Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, DVD) – Norman Lear’s soap opera parody lasted only a year and a half in the mid-1970s and never received strong ratings, but it developed a loyal following and critical acclaim and 35 years later feels all the more contemporary and prescient.
Set in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio, it stars Louise Lasser as the unfulfilled housewife struggling with a sexually confused husband (Greg Mullavey), an oft-arrested father known as “The Fernwood Flasher,” a serial killer who wipes out a local family and takes Mary hostage, and the waxy yellow build-up on her kitchen linoleum. Debralee Scott co-stars as her sexually reckless sister, Mary Kay Place is her neighbor, a child bride and aspiring country singer, Dabney Coleman is the town’s scheming mayor, and Martin Mull plays identical twins, among the show’s notable co-stars. (Mull went on to star in the spin-off Fernwood 2 Night.)
The half-hour program was shot like a traditional soap opera and ran five days a week in syndication, mixing wild parodies of soap opera complications with sly cultural satire about changing sexual mores, consumerism, family dynamics, and media hysteria. But it also dug into more provocative issues, confronted sexual fulfillment and communication within families and relationships, and the episode where Mary suffers a nervous breakdown on TV, when she’s profiled as “America’s typical consumer housewife” by David Susskind and grilled by a panel of experts, is genuinely harrowing as the satire turns dark and her flailing defensiveness spirals into panic and disconnection.
The series holds up surprisingly well, thanks to smart writing, a superb cast, and its perfect evocation of the soap opera style. There’s not even a laugh track, which might have confounded some viewers who didn’t pick up on the tongue-in-cheek treatment, but it fits right in with the modern trend of TV comedies. The video quality betrays the age of the show, with discoloration and some distortion at the edges of the image, but that’s to be expected for seventies video technology. Features 325 episodes plus bonus documentaries and 10 episodes of the spinoff Fernwood 2 Night, a talk show spoof with Martin Mull and Fred Willard, on 39 discs in a box set. Also includes a booklet with essays and an episode guide.
Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) celebrates the 50th anniversary of the beloved British time travelling hero with an adventure in space and time the brings the last two Doctors, David Tennant and Matt Smith, together with the mysterious “War Doctor” (John Hurt) as they converge on the moment that destroyed the Time Lord home world and the Dalek race. The tragic past of the Doctor has been the dark shadow over his playful personality and frivolous front since Russell Davies first brought him back but this episode is the first to delve into the forge that orphaned the last of the Time Lords, and it gives him a second chance with the greatest Time Lord dream team ever.
Bringing multiple Doctors together was a popular gimmick for the original incarnation when it came to anniversaries or special shows but this is the first time for the reboot series and Steven Moffat, the cleverest of Doctor Who show-runners, approaches it with the same clockwork precision he lavishes on his season arcs, where every tossed-off curve or surprise twist is actually ingeniously woven into the big picture. Plus it’s great fun to see the personalities of Tennant and Smith bounce off one another. With two mini-episodes (previously available solely on the web) and two featurettes. The Blu-ray edition also features a Blu-ray 3D versions and a bonus DVD.
Also new is Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited – Ninth to Eleventh (BBC, DVD), which completes the survey of the actors to play The Doctor with tributes to the 21st century players Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith plus two-part stories showcasing each actor:
House of Cards, Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black got all the publicity by Lilyhammer (Flatiron, Blu-ray, DVD) was the first Netflix original series. Steve Van Zandt stars as a mobster in the witness protection program who chooses to start again in the Norwegian town of Lillehammer, where he brings wise-guy attitude to Norwegian small town eccentricity. Eight episodes plus a featurette.
Teen Wolf: Season 3 Part 1 (Fox, DVD) expands MTV’s entry into supernatural TV with an extended season – Part 1 features 12 episodes on three discs – of high school adventures with werewolves, hunters, ancient magic, and an Alpha pack that wants to take over the school. This cable original with hot teens, feral transformations, star-crossed love and full moon fever is turning out to be one of the best of the genre and a much more interesting and engaging series than the overexposed and outrageous True Blood. New episodes start up in January.
The Simpsons: The Sixteenth Season (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) rewinds back to the 2004-2005 season, which includes “Treehouse of Horror XV” and guest voices James Caan, Eric Idle, 50 Cent, Lucy Liu, Joe Mantegna, Amy Poehler, Stephen Hawking, Ray Romano, Los Lobos, Jason Bateman, and Liam Neeson (among others). 21 episodes plus commentary on every episode, deleted scenes, featurettes, and other supplements.
Futurama: Volume 8 (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) concludes Matt Groenig’s animated sci-farce about a modern day human frozen in the wacky future of the year 3000 with the final 13 episodes of the show’s revival. With commentary on every episode (plus a bonus commentary on “Game of Tones”), deleted scenes, featurettes, and other supplements. And, of course, the ending also brings the inevitable box set Futurama: The Complete Series (Fox, DVD), with 124 episodes, four feature-length specials, and all the supplements of the original disc releases.
An older vintage series also gets boxed up in its entirety. The Gene Autry Show: The Complete Series (Timeless, DVD) aired from 1950 to 1955, bringing the formula of his big screen programmers of the 1930s and 1940s to the small screen and the half-hour anthology format, with Autry joined by Pat Buttram and his faithful Wonder Horse Champion. 91 episodes, including 15 color episodes, on 15 discs, plus four episodes of his “Melody Ranch Radio Show,” trailers, galleries of stills and collectibles, and two bonus episodes apiece of the 1950s wester shows The Range Rider with Jock Mahoney, Annie Oakley with Gail Davis, Buffalo Bill, Jr. with Dick Jones and The Adventures of Champion with Barry Curtis, all produced by Autry’s Flying A Pictures company.
More for the TV completest, here are a couple of shows with fervid followings and almost most no overlap. For viewers of a certain age, the original Hawaii Five-0: The Complete Series (Paramount, DVD) has a certain cache thanks to a macho Jack Lord doing badass cop stuff in paradise. A very different and much younger generation may find Power Rangers Legacy: The First 20 Years (Limited Edition) (Shout Factory, DVD) more to their taste, though it does pose the question: how much is too much when childhood passions become adult kitsch?
Hot in Cleveland: Season Four (Paramount, DVD)
Doc Martin: Series 6 (Acorn, DVD)
The Game: The Sixth Season (Paramount, DVD)
Duck Dynasty: Seasons 1-3 Collector’s Set (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD)
Transformers Prime: Season Three – Beast Hunters (Shout Factory, Blu-ray, DVD)
Secrets of the Tower of London (PBS, DVD)
The Mind of a Chef: Sean Brock (PBS, DVD)
Secrets of Selfridges (PBS, DVD)
Held Hostage (PBS, DVD)
Nature: Parrot Confidential (PBS, DVD)
Weird Creatures with Nick Baker: Season 2 (PBS, DVD)