12 a.m. – “Automan: The Complete Series” – Action/Science Fiction
(1983/1984, Shout Factory/Fabulous Films) Hapless police computer expert Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) uses his technical skills to create a lifelike hologram (Chuck Wagner) that becomes his partner in fighting crime. This science fiction-crime series from producer Glen A. Larson (“Battlestar Galactica”), which ran for 12 episodes of ABC’s 1983-1984 season, is as silly as it sounds, with ridiculous storylines – Automan goes undercover as a male stripper! Automan and Walter investigate mob crimes at a disco! – and well-worn cop drama tropes undoing the modest good will of the core premise. Those elements boost the show’s value as camp fodder for Bad TV fans, as does the abundance of cult/odd guest stars (Sid Haig, Richard Lynch, John Vernon, Peter Marshall, Delta Burke and singer Laura Branigan, who has to flirt awkward with Automan) and an undercurrent of seediness, like when Automan’s pixilated sidekick, Cursor, who creates his array of computerized vehicles, get very “animated” around female guest stars. Having said that, those who watch the entire four-disc, 13-episode set will be surprised by flashes of witty dialogue and former soap star Wagner’s amusingly self-impressed turn – not enough to save a show from cancellation, but sufficient to boost it a degree or two above its reputation for ludicrousness. The Shout Factory set includes a new making-of featurette that includes interviews with Wagner, Arnaz and Larson, who discuss the show’s conception, brief shelf life and the influence of “TRON” – the film’s producers, Donald Kushner and Peter Locke, performed similar duties on “Automan” – on its expensive visual effects palette, as well as bios, production notes and a 20-page episode guide. ‘60s pop obsessives will note that the show’s title theme and score were written by Billy Hinsche, Desi’s bandmate in Dino, Desi and Billy, with the prolific Stu Phillips (“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”).
1 a.m. – “The Great American Dream Machine” – News/Satire/Opinion/Variety
(1971-1973, Entertainment One/S’More Entertainment) Attempting to imprint “The Great American Dream Machine” with one particular label is a bit of a challenge – in any given episode, the weekly freeform magazine series, produced by New York’s WNET and aired on PBS, showcased profile pieces on unique Americans like Evel Knievel or “Big Daddy” Roth; a Broadway number by Elaine Stritch; sketch comedy featuring Albert Brooks, Charles Grodin and Henry Winkler; an op-ed piece from Andy Rooney; documentary-style reports from Sheila Nevins, later the head of HBO Documentary Films; and Kurt Vonnegut reading from his latest novel. Between these arts-and-comedy elements, the show also explored issues of race, politics and social discourse: a recurring segment featured Studs Terkel discussing these issues with a group of average people over drinks in a bar, while humorist Marshall Efron poked fun at consumer issues like product labeling and content. “American Dream Machine” was an ambitious show, one that was willing to experiment with format, style and tone to provide an alternative and intelligent counterpoint to mainstream television, and if that goal occasionally produced some awkward moments (a white-faced Chevy Chase mimicking classical music), it also resulted in a fascinating and unique series that should receive more credit for laying the groundwork for everything from early “Saturday Night Live” to “The Daily Show.” E1’s full-frame, four-disc set offers a sort of mix-and-match presentation of “American Dream Machine,” with 50-minute compilation of clips and segments balanced by complete hour-long episodes (the show ran 90 minutes in its debut season) culled from various sources; a four-page booklet with an essay by NPR TV critic David Bianculli rounds out the set.
2 a.m. – “Manimal: The Complete Series” – Action/Science Fiction
(1983, Shout Factory/Fabulous Films) The late Simon MacCorkindale stars as the wealthy and dashing Dr. Jonathan Chase, who employs his ability to transform into a variety of animals – gained from the study of Tibetan mysticism – to aid the New York Police Department in solving crimes. Had “Manimal” been on NBC’s lineup three decades before its actual debut – or better still, if it had been a Golden Age comic book title or ’40s-era radio drama – it might be considered with a degree of respect or nostalgia, and not as a keyword for small-screen disaster. Unfortunately, creator Glen A. Larson released “Manimal” to TV in the same season as “Automan,” where it fared worse than its computer-driven cousin, lasting just eight episodes before the network sent it packing. The show has some laudable qualities – some fine (if repetitive) special effects by Stan Winston, and the presence of Melody Anderson (“Flash Gordon”) and Reni Santoni as (respectively) sweet and sour representatives of the NYPD – but for the most part, “Manimal” is a mess, its fantasy and crime elements clashing awkwardly and delivering no satisfaction to either fan base. “Manimal” is best enjoyed as an emissary from TV’s Island of Misfit Toys, and should please camp/bad TV fans; the three-disc set includes an interview with Larson, who seems convinced that the show’s time slot opposite “Dallas” was the sole reason for its demise. Production notes penned at the time of the show’s debut, as well as biographies, production stills and a 20-page episode guide flesh out the set.
3 a.m. – “The Last of the Curlews” – Animated/Children’s Programming
(1972, Warner Archives Collection) A substantial number of fortysomethings report being reduced to tears by this Emmy-winning half-hour animated special from Hanna-Barbera, which kicked off ABC’s long-running “Afterschool Specials” series in 1972. Based on the novel by Canadian writer Fred Bodsworth, the special follows an Eskimo curlew, one of the last of a breed of birds hunted into extinction by the mid-20th century, as it searches for a mate. Its journey carries it from the Arctic to Argentina and finally to the Americas, where it finds a lone female shortly before encountering a father (voiced by Ross Martin) and son (Vincent Van Patten) on a hunting trip. Unlike the majority of small-screen animation at the time, “The Last of the Curlews” does not end on an upbeat note, which along with a pair of heart-wrenching songs, appears to have left a number of young viewers feeling absolutely poleaxed. Forty-plus-years later, the simple and direct storytelling (by TV and animation vet Jameson Brewer) and animation have lost little of their power, so parents should either have a discussion about the program with their children prior to viewing, or be prepared to answer a lot of teary questions after the final credits. “The Last of the Curlews” is one of two high points on WAC’s double-disc “Hanna-Barbera Specials Collection,” the other being the “Afterschool Special’s” straightforward adaptation of “Cyrano” (1974) with Jose Ferrer reprising his Oscar-winning live action turn in the title role; the other three specials – 1972’s “The Adventures of Robin Hoodnik,” which, like Disney’s “Robin Hood,” imagines the Merry Men as animals; the two-part “Oliver Twist” sequel “Oliver and the Artful Dodger” (1972), with Richard Dawson and Pamela Ferdin among the voice actors; and “The Three Musketeers” (1973) – are more lightweight fare.
4 a.m. –“The Wind in the Willows” – Animated
(1987, Warner Archives Collection) Rankin/Bass’s final animated project was this largely faithful television adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s enduring novel. It also features an impressive vocal cast led by Charles Nelson Reilly as the manic Toad, whose frivolous pursuit of excitement with boats and motorcars spurs his friends Rat (Roddy MacDowall), Mole (Eddie Bracken) and Badger (Jose Ferrer) to rein in his ways for the sake of their pastoral, very English way of life. Though the songs by Maury Laws, Jules Bass and Bernard Hoffer can be challenging (the title track, by Judy Collins, is pleasant enough), Romeo Muller’s script does a fine job of distilling the source material for younger American viewers without losing the eccentric charm of the characters or the sweetly nostalgic, decidedly English tone of Grahame’s writing (as well as its elements of mysticism in the appearance of the god Pan in “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter). The animation, too, from Wang Film/Cuckoo’s Nest is appealing and at times, even quite beautiful, but keeps a steady pace that should maintain kid viewers’ interests without sacrificing a keen attention to the ornate details of Edwardian life. The quartet of leading players is well abetted by a solid supporting cast of voice actors, including legendary animation vets Paul Frees, who voices the wistful, seagoing Wayfarer, and Robert (Bob) McFadden as the Magistrate who levies a stiff sentence on Toad for his reckless behavior.
5 a.m. – “Pee Wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special” – Comedy/Children’s Programming
(1988, Shout Factory) That Christmas has passed should not prevent you in the least from experiencing this wonderful and absurd holiday showcase for Paul Reubens’ Pee-Wee Herman persona, or better yet, sharing it with a first-time viewer. Released during the abbreviated third season of “Pee-Wee’s” network run on CBS, the Christmas Special delivers a concentrated burst of the show’s core sensibilities: a celebration of childhood joys, shot through with knowing doses of meta-awareness and camp aesthetic, as well as a few double entendres for the moms and dads in the home audience. There’s a message in the mix as well, filtered through Pee-Wee’s manic desire for Christmas gifts; a host of odd/fab/cult guests, from Cher and Oprah to Grace Jones, Joan Rivers and Charo do their best to reframe Pee-Wees’ thoughts towards the giving aspect of the season, which is nicely summed up in a winter wonderland finale that imparts upon us, among other things, the sight of Little Richard on ice skates. The real message of the special, and what made “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” such a landmark children’s program, is that being a kid, no matter what your age, is tremendous fun, and its hallmarks – imagination, creativity, friendship and individuality – should be celebrated with exuberance (and volume) every day. Series regulars Laurence Fishburne (Cowboy Curtis) Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne), John Paragon (Jambi), S. Epatha Merkeson (Reba the Mail Lady) and the great William Marshall (the King of Cartoons) are all on hand, as well as the show’s host of puppet performers, including Magic Screen (who’s visited by his “cousin,” Magic Johnson) and Conkey; the Blu-ray includes two commentary tracks, one with Reubens, John Paragon, Lynne Marie Stewart and animation director Prudence Fenton, and the other with Paragon, writer George McGrath and other members of the production team; Paragon, Stewart, artists Wayne White and Gary Panter (who served as set and puppet designers on the show) and others are also included in a ten-minute retrospective.
6 a.m. – “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour Christmas Specials” – Variety
(1969/1970, Shout Factory) Two simple and sweet holiday episodes from the popular but short-lived variety series featuring country-pop star Glen Campbell, which ran on CBS from 1969 to 1972 following a stint as the host of the Smothers Brothers’ summer replacement series in 1968. Both episodes follow the format for variety shows and holiday specials that’s been in place from the dawn of TV to today: solo spotlights for the host/star, a duet or two with the musical guests, game riffing with the comedy guests, and then a big wrap-up with all hands on deck for a brace of holiday songs. Naturally, Campbell is best used in the musical numbers – he contributes nimble fingerpicking on Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas” and lays heavy on the reverb for a medley of the big hits – “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” – with the ace band in the Pickin’ Pit, but his nice-guy screen persona helps him through the comedy sketches (an extended riff on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with Andy Griffith in one show, and playing straight man to Paul Lynde, George Gobel and Shecky Greene) and a groovy tear through “Jingle Bells” with Cher. The syrup gets a heavy pour for the closing numbers with Glen’s sprawling “TV Family,” which is comprised of the respective guest stars, the Ray Charles Singers, arranger Marty Paich and Campbell’s real family, which at the time included his parents, second wife Billie Jean, and their kids Kelli, Travis and Kane. These sing-alongs feel like fossils unearthed from the Television City vaults, but benefit greatly from Campbell’s musical talents and contributions from Jerry Reed, Anne Murray and Mel Tillis on their 1970 episode. Among the show’s writers is Steve Martin, who had started his career with the Smothers Brothers variety show and its summer replacement, which led to his run on the staff for the “Goodtime Hour.”