- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2008

Keeping Up Appearances: The Full Bouquet — Special Edition and To the Manor Born: The Complete Series — Silver Anniversary Edition (BBC Video, $129.98 and $79.98) — It’s amazing, really, that Americans continue to watch these British sitcoms. They’re 15 to 30 years old. They feature older stars — middle-aged and elderly — worrying about social climbing (“Keeping Up Appearances”) and social climbers (“To the Manor Born”). But they do. Numerous PBS affiliates, including local stations MPT-Channel 22 and WETA-Channel 26, air these and other Britcoms on weekend nights.

Many devoted fans, like myself, rarely miss a week, mainly because the quality of the writing is undeniable.

“Appearances” centers on the exasperating Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced, she insists, “Bouquet”) who is determined to have the entire world, or at least neighborhood, recognize her superior status. That’s difficult when her two sisters, Rose and Daisy, are, respectively, a married-man-stealing hussy and a working-class dreamer married to a slob. “Manor” stars Penelope Keith as an aristocrat forced to sell her estate when her husband dies in debt. She spends the rest of the series telling nouveau-riche owner Richard (Peter Bowles) how to run the place. Sparks inevitably fly.

America is a classless society, on the whole, but human beings have a natural tendency toward hierarchies. So these British series that show the ins-and-outs of upper- and upper-middle-class life and all its foibles are irresistible. It’s hard to dislike these amusing social climbers even as they’re being mocked, because we all have a little bit of that in us.

The “Appearances” set features all five seasons plus a 2007 PBS special, on nine discs. Extras include a profile of star Patricia Routledge, interviews with the rest of the cast and outtakes. The “Manor” set includes all three seasons on five discs. Extras include the 2007 “Silver Anniversary Special,” which revisits the couple as they celebrate 25 years of marriage.

Chuck: The Complete First Season (Warner, $39.98), Dirty Sexy Money: The Complete First Season (Disney, $39.99), Private Practice: The Complete First Season (Disney, $39.99) and Pushing Daisies: The Complete First Season (Warner, $29.98) — You might have missed these the first time around. Not everyone wants to commit to a new series in its first season without knowing if it will get picked up for a second. These all did.

“Dirty Sexy Money” and “Private Practice” are part of ABC’s unapologetically soapy schedule. “Dirty” wants to be “Dallas” for the 21st century. Peter Krause (“Six Feet Under”) stars as an attorney for a wealthy, powerful, bad, bad, bad Manhattan family. Can he keep his conscience and his job? “Private Practice” is one of those rare spinoffs that is more compelling than its original. Broadway babies Audra McDonald and Taye Diggs help make this a more grown-up cast than “Grey’s Anatomy” has.

“Chuck” was created by new soap king Josh Schwartz, the mind behind “Gossip Girl,” but the NBC series is in an entirely different genre. The action-comedy stars Zachary Levi as a lonely nerd who finds himself the center of attention when an old friend, a CIA agent, lodges his secrets in Chuck’s brain. It’s one of the few places to see things blown up on television.

ABC’s “Pushing Daisies” is also a hybrid, a fantasy dramedy. Lee Pace is a pie-shop owner who can bring the dead back to life. He mostly uses his powers for good, querying murder victims about their attackers. One day, he even brings his childhood sweetheart back to life. Anna Friel and Kristin Chenoweth up the charm factor even more as the show’s love interests.

Kelly Jane Torrance

Speed Racer (Warner, $28.98) — “Speed Racer” is a mess of a movie, a nostalgia ride for Gen X-ers who grew up watching the cartoon on Saturday mornings, but it has the look and feel of a movie made for 5-year-olds. Bright colors! Big flashes! Zany special effects! A monkey! “Speed Racer” resembles an unadulterated sugar rush more than a feature film.

This is a problem because the plot revolves around a complicated scheme to pump up stock prices and dump the stocks for massive profit. The average 5-year-old has little appreciation for the evils of insider trading.

The two extra features on the DVD add to the sense of immature whimsy. There’s a 15-minute tour of the set hosted by Paulie Litt, the young boy who played Spritle in the film; his faux-troublemaking will be sure to entertain children even if they have no idea what it means to be in a prop shop or in front of a green screen.

The other extra is a short feature on the technical specifications of the custom cars used by the drivers in “Speed Racer.” Although mildly interesting at first, the computer-generated schematics and incredibly dull voice-over narration quickly grow tiresome. Children, however, may get a kick out of all the imaginary tech talk.

Sonny Bunch

“Goosebumps: Monster Blood,”“Goosebumps: A Night in Terror Tower,” and “Goosebumps: One Day at Horrorland” (Fox, $14.98 each) — If your child is beyond “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” but not yet ready for “Friday the 13th,” R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” titles — with their preteen protagonists and predictable but a tad scary story lines — may be perfect for Halloween movie nights.

Mr. Stine wrote more than 60 books under the “Goosebumps” umbrella, each sprinkled with gore and violence for the preteen set. Many of the titles were made into minimovies in the mid-1990s. The DVD release is about 90 minutes long with no special features.

Of the offerings on this latest release,”A Night at Terror Tower” has survived the test better than the others. While “Monster Blood” gets sidetracked by bad ‘90s hairdos and clumsy special effects, “A Night at Terror Tower” includes — convincingly — time travel to medieval England, where the medievals look and act like zombies; threats of decapitation; and mistaken identities.

“Goosebumps” is an entryway to horror that should “gently” tickle the scary bone of any preteen.

Gabriella Boston

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