April 2008 Archives
How rare is it to find a show that still feels fresh 40 years later while retaining the relevance of the very different era it premiered in? I Spy is one of those blow-you-away treats, proving in this week's release of remastered DVD season sets to be just as fun, frank and cool as it was in its groundbreaking 1965-68 NBC run.
Don't take my word for it. Check out the DVD sets for all three timeless seasons at a bargain list price of $20 each (widely discounted), for as many as 28 episodes! Not sure? Watch an online episode or two at Hulu.
As Grey's Anatomy finally returns with new post-strike episodes this week, we realize how much we missed the actors in that familiar ensemble. But it isn't just Grey's they're familiar from. Nearly all the cast members bounced around through other short-lived shows before landing in their current ABC megahit.
TV makes most of its stars work for what they get. How many shows was George Clooney in before ER? Five? Eight? (And can you name them? We've got answers below.)
Friday Night Lights fans couldn't ask for more. Just as the show's second-season DVD set hits shelves this week (at the bargain list price of $30), the ratings-challenged fave also gets saved from extinction: NBC, home of the first two seasons, strikes a deal with DirecTV to split the improbable third go-round starting this fall.
Of course, Passions fans couldn't have asked for more, either, when the same two entities found a way to keep their soap alive last year. Right after NBC dropped it last September, DirecTV picked up fresh episodes, and all was happy. For awhile. Then the satellite company also found continuing Passions unworkable, trimming it from four days a week to three, and finally announcing it, too, will give up the ghost (literally, in the case of this supernatural soap) in August.
Funny thing, though -- Moonlight may not be so likely to have a stake driven through it. Friday night is now a sticky wicket for the broadcast networks, who see viewership plummeting the way it already has Saturdays. And CBS' freshman vampire fave is reliably if not spectacularly rated, watched by more households than such demographic hits as The Office. The show flows nicely, too, with lineup mates Ghost Whisperer and Numb3rs.
If so, maybe Jericho fans should hope to see some kick-butt TV-movies continue the story. That's what took shape when Fox canceled its 1989-90 Alien Nation series after a single season's Monday night run. But Jericho fans might have a bit of a wait. It took Fox seven years to broadcast the five follow-up Alien Nation TV-movies, which finally out on DVD in wide release this week (after several months as a Best Buy exclusive).
The April 15 release from Fox Home Entertainment does do right by the fan fave, loading up its three discs with making-of featurettes, recent cast reminiscences, storyboards, and commentary from showrunner Kenneth Johnson on all five films: Dark Horizon (1994), Body and Soul (1995), Millennium (1996), The Enemy Within (1996), and The Udara Legacy (1997) -- and that's way more extras than FHE provided on its 2006 Alien Nation complete-series DVD.
That's probably because fans snapped up the earlier set, proving they were hungry for more, more, more. And for good reason. Alien Nation was one of those rare series, like M*A*S*H, where the TV series is arguably better than its big-screen progenitor.
That 1988 Alien Nation theatrical film, with James Caan as a hardboiled human cop and Mandy Patinkin as his new space-alien partner, was a gritty action flick with a single story to solve. The subsequent Fox TV series had time to unravel the nuance of the intriguing culture-clash background the movie had pretty much glossed over. Since the story was created by Rockne S. O'Bannon -- later beloved of smart-TV fans for his Farscape tapestry -- there was plenty of meat to munch.
The alien cop's Newcomer race, recently crashlanded near L.A., had been slaves on their own world, so American sanctuary opened up vistas they'd never dreamed possible. Yet the 250,000 Newcomers also ran up against fresh kinds of prejudice while trying to assimilate into human society. Their "strange" ways made many of their human neighbors feel invaded, resentful or otherwise threatened by what was derisively called "slag" culture.
TV's Alien Nation could be read as blatant allegory -- racism is bad; see? -- but producer Johnson's stories went far beyond the film's one-note bigotry in exploring the Newcomers' reactions to the society they were joining, and vice versa. Childraising, criminal behavior, politics, corporate intrigue, drug use, disease, gender roles, religious beliefs, psychological problems -- all were fodder for scripts that took the issues seriously while presenting them with a humorous touch and emotional authenticity that made the show not some "alien" tale but a compassionate character study. And, yes, an eye-opening mirror on "human" behavior.
Who knew men could be pregnant? The Newcomer cop, George Francisco (played by Eric Pierpoint), had to share gestation with his wife (Michele Scarabelli), making for both rich comedy and sharp gender commentary. Human cop Matt Sikes (Gary Graham) found himself falling in love with a Newcomer woman (Terri Treas), which created all kinds of interspecies sex questions. The aliens could get drunk on sour milk, and they chose their new human names with a degree of irony. George was originally "Sam" Francisco, and the police squad's simple-minded janitor called himself Albert Einstein.
Alien Nation had fun with the foibles, while never forgetting that its police work, human-Newcomer integration and continuing threats from the alien slaves' Overseers were serious business. The scripts came from top-notch writers like Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider (who penned everything from Northern Exposure to The Sopranos), and Steven Long Mitchell and Craig Van Sickle (The Pretender, Tin Man) -- all of whom would refine and extend that basic fish-out-of-water story foundation in their future work.
Too bad Fox couldn't see what it had back in 1990, when the still-fledgling network was programming just three nights a week (Saturday-Monday) and its only other drama exponents were an aging 21 Jump Street and spin-off Becker. By that fall, Fox had expanded to five nights a week with mostly forgettable sitcoms (Good Grief was aptly titled) and, oh yes, a little throwaway teen soap called Beverly Hills, 90210. The youth movement was on.
Fox never completely gave up on sci-fi-tinged character drama, but the network didn't learn to treat them any better, either. New legions of fans for the likes of John Doe, M.A.N.T.I.S. and Firefly would likewise be disappointed by executives' lack of faith in what they had and bad scheduling in presenting it. The survival of The X-Files was a minor miracle.
Another one was Fox 'fessing up to its mistake by ordering and airing those five Alien Nation TV-movies we see on DVD this week. Some can also be seen upcoming on cable. Alien Nation: Millennium runs Wednesday, April 16 at 10:30 AM on Cinemax. Alien Nation: Body and Soul runs Tuesday, April 22 at 8:45 AM on @Max. And 1988's Caan-Patinkin big screen original unreels Sunday, April 20 at 4:25 AM on HBO Zone. (All three of these plus Alien Nation: Dark Horizon also air throughout May on the HBO and Cinemax digital channels.)
Jennifer Love Hewitt talks to the dead in CBS' Friday night hit Ghost Whisperer. And America gets it.
She talked to Hawaiians in ABC's 1994 family drama The Byrds of Paradise. And America was mystified.
Go figure. The supernatural makes more sense to more viewers than one of our country's own rich subcultures. Not to mention those gorgeously exotic Hawaiian landscapes, mountains, ocean waves and palm trees. Sigh. What was America thinking?
And why isn't The Byrds of Paradise being seen someplace, anyplace, now that Hewitt is a certified TV Series Star? No on-air repeats. No DVDs.
Maybe Byrds got multicultural too soon, or too deeply. The show came out of Steven Bochco's production company at a time the guy was riding high with his envelope-pushing ABC hit NYPD Blue (a 1993 debut), after years of success with NBC's L.A. Law (1986-94) and Hill Street Blues (1981-87), plus the lighter-hearted kid-doctor half-hour Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-93).
Both sensibilities combined in The Byrds of Paradise, ABC's midseason 1994 hour about a troubled family whose recently widowed schoolmaster dad (played by Timothy Busfield of thirtysomething) moves the clan from Connecticut to Hawaii for a fresh start. (Hello, Everwood.) Then 15, Hewitt played his rebellious teen daughter (he sent her to therapy!), with 20-year-old Buffy star-to-be Seth Green as her longhaired rocker brother.
The teens and their younger brother struggled not only with their mother's recent death but also to mesh with their multiracial classmates at dad's new school. The locals would sometimes speak either Hawaiian or the pidgin slang language, resentfully keeping the more privileged white kids (haoles) at arms' length till they proved their aloha. The Byrds had fled to the 50th state, but they sometimes felt they'd moved to a different country.
Fans of the show saw all this ethnic diversity, and the hula performances and scary tsunamis, as fascinating flavor. But apparently, too many potential viewers found it confoundingly, well, foreign. When younger brother Zeke turned 11, the Byrds' ethnic native housekeeper and handyman sang him Happy Birthday in Hawaiian. The housekeeper's character name? Manu Ka'ulukukui. Kah-ulu-koo-kooey would roll off the tongue once you got used to it, but not enough viewers stuck around to.
Too bad. Series creators Charles Eglee and Channing Gibson (who came off Bochco's L.A. Law and Civil Wars writing staffs and would move on to his 1995 series Murder One) clearly had an affinity for the unique Hawaiian culture, the specificities of which had been largely ignored in such previous island-filmed series as Hawaii Five-O. They had Busfield's headmaster character teaching, say, ethics not just from the traditional western perspective but also from the Polynesian and Asian traditions that so influenced the island nation-turned-state.
They got lots of other contemporary details right, too. Alice's Restaurant folk singer Arlo Guthrie played a long-haired laid-back ex-hippie, of which Hawaii continues to boast a sizable population. And the Byrd kids had to go visit the family dog marooned in quarantine, which all incoming pets endure to ensure the islands stay free of rabies.
Yet The Byrds of Paradise also did plenty that was universally relatable to modern families. Hewitt's character ate vegetarian, fended off boyfriends with overactive hands, and tried out for cheerleading. (Watch that last one at YouTube.) Her brothers had crushes on teachers and students, who had crushes on their dad. There were teen pregnancies, school rivalries and sports/study conflicts. Ex-Hill Street growler Bruce Weitz played an amiable therapist who actually made progress in treating troubled family members.
But the ratings just weren't there, and Byrds flew off ABC's air after just 12 episodes aired in spring 1994. Its Hawaiian eye is still fondly remembered by island aficionados, frank family-drama fans, and former teen boys who once lusted after the, uh, growing appeal of a pre-Party of Five Jennifer Love Hewitt. At least they've got her low-cut Ghost Whisperer wardrobe to remember it by.
But Hugh Laurie only got to make six episodes of
And of course
Laurie is pretty fine in Fortysomething, too, showcasing a frantic, farcical side light years removed from his unruffled American medical curmudgeon. He's again a doctor, but this time an average suburban general practitioner, with a silky smart wife (played by Anna Chancellor of MI-5 and Suburban Shootout) and three randy/rotten sons whose busy sex lives in the same house remind him he isn't getting any.
At least he thinks he isn't. Laurie's Paul Slippery suddenly can't remember when he last had sex. He can't remember what his wife does for a living. Or whether she's a lesbian. He isn't sure which of his three sons the new live-in girl is sleeping with. But he's pretty sure his sleazebag medical partner is chasing his wife. And he knows his mushrooming midlife crisis enables him to hear the thoughts of those around him as they mock, pity and otherwise disparage his poor insecure soul.
It's enough to make a bloke blither, and Laurie revs up to high gear in short order. Slippery's entire life spins out of control, careening from workplace frenzy to homelife chaos. He's soon doing Dutch accents on his cell phone, falling into rivers, having doors smashed in his face, dressing in Islamic women's garb, and strolling naked down the street. (Nice buns, Hugh!) Dozens of refrigerators, boxes of sex toys, and legions of blow-up trollop dolls arrive to clutter his garden and fascinate the neighbors.
Fortysomething may be a little too determined to keep the farce pedal to the metal, contriving odd twists through the most peculiar conniptions. But its panic-mode pacing is certainly never dull or predictable. Credit/blame goes to both scripter Nigel Williams (HBO's Elizabeth I), adapting his own comic novel, and Laurie, who playfully directed the series' first three episodes in a TV return to his comedy roots. His former
Viewers who know Laurie only through House should be particularly amused to hear his British lilt, to see him move so fleetly (Slippery, true to his name, is in constant motion), to savor the actor's snappy comic timing, and to discover what an utterly amiable nature his award-winning Fox misanthropy conceals.
Other new TV DVD releases worth a look:
That gives us plenty of opportunity to watch co-star Levine deserves better from TV. (C'mon, the guy killed in The Silence of the Lambs. Literally.) And we've seen him get great work. But the tube's program gods seem to have dead-filed Levine's amazing 2000 ABC mental hospital drama Wonderland.
Levine deserves better from TV. (C'mon, the guy killed in The Silence of the Lambs. Literally.) And we've seen him get great work. But the tube's program gods seem to have dead-filed Levine's amazing 2000 ABC mental hospital drama Wonderland.
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