HOME THEATER & SOUND -- DVD Review



Nero Wolfe:
The Complete First Season

December 2003

Reviewed by:
Wes Phillips

Format: DVD

(all ratings out of 5):
Overall Enjoyment

****


Picture Quality

****

Packaged Extras
*

Sound Quality
****
. .
Starring: Maury Chaykin, Timothy Hutton, Colin Fox, Conrad Dunn, Fulvio Cecere, Trent McMullen, Saul Rubinek

Directed by: Various

Original Broadcast Date: 2001
DVD Release: 2003
Released by: A&E

Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo
Full Screen

Rex Stout's obese genius detective, Nero Wolfe, is one of the enduring characters of genre fiction. In 35 novels and 38 novellas, Wolfe, with the help of his headstrong assistant Archie Goodwin and a stable cast of supporting characters, solves the splashiest and most complicated murders -- for the most part without ever leaving his 35th Street brownstone.

Like Sherlock Holmes, Wolfe is a mass of tics and eccentricities. Described by the tales' narrator Archie Goodwin as weighing "a seventh of a ton," Wolfe is a gourmet, an orchid fancier, and a "genius." He adheres to a set schedule, from which he hates to deviate, and he seldom leaves his home. Goodwin functions as his legman and supplies brashness to offset his employer's intense control.

Like the Holmes canon, the Wolfe stories vividly describe the world in which the characters exist: the brownstone itself, with its orchid rooms on the roof, added-on elevator, and cozy office; the great detective's penchant for yellow shirts; even the colors of his leather chairs (yellow and red), and who was allowed to sit in which.

More TV on DVD

A&E, the same company that produced the excellent Nero Wolfe, has also continued its series Homicide: Life on the Streets by releasing the complete third season (****). No doubt about it, this was the best cop/crime show on television, and it is good to have it available on DVD, especially when the discs are so well produced. The episodes have been put in the order the producers originally intended. The box set includes interviews and commentary by executive producer Barry Levinson and others.

The only show I felt was of the same caliber as Homicide was NYPD Blue, and the second season of it arrived from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment back in the fall (****). Jimmy Smits replaced David Caruso, and the drama crackles in this season. The video on the DVDs is sharp and clean, and this show was way ahead of others in using surround sound. Special features include a one-hour documentary, two featurettes, commentaries, and script-to-screen comparisons. Fox has also afforded its penchant for video quality to the second season of Angel (***), which finds the dour anti-hero more animated than in the first season.

Speaking of video and audio quality, check out the second season of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation from Paramount (***1/2). This season is transferred in sparkling, razor-sharp anamorphic widescreen, which admittedly makes some of the gorier forensic close-ups harder to take. But the scripts are still intelligent, the plots inventive, and Bill Petersen is still right on as the lead. I also prefer the flip-file multiple-disc packaging to Fox’s foldout accordion-type boxes. Paramount also incorporates its great packaging on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine(***), which is nearing the final release. These shows look fabulous and have many interesting extras. Looking just as good -- and even a better show -- is Babylon V on Warner Home Video (***1/2). Season three is the latest release, and it presents a colorful, well-defined, anamorphic picture ably supported with a very imaginative surround soundtrack.

Columbia TriStar has many contemporary TV shows on its roster, but one of its more important releases dates from 1992, 22 episodes filmed in 1991, called Forever Knight -- The Trilogy: Part One (****). Without this show, there could have been no Angel. The similarities are striking. In Knight, we have Nick Knight, a centuries-old vampire (played by Geraint Wyn Davies), who is now a police investigator in Toronto and wants to become human. There is a vampire bar, flashbacks to the past, and a mentor nemesis: all the plot elements that Angel adopted, played with far more energy. The transfers are full screen and have excellent color and definition, and the stereo surround sound was quite ahead of its time.

Not to be outdone by the majors, Anchor Bay has secured the rights to release the Hercules and Xena shows. The first season of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, takes a whopping eight discs (1040 minutes) and includes a screen saver, biographies, and trivia on the last disc. Xena: Warrior Princess, is the same length yet only takes seven discs for its first season. The shows look as good as anything out there, and both the romantic derring-do music and battle sounds come out with exciting presence on the Dolby surround tracks. Taken together, these shows present exciting sword-and-sandal entertainment.

No matter what your tastes, there is now a TV show out there on DVD for you to collect, or to give to a friend. And with a few exceptions, they are mastered to look even better than they did on the original broadcast dates.

...Rad Bennett
radb@hometheatersound.com

The Wolfe stories also feature a rich cast of ancillary characters, ranging from the dour Swiss cook, Fritz, to police inspector Cramer, detective sergeant Stebbins, and an assortment of other recurring figures, such as Wolfe's physician and lawyer.

What that means, of course, is that anyone who wants to film the Wolfe mysteries faces a daunting amount of detail and back story -- and an impassioned fan base that will kvetch at even the slightest misstep. When CBS aired a series based on the character in 1981, it abandoned most of this accrued detail, retaining only the detective's girth -- as a concession to its star, William Conrad.

Nero Wolfe fans hated it, and rightly so. It was run-of-the-mill TV.

A&E's series, which aired in 2001 and 2002, is a completely different kettle of fish. It respected its source with fanatical attention to detail. Maury Chaykin captures not just Wolfe's rotundity, but also his mercurial intensity and brilliance. Timothy Hutton, who not only stars as Archie Goodwin, but also served as executive producer and director (of every second episode), is also ideal, perfectly capturing Archie's impetuosity and energy.

Good as the leads are -- and even the most ardent Rex Stout fans could hardly ask for better realizations -- it is the Wolfe regular "irregulars" who really put the shine on these shows. Bill Smitrovich as the cigar-chomping (but not smoking) inspector Cramer and Conrad Dunn as Saul Panzer make a far greater impact than their relatively brief screen time might imply; Colin Fox is properly imperious as Wolfe's cook Fritz; and an extended cast of repertory players portray the ever-changing "minor" characters.

It comes as a bit of a shock when Francie Swift appears as Margot Dickey in "Christmas Party" -- wait a minute, wasn't she Sarah Dacos in "The Doorbell Rang?" Yes, she was, but these "recurring guest stars" are true in a fashion to Stout's use of stock archetypes in the novellas.

For faithfulness to the source material, the series has few equals. Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason on CBS and Granada's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett are the only series that came close (and when are we going to see Raymond Burr's Mason in a comprehensive DVD edition?).

Perry Mason is an apt comparison to Nero Wolfe. That show also carried its respect for the pulp conventions of its source to almost fetishistic lengths. Mason was not prettied up for the TV audience -- he was a manipulative showboat with a single redeeming feature: He refused to lose. America loved him, yet he was resolutely unlovable, except for the unrequited sort Della Street lavished upon him.

Maury Chaykin's Wolfe is also insufferable, primarily because of his completely justified assumption that he is so much smarter than anyone around him. But the shows, like the Stout stories, play scrupulously fair. We all see what Wolfe sees -- and when he explains his logic in each episode's denouement, it is difficult not to exclaim, "Of course!"

The production values for these shows are beyond reproach. They are set in an idealized post-WWII New York straight out of Raymond Chandler crossed with Damon Runyon. The locations are vivid and quirky, perfectly evoking an idealized golden age of sleuthing. Perry Mason, Peter Gunn, and Mike Hammer would all know this world instantly.

The look is stunning. Colors glow. Effective use is made of darkened rooms, illuminated with pools of soft, golden light -- and the shadows have mass and deep blackness nearly never seen on the small screen.

If ever there was a TV series worthy of the DVD treatment, it is Nero Wolfe. The transfers are impeccable, showing far greater detail than the original OTA broadcasts. All the production values are film-worthy. The sound is "only" stereo, but it is wonderfully clean and clear. It's hard to imagine an extra three channels adding much to such an atmospheric world -- they might even distract from it.

A final note on authenticity: All of these episodes are based on Rex Stout originals: "The Doorbell Rang," "Champagne for One," "Prisoner's Base," and "Over My Dead Body" were originally novels and are adapted in two-episode pairs; "Eeny Meeny Murder Moe," "Disguise for Murder," "Door to Death," and "Christmas Party" are only covered in single episodes, reflecting their novella origins.

These were expensive shows to produce, and the series only lasted two seasons, since A&E felt it never achieved an audience share that justified the investment. That's too bad, but the 21 Nero Wolfe mysteries the network did produce must surely rank among the best detective stories ever televised. The box set of the first season offers new viewers a chance to discover just how good TV could be.

Nero Wolfe: The Complete First Season is about as close to perfection as any fan could wish -- and will undoubtedly serve as a superb introduction to a new generation of fans as well.

If we are lucky, A&E will release the second season soon.

 


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