the Nortons were chronicled in many forms over the years, as sketches in variety shows and in their own series, but a mere 39 "classic" episodes (the ones that were syndicated for decades) built the show's legend. All of those are collected here, and they're a cornerstone of television comedy - even if 39 half-hours don't quite equal the back-healing scores of hours proved by those Sopranos sets. •


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