TVonDVD: Picket Fences, Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution, The Practice,The Fall Guy, Ironside

Quirky, chilling, dramatic and rollicking… these DVD releases span a range that exemplifies the quality of television over the years. Picket Fences may well be David E. Kelly’s true masterpiece; Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution is as chilling a piece of work as you’re likely to see; The Practice was easily David E. Kelly’s most purely dramatic series; Fall Guy was one of the coolest and loopiest mystery/adventure series of the seventies, And Ironside struck a major blow for the handicapped…

[b]Picket Fences: Season One[/b]

David E. Kelly’s Picket Fences introduced us to the town of Rome, Wisconsin – a seemingly idyllic little town that become one of the classic eccentric locales in history, rivaling Cicely, Alaska [Northern Exposure], Eerie Indiana, and even today’s Eureka, Oregon [Eureka]. Viewed through the eyes of the family of the town’s sheriff, it was a wonderland [if that’s the right word] of serial bathers, elephant enemas, hookers with platinum records, and death by nicotine poisoning – and that’s just for openers.

The cast included movie stars [Tom Skerritt played Sheriff Jimmy Brock; Kathy Baker as Jimmy’s wife, Jill], budding TV stars [NCIS’ Lauren Holly as Max, one of the local police, and a pre-Charmed Holly Marie Combs as Kimberly Brock] and a collection of new [and I use that term advisedly] faces like 70-year old Fyvush Finkel [shyster lawyer Douglas Wambaugh] and Costas Mandylor [Kenny, the “bad at math; good at guns” police officer with a the huge crush on Max] – or little veterans Adam Wylie and Justin Shenkarow, who played Zach and Matthew Brock. Which is not to ignore bigger veterans like Ray Walston [Judge Henry Bone].

Over the course of its first season, Kelly used the eccentric town to address all sorts of issues: there was the HIV-positive dentist of The Body Politic; the importance of doctor/patient privilege [Pilot]; the transsexual teacher who was to play Mary in the annual Christmas Pageant [Pageantry]; the Indian tribe that declares war on Rome when the town council okays a golf course on what is a scared burial ground [Rights of Passage], and the Catholic nun who is put on trial for assisting in euthanasia [Sacred Hearts] – to name but a few.

Picket Fences was notable for more than just its eccentricity, too – it won the big three EMMYS [Best Actor, Drama; Best Actress, Drama; Best Program, drama] – a feat that rarely occurs. Like most of Kelly’s shows, Picket Fences tailed off in its final season, but before that happened, it was easily the best of his many hit shows [yes, even better than L.A. Law – though maybe not as much of a ground breaker…].

The only unfortunate aspect of FOX’s DVD release is that the only feature is a fifteen-minute reminiscence, All Roads Lead To Rome. The series deserved better.

Grade: Picket Fences: Season One: A+
Grade: Features: D

[b]Final Grade: B+[/b]


[b]Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution[/b]

Joe Dante’s second season episode of Masters of Horror, The Screwfly Solution, is even stronger than his previous MoH effort, Homecoming – and that was probably the best episode of season one.

When sudden outbreaks of violence against women seem to be more than just a few drunken guys with mommy issues, Alan [Jason priestly] and his mentor, Barney [Elliott Gould], begin to investigate. What they discover is that the outbreaks are behaving like the outbreak of a disease – right down to the manner in which they are spreading.

Alan leaves his family [who are outside the area of the spreading mystery disease] to work on a cure. His wife, Anne [Kerry Norton] and daughter, Amy [Brenna O’Brien] are in the unhappy position of having to wait – all the while the spreading of the disease encompasses a larger and larger area…

Based on a short story by James Tiptree Jr. [Racoona Sheldon], Sam Hamm’s script gives us a chilling reason for the story’s violence against women. The secret lies in the way that Man eliminated an insect pest – the screwfly. The correlation between that, and what is happening in Alan’s world turns out to be both compelling and chilling.

Although not as outright gory as most eps of Masters of Horrors, The Screwfly Solution does have it share of blood – carefully calculated to emphasize that violence against women is appalling, while still furthering the story. Most of the effects, though, are informational, coming in the form of data on computer screens and the like – until the big finish…

Unlike much of Dante’s work, there isn’t a lot of humor to be found in The Screwfly Solution, though what there is is carefully timed for maximum effectiveness in relieving tension [or heightening it]. Dante once again shows why – despite having directed in a lot of different genres – he is most often thought of as a horror director. His ability to generate suspense and elicit responses from his audience is as sharp as ever.

Features include: Audio commentary by Dante and Hamm; The Cinematic Solution: A Look Behind The Scenes of The Screwfly Solution; The Exterminators: The Solution To The Special Effects; a Stills Gallery, and the full shooting script [DVD-ROM].

Grade: Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution: A
Grade: Features: A

[b]Final Grade: A[/b]


[b]The Practice: Volume One[/b]

The Practice was David E. Kelley’s attempt to get away from the glamour of L.A. Law and show us what the practice of law would be like in the real world. It was set in Boston because that’s where he practiced for three years before getting into television.

Bobby Donnell [Dylan McDermott] heads up a hole-in-the-wall law firm that includes associates Lindsay Dole [Kelli Williams], Ellenor Frutt [Camryn Manheim], Eugene Young [Steve Harris], Jimmy Berlutti [Michael Badalucco] and assistant Rebecca Washington [Lisa Gay Hamilton]. Lara Flynn Boyle was on hand as aggressive prosecutor Helen Gamble – who was also Bobby’s lover.

The cases that Donnell’s firm represented included such diverse clients as: a man who sues a major tobacco company when his wife of forty-three years dies of lung cancer; a girl who faces drug trafficking charges because she tried to help her brother; a woman, and her eleven-year old son who victims of abuse at the hands of her ex-husband; a man accuses of killing his daughter’s murderer; Jimmy, who’s charged with solicitation by a vengeful D.A.; a one-legged mugger, and a man who loses his job because he looks like a monkey.

Although Kelley’s odd sense of humor does get to shine during the course of the series’ run, it was more restrained than in any other of his shows. The Practice definitely played to the dramatic side of things. Bobby was the kind of guy who found it far more terrifying to represent the innocent [much more to lose if mistakes are made] and, while most of his associates were seasoned trial lawyers, one [Dole] was fresh from being admitted to the board and another [Berluti] had never won a case. Rebecca’s role amounted to research assistant/receptionist/cheerleader/mother hen – she kept the office afloat [which led to her attending law school and eventually becoming an associate].

The Practice: Volume One includes the six first season eps and the first seven eps of season two – the eps that were produced around Kelley’s initial premise of a scrabbling, underdog firm that was composed of characters from the fringes of law practice. With the show’s season two time slot being on Saturday night, the team had to become higher profile, and that led to high-profile cases, more eccentricity and a decline that eventually led to far more farcical Boston legal.

In the thirteen eps included here, we see Kelley’s vision exactly as he envisioned it. Although the series had an eight season run, these thirteen eps remain the best – and most dramatic – of the show.

The only feature is an eighteen-minute featurette: Setting Up The Practice. Kelly, another producer and various cast members talk about getting the show off the ground.

Grade: The Practice: Volume One: A
Grade: Features: D

[b]Final Grade: B+[/b]


[b]The Fall Guy: The Complete First Season[/b]

In the early eighties, the stuntman became a popular character in movies and TV. Former stuntman Burt Reynolds became a star in the Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper, a movie about life as a stuntman. Peter O’Toole messed with Steve Railsback’s head in The Stunt Man. And Lee majors, looking for a way to avoid being typecast as The Six-Million Dollar Man’s Colonel Steve Austin, happened upon Glen Larson just as he’d finished selling a TV series idea about a stuntman. The result was a good-timey, goofball show about a stuntman who doubles as a bounty hunter when he doesn’t have movie work.

As memorable for its opening theme song, Ballad of the Unknown Stuntman, The Fall Guy was actually sold by using the song for its pitch. The idea was that stuntman Colt Seavers [Majors], and his partially educated nephew Howie [Douglas Barr] would hunt down bail jumpers – sometimes aided by stuntwoman Jody [Heather Thomas].

There wasn’t usually a mystery – the bail jumpers were usually wanted for crimes, but Colt, Howie and Jody only had to worry about bringing them in so that their employer, big Jack [Joann Pflug] wouldn’t lose her business. The result was mélange of stunts – both onset and in the pursuit of the bad guys.

Majors also managed to get a number of his friends to put in appearances, so the series featured cameos by the likes of Farrah Fawcett, James Coburn, Paul Williams, Robert Wagner and many more. The prospect of having a little fun in the lighthearted series also drew in some interesting guest stars, like Eddie Albert Jr., Percy Rodriguez, Lou Rawls, Henry Gibson, Terry Kiser, David Hedison and Heather Locklear. Helping to maintain a sense of continuity, Ben Cooper and William Bryant recurred as directors of various projects for which Colt and Jody had to perform stunts.

Overall, The Fall Guy was pure entertainment. It never pretended to have Something To Say, and it was never controversial. It was a series that emphasized family, fun and crashing cars into stuff. Shows like The Dukes of Hazzard may have done something similar in tone, but The Fall Guy was the Woody Strode or Dar Robinson of car crash series – in a league of its own.

The set contains two featurettes: The Unknown Stuntman: The Theme Song – a featurette on the song and how it was used to pitch the series, and Remembering The Fall Guy: An America Classic – Larson, Majors and Barr look back at the series.

Grade: The Fall Guy: The Complete First Season: B+
Grade: Features: D

[b]Final Grade: B[/b]


[b]Ironside: Season 1[/b]

Robert T. Ironside [Raymond Burr], Chief of Detectives for San Francisco, is spending some vacation time on the Police Commissioner’s chicken farm when an assassin’s bullets strike him down. A deliveryman finds him the next morning and the Chief is rushed to hospital, where he learns that he’ll never work again. His decades-spanning career is over.

Using his unique brand of persuasion, the curmudgeonly Ironside secures the Police Commissioner’s help in setting up as a Special Consultant to the Commissioner. He sets up in an old stockroom in police headquarters and puts together a team: Sgt. Ed Brown [Don Galloway], policewoman [and former society girl] Eve Whitfield [Barbara Anderson] and surly Mark Sanger [Don Mitchell] – a former young offender whom Ironside had put in juvenile detention.

His first assignment is to find his would-be killer [he writes Sanger off the list and rather forcefully suggests that Sanger should work for him]. The double-length Pilot for the series deals with that case and establishes the character as a cripple who will not be stopped by having to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. The acerbic Ironside is short-tempered, keenly observant, very intelligent and hell on wheels [if you’ll permit a small pun] as a boss.

Other cases find The Chief – as everyone calls him – investigating racetrack robberies gone wrong; whether a murdered cop was corrupt; helping a pro football player try to keep his brother out of jail, and a sniper who’s terrorizing a college campus. Sanger chauffeurs Ironside and the team around in a paddy wagon that’s been converted into a combination crime lab and hi-speed pursuit vehicle.

The first season’s twenty-nine eps went a long way to making people think of Raymond burr as something other than Perry Mason – and that guy in Godzilla. The show was smart and forceful for its time. Smart scripts and [usually] excellent direction were further powered by the jazzy sounds of Quincy Jones’ scores. The cast was very good – all of the regulars could go toe-to-toe with Burr and more than hold their own – and the guest cast reads like a who’s who of movies and sixties’ television: Jack Lord, Geraldine Brooks, Barbara Barrie, Lee Grant, Farley Granger, Victor Jory, Susan Saint James and James Farentino among them…

Unfortunately, there are no bonus features included, but the series holds up well enough that they aren’t really missed.

[b]Final Grade: B+[/b]

EM Review by Sheldon Wiebe
Originally Posted 06/18/07


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