"The Odd Couple" was a rare television show because, like "M*A*S*H," it was able to equal or surpass the popular film version. Based on Neil Simon's 1965 Broadway hit, the 1968 film gave us Jack Lemmon as the fussy and fastidious Felix Unger, who moved in with his slovenly and sloppy friend Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau). But while those two made the perfect oil and water combination, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman settled just as comfortably into their roles as two men recently separated from their wives. In fact, the pair was so good that they both received Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for each of the show's five seasons. That's almost unheard of.
But watching Randall now, it's hard to think of him as anything or anyone but Felix Unger, who wears an apron while he cooks and insists that all of the men's poker-playing buddies use coasters. With every nasal passage-clearing honk and each fussy gesture, Randall made Unger his character every bit as much as Carroll O'Connor made Archie Bunker his, or Henry Winkler made "The Fonz" his own. Same with Klugman, whose enthusiasm for his sportswriting job is equaled by his powerful indifference to Felix's house rules.
On the pilot commentary, Garry Marshall reveals that ABC studio execs weren't exactly thrilled that it was so similar to the play and movie, but staying faithful to Simon's property was a high priority. Marshall relied on a rotating stable of writers and directors to keep the show fresh. With an old stage ham like Randall, though, it's surprising that Marshall shot the first season with a single camera and no live audience. Successive seasons would use the three-camera live-audience method pioneered by Desilu Productions.
More than other comedies from Marshall ("Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley," "Mork & Mindy"), "The Odd Couple relied upon comedy of character and witty dialogue, rather than slapstick or comedy of situation. That's one reason why the show holds up so well. Another is that the characters and relationships are so well developed. The tagline, "Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?," could have made for a simplistic opposites-don't-attract show. Though Oscar keeps trying to get rid of his roommate because of his hyper-cleaning and hypochondriac ways, Felix and Oscar genuinely like each other--enough to stick their neck out for the other, if push comes to shove (as it literally did one episode when Felix dons boxing gloves on Oscar's behalf to take on a hockey-playing behemoth). And though Oscar is a slob who has no interest in culture, he knows enough to appreciate gourmet cooking when he tastes it.
"The Odd Couple" capped ABC's Thursday-night comedy offerings, following "Bewitched" and "Barefoot in the Park," before the studio's disgruntlement was perhaps reflected by the move to TV's graveyard shift: 9:30 on Friday nights. It remained on Friday for a time, then back to Thursday, so that fans didn't know when or where to find the show. Maybe that's why, despite being a critical success, "The Odd Couple" never cracked the Nielsen Top-30
Here's a rundown on the 24 episodes from Season One, which are presented on five single-sided discs and housed in a standard-sized clear plastic keep-case:
1) "The Laundry Orgy"--Directed by Jerry Paris (Jerry Helper, on "The Dick Van Dyke Show"), this one stays awfully close to the original Simon script, which features the hot-to-trot Pigeon sisters (Carole Shelley and Monica Evans).
2) "The Fight of the Felix"--After a hockey player gives Oscar a black eye, Felix stands up for his roommate and ends up defending himself in the boxing ring.
3) "Felix Gets Sick"--When Felix gets the flu, it ruins Oscar's planned weekend with a beautiful flight attendant.
4) "The Jury Story"--Felix and Oscar tell the Pigeon sisters how they met, with Oscar the foreman of a jury and Felix the lone holdout.
5) "The Breakup"--Oscar kicks Felix out after a fight, but with Felix gone, Oscar notices a void in his own life.
6) "Oscar's Ulcer"--Felix tends to Oscar when the doctor prescribes no stress, which Felix interprets to mean no poker and no women.
7) "I Do, I Don't"--A wedding rehearsal prompts Felix to recall his own marriage and divorce, which the prospective groom doesn't exactly need to hear.
8) "Oscar the Model"-Felix has to shoot afresh new face for a cologne commercial, and guess who it is?
9) "The Big Brothers"--In a funny episode, Felix tries to impress his "little brother" with his arts acumen, but naturally the kid's more taken with sportswriter Oscar's world.
10) "It's All Over Now, Baby Bird"--Felix's parrot dies, and that leads to a stress-filled funeral.
11) "Felix is Missing"--Felix and Oscar haven't been getting along, but enough for Oscar to finally kill his roommate? That's what his poker pals think.
12) "Scrooge Gets an Oscar"--I hate dream episodes, and this nightmare one is pretty predictable. Oscar refuses to take part in a benefit performance of "A Christmas Carol" and gets visited by his own ghosts of Christmas past.
13) "The Blackout"--When the power goes off during poker night and $50 turns up missing, all fingers point to Oscar.
14) "They Use Horseradish, Don't They?"--Oscar blabs a secret recipe and Felix gets so nervous he loses the use of his arms. Who said cooking contests were fun?
15) "The Hideaway"--Felix discovers that a football player Oscar said could hide out at their apartment during contract negotiations is an accomplished cellist, and he lobbies for him to give up sports.
16) "Lovers Don't Make House Calls"--One man's pain is another man's gain. When Felix is sick, the doctor who makes the house call is so attractive that Oscar asks her out. Joan Hotchkis debuts as Oscar's girlfriend Nancy.
17) "Engrave Trouble"--When his ex-wife's watch is stolen from a jewelry store, Felix turns to his pal Oscar, who knows a guy who knows a guy . . . .
18) "Bunny is Missing Down by the Lake"--Oscar tries to cheer Felix up by bringing him to his cabin, but one of the girls at a nearby camp turns up missing after they temporarily sought shelter from the rain. Talk about a downer!
19) "You've Come a Long Way, Baby"--Felix shows up at Oscar's big sportswriters awards night with a baby that someone abandoned at his photography studio.
20) "A Taste of Money"--Lots of cash this season. This time it's $2000 found on a kid next door, with Felix trying to find out where the money came from.
21) "Oscar's New Life"--Oscar gets fired, and Felix recommends him for a job on a Playboy-type magazine, where Oscar learns he's not the swinger he thought he was.
22) "What Makes Felix Run"--In one of his many subtle schemes to get Felix to move out, Oscar tries to turn Felix into a slob, thinking it would make him less annoying to his ex-wife and lead to remarriage.
23) "What Does a Naked Lady Say to You?"--Felix is dating a librarian who looks awfully familiar to Murray the cop (Al Molinaro). That's because he busted her for acting in a play: nude.
24) "Trapped"--En route to a costume party, Felix, Oscar, and Nancy get locked in the building's basement.
What a pleasant surprise "The Odd Couple" was, in terms of production values! So many of the Marshall sitcoms on DVD are fuzzy or grainy, with color bleed and poorly defined edges. But this first season is in great shape, which makes me wonder whether Neil Simon insisted on their using a higher quality film stock. Whatever the reason, the picture is much sharper. Even the title sequence, which is so poor on many series, is relatively clear, with a good amount of detail. "The Odd Couple" is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is also a notch above what we're used to seeing, with a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono that sounds fuller and richer than some of the flat-timbre older shows on DVD. Though it's mostly dialogue and (unfortunately) laugh-track, you really pick up on the audio quality during musical segues.
Another pleasant surprise. Paul Brownstein is listed as executive producer for the DVD, and let me say, "Nice job, Paul." For a slim-volume TV set, there are quite a few extras.
The audio introductions for each episode provided by Marshall are no great shakes, but his commentary with Jerry Belson on "The Laundry Orgy" has some nice revelations in it, as does a solo audio commentary on "They Use Horseradish, Don't They?" Klugman's commentary on "It's All Over Now, Baby Bird" is also a good one, though it's a bit sad to hear his post-cancerous raspy voice. Carole Shelley (Gwendolyn Pigeon) offers her take on the pilot in another commentary track. For those who tire of the laugh tracks and wonder what the show would be like without it, you get that chance on "Oscar's New Life."
There's a gag reel that only lasts for about a minute, and other short teasers, trailers and previews, including one for Dick Cavett and the series promo for "It's All Over Now, Baby Bird."
My personal favorites are the external shots of Randall and Klugman. We get an appearance by Randall on "The Mike Douglas Show," where he engages in a push-up contest with Douglas and fellow guest Pat Boone. Then in a less strenuous episode we see both stars on "The Mike Douglas Show" again, and footage of the two on stage in the 1993 revival of "The Odd Couple." I'm also a sucker for award show footage, and so I enjoyed seeing Klugman pick up his 1971 Emmy (which comes with an interesting story in the commentary by Klugman). Even Klugman's book tour (Tony and Me) home video is worth seeing. All in all, it's a nice, respectable package of extras.
The only thing that makes me suspicious of future releases in the series is that four "bonus episodes" are included from seasons two, three, and four. They're packaged as Randall and Klugman favorites, but the last time a studio did this it took forever for successive seasons to be released. Included here, sans laugh track, are "Sleepwalker," "Password" (one of MY favorite episodes, which has Felix and Oscar partnering on the famous game show), "Last Tango in Newark," and "The New Car." What these episodes show is that "The Odd Couple" got even better with age.
We saw it most recently in "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland," but when a performer is able to thoroughly inhabit a role, good things happen. Randall and Klugman become their characters, and that, plus some sharp writing and direction, makes for a solid sitcom.