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'Cagney & Lacey,' 'Mel Brooks' among choice DVD gifts for TV buffs

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Wondering what to get the true TV buff for Christmas? This year there is a sleigh full of DVD box set options, available online or at local retailers. Here are five that stand out:

Hands down the prize for best packaging this Christmas goes to Paramount Home Media for "Mission Impossible: The Complete Television Collection." The explosive container comes in the shape of a red dynamite keg, complete with fuse. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to crack open the case and check out the eight metal "tape" cans inside. They contain 56-discs covering all eight seasons of the original Cold War classic (1966-73). Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) and his Impossible Missions Force returned in 1988 for two more seasons (shot in Australia), and those episodes are included here, too. The best adventures, however, are the early seasons, where real life husband-and-wife Martin Landau and Barbara Bain bring an adult edge to the James Bond shenanigans. Remember to turn up the sound: Lalo Schifrin's jazzy score — still setting up the Tom Cruise films — sounds better than ever.

If you agree that Ernie Kovacs was to television what Buster Keaton was to silent film — the perfect marriage of artist and medium — then seeing them together is a kick. Kovacs cast Keaton in the comedy western pilot "Medicine Man," shot early in 1961. It's one of the rarities found in "The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Vol. 2" (Shout! Factory), a companion to last year's more extensive release. More Kovacs means more episodes of his wild "NBC Morning Show" from the mid-‘50s, the bizarre gamer "Take a Good Look" from 1960 and even a rare Canadian find: Kovacs at his informal best being interviewed late in ’61 on CBC's "The Lively Arts."

The 30th anniversary "Cagney & Lacey The Complete Collection" (Visual Entertainment Incorporated) salutes a series that survived three cancellations. There were key cast changes as well, including three Det. Chris Cagneys, with Loretta Swit and Meg Foster briefly in uniform before Sharon Gless checked in for good. Tyne Daly played her partner, Det. Mary Beth Lacey. Back then, networks doubted anybody would watch women bring in the bad guys if the ladies weren't braless. (Ironically, co-creator Barney Rosenzweig also worked on "Charlie’s Angels.") Seeing women kick butt while balancing home lives hooked a whole new, and fiercely loyal, female audience. The series went on to win 14 Emmys.

The large box set includes 36 discs containing all 125 episodes, including the original 1981 pilot movie starring Swit. Canadian Al Waxman was the guy in charge in the squad room, and another Canuck, Harvey Atkin, added to the lighter moments.

Here's a one season wonder that deserves a second peek: "Van Dyke & Company" (MPI). The 1976 series, produced by some of the team behind "The Smothers Brothers," allowed Dick Van Dyke to show off his comedy plus song and dance skills in a weekly variety format. Trouble was variety was already dead. Looking back, however, it is fascinating to see the "Mary Poppins" star try to bridge the gap between "Your Show of Shows," "Carol Burnett" and "Saturday Night Live." The clash of seeing Andy Kaufman one minute and Sid Caesar the next may have been too much for audiences in the mid-'70s, but what a time capsule today. Look for Van Dyke to go toe-to-toe with George Foreman, Tina Turner, Flip Wilson, Chevy Chase, Freddie Prinze and even his old TV sweetie, Mary Tyler Moore.

"The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy" (Shout! Factory) comes in a handy little book that you can throw at anyone who doesn't think Mel Brooks is hilarious. The 86-year-old comedian is revered for his hit film parodies of the '70s and '80s, especially "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein" and "Spaceballs." "The Producers" came before and after, the latter as a hit Broadway play. Then there is "Your Show of Shows" and "The 2000 Year Old Man." They all added up to several Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.

Incredibly, none of those landmark goodies are part of this collection, and it's still — as the title suggests — incredible and irresistible. Besides essays by Leonard Maltin, Gene Wilder and others, the book contains five DVDs. They're packed with rare bits of inspired madness." Best of all, each disc features the writer/director/actor reminiscing with pals Wilder, Carl Reiner, Buck Henry and others. There's even a CD so you can take Mel with you in the car and listen to Madeline Kahn's side-splitting Marlene Dietrich parody from "Blazing Saddles," as well as "The Hitler Rap" from "To Be or Not to Be."

The DVDs also contain the pilot episodes of two of Brooks' forays into series TV, "Get Smart!" (a collaboration with Henry) and "When Things Were Rotten." Brooks was a fearless and spontaneous late night talk show guest and appearances on "Dick Cavett" and "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" are also included.

Light up a campfire, pass around some beans and enjoy.


Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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