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Let's Get Physical Media

Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name With This Spring's TV Box Sets

Dawson’s Creek, Cheers, and other discs to add to your collection.
  • Cheers, Small Axe: Red, White and Blue, and Cowboy Bebop (Images: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)
    Cheers, Small Axe: Red, White and Blue, and Cowboy Bebop (Images: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)

    In Let’s Get Physical Media, Primetimer takes a quarterly look at the TV and TV-related Blu-ray and DVD releases worth canceling Netflix for.

    The streaming revolution was a lie. Utopian visions of an infinite online video store never took into account just how many people might want a piece of the membership fees — and what they’d withhold in order to get it. But even before the architects of Peak TV began purging their servers of the projects that led to our currently saturated media landscape (including many that hadn’t even debuted yet), there was this inescapable fact: When you own a hard copy of a favorite show or movie, it’s much harder for some C-suite dipstick to take it away from you in a fit of post-earnings-report pique.

    So that’s the bad news. The good news is that smart devices and set top boxes never completely elbowed Blu-ray and DVD players off the shelves, and a steady supply of new discs still flows their way via studios, networks, specialty labels, and (if you can believe it) even the streamers. It may not be the influx of new and archival material brought forth during DVD’s mid-’00s glory days — but then again, there’s a lot that was released on VHS that never made the jump to the next format. But that’s a subject for a whole other column.

    Enough with the preamble. You’ve been patient, you’ve been good. It’s getting hard, this holding back. Let’s get physical — media, that is.

    Dawson’s Creek: The Complete Series (Mill Creek): March 28

    What is it? The beginning of a teen drama dynasty. Dawson’s Creek made The WB a destination for adolescent suds and ’ship-ready love triangles, and launched the careers of its four principals: James Van Der Beek as hyper-earnest high-school Spielberg acolyte Dawson, Katie Holmes as girl-next-door Joey, Michelle Williams as new-kid-in-town Jen, and Joshua Jackson as class clown Pacey. It was also the proving ground for a future generation of TV creators and showrunners: Alumni of the Dawson’s Creek writers’ room include Veronica Mars’ Rob Thomas, The White Lotus’ Mike White, Little Fires Everywhere’s Liz Tigelaar, and Greg Berlanti, who would wind up overseeing entire swaths of programming on The WB’s successor, The CW.
    How many discs? 20
    How much does it cost? Blu-ray: $129.99 / DVD: $69.99 
    Why is it worth it? Given the way Dawson’s has bounced from streamer to streamer in recent years, having one reliable source for the series may be worth the premium. (Though the commenters at blu-ray.com may raise issue with the use of “reliable” anywhere near a release from Mill Creek.) Case in point: At press time, the show is available on both Prime Video and Hulu — but the former boasts a high-def remaster with a re-recorded version of Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Wanna Wait” over the opening credits, while the latter streams the original aspect ratio and the stand-in theme song from previous DVD releases, Jann Arden’s “Run Like Mad.” Primetimer has reached out to Mill Creek to find out which cuts are on the new set, and we’ll update this post when we hear back. 

    Glow: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (American Genre Film Archive/OCN Distribution): March 28

    What is it? The documentary that helped inspire the fictionalized and sadly truncated Netflix comedy starring Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, and Marc Maron. Having previously chronicled the surprisingly deathless animatronic pizza arcade band The Rock-afire Explosion in a 2008 doc, directors Brett Whitcomb and Bradford Thomas turn their attention to the rise, fall, and legacy of another piece of 1980s kitsch: The rapping, schtick-slinging personas like Hollywood, Little Egypt, and Ninotchka who grappled for five syndicated seasons of the original GLOW.
    How many discs? One
    How much does it cost? Standard Edition: $25.49 / Limited Edition Slipcover: $27.99
    Why is it worth it? Whitcomb and Thomas weave a delightful story about a community that bloomed under a peculiar limelight — but what’s truly enticing about this release are the 70 minutes (just slightly shorter than the feature itself) of vintage GLOW included with the special features. It’s a must-see for anyone intrigued by the laugh tracks, charmingly cheap sets, and legit body slams of the Netflix series’s show-within-a-show elements.

    Star Trek: The Next Generation Motion Picture Collection (Paramount): April 4

    What is it? Between the big-screen voyages of the starship Enterprise and the J.J. Abrams-helmed adventures of the so-called Kelvin timeline, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) led the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation through four of their own cinematic spin-offs. Though this stretch of the franchise failed to generate anything as indelible as “I have been — and always will be — your friend” or Spock (Leonard Nimoy) mind-melding with a whale, it did provide a dramatic passing of the torch between Trek eras and a grand showcase for ultimate TNG baddies the Borg before winding down with lesser installments Insurrection and Nemesis.     
    How many discs? Eight: The set contains all four films in both 4K Ultra HD and standard Blu-ray formats.
    How much does it cost? Most online retailers are selling the set in the $70 to $80 range. The going rate for individual titles is between $20 and $25.
    Why is it worth it? Honestly, the full set may largely be for completists and fans of handsome slip cover art. It’s the first two, Ronald D. Moore-and-Brannon Braga-penned chapters in this sub-saga, Generations and First Contact, that are worth a damn — and even then, First Contact is the true must-own. It’s a fitting coda to the classic TNG two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds,” with a kicky time-travel plot, a great supporting turn from James Cromwell (hot off his Oscar nomination in Babe) and some gnarly Borg effects that cry out for the 4Kk treatment. All that, plus the release date is seemingly a nod toward the Trek milestone that gives the film its title: 40 years and a day before Zefram Cochrane makes humanity’s introduction to visitors from the planet Vulcan. 

    Cowboy Bebop: The Complete Series — 25th Anniversary Blu-ray (CrunchyRoll): April 4

    What is it? More spacefaring, this time with world(s)-weary outsiders hunting fugitives across the Solar System. With its finger-popping soundtrack, slick character designs, and neo-noir flourishes, there’s an air of timeless cool to Cowboy Bebop that’s easy to admire, yet hard to replicate—just ask anyone who sunk their time or money into Netflix’s seemingly cursed live-action remake from 2021
    How many discs? 5
    How much does it cost? Get the standard-issue for $48.74, or pay $63.74 for the limited edition whose four art cards allow you to choose which member of the Bebop crew graces the set’s cover.
    Why is it worth it? Because there’s plenty of substance to Cowboy Bebop’s style, a flair for episodic storytelling that’s tied together by compelling character arcs (like the heated friends-turned-nemeses dynamic between protagonist Spike Spiegel and the aptly named Vicious) and creative world-building (the bounty hunters get all their leads from an Old West-themed TV show!). It’s also an excellent introductory course to modern Japanese animatiiton for both the anime-curious and the anime-averse.    

    Confess, Fletch (Paramount): April 4

    What is it? The long-gestating screen revival of Gregory Mcdonald’s bestselling mystery series, with Jon Hamm inheriting the role and smart-ass comebacks of investigative journalist Irwin M. Fletcher. In this adaptation of Mcdonald’s second Fletch novel, the character is enlisted by his girlfriend to recover her father’s stolen art collection. Double-crosses and double entendre ensue in a twisty plot that eventually ropes in the likes of Kyle MacLachlan, Marcia Gay Harden, Roy Wood Jr., and Hamm’s old Sterling-Cooper drinking buddy John Slattery.
    How many discs? One
    How much does it cost? $31.99 for the Blu-ray or $25.99 for the DVD — though Fletch probably knows a guy who could get it to you for cheaper.
    Why is it worth it? Because Hamm has finally found a role that fits both his debonair Don Draper charisma and the goofball streak running through his comedic work — and it deserves better than the limited theatrical release/video-on-demand burial Confess, Fletch received last fall. He and director Greg Mottola should be making a new Fletch every other year, and they should always feature mini-Mad Men reunions like the one that finds Hamm and Slattery bellying up to a bar and giving each other sh*it in the middle of this movie.

    Doctor Who: The Jodie Whittaker Collection (BBC): April 25

    What is it? The full run of the Thirteenth Doctor, encompassing three seasons and five specials in which Jodie Whittaker took control of the TARDIS (once she was able to track it back down), piloting it to encounters with giant spiders, Rosa Parks, a 16th- century monarch played by Alan Cumming, returning fan-favorite companion Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), and a potentially galaxy-destroying force known simply as “the Flux.”
    How many discs? 10
    How much does it cost? $35.99
    Why is it worth it? Well, it’s history, innit: Whittaker was the first woman to ever play the BBC’s everlasting Time Lord. Revisiting Thirteen’s episodes should be a good way to poass the time between now and the series of November 2023 specials that see David Tennant and showrunner Russell T Davies returning to Doctor Who, paving the way for Sex Education’s Ncuti Gatwa (the first Black actor to take on the role) next year. 

    Small Axe (Criterion Collection): April 25

    What is it? Following the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave and the woefully underappreciated heist thriller Widows, director Steve McQueen came to TV with Small Axe, a five-film anthology broadcast by the BBC and streamed on Prime Video in 2020. While Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle, and Education are all standalone stories, they’re united by their depictions of West Indian immigrants living in London in the middle of the 20th century.
    How many discs? Three
    How much does it cost? $79.96
    Why is it worth it? Small Axe is this spring’s “stick it to the streamers” pick: While parts of the anthology were screened at the New York Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival in 2020, Americans who wanted to watch the entire series had to pay Amazon for the privilege. No longer! Thanks to Criterion, you can feast your eyes on John Boyega’s searing Red, White, and Blue performance or the joyous house party of Lovers Rock via a package that’s a whole lot more satisfying than anything that comes with free, two-day shipping. 

    Cheers: The Complete Series (CBS/Paramount): April 25

    What is it? The barroom hangout that helped make Thursdays on NBC “must see” for 11 seasons. One of the best multi-camera sitcoms of all time. The show that so defined a certain type of romantic comedy that “Sam and Diane” became synonymous with “will-they/won’t-they.” The introduction to the favorite TV shrink of the extremely online. Bottomless zingers, incredible ‘80s casual fashions, and little known facts courtesy of the United States Postal Service, all on tap.
    How many discs? 33
    How much does it cost? $129.99
    Why is it worth it? Not every sitcom of the ’70s and ’80s needs a 1080p transfer — but then again, not every sitcom of the ’70s and ’80s looked as good as Cheers, thanks to director James Burrows’ insistence on shooting the show on film. If the visual quality of Paramount’s recent Frasier Blu-rays are any indication, this set should be well worth the investment.

    Max Fleischer’s Superman (Warner Bros. Discovery): May 16

    What is it? The first cartoon appearances of the Man of Steel, as presented in glorious Technicolor in 17 shorts from pioneering animation house Fleischer Studios and its successor, Famous Studios. There’s an uncommon depth and vibrancy to Fleischer’s Art Deco Metropolis, an aesthetic that would prove influential to Hayao Miyazaki and Batman: The Animated Series alike. Equally as influential: After Max and Dave Fleischer determined that Superman looked too silly leaping from location to location, they gave him the more dynamic power of flight, an ability that followed the character back to the comics (and all subsequent depictions).
    How many discs?: 1
    How much does it cost? $33.99
    Why is it worth it? The Fleischer Superman shorts fell into public domain ages ago, so you can take your pick of free sources for “The Mechanical Monsters” or “The Bulleteers.” (The Internet Archive, for example.) Working to this collection’s advantage: A brand new restoration, from original 35mm negatives.

    One to Grow (Your Collection) On

    A quick pointer from the unrepentant physical media buffs at Primetimer:
    Staying on the cutting edge has its benefits: 4K UHD players, pricey though they may be, are backward compatible, so they’re capable of playing Blu-rays, DVDs, and even CDs. But if you’re more interested in quantity of titles than quality of picture and video, take advantage of all the suckers who pitched their DVD players at the dawn of the streaming revolution: Pick up a refurbished model from eBay, or scour your local secondhand shops. With the latter, there’s always a good chance you’ll come across some preowned discs at a reasonable price, too!

    Erik Adams is a writer and editor living in Chicago.

    TOPICS: Dawson's Creek, Cheers, Cowboy Bebop (animated series), Doctor Who, GLOW, Small Axe, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Steve McQueen (Director), Superman