This week two of the best TVonDVD sets ever hit the shelves. First, there’s the seminal My So-Called Life, the original teen series that has influenced every teen soap and/or adventure series since. Next, there’s perhaps the best TVonDVD set ever released – The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, Volume One. It’s the project that George Lucas is most proud of, and it show.
For everyone who wondered what Indiana Jones was like as a kid, The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones will come as a surprise [if they never watched the series on television]. While there’s a certain amount of derring-do [mostly from the older Indy, played by Sean Patrick Flanery], the episodes are not exactly fraught with supernatural overtones, like the movies. Instead, the series concerned itself with real world history and science, but did so in a way that used adventure to flavour its educational aspects in ways that would be more palatable to a younger audience – without simultaneously alienating its older audience.
Over the course of the two volumes, Lucas has combined the forty-four TV episodes into twenty-two movies [combined in the same order as the VHS release]. Volume One contains eleven of these movies and a bonus Interactive disc. That doesn’t sound like much, but each movie is accompanied by as much as two hours of supplemental material.
Take My First Adventure, for example… The actual movie combines the first episode of the series, The Curse of The Jackal [Egypt, 1908] with an unaired adventure, also in 1908, set in Tangiers. The curse of the Jackal found Henry Walden Jones Junior [Cory Carrier] accompanying his parents on an international trip – Henry Sr. having published a book that demanded his presence as a speaker at many renowned universities around the world.
This episode explored a recent archaeological discovery in Egypt – an unknown architect’s tomb – and introduced young Indy [and us] to a young T.E. Lawrence [who gave him this counsel: “Wherever you go, learn the language”].The second half of the movie brought young Indy into contact with slavery – as a trip to Monaco leads to his being assigned a companion – Omar, a young slave.
The supplemental material on this DVD includes: Archaeology: Unearthing Our Past; Howard Carter and Tutankhamen’s Tomb; Colonel Lawrence’s War: T.E. Lawrence and Arabia; and From Slavery to Freedom. Each documentary complements Young Indy’s adventures and provides background to the settings and events.
Over the course of the show’s run, it featured many legendary and soon-to-be-well-known actors as historical figures: Jeffrey Wright [Angels in America] as jazz great Sidney Bechet; Lukas Haas [Witness, Brick] as Norman Rockwell; Jean-Pierre Aumont as the French artist, Edgar Degas; James Gammon as President Theodore Roosevelt; Paul Freeman [Raiders of the Lost Ark’s villainous Belloq] as Frederic Selous; Elizabeth Hurley as the daughter of a London suffragette; Catherine Zeta-Jones as a belly-dancing spy; Daniel Webb as Pablo Picasso, and many more – including Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Lee and Jane Krakowski [Ally McBeal, 30 Rock].
In all, there are some thirty-nine hours of bonus material here, all designed to bring each of Junior’s adventures more depth and help them to come alive in the audience’s mind.
Besides the features on Disc One, the special features include:
Disc Three: Theodore Roosevelt and the American Century; Ecology – Pulse of the Planet; American Dreams – Norman Rockwell and the Saturday Evening Post; Art Rebellion – The Making of the Modern; Edgar Degas – Reluctant Rebel, and Braque & Picasso – A Collaboration
Disc Five: Giacomo Puccini – Music of the Heart; It’s Opera!; The Archduke’s Last Journey – End of an Era; Powder Keg – Europe, 1900 – 1914; Sigmund Freud – Exploring the Unconscious; Carl Jung – The Journey to Self Discovery, and Psychology – Charting the Human Mind
Disc Six: Seeking Truth – The Life of Leo Tolstoy; Unquiet Voices – Russian Writers and the State; Aristotle – Creating Foundations, and Ancient Questions – Philosophy and the Search for Meaning
Disc Seven: Jiddu Krishnamurti – The Reluctant Messiah; Annie Besant – An Unlikely Rebel; Medicine in the Middle Kingdom, and Eastern Spirituality – The Road to Enlightenment
Disc Nine: Thomas Edison – Lighting Up the World; Invention and Innovation – What’s Behind a Good Idea?; The Mystery of Edward Stratemeyer, and Wanted Dead or Alive – Pancho Villa and the American Invasion of Mexico
Disc Eleven: Easter Rising – The Poets’ Rebellion; The Passions of William Butler Yeats; Sean O’Casey vs. Ireland; Winston Churchill – The Lion’s Roar; Demanding the Vote: The Pankhursts and British Suffrage, and Fighting for the Vote – Women’s Suffrage in America
Disc Twelve: Interactive Timeline; Historical Feature – The Promise of Progress, and Revolution – Interactive Game
Normally, I dock a DVD set a full grade for not including commentaries, but this set contains such terrific extras that it really isn’t hurt by the lack of commentary tracks. In fact, if there was a higher grade than A+, this set would get it.
Grade: The Adventures of Young Indian Jones, Volume One – A+
Grade: Features – A+
Final Grade: A+ My So-Called Life: The Complete Series
Without My So-Called Life, there might well have been no Felicity, no Beverly Hills 90210, or even Buffy, the Vampire slayer. That’s a pretty big statement, but even Joss Whedon [creator of Buffy] acknowledges the possibility in his introduction to this lovely set from shout! Factory.
What makes this series so influential? Simple, it was the very first portray teens as being real people [and not some idealizes or dumbed down version], while at the same time giving equal weight to the parents. Neither kids nor parental units had all the answers. In a world of platitudes and easy, comfortable answers, My So-Called Life admitting that neither side really had a handle on life, the universe or anything else. Seen from the viewpoint of fifteen-year old Angela Chas [played by thirteen-year old Claire Danes in the pilot], the series evolved to become a true ensemble when union rules wouldn’t allow it’s young star to work more than eight hours a day.
The result was that Angela still narrated the show, and it still focused on her life and problems a slight majority of the time, but the rest of the core cast was developed to the point where another character [Brian Krakow, played by Devon Gummersall] even got to do the narration.
The show dealt with such issues as “breaking up” with one’s best friend [and then trying to figure out how to un-break up]; teen alcoholism; gay bashing and its aftermath [one of the core characters, Rickie, was gay and in the process of becoming comfortable in his own skin]; parents who didn’t quite fit at times [Angela’s mom ran a very successful printing business; her dad was a stay-at-home dad who gave up his dream of becoming a chef when they married]; being let down by hero figures [one of Angela’s favourite teachers tries to persuade her to drop out], and so much more.
The cast was uniformly excellent: Tom Irwin and Bess Armstrong as Graham and Patty Chase, Angela’s unevenly empowered and frequently confused – but not unintelligent or caring – parents; Lisa Wilhoit as Danielle Chase, Angela’s ten-year old sister; A.J. Langer as Rayanne Griff, Angela’s new best friend and runner on the ragged edge of disaster; Wilson Cruz as Rickie Vasquez, multi-racial, gay and secure in his self-image; Devon Gummersall as Brian Krakow, classic kid next door whose crush on Angela caused him a lot of discomfort; Jared Leto as Jordan Catalano, who leaned with the best of them, couldn’t read and was the sexily sullen crush of most of the girls at school – and Angela’s first love, and Devon Odessa as Sharon Cherski, Angela’s former best friend and as much the Good girl as Rayanne was the Bad Girl.
Angela, of course, was played by Claire Danes, who was, at thirteen, at that stage of her life where she could be luminously beautiful one moment and the ugly duckling another. She also managed to be compelling as a girl who was two years older than she, and dealing with situations that she hadn’t even begun to experience in her real life. Angela Chase was the best performance of her career.
Features include: a forty-page booklet that includes introductions by series creator Winnie Holzman and Joss Whedon [Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Angel] – in which he acknowledges his debt to My So-Called Life; Janeane Garofalo, and Michele Byers, a professor Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and co-editor of the book, Dear Angela: Remembering My so-Called Life; six Audio Commentaries [Pilot, by producer Marshall Hershkovitz, creator Winnie Holzman and producer/director Scott Wynant; Other People’s Mothers, by Bess Armstrong and director Claudia Weill; Life of Brian, by Devon Gummersall, director Todd Holland and writer Jason Katims; Self-Esteem, by Claire Danes and Winnie Holzman; So-Called Angels, by Wilson Cruz, Winnie Holman and Scott Wynant, and Weekend, by Bess Armstrong, Lisa Wilhoit and writer Adam Dooley]; Featurettes with MSCL Cast and Creators: “My so-Called Life Story,” A Conversation with 1) Claire Danes and, 2) Marshall Hershkovitz and Winnie Holzman; The Characters: Angela, The chase Family and The friends; The Music [Interview with W.G. “Snuffy” Walden]; Interview with Claire Danes; Highlights – 1995 Gallery.
The set comes in a sturdy plastic bookshelf case with embossed logo. The DVDs are set in a fold-out.
Grade: My So-Called Life – A+
Grade: Features – A+
Final Grade: A+