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DVD UPDATE: 'Life' (US) vs. 'Life' (UK)
May 31, 2010  | By Diane Werts

Now's the perfect time for the return of our weekly TV DVD coverage because June 1 marks a major TV release smackdown:

Oprah Winfrey vs. David Attenborough!

They're both narrating the epic nature series Life -- Winfrey on the Discovery Channel version seen in this country, Attenborough on the BBC's original UK version. Each arrives in four-disc sets on both DVD and Blu-ray -- all coming out Tuesday.

That means you'll find four competing BBC Video boxes on shelves -- plus another option of ordering a Winfrey Discovery-labeled version direct from DiscoveryStore.com.

Which to get?

Attenborough has already proven he's tops at narrating the type of outdoors footage to which this natural-world broadcaster has devoted the 60 years of his adult life. (Attenborough's British broadcasting credits stretch back to 1952's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?) His previous UK vs. USA narration duel on Planet Earth vs. Discovery voice Signourney Weaver was a clear win for Attenborough's deftly expressive delivery.

Life is even clearer. As noted by TV critics reviewing Discovery's Life premiere, Winfrey turned out to be a disastrous narrator, sounding either/both out of her depth or condescending to ours. Where Attenborough has always employed an economy of words to render concise descriptions and succinct emotional imagery -- to keep things direct and simple -- Winfrey was painfully simplistic. She sounded as if she was being made to explain things to third-graders ex-treee-me-ly slooooow on the uptake.

dvd life attenborough.jpgAttenborough's narration feels not only respectful to his audience, but often profound. He speaks in warmly gruff yet silken tones, easily bending a phrase or a word to set the scene or convey a sentiment -- irony, humor, tragedy, wonder. It's almost as if you can hear an arched eyebrow or a subtle forewarning. Maybe it's a rare gift, or maybe it's understanding the subject matter deep in your bones. In either case, Winfrey simply doesn't have it. Attenborough reflects and amplifies the sense of awe we feel watching Life's astonishing photography and natural drama.

So let's say you've voted to go with Attenborough. Which Life to live? Blu-ray, if you've got the equipment, looks absolutely stunning -- almost as if you're looking down from a helicopter or off a boat. The effect is sometimes almost 3-D, with fish swimming right at you or prey practically fleeing through your screen. The Attenborough box (look for the cover with a silver show title, a frog and Attenborough's name as narrator) lists its video definition as 1080p, while Winfrey's (the letters Life are in chartreuse above her name) says 1080i, the same as HD broadcast quality.

dvd life oprah winfrey.jpgOne difference in special features on both DVD and BD -- Winfrey's box collects the "making of" segments into one long special, as aired on Discovery, while Attenborough's BBC version adds each behind-the-scenes segment at the end of an episode as an integral part of that hour. Discovery's episodes need to be shorter to make room for commercials, of course. And those ad breaks are painfully obvious, too.

As is something else when you sit down to watch Life in marathon doses. (It's encoring on TV's Animal Planet starting June 6 from 8-11 p.m.) Life is just as much about death. The segments are crammed to the gills, or wings, or foreheads, with animal attacks, wails, blood, dismemberment and other gruesomely lethal reality of the food chain. For every gloriously poetic moment of a sea dragon dance, there's an ostrich hunted down and ripped apart by cheetahs. It's likely to be a bit much for kids -- especially in the crisp clarity of progressive-video DVD and BD.

Life likely won't be as big a seller as Planet Earth, which devoted itself to our planet's most magnificent vistas and breathtaking species. Earth was all about marveling at natural variety and adaptation, where Life is, well, survival of the fittest. Which can be nasty business indeed.

Also out June 1:

dvd burn notice season 3.jpgBurn Notice Season 3 -- No Blu-ray option this time. (Guess that Season 2 BD set didn't sell.) "Burned" spy Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar heat up Miami just fine in standard-def, with drinking buddy Bruce Campbell, mom Sharon Gless, thieves, con men, terrorists, and other loose cannons. Extras include stunts featurette and Comic-Con panel. USA's Season 4 starts Thursday, June 3.

Drop Dead Diva Season 1 -- Lifetime's revenge-of-the-plus-size-attorneys finds a haughty model reincarnated as a larger lawyer. Great guest stars: Paula Abdul, Liza Minnelli, Kathy Najimy, Jorja Fox, Rosie O'Donnell, Tim Gunn and more, plus Margaret Cho every week. Extras include featurettes and "dreamisode" shorts. Season 2 launches on Lifetime next Sunday, June 6.

Mister Ed Season 3 -- How much do we love Shout Factory for rescuing otherwise dead-on-DVD shows like this? They even keep adding extras, like this set's recent Alan Young radio interview.

Hope Springs -- Alex Kingston (ER) leads a group of female ex-cons planning an escape with their ill-gotten goods while biding time in a sleepy Scottish town -- which turns out to be anything but. This BBC series has murders, hit men and more, for eight hours of serio-comic escapist fun.

Catching up with May releases:

dvd marcus welby md.jpgMarcus Welby, M.D. Season 1 -- Robert Young's 1970s family-physician drama still packs a punch. Doctor knows best, even if he gets a little preachy, or more than a little pushy. He's certainly the kind of (com)passionate doctor we wish we had now even more than back in those pre-HMO days. The 27 episodes (on 7 discs) hit harder on the era's issues than you might expect, from drugs to abortion, hippies to faith healers. And the guest stars are a great mix of veteran stars -- Anne Baxter, Vera Miles, Strother Martin, Frank Silvera and Dolores Del Rio -- with up-and-comers like Richard Thomas, David Cassidy and Barry Williams. Not to mention that up-and-coming young partner, James Brolin, the youthful Dr. Kiley on his too-cool motorcycle. (And that up-and-coming 23-year-old director Steven Spielberg. Too bad his episode is so disappointing.) Special features would've been nice, but we're happy just to have these episodes. And distributor Shout does provide a nice printed episode-guide booklet, in a nice plastic case. Buy now, please, so we'll see some more.

Royal Pains Season 1 -- Mark Feuerstein of Fired Up and Conrad Bloom and Good Morning Miami finally finds success playing a hotshot doctor exiled from exciting Manhattan to the "quiet" Hamptons. He straddles the resort area's social stratopheres, from rich jet-setters to ailing locals, while also straddling drama and comedy in patented USA Network style. Extras include commentaries on four episodes (sometimes two per episode), costar Paulo Costanzo's video blogs, and a featurette with the show's "real doctor" consultant. Season 2 starts on USA Thursday, June 3.

dvd true blood season 2.jpgTrue Blood Season 2 (also on Blu-ray) -- Snack on last season while waiting for the new season (June 13 on HBO) of lurid bayou blood-sucking. The fun on disc extends to cheeky bonus features -- pro- and anti-vampire "news," juicy audio commentaries on six episodes, and more. The Blu-ray release adds funky interactive goodies like pop-up factoids, picture-in-picture commentary from characters (in character), and handy flash forward-and-back bridging of related scenes from previous and following episodes (when Tara tells cops she saw a pig in the road, you get to see it). Nice packaging, too -- HBO has to do something to rationalize those high price points.

The Virginian Complete First Season -- This '60s western flashback is a rarity -- a 90-minute series, which makes it almost a weekly TV movie. The extra time is put to use fleshing out quiet character studies of the costars who weekly intersect with authoritative rancher Lee J. Cobb, understanding foreman James Drury (the unnamed title character), and fun-loving cowboys Doug McClure and Gary Clark. The pace, however, is definitely leisurely and can take some getting used to. It's worth the effort when complex visitors are played by the likes of Bette Davis, George C. Scott, Lee Marvin, Eddie Albert, Ida Lupino and Robert Vaughn. Sit back and savor. The 30 episodes come on 10 discs inside book-page sleeves (not the best for avoiding scratches) in an embossed tin box (nice, but nicer to have spent the money on decent sleeves). A bonus disc includes extended interviews with cast members like Drury and Clark.

30 Days The Complete Series -- Super Size Me filmmaker Morgan Spurlock lives a month in the lives of coal miners, illegal immigrant, convicts, wheelchair users, Native American reservation dwellers, and other eye-opening folks. All three seasons of the FX docuseries (18 episodes total) come on six discs, with audio commentary and "diary cam."

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