Old TV-shows on DVD — a tempting way to stuff a pop-culturist’s stocking

November 23, 2011

Oy, it’s been a year. We’re beleaguered. Beaten up. Depressed by the economy, distressed by political dithering, swirled by tornadoes, slammed by hurricanes, shaken by earthquakes. Things must have been better, once — when we were blithely pre-supercommittee, pre-Sandusky, pre-Occupied. Right now we’re on our way to a blue Christmas even Elvis wouldn’t want to sing about.

But there’s unsurpassing joy in giving — and this year, more than ever, the best thing to give is joy itself. Where better to find it than in music, art, books and movies that transport us to sublime heights the real world can’t?We asked our critics for suggestions of bonbons from the worlds of pop culture and art, and they responded with gift ideas guaranteed to provide a flush of sensory pleasure, a glow of humanistic compassion — heck, maybe just an honest laugh.

GO TO: Art | Dance | Film | Music | Pop culture | Television | Theater

My educated hunch about DVD box sets of old TV shows that are given as Christmas presents is this: Most are never even opened and watched by the recipient. It’s strange what we will and won’t do when it comes to television. Is there a rerun of “Friends” on the TV right now, half over? You will watch it. Now, since you enjoyed that (don’t deny it), your sister-in-law has gifted you a box set of “Friends.” You will never watch a single disc.

Still, box sets of old TV shows are an awfully tempting way to stuff a stocking, because on the rare occasion that you get it right, you will get it really, really right. Give someone the right box set and it’s like you’ve given them back their youth, briefly. You have understood them like no one else has. You have wrapped them in something softer and more comforting than any Brookstone blanket. But reruns are an especially personal thing. One gal’s “Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space” is another gal’s suicide note scrawled in pink crayon. And the hardest question to answer about an old series is “Does it hold up to my memories of it?” Your results will certainly vary.

My list, then, is merely meant as a suggestion sparker, based on reruns that I’ve thoroughly — guiltlessly — enjoyed in the past year or so. Think about whom you love. Then think about what they were watching on TV before you met them. Work back in time from there.

‘The Little Rascals: The Complete Collection’

This is by no means “complete,” but it does collect 80-some Hal Roach-produced “Our Gang” shorts from the Great Depression years that most of us remember watching in syndication after school on TV in the 1960s and ’70s, when they already seemed impossibly ancient and sublime. History has been kind to Spanky, Buckwheat, et al., preferring to see their interracial friendships as socially progressive. That said, there are some racial terms (“pickaninny”) and jokes (blackface in a barnhouse play) that will stop today’s viewer cold, as well as fascinate. This 2008 box set wisely includes a disc that explores issues and lessons of American racial attitudes and “The Little Rascals.”

Or how about. . . ‘Freaks and Geeks’

The NBC comedy-drama about high school outcasts in 1980. It’s been 12 years since its single, perfect season, and nothing holds up better or stronger.

‘Hee Haw’

The vast“Hee Haw” archive has been repackaged in various collections by the Time-Life people, and the country-yokel “Laugh-In” is cornier than anyone remembers and yet movingly, weirdly genuine and purely American. It’s an artifact of a time before demographers sorted us all into red and blue states.

Or how about. . . ‘The Muppet Show’

With Kermit and company enjoying a movie-related hipster resurgence, their first three seasons from the 1970s will instantly remind you how charming and yet edgy the original show was.

’The Bionic Woman’

It took forever, but Jaime Sommers, a.k.a.“The Bionic Woman,” is finally on DVD — all three seasons are now out, though Season 2 hits the sweet spot (the Bigfoot cameo; Sandy Duncan as an alien) and proves Lindsay Wagner deserved every ounce of that Emmy. See through the sci-fi cheese for glimpses of life in 1970s Southern California. What struck me this time around was how authentic and sincere shows like this were, even when they’re eternally — wonderfully — dopey.

Or how about. . . ‘The X-Files’

You wouldn’t think the 1990s could look as remote and historic as the Bionic Woman’s 1970s or Alfalfa’s 1930s, but sure enough, they do.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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