TV on DVD Round-Up: New editions of "The Civil War" and "Upstairs, Downstairs"
Plus the debut of the classic sitcom "Dennis the Menace" and the best of Alan Bennett on the BBC
The big news for TV on DVD this week is HBO's "Treme," which we survey on Videodrone here, and "Mad Men: Season Four," with Don Draper and friends going rogue with an independent firm, reviewed here. But there is much more, far more hours of interesting and engaging television than one person has time to see. Here's our guide to help you sort through the choices
"The Civil War: 150th Anniversary Edition" (Paramount) – Ken Burns's epic documentary miniseries is arguably the most influential piece of historical non-fiction ever produced for television. For one week in 1990 it had the rapt attention of the nation and the nation’s political leaders (there was a run on videotape in Washington D.C. the week it premiered) and in the years since it changed, for better or for worse, the PBS documentary house style.
In the case of this landmark production, the rich offering of historical photos and original illustrations and documents, excerpts from speeches and journals entries, and period music, is appropriate to the vast canvas of this study. It brings a humanity to the history while framing it in a solemnity and a grandeur appropriate to the nation-shaping importance of the event. Historian David McCullough narrates and Morgan Freeman, Jason Robards, Sam Waterson, Derek Jacobi and Jeremy Irons are among the many who lend their voices to the words left by both famous and (until now) unknown participants in the event.
PBS will be rebroadcasting the series beginning April 3 in observance of the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the war. This new edition arrives a week ahead of the broadcast and includes a bonus disc with previously unseen interviews originally conducted with historian Shelby Foote for the documentary plus a new interview with producer/director Ken Burns. Brought over from the previous release is five hours of commentary by director Ken Burns, bonus interviews with director Burns, writers George Will, Shelby Foote and Stanley Crouch and musicians Jay Unger and Molly Mason, galleries featuring biographies of major Civil War figures, interactive battlefield maps, and a Civil War quiz. Also features a companion booklet with notes on select battles and other notable events of the war.
"Upstairs, Downstairs: Complete Series – 40th Anniversary Edition" (Acorn) – An anniversary is always an opportunity to re-release a classic, but there's even better reason to pull out this iconic British historical drama/soap opera set in a household of wealthy Edwardian Londoners and servants (the "downstairs" of this social microcosm) all living under one roof. The new incarnation/revival of the show, with creators Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins both scripting and co-starring, is set to launch in the U.S. on "Masterpiece Classic" (the 21st century incarnation of "Masterpiece Theatre"). The original series ran for five seasons, from 1971-1975, and was one of the most popular programs on "Masterpiece Theatre."
The complete series has been on DVD before from Acorn, most recently in a 2006 "megaset" featuring the sequel series "Thomas and Sarah." This edition loses the sequel but adds all new supplements: more than 25 hours, proclaims the package. That includes the new five-part series "The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs" (each chapter around 55 minutes and distributed through the set by season) and interviews with the creators, actors and writers of the series. Carried over from the previous release is the hour-long "Upstairs Downstairs Remembered: The 25th Anniversary Special." 68 episodes on 21 discs in a much more efficiently package set, with each season in a standard case with hinged trays all collected in a simple paperboard box. Jean Marsh provides a brief essay for an accompanying leaflet.
"Dennis the Menace: Season One" (Shout! Factory) is the fifties sitcom incarnation of Hank Ketchum's long-running newspaper comic with Jay North as the tow-haired hurricane of a schoolkid caught somewhere between well-meaning disaster and scheming wild child. The first episode places Dennis firmly in the latter camp, not a bad kid but a boy lacking impulse control and the ability to follow directions (such as "Don’t touch that!"), and Jay North has a demonic grin that suggests all sorts of mischief brewing in that little head of his. The subsequent episodes tone down that implied maliciousness and takes pains to have the (understandably) cranky Mr. Wilson (Joseph Kerns) explain that he really does like the boy as it settles into predictable episodes of disasters created of misunderstandings and Dennis' good intentions gone awry. Can't say I'm a fan, but then this is a nostalgia more than anything else and fans of the original run (or years of syndication showings) will be pleased to have it. Herbert Anderson and Gloria Henry co-star as the Mitchell parents, Billy Booth is best friend Tommy and Jeannie Russell is Margaret.
32 episodes on five discs in a standard case with hinged trays, plus a new video interview and an archival radio interview with co-stars Jeannie Russell and Gloria Henry, bonus episode from "The Donna Reed Show" featuring Jay North as Dennis Mitchell and Joseph Kearns as Mr. Wilson and original episode promos.
"The Alan Bennett Collection featuring An Englishman Abroad" (BBC) – Alan Bennett is one of the greats of British television, film and playwriting, from his days as a member of the legendary "Beyond the Fringe" troupe to the play and subsequent film adaptation of "The History Boys." This four-disc collection gathers up eight productions he wrote for British TV between the years 1972 and 1994, plus two film essays, highlighted by the superb "An Englishman Abroad" (1983) starring Alan Bates as the real-life traitor Guy Burgess and Coral Browne as herself in a dramatic recreation of her meeting with Burgess in Moscow. It's directed by John Schlesinger, as is "A Question of Attribution" (1992) a kind-of companion piece with James Fox as Sir Anthony Blunt (one of Burgess' confederates) and Prunella Scales as Queen Elizabeth II. These are deftly-scripted and superbly performed pieces, as is "The Insurance Man" (1985), a satire of bureaucracy directed by Richard Eyre and featuring Daniel Day-Lewis in a nearly starring role. The set also includes "A Day Out," "Sunset Across the Bay" and "A Visit from Miss Prothero" (all directed by Stephan Frears), "102 Boulevard Haussmann" (with Alan Bates as Marcel Proust), "Our Winnie" and "A Woman of No Importance," and the film essays "Dinner at Noon" and "Portrait or Bust" (both featuring Bennett) plus a twenty-minute interview with and new introductions by Bennett.
"In Plain Sight: Season Three" (Universal), with Mary McCormack as workaholic U.S. Marshall Mary Shannon and Frederick Weller as her loyal partner, presents 13 more episodes of the cantankerous officer helping civilians and criminals both settle into new lives and face their identity crises. This season sees something unusual: her flighty sister (Nichole Hiltz) and reckless mom (Leslie Ann Warren) start to pull their lives together while Mary's life unravels in her inability to commit and emotionally connect. Steven Weber shows up this season as an FBI agent who takes a liking to Mary (despite her self-sabotaging ways) but I want to call out the show's unsung hero: Paul Ben-Victor as her boss, bemused by the office interplay, a teddy bear of a personality that covers a steely spine and dedication to the job. 13 episodes on three discs in a box set of three thinpak cases, plus commentary on two episodes by Mary McCormack and Frederick Weller, cast interviews and deleted scenes.
"Big Time Rush: Season One, Volume One" (Nickelodeon), the NIK series about four hockey-playing best friends who leave Minnesota for Los Angeles to break into the big time as a boy band, debuts on DVD with the first 11 episodes on two discs.
Also new this week:
"Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown" (Warner), the first new Peanuts special in five years (with featurettes and a deleted scene).
"Emergency: The Final Rescues" (Universal) features six TV specials produced after the end the series run.
"The Genius of Design" (Athena), a BBC documentary series exploring the personalities and technology of industrial design.
"The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide" (Athena), a 2007 BBC documentary series that explores how technology is shaping our understanding of the universe.
"Vega$: The Second Season, Volume 2" (Paramount), a three-disc set with the second season’s last 11 episodes, featuring Robert Urich as Dan Tanna.
"Gangland: The Final Season" (History Channel) on DVD and Blu-ray
"The Capture of the Green River Killer" (New Video), the 2008 mini-series starring Tom Cavanaugh originally made for the Lifetime network.
"Our Planet: The Past, Present and Future of Earth" (History Channel), a three-part documentary special.
"Apocalypse: World War II" (eOne), a six-episode series.
And these family shows are being repackaged and repriced in season-by-season sets: