'Better Call Saul' And 'The Great American Dream Machine' Shine As DVD Box Sets

Nov 27, 2015
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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, is very enthusiastic about two just-released DVD box sets of TV shows. One is season one of "Better Call Saul," the "Breaking Bad" prequel that premiered earlier this year. The other is a new compilation of an old show he's been waiting to see again since the '70s, "The Great American Dream Machine." Here's his review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Better Call Saul" is the prequel to Vince Gilligan's "Breaking Bad," one of my favorite TV series of all time. Co-created by Gilligan and "Breaking Bad" writer-producer Peter Gould, "Better Call Saul" tells a story of how Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer, played by Bob Odenkirk, eventually turns into the shady criminal lawyer on "Breaking Bad" known as Saul Goodman. And "Better Call Saul," after only one season, is emerging as one of my all-time favorites too, and now it's released on DVD by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. So having season one on DVD is reason enough to recommend this, but the extras on this set are indeed extra special, especially the alternate track audio commentaries because Gilligan and Gould invite lots of collaborators and cast members into the room, including co-star Michael McKean, and basically throw a party. Eavesdropping on these casual conversations is lots of fun and a show in itself, as when Odenkirk is asked to comment on the affected British accent he employs in one scene in the premiere.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL," SEASON ONE, DVD EXTRAS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You're famous for your British accents...

BOB ODENKIRK: For my sloppy British accents.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...Your sloppy - yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Laughter).

ODENKIRK: And willfully sloppy British accents, which I - because I've been around Anglophiles too much, and they tick me off.

(LAUGHTER)

ODENKIRK: Every chance I get to do the worst British accent that slides all over and becomes Irish and Scottish...

(LAUGHTER)

ODENKIRK: ...I do it.

BIANCULLI: "Better Call Saul" on DVD is the new treasure. The old treasure is a four-DVD collection of a series that hasn't been released on home video ever, until now. It was first shown on PBS in 1971 and '72 as an unpredictable variety show called "The Great American Dream Machine." By the way - full disclosure - I wrote the essay that comes with this box set. "The Great American Dream Machine" was produced by WNET Channel 13 in New York, and the dream team behind this unique TV show included A. H. Perlmutter, Jack Willis and Sheila Nevins. Its concept was to include a wide variety of segments commenting on America, its culture and its citizens. That meant short comedy films, musical performances, street interviews, mini documentaries, cartoons - anything, all packaged in the same hostless, freewheeling hour. Kurt Vonnegut reads from one of his recent novels. Studs Terkel interviews everyday Chicago citizens, the same citizens every week, about what they think about various issues. Albert Brooks, years before he provided short films for a new series called "Saturday Night Live," provided one here, in the style of a late-night infomercial aimed directly at viewers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM MACHINE")

ALBERT BROOKS: Hello. I'm Albert Brooks, and I'm speaking to you on behalf of the famous school for comedians located on 22 gorgeous acres near Arlington National Park. How many times have you gotten nice laughs at a party, had a friend turn to you and say, you know something, that was pretty funny, you should think about being a comedian?

Well, your friend was right. Yes, the comedy fraternity of show business is a fast-paced, nutty, funny world. There are always openings for good comedy talent. But you say, I just don't know if I have what it takes to become a professional, Albert. So I say, why not find out?

BIANCULLI: And there's more. Andy Rooney delivers essays about life's little irritations - before he started doing the same for "60 Minutes" on CBS. Elaine Stritch sings "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Stephen Sondheim's "Company," a blisteringly intimate and perfect version of the song she was performing then on Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM MACHINE")

ELAINE STRITCH: (Singing) Here's to the ladies who lunch. Everybody laugh. Lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch on their own behalf. Off to the gym then to a fitting, claiming they're fat and looking grim 'cause they've been sitting choosing a hat. Does anyone still wear a hat? I'll drink to that.

BIANCULLI: And in my favorite segments of all, Marshall Efron presents comic editorial pieces about the most unlikely of subjects, such as the relative sizes of canned olives.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM MACHINE")

MARSHALL EFRON: Let's see if you can match wits with the United States Department of Agriculture. Most of you, if you had the chance of grading foods, would take the easy way out. You'd probably use one, two, three or four, or A, B, C or D. The USDA uses the nuance of language. Let's grade olives like the pros. Let's get to the pit of the olive question. Olive talk. Which is the biggest - the giant, the jumbo or the extra large? Perhaps the dictionary can help us.

BIANCULLI: These samples are light and entertaining, but "The Great American Dream Machine" also was dark and serious, taking on the Vietnam War, the gender gap, racial inequality, even religion. It was daring, it was unprecedented and all these years later, it's never been duplicated. Until this set was released, the only "Dream Machine" I've been able to watch was a single episode on bootleg video. Now I can finally get rid of that old VHS tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM MACHINE")

STRITCH: (Singing) As a toast to that invincible bunch, the dinosaurs surviving the crunch. Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch. Everybody rise, rise, rise, rise, rise. Why not? Rise, rise, rise, rise.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.