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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Get A Life: The Complete Series DVD Review

I didn't own a television during the years when Get A Life originally aired, but watching it now I know I would have completely loved it.  This show takes risks, plays tremendously with the traditional bounds of the sitcom genre, and is truly funny.  It boasts a really talented cast, including Chris Elliott, Bob Elliott, Robin Riker, Elinor Donahue, Sam Robards and Brian Doyle-Murray.  And the writing is really good.  Hey, this is where Charlie Kaufman got his start.  Yes, the genius that wrote Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Adaptation, three of my favorite films.

And now the complete series is being released on DVD. This six-disc set contains all 35 episodes from the show's two seasons, with commentary tracks on every episode by producer/show-runner/writer/director David Mirkin.  Occasionally he has other folks with him for the commentary tracks, including producer/writer Steve Pepoon and producer/writer Jace Richdale. Unfortunately, there are no commentary tracks by Chris Elliott. Another special feature that I appreciate is that many of the episodes can be played without the laugh track (though, oddly, you can still hear some laughter, likely from the producers on the floor during taping).

Get A Life stars Chris Elliott as an increasingly unbalanced thirty-year-old (well, in the second season he's 31) newspaper delivery boy who lives above his parents' garage (well, in the second season he moves into another man's garage). Though stupid and stunted, he maintains a positive outlook on life that is oddly praiseworthy. Here is a guy who is truly enjoying himself, and you kind of have to love him for that.

I think the show gets better as it goes along, as Chris gets more crazy, and as the writers take more chances. The more absurd the show is, the better. And I love that the main character is often killed at the end of the episode (and once at the beginning). By the way, the show's theme song is R.E.M.'s "Stand" from their 1988 record Green. I wonder how much that cost.

Here are some notes and thoughts on some of my favorite episodes, organized by disc, as well as notes on the bonus features. Most of the bonus features are on the sixth disc.

Disc One

"Terror On The Hell Loop 2000" - Thirty-year-old Chris Peterson (Chris Elliott) talks his best friend Larry (Sam Robards) into taking the day off and going on a new roller coaster. There is a montage of them at the amusement park, set to my favorite Go-Go's song, "Head Over Heals." There is a problem with the roller coaster, and they get stuck upside down. This episode has a guest appearance by Julie Brown as Connie Bristol.

"Family Affair" - Chris falls for Sharon's sister, Charleen (Blair Tefkin). There is a ridiculous John and Yoko reference in this one. And the short montage of instant love is great, particularly the unexpected shot of the giraffe.

"Paperboy 2000" - Chris is replaced by a machine.  I love this episode, because it's ridiculous, and the bit with the baby carriage is great. I also love the shot of the children running behind the machine in its exhaust.  But what's best is a special appearance by Mink Stole as Mrs. Wilson. How cool is that?  A special feature for this episode is a photo of the bill for the machine.

Disc Two

"Bored Straight" - Chris decides to help troubled youth from the tough street a couple of blocks down. The musical montage is perfect (to "To Sir, With Love"). This show gets more wonderfully twisted as it goes on, and this episode is wonderful. (Also, Melissa Baum is seriously cute as Natalie.)

"Roots" - Going through box of old stuff, Chris finds a sales receipt for a boy, and realizes, "The Petersons bought me from an Amish couple for ten thousand dollars on the black market."  So he goes looking for his real family. This show is particularly funny in part because Fred Peterson is played by Chris Elliott's actual father. It just adds another layer of delicious absurdity. And as for absurdity, Chris walks along the ocean floor because he has no idea where Pennsylvania is. And to make it even better, the theme from Dr. Zhivago plays as he makes his journey. This episode guest stars the wonderful Steve Gilborn as Jedidiah.

Joining David Mirkin on the commentary track for this episode is clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Walsh, which is ridiculous. Is she serious? I'm not sure, but I love it when people analyze fictitious characters. Such a strange activity. She's alarmed because he's inconsistent, saying "He doesn't really fall into one single definition of a mental disorder." But isn't that more of a criticism of the writing?

"Chris Vs. Donald" - At the Peterson family reunion, Chris has to deal with his cousin Donald, whom he hates. Donald runs a melon stand and has $900 in the bank, so he's an incredible success compared to Chris (and compared to me actually, but let's not talk about that). This episode guest stars Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears, Breaking Away, Losin' It) as Donald.

Disc Three

"Houseboy 2000" - Chris sets fire to Sharon's kitchen, then works it off (while Larry is out of town). He becomes her slave (and she calls him Chrissy). Larry rescues him and deprograms him with a scene out of A Clockwork Orange. Maybe I'm a bit twisted, but Sharon has never been sexier. Plus there are shots of Nazis. I love this episode. Definitely one of my favorites.

"Married" - Chris goes to the mall to meet a model, who he says is his soul mate. And he's right. She's bonkers too, raisins and all. And we hear a bit of my favorite Gershwin song. Later the "blood test" line completely cracked me up. Elinor Donahue, as Chris' mom, is particularly funny in this episode. I also love the "Divorced" stamp, and of course the Annie Hall reference. "Married" stars the beautiful Deborah Shelton as Nicolette.

"The Construction Worker Show" - Chris tries to become a construction worker. I love this episode, mostly because of its absurdity (though the tool belt fight is a bit lame). There is some extremely funny voice over in this one. Mickey Jones guest stars as a construction worker (This is a guy who played drums for Bob Dylan, and is interviewed in Bob Dylan Revealed ).

"The Big City" - Chris goes to the big city, stepping into great stock footage and also meeting great stock characters such as the Irish cop and the young energetic journalist (the beautiful Anastasia Barzee). And it has this line: "There are certain questions in life that should go unanswered, like where does meat come from?" I love the Monkees reference (and the Beatles reference).  And the end is great.

Disc Four

"Psychic 2000" - Chris chokes to death right at the beginning of the show and Abe Lincoln keeps him from getting into heaven. So he returns to take a nap, because "Dying kind of makes you sleepy." But he begins seeing a few seconds into the future. His parents at first don't believe him, his mom saying she doesn't believe he has even normal abilities, never mind special ones. He sees Sharon's death, and faces a moral dilemma. This was the final episode of the first season.

"Chris Moves Out" - In the first episode of the second season, Chris turns thirty-one and decides to move out. The musical montage when he leaves is fantastic, particularly the baby carriage (one of the best moments in television history). Brian Doyle-Murray plays Gus, the guy with the garage Chris rents. This episode features great lines like, "I can have as many women as I can lift" and "What if he has a young boy in his stomach already?" And I love the ending.

"Larry On The Loose" - Larry suddenly leaves, leaving a note for Sharon. But it is Chris who goes looking for him, leading to a wonderful montage that includes badminton and digging a hole. The morgue scene is wonderful. And remember: if a plan doesn't fail, it just might work.

"Health Inspector 2000" - Chris finds a dead rat in his milk and becomes a health inspector and finds horrible violations everywhere. He also finds corruption, and a sock on his pizza. It does, however, fall back on that old cliche of a man attaching a cat to his face and singing "Mr. Bojangles."

Disc Five

"Prisoner Of Love" - This episode was written by Charlie Kaufman. In the commentary, David Mirkin talks about how this was Kaufman's first writing job in Hollywood. It's a good episode, but not much of an indication of what would come from him later.  Anyway, in this episode, Irma, Chris' penpal, is parolled and is coming to visit him. He decides to scare her off, but when she arrives, he falls for her.  (I'd fall for her too, as she's played by the fabulous and hilarious Nora Dunn.) She holds him hostage, though he doesn't understand it at first.  There's a great fight sequence with near-perfect photo doubles.

"Chris Becomes A Male Escort" - Chris decides to become a male escort in order to see free theatre. His first date is a much older woman, with some interesting fetishes. And she buys him a big furry coat, which makes me think maybe I should become a male escort. Anyway, there is another fun montage, this one being of the two on a series of dates.  About a pet bird that she gives him as a gift, Chris says, "He barely moves, partly because of his disposition and partly because I've yet to feed him." And it ends with a Benny Hill homage, which I love. By the way, this episode features a brief performance by Paul Feig, who went on to direct several episodes of Arrested Development.

"Girlfriend 2000" - Chris gets hit by a car and falls in love with the driver (Emma Samms). This is one of my favorite openings of any show ever. Plus, this episode has a reference to Manimal (remember that one?), and there is a montage to that great Animotion song. Actually, there are two, as a delicious (and apparently) demented redhead falls for Chris.  In the bonus features for this episode, there is an extended sequence.

"Chris' Brain Starts Working" - Chris and Gus are told their neighborhood is on top of a toxic waste dump, and need to evacuate. They are, however, determined to stay. This episode has an excellent musical montage of the effects of the toxic waste set to Cream's "Strange Brew."  I love Chris' new mouth. And I love that the shot of them on the floor is held for a long time (though in the commentary, David Mirkin says it's not nearly long enough). When they wake, they're better than before, with new powers. Chris is suddenly intelligent and able to spell. (Gus' new power is mastering the art of origami.)

When Chris spells the word "pants," he realizes finally there is no silent K.  And later when the toxic waste wears off, he starts to spell "pants" with a K.  In the mid-1990s in Eugene, Oregon there was a band called Kpants (yes, the K is silent). I saw them in concert a few times, and thought they were a pretty good band.  Now I really want to know if they got their name from this episode.  If anyone knows, please leave a comment on this site.  And if anyone has their 1994 release, Charmless, I would love a copy.

Another wonderful thing about this episode is that Mitch Pileggi guest stars as the government guy who warns them about the toxic waste.

"Bad Fish" - Chris throws a party, but no one shows up except a cat and Sharon. Sharon and Gus eat some bad shellfish and suffer from amnesia. Chris doesn't know what the word means, so he enrolls in college. I love tangents like that. And the shot of the three of them dancing made me burst out laughing. Also, it's always fun to toss eggs at the elderly. This episode ends with a delightful game of soccer.

"Spewey And Me" - An alien lands in Chris' yard, and Chris takes him in, thinking him a benevolent being when really he's an ornery, violent, vomiting beast. My favorite bit is when the alien attacks the pope.  And of course there are plenty of E.T. jokes.  When the alien vomits on Chris, Chris says, "I'm keeping him."  This is perhaps the most ridiculous episode, so I love it. And in the commentary, they talk about problems with the network.  They also say it's one of their favorite episodes.

Disc Six

"1977 2000" - Gus recalls how he was kicked off the police force. Chris decides to go back in time to fix things. This episode was written by Charlie Kaufman, and it has more of what we now think of his sensibilities and style than did his first episode for this series. Chris has a time machine, but doesn't want to disturb the family of raccoons in it. There is a DeLorean outside, but he decides not to use it because the left turn signal is out. (By the way, we learn in the commentary that the DeLorean was owned by Steve Pepoon.) So he makes a time travel drink. As we all know, making changes to the past can have disastrous results. The second time he sees his younger self is bloody brilliant.  This episode has a couple of Steve Martin references, and of course a Star Wars reference. There are also two Shakespeare references, which I appreciate. There is a deliciously ridiculous ending.

"Clip Show" - Chris travels to Iraq, but accidentally steps out of the plane while in the air. His life flashes before his eyes. And we see clips from other episodes. The clip show is probably the stupidest, most inane thing television produced until reality television became prevalent. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation had a clip show, which was by far the worst thing in that series (with the possible exception of everything that happened in the holodeck). Anyway, the entire episode is Chris falling between clips. A weak ending to what is otherwise an original series. But on the other hand, this is a show that does rip on the sitcom genre, and the clips show was a sad staple of the genre, so it's also taking a bit of stab at it. There is a series of shots of Chris being hurt, which is amusing, especially as it goes on for a long time. And then he remembers the time he fell out of the plane. By the way, some of the show's writers are extras on the plane.

Bonus Features

"Looking For Noise" - This special feature is a series of interviews with James L. Brooks, Judd Apatow, Peter Chernin (President of FOX Network 1989 to 1992), Kelly Kulchak (executive at Fox Television 1990 - 1994) and David Mirkin.  David Mirkin talks about being a Monty Python fan and how he wanted to do something more interesting than the normal sitcom. He says, "Take your anger and turn it into something funny."  Good advice.  This feature is 29 minutes.

"Death Of Life" - This feature is basically a continuation of "Looking For A Noise," with interviews with the same people. This is 26 minutes.

"Paleyfest 2000" - This feature is a panel with David Mirkin, Elinor Donahue, Brian Doyle-Murray, Robin Riker, Charlie Kaufman, Bob Odenkirk, Steve Pepoon and Jace Richdale. David Mirkin, as usual, does most of the talking. Charlie Kaufman, as usual, is quiet.  This is 31 minutes.

"Horrible Secrets Of The Writing Room" - David Mirkin, Jace Richdale and Steve Pepoon talk about writing the show, about Chris Elliott, about comedy, and so on.  This feature is 55 minutes.

By the way, the set's packaging is done well. Each of the discs is easy to get to without having to remove other discs, and each snaps into place. That may sound like a minor, unimportant detail, but it's really annoying when a box set's packaging is done poorly (I'm looking at you, M.A.S.H).  Get A Life: The Complete Series is scheduled to be released on September 18, 2012 through Shout! Factory.

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