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I'm biased, of course, because I'm a television critic — but to me, giving someone a gift of a TV show you yourself enjoyed tremendously is somehow very personal. You're giving something that you love, and that in many cases will occupy many hours, if not days, of their time. And during that time, they'll occasionally be reminded of you.
But which ones to get, and where to get them? Many stores have reduced shelf space for DVD box sets, except for the most popular ones. And with the growth of Netflix and other places to pull video from some proverbial cloud, the idea of big box sets is becoming, in itself, a luxury — maybe even an endangered species. But right now, in 2012, the best ones still make for wonderful gifts and are easily purchased online.
If you want to give the gift of something current — something people are still talking about at parties and water coolers — there are three dominant choices, and they're all available on Blu-ray as well as standard DVD. One is the first season of the Showtime series Homeland, starring Claire Danes and Damien Lewis. It's a four-disc set from 20th Century Fox, and it contains some of the best storytelling, and certainly some of the best acting, TV has given us in recent years.
The same can be said — so I'll say it — of Season 4 of Breaking Bad, a four-disc set released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. But that's only if your gift recipient already is a Breaking Bad fan — otherwise, Season 4 is no place to start, whereas you're giving them Homeland from the beginning.
That's also what makes Downton Abbey, the wonderful period costume drama, such a good gift. The PBS Video six-disc set includes every episode from Seasons 1 and 2. Give it to someone during the holidays, and they can be up to speed before PBS begins importing Season 3 in January.
That's the best of the current stuff, but I also enjoy watching, and giving, the vintage TV collections. Vintage doesn't have to be really, really old: Warner Bros. just released, for the first time on Blu-ray, a set containing all 10 seasons — 236 episodes — of Friends in an oversized, 21-disc collection. That's a generous gift for a 20-something or 30-something on your list — but if you're looking for gifts for older folk, several recent releases should fit the bill if you can afford it.
Time Life has a set called The Carol Burnett Show: The Ultimate Collection, and that's pretty much what it is: 22 discs full of material selected by the actress herself. (Full disclosure: I provided a couple of appreciative essays for the set's companion booklet.) I'm recommending the set because, disc for disc, it's hilarious — and it's true full-family viewing, a treat to watch together with whoever happens to be around.
Image Entertainment's new Blu-ray set of The Dick Van Dyke Show: The Complete Series is a revelation. Not only is it one of the funniest and most modern sitcoms of the '60s, but on Blu-ray, for the first time, it's a high-definition transfer from the original 35 mm negatives. Once, it was the comedy that was razor-sharp; now it's the image, too.
The same stunning visual quality can be seen, and enjoyed, in another Image Entertainment release from this year: The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series. It's 24 discs of iconic TV brilliance — and why sit through a crammed-with-commercials cable marathon each New Year's, when you can watch Rod Serling's wonderful stories uninterrupted and beautifully restored?
Another landmark piece of TV history, though not on Blu-ray, comes courtesy of Shout Factory: a new 28-disc boxed set called All in the Family: The Complete Series. I will say that while some of these episodes are entertainingly outrageous, as well as historically fascinating, a lot of them don't hold up so well four decades later. But the episode where Sammy Davis Jr. visits Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker — well, that's about as classic as TV comedy gets.
Shout Factory has two other collections for the true comedy fan that are examples of TV archiving at its best — presenting not just one series, but many pieces from a person's entire career. The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2 continues the astounding work done in Volume 1. And this one, as one of the extras, includes a great find: from a Canadian TV program, it's an in-depth television interview with Kovacs, the only one known to exist.
And finally, there's my favorite of the bunch, another Shout Factory set. But this one is so crammed with fun stuff, it's almost all extras. It's called The Incredible Mel Brooks, and the sprawling set — five DVDs, one CD — makes a strong case for his being precisely that: incredible.
It's ridiculous how much comedy gold is crammed in here, from Brooks telling new stories about all of his old movies to sketches he wrote for that Golden Age TV classic, Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. There's even his TV debut here, from Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater.
His infamous appearance on The David Susskind Show, which I reviewed previously on Fresh Air, is included, as are generous samples from Mel's wild appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. There are unsold pilots and forgotten TV specials — and there's my very favorite treat of all. It's the 1963 Oscar-winning film short written by Brooks, whose voice is heard throughout. He plays a moviegoer watching a cartoon full of abstract, moving drawings — and trying to make sense of what's going on on the screen. From 1963, it's called The Critic.
Maybe I like that so much because I am a critic. Who knows? I saw it for the first time when I was in college, so maybe it even inspired me to become a critic. But I love it. And if you're buying a gift for someone who laughs at the humor of Mel Brooks, they will love it, too. And remember, there's one selfish bonus to giving DVD sets as gifts: Later on, you can always try to borrow them.
By visiting Africa this month, President Obama is drawing attention to one of the diplomatic tools that most directly shapes America's relationships with other countries: foreign aid and assistance. But now all policy makers at home feel the United States is pursuing the soundest strategy when it comes to providing aid abroad. We explore the issue with the official in charge of the Africa portfolio for the United States Agency for International Development.