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page created: 2/19/04

The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

The Ratings Game: TV on DVD

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Bringing Down the House

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

The Ben Stiller Show
1992-93 (2003) - HBO Independent Productions (Warner)

Program Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/B+

Specs and Features:

Disc One: Episodes 1-8
Approx. 184 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), double-disc Digipack packaging, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), audio commentary on selected episodes (with Ben Stiller, Judd Apatow, Brent Forrester, John O'Donohue, Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo and Rob Cohen), animated program-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (8-14 chapters per episode), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: Episodes 9-13
Approx. 115 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), audio commentary on selected episodes (with Stiller, Forrester, O'Donohue, Dick, Garofalo, Cohen, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross and Jeff Kahn), 5 unaired sketches with optional audio commentary (by Stiller, Apatow, Forrester, Garofalo and Cohen), 9 outtakes, A Brief History of The Ben Stiller Show featurette (includes footage from MTV's Ben Stiller Show and alternate versions of the Fox pilot), E! Behind the Scenes special, animated program-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (6-12 chapters per episode), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

At the dawn of the DVD age, some of us may have entertained fantasies of a future world wherein every movie ever made was readily available on disc, restored, polished, and looking better than ever. Well, the format hasn't been around all that long but already I think even the most optimistic among us has given up on that little pipe dream. HD-DVD is looming just around the corner and it seems far more likely that the studios will simply try to get us to once more buy the same movies we've already bought three or four times before. It's a safer bet for the home entertainment divisions to try to repackage a tried and true commodity than to scour the vaults for something rare and unusual. But while there will probably always be hundreds, if not thousands of movies that are forever out of reach, it's beginning to appear that, sooner or later, every single TV show ever produced actually will show up on DVD.

Once upon a time, if a series ran only half a season (or less) then that was all she wrote. There weren't enough episodes produced to run in syndication and there was no other outlet for it, so odds were that you were never going to see it again. If you liked it, too bad. All you had left were fading memories that you used to try to convince your friends that this show actually existed.

That was then, this is now. Today, there are plenty of places old TV shows can go for a shot at resurrection. With the explosion of cable TV, a series doesn't have to run a full three years to enter syndication. Specialty outlets like Bravo, Cartoon Network, and Comedy Central are more than happy to pick up quality canned goods. And if a show does well there, a DVD release can't be too far behind. Witness the strange case of Family Guy, a series that has done infinitely better on DVD than it ever did on Fox. Michael Mann's underrated Crime Story was a cult favorite but never garnered blockbuster ratings. But thanks to repeats on A&E and a new DVD set, viewers can finally catch up with it.

Typical of the new wave of failed TV shows making their way to DVD is the short-lived The Ben Stiller Show. Long before he was a big-time movie star, Ben Stiller hosted a popular sketch comedy show on MTV. This was back when MTV still played the occasional music video and programming like the Stiller show was the exception rather than the rule. The MTV program proved popular enough that the then-fledgling Fox network decided to give him a shot at a prime time gig. In the fall of 1992, The Ben Stiller Show premiered to enthusiastic reviews... and viewer indifference. Partial blame for the show's failure can be placed on its kiss-of-death timeslot opposite 60 Minutes. But truth be told, sketch comedy has never had much of a home on prime time network television. It seems to do all right during the late night hours but other than that, it's almost always a recipe for disaster. The only exception I can think of during my lifetime has been The Carol Burnett Show… and that was a good 15 years before Stiller. Ignored by viewers and not understood by network executives, Fox yanked The Ben Stiller Show after only 12 episodes. A few months later, the defunct show ironically won an Emmy for its writing.

Now that the entire series (including a never-aired thirteenth episode) has been released on DVD, its strengths and weaknesses can be judged a bit more impartially. Generally speaking, the show holds up quite well. The writing is indeed smart and funny and the cast, including Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick and Bob Odenkirk, appears to have a good time playing with characters, costumes, makeup and wigs. The actors justifiably earned praise for their spot-on impersonations. Stiller's Tom Cruise and Bruce Springsteen bits are extremely funny, as are Andy Dick's Woody Allen, Garofalo's Juliette Lewis and Odenkirk's Charles Manson. Series highlights include a family theme park dedicated to the films of Oliver Stone, a Lucky Charms commercial starring U2, and probably my favorite sketch of the entire series, the Lassie parody, Manson.

Unfortunately, not everything about the series has aged gracefully. Virtually every sketch The Ben Stiller Show ever ran goes on a lot longer than it should. And because many of the sketches are parodies, your appreciation of them will be much enhanced if you have photographic recall of the movies and television shows of the early 1990's. Stiller's impersonation of Studs host Mark DeCarlo may very well be dead-on hilarious but who the hell remembers Mark DeCarlo? You may also need to brush up on movies like Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear remake, Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, A Few Good Men, and The Last of the Mohicans, not to mention long-forgotten TV shows like The Heights.

Warner's two-disc set gives The Ben Stiller Show a fine showcase, much better than the discs for other, more popular series. Video quality is very good, with the film and video sequences obviously looking much better than the wraparounds, which were shot on Super-8. Audio quality isn't bad, certainly more than adequate for most of the series. Some of the more ambitious sketches, such as the musical bits and elaborate parodies of movies like Die Hard, probably would benefit from a more aggressive mix but only die-hard Stiller fans would likely notice and appreciate the effort.

Leading the extras is a series of selected episode commentaries by creators Stiller and Judd Apatow, the cast, and many of the writers. The commentaries are informative, funny, relaxed, and candid... everything a good commentary should be. Stiller is obviously a fan of audio commentaries and acts as ringleader, keeping the tracks moving along and on target. At one point he even starts talking about things he wants to avoid on these tracks, referring to a commentary he'd recently listened to where the director did nothing but say things like, "Oh, I love this scene." Apart from the commentaries, most of the extras appear on disc two. These include a series of unaired sketches, also with commentary, outtakes, and a text history of the show that includes segments from Stiller's MTV show and alternate versions of the Fox pilot. The least essential extra is a vintage Behind-The-Scenes special from E! that primarily serves to demonstrate how little that channel has changed in the past ten years.

While The Ben Stiller Show never won a mass audience and probably isn't going to win over a lot of new fans on DVD, it's nevertheless a worthwhile addition to the burgeoning library of TV on DVD. It was an above average program in a medium that seems to encourage mediocrity and, as such, deserves to be available for anyone who wants to see it. Unfortunately, many studios seem to be more interested in releasing short-term fad shows on DVD instead of going back and finding unusual programs that ought to be remembered. The upcoming Freaks & Geeks DVD (created by Stiller Show co-creator Judd Apatow) is a step in the right direction. But do we really need to immortalize such disposable shows as The Anna Nicole Show, The Simple Life and Saved by the Bell? In hopes of encouraging a few more Ben Stiller Shows and a few less My Big Fat Greek Lifes, here are a few suggestions of cancelled TV shows that might make interesting DVD's. They weren't all great. In fact, some of them were pretty lousy. But I would personally rather see an interesting failure on DVD than a boring success.

Action - This Hollywood-set comedy was always too industry-oriented to attract much of a mainstream audience. While it initially garnered some attention due to its then-controversial coarse language, Action quickly faded into ratings oblivion despite a coldly hilarious performance by Jay Mohr as cutthroat studio exec Peter Dragon.

Andy Richter Controls the Universe - Richter left his cushy but relatively undemanding sidekick post with Conan O'Brien to headline this innovative, absurdist Fox sitcom. Audiences never really seemed to latch on to it, and the fact that it jumped all over Fox's schedule didn't help matters.

The Bradys - At the top of my "what-were-they-thinking" list is this hour-long dramedy that attempted to shove The Brady Bunch kicking and screaming into the 90's. The Bradys (or Bradysomething as I felt it should have been called) took itself so seriously, it unintentionally became much funnier than the original series ever was. If Rhino can release The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, surely they can revisit this.

Cop Rock - You probably know the name but you probably never actually witnessed the unbelievable car wreck that was Cop Rock. The whole premise seemed like such a catastrophe waiting to happen, I made a point of taping the premiere episode, knowing full well I'd probably never see it again. I'd be first in line to buy Cop Rock on DVD, especially if it had an explanatory commentary by creator Steven Bochco.

Fernwood 2Nite - Fred Willard might very well be the most underappreciated comic actor in history. He's endlessly hilarious and there was no greater showcase for his talent than this short-lived comedy. Willard and the equally great Martin Mull made Fernwood 2Nite one of the great cult comedies of the 1970's.

Max Headroom - Back in the 1980's, I didn't think I was going to like this show since, like most people, all I knew about Max Headroom was that he was an annoying Coca-Cola spokes... thing. But after the first episode, I was hooked. A stylish, intelligent sci-fi drama, Max Headroom defied expectations. Naturally, it didn't last long.

Project UFO - I'll be the first to admit this show probably isn't very good. But when I was a kid, I never missed an episode. Created by Jack Webb, Project UFO claimed to dramatize true-life events from the case files of the Air Force's Project Blue Book. Part Dragnet, part proto-X-Files, this show is overdue for a resurrection.

TV Nation - After Roger & Me but before Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore took his gonzo documentary tactics to NBC for this short-lived sort-of news magazine. It didn't take long for the network to get cold feet and cancel the show, at which point Moore moved to cable and created The Awful Truth. That show has come to DVD. How about releasing its precursor?

Adam Jahnke
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