I’m just going to collect some thoughts on some new and upcoming TV-on-DVD releases — most of them from Shout! Factory, not because I’m a secret mole for the company but just because they’re the ones doing most of the releases of non-current TV shows these days.
Room 222, Season 1 (March 24)
One problem with the DVD release of James L. Brooks’ Room 222 has to be dealt with right off the bat. The box says that the episodes were taken from “the best surviving video masters,” and in practice, that means that 24 of the 26 episodes are taken from what appear to be 16mm prints. They’re complete and uncut, but the colours are washed-out and the image isn’t very sharp. The pilot is the worst; the other episodes aren’t as bad, but they don’t look very good. You can even see the difference because there are two episodes that appear to be from the original 35mm prints, “Our Teacher Is Obsolete” and the season finale “Just Between Friends.” Those prints may not be in perfect condition, but they do make the episodes look the way they’re supposed to look. I would guess that making new masters from the original film prints — if indeed they still exist for most of these episodes — would cost more than this release could be expected to make back. But compared to what other late ’60s single-camera film shows look like on DVD (like for example Shout’s releases of That Girl)
But this is pretty much the only way to see Room 222 now, short of buying old 16mm prints (which would look the same as the ones on this DVD), and it is worth seeing. It’s actually the originating point for several important TV trends that are still with us today. On the basis of this show, its creator, James L. Brooks, and one of the writers, Allan Burns, were tapped by Mary Tyler Moore’s new company to create a show for her, so it helped create the MTM empire. The producer-director, Gene Reynolds, stuck with the idea of doing a one-camera show that would deal with serious issues while still recognizably being a comedy; this led to M*A*S*H, produced by Reynolds. Eventually the fusion of comedy, drama and hot-button issues would come to one-hour drama, in the form of Lou Grant, created by Brooks, Burns and Reynolds. And many high school comedies and dramas alike learned some lessons from the style and characters of Room 222.
So this is a show with a remarkable amount of history in it; the fascination of watching it is to watch TV, at the end of the ’60s, trying to break away from the decade’s restrictions on subject-matter and style, but unsure of how far it can go. A lot of it is pretty standard one-camera ’60s sitcom in joke construction, photography and especially acting (everybody has that slightly too broad, very un-naturalistic style that most one-camera TV had in the ’60s; I suspect one of the reason producers like Brooks turned back to multi-camera, live-audience shooting was to allow the actors to loosen up), but the roots of things to come are all there.
The special feature is a making-of featurette with Brooks, Burns, Michael Constantine (who played the principal) and Denise Nicholas, the guidance counselor. All four have some interesting things to say, especially Nicholas, who recalls that there was a worry that she might be selling out by appearing on a mainstream, white TV show.
My Two Dads, Season 1 (already available)
Not exactly a show of world-historical significance, but I liked it then, still like it now, and at the low price, is worth picking up for fans of semi-obscure situation comedies. I’ve said my piece about the show before, so I won’t go much into it again, but I will add that, watching it again, I’d forgotten how legitimately outstanding the pilot was. Written by Michael Jacobs (see below), it’s a script that packs a lot of characterization, emotion and exposition into 24 minutes, along with a lot of really funny lines and moments — and this despite the need to make an absolutely insane premise seem plausible. All four lead actors are really good in it (Paul Reiser, Staci Keanan, Florence Stanley and Greg “B.J. and the Bear” Evigan), even though they have to carry all of it themselves (there are only two other characters in the pilot, and one is a one-line walk-on). The rest of the season has some trouble living up to the pilot, as writers were fired, scripts were rewritten up to 16 times (“they would run out of colours for the pages,” Staci Keanan recalls in the bonus feature) and new characters were added. There are some good episodes and the cast remains good, but the pilot may have written a check that the series couldn’t quite cash.
Bonus feature is an interview with Evigan, who should be working more, and Keanan, who also should be working more; absent is Reiser, who isn’t working much but has probably done enough.
Rhoda, Season 1 (April 21)
James L. Brooks and Allan Burns are back again for the special feature (oddly enough, Julie Kavner is thanked in the liner notes but does not appear in the featurette). They talk pretty candidly about why the show was made — Valerie Harper was getting offers from all over and they were going to lose her on Mary Tyler Moore, so the only way to keep her at MTM was to give her a spinoff — and their crucial mistake that ultimately wrecked the show: getting Rhoda married midway through the first season. The wedding episode was a huge ratings winner, but the character of Rhoda was neutralized once she had settled down with a husband, and they had to break up the marriage to keep the show going.
This is another series where the print quality is extremely variable — ranging from very good to only fair, though never as bad as some of the 222 episodes. The bigger problem is that many of the episodes come from cut-for-syndication prints. Both MTM (which made the show) and Fox (which owns it) are notorious for mixing syndication masters in with the uncut ones, and the problem has not been fixed here. Here are the timings for the episodes on this set; the ones that are uncut are in bold:
You Can Go Home Again (25:24)
I’ll Be Loving You, Sometimes (22:58)
Parents’ Day (25:23)
The Lady In Red (22:48)
Pop Goes the Question (22:50)
The Shower (22:52)
Rhoda’s Wedding (51:21)
The Honeymoon (25:28)
“9-E” is Available (22:52)
I’m a Little Late, Folks (22:49)
Anything Wrong? (22:47)
‘S Wonderful (22:47)
Good-Bye Charlie (22:46)
Guess What I Got You For the Holidays (22:47)
Whattaya Think It’s There For? (22:41)
Not Made For Each Other (24:57)
Strained Interlude (25:32)
Everything I Have Is Yours, Almost (22:54)
Chest Pains (25:27)
Windows By Rhoda (22:53)
A Nice Warm Rut (22:52)
Ida, the Elf (25:02)
Along Comes Mary (25:33)
The show itself has generally strong writing, since it came along at a time when Brooks, Burns and the rest of their writers were in top form — Mary Tyler Moore had even better writing that year even though Rhoda was gone; Bob Newhart was getting steadily better — and plenty of great characters in Rhoda, Brenda (Julie Kavner), Ida (Nancy Walker) and the unseen Carlton the Doorman (the late Lorenzo Music). But the lack of a strong male character kept the show from living up to all its potential; apart from the mistake of letting Rhoda marry him, Joe (David Groh) was just a very weak character, overshadowed by Carlton, who never actually appeared. The rest of the four-year run was marked, in essence, by a series of searches to find a male character who would actually work for the show.
Family Ties, Season 5 (March 10)
I checked the famous “A, My Name is Alex” episode to see if it had survived CBS/Paramount’s tendency to chop shows up. The bad news is that, for no discernable reason, this one-hour episode is split into two parts. The good news is that it doesn’t seem to be missing any scenes, and the two songs used in the episode are both intact and paid for on the DVD: “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf (Canadian content! Double Canadian content because Michael J. Fox is mouthing the lyrics!) and “Light My Fire” by the Doors. So despite the inexplicable two-part division, the episode is intact.