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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Jeff Kleist of The Digital Bits

Hoosiers: Collector's Edition

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The Greatest American Hero: Season One
1981 (2005) - Stephen J. Cannell Productions/ABC (Anchor Bay)

Program Rating: B+

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

On the heels of the successful Superman movie, ABC took advantage of the development contract they had with Cannell Productions to order up their own superhero show. Cannell, not really having any familiarity with the genre, unwittingly took a Spider-Man-like approach and made his hero reluctant and burdened with real-life problems. The show he turned out became a cult favorite, somehow surviving for three seasons on ABC despite constant pre-emption and time slot changes.

Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) is an idealist teacher who takes the delinquents in his special-ed class on a field trip to the desert, where their van breaks down. Hinkley sets off looking for a mechanic and runs across FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp), who's drunk and mourning the murder of his partner. As they argue, a UFO suddenly appears overhead and beams down Maxwell's dead buddy, looking very much alive. He tells Maxwell that Hinkley has been chosen to receive a suit of clothing that will endow him with special powers, and that Maxwell's been picked to assist him. Thus begins the 3-way "odd couple" dynamic that makes The Greatest American Hero so memorable: Hinkley's idealism vs. his girlfriend (Connie Sellecca) Pam's pragmatism vs. Maxwell's fanaticism, as they try to use the power of the suit to try to salve the wounds of the world.

The Greatest American Hero is brought to us on DVD in what certainly looks like a brand new transfer from the original 35mm film. I always appreciate it when a show is finished on film. Nine times out of ten, when they do a new transfer of a filmed series for DVD, the difference between what you've been watching and what you've just bought is night and day. No longer is the red super suit muted, bleeding and blurry like it was on the syndicated broadcasts - it's now sharp and screamingly vibrant. Detail levels are so good that you start to catch some of the hidden zippers and other cheats that were used to get the costume to hang right on the actor. Some fans have been complaining that Cannell's later shows already released on DVD appeared "noisy", probably due to their being shot on 16mm and edited on video. Well, here's a disc that should ease your minds.

The audio here is not something you should really be concerned about. This is a solid, 2-channel mono mix with a decent dynamic range - just what you'd expect for an 80s TV series. There's no distortion or muffling beyond what was already present in previous broadcasts. Honestly, the tacked on "whoosh" effects when Ralph flies would probably be a farce far beyond intent were they mixed into an unnecessary 5.1 track.

Probably the biggest complaint I have on the audio front is the replacement of some of the show's original pop music. Help Me Rhonda and Rocket Man are both missing from the pilot episode and subsequent uses as well, replaced by modern music that feels completely out of place with the era of the show. I understand the difficulty of negotiating and affording music rights, but if it has to be done, can't people go through the trouble of finding songs that don't just match tempo but the emotional feel as well? Thankfully, the in-house covers of songs by Joey Scarbury (who did the chart topping theme song) remain intact, as does The Greatest Love used in the Heroine pilot (more on that in a moment). Frankly, I'm far more concerned with the second season, where licensed music plays a far bigger role, specifically in the episode Operation: Spoilsport (where the Green Guys keep making Eve of Destruction play on the radio).

Now for the good stuff - The Greatest American Hero on DVD contains over an hour of interviews with the cast and creator Stephen J. Cannell. Each person is interviewed separately, except where Connie Sellecca manages to act as the interviewer for Michael Pare. The two of them act like old friends who haven't seen each other in decades (which is probably the case). William Katt (and pretty much everyone else) talks a lot about how much he hated the suit, and how stupid he felt in it (though he learned to live with it after the show took off). Robert Culp certainly hasn't lost the fire that made Maxwell so much fun, and he gives some fantastic insights into the character. Also included on this set is the pilot for The Greatest American Heroine, a spin-off in which Hinkley turns the suit over to an even pluckier and more liberal woman, almost assuredly in a devious plot to drive Maxwell completely over the edge. The series was never picked up and it's not hard to see why, as the new heroine was too bubble-headed to remain interesting for very long, no matter how well intentioned the character might be. What's really missing on the DVDs is an audio commentary. Given that they interviewed virtually everyone involved, this is really missed opportunity (one that I doubt will be rectified on the two remaining seasons on DVD).

At any rate, The Greatest American Hero is one of those series that managed to succeed no matter how hard the network execs tried to stomp it out. It's cheesy and at times preachy, but it's fun. The stories are good, the comedy is fun - it's a formula that's been copied, but never quite duplicated. The best thing is that Greatest American Hero is a show you can share with children of pretty much any age and they'll get a kick out of it (unlike so many other shows that I probably shouldn't have been watching when I was young). Considering the low price (under $20) and high quality of the presentation, no one who grew up with this show should hesitate in taking it home on DVD. You won't be sorry you did.

Star Wars: Clone Wars - Volume One

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MacGyver: The Complete First Season
1985 (2005) - ABC (Paramount)

Program Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/C+/F

Many years before he stepped through the Stargate, Richard Dean Anderson starred in a series that's probably most familiar to younger viewers as the object of Patty and Selma's lust on The Simpsons. Familiar or not, MacGyver ran for seven seasons on ABC with its own unique message: the promotion of brains over brawn. Sure, at times things got a tad unrealistic... when, for example, with a stick of gum, some hairpins and a Swiss Army Knife, MacGyver could stop a runaway nuclear reactor. But hey... 80s action shows weren't about realism, they were about having fun and turning off your brain. Luckily, with MacGyver, you didn't have to turn off completely.

In terms of video quality on DVD, MacGyver has a few things working against it. Being an 80s TV series, its masters were created on analog video, so we don't really get the benefit that a new film transfer might have brought. That said, digital enhancement software to take care of just this sort of problem has improved by leaps and bounds in the last few years. There's detail here that I've never seen on TV broadcasts, and there's also been a good reduction in video noise. What doesn't fare so well is the extensive use of stock footage in some episodes. These clips were beat up when the show was new, and they sure don't look any better now. Considering the generally noise-free footage in the episodes, it's almost jarring in transition (which makes you appreciate DVD restorations even more).

Sound is brought to us in earth-shattering Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. As is typical with television of the period, the dynamic range is rather limited. I had to crank the volume up quite a bit compared to my other TV DVDs for the dialogue to be clearly audible. When decoded through Pro-Logic 2, everything is isolated to your center channel. What you heard on TV back in the day is pretty much what you get now.

Somewhat surprisingly for a series that's been so popular in syndication over the years, MacGyver ships on DVD with no extras whatsoever. Many of the series' regulars have died, and Anderson apparently shuns interviews and appearances like the plague. Still, it would have been nice to get an EPK featurette, vintage commercials... anything at all. The only consolation to all this is the fairly low $39.99 retail price (which means you can grab this set for as little as $25 on sale). At a buck an episode, it's hard to complain about the lack of extras. In any case, we have to hope that future seasons might deliver something in the way of bonus material (maybe Paramount can dig up some writers or crew members willing to chat it up).

Lack of DVD extras aside, MacGyver stands the test of time a lot better than most action-adventure programming of the era. Despite the very period-specific situations and political attitudes, a hero that refuses to carry a gun and uses his mind to best his foes is something we need a lot more of on television. There's a reason why this show lasted longer than The A-Team, Airwolf, or Knight Rider. It's got a solid concept, good writing, capable production and a hero with broad appeal. If you're a fan, MacGyver on disc is a no brainer. If, on the other hand, you're just looking for 22 episodes of solid entertainment... you could do a heck of a lot worse than this.

Jeff Kleist
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