The Red Road: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, DVD) – SundanceTV (formerly The Sundance Channel) continues to establish its own brand of intelligent, dramatically compelling TV shows with this atmospheric series set in rural New Jersey.
A small town cop (Martin Henderson) enters into a wary partnership with a drug-dealing ex-con (Jason Momoa) from a nearby Native American tribe to cover up a hit-and-run that his wife (Julianne Nicholson), a recovering alcoholic, committed during what seems to be a relapse. In fact, it’s much more, which only makes Henderson more protective (to the point of denial). There’s an uneasy relationship between the town and the tribe, which is fighting for formal recognition from the government while struggling with poverty and crime, that is exacerbated by a forbidden romance between the cop’s teenage daughter and the ex-con’s young half-brother. The physically imposing Momoa, who played both Conan and the barbarian king from the first season of Game of Thrones, adds a dangerous edge to the drama simply by his presence, radiating anger and resentment from his every glance.
Following in the tradition of shows like Rectify and The Bridge, the series is deeply embedded in the cultural and regional specificity of the setting. It’s not just the social politics of the moment but a whole history fraught relations that hovers over the drama, and the idea of heroes and villains gets murky in a drama where the characters share a complicated history that is slowly revealed through the course of the six-episode season.
It has the look and feel of an American independent feature, helped immeasurably by James Grey (The Immigrant) helming the first episode and Lodge Kerrigan directing two subsequent episodes of the series. They are instrumental in setting the careful, moody atmosphere. Supporting turns by Tamara Tunie, Tom Sizemore, Mike Farrell, and Lisa Bonet add to the weave of complicating factors.
Six episodes on DVD with three featurettes. It’s also streaming on Netflix.
Sons of Anarchy: The Final Season (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) and Sons of Anarchy: The Complete Series (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) – This drama of family ties, brotherhood, loyalty, betrayal, and honor in an outlaw motorcycle gang that practically runs the (fictional) Central California desert town of Charming grew from cult show to surprise hit for the FX network over the course of its seven season run.
The crime drama had taken on almost Shakespearean dimensions, from a “Hamlet”-like conflict between club heir apparent Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and his step-father Clay (Ron Perlman), while offering a kind of leather jacket soap opera and an idealized portrait of underworld brotherhood under fire. Jax was the well-meaning warrior prince determined to deliver Camelot to his brothers but constantly beset by blowback from his alliance and criminal activities. By the time the final season roared out in the fall of 2014, the club had left enough victims in the wake of their criminal activities and territorial battles to fill a small graveyard, including Clay and his own wife, murdered by his mother Gemma (Katey Sagal), the ferocious den mother of this wolf pack. As likable as this scruffy but loyal brotherhood could be, it was hard to overlook the violence of their business, the bodies dropped in misguided acts of vengeance (either by impulse or spurred by the lies of betrayals or cover-ups), and the innocents killed in the crossfire.
Those reservations aside, I remained a fan of the show to the end if only for creator Kurt Sutter’s commitment to the whole twisted idea of brotherhood and the fantasy that they are the protectors of their town. The bad boy romance of their world is a façade, but Sutter sure knows how to work that fantasy into brutal, bloodsoaked melodrama of retribution and redemption. The individual members of the club (at least those who survived to season seven) have all become distinctive, integral characters with their own issues and Gemma a broken, doomed figure spinning stories to delay the inevitable revelation and retribution. Jax’s young son (who knows what Gemma did) takes on the look of a zombie, haunted by the knowledge that his grandmother killed his mother and acting out with acts of violence at school. The hypocrisy he sees in the adult world is poisoning his soul, a truly innocent victim of the violent life of his father.
Annabeth Gish joins the show as the new sheriff of Charming, a veteran who understands that a certain amount of accommodation to the outlaw elements is necessary to keep things from blowing up on the streets, and Jimmy Smits is back as Nero, club ally and conscience to Jax, the compassionate and honorable father figure he lacked in Clay, and there are return visits from some familiar faces, notably Hal Holbrook as Gemma’s infirm father and Walton Goggins as Venus, a tough yet tender transsexual dominatrix with whom club hothead Tig (Kim Coates) falls in love in one of the most touching stories weaving through the series.
Guest stars include Marilyn Manson as a white supremacist taking care of business for the club in prison, Courtney Love as a pre-school teacher who tries to help Jax’s troubled son, Lea Michelle as a truck stop waitress who befriends Gemma, and small roles from Robert Patrick and Michael Chiklis (star of Kurt Sutter’s previous series, The Shield).
As far as the idea of justice is concerned, the show follows its own tunnel-vision code. These guys sell guns to California gangs and run a brothel and a porn business (which, oddly enough, are managed by women and accommodating to the employees—you gotta love a socially progressive gangster) and routinely murder obstructions and threats, but Jax draws the line at drugs and the IRA pipeline that Clay established. In their world, that’s a moral stand, and while the show flirts with the collateral damage and unintended consequences of their business, it tends to overlook the bigger picture and ask up to look beyond the criminal code. But then that’s part of the outlaw romance of the series. And while there is a fatalism to much of it, Sutter also offers redemptive stories, rewarding longtime fans with a happy ending for a few deserving characters.
13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, The final season expands each episode to 90 minutes (a little over 60 minutes without commercials), giving the stories more space to play out (it’s like getting an extra six episodes). The disc sets feature hour-long documentary “Carpe Diem: The Final Season of Sons of Anarchy” and featurettes on the legacy of violence, the motorcycles, the stories of the tattoos, and the guest stars of the final season.
Fox also releases the entire series in a box set on Blu-ray and DVD, a bargain way to get the complete show.
Doctor Who: Last Christmas (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD), the eighth Christmas special in what has become a tradition for the second generation series, teams The Doctor with another traveler who defies the physics of time, space, and reality as we know: Santa Claus, played with a cheeky competitiveness by Nick Frost, a popular TV actor in Britain best known stateside for his Simon Pegg collaborations like Shaun of the Dead and Paul.
The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) are reunited for the first time since the defeat of the Cybermen at the end of season eight and fly off to the North Pole to save a group of scientists from creatures known as Dream Crabs, which trap their victims in fantasies while feeding off their psychic energy. The whole episode is wrapped in dreams within dreams, I don’t mean the wake-up-at-the-end-and-muse-“It was only a dream”-ending. This is the kind of intricately layered plot that Steven Moffat, the series showrunner and episode writer, favors, mixing whimsy and anguish as The Doctor and Clara trip over their complicated feelings since they separated. The appearance of Santa, offering assistance and advice that The Doctor clearly resents yet needs, blurs the line between myth and magic and the banter and bubbly chemistry between Capaldi and Frost gives the battle of one-upmanship a hint of rivalry. Do they have a history? Is Santa Claus some distant relation to the Time Lords? Or merely a figment of their collective imaginations? That’s nothing new to Santa storytelling—it goes back to Miracle on 34th Street—but Moffat adds his own twist to it.
Dan Starkey, who has a recurring role in the show as the humorless alien warrior Strax, gets to take off the make-up to play one of the scientists while another scientist is played by Michael Troughton, son of Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor of the original run.
The episode is available as a stand-alone release on Blu-ray and DVD with commentary and a featurette, but if past practices continue, it will likely be included in the Series 9 disc set, expected for Christmas 2015.
Fireball XL5: The Complete Series (Timeless, DVD), the 1962 series named after the rocket-powered flagship of the World Space Patrol fleet, is the third show from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson produced in their Supermarionation puppetry and their last program to be shot in black and white. Colonel Steve Zodiac is the pilot on a ship carrying Doctor Venus, the exotic French specialist in “space medicine,” and Professor Matic, navigator and engineer, with a robot co-pilot named Robert and an extraterrestrial pet named Zoony for comic relief. They zip around the galaxy to face threats to Earth (all those pesky alien aggressors) and breathe in space with the assistance of oxygen pills (and apparently can stand the sub-zero temperature of the deep space vacuum just fine without space suits). And like all of the Anderson shows, the characters have decidedly American accents, the better to export the British show to the U.S.
The show was shot on 35mm and the disc appears to be mastered from original elements; they look great, with few (if any) signs of wear and a crisp picture with excellent contrasts. And yes, you can definitely see the strings. If you watch the Anderson Supermarionation shows in order, you can see the evolution of their technique and artistry. This is on the more primitive side but the spectacle of imaginative vehicles and spacescapes is still impressive.
39 episodes on five discs on DVD, with commentary by voice artist David Graham on “The Doomed Planet” and episode director Alan Patillo on “Space City Special,” the featurette “The Noble Art of TV21” about the comic book incarnation of the show by artist Mike Noble, and a photo gallery. The episodes are presented in production order rather than original British broadcast order.