A sure sign of the holiday season is the appearance of collectible editions. For TV shows, that means complete series sets. Last week we received one of the most requested sitcom releases, WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, DVD), with most (though not all) of the music intact. This week we get one contemporary landmark show debuting on Blu-ray, a vintage classic available in its entirety for the first time, and a cult show in a new DVD box.
The Sopranos: The Complete Series (HBO, Blu-ray+Digital HD) – It’s been on DVD already but until the arrival of this set, only seasons 1 and 6 have been released on Blu-ray. Now the entire run of cable series that became a cultural phenomenon (the first time from a pay cable channel) and broadened the possibilities of TV drama is available in the high definition home video format.
More than simply “The Godfather Sees a Shrink,” the brilliant made-for-cable drama The Sopranos gave “family crisis” a whole new meaning and television drama a new sophistication. Emmy winner James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, a blue collar guy in an upper-middle class neighborhood, battles panic attacks and assassination attempts as he juggles two families: his wife (Emmy winner Edie Falco), kids, and bitter, emasculating mother (a brilliant Nancy Marchand, who died after the filming the second season), and the New Jersey mob. Lorraine Bracco is the therapist who tries to helps Tony balance a middle class existence and a violent criminal lifestyle and ends up uneasy about her relationship to Tony as she finally understands the depth of his criminal activity.
The first season turned into a cultural phenomenon and the highest rated HBO original series ever. The second season introduced David Provall as Ritchie Apprio, the angry, unstable mobster who bristles under Tony’s leadership and clashes with the family in his rogue activities. After the melodramatic rollercoaster of the second season, season three simmers with troubled allegiances, complicated relationships, and the devastating effects of the family business on the conflicted emotions of the Soprano children and mob wife Carmella (Emmy winner Edie Falco), who struggles with her inherent complicity in Tony’s job. By the end of the six-season run, Tony and the New Jersey mob goes to war with Phil Leotardo and the New York mob in the wake of a leadership vacuum, wife Carmella comes to terms with the realities of being a mob wife, Tony’s nephew and heir-apparent Christopher (Michael Imperioli) makes a dramatic exit, and creator David Chase ends it all on a finale that evocatively proclaims that the mob life will never afford the Soprano family closure. The end thrilled, impressed, frustrated, and enraged viewers. American couldn’t stop talking about it and parodies sprouted across the media spectrum, not the least of which was a Hillary Clinton campaign spot!
Written with a marvelous ear for language and a sharp sense of character, The Sopranos made full use of the no holds barred opportunities of cable with shocking violence, casual sex, and epithet laced gangster-speak. But more importantly, it dropped the gangster drama into the modern world with intelligence and insight: these are mobsters whose lore is informed by the movies as much as by history. This series didn’t so much change the face of television as it showed what was possible. Shows as disparate as The Shield, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, and Breaking Bad owe their existence to the creative energy and cultural embrace of The Sopranos and for that alone the show earns its place in the pantheon of American television landmarks.
The complete 86-episode series, from the panic attack that opens the show to the abrupt ending, is collected on 28 discs in seven cases (one for each season, with Season 6 split into two parts, as it was originally released on Blu-ray) plus an eighth slimcase with a disc of substantial interview features originally presented in the DVD edition of The Complete Series: “Defining a Television Landmark,” a roundtable discussion with creator David Chase, executive producer Brad Grey, producer Ilene Landress, filmmakers Steven Soderbergh and Andrew Dominick, actor/writer Michael Imperioli, critics Elvis Mitchell, Dorothy Rabinowitz and David Bianculli, and professor Paul Levinson; two sessions of “Supper with The Sopranos,” with Chase discussing the show over a meal with (in part one) producer / writer (and future Boardwalk Empire creator) Terence Winter, director Allen Coulter, and actors Dominic Chianese, Rober Iler, and Aida Turturro, and (in part two) executive producer / writer (and future Mad Men creator) Matthew Weiner, producer Ilene Landress, director Alan Taylor, actor / music advisor Steven Van Zandt, and star Edie Falco; and “An Interview with David Chase,” a one-on-one conversation with Alec Baldwin, who desperately wanted Chase to create a role for him on the show.
The supplements from previous Blu-ray and DVD releases of the seasons are also all intact, including Peter Bogdanovich’s interview with Chase, a discussion of the music with Chase, Steven Van Zandt, and Dominic Chianese, and commentary on 25 episodes by various members of the cast and crew.
Sgt. Bilko / The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, DVD) – Phil Silvers had a solid career as a second banana and comic support in dozens of Hollywood comedies and musicals but it was this TV sitcom, developed for him by Nat Hiken, which made his fame. It was actually called You’ll Never Get Rich for the first episodes and changed to The Phil Silvers Show but America called it Sgt. Bilko, after the scheming, swindling, always on the make Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko, the reigning conman in charge of the motor pool and the most entertainingly conniving officer in this man’s peacetime army. Stationed in Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas, Bilko and his partners-in-hustle (Harvey Lembeck and Allan Melvin) target every fresh recruit that marches through camp and every payday bankroll in soldiers’ pockets. There wasn’t a harder working goldbrick in the armed forces, nor a funnier one. Paul Ford is Colonel Hall, the camp commander fully aware of Bilko’s reputation and nonetheless his eternal foil and Joe E. Ross is the gruff but lovable camp cook Sgt. Rupert Ritzik.
The show took home Emmys for Best Comedy Series, Best Comedy Writing, Best Director and for Best Actor Phil Silvers on its inaugural season and won two more awards for Best Comedy Writing and Best Comedy series over its four year run, while Silvers went on to play variations on the Bilko character on TV and in the movies throughout the sixties. Some of the memorable guest stars include Dick Van Dyke (as the “Hillbilly Whiz”), Charlotte Rae, Larry Storch, Alan Alda, Fred Gwynne, Al Lewis, Paul Lynde, and George Kennedy, who was also the show’s US Army technical advisor.
142 episodes are featured on 20 discs, collected in four volumes in a box set. The first season was released on DVD a few years ago by Paramount and that set is included in this box along with the debut of the rest of the run. The episodes are uncut and look quite good but they feature the animated opening titles of the syndication version of the show (renamed Sgt. Bilko). The first season includes “The Lost Audition Show,” an early version of the pilot with alternate cast members (including Jack Warden in the Melvin’s role) but essentially the same script (taken from a worn 16mm kinescope print), commentary on two episodes (co-star Allan Melvin on the series debut “The New Recruits” and George Kennedy on “The Court Martial”), and the original version of the show’s opening credits when it was titled You’ll Never Get Rich.
New to the this set: archival clips of Phil Silvers from The Dick Cavett Show and a couple of network specials, a complete episode of the short-lived follow-up The New Phil Silvers Show, archival interviews with Silvers, and new interviews with his daughters. Commentary tracks from various guest stars (including Larry Storch and Dick Van Dyke) are carried over from the previously released Sgt. Bilko: 50th Anniversary Edition.
M Squad: The Complete TV Series – Special Edition (Timeless, DVD) is the second DVD release of this late-fifties half-hour cop procedural starring Lee Marvin stars as Lt. Frank Ballinger, the plainclothes cop on the elite M Squad of the Chicago PD. Much of the show was shot on location in the city and the set to a jazzy score (Count Basie provided the theme song for the show’s second season and Benny Carter scored much of the third season), which helped give it a distinct sensibility, and Marvin anchors the lean half-hour crime drama with the easy confidence that soon made him a star, narrating in the no-nonsense manner of an old film noir and a tossed-off quality that gives his words a pulp authenticity. The scripts are filled with period slang and hard-boiled lingo, though they lack the snap and cleverness of Johnny Staccato or Peter Gunn (two stand-out examples of the half-hour crime show), and the atmosphere tends toward the sleaze of underworld joints.
There are some fun guest appearances by young actors working their way to fame: DeForest Kelley and Angie Dickinson in “Diamond Hard” (disc two), Charles Bronson as a boxer in “The Fight” (disc five), and James Coburn and Leonard Nimoy in “The Fire Makers” (disc nine). And Robert Altman directs “Lover’s Lane Killing” (disc three), one of the scores of TV episodes he directed before making the leap to feature films.
M Squad ran for three seasons and all 117 episodes are collected on this 16-disc set, collected in eight thinpak cases in a paperboard box. The print quality is, frankly, substandard and it varies dramatically from episode to episode, but that’s par for the course for a show where the original elements are no longer available. The sixteenth disc is a gift for Marvin fans: a collection of four TV shows featuring Marvin as a guest star. There’s an episode of Wagon Train (“The Jose Morales Story,” 1960, with Marvin as a Mexican bandit), Checkmate (“Jungle Castle,” 1961), The Virginian (“It Tolls for Thee,” 1962, directed by Sam Fuller), and the true crime show The Lawbreakers (“The Pittsburgh Story,” 1963), which Marvin hosted and narrated.
More TV sets:
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Complete Cases Collection (Acorn, Blu-ray, DVD)
Sherlock: The Complete Season 1-3 Limited Edition Gift Set (BBC, Blu-ray)
Doctor Who: The Complete Matt Smith Years (BBC, Blu-ray)
Merlin: The Complete Series (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD)
Reno 911! The Complete Series (Paramount, DVD)
Quantum Leap: The Complete Series (Universal, DVD)