Phil Silvers is one of those dead comedians who seems familiar, because his chuckly voice and pushy mannerisms continue to be imitated by comics, impressionists, and cartoon characters alike. But actually watching The Phil Silvers Show may prompt an "aha" moment, and clarify why Silvers became famous. After apprenticing in vaudeville and doing stints as an MGM bit player and Broadway headliner, Silvers found his star vehicle in 1955 with the Nat Hiken-created sitcom You'll Never Get Rich, later retitled The Phil Silvers Show, and popularly known as Sgt. Bilko. Silvers played an army lifer alleviating the boredom between the wars by running elaborate scams and gambling pools. The Phil Silvers Show wasn't really about army life; it was about middle-aged men without a cause, locked into an infinite spiral of fruitless moneymaking schemes. It was fast-paced and funny, with a cynical bite that made viewers into co-conspirators in Silvers' plans to bilk the squares.
The three-disc set Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show 50th Anniversary Edition is a 20-episode, cross-season sampler, designed to satisfy fans and neophytes alike, and to highlight guest stars like Fred Gwynne, Dick Van Dyke, and Alan Alda, all early in their TV careers. The show's formula is undeniably repetitive—Silvers discovers a potential gold mine, finds a way around the disapproving eyes of the camp's colonel, then suffers a change of heart or change in fortune—but within that format, the show found room for wonderfully weird episodes like "The Twitch," which has the camp betting on how many times a visiting lecturer will tug at her girdle. And nobody worked better within a tight conceptual framework than Silvers, whose conniving sergeant was a smart, likeable guy, always a few beats ahead of the scenes he was playing. His character was a leader of a kind, showing a bunch of World War II veterans stuck in an "almost forgotten outpost" in Kansas that it was still possible to see action, if only in the form of all-night gin-rummy tournaments.
Key features: Commentary tracks by surviving cast members and guest stars, and loads of archival promotional material, including variety-show appearances and commercials.