Whose screen you calling small?’
As I sit down to write this, well over half of Amazon.com’s 100 bestselling DVDs are TV-show releases. A week ago, it was more like three quarters. This astounds me. Even factoring in one plausible explanation online retailers offer steeper discounts on big-ticket items such as complete-season box sets, making them move in large numbers that is still an awful lot of interest in, say, The Rockford Files (Amazon #12).
Buena Vista is cleaning up on the Amazon chart, with not only the engrossing Lost (covered here recently) but that other water-cooler sensation, Desperate Housewives. The latter is a snarky sendup of soap operas that, even if it weren’t pretty darn funny, would be worth celebrating just for giving a prime-time home to Felicity Huffman.
Some of the most solid new releases are simply recent installments of familiar titles, but that doesn’t make them unwelcome: The fourth season of Six Feet Under, which arrived just as my HBO-possessing neighbors were abuzz about the series’ swan song, and new installments of Da Ali-G Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm, prime examples of what has now been dubbed “cringe comedy.” In addition to those hits, HBO also has more offbeat offerings, such as the short-lived Steven Soderbergh-George Clooney creation Unscripted, in which three struggling young actors essentially play themselves as they try to get their careers off the ground.
Last week’s release of Serenity makes this a good time to revisit Firefly (Fox), Joss Whedon’s Western-style space opera that launched a cult despite shooting only a dozen or so episodes. Full of quirkily antiquated slang and accompanied by a twangy banjo score, it puts the “frontier” back in “final frontier.” The series isn’t a necessary prerequisite to seeing the movie the feature is a self-contained story but chances are that quite a few moviegoers who discover Whedon’s universe via Serenity will want to return to the well.
In other sci-fi news, Universal has just released the first season of the new Battlestar Galactica in a box that contains the three-hour miniseries that kicked off the franchise. A weird re-imagining of the original show, which sometimes feels like a sequel, the series made something of a splash on two fronts: It risked alienating a built-in fan base by discarding much of the mythology from the often-goofy original, and it dragged such real-world hot-button topics as terrorism and religious zealotry into the mix.
Two other sci-fi-related items: Sony has released the entire run of Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital, paving the way for the November release (finally!) of Lars Von Trier’s original miniseries; and X-Files fanatics can check out David Duchovny’s feature-directing debut, House of D (Lions Gate), which wasted little time jumping from big screen to small.
Shout Factory has shown that they can make a go of their ambitious schedule of SCTV releases now up to Volume Four, with a Christmas special on the way which might have played a tiny part in Lions Gate’s long-overdue decision to mine the Saturday Night Live vaults. Four titles inaugurate their SNL Classic Collection: single-artist discs devoted to John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Gilda Radner, and a more random compilation, The First 5 Years. None of the discs are as long as you’d hope they’d be, and as with the releases of more recent SNL stuff, fans will debate the “best of” choices. But until somebody wises up and releases full seasons individually, this is as good as it gets.
Finally, to that forsaken half-brother of mainstream TV, public access. The tiny DVD label Bright Red Rocket, whose previous release God Hates Cartoons gathered animated shorts from star comic-book artists, returns to the comics world for The Naked Cosmos, a mock-access show in which Love & Rockets legend Gilbert Hernandez plays a spaced-out host named Quintas and a number of other roles as well. Intentionally amateurish and stilted beyond belief, this one’s for hardcore fans and seekers of cult oddities. Meanwhile, the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (Hart Sharp) portrays a legendary Los Angeles enterprise that, before HBO and Showtime, pioneered the pay-cable movie channel. Unlike those mainstream networks, though, Z Channel had an individual personality, specializing in films that were overlooked by the public or amputated by studios; many contemporary filmmakers interviewed here credit the channel with resuscitating careers and influencing the Oscars. Even today, with a billion cable channels and more decent TV fare than in decades, a programming vision like Z Channel’s would keep a lot of people watching regular-ol’ television instead of renting series on DVD. •
John DeFore on DVD