Inventory: 14 neglected TV shows that deserve a DVD release

Inventory: 14 neglected TV shows that deserve a DVD release

1. The Dana Carvey Show

The Dana Carvey Show's star is as painfully '90s as a Primus T-shirt, but the cast reads like a Who's Who of '00s comedy: Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert—whose combined star power alone merits a DVD—received almost equal screen time, and writers included Robert Smigel, Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K., Dino Stamatopolous, and Charlie Kaufman. This dream team produced some of the most out-there sketches ever aired on network TV. Naturally, the show was cancelled after six episodes. Its demise was imminent from the first sketch; absurdist conceptual gags, like Carell and Colbert's "Waiters Who Are Nauseated By Food," obviously confused audiences who just wanted more of The Church Lady. Then there were Carvey's weekly digs at his corporate sponsors: Besides naming each episode after a different underwriter, i.e. The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show, Carvey would openly ridicule them—memorably suggesting that a glass of Mountain Dew looked like piss, for example. That kind of subversive humor wasn't ready for prime time in 1996, but today's Colbert Report-schooled audiences would eat it up.

2. Exit 57

Here's more sketch comedy from yesteryear featuring the comedy stars of today. For 12 half-hour episodes—which originally aired on Comedy Central in 1995 and '96—five alumni of Chicago's Second City riffed on social discomfort, in sketches set in a slightly skewed Middle America. Among those improv stars? Strangers With Candy/Wigfield collaborators Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Stephen Colbert. As with The Dana Carvey Show, the Colbert factor alone should be enough to get Exit 57 preserved on disc, even though most of the sketches are readily available on YouTube. A quick recommendation: the routine where Dinello plays a shy office drone urging co-worker Mitch Rouse to check his package for venereal disease. "I think there's something wrong with my crony," Dinello gulps. "The whole cronal area is inflamed."

3. Now And Again

A victim of bad timing as much as anything else, the 1999-2000 science-fiction action series Now And Again came along a year or two before TV audiences rediscovered their thirst for tightly serialized drama. Otherwise, it might've been as big as Lost or 24. (Though even without a massive audience, the show survived for a full 22-episode season.) The charismatic, breathtakingly athletic Eric Close stars as a cloned superman shell inhabited by the consciousness of a recently deceased middle-aged businessman. In each episode, Close's government handler (Dennis Haysbert) arranges to send him on secret missions, and tries to prevent him from escaping to return to his family, who are having trouble dealing with his sudden death. Stylish, funny, exciting, and poignant, Now And Again balanced conspiracy-plot clichés with real human drama, and gave Close and Haysbert showcase roles.

4. The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis

The classics of '50s and '60s TV aren't coming to DVD as fast as they should, probably because the people who remember them most fondly aren't big DVD buyers. But if star power still counts for something, the presence of Warren Beatty, Tuesday Weld, and Bob "Gilligan" Denver among the supporting cast of this savvy high-school sitcom might make it a viable commercial proposition. If so, a new generation could come to appreciate the dry wit of star Dwayne Hickman, whose slangy fourth-wall-breaking addresses to the camera gave Dobie a vibe unmatched by any other sitcom of its era. (Well, possibly outside of Gidget, which came along a few years later.) Plus, doesn't that new generation need to experience Denver's prototypical beatnik character "Maynard G. Krebs" firsthand, if only to understand where that cultural reference comes from?

5. Batman

It's a testament to corporate greed and intractability that Warner Bros. and Fox still haven't been able to strike a deal to release the '60s Batman series on DVD. And as the show's syndication becomes more sporadic, it demands the question: What would childhood be without it? No matter how sophisticated and cynical kids get, Batman still works on plenty of levels: as superhero spectacle, as pop-art splash, and as ironic camp. Adam West's masterfully stiff-lipped portrayal of The Caped Crusader draws most of the attention, but everything from the eye-boggling sets and warped camera angles to the theme song and guest stars (Liberace as a thug? Steve Allen as himself?) push the program into the realm of the surreally sublime. At least there are lots of ways to obtain the series through, ahem, unofficial channels. Holy bootleg, Batman!

6. The Loner

Rod Serling fought hard to keep The Twilight Zone on the air and true to his vision for its five-season run. When internal and external pressures finally led to the series' cancellation in 1964, Serling, sick of the supernatural, turned to the hoariest of clichés: the Western. The Loner—starring Lloyd Bridges as a Union soldier wandering through the post-Civil War frontier—aired for a mere seven months in '65 and '66, but its 26 episodes put an existential dent in the cowboy genre, mining the same allegory and otherworldliness as The Twilight Zone. Bridges' William Colton tackled everything from white supremacy to post-traumatic stress disorder during the course of his travels, but the show was obviously a little too raw and real for a nation just coming to grips with Vietnam: It was canceled and quickly forgotten. A few reruns popped up on TV Land in 1998, but oddness and obscurity are likely to keep The Loner alone for a long, long time.

7. Fridays

ABC's short-lived Saturday Night Live rip-off Fridays is remembered, if at all, for two things: discovering future Seinfeld star Michael Richards and creator Larry David, and an infamous episode where Andy Kaufman staged an on-air blowup over a marijuana-related sketch. But Fridays briefly outperformed SNL in the ratings during its two-year run in the early '80s, and it raised the stakes for edgy, experimental comedy about late night's greatest staples, drugs and sex. (Recurring sketches included Drugs 'R Us, Nat E. Dred, and Dick, a hapless lothario played by Richards.) Fridays also pushed the envelope with its adventurous choice of musical guests, including The Clash (in its American TV debut), The Jam, King Crimson, Fear, Devo, and The Plasmatics. Judging by stray clips on YouTube, Fridays seems like a dry run for a style of comedy that was done better later on—writers Larry Charles, Elaine Pope, and Bruce Kirschbaum would join Richards and David on Seinfeld. But what a fascinating rough draft.

8. This Life

Described as "a commentary on late 1990s life in London," This Life was universally appealing when it first aired, and it continues to be relevant a decade later, due to its realistic, warts-and-all take on a group of people trying to make sense of their lives. The show was based around lawyers living in the same house, but unlike the myriad courtroom dramas that have filled prime time, This Life had so little to do with legal proceedings that it could have just as easily been set in a hospital or a university. The characters were smart and ambitious, but also flawed in ways that made them either supremely loveable or hateable. Sure, it's a popular storytelling device, but This Life shocked a lot of people during its two-season run in 1996-97 with plenty of alcohol, drugs, and explicit gay sex. The show's ongoing popularity in its homeland led to a movie-length reunion show in January, and the whole run is available on Region 2 DVD, but for some reason, it's never made the stateside conversion. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that the American adaptation, First Years, quickly pooped out in 2001. Fun fact that will probably be put on the front of the box if This Life ever makes it to Region 1 DVD: pre-Office Ricky Gervais discovered The Way Out, the group responsible for This Life's catchy theme music.

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9. Cartoon Sushi

A short-running showcase of traditional animation and claymation, MTV's Cartoon Sushi was never fit to attract viewers who wanted reliable tone or quality from a TV show. The shorts that made up each episode could range from straight-up silly (a piece of broccoli going on a rampage after losing on a game show) to slow and unsettling (an awkwardness-filled Don Hertzfeldt short about a blind date). It might get a more sympathetic audience today among fans who've since warmed up to Hertzfeldt and the ever-more-disorienting and perverse humor of South Park and the Adult Swim lineup.

10. Spaced

Before there was Shaun Of The Dead, there was Spaced, a Channel 4 series co-written by Simon Pegg, directed by Edgar Wright, and co-starring Nick Frost. Pegg created the show with co-star Jessica Stevenson, who plays his matter-of-convenience roommate who slowly develops into a love interest. Sort of. Pegg plays a would-be comic-book artist and Stevenson plays a would-be writer, but many of the show's jokes come from their tendency to lounge around their flat getting stoned, which does little for their careers. The rest of the gags emerge from the clever, too-many-to-count pop-culture parodies woven into each episode. Spaced ran for two seasons, one in 1999 and the other in 2001, and reruns can currently be seen on BBC America, but it's the kind of series that doesn't just reward obsessive re-watching, it practically demands it.

11. TV Funhouse

This short-lived satire of lessons-oriented children's television programming featured permanently grinning host Doug and puppet friends The Anipals introducing Robert Smigel's cartoons—some of which have already been collected in the recent SNL: Best Of Saturday TV Funhouse. Still, the live bits featuring the Anipals' various tawdry adventures—usually involving sex, drugs, foul language, and heaps of abuse for the unflappable Doug—were often funnier than Smigel's broad jabs at celebrities (some of which, like "Kidder, Downey & Heche," were dated the second they aired), and they truly deserve a disc of their own. TV Funhouse may have been a cheap ploy to spin off the popularity of Triumph The Insult Comic Dog—and indeed, the episodes where he cameoed felt a bit like Ted Danson dropping in on Frasier—but The Anipals had their own crude, Meet The Feebles charm that predated obvious successors like Wonder Showzen, and the show makes similar (and already released) fare like Greg The Bunny seem positively anemic in comparison.

12. Max Headroom

For most people, Max Headroom was nothing more than a Coca-Cola pitchman and ubiquitous '80s icon—a computer-generated counterpoint to Spuds MacKenzie, say. Few outside of certain science-fiction fanatics remember the surprisingly dark drama that Britain's Channel 4 developed as an origin story for the creepy Matt Frewer character, the cheeky host of The Max Talking Headroom Show. Set in a dystopian future run by greedy corporations and lorded over by the sinister "Network 23," Max Headroom combined gritty street drama with visionary cyberpunk themes—in the pilot, Network 23 is revealed to be broadcasting subliminal advertisements called "blip-verts" that cause viewers' heads to explode—and frequent plots involving terrorists and screeds against censorship that proved too heavy for most in 1987. In today's post-9/11, 24-watching world, however, Max Headroom would fit right in. Unfortunately, a DVD—like the never-produced feature film Max Headroom For President—still exists only in fanboy dreams.

13. The State

It's been "in development" for nearly five years now, but MTV has yet to officially announce a DVD edition of The State, the sketch-comedy show that, along with Beavis And Butt-head, briefly made the network a home for cutting-edge comedy. Upon its original airing, it was critically reviled as too crude and sophomoric for the kind of sophisticated pundits who made Home Improvement and The Drew Carey Show hits, but The State's cast members have nevertheless been hanging out in the corners of popular culture for more than a decade now, giving birth to the beloved cult favorite Wet Hot American Summer and the similarly misunderstood shows Viva Variety and Stella. Now that the show's most popular descendent, Reno 911, is introducing The State's cast to a broad new audience, the timing has never been better for a DVD release. Unfortunately, all of the red tape surrounding the show's music rights doesn't appear to be going away any time soon, so until a generous benefactor steps up—like Shout! Factory did for Freaks And Geeks—we may never see Louie dip his balls in anything again.

14. It's Garry Shandling's Show

Garry Shandling's characters often suffer from crippling insecurity, and the few and far between DVD releases of his work suggest that this isn't just an act. While the forthcoming Not Just The Best Of The Larry Sanders Show includes an impressive eight hours of special features, only the show's first season has been released as a complete set—and unfortunately, mediocre sales haven't boded well for future seasons. Likewise, Shandling's groundbreaking anti-sitcom It's Garry Shandling's Show has been missing since its original late-'80s simultaneous run on Showtime and the fledgling Fox network. IGSS is remembered fondly by audiences fortunate enough to catch it as one of the more unusual shows in TV history, from its bouncy, deadpan theme ("This Is The Theme To Garry's Show") to the characters' habit of regularly breaking the fourth wall, but without syndication or home video, it's been lost to the ages for nearly 15 years. On a recent promo junket, Shandling hinted that a DVD release was in the cards, but to date, no official announcement has been made. Meanwhile, Full House has just issued its fifth boxed set.

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