John DeFore on DVD
The quirky tube
I'm not sure what took 'em so long, but Universal is making up for the delay of their first-season Northern Exposure with a cute packaging gimmick: Set in Alaska, the comedy comes bundled up in a tiny orange parka. Not that the distributors need more selling points. NE was a beacon of eccentric smarts on turn-of-the-'90s TV, a perpetually endearing look at a wonderfully odd batch of characters. The first season, fans may remember, featured the inspired Twin Peaks parody (and when's the rest of that one coming out?!) and the blossoming of homegrown hipster Ed's love affair with filmmaking.
Another filmmaker explores his ancestral cinema in My Voyage to Italy (Miramax), Martin Scorsese's much-celebrated, four-hour televised tribute to Italian cinema. Scorsese is the ultimate film-buff auteur, and his observations are always insightful and personal. Some filmmakers appear to study others' work only until they get their own careers launched, but Scorcese remains a scholar driven by love of his forebears' legacy.
The Scorsese-produced Blues documentary series has also hit DVD, both in a box set and in individual releases from Universal. I haven't seen the second batch of singles in stores yet, but The Road to Memphis, Godfathers and Sons, and Mike Figgis' Red White & Blues are definitely out, providing a catch-up opportunity for those of us who weren't able to see them when they aired.
A very different sort of documentary, How's Your News? (Shout Factory), is also TV-related. It follows a group of mentally impaired kids who travel the country making their own version of a nightly news show. It played festivals a few years ago, and suffered a bit from an ugly wave of mainstream comedy that made this sort of thing look a little exploitative; now, the empathy it has for its subjects is a little more clear.
Speaking of Shout Factory, have I mentioned their first SCTV Network 90 release enough yet? Its laugh-per-minute ratio makes it one of the best bargains on video store shelves right now. Viewing tip: The conceit of the show - it's supposed to be a transmission of a third-rate network - works particularly well in the middle of the night, when its neighbors on the tube are infomercials and decades-old reruns.
Speaking of which, two blasts from the past make their debut this month from Warner Bros. It was never a favorite of mine, but fanboy perverts everywhere will want to rush out and rope Wonder Woman Season One, starring the buxom Linda Carter as the world's most patriotic S&M artist (she ties guys up in a golden lasso that doubles as a mind-control device, remember?) On a more
Some animated programs from Warner are also hitting shelves, both recent titles, such as the second season of cult favorite Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and more established shows such as Batman: The Animated Series. As a longtime Batfan, I was always leery of the cartoon version. How could a 'toon take the world's coolest superhero seriously? But it does a pretty great job, with writing a notch above your average kids' stuff and a really fantastic stylized look full of shadows, silhouettes, and striking design. Commandeering Danny Elfman's themes from the movies doesn't hurt, either.
Of course, all cartoons look like kids' stuff compared to The Simpsons (Fox), which appears finally to be getting over the one-release-per-year hump. With Season Four (one of the best years in the series' run, when it seemed the show could do no wrong) in stores now, it's conceivable that the DVDs will be caught up with the current broadcasts before we're all as old as Grandpa Simpson.
Finally, something completely new: Many of us with lousy or nonexistent cable have been itching to check out Monk (Universal), the critically acclaimed detective series starring Tony Shalhoub. Monk's schtick is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which makes him both a Sherlock Holmes-level deduction artist and a complete nightmare for his doughnut crumb-trailing police colleagues. Shalhoub is as delightful here as he is on the big screen, and his nurse/Watson sidekick is charismatic as well. But at bottom this is as conventionally plotted as any of the old '70s/'80s detective shows currently in late-night syndication. It's cute stuff worth a look, but I'm not writing any more desperate pleas to my cable provider. •