It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve dug into the TV on disc releases, due largely to the ambitious slate of classic movies and special editions I’ve been reviewing. But some interesting shows have debuted on disc recently. Here are the ones I had the time and opportunity to look at.
Low Winter Sun: The Complete Series (Anchor Bay, DVD) – Some of the most interesting American TV shows are, curiously enough, adapted from European programs. This one is adapted and expanded from a British mini-series starring Mark Strong as a police detective who conspires to kill a corrupt colleague and is then assigned to investigate the murder.
Strong reprises his role in the American version, made for the commercial cable channel AMC, this time as Detective Frank Agnew, a Detroit officer who conspires with the frustrated partner of a brutal detective to kill the bad cop and make it look like suicide. Lennie James is the partner in murder, Detective Joe Geddes, and as the perfect crime unravels they discover that they have their own motives and secrets and they simply do not trust one another, a situation that gets worse when Internal Affairs starts its own investigation. Meanwhile an upstart gang leader (James Ransone) and his wife (Sprague Grayden), a bar-owner who was once married to a Detroit cop, are muscling in on gangster territory with big plans and a small fortune in stolen cocaine.
The contemporary Detroit setting gives the show a desperate environment of poverty and collapse and Ernest Dickerson, who directed episodes of The Wire and Treme, sets a gritty style and grim atmosphere in the first couple of episodes. The show did not get renewed for a second season but it ends with an appropriately cynical closure that satisfactorily wraps up the story. I found it more compelling than I expected, with excellent performances and interesting characters who are trying to hold on to their souls as they get mired deeper in their compromising situations. But there is so much dark drama on TV that it sometimes gets to be too much and this is dark stuff.
10 episodes on three discs on DVD, with promotional featurettes and deleted scenes.
It’s also streaming on Netflix.
Shout Factory has been the greatest home video archivist of classic TV treasures in recent years and The Marx Brothers TV Collection (Shout Factory, DVD) is quite the treasure chest, as long as you understand exactly what this set offers. This is a potpourri of unusual projects and unexpected appearances by Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx on TV from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, from full-length programs to variety show skits to TV commercials, with the aging comedy stars both solo and teamed up (though all three are never together apart from one delicious surprise). And while none of these projects rival their best work on the big screen, there are genuine treats to be had. “The Incredible Jewel Robbery,” for instance, a 1959 episode of the half-hour anthology show General Electric Theater with Chico and Harpo as a heist team in what is essentially a silent movie comedy short for TV with music and sound effects but no dialogue. Harpo guest stars on the premiere episode of “The Red Skelton Hour,” playing a whimsical guardian angel and performing a comic pantomime duet. And Groucho takes his only dramatic TV role in another General Electric Theater episode, “The Hold Out” from 1962, with guest stars Brooke Hayward and Dennis Hopper.
While Groucho tried out different characters and comic personae in his many TV appearances and Chico toned down his screen personality to varying degrees and even broke character to some extent (on the BBC talk show Showtime in 1959 and the specialty show Championship Bridge with Charles Goren in 1960, plus a delicious turn on I’ve Got a Secret), Harpo was always Harpo. He never spoke. He does, however, lost the wig and hat and tooting horn, for “A Silent Panic,” a 1960 episode of The DuPont Show with June Allyson starring Harpo as a mechanical man in a department story window. Among the many other goodies, let me highlight the outtake reel from the final season of You Bet Your Life and the 22-minute collection of family home movies from all three brothers, narrated by Harpo’s son Bill Marx (who is also the executive producer of the set).
It comes with a 40-page booklet with an essay, photos, and an annotated program guide. And if you order directly from Shout Factory, you can get a limited special edition with an additional bonus disc and a poster.
The Blacklist: The Complete First Season (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) is another of the high-concept conspiracy / espionage shows proliferating on TV. What makes this stand out isn’t the premise – a renegade government agent who spent decades going rogue in the international underworld of crime turns himself in to the FBI and offers to help them catch the worst criminals in the world – but the character. More specifically, the incarnation of the character in the hands of James Spader, who plays Raymond “Red” Reddington as a mastermind with glib charm and a cagey endgame. The most mysterious of his demands is that he work exclusively with young profiler Liz Keen (Megan Boone), fresh from Quantico without field experience. He has an almost paternal affection for her, it seems, but their exact relationship is left unanswered at the end of the season.
The episodes are generally built around the efforts to take down the villain of the week, usually as they are engaged in something nefarious nearby, while threads from a larger pattern are woven through the season. The show goes through its motions with all slick action TV style that the networks can afford and it wraps its dark conspiracies up in high-end production value, but there’s not much personality to the supporting cast (including the great Harry Lennix as the unit boss, stuck in a dimensionless role) or the recurring shadow players in the government power games (Alan Alda and Jane Alexander), let alone the bland Agent Keen. It’s all carried by Spader and he’s a heavyweight, lifting the show out of its otherwise familiar patterns by sheer bravura.
22 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on three episodes by the executive producers, a behind-the-scenes documentary, and short “Beyond the Blacklist” featurettes for every episode. Exclusive to the Blu-ray set is a featurette on the pilot, a discussion of the villains with the writers and producers, and “Character Dossiers” on the show’s main characters.
Bitten: The Complete First Season (eOne, Blu-ray, DVD) – Whether we need another werewolf show or not, this Canadian production (it shows stateside on SyFy) isn’t too bad. Based on the “Otherwold” novels by Kelley Armstrong, it stars Laura Vandervoort as the sole she-wolf in a pack centered just outside of Toronto. She’s trying to suppress the wolf and live in the city as a human but an attack on the pack takes her back to the homestead: a villa in rural in Bear Valley where alpha wolf Jeremy (Greg Bryk) tries to hold the family together and protect them when a savage pack of renegade “mutts” (wolves with loyalties who don’t follow the rules) declares war on them.
Vandervoort played hot aliens twice on TV, as Clark Kent’s long lost super cousin on “Smallville” and as daughter of the alien lizard queen on “V,” and this show plays up the sex and the animal passion within as she’s torn between human boyfriend Philip and hot-tempered wolfman Clayton, a former lover who has control issues. An episode doesn’t go by without the fetching Vandervoort stripping down (either for sex or for a wolf transformation) for some tantalizing skin, carefully concealed for commercial TV broadcast (lots of shadow, strategic camera angles, purposefully blocking props). It’s supernatural thriller and clan melodrama with good-looking young adults keeping secrets and running wild, rather self-serious and overly grave and far less colorful or lively or inventive as Teen Wolf, but it has its fans and it’s been picked up for a second season.
It’s also streaming on Netflix.
Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery (Paramount, Blu-ray) is arguably the TV collection of the year. I did not receive a review copy so I’ll take that on faith, but it’s at the top of my want list come Christmas. The episodes are also available to stream on Netflix (and the prequel film Fire Walk With Me) and on Amazon Instant (free for Prime members), but the new Blu-ray features newly remastered episodes and new supplements.
Exclusive Streaming TV:
Agatha Christie’s Poirot, the Masterpiece Mystery favorite featuring David Suchet as the Belgian sleuth, has come to an end on PBS but the final three episodes of the British show are available exclusively in the U.S. on Acorn TV (www.Acorn.TV), a subscription streaming service with a specialty in British TV programming. “Elephants Can Remember” is now available, “The Labours of Hercules” arrives on August 18 and the series finale, “Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case,” debuts on August 25. On that date, Acorn will be the exclusive streaming home of all 70 “Poirot” episodes, as well as such recent shows as “Jack Irish” and “Pie in the Sky” and classics like “Lovejoy” and “Maigret.” BriTV fans take note: they offer a free 30-day trial and charge $4.99 per month for continuing service.
Crackle, a free streaming service with commercials, has just launched a new original series: Sequestered, a rapid-fire thriller with a sitcom running time (each episode is 22 minutes) set in a jury room where deliberations are complicated by plot twists. Summer Glau, Jesse Bradford, Patrick Warburton, and Bruce Davison star. The first six episodes are now available.
Community: The Complete Fifth Season (Sony, DVD) is the final network season of the wildly inventive sitcom that earned a cult audience through its turbulent history. It’s also the season when Chevy Chase bowed out, Donald Glover left halfway through, and creator Dan Harmon returned. This will have to tide fans over until it returns as a streaming series from Yahoo!
The Birthday Boys: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, DVD) is the sketch comedy series starring Bob Odenkirk and the L.A. improve group The Birthday Boys. 10 episodes on two discs, plus commentary, bonus footage and other supplements.
The Saint: Set 1 (Acorn, DVD) collects the first three feature-length adventures from the 1989 British incarnation of the series starring Simon Dutton as suave, sophisticated, international adventurer Simon Templar.
Secret State (Acorn, DVD) is the 2012 British TV miniseries of political conspiracy starring Gabriel Byrne, Charles Dance, Rupert Graves, Gina McKee and Stephen Dillane.
From France comes Nicholas Le Floch: Volume One (MHz, DVD), a mystery series set in 1761 Paris and starring Jerome Robart as the dedicated Paris police commissioner (five three-hour mysteries), and from Norway comes The Eagle: Season 1 (MHz, DVD), a crime thriller about team that investigates cross-border organized crime in Europe.
Shogun (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD), the popular 1980 TV mini-series with Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune, makes its Blu-ray debut.
Ja’mie: Private School Girl (HBO, DVD, Digital HD)
The Trip to Bountiful (2014) (Lionsgate, DVD)
Silent Witness: Season One (BBC, DVD)
Silent Witness: Season Seventeen (BBC, DVD)
Wahlburgers: The Complete First Season (Lionsgate, DVD)
Midsomer Murders: Set 24 (Acorn, DVD)
Poirot: Fan Favorites Collection (Acorn, DVD)
Marple: Fan Favorites Collection (Acorn, DVD)
Last Tango in Halifax: Season Two (BBC, DVD)
The Broker’s Man: Series 2 (Acorn, DVD)
Perry Mason Movie Collection: Volume 3 (Paramount, DVD)
Awkward: Season Three (Paramount, DVD)
Transformers Cybertron: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, DVD)
Adventure Time: Princess Day (Warner, DVD)
Frontline: United States of Secrets (PBS, DVD)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Classics (Lionsgate, DVD)
Dalziel & Pascoe: Season Ten (BBC, DVD)
My Wild Affair (PBS, DVD)
Perfect Shark (BBC, DVD)
Shark Battlefield (BBC, DVD)
Top Gear 21 (BBC, DVD)
America’s Wild West (PBS, DVD)
Italy’s Mystery Mountains (PBS, DVD)