Taking a glance at today’s new DVD releases (as we do on many a groggy Tuesday morn), we noticed the continuation of a disturbing pattern. Happily Divorced: Season One. The New Adventures of Old Christine: The Complete Fifth Season. Transformers Prime: Season One. “Fan Favorite” collections featuring the “best” of Hogan’s Heroes and Macgyver — since every season of those shows has already been released. And the question we ask (aside from “who the hell is buying this stuff”) is this: How is it that we get every single episode of Fran Drescher’s new TV Land sitcom a mere seven months after they aired, but we’re still waiting for our Wonder Years DVDs?
After the jump, we’ll take a look at a dozen great (or at least interesting) TV shows that are inexplicably unavailable on DVD, and try to figure out why.
The Wonder Years
ABC’s six-season coming-of-age-in-the-’60s story, starring Fred Savage as sweet little Kevin Arnold, regularly tops polls and articles concerning shows that should be on DVD but aren’t, and for good reason: it was a warm, funny, frequently heartbreaking piece of relatable television (particularly for those of us who were adolescents when it first aired). But it’s never been officially released on DVD in full-season format, for one simple reason: music. The series was scored with wall-to-wall period songs, and the trouble is, when the show first aired (1988-1993), DVD was still years away and TV shows were seldom released on VHS. So the music licensing agreements the show made with music publishers and performers only gave them the right to use those songs for television airings. (These days, most of those agreements have language that extends rights to any future media.) So that leaves the show with two options: either re-purchasing rights to all of those songs (which would prove prohibitively expensive), or replacing all of the music, as they did on the Best of ‘The Wonder Years’ and Best of the Christmas ‘Wonder Years’ compilation discs (and as WKRP in Cincinnati did for its sole full-season release to date), which is tremendously unpopular. So The Wonder Years may very well never hit DVD — though the show is available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon. There’s a catch: some (though not all) of the music has been replaced — including the Joe Cocker Woodstock version of “A Little Help From My Friends” during the opening credits.
Ed, on the other hand, started its run in 2000, when TV on DVD was already a thing, so we’re not sure why music rights would be an issue there — and there wasn’t all that much music on the show (aside from the Foo Fighters’ opening tune, which would probably cost a buck or two). But there’s no good reason why, say, According to Jim (which ran roughly contemporaneously) should have four seasons on DVD to Ed’s none. Produced by David Letterman’s Worldwid Pants, this charming comedy/drama featured several soon-to-be-familiar faces: Justin Long, Mad Men’s John Slattery, Modern Family’s Julie Bowen, and smarm-master Michael Ian Black.
Here’s another head-scratcher: though one of the most iconic television shows of the 1960s, the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman series has never seen a DVD (or VHS, for that matter) release. On this one, a complicated tangle of rights issues are to blame. The Batman character is owned by DC, which became part of Warner Brothers in 1969 (shortly after the show ended its three-season, 120 episode run) — but the series was produced by 20th Century Fox Television, so speculation abounds that the two studios can’t come to agreeable terms. Also part of that mix is Greenway Productions, which originally co-produced the show with Fox before that studio entered a separate agreement with ABC, where it aired; the ownership of the show among those three entities would very well have to be sorted out before DC (which owns the character and, presumably, the costumes and props, like the Batmobile) even came into the mix. There’s a whole mess of full episodes on YouTube (see above), and the spin-off 1966 movie has been available on DVD for years, but who knows if the show will ever join it.
Spenser: For Hire
Running for three seasons and 66 episodes, ABC’s Spenser: For Hire starred Robert Urich as tough Boston private eye Spenser (we never find out if that’s the first or last name — he’s just Spenser), hero of Robert B. Parker’s popular novels. Spenser had smart scripts, solid mysteries, and a badass enforcer friend (Avery Brooks’ Hawk) who could wear the hell out of a tailored suit, but what it didn’t have was strong enough ratings to support the high budgets created by its location shooting. (ABC didn’t help matters any by shuffling the show all over its schedule.) However, the show had enough of a cult following to prompt four made-for-TV movies after the show ended its run. Weirdly, those four movies are out on DVD, but the show itself is still MIA. Get on that, you guys — if for no other reason, so my dad can stop watching those poor quality bootleg DVDs he bought on the Internet.
I’ll Fly Away
This two-season series, set in the South during the early days of the Civil Rights movement, was an intelligent drama with a To Kill A Mockingbird feel, starring a pre-Law & Order Sam Waterston as a district attorney and the great Regina Taylor (who also narrated) as the family housekeeper. Its awards and nominations pedigree is a mile long—three Emmys, two Golden Globes, four NAACP Image Awards, and a Peabody, for God’s sake — but NBC cancelled it due to low ratings, and it’s never seen a DVD release (though, again, several full episodes are on YouTube). Now that America’s got Help Fever™, perhaps the powers-that-be will think the time is right to release a slightly more nuanced look at some of those same issues.
On The Air
One of DVD’s greatest values is the preservation of curios. How often will I ever need to return to a train-wreck like, say, Skidoo, Otto Preminger’s nutty hippie-era LSD comedy starring such youth mainstays as Jackie Gleason, Burgess Meredith, Mickey Rooney, and Groucho Marx? Probably never. But it’s there for me if I ever need it, immortalized forever on digital video disc — and besides, I’m a Groucho completest, and another pleasure of the format is that, if you’re so inclined, you can have every damn movie or TV show your favorite actor/director/writer ever did. All of this is a fairly roundabout way of mounting a defense for On The Air, which aired a mere three episodes and no less a cultural commentator than David Foster Wallace called “bottomlessly horrid” and “mercifully ablated.” (Not everyone agreed; TV Guide picked its pilot as one of the 100 greatest TV episodes of all time — as of 1997, anyway.) So why is the show interesting? Because it was David Lynch and Mark Frost’s follow-up to Twin Peaks. And it was a period comedy. That’s right, it was a David Lynch network sitcom. Seven episodes were shot, though ABC canned the show after only airing three (the entire run aired in various markets overseas), and that was it. Why Lynch’s passionate fans haven’t kicked up more dust for a DVD release is puzzling; maybe they’re still exhausted from the long wait to get all of Twin Peaks on disc.
When Things Were Rotten
Like Lynch, Mel Brooks had one big TV success (he co-created Get Smart before making his name as a feature filmmaker) and one, well, less successful venture. The comic director was at the height of his power in 1975; the previous year had seen the release of his two most successful films, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. He pitched ABC a sitcom about Robin Hood and his merry men that would replicate the fast pace and broad style of his pictures. Though a weekly dose of Brooks so close to his box office double-play would seem an irresistible proposition, the ratings were weak, and ABC pulled the plug midway through the show’s first season, with only 13 episodes making it to air. The show has popped up occasionally on cable in the years since (your author first saw it during a run on A&E in the late 1980s, and enjoyed it immensely — though, in all fairness, I was 12 at the time and thus the target audience intellectually), and three episodes were released on VHS in 1998 (not long after Brooks returned to the idea of a Sherwood Forest spoof for his far inferior feature film Robin Hood: Men in Tights). But it’s never made it to DVD.
Head of the Class
Okay, so if WKRP (as it originally aired) is off the table, how’s about Howard Hessman’s other long-running sitcom? On Head of the Class, which aired from 1986 to 1991, he played Charlie Moore, history teacher for a group of honors students at a Manhattan high school. (The cast of students included Robin Givens and Brian Robbins, who went on to direct, um, Norbit and Varsity Blues.) Hessman left the show after its fourth season; the brilliant Scottish stand-up Billy Connolly took over for the show’s fifth and final season. Sure, Head of the Class wasn’t perfect; there was plenty of late-’80s cheese, and it did seem strange that it took these honors students five years to graduate high school. But the show was entertaining, and besides, if they can release the entire run of Full House on DVD, why not this?
Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place
No one’s claiming that Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place (later just Two Guys and a Girl) was brilliant television. But it is interesting television, since it featured Ryan Reynolds in a leading role and Nathan Fillion in a supporting one. Who knows — maybe its late ’90s brand of will-they-or-won’t-they Friends-lite humor doesn’t stand the test of time. But we’d still like to see a pre-Green Lantern Reynolds and a pre-Firefly Fillion trading quips. Wouldn’t you?
The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd/Hooperman/The “Slap” Maxwell Story
They called them “dramadies,” because they weren’t sure what the hell else to call them. They were half-hour situation comedies, but they had serious overtones; they were shot with a single camera on film (like a little movie), instead of using the traditional three-camera set-up of sitcoms; and they eschewed the laugh track or live studio audience, trusting the viewers at home to know when to laugh, and when not to. In other words, they were way ahead of their time. The first was NBC’s The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, which aired as a summer replacement series in 1987 to critical acclaim and surprisingly good ratings. The following fall, ABC premiered two more, in a one-hour block: Hooperman, a San Francisco cop show starring John Ritter, created by LA Law creators Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher, and The “Slap” Maxwell Story, from Molly Dodd creator Jay Tarses, with Dabney Coleman as a crusty and often unsympathetic newspaper columnist. All three shows were challenging, intelligent, and rich; none of them could keep an audience. “Slap” was gone in one season, Hooperman in two, and though Molly Dodd was brought back for a second season (again as a replacement), NBC cancelled it after that second half-year, with Lifetime producing 13 more episodes for a total of 65 shows. All are worth revisiting today — both for their high quality (these were seriously good shows) and for pointing the way towards the single-camera shows that are far more common on today’s TV screens.