Sex study pioneers, ill-prepared doctor in more TV sets
Owls Head — Masters of Sex: Season One (Sony, 4 Blu-ray or standard discs, NR, 676 min.). A series about sex on pay cable sounds like a natural; however, this examination of the early research by gynecologist Dr. William Masters and research assistant Virginia Johnson boldly goes beyond the stereotypes. This period drama is full of social commentary as the two scientific researchers launched their controversial research into human sexual response, a then-non-established field. As Masters states, he wants to know what happens to the body during sex. Remember, this was before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, at a time when most Americans were still very prudish when it came to sex.
The show begins in 1956, with Masters -- wonderfully played by the always topnotch Michael Sheen ("Frost/Nixon") -- just beginning his research. When Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), the provost of the university, first finds out about the research, he shuts Masters down, saying the study will never be seen as serious science and Masters will be labeled a pervert. Later, Scully will again shut Masters down, after he learns the research has gone from individuals to couples. This forces Masters to move his work off campus to a brothel. Johnson, a former nightclub singer and a single parent, first catches Masters' eye as she is working for someone else at the university hospital. She is played smartly, with a non-nonsense attitude, by Lizzy Caplan.
Overall, the ensemble cast is terrific. Caitlyn FitzGerald plays Masters' wife Libby, who is trying to conceive a child, not knowing that the problem is probably her husband's rather than hers. Nicholas D'Agosto plays Dr. Ethan Haas, who chafes under Masters' supervision and is further aggravated by the fact that he wants to have a relationship with Johnson, even though she just wants to be friends, albeit friends with benefits. The show is mature and never gratuitous when it comes to sex; in fact, one of the first couples sessions is quite touching as the two participants come to know each other. Extras include audio commentary on the pilot by actors Sheen, Caplan, FitzGerald and Teddy Sears (Dr. Austin Langham) and executive producers Michelle Ashford (also the main writer) and Sarah Timberman; a 13-minute making-of feature that includes a look at the real-life researchers and their work; 13 minutes of deleted scenes; looks at both Sheen and Caplan's work; biographer Thomas Maier discusses the real-life Masters and Johnson; and a four-minute overview of the researchers' findings. The second season starts July 13 on Showtime. Grade: season 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
A Young Doctor's Notebook (BBC DVD, NR, 93 min.). If you like your comedy really black, this four-part series based on the autobiographical works of Russian author and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov is worth checking out. The frame of the series is that in 1934, Dr. Vladimir Bomgard (executive producer Jon Hamm of "Mad Men" fame) is about to be arrested for issuing fake prescriptions to feed his heroin addiction. While his office is being searched, he comes across the notebook he wrote while on assignment in a remote hospital on the outskirts of Muryevo, his first posting after graduating top of his med school class in Morcow. What follows are flashbacks to 1917. when the completely unprepared doctor is played by Daniel Radcliffe (the "Harry Potter" films). The surreal enters as Hamm often appears to his younger self to help him out, and they talk to each other.
Radcliffe gets a bit manic at times, but he does well as a young doctor learning on the fly. His first case is a birth that involves a transverse lie, and he is a total wreck (his own flashback shows two larger fellows blocking his view during that particular anatomy class). The medical scenes are often quite bloody, and are where most of the black comedy comes in. While painful to watch (actually at times I could not watch), the scene involving a blunt tooth extraction is very funny. However, by the third episode, Dr. Bomgard has begun his heroin addiction -- at this point he is seeing upwards of 111 patients a day -- and the series becomes even more surreal. By the end of the season, it has become so dark that it makes it painful for me to watch. A second series already has been made. The only extra is a behind-the-scenes look with the two lead actors. Grade: season 3 stars; extra 2.5 stars
Dr. Kildare: The Complete First, Second and Third Seasons (1961-64, each Warner Archive, 9 or 8 DVDs, NR, 1,700 min.). Speaking of young doctors, one of my favorite series growing up has begun to be issued on DVD, in this case manufactured-on-demand discs from Warner Archive. The series, which lasted five seasons, not only was popular, but it also was one of the most influential medical series in TV history. The show was based on the popular 10-film series of the 1930s and 1940s. The title role rocketed Richard Chamberlain to fame as a teen idol.
In the first season, Dr. James Kildare is a gifted intern, who is learning under the watchful eye of his mentor, Blair General Hospital's chief of staff, Dr. Leonard Gillespie (Raymond Massey of "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" and many other films). There are 34 episodes in season one, including guest appearances by Lee Marvin, Ellen Burstyn, Beatrice Straight, Dorothy Malone, Joseph Cotten, Mary Astor and Margaret O'Brian. The second season was notable for having one special episode in "Living Color." The guest star for the episode is Robert Redford, playing an arrogant medical student who loses his nerve during a raging forest fire. Again, there are 34 episodes and other guest stars include Carroll O'Connor, Peter Falk, Robert Culp, Astor, Gloria Swanson, Bill Bixby, John Cassavetes and Leonard Nimoy. In season three, Kildare is newly appointed as the chief resident of Blair General. He now has to juggles the care, training and protection of all the interns with the challenges of cases involving steroid psychosis, low-calorie weight gain and the fall-out from Nagasaki. Guest stars include Claude Rains, Charles Bronson, Yvette Mimieux, Walter Pidgeon, Gena Rowlands, Cesar Romero, Yvonne Craig, Jack Lord, Ralph Bellamy, Celeste Holm, Sal Mineo, Lauren Becall and Joan Blondell. All Warner Archive titles are available at www.warnerarchive.com Grade: overall series 3.5 stars
Chamberlain also wanted to have success as a singer (much like John Travolta a decade later) and had been studying with a vocal coach, when, in 1962, MGM suggested that lyrics be added to the theme song of "Dr. Kildare." The result was "Three Stars Will Shine Tonight," which made the Top 10 as a single. Chamberlain also had single success with "All I Have To Do Is Dream. He also recorded Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Blue Guitar." (The flip side of this single was Bacharach/David's "They Long To Be Close To You," recorded a full seven years before the Carpenters' version topped the charts.) All three songs are among the 29 selections in the just released British compilation, "Richard Chamberlain: All I Have To Do Is Dream" (Jasmine CD). The collection consists of his first two albums, "Richard Chamberlain" and "Richard Chamberlain Sings," plus four songs from a rare 1967 Irving Berlin tribute album and the previously unreleased 1962 demo of "Love Makes the World Go 'Round," which was the recording that convinced MGM to sing Chamberlain to MGM Records.
Klondike (Discovery/Cinedigm, 2 Blu-ray or standard DVDs, TV14, 429 min.). Lifelong friends Bill Haskell (Richard Madden) and Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew) head out West after leaving college in 1897 and become part of the last great gold rush at Dawson in the Yukon's Klondike in this first scripted series for the Discovery Channel. While the mountainous Canadian location scenery is impressive, the opening avalanche scene is way too dark, as is the Chinese gambling den scene in the first flashback. The story itself is a bunch of clichés, including the introduction of real-life character Jack London (Johnny Simmons), until unexpectedly, near the end of the first of the three parts, one of the two main characters is killed off.
Among the various characters they encounter are a sharpshooting minister (Sam Shepard), con man Soapy Smith (Ian Hart), the enigmatic Count (Tim Roth) and entrepreneur Belinda Mulrooney (Abbie Cornish). Many of the action sequences are well don, especially Haskell and Epstein's ill-fated trip down a river. Extras include a 21-minute collection of interviews and clips from the show; a look at the show's genesis with a repeat of numerous clips (10 min.); and 11 minutes of cast interviews. The show's executive producer is Ridley Scott. Grade: series 3 stars; extras 1.5 stars
Helix: Season 1 (Sony, 3 Blu-ray or standard DVDs, NR, 530 min.). There are shades of "The Thing from Another World" (later remade as "The Thing") and even "Outbreak" here, as scientists from the Centers for Disease Control have traveled to an isolated, high-tech research facility in the Arctic to investigate a possible disease outbreak. The assignment at the facility turns out to be a life-and-death battle as a virus that is easily transmittable is loose. It will come as no surprise to those who watch similar shows and movies that the pathogen has been engineered; in this case, as a potential means to speed up mankind's mutation.
The distress call specifically asks for Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky), the one-time lover of one of the patients, Peter (Neil Napier), and the ex-wife of Peter's brother, CDC bigwig Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell). Handling the Army's half of the team is liaison Sergio Balleseros (Mark Ghanimé). Running the facility is the mysterious Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada). Soon it is clear that this is essentially a no-win situation; yet, for some strange reason, Dr. Walker is the key to everything. The shows is claustrophobic and paranoia runs rampant throughout the facility -- often with just cause. A second season will debut next winter.
Extras include audio commentary on the pilot by actor Campbell and creator Cameron Porsandeh and audio commentary on the final episode by Campbell and executive producer Steven Maeda; 12 deleted scenes; executive producer Robert D. Moore (TV's "Battlestar Galactica") discusses the basic ideas behind science fiction and its ability to work in social commentary and others discuss the show itself (7:13); a look at what it takes to create a disease (5:28); a look at the show's writing (5:42; Blu-ray exclusive); an examination of how the remote setting fits in (5:52); outtakes (3:22); a discussion of the characters (10:32); and a look at the makeup and graphic visual effects (6:23; Blu-ray exclusive). Grade: season 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars
Falling Skies: The Complete Third Season (Warner, 2 Blu-ray or 3 standard DVDs, NR, 440 min.). Season three opens seven months after the 2nd Mass arrived in Charleston and relative safety from the alien invasion. Tom Mason (Noah Wylie) has been elected president of New Charleston, but the enemy has become more resourceful. Season two ended with a wonderful cliffhanger, introducing a new alien race, the Volm, arriving on Earth to join the battle against the Espheni. Or are they more taking over control of the war? And what about the giant weapon they are building? Charleston's nuclear specialist (Robert Sean Leonard) is concerned about that weapon. Meanwhile, Tom and Anne (Moon Bloodgood) are expecting their first baby, but the pregnancy is doing strange things to Anne. And Tom's oldest son (Drew Roy as Mason) is being manipulated by the Espheni to be a mole. The season is not the series' best; too many clichés in the writing, but it still looks good.
Extras include nine after-episode debriefs, hosted by Wil Wheaton (130 min.; he interviews cast and crew members); a 20-minute look at the creation and development of the alien character Cochise (played by Doug Jones); a look at Karen (Jesse Schram), aka the overlord next door; and a collection of brief behind-the-scenes features (9 min.). Grade: season and extras 2.75 stars
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season Six (1992-93, CBS/Paramount, 6 Blu-ray discs, NR, 19 hours 35 min.). Another outstanding season, season six opens with the resolution of the "Time's Arrow" cliffhanger (aliens apparently visited San Francisco in the 1800s and left, among other things, a second, severed head of Data) and ends with the first part of "Descent" (the crew arrives at a Starfleet outpost, only to find everyone dead, and then are attacked by the Borg, only these Borg are acting like individuals and not a collective). As usual, the special effects have been enhanced, making everything look even better.
In the two-part "Chain of Command" (also released as a single Blu-ray disc with the story told seamlessly), Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is sent on a secret mission into Cardassian space to destroy a biological weapon, with Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates MCFadden) and security chief Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn), only to be captured and tortured (David Warner plays the interrogator). Meanwhile, the new captain of the Enterprise, Edward Jellico (Ronny Cox) changes everything onboard and earns almost unanimous enmity. Bonus features on the individual disc include audio commentary by Cox, director of photography Jonathan West and "Star Trek" experts Mike & Denise Okuda; a making-of feature; deleted scenes; and episodic promos. All exclusive to this stand-alone disc.
The season also is noteworthy for Worf's visit to Deep Space Nine, and Lt. Cmdr. Geordi La Forge's (LeVar Burton) rescue of Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan from the original "Star Trek" series) from a 75-year transporter limbo in "Relics." In "Rascals," Capt. Picard and others are transported to the Enterprise as children, but still with their older minds intact. Professor Moriarty" (Daniel Davis) from the Sherlock Holmes tales, is created on the holodeck and is accidentally unleashed as a digital creation onboard the Enterprise. In "Tapestry," Q (John de Lancie) tells Picard he has died and then takes him on a tour of his life. We also see Worf partaking in an ancient Klingon ritual in "Rightful Heir."
There also are the usually bevy of wonderful extras, including audio commentary by writer Ronald D. Moore and Mike & Denise Okuda on episodes "Relics" and "Tapestry," and by director James L. Conway and West on "Frame of Mind." There are nine deleted scenes; an 18-minute overview of the season; a look at favorite episodes and cast members acting as director (17 min.); looks at production (15:33), visual effects producer Dan Curry (20 min.), including a tour of his home and memorabilia, and a 19-min profile of Brent Spiner's work as Data. Other featurettes look at Robert O'Reilly as the Klingon Gowron, Jay Chattaway's music, Burton's acting with the visor accessory, Spiner's stand-in (Guy Vardaman, and set decorator James Mees. Finally, the sixth disc contains a three-part look at the series' evolution (darker tone compared to the original series, the creation of "Deep Space Nine," Whoopi Goldberg's insistence to join the cast as Guinan and Stephen Hawking's guest appearance, among many other facets. Oh yes, a gag reel is there as well. Grade: season 4 stars; extras 3.75 stars
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (Fox, 4 Blu-ray or standard DVDs, NR, 662 min.). This 13-part series is a follow-up to Carl Sagan's award-winning series, "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," that first aired in 1980. The host this time is astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Ann Druyan (Sagan's widow) and Steve Soter, who worked on the original series, also worked on this one, which features cinematography by Bill Pope. The special effects work is often stunning and a lot of information is packed into a short time. Tyson does makes several references to the original series -- usually visual -- and there are long animated segments. The Ship of the Imagination may be a bit hokey, but it is serviceable as Tyson "pilots" it from segment to segment. Those who put the show together, including Seth MacFarlane, wanted as cinematic an experience as possible. Extras include audio commentary on the first episode; a 34-minute look at the bequest of Sagan's papers and notebooks to the Library of Congress; the show's visit to Comic-Con; a 41-minute look at how the show was built of Sagan's earlier show; and an interactive cosmic calendar with Druyan as host. Grade: series 3.75 stars; extras 3 stars
Witches of East End: The Complete First Season (Fox, 3 DVDs, NR, 431 min.). Based on the book series by Melissa de la Cruz, this series about female witches living in the secluded town of North Hampton, Long Island, has a healthy dose of soap opera. Emmy Award-winning Julia Ormond stars as Joanna Beauchamp, an ageless mother trying to keep a supernatural secret from her daughters, Freya (Jenna Dewan-Tatum of "Step Up") and Ingrid (Rachel Boston), so they can lead a normal life. However, after Joanna's estranged sister Wendy (Madchen Amick of "Twin Peaks"; often here she takes the form of a cat and she also has several lives, like a cat does in legend) arrives to warn her of an evil entity out to destroy them all, she is forced to reveal the truth about their magical legacy. Of course, the fun part is the evil entity can take the form of anybody.
Virginia Madsen plays the mother of Dash (Eric Winter), an upcoming young physician who is engaged to Freya. However, when Dash's brother Killian (Daniel DiTomasso) shows up, a strong romantic connection builds quickly between Killian and Freya. Meanwhile, Ingrid, who works at the library, is investigating the town's history of witchcraft. The men in the show are all easy on the eyes. Season two, which began Sunday on Lifetime, picks up after the one thing that should never happen, has happened. The show may not be great television, but it certainly is watchable. Extras include a gag reel, deleted scenes, a cat blooper reel and a look at the women. Grade: season 3 stars; extras 2.25 star