Smile Politely

Celebrating TV on DVD

It has often occurred to me that there existed a time as recently as my early adolescence when television shows were not regularly released in DVD box sets. I wonder how people survived in the days before you could sit down for five or six hours with your favorite TV show without commercial breaks and before you were able to skip the intro you’ve seen a million times — back when you had to start watching your show at precisely the same time each week.

Shows made before the advent of any type of video recording but which are now on DVD are evidence of what life was like before home video. Before the mid-80s, even cult hits like The Prisoner are more or less the same thing over and over again, complete with catchphrases, a completely episodic (as opposed to serial) structure and almost frustratingly similar plots. I love Get Smart, but to watch it on DVD is to be subjected to a barrage of 50 repetitions of “missed it by that much” per disc.

Later, when devotees were able to record episodes of shows on their VCR, TV became more serial and textually dense. Even the episodes of Murder She Wrote seem more contiguous and less “stand-alone” than 60s shows. In retrospect, The X-Files is appreciable for its attempts to establish an ongoing narrative, but its numerous stops and starts and infamous convolution are a result of the viewers’ limited access to previously aired episodes; the show’s addictive nature was largely contingent on the fans’ inability to keep track of the show’s plot.

Many of today’s shows seem like they were made for DVD release rather than individual, weekly airings. Even comedies like Arrested Development and The Office are self-referential to the point that watching them episode-by-episode, week-by-week almost detracts from the experience. Every time I finish an episode of The Wire or Deadwood, both of which I’ve seen exclusively on DVD, I question if anybody really watches these shows when they air, and if so, how they manage to keep track of all the plot developments.

DVD has helped revolutionize the way television is made, though we shouldn’t give it all the credit. Shows like Twin Peaks anticipated the need for interconnected plot developments and season-long story arcs almost ten years before DVDs — and of course was promptly canceled. The show’s form predicts in many ways the form of the DVD-and-TiVo oriented television of the 00s. On disc the genius (but also the missteps) of David Lynch’s television experiment is easier to recognize, even if navigating through the middle ten episodes of the second season is rough.

As for comedies, the DVD format may be partially to blame for the gradual abandonment of the three-camera, laugh track set-up. The slight move away from the traditional sitcom form (admittedly still dominant today, at least on CBS) probably began as a simple attempt at something new, but the DVD format demands at least a bit of a shift away from predictable formulas and catchphrases — otherwise how could you stomach seven episodes in a row? Leaving the three-camera set-up behind makes a comedy’s form as unpredictable as its content now aspires to be, and therefore less tiring when you try to watch four discs in one evening.

The point being: the brilliant British sitcom Spaced is now on Region 1 DVD. Region coding is another subject for another article, but what this means is that it’s now available in America. The short-running but much beloved show starred Simon Pegg, he of Shaun of the Dead fame, and Jessica Hynes, Pegg’s co-creator, as two twenty-something Gen-Xers who have to pretend to be married to live in a cheap flat together.

Ambitious director Edgar Wright, who went on to direct Pegg in Shaun and Hot Fuzz, brings a self-reflexive, cinematical perspective to the show, turning simply summarized plots like “Jessica throws a party” into witty and stylized excursions into the mind of the twenty-something slacker. With a great supporting cast that includes Nick Frost, who also starred in Shaun and Hot Fuzz, Spaced is everything you could ask from a sitcom on DVD: hilarious, catchphrase-less, original and not currently showing on the CBS network.

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