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Monday, 29 November 1999 19:00
Reviewed by Mark Glass

This month's TV on DVD fare is long on comedy - old and new. Many think of 1977's debut of Soap as the first prime-time spoof of "Å“daytime dramas" , mostly because of breakout stars Billy Crystal, Robert Guillaume ,Richard Mulligan and Katherine Helmond. But the year before, Norman Lear's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman actually broke the ice, with Louise Lasser's highly dysfunctional family and friends (notably Mary Kay Place's Emmy-winning, endearing country-western aspirant, Loretta) starting the salvos of silliness.

If anything, this one captured the slow pace, dramatic pauses and overbearing music more accurately than the relatively high-octane Soap. The three-disc box set covers the first 25 episodes of its three-season run, which led to even funnier spinoffs (Fernwood/America Tonight), starring Martin Mull and Fred Willard as hosts of make-believe talk shows, based in that famous fictional Ohio town.

The first season of the Drew Carey Show, and the second of Mork and Mindy should be welcome treats for their fans, and likely to draw some new ones. Though the former improved through the years with fine cast additions (like Craig Ferguson) its ensemble cast hit the ground running from Day One. Carey's likable lug played well against Ryan Stiles, Diedrich Bader, Kathy Kinney and Christa Miller. The boxed set includes a couple of enjoyable new features, too. At the other extreme, as manic alien Mork, Robin Williams' supporting cast needed to do relatively little. They mainly provided the walls of the rubber room he'd bounce off with his riffs and scripted antics. Even so, Pam Dawber reigned briefly as one of America's sweethearts, while a generation of guys thought that if Mindy could look that good and graciously tolerate so much from Mork, she'd think their shortcomings were a walk in the park.

Among newer series, Mind of Mencia's second season and Foxworthy's Big Night Out play well to their demographic audiences, and far beyond. Mencia's format on Comedy Central is like Dave Chappelle's show - opening monolog and skits, sometimes brilliantly spoofing our culture from his distinctively Latino, yet purely American, viewpoint. Foxworthy's show is less Hee-Haw than a Redneck version of the Wayans brothers' In Living Color, complete with a line of sexy transition dancers (The Homewreckers, though they should have been called the Daisy Dukettes), reminiscent of the other's Flygirls. Mencia's show is all comedy; Foxworthy's, unlike his Blue Collar tour and its variations, runs on CMT (Country Music Television), featuring weekly guest singers in skits and song. Both boxed sets include bloopers and unaired treats among the extras.

Mile High
is a British import that's just about as racy as its name suggests. This dramedy soap opera is sort of an airborne Desperate Housewives, featuring the surprisingly attractive flight crew of a commercial airline named Fresh! (No kidding). The premise allows its cast to spend its ample free time partying around exotic destinations in assorted straight and gay combinations - something for everyone. It's all about the eye candy, with more latitude for flashes of nudity and profanity than our networks allow. The downside is there's not much to like about any of the characters for much emotional involvement in their stories. Still, as voyeuristic TV goes, you could do a lot worse than the ten+ hours of this show's first season.

Turning to crime, Proof: Prescription for Murder is the second Irish miniseries starring Terry Corcoran and Maureen Boland as ex-lovers sharing a daughter and careers as investigative journalists. As before, they wind up in the middle of major political intrigue, fraught with danger, in a complex swirl of subplots. The dialects might add a layer of challenge for US audiences, but the characters and stories reward the effort for the 200 minutes of this adventure.

In its third season, Don Bellisario's N.C.I.S. covered a lot of ground. Most importantly, Mark Harmon's team of naval investigators had to adjust to a new boss (Lauren Holly) and a new member (Cote de Pablo), the latter on loan from the Mossad. These actresses boost the already high level of collective charisma this light-hearted procedural show had established. They deliver as much gore and forensic fare as the C.S.I.s and others, but with more playful banter among the oddballs who solve these crimes. Bonuses include features on the real-life investigative agency they portray, and interesting comments about the season and the new characters from the actors and creative team.

Among documentaries, Engineering an Empire is a four-disc boxed set from the History Channel that is not only interesting to those who find the title exciting, but puts the achievements of earlier cultures into a context that broadens the appeal of the topic. In about nine hours, the series covers all types of technological development - buildings, weapons, travel, navigation, water delivery - that allowed empires to bloom, or just led to better standards of living. The Library at Alexandria isn't just presented as a marvel of construction, but the world's first "think tank" . The programs mix narration, contributions by numerous experts, present-day looks at the ancient locations, short dramatizations and computer animations to put us in the moments as deeply as possible. They even manage to get Peter Weller to sound less like Robocop than usual in his on-site commentaries. Now that's impressive engineering!

PBS offers two hourlong looks at the settlement of our frontier from its American Experience series, Lost in the Grand Canyon and Geronimo and the Apache Resistance. The former tells the saga of John Wesley Powell - a one-armed Civil War veteran and self-taught naturalist who led an small group down the Colorado River through the uncharted, forbidding Grand Canyon, despite amazing risks and unknown hazards. It's a gripping story, enhanced by live re-enactment of their journey, and voice-overs and photos showing the historical setting and significance rivaling the Lewis and Clark expedition.

If you assume the story of how we dealt with Geronimo, the Apaches and Native Americans in general is ancient history, you'll think otherwise after this. Despite what we picked up from decades of Hollywood oaters, the famous warrior was a medicine man, not a chief. He also agreed to peace and relocation several times, only to find that our government was not so good on delivery or consistency of its promises. Fair terms negotiated in good faith with General Crook, who knew and respected his foes, were overridden or ignored by his superiors from afar. Greed, duplicity, arrogance and ignorance in our approach to other cultures, and lack of long-term commitment to deals we made seem like part of a global pattern, before and since. When will we learn that we reap what we've sown, and try sowing something better?

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