John DeFore on DVD
I'll be the first to admit that my practiced disdain for television sometimes works to my disadvantage. Since I generally refuse to watch any new series until everyone else in the world acknowledges its worth, I miss the best things entirely - you know, those shows that are so good you can't believe they ever slipped through the gauntlet of network executives. By the time they've run for their allotted season or two and disappeared, I'm just starting to hear about them.
So it was with Freaks and Geeks (Shout Factory), with which I have now fallen in love. Did any other TV show ever have high school so squarely pegged? Even in movies, it's rare. Despite its name, one of the series' strengths is that it understands how fluid those labels can be: The brother and sister at the heart of the show, Sam and Lindsay Weir, are ostensibly hopeless nerd and borderline burnout, respectively; but each is more interesting for the ways they don't fit their cliques. Sam is scrawny but more socially adept than his pals; Lindsay is slumming but continues to feel the moral weight of the straight-laced girls who used to be confidantes. In episode after episode, eternal truths about teenagerdom are exposed - sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, and occasionally both at once.
(Incidentally, scene-stealing dad Mr. Weir is played by Joe Flaherty - whose own cult series, SCTV, gets its long-overdue DVD debut in June. In one of F&G's rare meta-moments, dad celebrates Halloween in a vampire cape that's suspiciously reminiscent of one Flaherty wore in a famous SCTV skit.)
Skipping over college into the next universally recognizable locus of fear and loathing, we have the BBC's The Office, the second half of which is now arriving on Stateside DVD shelves. Shot in pseudo-documentary style, the series skewered one of the most dysfunctional workplaces since the Springfield nuclear plant. The painfully funny star is David Brent, a boss whose self-image couldn't be more inaccurate: Although he's universally loathed, Brent thinks he is God's gift to office comedy. He sort of is, come to think of it, just not in the way he thinks.
Brent's opposite number - a smart, eloquent man who shared spotlights with grace and got laughs without trying - is the star of The Jack Paar Collection (Shout Factory). The first host of the Tonight Show, Paar invented the late-night talk show in the late '50s, but don't hold that against him; looking at the examples of his show on this three-DVD set, it's clear that he was working on a different plane than most of those who followed. For instance, Paar played host to politicians of all stripes (full interviews with Richard Nixon and Bobby Kennedy are featured here), and managed to get them to talk substantively while they tried to charm the audience. Paar is warm and generous with people whose views are clearly different than his own; if we had 20 people like him conducting meetings in Washington, the Right and Left might not be so hungry for each other's blood.
From the Oval Office to cloak-and-dagger, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Acorn) may be the most believable espionage saga put on TV. Worlds away from James Bond and Sydney Bristow, these intelligence experts are credibly world-weary. But still they have something compelling about them: There's a wonderful moment at the end of Episode One, after we've watched retired agent Alec Guinness wander unhappily around for 50 minutes, when he is confronted by an agent with information he needs. Guinness is sitting down. He takes off his glasses, wipes them distractedly, and when he puts them on it's as if we're seeing him for the first time. His eyes command every bit of the room, and we realize that it's not shaken martinis and laser wristwatches that save the world, but crystal-clear and dogged minds. And luck, of course - but that's to come later. •
John DeFore on DVD