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Thinking inside the box

Sticking it to The Man with TV on DVD



The more I watch TV shows "live," while they're being broadcast, the more I feel like a chump.

Seeing episodes on The Man's schedule, sitting through The Man's commercials? That's for suckers. How 20th century. TiVo marks an improvement, and online viewing has possibilities, but DVD is where it's at. Watching a series on a season-spanning DVD boxed set, or an unabridged "mega-set," isn't just popular and convenient; it makes the shows themselves better.

The most obvious advantage -- the freedom from station breaks, pop-up ads, etc. -- is even better than it sounds. First, it makes the DVD episodes shorter, so you can catch three episodes of, say, "Scrubs," in roughly the same time it takes to see two. That can even make a mediocre show, such as, again, "Scrubs," more appealing. The NBC hospital sitcom may only have one or two good laughs per episode, but watching just one episode on DVD can be like eating just one potato chip. When the "Scrubs" Season Four box was in our house, watching all the episodes somehow felt easier than not watching them.

The nature of commercial television, as the term suggests, is to induce the viewer to watch the ad spots. Thus, an hour-long drama such as Fox's "24" will unfold in four or five "acts," with some kind of crisis or revelation hitting right before the commercial break to keep you hooked through the pitches for SUVs and erectile dysfunction drugs. On DVD, the narrative has those speed bumps removed, so the mini-climaxes come faster, making "24's" cliffhangers happen practically on top of each other.

DVD sets provide an enormous boon for programs with long, arcing storylines. The boxes of complex HBO shows such as "The Sopranos" and "Rome" frequently include scorecards or featurettes explaining the characters or the historical context. Watching two or three chapters at a time can clarify a complicated plot, reinforce key relationships and cultivate an appreciation of well-developed characters.

I watched "Lost's" first season on DVD and Season Two in "real time" and was struck by the difference. I loved the full immersion in "Lost" lore over roughly three weeks and particularly enjoyed the two-hour Season One finale. I remembered hearing complaints about it -- that the castaways finally opened the mysterious hatch, but learned nothing of its contents -- but that seemed like picking a nit.

Watching "Lost" Season Two on a weekly basis became a pleasant household ritual, despite the frustration of having to wait a week -- at least -- to see the plot advance. But the Season Two finale, despite being smart and well-structured, revealed nothing about the enigmatic "Others" that regular viewers didn't already know. I felt the same indignation that "Lost" watchers complained about last year, and wondered if I was getting a sound return over my months-long investment of time.

Committing to DVD-viewing requires delayed gratification. NBC's hit new adventure series "Heroes" sounds like something I'd like, but I've missed the introductory episodes, so unless there's a convenient marathon on cable, that train has left the station for me. But I definitely plan to catch up with it when the inevitable DVD comes out this summer -- I'll just have to avoid spoilers until then.

At times, shows don't hold up so well to the greater scrutiny DVD permits. Watch three or 14 "Scrubs" at a time, and you'll realize how rigidly the show adheres to its structure for nonsensical jokes and faux-sensitive subplots. If you've seen one "Scrubs," you've pretty much seen them all.

Likewise, "24" in large doses can seem increasingly like a deadpan satire of the War on Terror. You can keep a running tally of how many laws, civil liberties and articles of the Geneva Convention counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer violates on a given night. He regularly assaults his co-workers and, early in Season Four, even took innocents hostage at a convenience store. Good thing he's never wrong.

The DVD format particularly suits a great show like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "The Wire" and rewards the commitment of time. Such boxed sets can have the pace and texture of an epic novel, while the packaging frequently looks impressive as it commands space on bookshelves. You might even start to wonder, with DVD boxed sets, who needs books?

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