"IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA: SEASON 3"


        MOVIE: **** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Charlie Day as CHARLIE
    Rob McElhenney as MAC
    Glenn Howerton as DENNIS
    Kaitlin Olson as SWEET DEE
    Danny DeVito as FRANK

    Not Rated
    Studio: 20th Century Fox
    Directed by: Rob McElhenney

Deplorable characters have been a staple of my television enjoyment for years, going as far back as the days of Archie Bunker in “All in the Family.” It seems that every decade has its own awful people we love to watch each week. The 80s had “Married with Children,” and the 90s had “Seinfeld.” This decade gives us “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

The third season is available on DVD now, and it continues the misadventures of “the gang” from Paddy’s bar. This includes the idiot savant Charlie, the overly vain Dennis, the man-whore Mac, the bitter Sweet Dee and their father Frank. Together, they run Paddy’s bar, a dive in Philadelphia that is barely making money.

The show started with a whimper on FX, but after inserting Danny DeVito into the series and generating a cult following, it’s roaring into its fourth season, premiering on September 18. Looking back at the first three seasons, I have a special love for the first. It was small and intimate, yet the characters were such awful people, they managed to get in hilarious situations without going over the top.

By introducing DeVito into the second season, the show stumbled a bit. It was still funny, but it took this seasoned actor a couple episodes to gel with the rest of the cast. Finally in the third season, I can accept him as Frank rather than seeing him as Danny DeVito on set with a bunch of relative unknowns.

The third season brings the gang into bigger and more expansive adventures. Whether they’re trying out for the Philadelphia Eagles, getting held hostage or fighting off the mob, the show has grown. It loses a bit of its intimacy and low-key nature I enjoyed in the first season, but I still adore the show in all of its politically incorrect glory.

Like other shows with deplorable characters, we see the gang become more and more caricatures of their original selves. However, it is this extreme nature that makes the show work, and the commitment of the actors sells the show completely.

What makes “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” work as a show is the fact that, like “South Park,” it has no qualms about offending anyone. Nothing is sacred. Throughout the season, the gang finds a dumpster baby... and proceeds to exploit it, they get hooked on cocaine, and they don’t blink at a death in the family. Even the Waitress gets to explore a larger and more erratic character than just a girl in a coffee shop that blows Charlie off.

One thing that really gelled with this show in the third season is the use of the titles of the episodes as punch lines. Don’t look at the list before you hit “Play All” because you’ll laugh harder when the title pops up on the screen.

The Season Three DVD comes with cast commentary on select episodes, a gag reel, Season Three TV spots, a featurette on Dancing Guy (which you’ll understand after watching “Frank Sets Sweet Dee on Fire”) and a “Sunny Side Up Volume 2” featurette. However, the best feature hands down is a spotlight on the McPoyles, who return in their full glory in season three. It’s enough to turn your stomach... in a good way.



"DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON"


        MOVIE: *1/2 (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Teri Hatcher as SUSAN MAYER
    Felicity Huffman as LYNETTE SCAVO
    Marcia Cross as BREE VAN DE CAMP
    Eva Longoria as GABRIELLE SOLIS
    Nicolette Sheridan as EDIE BRITT

    Rated TV-14
    Studio: ABC Studios
    Directed by: Marc Cherry

Four years ago, “Desperate Housewives” started as a somewhat clever, quirky look at American suburbia. In an effort to keep itself fresh over its first four seasons, it has jumped the shark, introducing (and ultimately killing off) too many characters and suffering from lazy writing.

Season Four, while as popular as ever with television audiences, is a mess of stories. It opens with the attempted suicide of Edie Britt (Nicolette Sheridan) and the arrival of a new housewife on the block (Katherine Mayfair, played by Dana Delaney). Susan (Teri Hatcher) and Bree (Marcia Cross) are pregnant, and Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) has come to the realization that her marriage to the town mayor is a sham.

Like many shows from the 2007-2008 season, “Desperate Housewives” was a casualty of the writers’ strike. Season Four has only seventeen episodes, which helps it out a bit in an odd way. In previous seasons, it seemed that showrunner Marc Cherry fumbled around with too much time and not enough stories. In this season, things feel a little more compact, which gives a slight advantage to dramatic tension.

However, even with the truncated season, the show is falling apart. I cannot figure out if we’re supposed to care for the characters or resent them for being such awful human beings. Marc Cherry shows his hand in a commentary track about the deus ex machina resolve of Lynette’s cancer, though. I suppose Cherry loves these characters, but I find them more annoying year-to-year.

The introduction of Dana Delaney will make her fans giddy, but someone like me (who thinks she’s wildly overrated) will find her character to be a yawner. Like other new additions to the cast, she brings her own secrets with her, dealing with her daughter who can’t remember her past and an abusive ex-husband. Yet even the cap to this story is far-fetched and only paints her as a terrible parent.

The only thing I found more infuriating than the actual season itself was the cop-out of a season finale, which plays with the chronology worse than it did at the beginning of Season Three.

Bonus material includes a behind-the-scenes look at the production of the November sweeps tornado episode, deleted scenes and bloopers. There’s also a spotlight on the men of Wisteria Lane, which seems a little forced but gives some nice attention to genre series veterans like Kyle McLaughlin and Nathan Fillion. And if you’re interested in what the cast has to say, you can check out the Couples Commentary, which features commentary tracks on select episodes with the housewives and their men.

Ultimately, fans of “Desperate Housewives” will eat this DVD up. But if you’re tired of the show, you’d be better off watching Season One again.



"ELI STONE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON"


    MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Johnny Lee Miller as ELI STONE
    Natasha Henstridge as TAYLOR WETHERSBY
    Victor Garber as JORDAN ETHERSBY
    Loretta Devine as PATTI DELLACROIX

    Rated TV-PG
    Studio: ABC Studios

Last season, which keeping up on the ABC shows like “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Ugly Betty,” I saw plenty of promos for “Eli Stone.” And while it garnered a bit of a following from the viewers, I couldn’t help but recognize it as nothing more than the show with George Michael.

Ultimately, after seeing the first season on DVD, I realized that George Michael plays a greater role in the show than I ever thought he would... for better or for worse. (After all, the show paints him as a current cultural icon, but I doubt 20 percent of people under 25 years old even know who he is.)

Eli Stone (Johnny Lee Miller) is a corporate lawyer shark who suddenly starts seeing visions, beginning with George Michael singing in his living room. When he goes to his doctor (who also happens to be his brother), he discovers an inoperable brain aneurysm which is causing the visions. However, after some weird coincidences and a visit to an acupuncturist, Eli realizes there might be something more spiritual to his visions.

This sends Eli on a quest to right some wrongs in his past. He wants to be a better person, and he uses his power and influence at one of the biggest law firms in San Francisco to help him do just that. Along the way, he inspires his coworkers and gets a chance to save some lives.

I’m not a huge fan of films and television shows that have too much heart. These programs run the risk of becoming too preachy or too schmaltzy. However, “Eli Stone” manages a delicate balance between its heart and good storytelling. I’m also not a huge fan of Johnny Lee Miller, but he embodies Eli Stone perfectly and makes the character utterly likeable.

There is a bit of preaching in this show – from autism-vaccination controversy to urban renewal – but in general things don’t get too heavy handed. There’s a definite liberal political slant, reminding me of the days of “Picket Fences,” but for some reason it doesn’t bother me too much.

The cast that supports Miller is quite good, featuring Natasha Henstridge as Eli’s estranged fiancée and Victor Garber as Eli’s corporate bigwig boss. The writers manage to give these characters a little depth and not make them caricatures, allowing the to grow on the program.

In the end, “Eli Stone” really is nothing more than a fluffy show, but when the dial is filled with gritty, hard-hitting courtroom dramas, this can be refreshing and fun.

The DVD set comes with an extended pilot episode (with only a couple minutes added), deleted scenes, bloopers, a spotlight on George Michael, the development of the show, the visual effects and a set tour with Natasha Henstridge.



"BABY EINSTEIN: BABY MOZART & BABY BEETHOVEN"


        MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5 stars)

    Not Rated
    Studio: Disney

When I received the DVDs of the Baby Einstein 10th Anniversary, it caused me to reflect on how things happen in cycles.

A little more than seven years ago, my wife and I gave birth to our first son. As new parents, we knew we were in uncharted territory, and we tried a lot of things in our early years. Back then (when VHS was still a viable platform), my wife bought our first Baby Einstein video. It was simple, released by F.H.E. rather than Disney and it wasn’t very well engineered. However, it worked well.

I don’t recommend using Baby Einstein videos as babysitters any more than I do SpongeBob as a steady diet for a seven-year-old. However, these videos, as simple and as rustic as they once were, still offer a colorful, fun stimulus for young children.

For the Baby Einstein 10th Anniversary, Disney has released some of the original videos on DVD. Both feature classical music over videos of puppets, toys and shapes with bright colors. Each video features a classical composer – “Baby Mozart” and “Baby Beethoven.” Watching them now, with my youngest son who was born only four months ago, I’m brought back to the time when my eldest watched them before he could even talk.

On DVD, the videos offer a little more functionality. Like other discs in the Baby Einstein line, these come with a continuous play feature, as well as three activity modes for use: “Play,” “Dance Together” and “Quiet Time.” There’s also new elements on each disc for a puppet show and Discovery Cards, which feature real-world images with sound effects.

In addition to the short half-hour videos, there’s Tips for Moms, including ways to enhance together time with your baby and founder Julie Clark telling the story of how she started Baby Einstein a decade ago for her own daughter. This adds a nice element of inspiration for families out there who are itching to put together their own products because they know their kids will love them.



"PLAYHOUSE DISNEY SELECTIONS"


        MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: ** (out of 5 stars)

    Rated TV-G
    Studio: Playhouse Disney

While prime-time, grown up television shows are being released in droves as complete seasons on DVD, the kids aren’t entirely left behind. Playhouse Disney has dropped two of their popular shows onto DVD for preschoolers and early grade school children to enjoy.

“Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: Mickey’s Storybook Surprises” features four episodes from the Playhouse Disney show “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.” Each of the episodes has a storybook theme, from “Sleeping Beauty” (aka “Sleeping Minnie”) to “The Frog Prince” (featuring Donald as the frog).

Viewers are invited by Mickey to come into his clubhouse and help his friends. Along for the ride is Toodles, a character that allows viewers and characters to choose different tools to help them along their quests. Usually Pete the chubby wolf (at least I think that’s what he is) stands in their way, but the club is able to thwart his plans and save the day.

Included on this DVD is a “Tales from Toodles” game, which works much like a MadLib. Kids are able to choose different elements from a story to put together a silly story. My kids loved this feature the most simply because some of the choices included a toilet and a diaper.

Another Playhouse Disney show that enjoys a new release is “My Friends Tigger & Pooh.” This relatively new revamp of the Winnie the Pooh character set follows the young girl Darcy and her dog Buster as she helps Pooh and his pals solve mystery cases. There’s no Christopher Robin, and Darcy is a little younger. The animation is 3D CGI, which is a little more sophisticated than that of “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” but it’s still quickly produced (although the kids don’t care).

“The Hundred Acre Wood Haunt” has a distinct Halloween theme, prepping the kids for the holiday season. It features three episodes from the television show, each of which has two separate stories. Each episode has a fall or harvest theme. We see Piglet facing his fears of lighting and thunder, Eeyore trying to go to the moon and Rabbit growing a prized pumpkin.

The disc comes with a bonus Halloween episode of the rudimentary Playhouse Disney show “Handy Manny.” there’s also set-top game called “Super Sleuth Fall Harvest Festival.” Sorry, but no diapers or toilets in this one.

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