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page created: 10/18/04




The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

A TVD Bonanza! Tons More Cult TV on DVD (except Bonanza)

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Fire up the clicker and peel back the foil on your piping hot Hungry Man TV dinner. It's time once again for a roundup of TV favorites on disc. I don't have any big theme this time or overarching point about home entertainment that I want to make. Just a whole mess of television (and television-related) product submitted for your approval. There's a lot of ground to cover, 19 discs in all, so let's dive right in with a little Adult Swim, shall we?


Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Volume One
Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Volume Two
Sealab 2021: Season One

2003 (2004) - Warner Bros.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Volume OneAqua Teen Hunger Force: Volume TwoSealab 2021: Season One

If you've stumbled upon the Cartoon Network during their Adult Swim block of late night programming, I'm willing to bet cash money that the words "what the hell is this" have come out of your mouth. Adult Swim is now home to reruns of such late, lamented 'toons as Family Guy and Futurama but it got the clout to nab the rights to those shows by building an audience with Japanese anime and some of the strangest original programming any network anywhere has ever put on the airwaves. The first original to generate some buzz was the absurdist talk show parody Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Space Ghost proved popular enough to spinoff the even more bizarre Cartoon Planet and The Brak Show. And yet, as unconventional as these shows are, they are standard-bearers of normalcy compared to the unhinged brilliance that is Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

If you're not familiar with ATHF, I'm not even going to try to recommend it to you. If anyone had tried to explain it to me before I saw it, I'd have never given it a chance. It sounds extraordinarily stupid if you try to tell somebody what ATHF is about. For instance:

"It's about these three... food... things. There's Master Shake, who's just a big... shake. In a cup. And Frylock. He's a big floating order of fries with a goatee. And Meatwad... he's a... well, a wad... of meat. And they all live in this house in New Jersey and hang out. And swim in their neighbor Carl's pool. Sometimes they run into monsters or aliens or something."

Sounds great, doesn't it? The appeal of Aqua Teen Hunger Force really can't be put into words. The only good way to recommend the show to somebody you think will like it is to sit their ass down and make them watch it. That's how I got into the show (and a big thank you to my brother, Harrison, for that) and now, thanks to Warner's first two DVD collections, it's easier than ever to sit your friends' asses down and force them to submit to the Force. In fact, DVD is the perfect format for the Adult Swim lineup. Because of their short running time (each episode clocks in at about eleven minutes), Adult Swim shows begin every fifteen minutes on Cartoon Network. Therefore, I've never really been able to follow one of the Adult Swim shows in first-run. I don't remember that they're on, I just stumble across them by chance when flipping through the channels. And because they're so short, you'll likely find yourself wanting more just as the episode is winding up. DVD allows you to watch as much as you can handle... although the shows can be habit-forming.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force gets better (and stranger) as it goes along so be careful which episode you choose to indoctrinate your non-ATHF-loving friends. The first few episodes on Volume One make some minimal kind of effort at establishing the Aqua Teens as detectives or crime fighters. In the first episode, Dr. Weird's latest creation, the Rabbot (a giant mechanical rabbit) escapes from his Jersey Shore lab and the Aqua Teens go after it... sort of. But it didn't take long for ATHF's creators to stop paying lip service to the idea that their "heroes" were actual heroes. By the third or fourth episode, the opening pre-credits bits at Dr. Weird's lab have nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the episode or the Aqua Teens. For most beginners, I'd recommend starting things off with Volume One's Mayhem of the Mooninites, in which a couple of two-dimensional space invaders from the Moon move in, corrupt Meatwad with smokes and booze, and buy Shake's complicity with stolen jamboxes and TV's. If you don't like this one, you're sure as hell not going to like Ol' Drippy with its sentient mold, Revenge of the Mooninites and its Foreigner belt, Dumber Dolls featuring a guest vocal appearance by Mr. Show's David Cross, or the episodes that introduce ATHF's other alien nemeses, the Plutonians: Space Conflict From Beyond Pluto and Bad Replicant.

Things just get weirder in Volume 2 with the return of the Plutonians in Universal Remonster, Frylock's obsessive need to win a bar trivia game in Super Trivia, Meatwad's latest hip-hop hero in Super Sir Loin, and Master Shake's gift to Meatwad in Super Birthday Snake. Not to mention a deeper look at the sweat-pants-wearing enigma that is Carl in Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future. If you don't get ATHF by the end of Volume One, don't waste your time and money on Volume Two. But if you're like me, you'll need them both and you'll be waiting with baited breath for Volume Three.

Extras are somewhat sparse on Volume One, limited to a handful of hit-or-miss commentaries by the creative team, the original cut of Rabbot (the pilot episode), and a funny bit created for the 2002 San Diego Comic-Con. They kick it up a notch on Volume Two. In addition to commentaries, you get Baffler Meal, the episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast that ATHF is sort of but not quite a spinoff from. There's an extremely funny making-of featurette entitled Future Wolf II: Never Cry Wolf: Origin of the Series. Future Wolf III is an extensive gallery of art and sketches accompanied by series music from Schooly D. I wish more discs with galleries would run like this instead of being user-controlled. As it is, Future Wolf III stands as sort of a de facto soundtrack to ATHF. Also included are a few deleted scenes, understandably brief considering how short each episode is. Plus, both volumes feature a plethora of Easter eggs. Volume One hides its deleted scenes throughout the discs but the eggs on Volume Two are well worth seeking out. Egg hunters will discover in their entirety the live-action and puppet TV broadcasts featured in such episodes as Mayhem of the Mooninites and Universal Remonster. At least one of these made me laugh harder than any hidden feature I've ever discovered ("This is your left and that's your left...").

Also hailing from the warped minds at Adult Swim is Sealab 2021. Like Space Ghost and Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law, Sealab 2021 takes an all-but-forgotten cartoon from the past and twists it inside out. Sealab springs from Sealab 2020, a series that followed the adventures of an underwater lab of scientists and explorers. Sealab 2021 takes that premise and assumes that everybody on board Sealab has gone completely and irretrievably stir crazy. Sealab 2021 isn't as consistently funny as Aqua Teen Hunger Force or Space Ghost but its best episodes are worth watching again and again. I'm partial to Radio Free Sealab, in which a bored Captain Murphy becomes a shock jock on a pirate radio station, and the bizarre All That Jazz, a cautionary tale about the perils of becoming addicted to scorpion venom.

The extras on the first set devoted to Sealab 2021 are sparse but not bad. Most interesting is the pitch pilot which (A) makes you appreciate how far the series has come from concept to execution and (B) makes you wonder why Cartoon Network ever bought the idea in the first place. You also get alternate endings from the pilot episode, I, Robot, and deleted scenes from the episode Little Orphan Angry. Finally, there's the uncensored version of the bleep-filled final scene of Radio Free Sealab. This proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that censorship just doesn't work. Whatever you imagined they were saying is infinitely filthier than what they actually said. Or maybe that's just me. As for the technical aspects of these discs, all of them are of the same high quality. Picture quality is across the board excellent, bright, crisp and colorful. Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 and each disc sounds terrific.

The Adult Swim shows are something of an acquired taste and if you don't want to acquire that taste, I can't hold that against you. You're probably smarter than the rest of us. But if you like this kind of thing, DVD was made to showcase these programs. They're fast, snappy, and as addictive as popcorn chicken. Sealab 2021 is just fine but if you're looking for the best in absurdist animated comedy, you've got to swim on over to Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Number one in the hood, G.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Volume One
Program Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/C


Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Volume Two
Program Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/B+


Sealab 2021: Season One
Program Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/C



Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essentials
1991-93 (2004) - Rhino

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essentials

Mystery Science Theater 3000, or MST3K for short, is one of those shows I always felt I should love but didn't quite. On the one hand, the show's format always seemed like the post-modern logical extension to afternoon horror hosts like Zacherley. Instead of restraining their wisecracks to the bumpers before and after commercials, MST3K inserted the wisecracks into the cheesy movies themselves. This could often be very, very funny but in the back of my mind, I always felt like MST3K was taking away part of the fun of these movies. Yes, it's virtually impossible to watch the caveman epic Eegah! with a straight face and an open mind but isn't it more fun to make the jokes yourself instead of listening to others do it for you? Fortunately, creator/host Joel Hodgson and his robot pals Tom Servo and Crow were at least as funny as you and your friends (often funnier depending on who you and your friends are). But while I grew to enjoy MST3K whenever they were watching a movie, I always felt the linking skits were a lot weaker.

Rhino's new "best-of" DVD, The Essentials, lives up to its name by presenting two of the very best episodes of MST3K. Both of the feature presentations in these set are craptacular classics, legitimate contenders for the very worst movies ever made. And in each case, the linking material is above average, almost on a par with the gags in the movies themselves.

The first disc finds Joel and the 'bots enduring a mini double feature. First up is the conclusion to the industrial short film Hired! I always thought the occasional short films were highlights of MST3K. If you've seen any of Fantoma's Educational Archives series, you know they practically parody themselves. The Satellite of Love crew makes short work of this one, in which a young go-getter is taught to be a better car salesman. After this, it's time for the main event: the 1966 opus "Manos" - The Hands of Fate. A typical family gets lost while on vacation and they're forced to accept the hospitality of creepy servant Torgo, his undead master Manos, and Manos' harem of wrasslin' wives. This movie is genuinely inept and Joel, Tom and Crow have a field day with it.

Even better (or worse, depending on how you look at it) is the holiday fun-fest Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on disc two. This should be a Christmas perennial in any household as far as I'm concerned. A couple of Martian kids (including a young Pia Zadora) are depressed and lonely and their folks figure that the reason is because they're missing out on the Earth holiday called Christmas. So the Martians head to Earth and kidnap the jolly old elf, but not before snatching a couple of Earth kids in the bargain, and force them to churn out toys for all the Martian kiddies. Everything turns out OK in the end and the audience is encouraged to sing along to the endless holiday non-classic, "Hooray For Santy Claus". This episode also features some of the best original material in MST3K history, including the terrific "Patrick Swayze Christmas" song.

Rhino's presentation of the episodes is fairly average, unfortunately. Obviously I'm not going to take away any points for the low quality of the movies themselves. But the audio quality on both of these discs leaves a lot to be desired. It's all over the map and you'll have to ride the volume control with a ready finger in order to make out all the dialogue. The image on both is fine for what it is. The movies look awful, of course, but the original video material is fine, if a little hot looking. The only bonus feature is a lengthy blooper reel on the first disc. Fine for the MST3K faithful but a little thin if you aren't a dyed-in-the-wool fan.

The word "essential" is tossed around a lot these days on greatest hits albums, DVDs, and books. In this case, it's applied correctly. "Manos" and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians are two of the very best episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. If any episodes of this show deserve to be considered essential, it's these two. It's a fairly no-frills package but if you're a fan of Grade-Z cinema, you need to have these in your collection.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essentials
Program Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/C/D+



Sledge Hammer! Season One
1986-87 (2004) - Anchor Bay

Sledge Hammer! Season One

Outside of sketch comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and Mad TV, parody has traditionally not found a very happy home on television. With the exceptions of Soap and the spy spoof Get Smart, most parody shows have lifespans measured in weeks, not months. Thanks to The Naked Gun movies, everybody remembers Lt. Frank Drebin but Police Squad!, the brilliant series that spawned the films (and, incidentally, was much better than any of them) lasted a mere six episodes. Apart from those series, how many parody shows can you even name? Anybody remember the sci-fi spoof Quark? The soapy Fresno?

Bucking the odds, at least for awhile, was the Dirty Harry-inspired Sledge Hammer! David Rasche starred as the title character, a squinting, jaw-clenching cop who never confronted a problem that couldn't be solved with a rain of bullets, whether it's foiling a criminal or dealing with a stubborn vending machine. Partnered with the level-headed Dori Doreau (Anne-Marie Martin, who would later go on to co-write Twister with husband Michael Crichton), Sledge made network comedy a more violent place for a surprising two seasons before ABC pulled the plug in 1988.


If it was unusual for ABC to give Sledge Hammer! as much time as it did back in the 80's, it would be even more unusual for any network to air the series at all today. In today's climate, few networks would be willing to broadcast a series built around casual gunplay and comic treatment of hostage situations and terrorist threats. I can't say I blame them but, in a way, this new sensitivity is kind of a pity because at its best, Sledge Hammer! was genuinely funny and subversive. Not every episode hits it out of the park but every episode did include at least a couple jokes that made me laugh. I'd be hard pressed to name a live-action sitcom on TV today that can do the same.

The mix of parody elements and traditional sitcom humor doesn't always gel. The series was certainly at its best the further out on the limb it went. The Assault on Precinct 13-like episode State of Sledge is a good example of this, as is Jagged Sledge, which finds Hammer on trial for a murder he actually didn't commit. But the most memorable episode has to be the season finale, The Spa Who Loved Me. Assuming the show was getting the axe, creator Alan Spencer pulled out all the stops, culminating in the nuclear destruction of San Francisco. When the ratings improved thanks to a last-minute schedule change and the series was unexpectedly renewed, Spencer's series finale was turned into a seemingly impossible-to-get-out-of cliffhanger. Spencer's solution is revealed in a very good documentary in this set, Go Ahead, Make Me Laugh.

Anchor Bay has brought the first season of Sledge Hammer! to DVD in style. The picture is soft, grainy and certainly shows the series' age but the audio deserves high marks thanks to Anchor Bay's decision to remove the laugh track. The track's absence does result in some unnecessarily long reaction pauses. However, as can be seen in the EPK from 1986 which features clips that include the laugh track, the alternative is much, much worse.

The extras on this set are top-notch. In addition to the new documentary and the vintage EPK, both of which are terrific, Alan Spencer provides commentaries on four episodes. These are OK but one wishes that Spencer didn't feel like he always had to be "on". Also, the track on The Spa Who Loved Me is apparently interrupted by an earthquake. I hope this actually happened and isn't just a gag. If it's a joke, it's not funny. If it really happened, I guess it's unusual but it's still kind of frustrating. Disc four also includes an alternate, unaired version of the pilot episode, five promo spots, the "we'll be right back" bumper, an extensive gallery of stills and memorabilia, and Spencer's 1986 audio message to critics. Stick the disc in your computer and you can read the script to the pilot episode as well as the expletive-laced script submitted to Sledge's first home, HBO. The package is rounded out with a 16-page booklet designed as an internal affairs report.

Sledge Hammer! hasn't aged as well as Police Squad!, unfortunately. It isn't quite as hilarious today as I thought it was when I was 17. But it was a unique voice in television and deserves to be revisited on DVD (as does Police Squad!, but that's another matter). Anchor Bay did well to bring the series back to life. There's nothing else like it on the air at the moment, so if you're just discovering Sledge for the first time, you may well find it as terrific as I did back in '86.

Sledge Hammer! Season One
Program Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/B+/A-


On to Part Two

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