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MAMA’S FAMILY: THE MAMA’S FAMILY FAVORITES COLLECTION (DVD)

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mamasfamilycoverGrade: C/C+
Entire family: Yes, but…
1983-1990, 910 min. (37 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be G-PG)
TV comedy
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Mama’s Family was a spin-off of “The Family,” a series of sketches on The Carol Burnett Show starring Burnett and Harvey Korman as a married couple saddled with Burnett’s character’s outspoken and overbearing mother, played by Vicki Lawrence. Lawrence donned a wig and spectacles and, as was typical of the sketch comedy to come out of Burnett’s weekly variety show, the character she played was more of a caricature. The sketches themselves were less realistic than they were the stuff of community theater, but those sketches were popular enough to prompt Burnett’s ex-husband, Joe Hamilton, to back a TV movie titled Eunice, which led to Mama’s Family.

With Burnett and Korman only making guest appearances, Lawrence drives the comedy with her over-the-top rendition of a feisty old woman who drinks beer from the can and juggles homespun quips and insults with equal ease. She’s not the only caricature, though, and the situations in this sitcom are so “sketchy” that I’m tempted to call it a sketchcom instead.

Mama’s Family placed as high as #28 its first season, but viewership dropped off so abruptly in Season 2 that the show was cancelled and revived in syndication, with four more seasons of episodes created. During the show’s six-year run (1983-1990), it earned two Emmy nominations—both for costume design—and won once. During that same period, sitcoms like Cheers, The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, The Wonder Years, and Murphy Brown took home most of the awards.

This six-DVD set is a highlights collection, and NOT all episodes from the show’s six seasons. It features Lawrence’s favorite episodes, though her favorites don’t always match up with fan favorites as listed on a number of fansites.

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BOB HOPE: HOPE FOR THE HOLIDAYS (DVD)

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bobhopexmascoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
1993 & 1950, 110 min., Color & B&W
Time Life
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B-/C+
Clip: “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Forever”
Amazon link

There’s an episode of Friends where an out-of-work Chandler takes an internship and, surrounded by twentysomethings, confesses that he feels old . . . though, he quips, he’s not exactly Bob Hope. “Who?” they say. “You know. Bob Hope. USO . . . ” to which one of them responds, “Uh, USA.” A year before Friends launched, an already old Bob Hope hosted a Christmas special that would turn out to be one of his very best. But if young people had no idea who Bob Hope was back in the nineties, they certainly won’t now.

They should, though. Hope, who lived to be 100, was one of America’s iconic entertainers—an ironic fact, considering he was born in England. Although he appeared in 70+ films, he’s most known for teaming up with crooner Bing Crosby and singer-dancer Dorothy Lamour in a series of “Road” pictures that cracked up audiences during the forties. And he’s known for entertaining America’s men and women in the Armed Forces, making 57 tours abroad for the USO (United Service Organizations) over a course of 50 years. He also did four decades of television specials, always beginning and ending with the theme song “Thanks for the Memory.”

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THE WONDER YEARS: SEASON 6 (DVD)

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wonderyears6coverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: No
1992-93, 638 min. (22 episodes), Color
Time Life
Not rated (would be PG or PG-13 for adult themes)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Season 6 title sequence
Amazon link

Just as moviegoers watched Harry Potter grow up, so a generation of TV-viewers saw Kevin Arnold go from age 11 to 17 on the popular coming-of-age series The Wonder Years. Narrated in retrospect with an adult Kevin voiceover, like Stand by Me, it’s about as all-boy as it gets, despite plenty of female characters. So much so that my teenage daughter isn’t a fan. She doesn’t want to keep hearing what a teenage boy is thinking—especially when it comes to teenage girls.

Still, as Fred Savage (Kevin) writes in the liner notes to The Wonder Years: Season 6, families watched it together when it first aired, and now a new generation of parents are sharing it with their children. It remains the best period TV series on growing up in the turbulent sixties and early seventies, and young Bernie supporters will certainly identify with an episode this season in which Winnie catches McGovern fever and works day and night to try to help the Democratic presidential nominee get elected. Kevin volunteers too, but only because of his girlfriend, and because he’s jealous and suspicious of the local campaign boss. As for Kevin’s straight-laced, always-serious dad, Jack Arnold (Dan Lauria), he of course thinks Nixon’s the One. An episode about a friend of the family who returns from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress syndrome is also both topical and powerful.

For a TV sitcom, The Wonder Years had a penchant for telling it like it is, and episodes this final season are geared more toward a PG or even PG-13 audience. In one, Kevin leads his buddies to believe that he and longtime girlfriend Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) “did it,” while in another a still-committed Kevin is tempted to have a fling with another girl at a wedding . . . but instead drinks an entire bottle of champagne by himself and gets totally plastered. In yet another episode he sneaks out of the house, despite being grounded, and takes his father’s new car without permission. That’s right. Kevin, though basically a good kid, is far from a model citizen.

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CAROL + 2: THE ORIGINAL QUEENS OF COMEDY (DVD)

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Carolplus2coverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes (Once Upon a Mattress)
1963-1972, 277 min., Color and black-and-white
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Not rated (Once would be G, the others PG)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

The Carol Burnett Show aired from 1967-78, making it one of the last yet longest running of the old vaudeville-inspired variety shows that combined song and dance with sketch comedy. Burnett broke into TV as a regular on The Garry Moore Show and in 1966 was given her own TV special. The network wanted her to ask Lucille Ball to guest star, as well as the Tony Award-winning Zero Mostel, who was currently appearing on Broadway as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Both said yes, and the result is Carol + 2, a one-hour special that all but set the format for The Carol Burnett Show to follow.

Carol + 2 is a part of television history, and for general fans it will be the gem on this DVD, which (sorry, Mr. Mostel) is being marketed as Carol + 2: The Original Queens of Comedy. But it’s not the big draw for families with children. The reason to buy this DVD, if you have children, is the colorful TV movie version of the beloved Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Princess and the Pea,” starring Burnett as the princess.

Burnett got her big break in 1959 as a 26 year old when she was cast by the legendary George Abbott to star in the off-Broadway production of a new show based on that fairy tale, and Once Upon a Mattress quickly moved on Broadway for a total run of 244 performances. Burnett earned a Tony nomination for her role as Princess Winifred the Woebegone, and as a TV personality she would star in three special televised productions of Once Upon a Mattress: in 1966, 1972, and 2005, the latter in which she would play the queen rather than the unconventional princess. The version on this DVD is the 1972 special, which is indeed special because Jack Gilford and Jane White reprise their original off-Broadway roles as King Sextimus and Queen Aggravain.

Carolplus2screen1Once Upon a Mattress is aimed at families, which is made clear from the beginning as Burnett reads and shares an abbreviated picture-book version of the fairy tale, after which we’re told we’re about to see the “adult version” of what really happened. Don’t be alarmed. Even your four year old can watch and enjoy this production, which sports outrageous and colorful costumes and lines that are delivered slowly enough that the smallest children won’t need much in the way of narrative summary. Once Upon a Mattress is an engaging 90-minute romp that showcases Burnett’s talents as a physical comedienne and also features verbal comedy, singing, and dancing.

The plot is simple, yet, like so many fairy tales, timeless. Queen Aggravain is so domineering that her husband, the king, has been rendered unable to speak. Communicating only in pantomime, he’s like the fifth Marx Brother. Their son, Prince Dauntless (Ken Berry), is also dominated by the queen, yet this mama’s boy, despite being in his mid-thirties, yearns to marry. Trouble is, he can only marry a true princess, and Mama devises a different test each time so devious that none of the princesses who visit the castle are ever able to pass. When a rain-drenched Princess Winifred (who prefers to be called “Fred”) turns up on the doorstep, the vetting process begins anew. Children will especially get a kick out of a “dance off” in which Fred instantly masters the silliest local folk dance and outlasts everyone else in the kingdom. The Queen tells the princess that she needs to get her sleep because the big test will be tomorrow, when in fact the test is whether she can detect a tiny pea placed underneath a stack of 20 mattresses. The “adult version” is that this happily-ever-after tale didn’t come about because Fred was indeed able to detect that pea. She had a little help. Bernadette Peters stars as Lady Larkin, while Carol Burnett Show regular Lyle Waggoner appears as Sir Studley, and Wally Cox (who gave voice to the TV cartoon Underdog) narrates as The Jester. Look closely and you’ll even see a cameo by Kermit the Frog. All in all, it’s a highly entertaining 90-minute TV musical special.

Carolplus2screen2Carol + 2 is geared more for adults than families, and while it’s great to see two of television’s First Ladies perform together and Zero Mostel is as wild-eyed and manic as ever, the sketches and performances are a mixed bag. The funniest might be the opening sketch featuring Burnett and Mostel as a married couple grown spiteful of each other who find out briefly that a mistake means they’re not married after all . . . and that changes the way they see each other. Close behind is “Goodbye Baby,” in which Ball plays an older sister who drops in for a visit on her way to her annual vacation. Burnett is the younger sister with a baby buggy in the park who insists that her sister not leave until she hears the little guy say “Goodbye.” Of course, as with all sketch comedy, things escalate, and while the ending might be a little far-fetched it’s the progression that’s fun to watch. Some of the other sketches are less successful, but Ball and Burnett sing a spirited song about “Chutzpah” as Hollywood charwomen, and this one-hour color special gives contemporary audiences a chance to see three legendary talents at work.

Thrown in as a bonus feature is the very first black-and-white Charwoman sketch that Burnett performed as part of her first special, An Evening with Carol Burnett. It was a character that, animated, would become part of her long-running TV show’s title credits. This 1963 sketch is more of a historical artifact than a family entertainment, though Burnett’s introduction to it, as with her introductions to the two TV specials included on this DVD, is nice to have.

THE WONDER YEARS: SEASON 5 (DVD)

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WonderYears5coverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: No, age 10 and older
1992-93, 721 min., Color
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Rated TV-PG for smoking, drinking, and some adult situations
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B-
Season 5 opening
Amazon link

The Wonder Years is a rarity among TV sitcoms because it’s both original and authentic. You’ll find few familiar or recycled sitcom plots here, and a voiceover narration by an adult Kevin replaces a laugh track because in addition to being funny The Wonder Years also provides a poignant account of one boy’s coming of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The focus may be on Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), and the time period may be nostalgic for some and mythic for others who watch, but the situations, emotions, and outcomes are universal. It’s why the show still works, even though it aired from 1988-1993.

You don’t have to have seen the first four seasons to appreciate Season 5, which offers the added bonus for Friends fans of featuring David Schwimmer in four episodes as the serious boyfriend of Kevin’s sister, Karen (Olivia d’Abo)—both of whom appear in bonus feature interviews.

Though The Wonder Years six-season arc charts the on-again-off-again relationship between childhood friends and sweethearts Kevin and Winnie (Danica McKellar), they’re on “break” Season 5, which finds a 15-year-old Kevin experimenting with other girls. Though the series remains as innocent as ever, this age pushes the writers into territory that includes never-used condoms hopefully carried in wallets. This season Kevin gets his driver’s license, but that episode is followed by one in which Grandpa Arnold needs to give up his license because of aging. The writers for this show have always looked for ways in which a single idea could resonate or how a simple concept could be expanded into the kind of complex situation that most often mirrors “real life.”

WonderYears5screenThis season Kevin crushes on a young smoker while on a family vacation, he endures a first day of high school that turns into his worst nightmare, he wrestles with a first job and first boss, he gets in the middle of a Grease-style high school couple’s problems, he and three friends talk an older boy into trying for his driver’s license so they can all go “cruising” for girls, he finds himself kissed by his older brother Wayne’s (Jason Hervey) girlfriend, he joins a losing soccer team, he tries to treat his father to a dinner that’s ruined by Dad’s (Dan Lauria) annoyance with his sister, he tries to get out of attending the annual Christmas party his family throws for the neighborhood, his family friendship with Paul’s (Josh Saviano) family is threatened when the latter comes into money, a popular black teacher gets in trouble for her unorthodox methods, Wayne decides to join the Army, Kevin becomes friends with the school’s basketball star, he stumbles through dates with different girls, he and friends plan to sneak into an R-rated movie, he hosts a poker party when his parents leave town for the weekend, and the whole family is drawn into Karen’s pre-marital drama. By season’s end, Kevin is thinking hard about getting back with Winnie.

This four-DVD set (single sided discs on plastic non-overlapping “pages”) features 24 episodes, and there isn’t a single one I’d rate lower than a B-. Most fall in the A- range, and this season the series, known for its vintage music, features music by The Archies, Frankie Avalon, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Joan Baez, Bread, James Brown, The Byrds, Canned Heat, Patsy Kline, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Benny Goodman & His Orchestra, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, The Platters, Linda Ronstadt, Sly & the Family Stone, Sonny & Cher, Ringo Starr, The Stylistics, Traffic, The Turtles, Muddy Waters, and Andy Williams.

THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW – THE LOST EPISODES – TREASURES FROM THE VAULT (DVD)

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CarolBurnettShowTreasuresGrade: B
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
1967-71, 1039 min. (15 episodes), Color
Time Life/StarVista
Not rated (mostly G, some PG sketches)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 6 discs, color booklet
Amazon link

The Carol Burnett Show will appeal to two types of people: those who remember watching it when they were younger and respond to the pull of nostalgia, and those who are curious about a time in American television when variety shows, not reality shows, were popular. Burnett was arguably the best of all the variety show hosts, a multitalented woman who could sing, dance, act, impersonate famous stars, and make a comedy sketch work with ad libs better than anyone else. Because of her long-running TV show, which initially aired from 1967-1978, Burnett was toasted at a 2003 Kennedy Center Honors and also awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2013. During its time, the show earned 68 Primetime Emmy nominations and won Golden Globes as the Best TV Show–Comedy or Musical in 1971. Burnett herself won five Golden Globes for her work on the series, and her talented regulars pulled down a few as well: Harvey Korman in 1967, and Tim Conway in 1976.

As Tina Fey remarked at the presentation of the Mark Twain Prize, “I fell in love with sketch comedy watching your show, and you proved sketch comedy is a good place for women . . . . Only in sketch comedy does a woman get to play Cher, Scarlett O’Hara, the Queen of England, and Girl Scout, Mrs. Wiggins’—all in one night.” At that same event comedian Martin Short summarized the long reach of her Burnett’s influence: “Everyone copied from her. There wouldn’t be Saturday Night Live without Carol.” So keep that in mind as you watch this pioneering comedy-variety show, which featured guest stars in musical numbers as well as sketches, and in which Burnett did indeed play almost anyone. This collection shows how wide of a range she had, and she was particularly “on” in sketches that aped other actresses. Included here is a sketch in which she pokes fun of Joan Crawford in “Mildred Fierce” and really nails Katharine Hepburn in “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner?”

Like a previous “Lost Episodes” release, this collection features 15 uncut episodes on six single-sided DVDs, with episodes culled from the first four seasons.

From Season 1:
Show #11—Guest Stars Sonny & Cher, actress/singer/dancer Nanette Fabray
Show #15—Mickey Rooney, singer John Davidson
Show #20—Shirley Jones, actor/singer/dancer George Chakiris
Show #21—comedian Jonathan Winters, singer Dionne Warwick
Show #22—comic actress Martha Raye, pin-up girl/actress Betty Grable
Show #23—Nanette Fabray, actor Art Carney
Show #29—actor Peter Lawford, Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl

From Season 2:
Show #113—opera stars Eileen Farrell, Marilyn Horne

From Season 3:
Show #302—actress/dancer Gwen Verdon, singer Pat Boone
Show #317—comedian Soupy Sales, singer Mel Tormé
Show #318—Get Smart! actress Barbara Feldon, comedian Joan Rivers
Show #326—Family Show

From Season 4:
Show #404—Nanette Fabray, actor Ken Berry
Show #413—actress Dyan Cannon, comic actor Paul Lynde
Show #426—Nanette Fabray, Paul Lynde

Fans of Saturday Night Live will marvel at how LONG these sketches go on, how character-driven they are, and ultimately how much the “players” trust the material and their performances. CarolBurnettTreasuresscreenIt will also seem amazing to people of the anti-social social media generation that at the beginning of each show Burnett strides out in a gown that was glamorous then (kitschy now) and answers questions from a live audience. When an adolescent boy asks if he can read a poem he wrote for her and she says, “Sure, stand up and read it,” could you see that happening today? He starts reading the poem and when he gets to the part where he says he’s in love with a girl old enough to be his mother, she says, “Sit down.” In a truly historical moment, then Gov. Ronald Reagan walks onstage to join Carol in that opening Q&A and answers questions from the audience—one of them from a woman who asks if he has any interest in moving to Washington, D.C. His response is what you’d expect from a man known as the Great Communicator: he says he can’t see why anyone would ever want to leave California. Earlier he had gotten a big laugh when he offered a comic counterpunch. A woman asked, “Does the mayor know you’re in town?” Everyone laughed and Reagan shot back with, “The important thing is, is Yorty in town?” Mayor Sam Yorty had a number of nicknames, among them Travelin’ Sam, Suitcase Sam, and Airplane Sam.

There are some terrific sketches here, as well as some that aren’t so successful. Ultimately, though, the sketches seem less dated than the clothes or the musical numbers, and they are the reason people remember Carol Burnett and buy DVDs like this. The fun is in watching how many different characters Burnett can convincingly pull off, and whether she can stay in character or crack up with her co-stars. Some of her characters are convincingly ugly, others glamorous, and she even dons a Bugs Bunny costume for a sketch paying tribute to Warner Bros. animation. You get the feeling that Burnett would do anything for a laugh, and she provides a lot of them in this collection.

THE WONDER YEARS: SEASON 4 (DVD)

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WonderYears4coverGrade: A
Entire family: No. Age 10 and older.
1988-89, 520 min., Color
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG because of mild language, content)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B-
Amazon link

As I wrote in my review of the complete series, this coming-of-age TV comedy-drama gets it right. Lots of things can shape a person, and just as WWII defined a generation, so did the ‘60s—which historians date from John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination to Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 resignation. The Wonder Years managed to capture the perfect storm of events that were always in a family’s consciousness—even as the father tried to put food on the table, siblings fought and sought to find their place in the world, and the mother tried to hold them all together. And Season 4 is the absolute best of the six seasons.

Like Leave It to Beaver, the series’ episodes were seen from the point of view of an adolescent, and you knew you were in for an interesting ride when this 1987 series shunned a laugh track and introduced the kind of voiceover narrator that we got in A Christmas Story—an adult version of the main character. And you knew that the series would meet the ‘60s head-on when the pilot called for the girl-next-door’s older brother to be killed in Vietnam, and for our hero to comfort her in a scene that would culminate in a first kiss for each of them—both as characters, and as actors.

WonderYears4screenFred Savage was perfectly cast as Kevin, who at 13 became the youngest actor ever nominated for a Primetime Outstanding Lead Actor for a Comedy Series Emmy. His doe eyes reflected innocence, while his impish smile was a sign that he could say or do something impulsive or mischievous at any moment. The girl next door, Winnie Cooper, was also well cast with Danica McKellar perfect as someone who would be both a best friend and love interest over the course of the show’s six seasons. And for comic relief and guy-to-guy matters there was bespectacled Paul (Josh Saviano), a brainy pal who was also Kevin’s best friend. The tone was wink-wink as this group navigated the halls of junior high, then high school and all of the problems that seem so major to this age group: crushes, dates, tormentors, cliques, and run-ins with teachers and coaches.

On the home front, older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey) was obviously fond of his brother but lived to torment him, while much older sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) was so caught up in the ‘60s that she was a flower child from the very first episode. The parents were extremely well cast, with Dan Lauria returning from work each day grumpy and feeling chewed up and spat out, and Alley Mills deferring to him while also trying to act as mediator when he got on the kids.

Then there’s the music. I don’t know how they got the permissions, but Season 4 includes songs by Joan Baez, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Nat King Cole, Judy Collins, Lee Dorsey, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, The Monkees, Randy Newman, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Sam & Dave, Bob Seger, Edwin Star, The Ventures, The Who, and Hank Wilson.

Season 4 has the highest number of fan-rated classic episodes. This season the family goes to Jack’s company picnic—no one more reluctantly than Kevin, who’s afraid of seeing a girl who used to have a crush on him. This season his first girlfriend Winnie moves and changes schools, then finds a new boyfriend and breaks up with Kevin. No matter, because Kevin has also found someone else and is juggling two relationships. Never a show to shy away from reality, The Wonder Years: Season 4 also features an episode in which Kevin and his friends try to crash a 10th-grade girls pajama party thinking beer will be their magic pass. This season Kevin runs for student council against his nemesis, Becky Slater, and also discovers his coach moonlighting as a mall Santa. Kevin and Wayne argue over who’s going to take over Karen’s room when she goes off to college, Kevin and his father have another disastrous time of it when they go off to buy a suit for Kevin, and the up-and-down Winnie and Kevin saga culminates in an “I love you” moment and sets up the group’s graduation from junior high.

Though The Wonder Years may shock young girls who probably don’t want to believe that this is the way young boys think about girls, it remains one of TV’s most honest family coming-of-age comedies. And Season 4 catches the show at its apex. All 23 episodes are included on four single-sided DVDs and housed in a standard-size keep case with plastic “pages” holding the discs.

Language: Lots of junior-high insults (butthead, scrote, dork) and hells and damns
Sex: Lots of kissing; masturbation is referenced, as are nudie magazines and talk of orgies
Adult situations: There’s both smoking and drinking in the series, and some pretty intense family fights
Takeaway: When a show is this honest, it’s no wonder that it still informs and entertains, as it gets to the heart of male adolescence, families, and interpersonal relationships

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