“Everybody Hates Chris” (2005-2009, CBS/Paramount) Like the actor/comedian Chris Rock himself, this Emmy-nominated UPN/CW series, which he co-created with Ali LeRoi, was smarter, funnier and far more thoughtful than most of its peers. Anchored by an excellent cast (with standouts Tyler James Williams, Terry Crews and Tichina Arnold, who played the teenaged Rock and his filter-free parents, respectively) and creative staff (directors included Reginald Hudlin and Eric Lanueville, while Rock and TV comedy vets Rodney Barnes and Warren Hutcherson, among others, contributed scripts), “Everybody” balanced broad humor and thornier subjects that favored unforced honesty over big laughs (though the show’s humor never flagged) and sticky nostalgia. If you’re bored by the current network lineup, your TV time might be better served with this four-season series, which is compiled in full on this 16-disc set, which includes an array of extras, including commentary by Rock and others, deleted scenes and more.
“Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete First Season” (1968, Time-Life) The passage of time has not been kind to “Laugh-In” – though celebrated at the time for its adult take on politics and culture, the sketch comedy series’ attitude towards the counterculture and especially women (as embodied by body-painted Goldie Hawn) can be charitably described as “Mad Men”-esque. But if you look past the cobwebs, you can still see how it parlayed the stream-of-consciousness style of comics like Ernie Kovacs (see below) and the frankness of socially aware talents like Mort Sahl and others into its rapid-fire approach, which in turn influenced everything from “Saturday Night Live” to “Sesame Street.” Season One, compiled here in a four-disc set, marks the debut of characters like Arte Johnson‘s Tyrone F. Horneigh, forever in licentious pursuit of Ruth Buzzi‘s Gladys Ormphby, and brims with guest stars (Cher, Sammy Davis Jr. as The Judge, as in “Here Comes De”), though Lily Tomlin isn’t part of the cast yet (she joined in the third season). The set includes interviews with creator/executive producer George Schlatter, the original pilot and a 25th anniversary reunion with Q&A.
“Ernie Kovacs: Take a Good Look – The Definitive Collection” (1959-1961, Shout Factory) Delirious game show created by and hosted by pioneering TV comic Kovacs, whose talent for visual non sequiturs and disregard for small screen conventions is put to excellent use here. The set-up is simple – a panel of celebrities must use short visual clues to identify a mystery guest – but in typical Kovacs fashion, the clues have little to do with the guest (or anything, really). Case in point: a clue to identify a female police chief has Kovacs in drag (but with cigar) leaping from a burning building and through a safety net, while another (for a woman who wrote to then-President Eisenhower) features caveman Kovacs hammering out correspondence on a tree trunk. Needless to say – and to the host’s obvious delight – these provide no help for panelists like Kovacs’ talented spouse Edie Adams, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Hans Conried, who at one point begs Kovacs to admit that the whole thing is rigged. And it is – absolutely rigged to play with and poke fun at the whole veneer of game shows and TV in particular, which was among Kovacs’ many gifts. It’s meta-TV before such a thing existed, and another welcome reminder of how Kovacs helped set the table for media-savvy comic talents like David Letterman, Robert Smigel and Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, among others. Shout Factory’s seven-disc set includes the entire two-season run, as well as informative liner notes by historian Ben Model, who outlines the (largely financial) reasons for the show’s creation and its connections to Kovacs’ other TV efforts.
“Coronet Blue” (Kino Lorber, 1967) The title of this stylish thriller series is the only thing Frank Converse remembers after being attacked by thugs and thrown from an ocean liner; the words fuel his search for his identity over the course of 13 episodes, which despite critical acclaim, went largely unseen by audiences. Created by Larry Cohen – who would later direct such unique genre films as “It’s Alive” and “Q the Winged Serpent” – “Coronet Blue” benefits from smart dialogue, adventurous visuals (directors included top TV pros like Lamont Johnson and David Greene) and a core amnesia mystery that remains engaging and complex throughout the episodes, which should have been enough to attract an audience (it certainly worked for “The Fugitive” and “The Prisoner,” which this series resembles in passing). Unfortunately, CBS buried “Coronet,” which was filmed in 1965 but didn’t emerge from hiatus until 1967; by that point, Converse had moved on to another series and only 11 episodes were screened as a summer replacement before the show disappeared into the TV ether. Kino’s 4-disc DVD set features the entire 13-episode run, include the two that never aired, and includes an interview with Cohen in which he reveals the secret behind “coronet blue” (which I won’t tell you).
Also: MHz Networks has released a double-disc set of “Agatha Christie’s Family Murder Party” (2009), a four-part adaptation of the mystery doyenne’s 1938 novel “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” for French TV. Poirot and his little grey cells are not present here; instead, it’s hot-and-cold detective duo Larosieres and Lampion (Antoine Dulery and Marius Colucci) investigating the murder of world-class rotter Robert Hossein during a family gathering. Though the pair is no substitute for Poirot, this Gallic take on a very British mystery is lavishly appointed, PBS-style fare.