Some of my favorite new and old television series are available on disc, which means they can be watched in flight. This alphabetical list of 15 recommended DVD and Blu-ray sets includes something for everyone—comedies, dramas, cop shows, even a couple of documentaries. What they have in common is quality. In fact, many of these series are so absorbing that you might want to ask your pilot to circle the airport for a while, so you can catch another episode before coming down to Earth.
1. Columbo: The Complete Series. Peter Falk shines in a star-studded crime show that broke all the rules. In the first minutes of almost every movie-length episode, you find out who committed the murder; you also learn the motive and the invariably ingenious method. The mystery is in how the seemingly absentminded lieutenant Columbo will crack the case. Some of the stories in this long-running series prove stronger than others, but the detective’s ingenuity and quirky, amiable personality are generally more than enough to keep me watching.
2. The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus 16-Ton Megaset. And now for something completely different, to quote one of this British show’s signature lines. There’s never been anything quite like Monty Python’s comedic genius and here’s the proof—16 tons of it. If skits like “Argument Clinic,” “The Dead Parrot” and “Buying a Bed” don’t make you laugh, you’re probably suffering from a serious physical or psychiatric disorder and should seek help immediately.
3. Downton Abbey, Seasons 1–4. This BBC series about upstairs/downstairs English life in the early part of the last century features plot twists you won’t see coming and a motley crew of lovable characters, plus the occasional villain to help keep things interesting. Actress Maggie Smith, in her prime at age 79, is herself enough reason to stay tuned. Season 5 will air in the States next year, and I’m counting the days.
4. The Honeymooners: The Classic 39. I’ve probably sat through some of these 39 episodes nearly 39 times and I’m still laughing. It’s amazing what Jackie Gleason, Art Carney and company managed to achieve with shows that were never fully rehearsed, were filmed live with an audience and took place largely in one sparsely furnished room. More than half a century later, this remains classic, timeless television.
5. Mad Men, Seasons 1–6. HBO executives must be kicking themselves for rejecting this series about the duplicitous Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and life in and around his 1960s ad agencies. Great period detail, gripping drama and priceless comedic touches, especially by Draper’s colleague Roger Sterling (the great John Slattery). The first six seasons are already on disc; the seventh and final one wraps up next spring on AMC.
6. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: The Complete Series. More than three decades after the end of its brief production run, one of the strangest and most innovative series in television history has finally resurfaced in a comprehensive DVD edition. Is it a soap opera? A satire? A comment on society? One big joke? Yes, to all of the above. And though Louise Lasser has said she initially didn’t “get it,” she was born to play the title role in this Norman Lear tour de force.
7. NYPD Blue, Seasons 1–5. One of producer Steven Bochco’s finest moments, this cop show features insightful scripts, wonderful acting and fully drawn, well-cast characters. The best of the best: Dennis Franz (also in Hill Street Blues, the series’s excellent predecessor), who won more than a dozen Emmys, Golden Globes and other awards for his role as troubled detective Andy Sipowitz. Note that for many years, you could purchase only the first four seasons of NYPD Blue on disc, but the fifth came out recently, and it appears the remaining seven will follow soon.
8. Planet Earth: The Complete BBC Series. This series stunningly showcases the beauty of nature. David Attenborough’s narration is consistently fascinating and the scenes of animals, trees, plants, deserts, rainforests, mountains and oceans—captured worldwide with state-of-the-art video techniques—are awe-inspiring. The four-part program represents a great way to demonstrate to friends what your Blu-ray player and TV can deliver; it would also be a fine way to show a visitor from another planet what ours has to offer.
9. The Sopranos: The Complete Series. What was left to say about the Mafia after the Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas? Plenty, as David Chase’s HBO series demonstrates. The late James Gandolfini is thoroughly convincing as mob boss Tony Soprano, who murders people on the one hand and gets teary-eyed with pride watching his daughter’s choral performance on the other.
10. Prohibition. One of Ken Burns’s best PBS documentaries, this three-part program explains what led up to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and why and how it failed. It’s loaded with memorable stories—and with lessons about human nature and the role of government that remain relevant today. Pour yourself a drink and enjoy.
11. Scenes from a Marriage. Movies often get cut back for television but the opposite happened with this Ingmar Bergman creation: the 167-minute theatrical edition was a pared-down version of the superior and nearly five-hour-long, six-episode TV series that aired in Sweden in 1973 and on PBS in America the next year. It’s unforgettable, thanks to a superb script and soul-baring performances, particularly by Liv Ullman.
12. The Singing Detective. Last year, I included Pennies from Heaven—the late Dennis Potter’s other masterpiece—in a list of favorite movies, but I was perhaps cheating a bit there, as he created his works for BBC TV. (My earlier list also included the TV series Roots and Roots: The Next Generations, which would be here if I hadn’t covered them previously.) The engrossing six-part Singing Detective is a groundbreaking psychological drama unlike anything you’ve ever seen. If it’s not “the greatest production in the history of television,” as the Chicago Sun-Times called it, it’s certainly in the top 10.
13. The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection. Rod Serling’s innovative series, which aired from 1959 to 1964, had a huge impact on the young people who viewed it at the time, me included. As the opening monologue promises, the show delivers you to “another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.” Now you can buy a Blu-ray box set that includes all 156 episodes in high-definition video plus lots of audio commentaries and a long list of bonus features. Grab it.
14. The West Wing: The Complete Series Collection. I came late to this party, having only recently experienced the 1999–2006 series. Now I see what everyone was talking about, and why the show won a record nine Emmy Awards in its debut season alone. This is an intelligently scripted and well-acted political drama that entertains while giving you a sense of what life is like inside presidential campaigns and the White House.
15. The Wire: The Complete Series. This HBO crime series, which is set in Baltimore, is the only show here that I can’t vouch for personally. I’m including it because so many critics have raved about it and because, according to several people whose opinions I value, it is nothing less than the best thing that’s ever been on TV. Maybe I’ll start watching it on my next flight.