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Bonus Points: Weekly Guide to DVDs

'Seinfeld': A DVD About Something

Also in this week's column: A review of Live Aid

By Jen Chaney
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2004;

"Seinfeld" (List price: $49.95 each for volumes one and two, or $119.95 for the gift set)
Release date: Nov. 23

A year ago, it seemed we might never see Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer on DVD.

Kramer vs. Kramer: Michael Richards manages to stay focused during most of the bloopers on the magnificent "Seinfeld" DVD collection.

_____More on Seinfeld_____
'Seinfeld Leaves His Mark on History' (The Washington Post, Nov. 19, 2004)
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What's On DVD
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Transcript: DVD Online Discussion with Jen Chaney
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Home Entertainment Section: Reviews of TVs, DVD players and more

Happily, all four neurotic New Yorkers are front and center on the much-anticipated release of the first three seasons of "Seinfeld." Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards -- who balked last December about participating in the DVD's extras until an agreement about their compensation was reached -- all participate in the many hours of bonus material that accompany these eight DVDs of television's most influential sitcom about nothing.

If you've caught early episodes of "Seinfeld" in syndication, you already know the show doesn't consistently elicit big laughs until its third season, featured on the second volume of this two-volume collection. Even Seinfeld himself acknowledges the spotty quality of the initial installments: "That was really like a school play, wasn't it?" he says during a commentary track with show co-creator Larry David on the second episode, "The Stakeout."

Even though some episodes don't rise to the levels of later entries like "The Contest" or "The Soup Nazi," "Seinfeld" still stands as a fantastic collection that offers so much intriguing supplemental material, it's hard for any fan to resist.

In addition to commentary tracks by Seinfeld, David and others on select episodes, there are numerous deleted scenes; "Inside Looks," short documentaries about almost every episode; "Notes About Nothing," an option that displays written factoids onscreen during many episodes; the hour-long documentary "How It Began: The Making of 'Seinfeld'"; footage of "Tonight Show" appearances by Seinfeld and Richards; blooper reels; and more. It's all accessible via clever menu screens designed to resemble locations from the show, including Jerry's apartment and Monk's Diner.

Where else can you learn that Doris Roberts of "Everybody Loves Raymond" almost was cast as Jerry's mom? Or that Michael Richards insisted on carrying an actual air conditioner during filming of "The Parking Garage"? Or, perhaps most revealingly, that many of "Seinfeld's" plot devices -- from the Pez dispenser that appears on Elaine's leg during a piano recital to George's attempt to pretend he didn't quit his job -- are based on real moments from the bizarre life of Larry David?

The question isn't whether or not to buy the "Seinfeld" DVDs. It's whether to invest in the all-inclusive gift set, which includes volumes one and two, a copy of an original script signed by David, salt and pepper shakers from Monk's Diner and "Seinfeld" playing cards. At the very least, it's a must-add for your holiday wish list, assuming you can wait that long to get your own copy. Cafe owner Babu Bhatt may finger-waggingly suggest that Jerry Seinfeld is "a very, very bad man." But this is a very, very good DVD, one that already has us salivating for seasons four and five.

Most Hilarious Bonus Point: You may recognize some blooper reel moments from "Seinfeld" retrospectives that previously aired on NBC. But there are plenty of newly unveiled flubs to be enjoyed. I laughed so hard during volume three's collection of gaffes that I needed two tissues to wipe away my tears of mirth. Most amazing of all: No matter how much everyone else is breaking up, Richards never breaks character.

Least Insightful Bonus Points: Some of the commentary tracks feature more silence than commentary. Seinfeld and David don't say a whole lot during their discussion of "The Pen"; same goes for Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus and Richards on "The Busboy."

Most Educational Bonus Point: The nearly 15-minute "Inside Look" documentary on "The Parking Garage" is one of the more interesting docs on the DVD set. Not only do we learn about Richards and his air conditioner, we also learn how the crew built the specially designed set, which uncannily resembles a shopping mall parking garage. And the ending, where the car won't start? A serendipitous mistake that made a perfect conclusion to this commuting comedy of errors.

"Live Aid" (List price $39.90)
Release date: Nov. 16

First let me deliver the bad news about the Live Aid DVD. The four-disc set doesn't include all of this legendary 1985 concert to halt hunger in Ethiopia. The much-ballyhooed Led Zeppelin reunion of Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page is the most notable absence; it's not here because Zep's members, reportedly unhappy with their performance, did not grant permission to include it. Music fans may also note that only partial sets by numerous artists, including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Duran Duran, Sting and the Who, made the cut. (Duran's opening song -- "A View to a Kill" -- may have been omitted because of lead singer Simon LeBon's horrifying off-note during the song's second chorus.)

Now the good news: It's a rock-and-roll thrill to finally see the queen mother of charity concerts on DVD. The marathon show, which unfolded simultaneously at London's Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia's JFK Stadium, sounds great, thanks to a remastered audio track that can be accessed in Dolby, Dolby 5.1 surround or DTS 5.1 surround sound.

The visuals, sadly, are a letdown. At many points, particularly during the Wembley footage, there are noticeable lines in the picture. Still, it looks worlds better than the aging video of the show I recorded from MTV back on July 13, 1985.

In addition to legendary performances by U2 (featuring a mullet-sporting Bono), Queen and Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, there are a few extras, including a BBC news piece on the famine in Ethiopia; the videos of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "We Are the World," both of which spawned the Live Aid effort; live performances recorded from artists in other parts of the world; and an hour-long 1985 documentary, "Food and Trucks and Rock 'N' Roll: The Band Aid Story."

Though Live Aid happened 20 years ago, it seems the music-for-charity trend is coming back in style. A group of artists -- including Coldplay's Chris Martin, Bono and members of the Darkness -- recently reunited to record a new version of Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Indeed, the Band Aid Trust continues to operate in portions of famine-stricken Africa; proceeds from this DVD will go toward the organization's efforts. With that in mind -- and the fact that there's nearly 10 hours of stellar music here -- a music fan would be remiss not to own it, no matter how disappointing the omission of "Stairway to Heaven" might be.

Tricky Bonus Point:: Run DMC was the only hip-hop act that played Live Aid. If you can't find that performance right away, relax: It's accessible under the extras on disc four, along with Teddy Pendergrass's poignant return to the stage after an accident that left him paralyzed. Members of the Live Aid audience weren't quite ready for DMC's "King of Rock," giving the trio a less than warm response. They'd feel pretty stupid a year later, when "Walk This Way" made hip-hop a mainstream phenomenon.

Most Worthwhile Bonus Points:: The "Food and Trucks" documentary, along with the BBC news piece, provides appropriately sobering details about the extent of the suffering in Ethiopia. Coupled with all the music, those featurettes ensure that this DVD will stand as a memento of the Hands Across America-era of the 1980s as well as a purely entertaining concert film. It's too bad that a 2004 documentary -- one that explored the lasting impact of Live Aid -- wasn't also included.

Coming in next week's "Bonus Points": "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." And keep an eye out for a special installment of Bonus Points, featuring a review of "Elf" and a DVD holiday guide.

If you have feedback about "Bonus Points" or want to suggest a DVD for review, e-mail Jen Chaney.

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