DVDs: <em>The Man From U.N.C.L.E. </em>

Don't call this TV spy show a rip-off of James Bond, anyone who grew up with the show will be beside themselves with glee.
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The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Series boxed set ($249.99; Warner Bros.) is a pricey but otherwise exemplary presentation of an iconic TV series.(For now, it's only available at www.manfromuncledvd.com but will eventually be sold in stores.) Don't call this TV spy show a rip-off of James Bond. After all, Ian Fleming was briefly involved in creating it and even contributed the name of the main character, Napoleon Solo (played to the hilt by Robert Vaughn). You get all 105 episodes from the four season run, interviews with Vaughn and co-star David McCallum, home movies McCallum shot behind the scenes, interviews with more than a dozen other central players, set designs, gadgets, the original un-aired pilot and much more. Anyone who grew up with the show will be beside themselves with glee.

And what a bizarre journey the show took. It was an immediate smash hit that successfully jumped on the James Bond bandwagon, debuting on September 22, 1964, exactly three months before the third Bond film Goldfinger opened in the US. (And give U.N.C.L.E. some credit: Goldfinger was the Bond film that established the formula for Bond that we know today, so the show wasn't lagging behind.

But despite its immediate impact (merchandising, fan frenzy, etc.) the show was beaten by McHale's Navy (which only ranked #29 itself) and was immediately moved. For one brief season it aired Friday at 10 p.m. and was ranked #13. Clearly, it was a hit among adults since kids were mostly asleep by then. But by the third year, the show had dumbed itself down. Like The Adventures of Superman a decade earlier, U.N.C.L.E. soon decided it was a kiddie show and the plots grew more and more cartoonish. (Seeing Get Smart ranked at #12 in 1967 probably didn't help matters.) A spin-off - The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. -- made matters worse. By the final year, they had reverted to a more serious tone (relatively speaking of course - the show was still filled with gadgets and beautiful women who swooned whenever Vaughn looked their way). But it was too little, too late.

The admirable liner notes detail all of this without apology. Watching the show go off the rails with success and then right itself creatively is fascinating. And the show itself is great fun most of the way and intriguing for what it reveals: at the height of the Cold War, Americans gladly embraced a show in which the US and Russia (and other countries) banded together to fight evil-doers. Fans of the series will revel in most of the four seasons, with guest stars ranging from Joan Crawford to William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy appearing together a few years before Star Trek. (I would like to thank the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, without whose assistance this review would not be possible.)

Also out this week: Toshiro Mifune begins his historic collaboration with Akira Kurosawa with Drunken Angel ($39.95; Criterion); I got more hate mail than you can imagine for saying the TV show Futurama paled next to The Simpsons so I won't compare the two but just say that fans of the futuristic comedy will be thrilled that the first of four straight-to-DVD movies Futurama: Bender's Big Score! ($29.99; Fox) is here and comes loaded with extras and not one of them involves me rating one series over the other; Andy Samberg proves he is worthy of primetime with his genial charm in Hot Rod ($29.99; Paramount) even if the movie he does it in is a slight comedy, to say the least; Doris Day - the biggest movie star of her day, not to mention a huge recording artist and successful TV star - is long overdue for an honorary Oscar, but until then fans will have to settle for the fifth and final season of The Doris Day Show ($39.98; MPI) wth new commentary tracks by Day on select episodes and her final TV special Doris Day Today ($19.98; MPI); Paprika ($26.99; Sony), yet another genre-pushing animated delight from Satoshi Kon; Kal Penn is good on the TV show House but he's outshone in The Namesake by the excellent actors -- Irfan Khan and Tabu -- who play his parents; Spice World ($14.94; Columbia), out just in time for their reunion concerts and Bratz ($28.98; Lions Gate), which makes an ideal double bill for your next slumber party; the indefatigable Land Before Time series continues with the straight-to-dvd movie The Wisdom of Friends and the guest voices of Cuba Goodng Jr. and Sandra Oh; the understandably over-praised but still promising modest comedy Waitress ($29.99; Fox) by the late actress and director Adrienne Shelly; three iconic ABC sitcoms all get their third season released on DVD, with Happy Days ($38.99; Paramount) losing whatever remaining grip it had on reality, Laverne & Shirley ($38.99; Paramount) cartoonish from the start and Mork & Mindy ($38.99; Paramount) recovering somewhat from the show's bizarre decision to completely revamp a massive hit in its second season; The Batman: The Complete Fourth Season ($19.98; Warner Bros.) introduces Robin even as it stays in the shadow of the terrific animated series from the Nineties; the child music prodigy heart-tugger Vitus ($29.95; Sony) which would make a hankie-heavy double bill with the current flick August Rush; and finally, the pro wrestling Thunderdome match that is Royal Rumble: The Complete Anthology ($59.95; WWE), which contains the complete first five Royal Rumbles and if you know what that is, you definitely want this set.

So tell me, we can all debate our favorite Bond film (down to your favorites of each Bond actor). But what's your favorite Bond-inspired movie, tv show or book? Dean Martin's jokey Matt Helm? The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? The young adult novels starring Alex Rider? I might just go with the Matt Damon Bourne movies. Not only is the trilogy very good in its own right but it pushed the real Bond series into getting back to a modicum of gritty reality. Thanks Jason Bourne!

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