The Flash: The Complete First Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) – Originally introduced (or more accurately teased) in the second season of Arrow, The Flash” is the CW network’s lighter, brighter, more playful superhero series.
Grant Gustin stars as police forensics scientist Barry Allen. He’s amiable, energetic, with a touch of geeky goofball but a solid sense of justice and commitment to family. So when an experiment at the Central City particle accelerator goes disastrously wrong (seriously, who puts something like that in the middle of a city?), a lightning bolt from the explosion gives Barry super speed and he applies his new-found powers to battling crime with the help of accelerator creator Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanaugh) and his team (Danielle Panabaker and Carlos Valdes), who help him understand his powers while providing crime-fighting support. Which is handy because the accident also gave other citizens of Central City powers. Some become heroes but most of them turn to crime as supervillains.
This series, developed by Arrow creator Greg Berlanti and comic book writer Geoff Johns, plays out with a more exuberant tone, celebrating the rush of Barry’s powers and the charge of being a hero. Barry is happy and well-adjusted but has also overcome childhood trauma (he watched his mother killed by forces beyond his comprehension and his father go to prison for the crime) with the help of a loving foster father, Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Marin). He’s devoted to both of his fathers and that family bond gives the show a strength as well.
The sense of fun also extends to the villains, especially the wisecracking Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller), a cunning nemesis who wisecracks and enjoys toying with Flash, and Grodd, a telepathic gorilla. That’s right, there’s a giant genius ape prowling the sewers under Central City, something right out of a circa 1960s comic book, as well as time-travel conundrums and a twist that reveals an even more deadly villain in Central City. This is show made with a family audience in mind, with splashy special effects, less violence than Arrow or Gotham, and more innocence to the romantic complications. It’s also simply more fun than any other superhero or comic book show out there. The Flash remembers the charge of comic book fantasies and brings it to the small screen without spoofing itself. It’s a blast.
23 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with four featurettes and the DC Comics TV panel at Comic-Con 2014. It’s also now streaming on Netflix.
Jane the Virgin: The Complete First Season (Warner, DVD), adapted from a Venezuelan telenovela with a bright, witty, self-aware sensibility, turns a screwball situation into a lively comic melodrama. For anyone who misses Ugly Betty, the previous American show to successfully adapt a telenovela, this show has even more fun with the conventions.
Gina Rodriguez is the titular virgin Jane, an aspiring writer and devout Catholic who is saving herself for marriage yet ends up pregnant due to a mix-up at a routine check-up. Her gynecologist artificially inseminates her with a sperm sample meant for another patient. To complicate things, the father Rafael (Justin Baldoni) is a cancer survivor who can’t have kids because of chemotherapy, and is Jane’s boss at the hotel where she waitresses. And, oh yes, she once had a crush on him and it’s reignited as he divorces his scheming wife (Yael Grobglas) and she breaks up with her fiancé Michael (Brett Dier), a cop who is investigating Rafael as a possible drug kingpin. Meanwhile her fun-loving single mother (Andrea Navedo) reunites with Jane’s father, a narcissistic telenovela star. As the narrator comments, “Jane’s life was now the stuff of telenovelas.”
Set in Miami, Jane the Virgin is sunny and colorful, with witty self-aware narration, a clever use of text to help audiences through the complicated plot while offering comic asides, melodramatic music cues used as punctuation, and a creative use of magic realist gags. The series keeps it all coming fast and funny while the characters, particularly Jane’s supportive mother and Spanish-speaking grandmother (Ivonne Coll), keeps it grounded in family warmth as the exaggerated characters and increasingly crazy twists wind through the story. It was one of the breakout hits of last season and is back for a second season.
22 episodes on DVD, with a 15-minute featurette on the origins and development of the show and its style (sadly, no clips from the original Venezuelan telenovela that inspired the American version) and a breezy “Meet the Cast” filled with silly questions and giggly answers, plus deleted scenes and a gag reel. It’s also now streaming on Netflix.
iZombie: The Complete First Season (Warner, DVD), developed by Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas from the comic book by Mike Allred, is a comic mystery series with an undead heroine.
Rose McIver is Olivia, a medical student in Seattle who awakens after a yacht party gone disastrous and finds out that the reason she has no heartbeat is that she’s a zombie. Unable to relate to friends and family and determined to hold on to whatever humanity is left, she drops out of school, breaks up with her fiancé, invests a small fortune in make-up to cover up her pallor, and gets a job as a coroner’s assistant for access to the one thing that sustains her: human brains. Devouring brain matter has a side-effect: it gives her access to the memories of the dead, including murder victims, and she uses her insights to help a young police detective (Clive Babineaux) solve crimes (he thinks she’s psychic). It also floods her with the victim’s personality and emotional life for a few days, giving her something of a schizophrenic quality that is mostly played for humor.
The supernatural elements are woven through real world experiences and mystery series conventions, which gives the show a lighter tone and a very different take on the undead than The Walking Dead and its ilk. In fact, one character (played by David Anders as a kind of undead drug dealer) turns this zombie business into a money-making opportunity selling brains like take-out to other zombies. The show has a self-aware narration and a cheeky sensibility common to the youth-skewing CW network and the mix of horror, mystery, young adult drama, and witty humor found an audience. The second season is currently in progress.
18 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on three episodes, featurettes, deleted scenes, and a gag reel.
In Empire: The Complete First Season (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD), Oscar nominated actors Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, who co-starred in the 2005 film Hustle & Flow, reunite as former spouses, fierce rivals, and wary partners in a hip hop music and entertainment company. Howard is rap legend turned music mogul Luscious Lyon, who rules his empire like a king but is dying of a fatal disease, and Henson is Cookie, who went to prison to protect their family and their company only to be divorced while locked up, and now she’s back and wants her piece. Luscious has his three sons compete for his place as head of the company when he dies: the youngest a rising young rapper, the middle son an R&B singer / songwriter dismissed by his father because he’s gay, the eldest an underhanded businessman who sabotages his brothers and, when it serves his interests, his father.
Created by Lee Daniels (director of Precious) and Emmy-winning writer Danny Strong (who also scripted Daniels’ The Butler) for Fox, it was the top new show of 2015 and the rare new series to pick up viewers over the course of its mid-season run. Like Nashville, it features plenty of original music produced by top talents (in this case Timbalake). The mix of rap, hip-hop, and R&B was a draw for young viewers (who could buy the tracks on iTunes after the episode) and the long-running story arcs and the sexy melodrama of its glamorous music-industry setting and dangerous backdrop hit the sweet spot for fans of nighttime soap opera-ish drama.
13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on the pilot episode, two featurettes, and uncut performances of ten songs. Also streaming on Hulu.
The Jinx (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD), HBO’s six-part true crime documentary series about notorious millionaire murder suspect Robert Durst, briefly became a cultural phenomenon on the level of the podcast series Serial. Part investigative documentary, part character study, part real-life murder mystery, it’s focused entirely on Durst, the black sheep of a millionaire family who was suspected in the disappearance of his wife (still unsolved), tried and acquitted for the murder of a neighbor (he claimed it was self-defense and that he chopped the corpse into pieces in panic), and suspected of another murder years later.
Series director Andrew Jarecki takes an active role on screen as well; the project was initiated by Durst himself, who approached Jarecki after he made All Good Things, which dramatized the story of Durst and his first wife (played by Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst), and offered to tell Jarecki his story directly. Those interviews form the spine of the series, which is built around Jarecki’s investigation of the crimes and interviews with the detectives, prosecutors, and witnesses and structured like a true-life mystery filled with bizarre twists and behavior by Durst that is at the very least deeply suspicious. Durst counts on his weird charm and confidence to explain it all away and displays remarkable poise as he discusses details with chilling composure. His unsettling personality makes for a great character and the filmmaking, which fudges details to build a riveting narrative, is compelling drama, letting Durst’s cagey confessions and sudden evasions paint a portrait of a potential sociopath who believes he’s smarter than everyone else. As documentary it can be suspect but it builds to a tremendous conclusion and the day that the final episode, which appears to damn Durst with his own words, premiered on HBO, Durst was arrested for murder.
The six-episode series is presented on Blu-ray and DVD with no supplements.
Mad Men: Final Season, Part 2 (Lionsgate) – The signature series for the cable channel AMC explored the changing culture of America in the sixties through the perspective of the employees of a Madison Avenue advertising company. The network extended the seventh and final season of the network’s acclaimed series by extending the run and splitting the run into two parts. The final seven episodes brings the show into the seventies and brings closure to the characters as the firm they created is bought up and their freedom curtailed, which each of them deal with differently. Roger (John Slattery) decides to try out an “age-appropriate” relationship for a change, Joan (Christina Hendricks) confronts the sexism of the new bosses, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) takes stock of his position and his life and makes some major decisions, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) takes on a new attitude, and Don (Jon Hamm) simply drives off in search of himself, much to the frustration of his new bosses.
The series, which put commercial cable channel AMC on the map as a purveyor of smart, compelling TV, has been a critical darling for its entire run and, like HBO’s The Sopranos, a show with an influence beyond its immediate viewership. Through the lens of the past it tackled issues of sex, race, social roles, sexual identity, marriage, parenthood, and disenchantment with the American Dream and it continues that exploration with a satisfying conclusion that brings each of its characters a sense of accomplishment and even happiness. And in a bit valedictory validation, Jon Hamm finally won a well-deserved Emmy Award for his defining performance as Don Draper, one of the most interesting characters on TV.
7 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on select episodes, four featurettes, and an advertising timeline.
The Walking Dead: The Complete Fifth Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – AMC’s gory, gruesome survival drama set in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse is currently the highest-rated show on commercial cable TV, beating the ratings of many successful network TV shows. It’s even spawned a prequel series: Fear the Walking the Dead.
The fifth season opens with an action-packed season premiere—Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his people fighting to escape that cannibals that have turned the hope of the Terminus into a human meatmarket. It’s the most brutal episode of the show to date, but it’s also about loyalty, the drive to survive, and the commitment to remain human in an inhuman world. It sets up the rest of the season as Rick tries to reunite the group, which has been splintered (like previous seasons, episodes focus on the stories of different groupings of characters, some of whom die over the course of the season), and find a home for his people. When he does—they are invited (or perhaps more accurately recruited) to make a home in a genuinely benevolent walled community run as an idealistic commune—Rick, along with Daryl (Norman Reedus) and a newly badass Carol (Melissa McBride), view the possibility with guarded suspicion, no surprise given the failed promises they’ve survived over the seasons.
Like earlier seasons, this was split into two eight-episode segments and the second half revolves around the possibilities (and the resistance to) this potential new home filled with people who have never really faced the horrors of survival outside their paradise. Tovah Feldshuh plays the community’s maternal leader and the final episodes are as much about her education on the realities of the threats both outside and inside the walls of her paradise as it is about Rick believing that this can be a real home for his survivalist family of followers.
I’m not one of the devoted fans of the series and like previous seasons it has a tendency to get bogged down in side stories between the dramatic high points, but at its best it can also offer touching short stories and character portraits in the quiet moments and still startle audiences with bloody battle scenes and inventive set pieces. The new season debuts around Halloween. Of course.
16 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on four episodes, “Inside The Walking Dead” recaps and “The Making of The Walking Dead” behind-the-scenes shorts for each episode, the featurettes “The Making of Alexandria” and “Rotter in the Flesh,” four characters profiles and two actor profiles, and deleted scenes, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the season on the Blu-ray edition.
It’s also streaming on Netflix.
Outlander: Season 1, Volume 2 (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) – The best Starz original series to date by a huge margin, this historical romantic fantasy based on the novels by Diane Gabaldon puts a few defining twists into the conventions of the genre.
Our heroine Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a 20th century British woman in 18th century Scotland, is brave, smart, and bold, and she speaks her mind and acts upon her convictions, which makes her stand out in the clan culture of the Scottish Highlands. A nurse who served in World War II, she brings her knowledge of medicine and healing to these people, which gets her branded as a witch and put on trial in one episode. And to survive, she marries a handsome young Scot, Jamie (Sam Heughan), who rescues her at the opening of this 8-episode set. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is the kind of historical romance where the women are in need of saving by a swashbuckling hero. When Jamie is captured by the British, she leads a rescue mission that takes her into a British prison and puts her face to face with the brutal British soldier Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), the cruel ancestor (and spitting image) of her gentle 20th century husband.
The show has vivid characters, a rich sense of 18th century culture, and stories full of adventure, romance, and political intrigue, and it features strong performances, excellent production values, and well-written scripts, but most importantly, it is all presented from Claire’s perspective, which gives the obligatory sex scenes a very different sensibility.
8 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with featurettes, and the Blu-ray features an extended version of the opening episode of the set.
The Red Road: The Complete Second Season (Anchor Bay, DVD) builds on the community built in the first season of the Sundance original series while expanding into other (perhaps too many) stories. Set a years after the events of Season One, it stars Martin Henderson as the police officer Harold Jensen, who is promoted to chief over the course of the season, and Jason Momoa as ex-con Phillip Kopus, who returns to the reservation after taking the fall for Jensen’s crimes (and his own drug dealing past) and tries to protect his mother (Tamara Tunie), a dedicated tribal elder, after the chief is murdered and a rival tribal chief (who happens to be her ex-husband) pressures her to put a casino on their newly-anointed sovereign land. There’s a lot going on, too many threads in fact, and it tips from gritty realism and socially-conscious drama to big melodramatic stories, but the tense relations between the white population of a rural New Jersey town and the Native American tribe (which finally receives federal recognition this season) on the reservation lands nearby provides the most interesting stories and the discovery of a decades-old conspiracy that has poisoned the land promises to push the show back from political cover-ups and Native American gangster drama into the kind of drama the show does best. Six episodes on DVD with short interview featurettes that discuss the events of each episode.
Grimm: Season Four (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) opens with Nick (David Guintoli), the monster hunting Grimm of the title, without his ability to see past the human façade of creatures known as Wesen (pronounced vessen) who live among humans. That’s a temporary condition, of course, but in the meantime he has a loyal team of colleagues, human and Wesen alike, and a young Grimm protégé named Trubel (Jacqueline Toboni) to help out. The mix of dark fairy tale, modern crime, and supernatural conspiracy, all set in the city of Portland (where the motto “Keep Portland Weird” takes on a whole new dimension), gets a little darker when the Wesen answer to racist skinheads go after the “mixed” marriage of Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell) and Rosalee (Bree Turner) with a campaign of terror and violence, and Nick’s girlfriend Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch) is cursed with powers that drive her to violence and chaos and a confrontation with Nick. The camaraderie of the team that forms around Nick keeps the show grounded and gives it a sense of hope. The new season begins in late October on NBC, right before Halloween. 22 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with a behind-the-scenes featurette, a set tour, deleted scenes, and a gag reel. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the interactive “Grimm Guide.”
Arrow: The Complete Third Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) of the brooding show, set in a shadowy, corrupt city, introduces two new superheroes. Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), the assistant D.A. and former girlfriend of Oliver Queen, aka Arrow (Stephen Amell), follows in the footsteps of her sister to become Black Canary and tech tycoon Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh), the new CEO of Queen Consolidated, creates a high-tech suit that gives him strength, flight, and other powers, and is destined to turn him into The Atom. The show is a mix of dark urban crime show with flamboyant costumed characters and elevated young adult melodrama and follows the CW formula of colorful characters, splashy action, romantic complications, and melodramatic tangles, with a superhero noir style: night in the city with wet streets, splashes of light, and dark hideouts and lairs. And there a couple of cross-over episodes with The Flash, which means you have to get The Flash: Season One (or stream it on Netflix) to see the rest of the story. 23 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on two episodes, three featurettes and the DC Comics TV panel at Comic-Con 2014. Also streaming on Netflix.
Bones: The Complete Tenth Season (Fox, DVD, Digital HD) opens with a dramatic exit: series regular Dr. Lance Sweets (John Francis Daley) is killed in the first episode (the actor left the show to pursue a career writing and directing films). It’s in the episode that begins with Booth (David Boreanaz) in prison, framed for a murder after digging up inconvenient information, and he gets a new FBI partner: the sardonic but amiable Agent James Aubrey (John Boyd), who proves his worth by helping to clearing Booth’s name. And in the final half of the season, Booth succumbs to his gambling addiction, which makes for a different kind twist in a procedural that has been remarkably stable and consistent over its ten seasons. In between, the show celebrates its 200th episode with a fantasy set in the 1950s featuring Booth as a charming burglar, Brennan (Emily Deschanel) as a detective in a very sexist police department, and the rest of the cast and recurring co-stars taking roles out of classic Hollywood romantic thrillers like Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. Otherwise, the show is pretty much the same, built on the terrific chemistry of the entire cast, a whole bunch of scientific lab toys, and the kind of science double-speak and technology as magic tricks that the other forensic crimes shows share. The difference for me is that I’d rather hang out with these guys. 22 episodes on DVD, with a featurette on the 200th episode. Also streaming on Netflix.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Season 2 (Universal, DVD) has developed into the funniest workplace comedy since Parks and Recreation. Andy Samberg is squad maverick and resident prankster Jake Peralta, a detective who plays out his TV cop show fantasies on the job when he’s not goofing in the squad room, and he plays the role big and broad, but the show is more ensemble piece than star vehicle and the entire cast has settled into their characters by this season. Even the deadpan of Andre Braugher, who plays their unflappable, no-nonsense Captain, becomes a central player of the comedy and a bigger presence in the ensemble. In the hilarious episode “Halloween II” he even engages in a practical joke competition with Jake with a plan as elaborate as a heist movie, which he lays out without a flicker in his deadpan delivery. In other stories, the mutual attraction between Peralta and Santiago (Melissa Fumero) gets tangled through the season, as does a longtime feud between Braugher and a superior officer (Kyra Sedgwick), who is determined to sabotage Braugher’s career in a season-long battle of wits. The mix of silly and witty comedy, with wild sight gags and oddball character humor and a rapid-fire pace, and its smart-aleck attitude has found a young audience. 23 episodes on DVD, no supplements. Also streaming on Hulu.
South Park: The Complete Eighteenth Season (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD) does something a little different: there’s a story arc that builds across the complete ten-episode season involving Stan’s Dad, Randy, and his secret musical life as the pop star Lorde and a music industry conspiracy to bring back dead performers as holograms, which escape captivating and take on a life of their own. Meanwhile various episodes satirize start-ups, sexual identity (Cartman declares himself “transginger” to get his own bathroom), Uber, drones, and video game / web addiction. 10 episodes on DVD and Blu-ray editions, with creator mini-commentaries and crowd-sourced #socialcommentary from Twitter (via subtitles) on all episodes, plus deleted scenes.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray), the 1988 prime time one-off special from the popular kids show created by Paul Reubens (still the most delightful children’s TV show host of the last few decades as Pee-wee Herman), features an impressive guest list. Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers, Charo, Del Rubio Triplets, Magic Johnson, Dinah Shore, Grace Jones, Oprah Winfrey, k.d. lang, Little Richard, and Zsa Zsa Gabor join the regular playhouse buddies (among them Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis, S. Epatha Merkerson as Reba the Mail Lady, and William Marshall as the King Of Cartoons) to celebrate the holiday season with activities, games, fruitcakes, songs, and a Christmas wish list is so long that Pee-wee creates a present shortage around the world! This is the same disc previously available in the Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series box set, restored and remastered for Blu-ray (like the series, the show was shot on film) and includes the 10-minute featurette “A Very Merry Christmas Special” and two commentary tracks (one by creator/star/co-writer Paul Reubens with co-writer John Paragon, animation producer Prudence Fenton, and co-star Lynne Marie Stewart, the other by puppeteers and voice actors Alison Mork, Wayne White, Ric Heitzman, Kevin Carlson, George McGrath and John Paragon).