Some of us bought a DVD player to escape reruns. So the irony is palpable: Old TV shows you've seen a million times have become the niche du jour of the flourishing home-video format. They top DVD sales charts; they chew inches of shelf space compared to feet, so they're popular; they compress hours of television onto a few discs, so they're convenient; they give studios a revenue boost they wouldn't otherwise have if their old series were sitting in a vault in Burbank.
HBO's Sopranos box sets kick-started the TV-to-DVD movement a year ago, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Friends sets solidified the trend.
Expect no relief.
Let's take the flood of newbies in historical order, starting with the 1970s: First up, M*A*S*H: Season Three ($39.98, 3 discs, available Feb. 18), the season Jamie Farr became a regular, often called the show's best year. McLean Stevenson's Colonel Blake was shot down over the Sea of Japan and written off the show. Wayne Rogers did his last full season. I think of the '70s as Sitcom City, and Sanford and Son: The Second Season ($29.95, 3 discs) and All in the Family: The Complete Second Season ($29.95, 3 discs), both from Norman Lear, were two of the decade's best. The former feels very dated, but the latter remains some of the feistiest TV comedy ever. Remember when Sammy Davis, Jr., kissed Archie on the mouth? This was the season.
Skipping ahead to the late '80s, Married with Children, Vol. 1: The Most Outrageous Episodes ($19.95, one disc) features five episodes of sitcom lameness that, only now, answer the question everyone asked back in 1989: Can Fox get any worse than this?
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Season One ($129.99, six discs, available Feb. 25) - Friends tell me it was the best Star Trek series yet. I'll take their word for it. This massive set includes 20 episodes, a slew of mini-documentaries about creature and spaceship design, and plenty more minutiae.
Now for the late '90s and early '00s: We have two mediocre series, the WB's Angel: Season One ($59.99, six discs, available Tuesday) and Showtime's Queer as Folk: The Complete Second Season ($119.99, six discs, available Feb. 25). Also available are two excellent series that prove independent-style filmmaking is accessible to a mainstream audience - they just want it on TV. HBO's Six Feet Under: The Complete First Season ($99.98, four discs) and FX's The Shield: The Complete First Season ($59.99, four discs).
If you can only grab one, my best bet is Alan Ball's Six Feet Under, as potent a look at family dysfunction as TV has ever produced.
One doesn't easily trace a line from Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama ($29.99), self-assured and in hyper-control of her charmed life, to Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise ($24.99), emancipated from their dull men and on the run from the police. But now with both out on new special-edition DVDs, you can see traces of influence. Arguably, without the forcefulness, and success, of Callie Khouri's Thelma & Louise screenplay a decade ago, it's unlikely a studio film would have so unblinkingly allowed a romantic-comedy character like Reese's hip, confident fashion designer to be so self-reliant and complete. (Indeed, here is the film where Witherspoon first showed narcissistic signs of recognizing her own fabulousness.)
Included in the Alabama disc is a dull director's commentary and eight deleted scenes, along with an alternate ending. It's a cute movie, lighter than the entire Olsen twins oeuvre. If you want meat and potatoes, look to the Thelma & Louise disc, which includes an eloquent Ridley Scott commentary on one track and a Khouri-Sarandon-Davis track on the other. There are also 16 extended scenes (with visual marks to show where the scene was edited), an alternate ending, and a good 45-minute documentary on the B-side that features interviews with the entire cast (including Brad Pitt) and revealing comments from Khouri, who clearly still has regrets: She always intended to direct her own screenplay, and knows she didn't push hard enough.
NEW ON VIDEO: Formula 51 (Samuel L. Jackson and The Full Monty's Robert Carlyle have fun in this, ironically, formulaic chunk of cinematic junk food about a morally questionable chemist looking to make, say it with me now, one last big score).
NEW ON VIDEO, NEVER PLAYED TOLEDO: Igby Goes Down (A caustic, darkly funny trip into the Catcher in the Rye land of rich, disaffected youth, starring a huge cast including Kieran Culkin, Claire Danes, and Jeff Goldblum.
NEW ON DVD: Band of Outsiders ($29.95). Jean-Luc Godard's most playful movie, the kind of great old foreign classic about men with guns and sexy French women in turtlenecks and lots of cigarettes that university film societies used to rally around - when there were university film societies that watched old movies. This is a 1964 heist flick, but in story only; it's really about style and being loose and improvisational with a camera. Director Quentin Tarantino was so taken with the movie that he stole from (sorry, “paid homage to”) it for Pulp Fiction. The Criterion Collection's new disc is a bright spot of sunshine in an otherwise dreary winter. Extras include behind-the-scenes production footage, an interview with French New Wave icon Anna Karina, and a very cool visual Godard glossary for the uninitiated.