Sure, The Sopranos is great, and James Gandolfini certainly has the girth to wear the Santa suit. But for a certain class of cable viewer, there's no substitute for Carrie Bradshaw done up in red velvet and white fur. This (ahem) urge is met fully by the pink-bound Sex and the City: The Complete Series (HBO, $299.95). It's not cheap, but neither were the outfits worn by Sarah Jessica Parker and company during their prime (1998–2004). For that price tag, you get six seasons (94 episodes) on 20 discs, plus some bonus material.
Each episode carries a synopsis and credits in the spiral-bound volume. You can also search for certain themes and characters on the bonus discs, which also contain some games and trivia. The quality of these accessories still doesn't match the original garment, which holds up quite well. On one of the official HBO fanfare salutes, Kim Cattrall (forever Samantha) says, "Being single used to mean that nobody wanted you." Did the show, as she implies, change all that? I'm not sure every single woman in Manhattan (or Seattle) would necessarily agree. Certainly, however, the series brought a welcome media image of glamour to singletons, a rebuttal of sorts to Bridget Jones. It got women talking about how great it was to be single and uninhibited, which is a cultural advance of some kind. Sex and the City also served as a kind of home shopping network (no outfit was repeated, we learn) for Carrie wanna-bes, making Manolo Blahnik part of the popular parlance. (Not until skimming this set, however, did I realize that a real guy put his name to those teetery fetish clogs.)
What about the criticism that the show, created by two gay men, essentially made gay men—especially in their sexual mores— of its four heroines? At a panel discussion at the 2004 U.S. Comedy Arts festival, co- creator Michael Patrick King (a frank and funny guy) brings onstage his cadre of entirely female writers for a discussion with Parker. "We've learned a lot from gay men," jokes one writer, while Parker labels the charge homophobic—an overly simplistic denial, I think.
Instead, the program may've had such zeitgeist appeal—apart from being so smartly written and acted—by collapsing some of the gay-straight, male- female hang-ups that still dominate TV (certainly on the doddering networks). When Samantha asks, "If it's so hard to get pregnant, how do you account for the number of crying children on planes?" she speaks for all of us. That line, incidentally, was written by a straight woman.
SCTV, Vol. 4
The 1982–83 season of the legendary imaginary Canadian TV network programmed entirely by clowns has both advantages and disadvantages over the previous three seasons. The beloved Catherine O'Hara, Dave Thomas, and Rick Moranis quit, breaking comedy fans' hearts; on the other hand, the also beloved Martin Short joined the cast at the peak of his powers (bringing high-waisted Ed Grimley with him), O'Hara did return for the Christmas episode, and one no longer needs to scan past Thomas and Moranis' moronicGreat White North skits (the show's inexplicable first hit). The good-to-bad skit ratio is perhaps slightly higher than in previous years— the writers swept the 1983 Emmy awards—and there are more of them in this collection: a dozen episodes instead of nine. And, as ever, SCTV was infinitely more consistently funny than SNL, with the additional virtue of continuing story lines to knit the skits together. And even when SCTV shamelessly rips off its betters—in Harold Ramis' imitation of John Cleese's Minister of Funny Walks—it's still funny.
SCTV also is more modern than SNL because it mooshes pop culture bits together in a manner prefiguring mashups. In "Jane Eyrehead," Rochester (Joe Flaherty) winds up working for Jack Benny. Godzilla appears in "The Towering Inferno," Lucille Ball (O'Hara) and the idiot savant kid from Deliverance (Short) show up for "Count Floyd's Scary Little Christmas," and "12 Angry Men" reprises the film classic with a cast of irritable homosexuals. The gay gags, often done by Short, remain funny, but do point up a certain want of sensitivity in that more closeted era. Naturally, on this network, the Bowery Boys merge with another period classic, resulting in "The Bowery Boys in the Band." The Happy Wanderers, Stan and Josh Schmenge (Eugene Levy and John Candy), dress up in shark and Star Wars outfits and do a polka tribute to John Williams. Martin Short plays Jerry Lewis in "Scenes From an Idiot's Wedding," with no apologies whatsoever to Ingmar Bergman.
You do need to be awfully hip to history to be in on some of the jokes: It's hard not to get it when Short plays a bad actor singing "Pardon me, Miss, but I've never done this with a real, live squirrel" to a squirrel prior to being devoured by a wild animal, but in order to grasp the game show "Let's Find Jerzy," you need to know that the bizarre Jerzy Kosinski, author of Being There, used to like to hide in his friends' homes when visiting them, so he could spring out and surprise them.
The DVD extras are pretty good, especially the commentary/interviews with Short. If this, the biggest SCTV collection yet, is too much for you, consider instead the also-new Christmas With SCTV DVD for a mere $14.98. After all these years, it all still blows up so good. TIM APPELO
The Sopranos: The Complete Fifth Season
Call it the dueling-directors edition. The only extras in this handsome four-disc box are a quintet of commentaries, four by guest directors. Yet HBO's landmark mob show is plenty potent without featurettes and deleted scenes. It also helps that the series has fully recovered from its worrisome third-season slump; series creator David Chase and his tight-knit gang of writers are once again producing scripts that handily surpass most of what's showing at a theater near you. Yet the commentary tracks by Mike Figgis, Peter Bogdanovich, Steve Buscemi, and Rodrigo García don't illustrate differing directorial styles so much as distinct ways of doing commentary.
Figgis contributes the most elegant, balanced monologue, confessing his abject fandom (and TV inexperience) at the outset, then offering a blend of technical lingo and personal observations ("It's a strange thing to walk on a set you've seen so many times"). Steve Buscemi, who plays Tony Soprano's ex-con cousin, directed one of the season's best episodes, "In Camelot," wherein Tony (James Gandolfini) meets his late father's former mistress, who may be attempting a bit of last-ditch gold digging. (As often happens on The Sopranos, Freud might as well get a co-writing credit.) Buscemi's observations don't enhance the episode, and he sounds tired, but at least now we know how to pronounce his last name ("boo-SEH-mee"). Bogdanovich, who plays Tony's therapist's therapist, breaks out his hilarious Hitchcock impression while illustrating technical points, and his remarks about the show's opening sequence ("beautifully edited," and dense enough to reveal something new each time) are spot on. He also points out that the series is rare—and, he implies, noble—in its adherence to straightforward narrative style in an age of self-referential storytelling.
García (Nine Lives) takes the most philosophical view of the show. To him, Tony "represents so many masculine problems, so many masculine contradictions," like his apparent fearlessness in the face of daily violence. The director, like Figgis (and cast member Drea de Matteo, who provides the loopy fifth commentary), considers himself a student of the series, and his insights are keen (seated, he says, Gandolfini resembles "a resting lion," and he's more expressive at rest than many actors are in motion). If the show's next season turns out to be its last (even de Matteo isn't sure), savor it; Gandolfini and the rest are doing the best work of their lives on The Sopranos, and we're unlikely to see another series this good anytime soon. NEAL SCHINDLER
From the Earth to the Moon: The Signature Edition
Since America's 1969 moon landing, the nation's interest in (and funding for) space exploration has slowly dwindled. Newspaper stories on the Hubble telescope have been continually pushed to the back pages. There was a time, however, when the country avidly followed NASA's progress, as this DVD box set reminds us. Originally aired on HBO in 1998, the Emmy-winning From the Earth is now packaged into a five-disc, 720-minute edition.
The miniseries takes us along the entire lunar timeline, from the Gemini and Mercury missions to the final Apollo program that put men (along with an electric car) on the moon. Its comprehensive story revolves around both the large, milestone-sized events and the lesser-known day-to-day conflicts between astronauts, NASA administrators, and contractors. The high-profile cast includes Sally Field, Cary Elwes, Chris Isaak, Dave Foley, Mark Harmon, Steve Zahn, and Mr. Space Buff himself, Tom Hanks. The series is shot as a quasi-documentary, alternating between real 1960s television broadcasts and the Hollywood re-enactments.
Of course, with Hanks and Ron Howard producing, the astronauts and action are treated quite cinematically: Every bead of sweat is accompanied by a swelling orchestral chord; moments of uncertainty are always stretched and stuffed with every possible bit of drama. In the end, though, your main impression isn't of heroic astronauts but the complexity of the effort behind them. It is clear after watching the first of 12 episodes that space flight was not just difficult, but almost impossible. At one point, a reporter announces, "There are 2 million working parts in the Apollo spacecraft. Achieving 99.9 percent perfection still would not be good enough. That would leave 2,000 parts to go wrong." And you thought life on Earth was complicated.
New bonus materials include an entire disc of NASA biographies, timelines, notable speeches (including JFK's famous call to Congress in 1961), copious amounts of astronomical information, and a lengthy behind-the-scenes documentary. The latter contains interviews with Hanks, various cast members, and some of the original Apollo astronauts. You only wish the Hubble could get such treatment today. ROSS SIMONINI
Undeclared: The Complete Series
Ah, college. A time to reinvent yourself. A time to explore the mysteries of love. A time to fall asleep in class. A time to pelt your enemies with bacon-fat balloons.
Die-hard Freaks and Geeks fans—is there any other kind?—may snap up the DVD box set of Judd Apatow's 2001 follow-up in hopes of finding some of that old F&G magic. If you're one of them, I have sad news: The shows share the same fate (cancellation after fewer than 20 episodes) and assorted cast and crew members, but they're very different in spirit. Whereas co-creator Paul Feig brought his sweet, gentle sensibility to F&G, Undeclared exudes Apatow's raucous comic instincts (most recently on display in The 40-Year-Old Virgin). As a result, the adventures of ex-geek Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel) and his slacker roommates (Timm Sharp, Charlie Hunnam, and Virgin's Seth Rogen) at the fictional University of Northeastern California venture into territory—sex, fraternities, bacon fat—that F&G's happy losers couldn't have imagined.
I wouldn't dwell on the relationship between the two shows if Apatow didn't. He actually dreamed up Undeclared to create new roles for his F&G buddies, he admits during a taped Q&A at New York's Museum of Television and Radio, one of the best DVD extras. (Others, like concert footage of cast member/folksinger Loudon Wainwright and a script for a never-made episode, are forgettable.) Joined onstage by Undeclared's cast and crew, Apatow quips: "Thank you very much for coming. This is our yearly trip to the museum. Which is always followed two weeks later by our cancellation." At least adversity bred solidarity: F&G alum Jason Segel, who plays the jealous boyfriend of Steven's first crush, notes that Apatow's shows have established "a little crew," a small-screen equivalent to Paul Thomas Anderson's repertory company.
Though the writing easily outpaces Road Trip and other recent college movies, Undeclared's scenarios—getting sexiled, getting a job, getting sick, getting into a frat—are standard campus-comedy fare. It's the commentary tracks, in which the actors razz one another in aptly sophomoric fashion, that make the DVDs ideal weekend-afternoon viewing. Baruchel calls Rogen "an uncultured buffoon" for saying "violin player" instead of "violinist"; Rogen claims he shaved his neck "bi- hourly" on set; and Gerry Bednob, who plays Steven's overbearing boss, says a certain facial expression "magnifies Jay [Baruchel]'s geekiness." They behave, in short, like college pals at their first reunion. NEAL SCHINDLER
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG (Vol. 1)
Talk about a franchise. Masamune Shirow originally invented Section 9 as a semiserious band of what-the-hell cyber-crime-battling cyborgs for a manga (Japanese comic-book) series. Mamoru Oshii put an entirely different spin on Shirow's characters for his universally praised 1995 animated feature film, Ghost in the Shell, stirring Spinoza and shoot-'em-up into a heady philosophical action cocktail. With Major Kusinagi and her robotically enhanced gang showing no sign of slippage with the public, Shirow licensed a 26-week half-hour TV series (now in its third year in Japan) based on the same material. Graphically simple, narratively hyperinvoluted, GitS: Stand Alone Complex is as addictive as nachos.
All of season one of GitS:SAC is now available in the U.S. People who loved Oshii's two feature films based on the material are going to need to make an adjustment to the TV version. In Oshii, story counts for little or nothing; the TV series is almost nothing but, a modern correlative to the novels of Alexandre Dumas, serialized in daily newspapers, with every episode ending in a cliff-hanger. But Dumas' readers only had to wait a day or two for their next fix. It is strongly recommended that newcomers to the series try to ration themselves working through season one, because Bandi is releasing the second series one measly four-episode package at a time; consume the weird tale of Section 9 versus the Laughing Man too quickly, and you'll find yourself stuck with the real fans, waiting in withdrawal a month or more before the next set appears. ROGER DOWNEY