DVDs: The Big Lie of Saturday Night Live

The people behind Saturday Night Live respond to the never-ending stream of comments about the sketch comedy's quality and how "it's not as good as it used to be" with two basic arguments.

One, they insist that everyone feels the most fondness for the cast that they grew up with -- that is, the group of players who dominated when the viewer was in high school and/or college. That makes sense. If "your" cast included Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal and Martin Short in the early '80s, that's probably the standard you judge the show by. If "your" cast was the one dominated by Phil Hartman, Mike Myers, Chris Rock and Chris Farley, then that's the one you might love the most, at least emotionally.

Their other argument is that the show never really was as good as people remember, that fans edit out all the bad skits from their memory and savor only the good ones, holding current cast members and writers to an impossible standard of perfection that Saturday Night Live never achieved.

Baloney. And now, with the first two seasons of Saturday Night Live ($69.98 each; Universal) out on DVD, we can see how wrong that is. Sure, like any sketch comedy show individual bits are hit or miss. But just like Johnny Carson can turn a bad joke into a funny moment, the sheer brilliant talent on-stage makes even so-so sketches have a life and a zing to them. Today, a funny bit like "Lazy Sunday" seems like manna from heaven. In the first few seasons, with brilliant cast members like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and John Belushi on board, moments like that came fast and furious.

And the show wasn't locked into formula. Today, you can time when a musical guest will perform their two songs down to the second. Back then, if you had Paul Simon (and a Beatle -- George Harrison) on the show, naturally you got them to perform again and again, delivering five songs and two music videos in all. Why not? It's Paul Simon! And a Beatle!

The Coneheads. Land Sharks. Steve Martin doing Happy Feet. Gilda's Barbara Walters imitation. Dan Ackroyd's dead-on Tom Snyder. Every episode has a wealth of classic material. No future cast could compete with these actors and writers when the show seemed so fresh -- and had SCTV breathing down its neck to avoid complacency. Is anyone today feeling a competitive edge with MadTV? (On the downside, they're still apparently remastering these DVDs from the edited reruns, so minor elements are missing -- a major no-no for presenting classic TV properly. Plus, the episode breakdown feature often omits the second or third musical performances.)

This isn't to run the current cast down. But compare any episode from the first two seasons to an episode from today (or frankly, any episodes from the past 20 or so years) and you'll clearly see a show that has changed from seeming like its cast-members escaped from a mental institution to simply an institution, with all the weight and creative-sucking pressure that implies. Yes, SNL is in especially dire condition today. But even in other peak eras like the mid '80s, it was already standing in the shadow of the greatness of the first five years. Here's the proof.

Just as that boxed set brings us great news from a TV show's past, Battlestar Galactica: Razor ($26.98; Universal) brings us great news from a current TV show's possible future. In its first two seasons, BG was the equal of any show on TV (including The Wire, whose brilliant fourth season comes out today ($59.99; HBO), but which I haven't received yet). But in season three the creative team seriously lost the thread of what made the show special, making one disastrous creative decision after another. Now they've announced the fourth season will be the last. This TV movie "midquel" -- a new term I think I just invented for a movie that's not a prequel or a sequel but something which fills in gaps in the middle of a franchise's run -- is an excellent return to form, giving us hope that they'll put it together and deliver the finale we know BG deserves.

Also out this week: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End ($34.99; Disney), the loud and long finale to Johnny Depp's fey pirate trilogy; Superbad ($34.95; Sony), which for my money is more satisfying than Knocked Up and includes some amusing extras like "Everyone Hates Michael Cera -- The Unfortunate True Story;" Lady Chatterley ($29.95; Kino), the erotic drama sure to be a fixture on many critics' best-of-the-year lists; 24 Season Six ($59.98; Fox), the latest and least season of the action series which for some reason is always stronger creatively in odd numbered years; Erik The Viking ($19.98; MGM), a silly comedy by once (and future?) Python Terry Jones which surely has the silly distinction of being the first movie presented as "the director's son's cut;" Bill Maher: The Decider ($19.98; HBO), a stand-up gig by Maher who has found the perfect niche for his talent on the HBO politics show Real Time; The Doll ($29.95; Kino), an early silent gem by the light-touched Lubitsch, which is paired with a substantial new documentary Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin; 7th Heaven Fifth Season ($49.99; Paramount), which features the wholesome -- but sexy -- Camden clan dealing with the usual travails of raising kids in a post-Waltons world; Mariah Carey: The Adventures of Mimi ($19.99; Artist Nation), a concert film from her comeback tour that is the latest release by a major artist to be available only at an exclusive chain, in this case Best Buy; Arctic Tale ($29.99; Paramount), a nature film about polar bears and walruses narrated with charm by Queen Latifah; and finally a bounty of gay titles, including the seriously silly supernatural TV soap Dante's Cove: The Guilty Pleasure Collection ($49.95; Here!); Boys Life 6 ($24.99; Strand), a collection of shorts whose standout is Bugcrush; East Side Story ($24.95; Wolfe), a sweet gay romantic comedy set in LA; and the Scissor Sisters concert film Hurrah: A Year Of Ta-Dah! ($19.98; Universal), which also includes a substantial documentary and music videos.

So tell me, what's your favorite SNL era and/or your favorite cast members?