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MANHATTAN: SEASON 1 (Blu-ray)

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ManhattancoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
2014-15, 622 min. (13 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be TV-14 for sexual situations, brief nudity, language, some violence)
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: B+
Trailer/Amazon link

Fact: On August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States dropped a pair of atomic bombs—each with the force of 10 million tons of dynamite—on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 130,000 civilians but also abruptly ending the war and its daily body count. It was a morally questionable decision then, when the U.S. was racing a team of German scientists to become the first nation to develop a nuclear weapon that would guarantee victory, and it remains so many years later.

Fact: Under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves and physicist J. Robert Oppenhemer, the Manhattan Project had components scattered across the U.S., but its main facility was located at Los Alamos National Laboratory in a remote part of New Mexico, where top minds were recruited to work on the design and construction of the bombs.

Fact: Because it was top secret, Los Alamos was never referred to by name, only as “Site Y” or “the Hill.” Recruits and their families went there with only a post office box to guide them and found a primitive, heavily restricted community of Quonset huts and wood frame buildings. The birth certificates of children born there list only P.O. Box 1663 as their place of birth.

Fiction: Manh(a)ttan, an original WGN period drama, has a Mad Men vibe to it, not only because it drops you so believably into a different era, but also because of its similar use of music and camera angles, its emphasis on old guard vs. new, and a cast of characters that all seem to face moral dilemmas. It also has a West Wing feel because of the high stakes, crisp dialogue, and scenic constructions that somehow manage to squeeze tension out of seemingly “normal” conversations. Director Thomas Schlamme is a veteran of The West Wing, and Manhattan is just as strong of a series.

ManhattanscreenWe don’t know if it’s fact or fiction that the Army created a competition at Los Alamos between a better funded “A” team of scientists under the direction of Dr. Reed Akley (David Harbour) and a “B” team run by the maverick Dr. Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey). But we don’t care, because the situation itself is rooted in history and it’s believable, given the urgency of the situation and the U.S. Government’s practice of making sure that no one knows more than what their compartmentalized section is working on. Loose lips sink ships. And atomic bomb projects.

Manhattan is a taut drama because so much is in play, often at the same time. The Americans are racing the Germans and an imaginary clock, the A team of scientists is competing with the B team and their alternate vision of what will make an A-bomb work, newcomers like wiz kid Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) are competing with jealous colleagues, the scientists are sometimes at odds with the military establishment responsible for maintaining security and secrecy, the scientists find themselves facing new tension and resentments from the suddenly bored and “captive” women they brought with them to the base, those who feel the project should forge ahead at all costs are at odds with those who want to exercise some caution because of the contaminants they’re working with, and when it’s clear that a spy is among them more tension ensues when a government official (West Wing veteran Richard Schiff) conducts his own version of a McCarthy witch hunt.   More

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THE BOOK OF NEGROES (DVD)

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BookofNegroescoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2015, 265 min. (6 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be TV-14 for disturbing content)
Entertainment One/BET Networks
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer/Amazon link 

The Book of Negroes sounds like a politically incorrect Golden Book, but it was really a 150-page document recorded in 1783—a list of black loyalists who escaped being returned to slavery after the Revolutionary War because the British evacuated 3000 of them to work as freemen in their colony of Nova Scotia. In 2007, Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill tweaked and embellished that history to write The Book of Negroes, a still-cringeworthy title that was changed for U.S. audiences to Someone Knows My Name. He invented a central female character and a plot line loosely inspired by historical accounts, and Canadian director Clement Virgo adapted the book into a six-part TV miniseries that premiered first in Canada, then on the BET network in February 2015 for Black History Month.

That’s the background of this excellent miniseries, which rivals Roots for its character development, plotting, and production values. It’s a little more melodramatic than the 1977 Alex Haley miniseries and features a more upbeat (and, many would say, unlikely) story. There’s more idealism here than realism, but that also means it’s not as difficult to watch—though any depiction of slavery doesn’t exactly make for a cheery evening in front of the TV set. Still, for families who are into history and who want their children to gain some understanding of the baggage that many North American blacks carry, The Book of Negroes is a good place to start.

It covers slightly different ground, too. Roots tended to demonize whites and focus on the cruelties that the slaves had to endure and the things they had to do to survive, whereas The Book of Negroes strives for slightly more moral balance. As with every slave movie or miniseries, we see bad slave owners and good. But in Negroes the rapes and consensual sex aren’t nearly as graphic, and neither is the violence. Negroes primarily spotlights a strong heroine, whose journey we follow.   More

DOWNTON ABBEY: SEASON 5 (Blu-ray)

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DowntonAbbey5coverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2014-15, 525 min. (9 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be PG for adult situations)
PBS
Aspect ratio: 16×9 Widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

Downton Abbey is the most watched British costume drama series since 1981’s Brideshead Revisited and the second most-watched PBS series ever—behind Sesame Street and in front of The Magic School Bus. I’ve talked to a number of parents who watch the highbrow soap opera with their children and noticed this pattern: it’s easy to get hooked, but teenage girls like the show best, and teenage boys will watch if the whole family is doing so or if they’re trying to impress a girl. That’s no surprise, since there’s more intrigue in Downton Abbey than action, and much of the intrigue revolves around matters of the heart. Though nothing overly graphic is shown, there are scandals and affairs and secrets that people desperately try to protect.

Like Upstairs, Downstairs, this Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series focuses on both levels of society at a British manor—in this case, the aristocratic Crawley family and the servants who work mostly in the subterranean level of the grand Yorkshire country house known as Downton Abbey. The show’s hallmarks are intelligent writing, multiple plotlines, soap-opera situations, and a cast of characters that includes ones we love and ones we love to hate. Because the characters are sufficiently complex, that’s often a matter of opinion.  More

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE: SEASON 2 (Blu-ray)

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LittleHouse2coverGrade: B/B+
Entire family:  Yes
1975-76, 1080 min. (22 episodes), Color
Lionsgate
Not rated: Would be G
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0
Includes: Blu-ray (5 discs), UV Copy
Bonus features: C-
Today Show reunion clip

My ‘tweenage daughter doesn’t like historical dramas, isn’t a fan of westerns, and loves fashion so much that it’s like fingernails-on-the-chalkboard to watch the Ingalls girls parade about in their dowdy homemade calico pioneer dresses and bonnets. But she liked Little House on the Prairie: Season 2 enough to want to keep watching one episode after the other, and to shelve it in our collection for future play.

This wholesome family TV series from the ‘70s still has broad appeal, as you can see from the clip of the cast reuniting on The Today Show (link above) to promote the release of the Blu-ray on Season 1 and now Season 2.

The first season was more the authentic pioneer experience, as Pa and Ma Ingalls (Michael Landon, Karen Grasse) moved their brood of three daughters from Wisconsin to Kansas and finally Minnesota. There were Indians and hardships of every kind, and the emphasis was on the family’s journey and settlement.

The popular series was based on the juvenile books by Laura Ingalls Wilder that told of her family’s adventures on the newly expanding American frontier—books like Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, and By the Shores of Silver Lake. The TV series ran for nine seasons, but by Season 2 the plots were already shifting from pioneer-specific storylines to ones that viewers may have seen elsewhere and could actually identify with better.   More

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE: SEASON 1 (Blu-ray)

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LittleHouse1coverGrade: B+
1974-75, 1,260 min. (24 episodes), Color
Lionsgate
Not rated: Would be PG for moments of peril and some drinking
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0
Includes: Blu-ray (5 discs), UV Copy
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

If your children like historical dramas and love imagining what life would have been like during pioneer times, there’s no better place to start than the Little House on the Prairie TV series. So many ‘70s shows feel dated or corny now, but this series—loosely based on the children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder—still plays well. It’s a deftly written, convincingly acted series that’s not afraid to tug at your heartstrings, but also tosses in a dose or two of reality. Not everyone rides a horse or drives a buggy, for example. There is a sizable population that walks everywhere—even great distances—because they aren’t affluent enough to do anything else. And when a hailstorm wipes out all the wheat, farmers everywhere have to leave their families and look for work in faraway places, or they’ll lose the farm and the family will starve.

Little House on the Prairie stars Michael Landon in his post-Bonanza and pre-Highway to Heaven role as the patriarch of a family of females who move from Wisconsin to Kansas and finally end up in Minnesota. The emphasis in this series is on family and family values before such a term came into existence. It’s wholesome, heart-warming, and full of life lessons.

The two-hour pilot, included here, is the most potentially traumatic, so if your family has small or sensitive children I’d start with Episode 1 instead and watch the whole season before suggesting, “Hey, would anyone like to see how the Ingalls came to Plum Creek?” after the children already know that everyone’s okay. There’s a time in the pilot when a family member is thought drowned, as well as several moments of menace that come as a result of wolves and Caroline Ingalls (Karen Grasse) and the girls’ encounter with Indians while Charles is off hunting.

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DANCE ACADEMY: SEASON 2, VOL. 1 (DVD)

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DanceAcademy2.1coverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  Yes
2011, 325 min. (13 episodes), Color
Unrated (would be PG for mature themes)
New Video
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features:  D+
Trailer 

I frankly don’t know why New Video is marketing the first two seasons of Dance Academy as four separate DVDs, because this teen/’tween series—intelligent enough for adults but still acceptable for younger family members—has a continuing storyline. If you get hooked, you’re going to buy all of the DVDs. And Season 2, like the first, has a definable arc.

The Australian-made half-hour TV drama gets a little soapier the second time around, with a serious injury, divorce, a life-threatening illness, a domineering stage mom, a false claim of sexual harassment, a search for a birth father, and a death all written into the script. In the first half of the season, the emphasis seems more on relationships and personal dramas than on dance, and that can turn off older boys in the family who aren’t into (or who don’t want to appear as if they’re interested in) that sort of thing. Season 2 has lying, backstabbing, and more of an OMG feel to it than the first. But it’s just as addictive. The characters are interesting, the writing is believable, and the direction nothing short of a marvel, if you consider that believable drama develops, unfolds, and plays itself out in effective 22-minute chunks.   More

DANCE ACADEMY: SEASON 1, VOL. 1 (DVD)

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dance1.1coverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  Yes
2010, 325 min. (13 episodes), Color
Unrated (would be PG for mature themes)
New Video
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features:  D
Trailer

What a drought it’s been! For the past several weeks I’ve received no screeners appropriate for family viewing . . . until Dance Academy turned up on my doorstep. Like H20: Just Add Water, it’s an Australian-made half-hour TV drama aimed at ‘tweens and teens, but good enough to draw in the whole family. I haven’t seen Center Stage, but my dancing daughter tells me Dance Academy is like the TV version.

If you have younger children, though, be warned that while it would still be rated PG, Dance Academy is a darker, edgier drama than the campy fantasy we got in the mermaid show. One male dancer with a troubled past steals and fights. A female dancer comes unhinged because her breasts are getting bigger and she thinks it will topple her chances of becoming a prima ballerina. The edgier content is evident from the very first sequence, when one of the girls auditioning for the National Dance Academy in Sydney is directed to the men’s locker room instead of the women’s, and is standing there in her bra when a boy walks in. Of course, except for the color, what we see is no different from the bikini tops the mermaids wore in H20, but the context is totally different.

Though Dance Academy is an ensemble show, the focus is on Tara (Xenia Goodwin), a naive first-year student from isolated sheep country who lacks the training of her counterparts. She crushes on the cute guy, tries to find out which friends she can trust, and navigates the tricky regulations and unwritten rules of the Academy—a live-in high school for both sexes where dance takes top priority over other classes (as with Glee) never shown.   More

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