Tuned to the next episode
Obscure TV series get new exposure
If the new prime-time series rolling out strike you as something less than a bumper crop, there's always the DVD option. And no, we're not just snobbishly talking about movies. Among the interesting lower-profile TV fare that DVDs are currently striving to give a Nielsens-be-darned viewership boost are the following:
"The Tick: The Entire Series!" (2001). Don't cry for Pembroke-raised cartoonist-turned-screenwriter Ben Edlund. He enjoyed a great run with his hilariously clueless superhero, the Tick, watching the big blue-suited lunk graduate from local cult comics to Saturday morning animation to a full-fledged live-action sitcom. Still, the fact remains, Fox network execs always seemed ambivalent in their handling of the costly comedy, sitting for months on a pilot directed by Barry Sonnenfeld ("Men in Black"), then canceling the series after eight episodes (with a completed ninth show never airing).
As the title of this two-disc widescreen set makes plain, though, even that elusive final installment is now out there for the watching. (For those left hanging, the episode has our heroes flexing their muscles against a geriatric baddie called the Terror.) Our sense is that this show hadn't quite perfected its rhythm but was well on its way. Wrestling with those pesky budget issues, Edlund and the series's creative team have the Tick (Patrick Warburton of "Seinfeld"), his mousy sidekick Arthur (David Burke), and cape-wearing pals Captain Liberty (Liz Vassey) and Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell) spend much of their time hanging around the neighborhood Chinese joint, kvetching about the superhero biz.
Unlike the cartoon, the sitcom leaves the villainy of, say, the 50-foot-tall fire-spewing Apocalypse Cow as something that takes place off-camera. But the goofy character interplay offsets the bottom-lining, as when the Tick solemnly warns Arthur in the unaired episode: "When you get in bed with evil incarnate, it always takes the covers." (We also get the semi-disturbing answer to the question, "Where do superheroes keep loose change in those tights?")
Edlund provides commentary tracks for a couple of the episodes, with Sonnenfeld supplying one for the pilot. The low-key Edlund, in particular, seems happy just to be here, good naturedly admiring how various show details turned out, including Warburton's remote-control antennae: "Look at them go! So expressive!" And listening to Edlund talk about a story line in which Arthur comes out of the superhero closet to his family, it's not hard to see where the series's sensibility originated: "Of course, the parallels to letting your parents know you're gay or Republican can't be ignored." Neither can Edlund's unlucky timing: Imagine how much better this sharply written superspoof might have played if it had hit the air post-"Spider-Man," rather than just a few months prior. (Available Tuesday from Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, $29.95.)
"Neverwhere" (1996). Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, author of the popular "Sandman" graphic novels, created and wrote this six-episode BBC offering, putting an adult spin on elements of "Alice in Wonderland," "The Wizard of Oz," and (a couple of years before the fact) "Harry Potter." Richard Mayhew (Gary Bakewell) is a London office wonk who stumbles across a battered, bloodied woman on the sidewalk one night and, in helping her, gets sucked into the shadowy, mystical world of London Below, where he learns that she's Door (Laura Fraser), daughter of (cringingly, yes) the late royalty figure Portico and a target of evildoers looking to upend this underworld.
There are some fun performances, particularly from Sisqo look-alike Paterson Joseph as Mayhew's prima donna guide and Clive Russell as occult assassin Mr. Vandemaar, regularly seen chomping on rats. Some of the dialogue crackles in a surprisingly Hollywood-ready way, as when Vandemaar and his boss gleefully note: "Can't make an omelet . . . without killing a few people." But the enterprise is ultimately hurt by its "Dr. Who"-level production values. Gaiman supplies an interview and commentary, but when he notes that, for instance, the series strove to make its sets look expansive, the argument isn't convincing. The fact that there's an American feature version of Gaiman's story in development seems to tell the true tale. (Newly available from A&E Home Video, $39.95.)
"The Office" (2001). The BBC's answer to domestic cult fave "Office Space" is just as validating a statement that, yes, your boss and co-workers are that moronic. Intriguingly, though, the six-episode series goes about making this point in a style that's at once similar and strikingly different, generally opting for subtlety throughout, and shifting the main focus from sympathetic cubicle slaves to their double-talking, painfully inept manager (series co-creator Ricky Gervais). Gervais's David Brent muses on, say, equality in the workplace: "How can I hate women? My mom's one." Gervais is also goofily spot-on in what he doesn't say; the show, shot in documentary style, has him continually directing self-consciously insecure sideways glances at the camera, always to amusing effect.
Most network sitcoms would do well to have a cast that makes an impression as quickly as this one. A particular standout is Brent's self-important yes-man Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), the sort of guy who comes to work wearing his cellphone in a gun holster -- and who justly gets his office supplies encased in Jello for being that way. A making-of featurette and deleted scenes show that Gervais is quite the talker out of character as well. (Available Oct. 7 from BBC Video, $29.98; the show's second season premieres Oct. 12 on BBC America.)
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