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Three great sitcom sets for last-minute holiday shoppers

December 22, 2012|By Robert Lloyd | Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • John Astin, Emmaline Henry and Marty Ingels in the 1960s sitcom "I'm Dickens, He's Fenster."
John Astin, Emmaline Henry and Marty Ingels in the 1960s sitcom "I'm… (Lightyear Entertainment )

I am going to use the excuse that it's Christmas next week and you may have some shopping left to do to review three DVD sets I have been meaning to write about for months. (Something came up.) All are comedies. Two are complete sets and one is the first installment in what will eventually be a complete set, if you buy enough of volume one to economically justify a volume two. Artistically, there is no question of justification: All are brilliant and a little strange: Two -- "The Sarah Silverman Program" and Chris Elliott's "Get a Life" -- play with sitcom conventions; the other is plain unconventional.

That is "I'm Dickens, He's Fenster," which ran for a single season in 1962-63 on ABC. The first 16 of its 32 episodes -- they grew their seasons long in those days -- appeared for the first time on DVD this April as "'I'm Dickens, He's Fenster' 50th Anniversary Collectors Edition: Volume 1" (Lightyear Entertainment). It was created by the great Leonard Stern, who had already written for "The Honeymooners" and "Sergeant Bilko" and would produce, write and direct "Get Smart" and create the Richard Benjamin-Paula Prentiss sitcom "He & She," which I would very much like to see again, and "McMillan & Wife," which I have been admiring with fresh eyes online. (I will get around to writing about that show soon, Rock Hudson/Susan Saint James/Nancy Walker/John Schuck fans.) He also co-created Mad Libs, the party game.

HERO COMPLEX: Holiday gift guide 2012

Starring sad-eyed John Astin (soon to play Gomez on "The Addams Family") and raspy-voiced Marty Ingels as carpenters Harry Dickens and Arch Fenster, it is a sort of proto-bromance, with its overriding theme the platonic and almost pathological love between two men -- a love they declare outright, with a sincerity that feels jarring in our supposedly freer but compulsively ironic time.

The arrival of a stray dog or a new neighbor is all it takes to send one or the other into a fit of jealousy; it is the anniversary of their friendship Harry remembers to celebrate, not that of his marriage, to blond-and-brassy-in-a-classy-way Emmaline Henry (later Mrs. Bellows on "I Dream of Jeannie"), who is remarkably patient -- Harry has an unsettling, almost Freudian tendency, to flirty with the glamour girls Arch dates, while Arch climbs in through her bedroom window in order to save them answering the door -- but never a doormat. There are at least two episodes in which Harry and Arch share a bedroom.

It is also a show about the working class, who get little respect on television nowadays. And it's distinguished from most situation comedies of any era, and certainly of the shot-live, multi-camera sort, by the amount of slapstick it contains -- "I Love Lucy" being the obvious exception. (Astin is particularly adept at pratfalls; he has a real way with walking into a closed door.) And it has a sense of the satire: In one Swiftean episode, disagreement over whether a joke is funny or not escalates into armed warfare.

There is a childlike quality to Arch and Harry that describes as well, to different effects, the heroes of "Get a Life" and "The Sarah Silverman Program." ("She's technically an adult," one character says of Silverman.) Each series is set in a twisted and sometimes supernatural version of the world that old-fashioned sitcoms suggest, features a central character sent to test your patience, and is more than usually Not for Everyone.

The three seasons of "The Sarah Silverman Program," which ran from 2007 to 2010 on Comedy Central (with a year off in 2009), have been gathered together in a single box by Shout Factory, with some new extra features. They hold up well, across time and repeated viewings. A word like "irreverent" describes the series accurately enough, and yet somehow does not do it justice; and "transgressive" is frankly no fun. Irony is the main weapon in its comic-rhetorical arsenal -- the whole show pulses with a bright storybook whimsicality often at odds with its subject matter, which includes abortion, gender issues, marriage equality, pedophilia, homelessness, AIDS and the Holocaust -- but also farts and feces.

"Sarah Silverman" feels big: Its crowd scenes are well-populated; there are musical numbers, animations, puppets, an action-film parody. The images are fresh and bright, with a small-townish setting and helpful characters out of an elementary-school primer: Sarah's sister Laura (played by Silverman's sister Laura, the voice of the receptionist on "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist"), who pays her rent, is a nurse; Laura's boyfriend, Jay, Johnston, is a policeman. (His partners were played in turn by the comics Paul F. Tompkins and Tig Notaro).

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