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In the Clearing Stands a Box Set

When DVD was first envisioned, it was primarily as a medium to play back movies. But then the studios discovered something unexpected: people really wanted to relive their favorite TV shows on disc. Today, some of the most memorable moments in television are now nicely packaged in box form. Here's a very idiosyncratic list of some of the author's favorites in his collection:

The Prisoner: James Bond, Double-Oh Kafka. Patrick McGoohan’s spy-without-a-name was one of the most adventurous TV shows of the 1960s, an allegory for both the Cold War, and the coming onslaught of political correctness and other forms of Frankfurt School-style reeducation. Killer theme song and brilliant production design to boot.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Things began to fall apart in the show’s third and fourth seasons, but for a time, there wasn't a better working comedy ensemble. Their early episodes, in which sketches ended without punchlines, merged into other sketches, and made references to Kant, Nietzsche, and Descartes (at a time when Norman Lear was slapping himself on the back for getting Archie Bunker’s toilet flush on the air at CBS)  were the Citizen Kane of comedic TV. They rewrote the rules, made new ones, and made superstars out of an unlikely assemblage of British television writer-performers, and in the process dynamited postwar British culture (that last item was truly a mixed blessing for England, of course). The 14-disc box set includes its rarely seen episode produced for German television (which took Basil Fawlty’s later advice to not mention the war seriously), along with the Steve Martin-hosted 20 year retrospective, produced shortly before Graham Chapman died, but the real meat of the show are the Pythons’ classic episodes.

The World At War: The great Thames TV documentary, which like Python, became a popular mid-1970s British export to American airwaves, was, in retrospect, made at precisely the right time. There were still enough men alive who had fought on the front lines, along with a fair number of the older generation of generals and politicians on all sides who had prosecuted the war. Film and animation techniques were by the early 1970s sufficiently developed to tell the story graphically. But perhaps most importantly, there was still confidence that the Allies were good guys; moral equivalence, multiculturalism, punitive liberalism, the "black armband school of history," and all of the other soul-destroying elements of Frankfurt School-style political correctness were not yet standard issue features at the academy, and by extension, the television studio. Oh, and Sir Laurence Olivier is of course pitch-perfect in his stentorian world-weariness. And be on the lookout in later episodes and particularly the bonus features for commentary from a very young, mullet-wearing Stephen Ambrose, 20 years before he became a one-man publishing industry.

Saturday Night Live: Original writer Anne Beatts summed up this show’s arc when she said, “You can only be avant-garde for so long before you become garde.” And SNL, a show that once celebrated youth culture before becoming a corporate institution, is at 35 years old, the very definition of garde. But when SNL first debuted in 1975, it was the logical extension of earlier comedic experiments such as Laugh-In, the leftwing, network-defying Smothers Brothers Show, and the aforementioned Monty Python. Creator/producer Lorne Michaels waged a daily war with NBC’s censors, and for better or worse, imprinted a permanent stamp on the television overculture. The Jimmy Fallon Show’s recent premeditated hit-job on Michele Bachmann would be inconceivable without SNL’s original effort to submarine Gerry Ford via Ron Nessen, his press secretary, and of course, the Daily Show is simply Chevy Chase’s original recurring Weekend Update sketch on steroids.

To get a sense of where network television was in 1975, just rifle through YouTube and watch a clip of The Johnny Carson Show, or one of Dean Martin’s interminable roasts from the period, and you’ll immediately see how exhausted postwar show business culture had become. Saturday Night Live was the Woodstock and Watergate-era counterculture finally getting network exposure, and in the process emerging as the dominant culture in Hollywood, which it arguably remains today. But a curious thing happened along the way: during the original lineup’s run from 1975 to 1980, the politics became toned down, making the show accessible to just about any teenager or young adult in the American heartland who wanted to see a mix of comedy and often deliberately eclectic rock and roll in a single package.  The resulting show was the perfect conduit to transmit the products of Big Hollywood, Big Music, and plenty of advertisers’ wares to America’s youth market in the late 1970s. David Brooks' generation of bourgeois bohemians began here.

The first season DVD box set of SNL, which highlights a show still finding itself, includes the debut episode hosted by George Carlin, the aforementioned appearance by Ron Nessen (and a cameo from Gerry Ford, who never knew what hit him), classic Michael O’Donohue-penned parodies of Citizen Kane and Star Trek, along with the screen tests performed by the cast. Whatever X-factor that John Belushi had that made him an electric performer when the red tally light on the video camera switched on was immediately apparent in his screen test.