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Published: Thursday, 8/26/2004

Fast forward: Forgotten son

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

When I think of Chuck these days, and I think of Chuck more than is healthy, I think of youthful promise cut down in the prime of its life and shipped off to syndication. I think of the chipper Cunningham family on Happy Days going about its weekly one-liners while quietly disowning a son and then behaving for the next 10 years as if he never existed. The disappearance of Chuck, the oldest Cunningham son, is Gen-X lore. Happy Days: The Complete First Season (Paramount, $38.99), new on DVD, does not answer whatever dark secrets the Cunninghams held for a decade. (The three-disc set contains the first 16 episodes and no extras.)

But at least it gives Chuck some rest. More than six feet tall, gangly, and redder-haired than the rest of the clan (actor Gavan O'Herlihy, who played Chuck, hailed from Dublin, Ireland), he could only be found in re-reuns, striding through the Cunningham household and then vanishing. He reminded me of that famous photo of Bigfoot, caught in midstride, disheveled, and then gone. (Alas, not even a promotional photo of Chuck exists.) O'Herlihy, who at 20 asked to leave the show after 10 episodes, was replaced briefly in the second season by a Randolph Roberts, but by then the character was useless. He was useless when O'Herlihy played him, too. On this box set, he can be found: bouncing a basketball, scoffing down dinner, hurrying off to practice. Over and over. Mr. Cunningham (Tom Bosley) regards him with weary contempt, while Richie (Ron Howard) asks to borrow his draft card so he can go to a strip joint.

And then Chuck is history, and yet the series never explained why.

Off to college, then a cult?

Shipped off to Vietnam?

Drugs?

Basketball camp?

I think of all those episodes over the years where Mr. C spoke of how proud he was to "raise two great kids" and I shudder. Tony Soprano, watch your back.

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TV ON THE VIDEO: I have a theory about the explosion of old television series given new life on DVD. The TV-on-DVD business is approaching $1.2 billion in annual sales. According to a recent survey put out by the marketing folks at Fox Home Entertainment, there are about 450 TV-on-DVD titles. (And that number only includes discs released through this time last year.) But about that theory. It's the Table Stabilizer Theory, and it goes like this: Just as most novels ultimately are more useful as table stabilizers, most TV shows on DVD are more useful as table stabilizers.

It's nice that the DVD has ensured series like Freaks and Geeks and Chappelle's Show eventually find their audience and do not evaporate into the electronic ether, the way television shows tend to do. But the replay value of Benny Hill: The Early Naughty Years, Complete and Unadulterated (A&E, $49.95) or The Munsters: The Complete First Season (Universal, $59.98), both new this week, is questionable. Unless, of course, you're a fan, and one man's Laverne and Shirley: The Complete First Season (Paramount, $38.99) is another's The Apprentice: The Complete First Season (Universal, $59.98), which I only caught briefly when it was on and am now hooked, thanks to this set. If reality TV needs a masterpiece, a show that reveals what people are actually like, this would be it. The five-disc set includes audition tapes and The Donald's advice broken up and shaped into a half-dozen throw-away extras.

Da Ali G Show: The Complete First Season (HBO, $29.95) is the kind of reality TV I couldn't bring myself to watch when it was on, either. And now, again, I'm addicted. Imported from England, the premise sounded painful: a British guy in American hip-hop gear interviews heads of state and policy wonks and asks very stupid questions of people who apparently don't know they're being played with. The genius here is directing the joke at Ali G himself (played without a hint of his real identity, by Sacha Baron Cohen). And the reality part comes from observing how people react to stupidity and lazy thinking. In general, they're pretty generous, actually. When Ali G continually introduces Boutros Boutros-Ghali as Boutros Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the face of the former secretary-general of the United Nations lights up with delight, and you get more of a gauge of who he actually is than you would from a dozen of the sort of tepid media interviews that Da Ali G Show so hilariously rips apart.

•

NEW ON VIDEO, NEVER PLAYED TOLEDO: Picture a cheap high school production of Our Town, so cheap no one bothered to budget for building facades. No backdrops were ever painted. The only production design is the outline of the buildings on the stage floor, laid out like a Monopoly board. Now imagine that play directed by a sadist named Lars with a sweet Rolodex. Now imagine it as a movie filmed on that same stage and you have a rough idea of Lars von Trier's Dogville (Lions Gate, $26.98) a maddening but intriguing minimalist epic starring Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, James Caan, Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, and Chloe Sevigny. The usual reading on Dogville - the story of a woman bullied by a small town, intended as a thinly veiled parable of American brutishness - is that it's anti-American. Von Trier, afraid of flying, has never been here. But he's not anti-American. He's pretentious, and the film is well-acted and original, which makes it more annoying.

One frustrating thing about this job is knowing audiences would love a film if they gave it a chance. The problem is getting them to give it a chance. Raise that problem to the 10th power when the film is Asian and Miramax is the distributor. Miramax is making a habit of sitting on seemingly accessible Asian epics. Tomorrow, after shelving it for two years, they open the Zhang Yimou war masterpiece Hero. (And yes, it opens here tomorrow, too.) I can see a studio getting cold feet over a serious Asian epic, but stalling on a kung fu-soccer-action-comedy like Shaolin Soccer (Buena Vista, $19.99) is mystifying. It's wonderfully lightweight kitsch. Think Hong Kong by way of Bollywood with a little Matrix: soccer balls kicked so hard they catch fire, musical numbers, players who defy the laws of physics, slapstick, Shaolin monks, and an evil soccer team called ... Team Evil.

And though Shaolin Soccer was one of the biggest hits of all time in Hong Kong, Miramax sat on it for three years, then gave it a halfhearted release last spring. What a depressing paradox: that a studio would recognize the imagination in Shaolin Soccer but not have the imagination to picture us enjoying it. But you will - and if you have a miniature soccer player at home, you definitely will.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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