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TV shows, old and new, find new life on DVD

Times Staff Writer

It hasn’t taken long for home entertainment honchos to realize that DVD aficionados crave digital editions of their favorite movies and television series. Thanks to the DVD success of such popular television series as “The Simpsons,” “The Sopranos,” “Star Trek” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” major studios seem bent on releasing shows currently on the air and vintage classics. Recent releases include “24" and classics such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “I Love Lucy.”

The great thing about watching old series on DVD is that the quality is superior to the often faded, worn prints used on television. The studios have mined their vaults to find extra goodies for many of the releases, and even restored cuts that had been made when the series were sold into syndication.

Universal is the latest to get into the lucrative television DVD market. The studio has tapped the gold mine known as “Law & Order.” Not only is the NBC crime series still going strong in its 13th season on the peacock network, the Dick Wolf-created show also can be seen in repeats on A&E; and TNT. Universal recently debuted “Law & Order -- The First Year” ($80). Besides every episode from the freshman year of the Emmy Award-winning series, the set includes informative interviews with Wolf as well as then co-executive producer Joseph Stern.

Back then, the cast included George Dzundza (now seen on CBS’ “Hack”), Chris Noth (“Sex and the City’s” Big), Michael Moriarty, Richard Brooks and Steven Hill. Guest stars the first season included Cynthia Nixon from “Sex and the City” and William H. Macy.

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If “Law & Order” helps fans celebrate an acclaimed series -- one that many current fans didn’t watch in its first few seasons -- there are different motivations behind the DVD release of Universal’s “Baretta” ($40), which arrives in stores Tuesday. It seems like the studio is cashing in on the notoriety of star Robert Blake, awaiting trial in the killing of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakely. Blake received an Emmy for his performance in 1975 as the quirky police detective who uses disguises -- though he doesn’t look very different from one disguise to another -- to catch the bad guy.

But the ABC series from Stephen J. Cannell is nowhere near the quality of “Law & Order.” It’s a bit disconcerting to hear Baretta propose to his longtime girlfriend and tell her, albeit in a joking fashion, that he’d kill her if she didn’t accept. Universal is also offering a single disc, “The Best of Baretta” ($20).

For comedy fans, Fox will release Tuesday the entertaining “Malcolm in the Middle Season One” DVD set ($40), which features the first 13 episodes of the popular Emmy Award-winning Fox comedy about a dysfunctional family. The digital set includes amusing audio commentary from creator Linwood Boomer and director Todd Holland on the expanded pilot episode, plus commentary from the cast and crew on selected episodes, deleted scenes, an amusing gag reel, visual bloopers and a cute profile of Erik Per Sullivan, who plays Dewey.

Miniseries have also found a new life on DVD. Two of the best of the recent crop of miniseries are the Royal Shakespeare Company’s groundbreaking nine-hour adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” (A&E;, $80) and the brilliant and densely plotted “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (Acorn, $70 each for DVD and VHS), both of which aired on American television in the early ‘80s.

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“Nicholas Nickleby” has been digitally remastered and features filmographies, a printed biography of Dickens and the Dickens installment of A&E;'s “Biography.”

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is based on John Le Carre’s acclaimed spy novel and stars Alec Guinness as the bespectacled master British spy George Smiley. The DVD features a new interview with Le Carre, talent files and production notes. The quality of the transfer, though, is uneven.

Arriving Tuesday from MIP Home Video is the digital edition of the first 14 hours of the 30-hour ABC miniseries “War and Remembrance,” based on Herman Wouk’s mammoth novel about World War II.

Though the 1988-89 miniseries didn’t score the ratings success that its prequel, “The Winds of War,” did on ABC in 1983, this epic is far superior. The DVD includes a 1988 featurette, “War and Remembrance -- A Living History,” hosted with steely determination by series star Robert Mitchum and a new retrospective, “The Making of War and Remembrance,” which features interviews with producer-director Dan Curtis, Wouk and several cast members.

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