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DVD UPDATE: Serious soap, circa '80s
April 20, 2010  | By Diane Werts

falcon crest dvd season 1.jpgAt least Dallas had a sense of humor. Larry Hagman's adulterous oil man J.R. Ewing? C'mon. He had his tongue firmly in-cheek through all his dastardly deeds.

Falcon Crest, though -- not so much. This Friday night companion to CBS' top-rated '80s prime-time soap switched the suds setting from Texas to California wine country, where Jane Wyman was the formidable force determined to run the family business her own way, come hell, high water or pesky relatives.

Warner Home Video's new Falcon Crest: First Season DVD set introduces Wyman in all her steely glory, already trying to screw another heir to the vineyards out of his due. That would be Robert Foxworth, an upright airline pilot from New York City (of course), who returns to the ancestral fields for his father's funeral and winds up staying to become aunt Wyman's primary thorn in the side. He brings along his writer wife (the underused Susan Sullivan) and two whiny almost-grown kids (who swiftly become even more dreary and eventually get expelled altogether).

Wyman would rather have her clan's deals done by her vacant stud nephew (Lorenzo Lamas, who looks mah-velous), and she exploits all her sundry family members, hangers-on and servants as pieces in her nasty little chess game.

The whole thing was made fun in its original '80s run, of course, by our off-screen knowledge that Wyman had been Wife No. 1 to then-president Ronald Reagan. Compare and contrast -- Jane and Nancy. Imagine Jane's scheming character Angela Channing running Ronnie's life. The imagination runs rampant.

Falcon Crest does pick up the pace in subsequent seasons, thanks largely to the exit of lagging cast members and additions like shifty antagonist David Selby, local priest Ken Olin (pre-thirtysomething), and daytime soap diva Kristian Alfonso (Days of Our Lives).

It's interesting to note how nuance was not in this series vocabulary. The bad are bad, the good are good, and Lamas stands around looking studly. Certainly an '80s flashback.

(Speaking of which, last week saw the release of Dallas: Season 13, the next-to-last year, which took the quintessential nighttime soap into the '90s.)

bill cosby show season 2.jpg

Luckily, this week's TV DVD release schedule boasts another nostalgic entry that's much more clever and enduring. The Bill Cosby Show was a 1970 half-hour filmed single camera, concerned less with laughs than with observing human behavior. Call it quiet comedy, tracing Cosby's work as a high school teacher/coach, as well as his relationship with his mom, dad, girlfriends, pals, oddball encounters and various vexing inanimate objects.

In his first sitcom after I Spy, Cos is cool and casual, but not yet over the top with it. (Except for maybe that hoo-yaw nonsense vocal over Quincy Jones' jazzy credits theme.) The Bill Cosby Show extends the feel of his career-making nightclub comedy routines/records, pinpointing small moments in daily life, and gently poking fun rather than mocking.

On this new second (and final) season DVD set, you've gotta love the guest stars, too -- veterans like Dick Van Dyke and Don Knotts, alongside up-and-comers like Mark Harmon, Antonio Fargas, John Amos, Gloria Foster, Vonetta McGee and Mark Hamill. Some episodes are set up almost as two-handers to showcase the Cosby-guest interaction, while others are lively ensembles with Cosby's Chet Kincaid bouncing off other teachers or barber shop patrons.

Don't look for punchlines or clever dialogue. Do savor the rich human foibles in warm characters and relatable situations.

There's only one bonus feature -- Cosby sitting back recently to reminisce about the show's making, paying special attention to his insistence that black crew members be hired into what were then overwhelmingly white behind-the-camera crafts.

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(Note that this second season is not in stores but can be ordered online directly from Shout Factory.)

Also out this week:

Perry Mason: Season 5, Volume 1 -- Nice to see that Raymond Burr's classic '50s-'60s courtroom/detective favorite is still in the release lineup. Too many series see their DVD sales fall off in subsequent seasons, and some distributors are quick to discontinue vintage shows mid-run. Fans might consider the importance of supporting their favorites by continuing to buy in order to keep the later seasons coming. (I'd prefer each season in a single set, but distributors seem convinced fans would rather buy them in pieces at lower prices.)


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