Wonders of the Universe (NR, 2011, BBC)
The spectacularly sneaky first episode of “Wonders of the Universe” has some bad news: In addition to Earth, the entire universe has a finite lifespan, after which point it will exist infinitely as complete and total nothingness. Fortunately, the end of the universe is still 10,000 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years away, so there’s still time to write that novel you’ve been putting off starting. The aforementioned number isn’t an exaggeration, either: It’s an unimaginably literal number and just one of the many eye-openers this completely unassuming show sneaks up and drops on you. “Universe” presents itself differently than most shows of its ilk, insofar that the entire presentation is exhaustively and intimately handled by a host, University of Manchester Professor Brian Cox, who talks to viewers like a friend sharing dinner more than a professor giving a lecture. The style is a bit jarring at first — in part due to the style itself, but just as much due to the persistently-smiling Cox’s ability to occasionally channel Mr. Rogers — and you might reach the halfway point of the first episode and wonder what the series’ true aim is. But it’s about that time that Cox drops the first of many fascinating bombshells, and when you realize exactly how “Universe” plans to build up and tackle the most expansive subject there is, the intimate tempo goes from a point of concern to perhaps its greatest asset.
Contents: Four episodes (roughly four hours total), no extras.
Phantom Pain (NR, 2009, Entertainment One)
If you’re familiar with the term “phantom pain” and what it means, the discovery that the movie of the same name stars a character (Til Schweiger as Marc) who loses a leg won’t exactly catch you unaware. More remarkable about “Phantom Pain,” though, is the fact that a character losing his leg basically registers as coloring for his story instead of as its catalyst. When we meet Marc, he is, silver tongue and abler body aside, already a mess — nearly broke, a failed husband, a failing father, on unemployment’s doorstep and burying the 10-year ache of a rejection letter that inspired the self-sabotage of a promising writing career. Throw limb removal on top of that, and yeesh, right? But here’s the thing about Marc: In spite of all that’s wrong with him, he’s still alarmingly easy to like. “Pain,” despite providing Marc with so many messes that it’s hard to know where the cleanup should begin, reflects that likability. It conveys more with less, and even when things go from bad to worse, it sidesteps melodrama in favor of a mood that’s grounded and somewhat humorous but also profound
without preaching. It neither begins nor ends neatly, but it also demonstrates that a story need not be tidy to provide its intended lift. In German with English subtitles.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, interviews.
True Adolescents (NR, 2009, Flatiron Film Co.)
Sam (Mark Duplass) is 34, is in some sort of band, has something of a relationship that probably is over, and wouldn’t mind if his aunt (Melissa Leo) let him crash at her house while everything magically works itself out (no, seriously, for real this time). In return, though, he has to do her one favor and take her teenage son (Bret Loehr as Oliver) and his best friend (Carr Thompson) camping after Oliver’s father bails on him yet again. What we have, then, is the equivalent of an angsty movie supergroup that combines the reluctant road trip with not one, but three coming-of-age movies split across two generations. If you’re familiar with Duplass’ body of work, you already know he’s angsty enough to pull this off. But in a pleasant development, “True Adolescents” quickly finds a balance it likes — neither overly silly nor overly serious, but somewhere loosely and comfortably in between — and sticks to it. More than a story that dramatically changes our campers, “Adolescents” is a story that reflects its characters and flows and grows in a fashion befitting of a weekend trip. There are no dramatic swells or grabs for tears, and those who like their movies nice and traditional may have a problem with that. But sometimes it’s nice to watch a movie that prioritizes its ability to relate to its audience above everything else, and that’s something “Adolescents” does rather well.
Extras: Duplass commentary, filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.
Running Wilde: Season One (NR, 2010, Lions Gate)
It wouldn’t be efficient to explain why or how oil fortune heir Steven Wilde (Will Arnett) convinced his childhood crush (Keri Russell as Emmy) — who also happens to be an extremely dedicated environmentalist — to travel halfway around the world and attend a completely hollow awards ceremony. All you really need to know is that he’s that guy, she’s that girl, and they’re sharing a mansion with her daughter (Stefania Owen, who also narrates) and a cast (Mel Rodriguez, Robert Michael Morris, Peter Serafinowicz, David Cross) of wacky servants, friends and rivals. That’s a lot of implausible wackiness — perhaps, in spite of all “Running Wilde” does well, a bit too much. “Wilde” comes courtesy of some of the brain trust responsible for the immaculate “Arrested Development,” and the same sense of humor and overriding theme (the cluelessness of the undeservedly rich and unreasonably ideal) factor prominently. But where “Development” found balance in its characters and regularly checked itself with bitterly dry humor, “Wilde” often doesn’t. The ratio of cartoon characters to normal (term used loosely) people is sometimes detrimentally imbalanced, and “Development” fans who plan to marathon this one may want to schedule a few more breaks than originally envisioned. There’s a lot to love here, but don’t be surprised if getting there occasionally leaves you a little weary.
Contents: 13 episodes, no extras.
Wrecked (R, 2011, IFC Films)
The title doesn’t lie: When our unnamed main character (Adrien Brody) wakes up following a car accident, he and the vehicle he rode in on are indeed a wreck. He’s stuck in the car, the car’s stuck in a ravine, the two other people in the vehicle are dead, and he doesn’t remember who he is or how he got there. With that in hand, “Wrecked” embarks on a no-frills storytelling adventure that’s 95 percent survival and five percent recollection. But while the idea is sound, the execution is a little too courageous with its convictions. Our unnamed not-quite hero’s memory comes back to him a little too slowly for our sake, and “Wrecked” asks for too much by asking us to care about the survival of a character it won’t willingly let us get to know. Things eventually come together on that front, and the full revelation of what brought him to this state he’s in is actually quite good. But it’s at least a partial shame that “Wrecked” uses this as the final reveal instead of the first domino for a third act that builds on it. That would have robbed it of some impact, but if it results in a more engaging story and a more engaging character, that’s a good trade to make.
Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features.
Storage Wars: Season One (NR, 2010, A&E)
Ever wonder what happens to those public storage lockers when the renter stops paying the bill? For a lucky few of them, they become props for a reality TV show. “Storage Wars” delves into the enticing world of “buyers,” who compete in heated auctions for storage lots whose contents remain mostly a mystery until the winning bid sails in. That’s when the real fun begins, with buyers rifling through their new lots to see if they found treasure or just threw a lot of money away. Like most A&E shows, “Wars” shoots for a low common denominator by distilling the whole thing down to a handful of buyers and rivalries, both of which appear to have been spiced up and edited for drama’s sake. The results of that approach are often obnoxious, as is the show’s tendency to beat the same scenarios and rivalries into the ground over multiple episodes. A little less time in this department and a lot more time devoted to the job’s other particulars would have been welcome, because “Wars” makes the job look much easier than it must be. But even at its most predictably banal, “Wars” is compelling fun when the buyers are left alone with their new loot. Finding diamonds in the rough is ultimately what the job is all about, and the show perfectly conveys the thrill of the hunt.
Contents: 19 episodes, no extras.
Worth a Mention
— “Murphy’s Law: Complete Collection” (NR, 2003, Acorn Media) and “Vera” (NR, 2011, Acorn Media): Britain has quietly but steadily built an empire of television shows about deeply troubled detectives, and if your only access to overseas television is via a means other than cable, here are two more jewels in the crown for your catchup list. “Vera’s” titular character (Brenda Blethyn), to her credit, is more cranky than troubled, but one look at her weary cohorts says a thousand words about the fragile trade-off between her personality and her gift for getting to the bottom of crimes that stymie others at the surface. Tommy Murphy (James Nesbitt), on the other hand, is a straight-up mess — mourning the murder of his daughter by bottling it up, drinking it away and throwing himself headfirst into a dangerous undercover post in London’s Metropolitan Police Dept. Though “Murphy’s Law” toes it a little more precariously, both shows mind the line between the evil they show and the deeply dark humor that keeps both leads from going completely over the edge. The cases carry their own weight with creative storytelling that mines these grumps for gold without beating us over the head with the overriding themes. “Vera” contents: Four episodes (totaling nearly six hours), no extras. “Murphy’s Law” contents: 23 episodes, no extras.
— “Desperate Housewives: The Complete Seventh Season” (NR, 2010, ABC Studios): Another new mysterious new neighbor-turned-rival (Vanessa Williams), check. Another scare (a shooting), check. 23 episodes’ worth of secrets, lies, misunderstandings and confessions, check, wash, rinse, repeat. “Desperate Housewives” conceded its freshness once the gimmick of fast-forwarding five years wore off, but the plateau hasn’t turned into a downslope just yet, so it’s still fun to watch. The return of a few long-gone characters (no spoilers) is a nice way to freshen up some old storylines, too. Includes 23 episodes, plus deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, outtakes and bloopers.
— “Cougar Town: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2010, ABC Studios): “Cougar Town,” which came to us from some of the same folks that previously gave us “Scrubs,” got off to one clunky start after trying a little too hard to apply the “Scrubs” model to a show about middle-aged unrest and one woman’s (Courtney Cox) search for post-divorce love. But it settled down before settling into its own, and season two pays off on season one’s growth with a considerably smoother and consistently funnier ride. Funny what a little patience from network executives can do, no? Includes 22 episodes, plus deleted scenes, the six-webisode “Andy’s Dreams” series, a behind-the-scenes feature and outtakes.