DVDs: TV Show Boxed Set Rip-Offs

I love collecting TV shows on DVD. Something that was wildly impractical on VHS (one season of a drama would take up a foot or more of shelf space) is now commonplace. Studios should be thrilled -- sales of old TV shows have gone from an insignificant sliver to a billion dollar business. People now buy TV episodes on iTunes and entire sets on DVD season by season and then sometimes buy the entire thing all over again in a complete boxed set.

But studios can't leave a good thing alone. it's like Blu-Ray: instead of just introducing this new format at the same price point with backward compatibility and keeping people happy and in the habit of spending $16 billion a year on DVDs (about twice what is spent at the US box office), they use Blu-Ray as an excuse to raise prices dramatically. Because, really, when sales are slowing the smartest thing you can do is raise the price, not add value.

And now TV shows on DVD. A spreading practice needs to be stopped right now. A number of studios -- led by Paramount/CBS -- are releasing old TV shows in half-season sets. You can buy The Streets of San Francisco Season 2 Volume 1 ($39.98; Paramount) and Jake and the Fatman Season One Volume One ($36.98; Paramount) -- as if anyone in the world has EVER wanted to buy half a season of a TV series. When the iconic show Route 66's first season came out in two parts last October and this February, I objected mightily but the people behind the set (a tiny company) insisted they had to put out the first half just to see if they could justify putting out the second half. The company was so small I relented a little. But now that they're releasing the first season in one set just four months after putting out the individual volumes, I'm sorry I did.

Other shows tease out their releases, but I can only blame instant gratification buyers for being suckered in. Battlestar: Galactica has its season spread out over a year with huge gaps in between, so I don't mind so much when they release the episodes already aired on DVD. Everyone knows the entire season will be made available in one set once they've all aired, so the choice is yours. Same with the animated series Avatar The Last Airbender (which M. Night Shymalan is turning into a live action film). Each season or "book" comes out in dribbles with five episode sets (such as Book 3 Volume 3 out in May for $16.99 from Nickelodeon) but if you wait the entire season comes out in one complete set. Blood+ Volume Two ($24.96; Sony) (featuring the Adult Swim anime show) is taking a similar tack, putting out five episodes at a time which annoys me more than intrigues me.

And I know all the excuses: old shows like Gunsmoke had a lot more episodes each season. Gunsmoke The Second Season Volume 2 ($36.98; Paramount) has 19 half hour episodes, which is about the same as an entire season of most network shows today (and more than most cable series). But you know what? I don't care. Gunsmoke began airing in 1955 -- these episodes are more than 50 years old. And it ran for 20 years so they've got 600+ episodes to sell! Do you really expect people to buy roughly 40 boxed sets at $36 each? More than $700 to own one show? What's worse, they released the entire 39 episodes of season one for the same basic price as HALF of what season two will cost. How does this make sense? It doesn't. Jake and the Fatman and Cannon were journeyman shows at best -- do they really need to be doled out in this way ($36.98 each; Paramount) for half of their first seasons? If 22 episodes of USA Network's modest hit series The Big Easy ($49.98; MPI) can be made available in one set, so can the Fatman. I'm delighted the puppy dog cute Kyle Chandler (who came into his own on Friday Night Lights) can be seen in Early Edition First Season ($49.99; Paramount). Now where's his earlier series Homefront?

New shows are no better sometimes. HBO has always charged a premium for its shows -- $60 for 13 episodes of The Sopranos worked out to quite a premium. Then they bundled all the seasons together in a boxed set costing more than $500. And coming in November, you can buy the entire series with soundtracks and extras for about $400. That's the right direction to go in, but since everyone who loved the show has been buying it all along, frankly the 86 episodes should have been even cheaper.

Other big TV mistakes: releasing The Cosby Show -- one of the most popular sitcoms of all time -- with truncated episodes pulled from the syndication version rather than the original full-length episodes. (Other shows have done this as well.) Releasing some seasons of a show but not the rest -- where in God's name are seasons 5-7 of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the greatest sitcom of all time?

Yes, cable shows have fewer episodes so maybe it's no surprise The Closer Third Season ($39.98; Warner Bros.) and Monk Season Six ($59.98; Universal) and Eureka Season 2 ($39.98; Universal) and Psych Second Season ($59.98; Universal) are complete sets. (And no, there's no good reason for Monk and Psych to cost so much more than Eureka except that they're more popular.) But Tyler Perry's House of Payne Volume Two ($29.98; Lions Gate) has 20 episodes, as much as any network sitcom and they're not holding back. Neither is Walker Texas Ranger Fifth Season ($49.99; Paramount), the Chuck Norris hit that kickboxes its way into fans' home complete and ready to watch. The History Channel's Dogfights Complete Second Season ($49.95; A&E) has 17 episodes as well.

What can you do about it? Don't buy 'em. Any show released in fragments is a show you should avoid like the plague. No matter how big a fan you are, don't let them double dip, as they'd say in Seinfeld. Shows that are 20, 30, or 40 years old don't deserve more of your money than a new series and as a viewer and buyer, you don't deserve any less than full seasons. If you don't buy them and DO support full and complete TV shows sold season by season, believe me, they'll stop making 'em.

NOTE: Some of the DVD sets mentioned are not out yet but will be released in the next few weeks.

Also out this week:

Glitterbox: Derek Jarman X 4 ($74.99; Zeitgeist) -- A wonderful presentation of four major works by the boldly experimental director, including Caravaggio (an unconventional biopic) and Blue (which is literally a blue screen with voices and sounds ruminating on the color). Far from comprehensive (since it doesn't include major works like Edward II, The Last Of England or his music videos), this is a perfect introduction to a director whose stock will soar in years to come and made touching by a tribute film created by his friends after Jarman's death. Sure to be one of the best releases of the year.

The Furies ($39.95; Criterion) -- a very fun 1950 Western with Barbara Stanwyck in great form as the willful daughter of a widowed ranch owner. When a man kisses Stanwyck with passion, she eyes him and says, "I hope you can chew what you just bit off," a hilarious and sexy and defiant line that encapuslates everything that made her a star in one brief moment. Director Anthony Mann made greater westerns (especially with Jimmy Stewart), but this has been overlooked too long. Criterion even includes a paperback of the book it's based on. They've also just put out Death Of A Cyclist ($29.95; Criterion) by director Juan Antonio Bardem, the uncle of Javier.

Honeydripper ($27.98; Screen Media) -- a solid if unsurprising entry from the dependable John Sayles about a juke joint needing a quick bit of financial salvation, with his usual talented cast and wide angle look at a community.

Definitely, Maybe ($29.98; Universal)/In Bruges ($29.98; Focus Features) -- He's still not picking good movies, but Ryan Reynolds is starting to become a decent onscreen presence. In old Hollywood, potential stars would get to make 10 or 20 or more movies to gain experience and find the style and format that worked for them. Maybe that's what we're seeing to a lesser degree from Reynolds -- he might just surprise us. Similarly, playwright Martin McDonagh may not have created a big stir with his film directorial debut, but there's enough offbeat charm to hope he gets more chances.

The Spiderwick Chronicles ($34.98; Paramount) -- A fantasy film based on so-so books is elevated greatly by the presence of Freddie Highmore in dual roles. He really does seem like the current child actor destined to make the transition to adulthood a la Christian Bale.

10,000 BC ($28.98; Warner Bros.) -- Fans of Westerns and musicals often feel neglected. But imagine if you were a fan of caveman movies -- they almost never get to see ANY movies in their favorite genre. Which is the only explanation I can think of for this having grossed $270 million worldwide. 8,000 BC anyone?

Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals ($29.95; Severin) A sexploitation flick starring Roger Vadim discovery Sirpa Lane. I happily quote the liner notes: "Severin Films is shamelessly proud to present...fully restored -- including the complete Disco Cannibal Blood Orgy sequence -- from an Italian vault print seized from the private collection of a jailed magistrate!" I doubt the film is as entertaining as those notes, but you never know.

Xanadu Magical Music Edition ($19.98; Universal) -- a notorious flop -- and deservedly so -- starring Olivia Newton John and (god forgive him) Gene Kelly in his last movie. Strictly for lovers of the truly awful.