A big, quote-heavy double-truck ad greeted New York Times readers recently to announce the second season of Deadwood, HBO's latest small-screen series with cinematic ambitions. They certainly know how to time things: The first season of the Western drama came out on DVD with just enough breathing room to let us newcomers check it out before tuning in to the new episodes.
The show's loudly trumpeted innovation - that the characters swear a lot - may seem pretty trivial. Yes, real frontiersmen were almost certainly foul-mouthed, and no, Westerns up to now have largely downplayed this (could it be because many of the genre's fans are senior citizens with delicate sensibilities?), but envelope-pushing expletives alone don't make for drama. Fortunately, the show has more to offer: talent behind the camera such as David Milch (NYPD Blue) and Walter Hill, and charismatic performances in front of it.
Deadwood joins a number of other recent releases of shows that were critical sensations but may not yet have made it to a water-cooler chat near you. HBO offers the second season of The Wire, the gritty Baltimore-set police drama that still promises to be a sleeper success. England's answer to 24 and Alias, MI-5, also released Season Two (BBC Video), offering a vision of cloak-and-dagger that sticks closer to the limitations of the real world.
Speaking of Baltimore, A&E is doing right by Homicide fans, pushing out new releases almost as fast as we can watch them. They're up to Season Six now, continuing their laudable practice of presenting episodes of this tangled narrative in the order they were intended to be shown, not the way they actually made it onto the airwaves.
Even more delightful is the speed with which Shout Factory is releasing SCTV packages. And for a show that may not have the marquee value of a Seinfeld or Simpsons, they're treating it with a lot of care. Even up to Volume 3 - when Martin Short joined the cast - they have produced substantial features such as profile of John Candy.
Bonus features are also a surprise on Warner Brothers' superhero titles including Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series. You might not expect an afternoon kids' show to be honored with commentary tracks, mini-documentaries, and the like, but Warner rightly guesses that many fans of these stylishly drawn shows are geeks beyond their teens, the kind of consumers who appreciate these goodies more than the average 8-year old.
Warner is also interested in adult viewers who watch shows intended for their age group. Blasts from the '80s past such as Murphy Brown and Night Court are slipping out on disc, amid other, less respected fare.
DVD companies should also be bringing us more titles we never knew existed, as Acorn Media has with two newly released box sets of a British TV series called Tales of the Unexpected, which began in the late '70s and was inspired by the adult-oriented stories of beloved children's-book author Roald Dahl. Revolving around macabre twists and dark humor, the stand-alone episodes star a surprising roster of talent: Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, and John Gielgud are some of the highbrow thespians recruited for the series; mainstream actors such as Telly Savalas and Joan Collins also put in appearances. Dahl hosted the show himself in the beginning, á la Alfred Hitchcock, and while the productions are as modestly budgeted as you'd expect of a decades-old British production, the talent involved is ample compensation - and the releases arrive just in time to whet our appetites for Tim Burton's new big-screen adaptation of Dahl's most famous creation, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. •
By John DeFore