Dec 21, 2012

The 2012 Spy Fan's Guide to Last Minute Holiday Shopping, Part 2: TV

Yesterday I talked about all the great spy movies to consider as possible Christmas gifts this year, or ways to spend your Christmas gift cards. Today I present some ideas of TV shows on DVD and Blu-ray...


Perhaps the rarest spyish release of the year comes from down under. I honestly never thought I'd see this one get an official release... but now we have one! Australia's Madman label released a Region 4 PAL DVD of the rarest of all of The Saint's TV incarnations, the 1987 telefilm (and failed series pilot) The Saint in Manhattan, starring Australian Andrew Clarke as the infamous Simon Templar. This is the version that, true to its time, recast Templar in the Magnum mold, complete with mustache and Italian supercar (a Lamborghini Countach). Obviously it didn't go to series, but I personally think it's better than its reputation would indicate... and I like Clarke. Until this year I'd only ever seen it in a grainy, third generation VHS recording, so I particularly welcomed this quality DVD. You can watch a short clip from The Saint in Manhattan on the Madman website... but it's not totally indicative of the production as a whole. The cost is $14.95AU, which might seem steep for a single 50 minute TV episode, but for Saint completists it's definitely worth it. So if you've got one of those on your shopping list, and they own an all-region player, you can make them awfully happy with this obscure treasure. Of course, you don't have to go all the way to Australia to find great spy TV releases this Christmas...

For spy fans with well-heeled benefactors, this year's must-own big ticket DVD set is Mission: Impossible - The Complete Series. This 56-disc collection includes every single episode of every single season of the greatest American spy series of the Sixties and Seventies, as well as both complete seasons of its late Eighties revival! That's a lot of Peter Graves. Normally I'm somewhat averse to gimmicky DVD packaging, but this giant stick of dynamite with its trademark fuse is just too cool! And, unlike so many of these complete series gift sets, it's also not needlessly chunky: there isn't any wasted space in this packaging, making it utilitarian as well as cool. It would ultimately occupy less shelf space than all the individual season sets. Another advantage of this gift set over the seasons on their own is that it comes with an exclusive bonus disc. I still haven't seen a complete rundown on the contents of this disc, though, and the only things that Paramount initially teased us with weren't all that impressive. Still, this set is all-out cool. Unfortunately, it's also $370, and even Amazon's significant discount only reduces it to $267.84.

If the spy fan on your list already has all the individual Mission: Impossible seasons and, like me, craves more Peter Graves, then for a lot less you can get them the complete series of another Graves show: the Antipodean Western Whiplash (review here), which made its Region 1 debut this fall from Timeless Media. It's not spy, but it is Graves, and it is cheap.

For a Western that is about spying (and assuming the spy fan on your list already has the most essential spy Western, The Wild Wild West), Timeless has another recent release of interest: Yancy Derringer - The Complete Series, starring future Tarzan Jock Mahoney as a secret agent operating in 19th Century New Orleans.

Returning to contemporary spy shows of the Sixties, this year you can finally get someone the Robert Wagner show It Takes a Thief: The Complete Series. The set first came out last year this time from Entertainment One, but then I recommended against buying it because the poor quality of the presentation of later seasons and the shoddy, excessively bulky packaging (this is the kind I do hate) weren't worth the offensively high asking price of $150. But this year the price is reduced to an affordable $44.49, which is actually very reasonable for three seasons on 18 discs! And regardless of the quality of some of the transfers, the show itself is top-notch Sixties spy entertainment. You can also get The Complete First Season on its own for thirty bucks (and the quality of the first season transfers is unassailable), but if you're gonna do that, why not shell out the extra $14 for the two remaining seasons?

Replacing a long out of print (and incomplete) release of dubious legality, Film Chest's Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp Complete Collector's Edition surpasses the old version in all respects. The 3-disc Collector's Edition contains all of the Saturday morning ABC show's 17 episodes (each of which actually featured two separate 15-minute adventures) transferred from the original ABC vault masters (rather than dubbed from off-air VHS recordings), plus bonus content like the  music and videos of the all monkey band Evolution Revolution, whose segments were introduced on the original series by ape talk show host "Ed Simian." If you're unfamiliar with Lancelot Link, he was (as you'd probably deduce from that cover art) a chimpanzee secret agent. He worked for the secret organization APE (Agency to Prevent Evil) and tangled with the nefarious agents of CHUMP (Criminal Headquarters for Underworld Master Plan). All characters were played by trained primates and voiced by human comedians. Such a concoction could only have arisen from the spy-mad Sixties (indeed, Lancelot Link might be the ultimate product of the secret agent mania spawned by James Bond which trickled down to all facets of the media), but Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp didn't actually hit airwaves until 1970. (It ran until '72.) Your enjoyment of the series will no doubt be predicated upon your personal tolerance for languidly paced human-voiced monkey antics with jokes recycled from Get Smart, and you're probably better qualified to judge that for yourself than I can. But for a certain breed of spy fan, this release will make a most welcome Christmas gift!

For decidedly more serious Sixties spy fare, you can't do much better than Man in a Suitcase. Richard Bradford stars in this ITC series as an American secret agent tossed out by his own agency whose freelance adventures take him all over Europe. It's downbeat enough to appeal to spy fans with a more serious palette than lighter ITC fare like The Saint or Department S, but still ITC enough to be a lot of fun. Man in a Suitcase: Set 2 (review here) made its Region 1 debut early this year from Acorn Media, though while that's possibly a better collection of episodes overall, you're better off starting with Man in a Suitcase: Set 1 (review here). Either way, you're getting great spy television! And a great gift.

Acorn Media also released another gritty UK cop/spy show this year, Special Branch: Set 1, marking the Thames Television series' Region 1 DVD debut. It may be called Set 1, but rather confusingly, it's not the show's first season. Acorn are following the same strategy they did with Callan: they're beginning with the first color season from the Seventies, which is actually the show's third season. However, that decision works a little better for Special Branch than it did for Callan because whereas that show plunged viewers confusingly into the middle of an ongoing, serial plotline, Special Branch was completely rebooted when it switched to color. Even the stars are different. Derren Nesbitt led the cast of the black and white series; the color episodes star George Sewell and Callan's Patrick Mower. Despite the very conspicuous "Classic British SPY Drama" tag on the packaging (which I certainly think looks cool), I'd say that Special Branch leans more toward a cop show overall. (The first episode won't give you any hint of espionage.) But there are plenty of spy-oriented episodes down the line, and while nothing could be the equal of CallanCallan fans will be attracted to the similar gritty tone, as well as the presence of Mower. Speaking of Callan (review here), while it may not be new this year, it would still make a great Christmas gift as well, and is really a must-have for any spy fan who's still yet to see it. (Set 1 and Set 2, comprising the entirety of its color series, are both available in Region 1.) Another classic, can't-go-wrong Seventies UK spy show is The Sandbaggers. Any of those DVD sets under the tree will make a serious spy fan very happy indeed!

And while we're on the subject of classic British spy series of that era, you certainly can't overlook Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy! I listed the new version among my movie suggestions yesterday, but the 1979 miniseries is equally essential. (Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the rare novel to enjoy two excellent adaptations.) And Acorn released the best looking home video edition ever of the miniseries earlier this year when they put it out on Blu-ray. Not only does the Blu-ray look as good as UK television of that vintage will ever look, but it also boasts some great special features. First and foremost, it includes as deleted scenes all the bits from the UK broadcast originally excised when the U.S. broadcast was reconfigured from seven episodes to six, making this the first time that American viewers have ever had the opportunity to see those wonderful scenes (totaling 11 minutes)! On top of that, the Blu-ray also includes half-hour interviews with le Carré and director John Irvin.

Hm, this was supposed to be the Seventies section of this loosely thematically grouped guide, but it's turning out to be the Acorn section. Well, that's okay. I like any company that puts out so many Sixties and Seventies spy series! Here's a less well-known one that might make it an even better gift, as plenty of spy fans are unlikely to have seen it yet. Former man from U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn won an Emmy for the 1977 miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors, based on the Roman à clef The Company by former Nixon aide and Watergate figure John Ehrlichman. The novel is Erlichman's fictionalized account of the events leading up to the Watergate scandal, and follows veteran CIA agent turned Director of Central Intelligence Bill Martin (loosely based on real-life DCI Richard Helms) as he attempts to keep secret a report exposing the Agency's past misdeeds. To do that, he crosses paths with figures based on Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, Henry Kissinger, Hubert Humphrey and Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman. Cliff Robertson stars as Martin, Jason Robards plays the Nixon-like President Richard Monckton, and Vaughn plays the Haldeman figure. Andy Griffith co-stars along with spy vets Stefanie Powers (The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.) and Barry Nelson (the original James Bond in the '54 Casino Royale). The 3-disc, 6-episode set comes with an 8-page bonus booklet with articles on the historical background of the program, the Vietnam War, peace movements in America, Nixon’s visit to China, and the Watergate scandal; plus brief biographies of the political figures of the period.

Moving on to the Eighties and lighter fare, Scarecrow and Mrs. King: The Complete Third Season would make a great gift for fans of the lighter side of the genre. For some reason this show always makes me think of Christmas, even if there was (I think) only one actual holiday-themed episode. Scarecrow and Mrs. King, which was really the only bona fide hit spy series of the 1980s on American television, pairs professional secret agent Lee Stetson (Bruce Boxleitner), codename "Scarecrow," with perky Washington housewife Amanda King (Kate Jackson). It's light and played for laughs and romance over thrills, but at it's best it sometimes evokes the spirit of The Avengers, were that classic transplanted to Reagan-era American suburbia. (Read my review of Scarecrow and Mrs. King: The Complete First Season here.)

Of course, vintage spy shows, great as they are, like Tosca, aren't for everyone. But we're living in a renaissance of spy TV, so there are also plenty of contemporary spy shows on DVD with which to stuff stockings!

Leading that renaissance is the best new spy series of the last year, Homeland, the first season of which is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Fox Home Entertainment. Claire Danes stars as an obsessive CIA agent on anti-psychotics (a fact she's forced to hide from her superiors in order to retain her security clearance) who's convinced that a newly freed American POW (Damien Lewis) is not actually the war hero he's celebrated as but a turned Al Qaeda sleeper agent. Mandy Patinkin excels as her Agency mentor, who reluctantly turns a blind eye to her illegal surveillance operation. It's a thoroughly addictive, multi-layered series not just about spies but spying itself, and the effect such a career and the responsibilities that go with it have on its practitioners. All of the characters are extremely well drawn, and all of the actors are compelling to watch. Homeland is fully deserving of all the awards it's won, and I heartily hope spy fans who weren't able to see it on pay cable station Showtime will discover Homeland: The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-ray... making it a perfect Christmas gift. Trust me, after watching the exemplary pilot episode, they'll be hooked.

Cinemax's first U.S. season of Strike Back is on the polar opposite end of the spectrum of cable spy series from Homeland. As cerebral as that show is, Strike Back is totally mindless, turn-your-brain-off entertainment of the very best sort. If the spy fan on your list is more into that side of the genre, then the Strike Back: Cinemax Season One DVD or Blu-ray will make an ideal gift. Cinemax's Strike Back (reviewed here) is packed with fun, exciting, over-the-top spy action of a sort rarely seen on American television, boasting impressive locations ranging from New Delhi to Capetown to Darfur.

USA's Covert Affairs straddles the line quite comfortably between Homeland's braininess and Strike Back's action-packedness. Covert Affairs - Season Two, a 4-disc, 16-episode collection, is the latest DVD set. Covert Affairs, which stars Piper Perabo, Christopher Gorham, Kari Matchett and the great Peter Gallagher (though never quite enough of him) got even better in its second season, and one impressive Berlin-set episode made my Best of 2011 list. There are even more actual foreign locations in Season 2, from Istanbul to Paris to Stockholm, and their presence really elevates this series above other spy shows that dress up Burbank as whatever locale that week's script calls for. Covert Affairs: Season Two is packed with bonus material, including deleted and alternate scenes, a gag reel, Piper Perabo's Comic-Con Intro (from last year's panel) and a featurette called "Covert Affairs on Location."

Back to the slightly more obscure, Missing: The Complete First Season is another one that fans might have missed on TV during its brief run on ABC. Yes,  Missing was their "Taken with a lady" spy series starring Ashley Judd as a former CIA agent fighting her way across Europe to rescue her missing teenage son, all while evading the intelligence agencies of America, Italy and France along the way. But its quality surpassed that recycled premise. The best part is that, unlike most American TV shows, Missing was actually filmed in Europe! And the locations are among the show's highlights, along with the impressive action scenes. (Read my full review of the pilot here.) Sean Bean (GoldenEye), Cliff Curtis (Colombiana) and Adriano Giannini co-star. Extras on the DVD set include deleted scenes, bloopers, and the featurettes "Production Journal: Istanbul," and "Genesis Piece."

Of course, while obscurity makes for great gifts, there's something to be said for success as well. Burn Notice has been a huge hit on USA for six seasons now, making its latest DVD set, Burn Notice: Season Five, a pretty surefire gift as well. The fifth season of USA's flagship spy series was certainly an interesting one. The creators finally shook up the formula, which had honestly become a little stagnant, by having Jeffrey Donovan's formerly burnt spy Michael Westen finally rejoin the CIA... at least as a consultant. This new role opens up the scope of Michael's missions, and finds him on assignment overseas as an actual spy rather than just helping people in need in Miami. He also strikes up a somewhat uneasy partnership with his Agency handler, Agent Dani Pearce (Lauren Stamile), and finally comes face to face with the shadowy nemesis who burned him all those years ago. Overall, I thought it made for a marked improvement over the previous season for a show that's never less than thoroughly entertaining to begin with.

Another hit series likely to make a great gift is Person of Interest: The Complete First Season, available on DVD and Blu-ray/DVD combo sets. The CBS show, produced by J.J. Abrams and Jonah Nolan, is basically The Equalizer meets Batman... and that's pretty cool. I find star Jim Caviezel (the 2009 Prisoner remake) and his Batman voice kind of hard to take, but the show's got enough going for it that I can get past that. Besides, co-star Michael Emerson (Lost) is awesome. Caviezel plays a former CIA operative looking to atone for his shadowy past by helping the helpless (those with the odds against them) with the aid of Emerson's tech billionaire, who controls a massive surveillance network that can predict what people will be involved in violent crimes. Extras on both sets include an unaired extended pilot episodes with audio commentary as well as a commentary track on the broadcast pilot, a gag reel and the featurette "Living in an Age of Surveillance."

Okay, back to the more obscure! I never expected to see a Region 1 release of the 1989-90 ITV series Frederick Forsyth Presents, but thanks to Timeless Media Group, we got one this year, and it's priced just right for a stocking stuffer. That awkwardly Photoshopped cover isn't representative of the six classy TV movies contained on 3 discs within. These movies are mostly based on novellas contained in Forsyth's book The Deceiver. Alan Howard (best known as the voice of the Ring in the Lord of the Rings movies) plays unorthodox spymaster Sam McCready, Forsyth's answer to George Smiley. McCready generally takes a backseat, however, to the people he's manipulating in each story. This formula enabled the producers to bring in big guest stars for each film, including Elizabeth Hurley, Lauren Bacall, Brian Dennehy, Beau Bridges, Chris Cooper, Phillip Michael Thomas, David Threlfall and Peter Egan. The ones I've seen are solid productions, and I'm not sure why this series isn't better known. It deserves a place beside other solid Forsyth adaptations like The Day of the Jackal (indeed, one of these stories concerns Carlos, the international terrorist the media dubbed "the Jackal" after Forsyth's book!), and especially the Pierce Brosnan and Michael Caine starrer The Fourth Protocol. (Fans of that film should definitely give this release a try.) This budget release, priced at just $14.98 (and even less on Amazon) will no doubt prove to be one of those nice little gems for spy fans eager for more serious espionage dramas in the serious vein of le Carré... making it an ideal gift for both giver and receiver.

Of course, "serious" isn't everybody's taste! On the opposite end of the spectrum is a show that's not only the silliest spy series on television, but one of the very best: Archer! Fox always releases Archer seasons right after Christmas, so even though Archer: The Complete Season Two came out nearly a year ago on DVD and Blu-ray, this is the first Christmas it's been available to gift. The wildly irreverent, always inappropriate Archer remains one of my favorite spy shows on TV, and as I said in my post about the Best Spy Television of 2011, I find it very impressive that the writers managed to maintain the high level of quality in its second season. That's particularly tough for a parody series. The secret, of course, is that Archer is much more than a mere spy parody. It's a dysfunctional family comedy that happens to be set in a spy agency. As I said before, the extremely raunchy humor is definitely not for all tastes, but if it is to someone's liking, they'll no doubt appreciate the excellent animation and cool spy style on top of the gags. The same day Season Two came out, Fox also made Archer: The Complete Season One widely available on Blu-ray for the first time, so that could make a good gift as well! The high-def version was previously a Best Buy exclusive, and Archer's top-notch design and crisp animation make it one show that truly benefits from high-def presentation.

Oh look, we're back to Acorn again! Wish Me Luck: Complete Collection brings together all three seasons of this 1988-90 WWII espionage favorite. At the height of the Second World War, France is occupied and all of England is in peril. Col. James “Cad” Cadogan (For Your Eyes Only's Julian Glover) will use any means necessary to get the intelligence he needs—even sending civilians to work undercover behind enemy lines. Based on the real-life stories of women recruited by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, this suspenseful drama series follows wife and mother Liz Grainger (Kate Buffery) and half-Jewish factory girl Matty Firman (Suzanna Hamilton) from training in England through the terror of their daily lives in Nazi-occupied France. Wish Me Luck originally aired on ITV for three series and was broadcast on U.S. public television in the 1990s. Jeremy Northam and Jane Asher co-star. The three seasons were all issued individually, but this complete collection is the way to go, gift-wise! And it's available at a terrific bargain price on Amazon right now.

On the subject of WWII espionage, the documentary series Secret War, on DVD from Athena, covers all aspects of wartime skullduggery in all its fascinating glory. It's really interesting stuff, dealing with all the most famous spies of the era, from Christine Granville to Agent Garbo to Dusko Popov. This one is a no-brainer for history buffs on your list, but it's also great viewing for spy fans in general, as the episodes play out like spy thrillers themselves. After all, espionage is one genre where the fact is often as incredible as the fiction.

Of course, spy fans aren't all limited to strict interpretations of the genre. Often detective shows will deal with espionage aspects as well, and a lot of spy fans tend to be detective fans as well. The BBC's Sherlock is about the best thing going in terms of detective shows today, and this modern-day incarnation of Holmes and Watson is particularly interested in the spy side of things, coming from the minds of Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat and Lucifer Box author Mark Gatiss. The first and best episode of Sherlock: Season 2 (available on DVD and Blu-ray), in fact, has a very strong espionage angle. But that's not even the reason to get it. The reason that this is a can't-miss gift for... anyone on your list is because of the spot-on performances by Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) in the lead roles. These guys are great, and everyone should see this show!

Finally, there's another great detective who's been neatly collected just in time for Christmas. Poirot: The Early Cases Collection from Acorn gathers all of the early, hour-long Poirot mysteries in Blu-ray and DVD sets. And David Suchet's interpretation of Agatha Christie's most famous detective is definitive. Like Sherlock Holmes, he sometimes becomes embroiled in espionage, but it's the mysteries and the great performances that make this set an ideal gift for just about everyone as well. These episodes have been collected before, but in multiple, very expensive sets, not easily distinguished as what they are. This marks the first time they've been handily assembled all in one convenient place, and at a bargain cost for everything you get.


teeritz said...

Staggering...positively staggering.
I'm going to have to chase up some of these selections, especially the original "Tinker, Tailor" from the late '70s. I managed to watch the first hour of it (when it was originally screened!) before my older brother switched the channel over to a football game. Never quite forgave him for that.

Bob said...

Highly recommend Sherlock. Cumberbatch and Freeman are terrific in the series. I never thought they could pull off a modern day Holmes, but the series is just wonderful. Look for Cumberbatch in the new Star Trek film (Kahn?)

I agree the Tinker, Tailor series is essential.

Paul D Brazill said...

Woah! Plenty of good stuff there!