TV's Seinfeld was the collision of two unlikely planets: Jerry Seinfeld's cool, observational standup routines about how funny-strange life is, and co-creator Larry ( Curb Your Enthusiasm) David's neurotic comedy of the selfish, the oblivious, and the embarrassed, with the character of George (Jason Alexander) standing in for David alongside Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and the manic Kramer (Michael Richards). Nobody learns anything, nobody hugs.
The series became such an institution that it's hard to remember what a perilous start it had, described in hours of extra features on this week's fan-pleasing DVD sets Seinfeld Seasons 1 & 2 and Seinfeld Season 3. (After resolving a dispute over money, Alexander, Richards and Louis-Dreyfus have participated.) NBC, impressed with Seinfeld's standup success, asked him in 1988 what sort of show he could be talked into doing. Seinfeld ran into David at the Catch a Falling Star comedy club and began bantering with him in a grocery store. "And Larry said, 'This is what the show should be.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'Just, you know, making fun of stuff.' " Director-producer Tom Cherones says he would read the scripts "and I would say, 'Who cares? What are they talking about? Who cares what lining somebody has in their jacket? Who cares if they use real turkey for a sandwich? Why are they so picky?' And then the actors would read it and it would be funny, and I would laugh, and I would say, 'Okay, I just don't get it, I guess.' Fortunately, the network guys didn't get it either, and they left us alone."
Up to a point. NBC postponed the scheduling of the Chinese-restaurant episode, a now-famous bit (included here) in which our heroes spend 23 minutes in real time waiting for a table, because the network thought it was so static it would sink the show, then struggling in the ratings. But the network wasn't always wrong. Elaine wasn't in the 1989 pilot. NBC said it wouldn't order more episodes unless there was a woman in the cast. Others who tried out for that role: Patricia Heaton, Wendie Malick, Megan Mullally, Rosie O'Donnell. And the rest is "yada yada yada," "master of my own domain," "sponge-worthy," "not that there's anything wrong with that" and all the other catchphrases of the show's eight-year run.
If some of the early shows here are still feeling their way, the extras are rich with hindsight: audio commentaries on many episodes, behind-the-scenes bits, deleted bits, outtakes, Seinfeld's star-making routine on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and optional subtitles that dispense trivia. Did you know that Tom's Restaurant at Broadway and 112th Street, used for exterior shots of the fictitious Monk's coffee shop, was the inspiration for Suzanne Vega's 1987 song Tom's Diner? Well, there you go.
A few brave TV series roll out this week in Seinfeld's shadow. In the first season of Home Improvement (24 episodes, three with commentary), Pamela Anderson is still the Tool Time girl on Tim Allen's handyman show-within-a-show. The Golden Girls (Season 1, 25 episodes) has one extra: a 10-minute segment in which Joan and Melissa Rivers mock the 1980s clothes that Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Estelle Getty wear as they bicker in their Florida retirement digs. "This would have made an amazing shower curtain." "It's like a harlequin gone bad on this one." "Melissa, that screams pioneer woman."
Tiger: The Authorized DVD Collection is all about golfer Tiger Woods, with three discs divided into Tiger's Prowl: His Life, Tiger's Prey: His Majors and Tiger's Prints: His Legacy. (Tiger. Get it?) Contents include interviews with Woods and his family, the evolution of his golf swing, complete scoring details from 1997 to 2004 and a "selection of his American Express commercials."
Also out: the best Harry Potter instalment so far, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; The Terminal, with Tom Hanks living at the airport; the brink-of-high-school slumber-party comedy Sleepover; and two offerings from Cirque du Soleil -- F ire Within, a 13-episode series that follows the shape-shifting troupe for eight months as it prepares its show Varekai, and Midnight Sun, an outdoor extravaganza of world music, pyrotechnics and acrobatics staged in Montreal on July 11 of this year.
CLASSICS FOR KIDS
Readers entranced and awed by Madeleine L'Engle's classic 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time will be relieved to know that director John Kent Harrison has made a very good film of it, though L'Engle herself told Newsweek she was unimpressed. Filmed as a four-hour miniseries a few years ago but aired only recently after being cut to 128 minutes, A Wrinkle in Time is out on DVD with Kate Nelligan as Mrs. Which and Alfre Woodward as Mrs. Who, two of a trio of guardian spirits. Teenage Meg ("No one likes me. I don't even like me") is drawn into an otherworldly quest when her astrophysicist father mysteriously disappears. She finds herself in a fight of good against evil alongside her younger, psychically gifted brother and a neighbour (Gregory Smith, above, left, and later in TV's Everwood) who may be a boyfriend-in-waiting but has to put up with a lot of guff. The DVD's crowning touch is an interview with L'Engle, who describes her struggle to write the book while minding her three young children and who waxes both wise and matter-of-fact about the story. "Meg loved her dad. She loved her mom, but her mom was there. Her dad wasn't, and that made the love more poignant. And that's not fair, but that's how it is."
Part of a new wave of Scottish cinema, funded by the national lottery, Late Night Shopping is a genial 2002 comedy about twentysomethings in Glasgow sorting out their lives, bookended by the great Finley Quaye song Sunday Shining. Three men and a woman meet for coffee at the local diner when they're not toiling at low-paying late-night jobs. One of the guys has a girlfriend who works days; they never see each other, and he has to sniff her pillow to sense her presence. Two of the actors perform magic tricks during the film -- the disappearing cigarette, the coin that jumps from hand to hand -- and, in one of several bonus features, they explain how it's done. Very cool.
-- Warren Clements