“Ash vs. Evil Dead: The Complete Series” (2016-2018, Anchor Bay) Five-disc Blu-ray set packages the gore-soaked TV adventures of Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell), the bloviating, abuse magnet hero of Sam Raimi‘s “Evil Dead” trilogy. Here, as in the films, it’s Ash’s inherent stupidity that imperils the world (he reads from the Book of the Dead to impress a girl and releases a horde of demons), as well as his motivation to save it, believing that a chainsaw and a corny quip are the best defense against supernatural forces. He more or less proves that notion over the course of three seasons, which deliver the franchise’s trademark mix of extreme bloodshed, slapstick humor and genuine chills; Campbell’s Big, Dumb performance (reportedly his last as Ash) anchors the whole affair, though there’s excellent support from sidekicks Dana DeLorenzo and Ray Santiago, as well as Lucy Lawless as a wild card demon fighter and briefly, Lee Majors as Ash’s equally knuckleheaded dad. “AvED” also features one of the best TV soundtracks in recent memory (Season 1 alone has the Stooges, Funkadelic, Death and Frijid Pink), and the set includes commentary by cast and crew and making-of featurettes. Absolutely essential for “Evil Dead” fans; primitive screwheads need not apply.
“Sid Caesar: The Works” (2018, Shout Factory) Sprawling, five-disc tribute to the force-of-nature talents of Sid Caesar, a transformative force in television comedy and arguably one of the greatest comic actors of the small screen. Though he began on the Catskills circuit, Caesar’s humor deviated from the joke-driven vaudeville format in favor of longer, story-oriented sketches, which were a rarity in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Caesar’s humor also drew on everyday life as he had seen it during his childhood in New York, where cultures mixed freely and communicated without a common tongue; that experience provided him with the ability to draw huge laughs without words, whether through his tremendous pantomime abilities, expressive face or gift for mimicking the sound and cadence of countless foreign languages. Backed by an impressive roster of writers, including Mel Brooks, Neil and Danny Simon and co-star/foil Carl Reiner (who would draw on his tenure with Caesar for “The Dick Van Dyke Show), Caesar’s variety series – “Your Show of Shows” (1950-54) and “Caesar’s Hour” (1954-57) – lampooned popular culture and everyday life with volcanic energy and wit and surprising emotion; an explosive sketch with Caesar as a reluctant guest on a “This Is Your Life”-style program who is literally overwhelmed by his hysterical family (including the extraordinary Howard Morris as Uncle Goopy) would give way to quieter (but no less funny) pieces like “At the Movies,” in which a silent Caesar is pinned between an arguing couple (Reiner and the show’s secret weapon, Imogene Coca). Where many comics found humor in exaggeration and farce, Caesar honed in on and expanded all-too-human details experienced by every viewer; this shift in focus would impact the tone and focus of sketch series like “Saturday Night Live” and generations of sitcoms, from “Fawlty Towers” to “Seinfeld” and “Catastrophe.” Shout Factory’s set includes the long-unavailable feature “Ten from Your Show of Shows,” which compiles its most memorable sketches, as well as dozens culled from its predecessor, “The Admiral Broadway Revue,” “Caesar’s Hour” and a 1967 TV specials; tributes from Brooks, Reiner, Billy Crystal and retrospective interviews round out this essential set for comedy historians and devotees alike.
And MVD offers “I Married Joan: Classic TV Collection Vol. 4“, which packages ten episodes of the 1952-1955 sitcom starring radio and film comedian Joan Davis as a hijinks-prone housewife and Jim Backus as her husband. A modest success during its network (and even more popular in syndication), “Joan” was conceived by NBC as a rival to “I Love Lucy,” and like that series, was produced by its lead actress (it shared directors and studio locations, and employed members of Davis’ family – namely her daughter, Beverly Willis, who played Joan’s sister). The humor is driven largely by Davis’ talent for physical comedy, which she executes as fearlessly as Lucille Ball, but stories and supporting performances (save Backus) pale by comparison to its predecessor.