Faux Rick James, fictional radio announcers, and one real TV journalist
He's riiich, bee-yotch! The second season DVD release of Chappelle's Show (Comedy Central) reportedly has had the best first-week sales of any TV series ever. Wow. Hard to believe Dave beat Jerry, Homer, Captain Kirk, et al; here's hoping the good news brings the comedian (who has taken an unplanned hiatus due to "stress") out of his early retirement. Meanwhile, fans can feast on the series' best sketches, uncensored. Rick James! The racial draft! Prince playing basketball! 'Nuff said.
The heavy hitters are coming around this month to try to reclaim the sales title: Sony just released the fourth Seinfeld package, the one trumpeted as "the breakthrough season." This was the year the writers gave us "master of my domain" and admitted their show was "about nothing"; it's the year audiences flocked to see that nothing every week, ensuring the series' success.
In the opposite corner lurks The Sopranos (HBO), whose fifth season hit shelves this Tuesday. You may recall that series creator David Chase originally promised to wrap up his saga in five years; that's old news. A sixth is planned for 2006, and Chase is coy about additional plans. Whatever the future holds, the new DVD release is all the Tony you're gonna get for a year or so. (Meanwhile, HBO's fifth Oz season is set to release later this month, and Entourage slipped past the velvet rope in May.)
But don't rule out the underdogs. Take, for example, Moonlighting (Lions Gate), the show that introduced America to Bruce Willis and made a sappy Al Jarreau song a hit. The first and second season were just released as a set and they boast many of the episodes that drew critics and fans to the series, such as "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice," which was introduced by Orson Welles just before his death. In 2005, does the series look slightly less brilliant and more conventional than it did in the '80s? Does Bruce Willis' smartass schtick get a little tiresome, even as we smirk at it? To answer in Willis' own lingo: "Do bears bear? Do bees bee?"
Another cult favorite definitely stands the test of time: News Radio (seasons 1 and 2 just out from Sony) is still one of the funniest ensemble comedies ever to hit the air. The obvious stars of the show are Phil Hartman and Dave Foley, but the actor who earns the most yuks per line goes inexplicably unmentioned in the packaging's promotional blurb: Stephen Root (aka Jimmy James, the station's richer-than-God owner), where have you gone? Come back! A Dodgeball here and Office Space there simply aren't enough.
Shout Factory has done it again. After last year's Freaks and Geeks rediscovery, the indie DVD label has unearthed a show that should have been a success: The Job, a Dennis Leary comedy about NYC's least successful detective squad. Watching the few espisodes that were produced, I'm amazed that any network would air The Job at all. Leary's caustic humor is unrestrained, his character is an unredeemable sunovabitch, and the dialogue frequently skirts the FCC-approved blue zone. And it's a riot - just the answer the world needs to the seemingly endless supply of self-important cop dramas.
Lastly, a blast from the past. Docurama has just put together a four-disc set to show consumers of today's network news how things are supposed to be done. The Edward R. Murrow Collection is six-and-a-half hours of real television journalism, crafted by a man who - unlike most of today's news readers - projected a no-nonsense muckraking integrity that was more than an act. The set is broken up to present Murrow's work from multiple angles. On one disc is a portrait doc in which Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings reminisce about the man's influence; on another we get a greatest-hits reel drawn from the See It Now program. A third chronicles Murrow's in-up-to-his-elbows confrontations with red-scare maestro Senator Joseph McCarthy. And the fourth disc presents Harvest of Shame, the textbook documentary on migrant farm workers that exposed the harsh treatment endured by those who bring us our food.
As someone currently wincing my way through Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation (which, incidentally, is being developed into a movie by Richard Linklater), I must acknowledge that Harvest of Shame didn't single-handedly reform the greed-based agriculture industry. But it's easy to imagine how much worse things would be today if Murrow hadn't used his position to show America the ugly truth, time and time again. •
By John DeFore