Click here to learn more about anamorphic widescreen!
Go to the Home Page
Go to The Rumor Mill
Go to Todd Doogan's weekly column
Go to the Reviews Page
Go to the Trivia Contest Page
Go to the Upcoming DVD Artwork Page
Go to the DVD FAQ & Article Archives
Go to our DVD Links Section
Go to the Home Theater Forum for great DVD discussion
Find out how to advertise on The Digital Bits

Site created 12/15/97.

The Digital Bits logo
page created: 7/15/04

The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

The Idiot Disc or I'll Be a Son of a Witchiepoo:
More Cult TV on DVD

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

"Nostalgia, n. A bittersweet yearning for things of the past." - Webster's II New Riverside Dictionary

"Nostalgia, n. An irrational fondness for things that were never particularly good in the first place." - Jahnke's Glossary of Popular Culture

Not long ago, a friend and I were talking about our respective DVD collections and whatever had possessed us to purchase certain titles. Usually I do pretty well in conversations like this. My work for this site gives me a handy excuse for some of the more embarrassing discs in my library. I can dismiss them with a wave of the hand, a roll of the eyes and a snotty, "Oh, THEY sent me that." Unfortunately, unlike most of my friends, this one actually reads the stuff I write. So at least with him, I can't lie and say my copy of Showgirls is for "review purposes only".

My friend and I realized that we both had a more than a couple movies that we'd purchased not so much because we thought they were extraordinary works of cinematic genius but rather because they reminded us of our youth. Sometimes this happily coincides with a movie that's actually worth owning, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark. But too often, the practice not only ruins your enjoyable memories but also saddles you with a DVD you now have to explain to curious bystanders. For instance, I bought Tron on DVD awhile back, mainly because it was cheap but also because it reminded me of the summer of '82. I'd watched about five minutes of it before I realized that my pleasant memories of Tron actually revolved around playing the video game and not watching the movie.

Obviously my friend and I are not alone in our quest to buy back our childhood on DVD. More than anything else, I believe it's this urge that has led to the explosion of TV programs on disc. Believe it or not, the studios aren't releasing all this stuff because of their commitment to the art and science of television broadcasting. They're doing this because people are buying them by the pound and they're relatively inexpensive for the studios to produce... particularly if they don't invest much in things like commentaries, documentaries, and other assorted goodies.

Now I've certainly bought enough useless crap in my time to have absolutely no authority in telling people how they should spend their money. If you've got the disposable income and the interest, buy whatever the hell turns your crank. Fine by me. However, I would like to suggest that there might be finer things to spend your hard-earned dough on than complete season sets of every TV show that momentarily tickled your fancy during your youth. No matter how cool it may seem at the time, how many times are you honestly going to watch the first season of The Dukes of Hazzard?

One of the more obvious examples of NostalgiaVision on DVD is Rhino's ongoing series devoted to The World of Sid & Marty Krofft. When Bill Hunt asked if I'd like to review H.R. Pufnstuf, my reaction was probably much the same as any member of my generation's would be. Absolutely. How cool is that? I haven't seen that show in years. I'd had a good time reviewing Schoolhouse Rock awhile back, so I figured this would be another pleasant trip in the old Digital Wayback Machine. Well, having watched all three discs of Rhino's complete Pufnstuf, I have some bad news to report. A lot of you aren't going to like this, so brace yourselves.

H.R. Pufnstuf: The Complete Series

H.R. Pufnstuf: The Complete Series

H.R. Pufnstuf is not a very good show.

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, H.R. Pufnstuf debuted on Saturday morning TV back in 1969. It was the first major program to attempt to bring a cartoon look and sensibility to live-action television. The premise is explained in one of those classic unrelentingly catchy theme songs that sets up every single piece of information you need to know about the show in two minutes. "Once upon a summertime," young Jimmy (played by Oscar-nominated Cockney child star Jack Wild) and his pal Freddie, a magic golden talking flute, were lured to a place called Living Island by a mean old witch who wanted that flute. Fortunately for our young heroes, they were rescued by H.R. Pufnstuf, the dragon mayor of Living Island.

If you do choose to invest in the complete Pufnstuf, I highly recommend you spread your viewing out over the course of several weeks and months. Watching more than a couple of episodes consecutively just underscores how repetitive the show really is. Most episodes deal with Pufnstuf and Jimmy trying to figure out a way to send the boy back home and/or Witchiepoo's never-ending quest to steal Freddie. Inevitably someone has to be rescued from Witchiepoo's castle and inevitably Pufnstuf and Jimmy enlist the aid of one of their colorful friends like Dr. Blinky and Ludicrous Lion.

For some reason, many people look back on H.R. Pufnstuf as a classic stoner show. And yes, the show is very bright and colorful and psychedelic but no more so than many other pop culture relics of the late 60s and early 70s. For that matter, it's no more psychedelic than a lot of other kiddie shows. I mean if you're stoned, Teletubbies looks pretty damn freaky.

Apart from the trippy visuals, the playing-to-the-cheap-seats performance of Billie Hayes as Witchiepoo, and those damn songs that won't get out of your head with anything less than a bullet, there is little to recommend H.R. Pufnstuf to contemporary adult audiences. Unlike Jay Ward's Rocky & Bullwinkle or the brilliant Pee-wee's Playhouse, H.R. Pufnstuf is strictly aimed at the younger set. Both Ward and Paul Reubens loaded their programs with references, jokes and visuals that appealed to both adults and children simultaneously but on different levels. The Kroffts were making a kids' show and that's just fine. If your kids enjoy Pufnstuf, you should buy this set for them. But if you're a childless adult harboring fond memories of Saturday morning TV, maybe it's time to let go.

Rhino's presentation of H.R. Pufnstuf is pretty top-notch. Most of the episodes look great, displaying all the burn-your-retinas color you'd expect. There's some occasional dirt and the opening credits are a bit soft but otherwise, this is a generally excellent transfer. One notable exception, however. Original elements for the episode Flute, Book and Candle must have vanished because this episode is in considerably worse shape than any of the others. If nothing else, it helps you appreciate how good the rest of the show looks. Sound quality is OK. Nothing overly spectacular but if you love tunes like "I'm a Mechanical Boy" and "Oranges Shmoranges", you should be able to get your groove on with this set.

Most of the extras are restricted to the third disc, although the premiere episode boasts a commentary by Sid and Marty Krofft. About half of it finds Sid and Marty remembering the production of the show. The rest is the two of them name-dropping people who have told them they grew up on their shows. That's nice but considering the show's only twenty minutes long, you might get a little impatient with hearing about Sid Krofft's mutual admiration meeting with Eddie Murphy.

Interviews on disc three catch up with the Kroffts, Billie "Witchiepoo" Hayes, Jack "Jimmy" Wild, and TV historian Hal Erickson. None of these are particularly in-depth but they're reasonably interesting and all of the folks involved with the production of the show share fond memories of their time on Living Island. For hardcore Krofft buffs, Rhino also includes Irving, a rare TV pilot from 1957. Irving uses traditional puppets and marionettes instead of the costumed hybrids of Pufnstuf. It isn't exactly a must-watch but if you're a fan of the Kroffts, it's interesting to see where they were coming from.

The Hitchhiker

The Hitchhiker

If nostalgia for the 70s has produced the lion's share of the TVD sets of recent months, 80s nostalgia is trying its best to catch up. Music rights continue to plague the release of the seminal decade of excess show, Miami Vice, but we have recently seen boxes devoted to such favorites as The A-Team, Magnum P.I. and soon enough, V. Perhaps hoping to inspire some nostalgia of its own, HBO has quietly released a compilation of episodes from one of their early efforts in original programming, The Hitchhiker. While not nearly as well-known or beloved as other programs on disc, The Hitchhiker does have a cult of its own who have no doubt been looking forward to hearing that eerie 80s synth theme song come out of their home theater speakers.

Not only is The Hitchhiker notable as an early HBO series, it was also part of the short-lived attempt to revive the anthology format on network television. This trend included revamps of classics like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as Steven Spielberg's high-profile Amazing Stories. The Hitchhiker was essentially a low-rent Twilight Zone with the pay-TV bonuses of blood and boobs. Page Fletcher was the title character, a Rod Serling in tight jeans who would pop up at the beginning and end of every program with his ominous proclamations and morals. Despite the fact that working for HBO did not yet have any sort of cachet whatsoever, The Hitchhiker was able to attract some top-notch talent, both in front of and behind the camera. The producers lured foreign directors like Paul Verhoeven and Phillip Noyce who had not yet crossed over to American filmmaking. And perhaps because of the directors who were attached, they were able to attract both established and rising stars like Willem Dafoe, Gary Busey, and Margot Kidder.

Considering the level of talent involved, The Hitchhiker really should be better than it is. A typical Hitchhiker episode involves a fairly simple idea told in an overly complicated way with a mild twist ending that redefines most of what we've seen. The best episodes of this sort, like Man's Best Friend, are at least engaging despite the fact that the surprise ending can be seen coming from miles away. The worst, such as Ghostwriter and In The Name of Love, are simply confusing and filled with lapses of logic that would have never passed muster on The Twilight Zone.

But the anthology format is unpredictable. Just as shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits failed to produce a classic episode week in and week out, lesser shows like The Hitchhiker could occasionally surprise you with an impressive outing. The best episode on this set is Why Are You Here?. In this one, a reporter (Brad Davis from Midnight Express) finds more than he bargained for while taping an expose of the wild club scene. A young Helen Hunt also appears in this inventively told episode in which everything we see is from the subjective roaming camera of the reporter's film crew. This episode is a real stand-out. W.G.O.D. is also fairly entertaining thanks to a committed performance by Gary Busey as a radio evangelist with a skeleton in his closet, though much more conventional than Why Are You Here?.

None of the episodes on this two-disc set look or sound particularly great. The picture quality betrays the series low budget throughout, although there is some nice camerawork in episodes like Homebodies and Ghostwriter. Audio options are restricted to either stereo or mono, neither of which is likely to knock your socks off. And although extras are sparse, HBO did somehow convince directors Verhoeven, Noyce, and Carl Schenkel to participate in audio commentaries on their respective episodes. Verhoeven discusses how filming the episode Last Scene led to his decision to move permanently to America. Noyce and producer Lewis Chesler get deeper into specifics about The Hitchhiker itself on commentaries for Nightshift and Man's Best Friend. And Schenkel specifically recalls his individual episodes on Ghostwriter and Homebodies. None of these are classic commentaries but I really didn't expect any extras at all from The Hitchhiker so these are rather nice additions to the set.

Despite its place in our collective memory, most television programming really is designed to be disposable. Yes, the best shows can withstand years of repeated viewings but by far the vast majority of them barely hold up for the half hour we're watching them. Collecting these shows on disc is a tricky proposition. All of these shows are meant to be seen in weekly increments. Collecting them together emphasizes their weaknesses instead of their strengths and exposes the narrative shortcuts that almost all TV producers are forced to rely on in order to bring a show in on budget and on time. As I said at the outset, I'm not one to judge anybody else's taste in DVDs. If you have nothing but fond memories of CHiPs and are dying to see its complete run immortalized on disc, more power to you. But be careful what you wish for. Some memories are best left undisturbed.

Adam Jahnke
[email protected]

Adam Jahnke - Main Page
E-mail the Bits!

Don't #!@$ with the Monkey! Site designed for 1024 x 768 resolution, using 16M colors and .gif 89a animation.
© 1997-2015 The Digital Bits, Inc., All Rights Reserved.
[email protected]