The Americans: The Complete First Season (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) may sound gimmicky—Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play deep-cover Soviet agents living as typical American suburban parents in Reagan’s America of the early 1980s—but like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and Mad Men before it, the FX original series uses the era and the tension between appearance and reality to create a character study and a cultural portrait, in this case a fascinating domestic drama inside an espionage thriller.
Essentially assigned to an arranged marriage in the name of Mother Russia, Elizabeth and Phillip have a long-term professional partnership under the guise of a loving relationship and all those years in America has given them ideas that perhaps they would like to pursue their own happiness. In contrast to their issues, their new neighbor is an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) on the trail of a Russian spy network, an all-American guy so tangled up in his job that he’s losing touch with his wife and family. Sure, he has no idea that this suburban couple is his target, but that’s the least of the show’s ironies, and Emmerich is fascinatingly flawed as the dedicated patriot failing his own family.
Russell is both ruthless and vulnerable as Elizabeth, ferocious on the job and protective as a mother, and Rhys is warmer as the partner who likes living in the USA. If her commitment is to a Soviet ideal and a faraway home, his is to wife and family, which gets complicated when their job calls for seducing a target. Personal desires aside, their biggest conflict is their dream for their kids. While Elizabeth and Phillip may be dedicated to spying on America for their Russian homeland, they want to give their American-born children a future that only the United States can offer. The contradiction isn’t lost on them even as they steal secrets and blackmail American agents. The contradiction isn’t lost us that we actually root for the Russkies to prevail. The show’s attention to eighties spycraft technology and the details of espionage gives it the genre charge but the roiling emotional drama of love, resentment, suspicion, jealousy, trust, and conflicting commitment gives it the spark.
Margo Martindale earned an Emmy nomination for playing their handler, a ruthless piece of work behind a pose of homespun maternalism (another take on her backwoods mafia matriarch of Justified) and Richard Thomas is Emmerich’s boss.
13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, plus commentary on the season finale “The Colonel” by creator Joseph Weisberg, writer / producer Joel Fields and actor Noah Emmerich, three featurettes (“Executive Order 2579: Exposing the Americans,” “Perfecting the Art of Espionage” and “Ingenuity Over Technology”) and deleted scenes among the supplements.
The second season begins on FX in late February.
Sherlock: Season Three (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD) picks up Britain’s inventive update / reinterpretation of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories after two years and what appeared to John Watson (Martin Freeman) and us to be death of Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch). But of course just as Holmes survived Doyle’s attempt to kill him off at the Reichenbach Falls, he survived this “Reichenbach Fall” and he makes a surprise return to an unprepared Watson just as he’s about to propose marriage to Mary (Amanda Abbington). Mary is a marvelous addition to the series and even impresses Sherlock with her ability to deal with his sociopathic personality and understand his friendship with Watson and the new chemistry is one of the most enjoyable elements of this series of three new feature-length mysteries.
The other is the sheer inventiveness of the production. As mysteries, this third round (scripted by co-creator Mark Gatiss, Steve Thompson, and co-creator / producer Steven Moffat, respectively) is clever in a gimmicky sort of way, but the delight in the storytelling, the sense of humor that borders on Python-esque, the detours that appear to run off the rails only to reconnect quite brilliantly with the central point is great fun. And while we don’t expect much evolution in the character of Holmes, a man who describes himself as a “high-functioning sociopath,” he takes the hurt he inflicted upon Watson in the first episode, “The Empty Hearse,” and transforms it into a fierce protectiveness of his best and only true friend. It is a joy to watch.
The Blu-ray and DVD editions feature three episodes on two discs plus three half-hour featurettes, all previously broadcast on PBS along with the episodes.
The White Queen (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – The Starz original series have not been very impressive to date but the cable network has done well by mini-series, especially The Pillars of the Earth. This eight-part series, based on three novels by bestselling author Philippa Gregory, continues their successful run of historical dramas with a sprawling take on the War of the Roses from the point of view of the women who are just as involved in the struggle for the British throne as the men who will rule. From the moment Edward Duke of York (Max Irons) marries Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), a widow in an out-of-favor royal family (and, as the series paints her, a Celtic sorceress to boot), the battles never end. “Kingmaker” Lord Warwick (James Frain) immediately begins plotting to replace him with someone he can control and the gamesmanship, alliances, and uncivil warfare begins. Edward and Warwick don’t even survive the first half of the series but Elizabeth continues fight to put her son on the throne and she finds her fiercest rivals in Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), who schemes to make her husband King Richard III, and Lady Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), who plots to put her son on the throne and return the kingdom to the House of Lancaster. The royal lineage and the complicated relationships, grudges, and alliances between the various houses is complicated, to say the least (the disc comes with a fold-out guide to the players in this drama)
Starz adds in the expected quotient of sex and violence but it’s less than HBO’s Game of Thrones and nowhere near the exploitative levels of its pulpy Spartacus series. If anything, it even suggests a very earthy kind of connection between Edward and Elizabeth: a love marriage in a time when marriages were arranged for tactical reasons.
The eleven featurettes on Blu-ray and DVD are all of the promotional variety and just a few minutes long apiece. The Blu-ray also include a Digital HD Ultraviolet copy of the series.
Burton and Taylor (BBC, DVD), the made-for-BBC America telefilm, is a much more low-key look into the lives of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (played by Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West) than the Lindsay Lohan TV movie “Dick & Liz.” This one, set in 1983 when the twice married and divorced couple reunited for a Broadway production of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” is more of a chamber drama than a celebrity melodrama, exploring the delicate relationship of the one-time lovers as Burton, a recovering alcoholic, rededicates himself to serious drama and the woman in his life and Taylor, very much the celebrity and paparazzi magnet, slips into diva mode. The actors are excellent, suggesting rather than impersonating the stars, but the film depends on the audience knowledge of their tempestuous history. If you don’t know how they arrived here, this underplayed drama doesn’t mean a lot.
The Returned (Music Box, Blu-ray, DVD) – While imported TV shows are doing better than ever in the U.S., the ratings success stories are limited to English language productions. This French production, adapted and expanded from Robin Campillo’s 2004 horror film Les Revenants into an eight-part series, played stateside on the Sundance Channel, where it garnered critical acclaim and passionate fans but the numbers were small. It’s something of a zombie film without the flesh-eating: the dead return with no explanation, looking just as they were in life and ready to pick where they left off, even as the living have moved on. It’s not just a matter of readjustment and this series finds its tone in that murky territory of emotional confusion and practical considerations of an inexplicable event. Eight episodes on three discs, plus a booklet with an essay and an interview with the series creators. In French with English subtitles.
The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Complete Series (Warner Archive, DVD), a 1971 sitcom starring the American acting legend as a college professor trying to understand the younger generation in his classes and in his family, was Stewart’s first foray into TV (his second, the legal drama Hawkins, was released on the Warner Archive last year). It lasted a single season. The three disc set, available exclusively online from Warner Archive line of MOD (manufacture on demand) DVD-R releases, features all 24 episodes.
Killing Kennedy (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD), starring Rob Lowe as President John F. Kennedy, is the adaptation of the book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard made for the National Geographic channel. The disc features an extended cut of the cable film and the Blu-ray edition features a bonus Digital HD Ultraviolet copy.
Hawking (PBS, DVD) profiles the life of intellectual superstar Stephen Hawking in a documentary produced by British television and shown stateside on PBS. FYI: did you know that Benedict Cumberbatch played Hawking in TV movie? He did and he’s included in this documentary.
The Red Skelton Show: The Lost Episodes (Timeless, DVD) presents 18 episodes of the long-running TV comedy never before released on DVD.
Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth (HBO, DVD) is the one-man stage show directed by Spike Lee and originally broadcast on HBO. It features interviews and an Ultraviolet digital copy.
The Broker’s Man: Series 1 (Acorn, DVD) stars Kevin Whately as an ex-cop turned insurance investigator in three feature-length mysteries made for British TV in 1997.
The Lady Vanishes (BBC, DVD)
House of Versace (Lionsgate, DVD)
Hetty Wainthropp Investigates: The Complete Collection (Acorn, DVD)
Midsomer Murders Set 23 (Acorn, DVD)
Dallas: The Complete Second Season (Warner, DVD)
Laverne & Shirley: The Seventh Season (Paramount, DVD)
Family Matters: The Complete Fourth Season (Warner, DVD)
Swamp People: Season 4 (History Channel, DVD)
Doctor Who: The Moonbase (BBC, DVD)
Hindenburg – The Last Flight (Anchor Bay, DVD)
Chasing Shackleton (PBS, DVD)
Spies of Mississippi (PBS, DVD)
NOVA: Cold Case JFK (PBS, DVD)
American Experience: The Amish: Shunned (PBS, DVD)
American Experience: The Poisoner’s Handbook (PBS, DVD)
Frontline: A Death in St. Augustine (PBS, DVD)
The Mind of a Chef: April Bloomfield (PBS, DVD)