Finally here, after a well-publicized series of music licensing misadventures, is the first season of Second City’s answer to Saturday Night Live: SCTV Network 90 (that’s the 90-minute NBC incarnation). Looking at the show today, after most of the topical references have faded into nostalgia, it’s surprising that it holds up in so many other ways. For starters, unlike practically any other sketch comedy ever created, SCTV actually bothered to come up with an interesting framing device, instead of merely hopscotching from one unrelated skit to another. SCTV was, in the world of the show, a punky, podunk television network run by the gruff, cigar-chomping penny-pincher Guy Caballero (a role channelled from Lionel Barrymore in Key Largo, according to Joe Flaherty), who tooled around in a wheelchair despite not really being handicapped (“people respect people in wheelchairs”). The show basically mimicked the network’s piecemeal broadcast schedule, complete with effectively chintzy promos for shows that would run in full later in the broadcast as well as pledge drives (this being SCTV, phone lines are forcefully manned by groups of tourists visiting the studio, a group that naturally includes the Elephant Man). Even the musical guests were oftentimes worked into the narrative of the show itself, as when Dr. John performs piano at a noirish Polynesian piano bar.
The faux-cheapshow aspect of the fictional SCTV network redeems, in part, the general skuzziness of the ghost-ridden, very-‘80s video images (complete with hot lighting and burn-in). One of the most memorable sketches of this period features Rick Moranis (shockingly funny to anyone who only knows of him as the guy who shrunk the kids) as Gerry Todd, a pre-MTV video disc jockey who crouches in front of a video switcher, hilariously running (and screwing up) his own graphics. Going one step further, the wraparound devices were typically centered around a single concept, such as the Emmy-winning episode that skewers the rise of the so-called “Moral Majority” or the sad descent of the otherwise perpetually perky show-biz phony Lola Heatherton, played by Catherine O’Hara in a classic case of the major talent expertly playing a no-talent. Which brings up a third relatively innovative aspect of SCTV (though one shared with SNL), that it’s not exclusively a boys’ club. O’Hara and Andrea Martin may be two of the most versatile and talented women to ever work in the often-chauvinistic sketch club arena, and that the show managed to establish so many fucking uproarious female characters without resorting to drag-queenery is worth mentioning.
It’s a cliché to refer to any comedy troupe as being “fearless” and that “no topic or person was sacred,” but, perhaps because they were working in the hinterlands of Alberta instead of in NBC’s New York studios, SCTV truly radiated the aura of a show steeped with a totally unbridled creativity and the freedom to utilize it. Many shows seem to operate on their own internal logic, and subtle repetitions start to build on themselves, operating like the genesis of your clique’s best running jokes. For no apparent reason, the final 15 minutes of the “Moral Majority” episode start mercilessly pummeling Michael McDonald and his polished LA pop in a series of otherwise loosely related Gerry Todd segments. First the lounge lizard Tom Monroe sings “Downtown” in the style of “What a Fool Believes,” followed by a commercial for a carpet warehouse with Doobie Brothers jingling. Finally Moranis shows up as McDonald in the flesh, hashing out contractual details while attempting to provide back-up on Christopher Cross’s “Ride Like the Wind.” (The unspoken punchline to the string is that SCTV’s own closing credits were accompanied by an unspeakably kitschy slice of early ‘80s smoothness.) SCTV Network 90: Volume 1 doesn’t quite represent the group at their peak, but it does reflect the unique alchemy that still garners new fans, even after parodies of forgotten soap commercials (not to mention random scenes from Ordinary People) have faded into obscurity.
As I mentioned above, SCTV could at times look like public access outtakes. The video transfers here aren't especially stunning, but they don't really need to be. (Alright, it would be nice if some of the video murk and splotches were miraculously whisked from memory, but whatever.) Markedly better is the sound mix, which is mostly mono and uncommonly clear for most of the duration, but with a few moments of surround magic thrown in during some music cues. If there are any sound purists among the SCTV fan base, I offer my condolences, but in my opinion this is a pretty decent a/v setup for a show that didn't have one to begin with.
Anyone who's sat through one of Eugene Levy's commentary tracks on recent Christopher Guest discs is fully aware of how his dry, droll sense of humor works much better with visuals than without. Thankfully, the dead spots are balanced here by the comparatively talky and open Joe Flaherty (who seems overly enthusiastic to reveal which drugs the cast members indulged in). Unfortunately, there are only two episodes that feature commentary. No worries, though. There are four documentary featurettes created specifically for this release picking up the slack, each one nearly a half-hour and packed with vintage clips and humorous interviews. Finally, there's a one-hour HBO broadcast of the SCTV reunion at a 1999 comedy festival, but my review copy came without the fifth disc (two copies of the fourth disc instead), so I can't comment upon the quality or content therein. If you're going to stretch a mere nine-and-a-half hours of TV series over five discs, I guess this is how to do it. And, though I don't usually comment on accompanying booklets for DVDs, I've noticed other reviewers covering this set complaining that their screener copies came without them (I should've been so lucky), so I'll comment that the booklet is a well-produced collection of essays by the show's executive producer Andrew Alexander and "pop journalist" (we here at Slant have no clue what that means!) Don Waller, as well as tributes to the show by, among others, Ben Stiller and Fred Willard.
We here at Slant try to review DVD content, not DVD prices. But we're afraid this set might have priced itself clear out of range of anyone but die-hard SCTV fans.