Saturday, October 31, 2009

Blackadder Remastered: The Ultimate Edition
TV on DVD review by Sombrero Grande

Alan Thicke once wrote, "you take the good; you take the bad; you take them both and there you have..."  While he was referring to the "Facts of Life," it's a fitting introduction to a discussion of the new Blackadder Remastered: The Ultimate Edition DVD set.

You see, the Ultimate Edition contains everything that revolves around the BBC series, including all four seasons of the show, all the specials, and a bunch of new bonus material.  In other words, all the good and all the bad.

For the uninitiated, Blackadder follows the exploits of the Blackadder lineage throughout various points in British history, beginning in the Middle Ages and forging on through to the 20th Century. The characters remain similar or the same throughout the different time periods, and the corresponding roles are played by the same actors (think Biff, Griff and Mad Dog Tannen from Back to the Future if you're unsure what I mean).

Now, to be fair, there isn't much that's truly "bad" in Blackadder (apart from Blackadder Back and Forth), there's just a lot that leaves much to be desired when compared to the really fantastic stuff.  And the difference between the two is like night-and-day.

For example, things start off rather weakly with The Black Adder, the six-episode original series that explores the untold "true" story of what "really" happened after the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.  Edmund Plantagenet (Rowan Atkinson) is introduced as he wakes up late for the Battle and once there only manages to accidentally behead his own king, Richard III.  When his father, Richard IV (Brian Blessed), assumes the throne, Edmund has only his older (and favored) brother separating him from being the next heir to the throne of England. It is then that Edmund takes on the frightening moniker of "The Black Adder" and repeatedly attempts to scheme his way into the throne.

The main "joke" of this series is that the imposingly-named "Black Adder" is really just a sniveling, whiny, wimpy, pathetic, "horrid little man" who is constantly trod upon and spends most of his time simply struggling to save his own life.  Edmund is "aided" in all his schemes by Lord Percy Percy (Tim McInnerny) and servant Baldrick (Tony Robinson), all of whom are idiots with Baldrick being only slightly more intelligent that the other two.

Great comedic performances are a hallmark of the Blackadder series, but you wouldn't know it from watching The Black Adder. Atkinson hadn't yet arrived at the "I'm better than the rest of the world" persona that so defines all the other Blackadder characters, and Blessed doesn't just chew the scenery but gobbles whole chunks down with every shout and exaggerated stance.

Miraculously, the following series, Blackadder II, bursts right out of the gate doing things right. The humor, characters and stories just click like a well-built machine.

Set in the Elizabethan era, Blackadder II sees the aristocratic great grandson of The Black Adder, also named Edmund, struggling again and again to save his own skin, all the while trying to gain the favor of mad Queen Elizabeth I (Miranda Richardson). He is joined once again by friends Percy and Baldrick, though now they're both blithering imbeciles while this Edmund is bright, cunning and, at times, downright evil. Blackadder has found his niche, being a devious anti-hero sourrounded by idiots instead of just being one himself.

With the next series, Blackadder the Third, the show really hits its stride, placing the next Blackadder in the role of head butler to the Prince Regent (House's Hugh Laurie) during the Regency. For the first time, a Blackadder is not a member of royalty nor high society, and watching this Edmund seethe about it is great fun. It's the perfect role for a Blackadder, being so close to power that he can sometimes pull the Prince's strings like a puppeteer, but so far from it that he can't enjoy a moment of it.

Every episode within Blackadder the Third is absolutely fantastic, making the clear high-point of the whole series.

Baldrick is still around as a dimwitted servant in Blackadder the Third, but Percy is gone (McInnerny does still make an appearance as the Scarlet Pimpernel, however) with the dopey Prince George taking his place in the bumbling trio. Laurie played two small roles in Blackadder II, one of which is a German master of disguise who is seen usurping the throne at the close of the season, leading the way for the German Prince Regent in Blackadder the Third.

The final series, Blackadder Goes Forth, is set during World War I and sees Edmund Blackadder as a Captain in the trenches, desperate to find his way out before "the big push." Joining him are the blithely optimistic Lieutenant George (Laurie) and grungy Private Baldrick. With the line of Percys ended, McInnerny returns as Captain Darling, who holds the same rank as Blackadder but enjoys an assignment far from the trenches, sitting behind a desk and serving as aide to General Melchett (Stephen Fry, who also played a character named "Melchett" in Blackadder II). Seeing Edmund's bitterness toward Darling, Darling's smugness around Blackadder, and the way the two do nothing but antagonize the other is one of the season's biggest assets.

One of the great joys in the Blackadder series is in spotting the "decendents" of characters popping up in later installments of ther series. Of course there's the main cast members played by Atkinson, Robinson, McInnerny, Fry and Laurie, but it's equally fun to find characters with smaller roles like Lord Flashheart (Rik Mayall) and "Bob" (Gabrielle Glaister) reappearing across the generations. Richardson, after playing the main role of Queen Elizabeth I in Blackadder II, returns in both of the following seasons playing the sole love interest for Edmund.

Blackadder Goes Forth, while still quite good, begins to show signs of tiredness. Aside from Captain Darling, the characters all play as direct carry-overs personality-wise from Blackadder the Third, offering nothing new and feeling just like "more of the same." Even the clever writing, inundated with witty lines, begins to feel a bit "template-ized" in the same vein as Family Guy's frequent "this is worse than that time when..." as the dialogue often reverts to a string of "I'm madder than a..." or "this plan is cleverer than a..."

One thing that Blackadder Goes Forth certainly has going for it is an amazing and poignant ending. Being that this is the only era of Blackadder to occur during the possible lifetime of a viewer of the show, a sensitivity is given to the proceedings that isn't found in the other seasons. While it is not uncommon for the whole cast of characters to die at the end of a Blackadder series, at the end of Blackadder Goes Forth, the events that transpire possess an emotional resonance that is quite moving, if even a little upsetting.

The fifth disc in the Ultimate Edition contains all the "specials" that were created for the series, the best of which is also the shortest, Blackadder: The Cavalier Years. In it, Edmund Blackadder remains loyal to King Charles I (Fry) during the last days of the English Civil War, yet changes his mind when he discovers the pay wage he'd receive as Charles' executioner.

In Blackadder's Christmas Carol there's a clever twist on the classic Dickens tale as Ebenezer Blackadder, known as the kindest man in all England, is visited by the Spirit of Christmas (Robbie "Hagrid" Coltrane) who's merely stopping by on a break from scaring misers into the Christmas spirit to congratulate Blackadder on being so much better than his evil ancestors. After witnessing visions of history's past (and future) Blackadders and their fowl Christmas schemes, Ebenezer realizes that being nice is a rotten way to live, much to the chagrin of the Spirit of Christmas, and turns into the type of odious Blackadder we've come to adore.

The last special, Blackadder Back and Forth, is set on New Year's Eve 1999 and reunites the main cast for one last generation's story, only this one's a real stinker. Wealthy aristocrat Edmund Blackadder is hosting a party and is trying to trick his guests into thinking that he has built a real working time machine from original designs by Leonardo Da Vinci. What he doesn't realize is that Baldrick built the machine so specifically to Da Vinci's designs that it actually does work, and sends the duo throughout British history, leaving a mess in their wake as Blackadder punches out William Shakespeare (Colin Firth) and turns Robin Hood's (Mayall) merry men against him.

Clearly the writers of Back and Forth have lost their way since penning Blackadder Goes Forth 10 years prior, as the witty dialogue and clever situations now relinquish to brief, lame skits and toilet jokes. As an example of the type of humor one can expect, it is revealed that the reason the dinosaurs all went extinct in Back and Forth is because they sniffed Baldrick's dirty underwear. Back and Forth is the most obnoxious type of "reunion" show in that it not only replaces the formerly clever writing with gross-out jokes (this was the late '90s when that sort of thing was at its height of popularity) but it also contradicts the show's own canon by showing a "Blackadder" that pre-dates The Black Adder in Roman times. The throne room of Queen Elizabeth I is ever completely different from in Blackadder II, for some odd reason. I mean, this doesn't even seem like it was made by the same people.

Baldrick's Video Diary that rounds out the "specials" disc is a mis-named and uninteresting documentary about the filming of Back and Forth with a groan-inducing opening sketch.

The sixth disc of the set contains all-new bonus materials, such as recent interviews with the cast and writers, a look back at the costumes of the show (consisting of several cast members, looking quite old, rummaging through the old outfits they used to wear--not particularly enthralling to watch), and an interesting documentary about the entire series confusingly entitled Blackadder Rides Again (you'd think it was a bonus episode of the series from that name). There are also new commentary tracks on several of the episodes, featuring insights from the cast and crew, on all seasons but season one.

The DVD set is entitled "Remastered," but after watching my old Blackadder DVDs back-to-back with these new ones, I can't see much of a difference in quality. If there is it's slight, and not worth upgrading your current Blackadder DVDs is you already have them.

The only real reason to upgrade, if you already own the Blackadder Complete Collector's Set, is the new disc of bonus features and the commentaries, which, depending on how big a Blackadder fan you are, your milage will vary. For those who haven't picked up any of the previous Blackadder DVDs, the Ultimate Edition is about $20 cheaper than the Complete Collector's Set and offers substantially more. If you're not particularly interested in owning all the Blackadder material (the good and the bad), you can still purchase the individual seasons of the show for about $15 apiece (I'd suggest Blackadder the Third, Blackadder II and Blackadder Goes Forth, in that order), which would be my recommendation if you're not already a huge fan of the show.


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