Sunday, June 3, 2012

My Favorite TV Shows ... on DVD!



Now is the time of spring/early summer that I really hate: the end of the TV season. This past year, my schedule for shows has not been as plentiful as in past years, but there were a few this past season that kept my attention and – despite having two young kids – kept me tuning in week to week. However, now that those shows’ season finales have aired, and with the seasons of Mad Men, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones ending, I turn to my favorite TV viewing medium. TV on DVD.

The one beautiful thing about not discovering a really good TV show while it’s on the air is discovering it on DVD. That way you don’t have to worry about the often torturous week-to-week airing of the next episode or, especially, having to wait even longer during the summer hiatus. Just a few of my past TV on DVD finds that I was grateful to be able to skip commercial breaks and summer/holiday hiatuses were 24, Alias, and House. So, now that this summer season has begun and you find yourself either stuck inside due to injury or are simply looking for something really entertaining to watch and that you can view from start to finish, here are a few of my picks for wonderful TV on DVD … in alphabetical order. Please note that I have only included TV shows that have ended their run on TV and can be rented/bought/downloaded by their full run. Again, these are in alphabetical order:


1.       24 (2001-2010) 

      Be prepared to get majorly addicted this one! For any action/drama/suspense fan, this is essential. CounterTerrorism Unit (CTU) agent Jack Bauer (the amazing Kiefer Sutherland) is a simple husband, father and patriot who loves his family and will do anything to protect them and his country. Sounds simple enough. That is … until presidential nominee Maryland senator, wish-he-was-really-our-president David Palmer (the wonderful Dennis Haysbert) is threatened with assassination, there is a traitor discovered in CTU, and Bauer’s daughter is kidnapped, as well as other major plot twists – all in the span of 24 hours real-time. And that’s just the first season one! This is one show that kept me up late at night as I just couldn’t stop watching. Each ending of every episode is a cliffhanger. This show – along with Alias and Smallville -- is an example of coming along at just the right time. It premiered in November 2001, right after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, and the country was searching for a hero who could bring justice to terrorist acts. The show tackles every issue and moral concern regarding fighting terrorism and ultimately brings the famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche quote to mind: "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

2.       Alias (2001-2006)
      Another post-9/11 show that came out at the right time. The radiant Jennifer Garner kicks major butt as college-student-turned-CIA-agent Sydney Bristow, who has a good life until she tells her boyfriend of her new secret job. When he is murdered and she finds out that the secret agency she thought was CIA is actually a rogue, evil agency called SD-6, she starts work for the real CIA and makes it her mission to bring down SD-6. Spying has never looked so cool since James Bond. And never has it been sexier than in the opening for the season two episode “Phase One.” Many surprising twists and turns abound as Sydney gets help from her spy father (Victor Garber) and friends, both spies and civilians. Garner’s portrayal of Bristow is one of the most strong, smart, vulnerable women on TV – next to Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer – a challenge in of itself. The writing is phenomenal, the performances are heartfelt, and the action is plentiful. 

3.       Angel (1999-2004) 
      Before sparkling vampires there was this vampire who came as a spinoff of Buffy the VampireSlayer. Buffy and Angel had a strong love but when Angel (David Boreanaz), a vampire with a soul, realized that he could not remain with Buffy because of his pesky little immortality – as well as his gypsy curse which states that if he ever experienced “true happiness” (which includes making amore), his demonic self known as Angelus would take over. Like Buffy, this show uses many metaphors through horror genre to pose philosophical questions and moral issues. Joined by part-demon Doyle (the late Glenn Quinn), and Buffy alums former queen-bee cheerleader Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) and former watcher, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), Angel opens his own private investigation agency, and uses his vampiric powers to “help the hopeless” all while battling the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, which represents some of the most dark, evil forces in the universe, and has a particular interest in Angel. As opposed to Buffy, Angel is a much darker television show and the themes are more adult. Yes, there are weird-looking creatures but the performances by the actors and the talented writing make this show too good to pass up. Creator Joss Whedon’s take on the vampire is my definitive view of how a vampire would exist, and this show has everything from action to love to drama to laughs. The end of the series left a bad taste in the mouths of many fans but I really enjoyed it and thought it fit well to the overall message of the show. 

4.       Arrested Development (2003-2006, 2013)
      For a bit of the funny, there’s nowhere else you have to look but right here. The show may not sound funny – it starts out with the wealthy land-developing dysfunctional Bluth family losing their patriarch, George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), as he is arrested for fraud and money laundering – but the zany characters will leave you in tears … from laughing so hard. After George Sr. is imprisoned, straight man (the only close-to-normal person on the show) Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) brings his son George Michael (Michael Cera) back into their family’s lives and run the Bluth Company. I’ve always loved TV shows with an ensemble cast, especially comedies and this show is the best evidence as to why. The show would not be as funny or as memorable if it weren’t for the crazy characters and the talented comedic actors that portray them. With narration by director Ron Howard, and zany storylines that you must watch from beginning to ending in order to get what’s going on and catch on to the hilarious jokes, this sick show will deliver plenty of loud laughs. Plus, never have I realized how dangerous word play can be with terms like “Lucille!”/“Loose seal!”

5.       Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) 
      When most fans of the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica found out that their beloved science-fiction show was being remade and that showrunner Ronald D. Moore was making heroic space jockey hunk Starbuck into a woman, they were up in arms and already skeptical that this show would not stink. However, Moore and crew (particularly Katee Sackhoff who was cast as Starbuck) made them eat crow by converting them all into diehard fans. And after watching the first few episodes of this show, it’s easy to see why. Moore took a simple sci-fi show created by Mormon Glen A. Larson and transformed it into a show with so many different religious, philosophical, political and wealth class references. What’s most interesting is that the good humans are polytheistic and the “evil” Cylons (part human, part robot or entirely robot) are monotheistic. Sure, there’s action in this show but much more drama. This show had some of the best storylines and performances in recent years of television and it’s a crime that this show was never nominated for an Emmy for best dramatic TV show.

6.       Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) 
      Creator Joss Whedon was so appalled by the cinematic version of his blonde vampire-butt-kicking creation that, fortunately, a new TV network gave him the chance to adapt it for television. Then his true vision of a girl-power character story came to fruition. The TV series picks up right where the end of the film left off, with Buffy having to leave L.A. on account of having burnt down her last school's gymnasiusm ... to destroy a bunch of vampires. The concept of Buffy sounds very tongue-in-cheek – and it is – with one chosen girl who is blessed/cursed with special abilities to rid the world of vampires, demons and all bad things that go bump in the night, but the issues and storylines that the show raises -- as well as the performances -- are simply wonderful. Whedon takes real-life life experiences and turns them into modern-day horror stories (i.e., Buffy losing her virginity to her vampire boyfriend Angel, causing him to turn into an evil, manipulative, killing demon; which was a metaphor for how some guys treat girls with disrespect after they’ve had sex with them). Of course, the characters of Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, and others are all so complex and well-played that when the series ends after 7 seasons, you feel like you’re losing best friends. Nevertheless, they’re all there to watch on repeat. And of all my collections, Buffy has probably gotten the most wear!

7.       Chuck (2007-2012) 
      As you can probably tell by now, I’m a big fan of genre-based television. The reason for that is that all of the police procedurals (CSI, Law & Order, etc.) and hospital or courtroom dramas all blend into one after a while with me; it seems like they all recycle the same stories over and over. One of the shows that did not do that was NBC’s Chuck. Created by The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz, Chuck is a comedy action that starts basically with a computer whiz named Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi) working at the Best Buy-like Buy More in the Nerd Herd (Geek Squad), fixing computers. Then, one day, his old college roommate (and the man responsible for lying and getting him expelled from Stanford University) Bryce Larkin visits him and hands Chuck a special, top secret government program, which inadvertently gets downloaded into Chuck’s mind. From there, spies and evil assassins all stop at nothing to get what Chuck has in his brain, the Intersect – an encyclopedia of all of the U.S. government’s top secrets and knowledge. With help from his friends, co-workers, family and two secret agents (Yvonne Strahovski and Adam Baldwin), Chuck must survive the attempts at his life and find a way to discover what the Intersect truly does and how to get it out of his head.

 8.       Family Ties (1982-1989) 
      The 1980s were full of sitcoms (situation comedies) about families, but the best of them all was this show about two liberal, former hippy parents (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter-Birney) with three kids: young Republican, overachiever Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox), the superficial but loving Mallory (Justine Bateman), and the tomboy Jennifer (Tina Yothers). This show was landmark not just because of its laughs alone. The show’s writers also dealt with major issues like alcohol and drug abuse, politics, welfare, sex, racism, feminism, and death. It also contains one of the best episodes of a series I’ve ever seen, a season five episode entitled “A, My Name is Alex” in which Alex deals with the death of his best friend by seeing a psychologist (who is never seen onscreen) as Alex flashes back (via stage changes) through different parts of his childhood; it’s a testament to that moment as a young adult when you realize your own mortality as well as of those you love. That’s not your normal sitcom fare. With dozens of special guest stars before they became famous (i.e., Tom Hanks, River Phoenix, Geena Davis, Courteney Cox, etc.), the show had major talent in its cast but the most memorable are the stories. Like The Wonder Years, all of the episodes seeing as a kid have a different but still profound meaning to me now as an adult and parent. GREAT TV!

9.       Firefly (2002) 
      Fox Broadcasting Company has a long history of making crucial mistakes when it comes to its fictional programming and it all noticeably started with the cancelling of this show. The characters are a slightly dysfunctional family of sorts as the ship of ragtag misfits skirts the ‘verse (with most planets mixing the Old Wild West with sci-fi, and the English and Chinese languages) trying to make money by illegal smuggling, all the while keeping a very (unknowingly) important guest (Summer Glau) safe from the controlling, governing Alliance (think Star Wars’ Galactic Empire), as well as avoiding the evil, cannibalistic Reavers. Only lasting 14 episodes, Firefly became such a hit on DVD, reaching cult status, that many fans demanded that the show be picked up again. While producing company 20th Century Fox didn’t abide to that particular demand, they did give creator/director/writer Joss Whedon the opportunity to shoot a feature film that might best sum up the series as opposed to the abrupt way the series was ended. Thus, the film Serenity was made and was just the hit that fans needed. And while the end of the movie was still open-ended (any Joss Whedon fan knows that he doesn’t do full “closure”), it left the universe of Firefly open for comics (a medium Whedon loves, has written and has done with Buffy) to continue the story of our favorite outcast heroes.

10.       Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) 
      This dramedy (drama-comedy) about the “freaky” and “geeky” students of a Michigan high school in the 1980-1981 school year was barely noticeable when it first aired in the fall of 1999. Even though the show was cut down prematurely before the writers and producers could resolve what happens to the cast, there is still no shortage of greatness in the overall sense. Unfortunately, the show only lasted 18 episodes but it has gone on to cult status on DVD and is well worth the price to buy. This show helped jumpstart the careers of producer/director Judd Apatow and actors Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, and John Francis Daley. All I ask is that you watch the first two episodes (“Pilot” and “Beers and Weirs”), and if you don’t laugh hysterically at Bill’s (Martin Starr) “special” viewing of Dallas, then there might be something wrong with you. 

11.   Friday Night Lights (2006-2011) 
      I was SO happy to discover this show on DVD as I couldn’t imagine having to wait week to week, season to season to see what happens next! Do not think that this show is just about football; it’s so much more than that. The show is inspired by the 2004 film but know that you do not have to see this movie to start watching the series; the characters are all different and have no tie to the series. While the pilot episode borrows some storyline from the 1999 film Varsity Blues (the only exception being the coach character), this show has some great football sequences in it, but what really shines are the characters – particularly Coach Eric Taylor (the always awesome everyman Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami Taylor (the wonderful Connie Britton), whose chemistry is honest, fun and inspiring, which is what makes the show that way. The show does focus on high school students but it also focuses on the community of fictional Dillon, Texas. And therein lays the brilliance of this show. Some shows every so often have episodes that I call "filler" episodes where not much happens and you could do without it to the overall arc to the show. But this show has no "fillers." Every episode is so fantastically written and performed! What I also enjoy about the show is that even though I love the characters, I love the way the show handles the realism of characters graduating and moving on -- rather than keeping all of them around in the same area for the entire series (a la Beverly Hills 90210). There’s just not enough great things I can say about this series! One of the best TV shows EVER! Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose!

 12.   Lost (2004-2010) 
      By far the best show on television in a very long time – OK, Friday Night Lights comes VERY close! The main reason I think this show ranks so highly for me is because I’ve always been into mythology. After all, mythology – whether it’s classic Greek or comic book – is the use of metaphor to tell life lessons and human drama, the reminder of our frailty, our strength, our ugliness, our beauty and our hope. Most of the shows – if not all – on this list have a mythology. But the show that best displays this kind of mythology is Lost. Yes, the storylines are a bit “out there” and the show brings up even more questions with every one question that gets answered. Some diehard fans did not like nor appreciate the final season or series finale and they have a right to feel that way, but I believe the final season when put together with the entire series as a whole is exquisite entertainment. The stories of the lives of these characters are TOO good to be missed – and the mythology is a masterpiece. For more on my take on the series – especially the series finale – check out this.

 13.   M*A*S*H (1972-1983)
      It’s not correct to call this show a sitcom (situation comedy), because M*A*S*H was much more than that. Sure, it has lots of laughs, but the show delved into some serious, thought-provoking, disturbing storylines and images. Based on the 1970 film (from the 1968 novel), this television show -- which centers around a military medical unit during the Korean War -- was a paramount, innovative show. Stand-out, revolutionary episodes like season three’s “Abyssinia, Henry” or season four’s “The Interview” or season seven’s “Point of View” – just to name a few – not only paved the way for outstanding storytelling and acting in television but also helped show the public the true ugliness and emotional toll of war; it gave a true face to war and its soldiers on both sides. Every episode is brilliant – especially as the seasons went on. I believe M*A*S*H ended not because the public had tired of it but because the creative driving force behind the show had done all they could, tackled all they could. The cast all shine and to have a show where you could laugh hysterically one minute then cry your eyes out the next is nothing short of stellar!

 14.   The OC (2003-2007) 
      When I first saw the trailer for this nighttime teen soap opera (“Welcome to the O.C., bitch.”), I rolled my eyes and could not believe that this show could ever become a success. But after hearing from a few friends how good the show was, I decided to give it a try. I got hooked pretty easily and my wife got hooked as well. What saves the show are two things: first, the main protagonist, down-to-earth Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) and the comic book obsessed dork Seth Cohen (Adam Brody); and the second, making the adults (Peter Gallagher, Kelly Rowan, Melinda Clarke, Tate Donovan, Alan Dale) interesting and not being written as oblivious dolts. Show creator Josh Schwartz (who went on to create NBC’s Chuck) really has a way with dialogue (much like Joss Whedon) and his touch on this show makes what most would call a soap opera very watchable! Besides, any show with a cameo by Star Wars creator George Lucas couldn’t be that bad, right?

 15.   Quantum Leap (1989-1993) 
      This show made a huge impact on me, growing up. The show is a testament to a show being more than violence and ridiculousness. The overall message of doing good for others permeates the show and the beginning introduction to every episode is permanently emblazoned in my brain: “Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished. He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al (Dean Stockwell), an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so, Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.” It should also be noted that the series finale came along way before shows like Lost brought us mind-bending, thinking-outside-of-the-box episodes. It’s a finale that exemplifies the heart of the show even though that heart is what makes up every episode.

16.   Roswell (1999-2002) 
      Friday Night Lights and Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims got his first major hit with this teenage sci-fi drama. This show also kickstarted Katherine Heigl’s (Grey’s Anatomy) career. The show revolves around three aliens who are disguised as human teenagers (think Escape to Witch Mountain) but when one of them has a close encounter with a local Roswellian teenage girl named Liz Parker (Shiri Appleby), their lives all turn upside down – having to dodge government agents, the town sheriff, other fellow aliens and curious humans. Sounds simple and clunky but the aliens each have a special power and keeping their secret identities secret becomes essential to their survival. Throw that in with the fact that all of the performances and writing is spot on, and you’ll be hooked!

17.   Smallville (2001-2011) 
      Another shining example of a show coming along at just the right time! Smallville premiered a month after the September 11, 2001, attacks, and the tales of a teenage, heroic Clark Kent from small-town Smallville, Kansas, are just what a majority of TV viewers needed – not just teens and kids, but adults as well. Clark’s innocence and goodness despite his constant reminder of alienation from a species (humans) who often fear and criticize him is inspiring, to say the least. And by the time seasons four and five come around, the mythology of Superman lore becomes present in some of the episodes, which is a lot of fun for the comic book fans (although you don’t need to know the history to enjoy the show). Characters from the comic, such as Jonathan and Martha Kent, Lana Lang, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, Brainiac, Doomsday, Mr. Mxyzptlk, The Flash/Impulse (Bart Allen), Oliver Queen/Green Arrow, Arthur Curry/Aquaman, Victor Stone/Cyborg, John Jones/The Martian Manhunter, Kara Zor-El/Supergirl, Dinah Lance/Black Canary, Mia Dearden/Speedy, Connor Kent, BoosterGold, the Blue Beetle, the Wonder Twins (yes, them), Zod, Bizarro, Zatanna, Metallo, Toyman, Deadshot, Roulette, Plastique, Maxima, Icicle, Silver Banshee, Isis, Maxwell Lord, Rick Flag, Granny Goodness, Desaad, Amos Fortune, Slade Wilson/Deathstroke, the Persuader, Gordon Godfrey, Darkseid and Apokolips, Amanda Waller and Checkmate, the Suicide Squad, the Justice Society of America (Hawkman, Dr. Fate, Stargirl), and the Legion of Superheroes – WHEW!!! – all make appearances!

 18.   The Wire (2002-2008) 
      I have to admit that the first two episodes of this HBO series were a bit slow for me. I think I fell asleep during episode 2. But, I had heard for a long time how I just had to watch this show. So I did, and it became very addictive. Created by former police reporter David Simon (Homicide: Life on the Street), The Wire takes place in the ghettos of Baltimore, Maryland (yes, there are plenty!), centering around on three different aspects: the police force, the drug dealing organization of the Barksdale family, and the District Attorney’s office. As the show progresses, the news media, school system, the Greek Mafia, and city government officials come into focus as well. Standouts of the series are Michael K. Williams as badass drug-dealer Omar Little, Clarke Peters as Lester Freamon, Idris Elba as Russell “Stringer” Bell, Lance Reddick as Cedric Daniels, and Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty. 

 19.   Wonderfalls (2004) 
      This is but another show axed much too early by Fox. The concept is a bit zany but in a good way! After graduating from Brown University, underachiever Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas) is going through somewhat of a quarter-life crisis, living in a trailer, getting drunk every night, working a dead-end job. Then, one day, a melted plastic toy lion starts talking to her, telling her to do or say certain things in order to help a particular person. And each week, there is a different inanimate object that speaks to Jaye so that she may help others in unexpected ways. And during this, she has to deal with her ambitious older lawyer sister, her easygoing brother, her disappointed, conservative but caring parents, her sarcastic best friend, and a love interest who balances Jaye’s abrasiveness. This comedy, which only lasted 13 episodes, had plenty of laughs and some nice moments for those looking for a lighthearted viewing. 

 20.   The Wonder Years (1988-1993) 
      Yes, I know this show is not (officially) available on DVD yet (thanks to the distributors inability to obtain licensing rights to all the famous hit music on the show), but with either a few video searches on YouTube/the internet or buying a few bootleg versions, you can view this masterpiece of television. I remember this show when it was originally on the air mostly because I was the same age as main protagonist Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), and I remember how those life moments impacted him and how I viewed them as someone his age. Recently, I was lucky enough to view this show again. Only now, I’m a father of two and could see the parents’ – particularly dad Jack Arnold (the wonderful Dan Lauria) – side of things. And that is just one side of the beauty of this show! I have no shame in admitting that this show has brought me to tears more than once. Narrator Daniel Stern (Home Alone) is one of the most important characters of the show as his voice is not only Kevin’s inner thoughts, feelings and reflections, but also the audience’s. 

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