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DVD UPDATE: Out of nowhere, 'The Mothers-in-Law'
July 29, 2010  | By Diane Werts

mothers_in_law_dvd.jpgHow great is it when DVD resurrects TV shows that you'd forgotten even existed? That's what happens this week with The Mothers-in-Law, the 1960s sitcom pairing Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard as the title neighbors, normally warring yet suddenly stuck together by their progeny's surprise elopement.

It's even better when the forgotten show arrives on disc with extras galore, to place it in context of time, tone and personnel as sharply as The Mothers-in-Law DVD does. Never mind forgetting the show itself -- who remembers that its long-lost laughs were produced by sitcom innovator Desi Arnaz and written by his I Love Lucy scripting mainstays Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis?

This history is brought out in the gleeful new 8-disc DVD set from the MPI folks, who've also been releasing such other Arnaz properties as Here's Lucy and Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie. These two NBC seasons totaling 56 color episodes (1967-69) have all the hallmarks of Lucy-style comedy -- simple yet effective setups, old-pro execution, and nicely miked audience laughter not much more raucous than that emanating from your own couch. There's plenty of physical comedy, and also social humor of the "crazy Cuban" kind, this time assigned to Ballard's uber-Italian "loudmouth" as she bumps heads with Arden's prim next-door WASP.

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Their kids are negligible (one-time Gidget and beach-flick girl Deborah Walley, with who's-he hubby Jerry Fogel). But there's fun from husbands Roger C. Carmel -- yes, Star Trek's Harry Mudd -- and Herbert Rudley (married to Ballard and Arden, respectively). The extras tell us that after a promised raise was not forthcoming, Carmel quit, to be replaced during the show's final season by the less-than-ideal Richard Deacon (The Dick Van Dyke Show).

Ballard explains it all, in new featurettes and interviews, and she's boisterously sublime, as fans who's seen her since in anything from The Ritz to Due South can attest. But that's only the start of the bonus features. MPI adds the original unaired Mothers-in-Law pilot (with a different daughter), plus vintage behind-the-scenes footage (with commentary from Ballard, writer Davis and production exec Dann Cahn), cast commercials, promo spots, Ballard and Arden performances from vintage variety shows, and coolest of all, two unsold pilots produced by Arnaz around the same time.

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The Carol Channing Show (1966) is a real sitcom curio, with the stage star mugging like mad as a hick invading New York to make it big in showbiz. It's from the same writing/production team as Mothers-in-Law (and even features Deacon), which is odd, considering how slowly and awkwardly it moves. But mostly its broad-playing star just isn't comfortable in this close-up medium.

The other show, Land's End (1968), was an hour adventure pilot shot in Baja California, with star Rory Calhoun rescuing a shipwreck survivor played by Martin Milner. But it's presented on disc in a truncated half-hour format once aired by NBC to burn off the pilot footage. Let's just say the hour adventure genre doesn't seem to have been Arnaz' forte. (If you can't spot the villain in about 10 seconds, you've never watched television before.) Nice scenery, though. And this oddity even includes its original commercials (Secret deodorant, Cameo soap and Prell shampoo "in the unbreakable tube!").

In other words, The Mothers-in-Law DVD set is a fine archive of a worthy show, its makers and its time -- an unsung gem that's well worth picking up at a bargain discount. While MPI's list price is $40, Amazon has it for $19 (as of July 28).

What other vintage shows are out there, just waiting to be rediscovered?

Also out this week:

Sgt. Bilko - The Phil Silvers Show: First Season -- Silvers' classic Army base scheming has previously hit DVD in best-of format, but let's hope this complete season launches a continuing season-set release pattern. Buyers of the previous best-of set will recognize commentaries, the unaired pilot (featuring Jack Warden), cast cigarette ads, and a color Lucy Show episode with Silvers among the extras.

Other new arrivals:

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Stephen Fry in America -- On both DVD and Blu-ray, Hugh Laurie's old comedy partner (A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Jeeves & Wooster) tours the 50 states in London's traditional black taxi. He doesn't necessarily hit the highlights in these six hour shows, instead going lobstering in Maine, learning about witches in Salem, watching Oscars cast in Chicago, meeting Hmong in Minnesota, and encountering other beneath-the-surface Americana.

Being Human: Season 1 -- They're just your average modern-day British twentysomething roommates, except they're a hunky-guy vampire, a shy-guy werewolf, and a cute girl ghost (all of whom wish they weren't). This set includes the first 6 episodes, but not the earlier pilot movie with some different actors, so this BBC America show hits the ground running a bit too fast. On both DVD and BD. (Being Human is currently being "reimagined" for Syfy with a Boston setting featuring Sam Witwer, Meaghan Rath, Sam Huntington and Mark Pellegrino.)




Gregg B said:

I remember the Mothers-In-Law when it was on the air. I believe Desi Arnaz actually appears in an episode of the show. It was in syndication for about 5 minutes.

[Diane here -- Desi actually appears in 4 episodes of The Mothers-in-Law. And son Desi Jr. shows up in 2.]

Doug S said:

I so agree with Diane Werts's opening line. I'm always most excited when a "lost" series that I've either never heard of or had an opportunity to view is released on DVD. Many call it a waste of resources, but I consider it an opportunity to re-discover a forgotten piece of TV history, even if it doesn't turn out to be a lost gem.

Mac said:

I needed a little Wikipedia help, plus, hopefully, Diane,your memory to correct or amplify. The "Mothers-in-Law" was sandwiched between Walt Disney's color family show and "Bonanza". I confirmed via Wiki that the ratings for "M-I-L" were no great shakes, but Procter & Gamble owned the half hour and promised to send the show to another network, so NBC caved for the second season with cost constraints.

P&G seemed to have a lock on that 8:30-9:00 NBC slot for years, as I remember Car 54 & Imogene Coca's show played in the time spot with Crest & Prell ads. Bianculli's Smothers Bros. book tells that Bonanza was showing aging cracks (possibly due to NBC not taking full advantage of the Hop Sing character), so this show as lead-in did little good for NBC. M-I-L was replaced by Bill Cosby's first sitcom, which didn't fare much better for another two seasons and, eventually, the end of Bonanza.

[Diane here: That's right, Mac. The Mothers-in-Law was up against Sunday competition from CBS' The Ed Sullivan Show, then in Nielsen's Top 10, and ABC's The FBI, which was in the Top 30. Disney might not have been the best lead-in for its adult-aimed comedy.]

Fred Grandinetti said:

Actually both seasons of The Mothers-In-Law finished in the top 40. NBC wanted Cosby and axed the series (which was holding its own), feeling he would bring in stronger ratings.

I'm glad this great series is on DVD.

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