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Grade:  A-

TV comedy

Not rated

Maybe it’s because the series is in perpetual rerun. Maybe it’s the popularity of Steve Carell ever since he turned up on moviegoers’ radar with The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Or maybe, like all classic comedies, it’s because the ensemble cast is fantastic from top to bottom. Whatever the case, younger viewers have discovered the American version of the popular British TV show, and Parrot Analytics reported that the audience demand for The Office (US version) is a whopping 36.3 times more in demand than the average TV series in the US.

The Office also might be the most successful American TV adaptation of a British television comedy ever—and that’s saying something, since Veep, Shameless, Sanford and Son, Three’s Company, and All in the Family were all based on Britcoms. It’s certainly the longest running, with 188 episodes first airing from 2005-2013.

Two years before this documentary-style sitcom was removed from the Netflix lineup in 2021, The Office was the most watched show on the streaming service. Even recently a Cosmopolitan writer intoned, “How dare you, Netflix?” Fans hold grudges, especially when they no longer know where they can see the show. Cosmo reported that the first five seasons of The Office are now free on Peacock, but you’ll need Peacock Premium/Plus (a paid level) to watch the rest of the show.

Or, if you don’t want to keep jumping from streaming service to streaming service like an Office groupie, you could just plunk down the cash to get the entire series on high-definition Blu-ray. It looks terrific and comes with a bundle of fun bonus features.

Everyone who punches in at the Scranton branch office of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company is a bona fide character. In 2007 and 2008 the show won for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series from peers at the Screen Actors Guild, but if it were up to fans they would have had a lot more trophies to put in their case. The series began with a solid core that established the character types and dynamics that would persist throughout the series’ long run, even with cast changes:

Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) was the regional manager and a walking illustration of the Peter Principle—which theorized that members of any hierarchy are promoted until they reach the level at which they are no longer competent. Michael was well intentioned but clearly starved for love and adulation. He was also the reason a company needs an HR officer, because he had a habit of making outrageous and insensitive remarks.

Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) was a salesman and also assistant to the regional manager, a name-only title that Michael created for his favorite disciple, who happened to be Amish and also ran a beet farm with his reclusive and equally odd brother.

Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) was the girl-next-door type who worked as a receptionist and, though shy and reserved, could be persuaded to help with office pranks. For six years or so her and Jim’s mutual office attraction added a romantic tension.

Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) was a salesman who was both a quintessential nice guy and an inveterate practical joker, with Dwight his favorite target and Pam the object of his affection.

Stanley Hudson (Leslie David Baker) was a salesman who made his quota and nothing more, with a dry sense of humor directed at anyone who disrupted his blissful routine. He also easily tired of Michael’s constant references to him being African American.

Phyllis Lapin (Phyllis Smith) appeared older and more reserved than she actually was, and her full figure was often the target of Michael’s unintentional insults—misplaced assurances that she’s actually attractive.

Meredith Palmer (Kate Flannery) was the wild one in the office, an openly flirtatious and promiscuous supply relations representative who could throw innuendos like others throw shade.

Angela Martin (Angela Kinsey) was just the opposite of Meredith, an ultra-religious conservative and cat-lover who sometimes smuggled one of her cats into her desk.

Kevin Malone (Brian Baumgartner) was the sweetheart of the group, a large, not-terribly-bright man whose humor, as with Michael’s, tended toward the juvenile.

Oscar Martinez (Oscar Nunez) was a gay Latinx man trying to keep a low profile, for the most part, though often Michael wouldn’t let him.

Creed Bratton (Creed Bratton) was the quality assurance guy who was a little on the shady side—or at least his eyebrow-raising suggestions suggested as much.

Other characters introduced later who logged a lot of episodes included Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling), Ryan Howard (B.J. Novak), Andy Bernard (Ed Helms), Toby Flenderson (Paul Lieberstein), Darryl Philbin (Craig Robinson), and Erin Hannon (Ellie Kemper). Robert California (James Spader), Nellie Bertram (Catherine Tate), Jo Bennett (Kathy Bates), and Holly Flax (Amy Ryan) also had recurring roles, and Deangelo Vickers (Will Ferrell) appeared briefly.

A day at The Office could turn into just about anything:  challenges, drills, Olympics, debates, mandatory meetings, sensitivity training, demonstrations that had little to do with selling paper, “bonding” experiences, outings, romances—everything except for actual work, it seemed.

Each season in this set comes in its own Blu-ray case, and the nine cases are housed in a colorful slipcase. The 188 episode titles and two-line descriptions are printed on the insides of the covers, visible through the blue plastic cases—not the most convenient, but better than nothing.

Bonus features include in-character productions such as Dwight’s music video, Michael Scott’s Dunder Mifflin ad, Dunder Mifflin PSAs like “Rabies: The More You Know,” plus extended episodes, blooper reels, Office webisodes, original cast audition tapes, table reads, cast farewells, and commentary tracks. There’s a lot here for fans to enjoy.

Entire family:  No (younger kids won’t respond to the largely adult humor)

Run time:  4136 min. Color (counting bonus features, 75 hours run time)

Studio/Distributor:  Universal/NBC

Aspect ratio:  1.78:1

Featured audio:  DTS HDMA 5.1 (Season 1) and Dolby Digital 2.0 (remaining seasons)

Bonus features:  A

Amazon link

Not rated (would be TV-14)

Language: 4/10—The worst profanities are bleeped out, but there are plenty of lesser swearwords

Sex:  4/10—Innuendo and sex jokes in most episodes, plus some censored sex toys, censored/blurred topless flashing and male butts, talk of having sex, and references to all types of sex; some characters also make out on camera and have sex (we are led to believe) off-camera or behind a door, etc.; males are depicted shirtless and in boxer shorts from time to time. It was a network show, though, so everything made it past censors

Violence:  2/10—Wrestling, some punching, an attempt to beat up Jim that’s thwarted by pepper spray, and various accidents (getting hit by a car in the parking lot, parkour rough landings, a car driving into a pond, a shotgun being fired, etc.)

Adult situations: 3/10—Some vomiting, drinking, smoking, and drug references, with several characters implied to over-imbibe, politically incorrect stereotype humor,

Takeaway:  The British version of The Office only ran for 14 episodes, while this American version was just getting warmed up by then; the long run is a tribute to this comedy of character


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Grade:  A-

TV Comedy


So no one told you life was going to be this way?

Your job’s a joke, you’re broke

your love life’s D.O.A.

It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear. . . .

In February 1994, those lyrics kicked off a series about six unmarried friends in their 20s and early 30s who shared apartments and hung out together all the time, often offering emotional support and sometimes hooking up. Monica (Courtney Cox) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) were high school friends, just as Monica’s brother Ross (David Schwimmer) and Chandler (Matthew Perry) were also friends from the same area school. To that mix was added the streetwise but flaky Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) and ladies man wannabe actor Joey (Matt LeBlanc).

Friends struck a chord with young adults because they could identify with characters who were out of school and in the “real” world, though they didn’t feel like real adults just yet because they were between being college students and being settled in jobs and marriages. A 2019 survey revealed that a whopping 19 percent of respondents age 18-34 had watched everysingle episode of the show, which ran for 10 years, while another 30 percent said they had watched most episodes. 

Given how many channels and streaming options there are, that’s pretty amazing. But the 35-54 year olds were even more devoted, with 17 percent saying they had watched all the episodes and 41 percent most of them. A Childwise report also noted that the comedy was the favorite program of young people in the UK, though few of the 5-16 year olds polled were even alive when the show was first broadcast.

Friends was rated #21 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest Shows of All Time. It finished #1 in Season 8 and placed in the Nielsen Top 10 every other year, though Emmy voters were slower to warm to the show. It finally won Outstanding Comedy Series that 8th season, when Aniston also won for Outstanding Lead Actress.

Thinking about how wildly successful the series has been, I can’t help but wonder if it’s in part because the show seems to check ALL eight characters of comedy, as described by Scott Sedita, even though there are only six characters in the show: 

Ross, with his Ph.D., is “the logical smart one” whose humor is usually tongue-in-cheek or ironic.

Chandler, with his man-child insecurity and bad luck with women, is “the lovable loser” who takes refuge in self-deprecating humor.

Neat-freak and control-freak Monica is “the neurotic,” given her OCD nature and how she can tell instantly upon entering a room if anything has been moved even slightly.

Joey is “the dumb one,” who often doesn’t know what’s going on, though Phoebe might also qualify at times.

“The womanizer or manizer” is clearly Joey again, who, unlike the other males Friends, has no trouble picking up women.

Rachel is “the materialistic one,” the spoiled one who came from money, has rich tastes, and seems to be more driven by money and nice things than the others.

Phoebe is “in their own universe,” a flaky hippie-style character who has her own ideas and ways of thinking and looking at things that can be a little “out there.”

All of which is to say, Friends is first and foremost a comedy of characters that are easy to love, supported by some very smart writing, rapid fire gags, situations that are actually comedic, and plots that are both self-contained in every episode but still progressive from episode to episode and from season to season. 

Friends: The Complete Series on Blu-ray includes all 234 episodes (plus two variations) on 21 discs, housed in three Blu-ray cases (#1—Seasons 1-5; #2 Seasons 6-10; #3 Bonus disk), tucked into a slipcase along with a full-color 36-page booklet that includes a list of episodes for the whole run and annotations to jog your memory. Twenty hours of bonus content is included, one-fifth of which is original and new to this release. Among them are the “Super-Sized” episodes from Season 7.

Fans of the show will enjoy this Blu-ray release, and if you haven’t gotten it yet, here are two reasons to do so:  1) You won’t be at the mercy of whatever streamers decide to make available, and 2) By upgrading your DVD collection with this Blu-ray set you will be able to watch Friends in high definition and save shelf space. The single-season DVD collections span 11.5”, while this compact Blu-ray complete series only takes up 2.75”. If you’re a collector or love having a home video library that you can watch commercial and hassle free, whenever you want, this set is a great investment. It looks great on Blu-ray. And yeah, no buffering every time extreme weather screws up the signal.

Entire family:  No (‘tweens and older)

Run time:  5192 min., Color

Studio/Distributor:  Warner Bros.

Aspect ratio:  1.78:1

Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1

Bonus features:  B

Amazon link


Rated TV-14

Language:  4/10—I may recall one F-bomb, but the majority of swearwords are milder curse (hell, damn, crap, damn, ass, etc.)

Sex:  6/10—Lots of innuendo, some references to sex parts, strip poker, characters in underwear, lots of sexual references and escapades, but after all is said and done very little is show—only implied, as people are under the covers, etc.

Violence:  2/10—Some adult bullying, reference to bullying, comic fighting, and the occasional punch

Adult Situations:  4/10—Lots of drinking, some smoking, suicide references, infertility, parental abandonment, sex changes, awkward adult situations, etc., as well as references to drugs and getting high—but little in the way of actual drunkenness that I can recall; people get married, they get pregnant (not necessarily in that order), they are surrogate mothers,

Takeaway:  Smart TV somehow manages to have it both ways:  classic and current, and Friends was a perfect example; recently Aniston said a “whole generation of kids” finds Friends offensive, but morality and sensitivity is ever-changing. Yes, there were episodes that were insensitive to people with weight issues, etc., but I hope we never get to the point where humor is so socially corseted that there’s no room for laughter


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Grade: B/B-
TV comedy
Rated TV-PG

All right, I’ll talk: I’m a big Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker fan. I think Airplane! and Top Secret! are hilarious, and The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! gets my vote for funniest laugh-out-loud movie ever made (sorry, Mel Brooks).

This trio of high school friends from a Milwaukee suburb specializes in visual puns, sight gags, “triples,” and running gags that expand with every repetition. David Zucker once told me they gravitated toward rapid-fire jokes out of self-defense. When they first created Kentucky Fried Theater they borrowed money from their parents and couldn’t afford actors, so they had to do all of the skits onstage themselves. They hated not getting laughs and went the rapid-fire route because they discovered it was easier to keep audiences laughing than it was to get them to laugh in the first place.

Police Squad! aired in 1982, with the trio pitching it as Airplane! but with the police genre. The title and opening sequence pays tribute to M Squad, a popular ‘50s cop show staring Broderick Crawford. There are some funny jokes here, but as with SNL or other sketch comedy shows there are some misfires as well. Police Squad! ran just six episodes, maybe because the trio’s brand of rapid-fire gags hang better on a model that’s full length.

That said, once you get past a first episode that’s not quite as funny as The Naked Gun, the others have their share of laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of smiles and groans. Groans? Yeah. Baseball announcer Steve Stone said it best: “Puns are like children. You love your own, and can’t stand anyone else’s.” You can almost create a drinking game out of predicting what visual pun will splash across the screen next after you hear a familiar expression that can be taken more than one way. A few of the gags are off-color, which is why this short-lived TV series carries a TV-PG rating. More

ARROW: SEASON 4 (Blu-ray)

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Arrow4coverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2012, 972 min. (23 episodes), Color
Unrated (would be TV-14 for violence)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Amazon link

Arrow is by far the most popular DC Comics series on television. It’s also the darkest, the most complex, and the most violent—which means it’s strictly for families with teenage children.

The creators were clearly fans of Lost, as they incorporate the same kind of flashback structure over an arc that spans a number of seasons, with each season offering new flashbacks and new revelations. The problem with Season Arrow4screen14 is that those flashbacks seem a little more disconnected from the main narrative and often are so brief that they also feel annoyingly interruptive. That’s one thing that sets this season apart from the rest. Another is that a villain called Anarchy wasn’t terribly popular with friends, though I found him to be just as interesting as the others, all of whom take a backseat this season to Damien Darhk. I can’t imagine this season without Darhk, who has all the fascinating charisma and on-screen presence of a James Bond villain. The last things that distinguish Season 4 from the first three is that Arrow becomes Green Arrow and magic and supernatural elements take center stage.

Unlike a few other DC series—Supergirl or Flash come instantly to mind—you can’t just pick up a later season of Arrow and start watching. Too much is predicated on your knowledge of revelations from the previous seasons, and you’ll sit there in confusion without an Arrow fan nearby to tell you plot points you may have missed.

The show’s premise is this: In Season 1 billionaire Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) went out on his father’s boat with his girlfriend’s sister (whom this spoiled rich boy was also “dating”) when a storm hit. She was sucked out to sea, but the men survived (yeah, this is why the series appeals mostly to males). The father makes a huge sacrifice so his son can live and atone for his mistakes, which are all chronicled in a book of former business partners and “like” minds. Queen was marooned on an island for five years, and he wasn’t alone. There were people there who wanted to (and DID) hurt him badly, and others who were tough on him because they wanted him to survive. Other things happened, and flashbacks tease viewers the way Lost did with its disjointed narrative. One thing is certain: he’s no longer the irresponsible bad boy he once was. Like Bruce Wayne/Batman, Queen assumes a dual identity as himself and The Vigilante (as the media first calls him), with plenty of tension on the work and home fronts. That dualism gradually breaks down over the course of several seasons.

Arrow4screen2In Season 4, Green Arrow and his crew fight against Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough), who has decided humanity needs a “reset” and is determined to wipe everyone out, starting with Star City. This season Oliver as Oliver runs for mayor and Oliver as Arrow comes up against a villain who pulls playing cards off his skin and flings them like lethal weapons in very cool sequences. Those are the easy plot lines. More complicated twists involve the League of Assassins and a Pit that can bring people back to life, an old enemy of Arrow’s named Ra’s al Ghul (Matthew Nable) who coaches his daughter in her “bloodlust,” Arrow’s bodyguard-turned-helper-turned-Arrow-turned-helper-again John Diggle (David Ramsey) and Diggle’s concern over a brother who might be involved with Darhk, Arrow’s complicated relationship with Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), and a revelation of paternity for Oliver.

If all of that sounds a bit sudsy, Arrow does feel like a stylish, action-filled, dark, and violent soap opera at times—but with better acting and production values, great special effects, and a pleasing superhero-fantasy structure. Season 4 may have a few weak spots, but it’s still superior to most of the dramas on television. If you’re interested, though, do start with Season 1!

Language: Lots of minor swearwords, but no f-bombs
Sex: Nothing here, surprisingly
Violence: Lots, and bloody as well; shooting, stabbing, hand-to-hand
Adult situations: Beloved characters die; characters are tortured; characters smoke, drink, and do drugs
Takeaway: If Neal McDonough isn’t cast as a future Bond villain, I’d be flabbergasted


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Lucifer1coverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2015-16, 566 min. (13 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be TV-14 for violence, adult situations, sexual innuendo, and language)
Aspect ratio: Letterboxed widescreen “enhanced” for 16×9 monitors
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Amazon link

In the ‘60s, novelty sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched proved that shows with positively ridiculous supernatural premises could still be popular if the situations were interesting enough, the cast likeable enough, and the writing clever enough.

That lesson was not lost on the creators of Lucifer: Season 1, a series that’s based on a character from the DC Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman and Sam Kieth. Could there be a crazier premise for a male-female police procedural than to pair the real Lucifer (aka Satan, who’s taking a vacation from hell by running a nightclub in L.A.) with a detective who was a former actress known primarily for posing topless in Hot Tub High School?

Tom Ellis stars as the suave ladies man Lucifer Morningstar, who runs a trendy nightclub called Lux. He had grown bored and restless in hell and often did a deliberately poor job of punishing the people who were sent there because his Father assigned him to that as a punishment for his rebellion. All these Lucifer1screen1millennia later he wanted out, so much so that his L.A. vacation turns into a permanent abdication. When he witnesses a murder outside his club, he finds himself becoming curiously involved and decides to help Det. Chloe Decker (Lauren German) by using some of his powers. In Touched by an Angel Michael Landon gave people warm fuzzies; Lucifer has the power to get people to speak the truth about their deepest, most secret desires, and to admit their sinful urges—including, in an opening scene, a cop who decides to take the bribe after Lucifer exposes his loose relationship with the law. He’s like truth serum, and in extreme situations he shows his real satanic form to those he wants to shock.

Now, why would a good, dedicated cop pair up with Satan? Good question, since one would guess the LAPD would have certain rules about a non-force partnership. Though Lucifer Morningstar comes right out and tells her who he is, she thinks he’s speaking metaphorically, until his character and his immortality is gradually revealed to her. His fascination with her is more believable: she’s the only human who is impervious to his powers—which, by mid-season, like Samantha’s nose-twitch and Jeannie’s head-blink, start to get a little old. But the situations and clever writing are enough to compensate.

This first season Chloe and Lucifer investigate the slaying of a movie star’s son, a girl that turns up dead in a football star’s pool, a woman who’s killed at a fashion show, a biker gang that’s into nasty stuff, a murdered therapist, an underground drug ring, the murder of a prominent restauranteur, a philanthropist that was found dead, and a girl who may have been murdered by a group of Satanists.

Rounding out the cast are Scarlett Estevez as Chloe’s precocious daughter, Trixie (“You do know that’s a hooker’s name, don’t you?” Lucifer says upon first meeting her); Lesley-Ann Brandt as Mazikeen (aka Maze), an assistant of sorts who accompanied Lucifer to L.A.; DB Woodside as Amenadiel, Lucifer’s “brother” who is intent on getting him to return to hell; and Rachael Harris as Dr. Linda Martin, whose sessions and relationship with Lucifer will remind viewers of Tony Soprano and his therapist, especially since both men run clubs that are highly sexualized.

Lucifer1screen2Fans of forensic shows won’t be impressed that no attention is paid to that aspect of criminal investigations. Even when we see a body with bruises we just get a coroner’s pronouncement of  “strangulation,” and it’s left to Chloe and Lucifer to find out whether the attacker was male or female, how tall or heavy, etc. And though the writers try to make sense of why and how Chloe is working on her own, it’s not totally clear why, after she clashed with the LAPD over a cop shooting, she’s still able to work on her own while ostracized by her homicide detective ex-husband Dan Espinoza (Kevin Alejandro) and the rest of the detectives. But the show’s writing is clever enough, with laugh-out-loud moments, where you tend to shrug and overlook such things.

Any positive messages that the show might offer (Lucifer’s gradual enlightenment, for example, or anti-bullying, or the always available possibility of reinventing oneself) get lost among the Satanic elements that the writers clearly favored. It’s like a Satanic version of Touched by an Angel meets Remington Steele, with a little Dexter and The Sopranos thrown in for good measure. No wonder the website One Million Moms launched a petition drive to keep the show from airing—though far short of a million signed it by the time the show first aired (165,643). The irony? The show airs on Fox, the network most identified with the GOP and their emphasis on “family values.” Lucifer is a stylish and entertaining show, but it won’t be for many church-going families. It’s also every bit a TV-14 series. Given the soundtrack and special effects, you might want to pick this up on Blu-ray instead. The 5.1 Surround and standard definition, while strong, do have their limitations—especially, with the visuals, in low-light situations.

Language: A bunch of it, mostly male-female slurs like “bitch” or “dick”
Sex: Lots of innuendo, some scantily clad females, implied sexual coupling
Violence: Jerry Bruckheimer produced this, so you’ll see a bunch of crashes and explosions and high-concept stylized violence, some of it bloody
Adult situations: Drug-use, smoking, drinking
Takeaway: Despite the ridiculous premise, Lucifer is surprisingly entertaining

ROOTS (1977) (Blu-ray)

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RootscoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
1977, 587 min. (8 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be TV-14 for nudity, adult themes, and violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Amazon link

Snoop Dogg recently slammed Oscar-winning Best Picture 12 Years a Slave and the 2016 remake of the iconic miniseries Roots because “they just want to keep showing the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But, guess what? We taking the same abuse. Think about that part.”

The “they” the rapper is talking about—12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and Alex Haley, the author of Roots—just happen to be black, though, and they’re coming at it from a different, “lest we forget” angle. The four-episode remake of Roots has gotten all the attention, but for my money the original 1977 series is still the best. As the box of the 25th anniversary edition proclaimed, “200 years to unfold. 12 years of research to discover. 2 years to create. 8 nights to make television history.” And that’s not hype.

When the final installment of Roots aired in January 1977, some 130 million viewers—then, roughly half the entire population of the U.S.—gathered around their TV sets to watch. Even the Las Vegas gaming tables slowed when it aired. Adapted from Haley’s novel about his search to unearth information about his African ancestors, the groundbreaking mini-series remains the most-watched dramatic show in television history. Everyone everywhere seemed to be talking about it, and the series was such a phenomenon that People’s Choice Awards were presented to every individual cast member, while Haley received a special citation Pulitzer (of which only nine have ever been awarded). Roots was the first mini-series to be aired on consecutive nights rather than a single episode per week, and at a time when there were few black actors in serious prime-time offerings, it featured a virtual Who’s Who of African-American actors.

The show pulled down nine Emmys, including Best Limited Series, acting awards for Louis Gossett, Jr., Olivia Cole, and Edward Asner, and awards for editing, writing, and directing. It also won the Golden Globe that year for Best Drama Series and top honors in the same category at the Television Critics Circle Awards. Hard as it is to imagine, few Americans thought much about their ancestors prior to Roots, and the show sparked a national interest in genealogy that continues to this day. But the show also generated controversy–and not because of the National Geographic-style bare breasts in early episodes, or because of the frequent use of the inflammatory word “nigger” that television viewers weren’t accustomed to hearing.

It was the white-on-black enslaving, rape, and mutilation scenes that caused all the fuss, and the rerelease of Roots has already rekindled those same heated debates about race and what Haley called his “faction” (a blend of fact and fiction). When it first aired in 1977, ABC executives feared it might incite race riots or that southern stations might refuse to broadcast the show. But there was just one mild incident at a single school, and the series was broadcast not just on every ABC affiliate in America, but in every country that syndicated American shows—including South Africa. Despite the “faction,” the series remains as powerful now as it was then, which is why John Amos and other African American cast members think it should be shown in every school in America, ad infinitum.

Rootsscreen1The mini-series tells the story of four generations of a single family, beginning with the birth of Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton, who produced the remake), son of Omoro (Thalmus Rasulala) and Binta (Cicely Tyson), on the West Coast of Africa near the river Gambia. Just as Haley’s search for his roots began with the words “Kunta Kinte” and “gambi balongo” that he heard from his aunts, and the story they told him about Kunta’s enslavement, Episode 1 chronicles Kunta’s capture while he was seeking a log suitable for making into a drum. Viewers follow Kunta’s odyssey across the Atlantic in the holds of a slave ship captained by a Christian first-time slaver (Edward Asner) and his sadistic and seasoned mate (Ralph Waite). If it’s strange seeing Asner and Waite in those roles now, it was even stranger when the series first aired and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Waltons were still on prime time TV. Roots was an amazing production that still holds up today, but it’s even more amazing if you consider that back then miniseries were like variety shows in that recognizable TV actors from other shows were often cast. And in this one you saw a bunch of familiar faces, both black and white.



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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)
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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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


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OriginalscoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2013-14, 929 min. (22 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Rated TV-14
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV copy
Bonus features: B

The Twilight novels and films opened the floodgates for a vampire resurgence, and in The Originals: Season 1—a spin-off from the popular CW series The Vampire Diaries—we get more vampire drama . . . and violence.

Like The Vampire Diaries, this spin-off is rated TV-14, which means that the ratings board thinks American 14 year olds are cool with seeing heads lopped off, hearts ripped from chests, and vampires biting off fingers and pieces of flesh. It’s an ultraviolent show that will probably still give young teens more than a few nightmares. So don’t let the TV-14 label fool you. While there isn’t nearly as much sex in this first season of The Originals as we saw in the original series that inspired it, it seems as if people (or vampires or werewolves) are constantly being brutally butchered and tortured.

At least it’s not as soapy as The Vampire Diaries. There’s melodrama and stand-and-talk monologues, but the situations aren’t nearly as cheesy—maybe because romantic entanglements are deemphasized.   More


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PrettyLittleLiars4coverGrade: B-
Entire family: No (way)
2013-14, 1046 min. (24 episodes), Color
Not Rated (would be TV-14 at least)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: B-
Season 4 preview

“All of my friends watch it.”

Every parent gets that at some point, and Pretty Little Liars is exactly the type of show that will draw such comments, because its central characters are teens—though they look, dress, and act more like twenty somethings. And they’re all beautiful people . . . even the corpses.

I haven’t watched the entire series, only Season 4, but Warner Bros. makes it possible for people to jump right in and get up to speed by screening a full recap episode that takes you through the first three seasons. It automatically kicks in if you select “Play All.” And from what I’ve seen in recap and this season, the writers treat the girls as if they are twenty somethings.

We don’t see any parents or family life to speak of, except for brief turns involving Alison’s mom, another “skanky” mom who sleeps with a cop to get her delinquent daughter off the hook, and few more siblings. The emphasis is all on these four girls and their little individual dramas that interweave with one very large one. Meanwhile, for high school students, this group of teens sure has a light schedule. The only scenes involving school or classes come from one girl’s illicit relationship with her English teacher. Yeah, not a lot of role modeling going on in this show.

Still, Pretty Little Liars, now in its fifth season, is a popular series that inspired the spinoff Ravenswood. As with The Hunger Games, this ABC Family show is loosely based on a series of young-adult novels (in this case, by author Sara Shepard), and there’s plenty of killing—though not as graphic as in The Hunger Games films. Part murder mystery and part soap opera, it’s what you’d get if you created a teen version of Desperate Housewives and concentrated less on relationships and sex than on the mystery of the group’s “frenemy”—in this case, Alison, the clique’s leader, who disappeared in Season 1.

Alison (Sasha Pieterse) knew all of their secrets and had been using that information to get artsy Aria (Lucy Hale), brainy Spencer (Troian Bellisario), athletic Emily (Shay Mitchell), and loser-turned-popular girl Hanna (Ashley Benson) to do whatever she wanted. And after she’s gone, the girls start receiving text messages from someone who seems to know all of those same secrets and signs each note “A.” Is it Alison? Someone Alison knew? Someone who killed Alison?   More

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