For all of its multi-faceted brilliance, The Odd Couple immediately hits me with Neal Hefti's endlessly hummable theme song every time I think of the show. Hefti worked with Woody Herman and Count Basie before making a nice living as a movie and television composer, where he also unleashed the pounding theme to the Batman television series, but it's his work on that upbeat and instantly recognisable tune that's probably become the most well-known. His contribution to The Odd Couple started with the 1968 film version starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and was carried over to the television show when it debuted in September 1970. Including Hefti's theme for the television version developed by Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson proved to be a winning choice, surpassed in importance only by the perfect casting of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman as, respectively, commercial photographer (portraits a specialty) Felix Unger and sportswriter Oscar Madison.
The saga of Neil Simon's simple play about two divorced men, one neat, one messy, who drive each other crazy while sharing an apartment together in New York City has endured probably beyond even Simon's wildest imagination. Starting on stage in 1965 with Art Carney as Felix and Walter Matthau as Oscar, The Odd Couple moved from the Broadway version directed by Mike Nichols to a successful silver screen adaptation with Lemmon stepping in for Carney and Matthau reprising his Oscar. The idea of transitioning to a television show seemed like a can't-miss prospect and the pairing of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, who had taken over the role of Oscar on Broadway after Matthau left, couldn't have been better. Critics apparently adored the programme from the start, but viewers were scarce throughout the show's five-year run and The Odd Couple underperformed so badly in the ratings that it faced cancellation each year it was on ABC, with the network repeatedly realising they didn't have anything else worthy (or cheap enough) to take the show's place on the schedule.
The initial season borrowed liberally from Simon's play and now looks noticeably different from the four subsequent years, not only for the familiar plots but also because it was shot with a single camera. In season two, the show changed to a set-up of three cameras and was filmed before a live audience that allowed Randall and Klugman much more freedom physically and gave them the ability to play off the crowd reaction. The set also changed from an exact reproduction of the apartment used in the film to a smaller, though still luxury, apartment that further cut down on production costs. The thing that never changed, however, was how funny and enjoyable the show was, though that first season does look just a little creaky in comparison.
I didn't have a chance to review the first two sets released by CBS/Paramount in R1 so I'm jumping headfirst into the twenty-three episodes that make up the third season of The Odd Couple. Anyone with an interest, mild or otherwise, can pick up any of the seasons, any of the episodes really, and see how perfect this show was capable of being. Backstories are handled as well as any programme I can remember. All you have to do is listen to the opening narration alongside the infectious theme music and you're set. Everything's there - Felix was kicked out by his wife and took up residence with also-divorced Oscar as the two men struggle to not kill each other while living under the same apartment roof. From there, the joy is in seeing what crazy situations the writers can think up to milk Felix's extreme neatness and Oscar's absurd sloppiness.
Even with such a seemingly fertile ground for ideas, things could have easily devolved into choreographed and lazy gags that do nothing but nudge the characters' idiosyncrasies. Used sparingly, though, the idea of seeing Felix freak out at Oscar's ketchup fetish or watching Oscar crunch potato chips over most any meal never gets old. The inherent sweetness to the two characters shines through bright enough for the audience to realise that their exaggerated flaws are only part of what we're seeing. The men are mostly loyal, sometimes thoughtful, and admittedly at fault for their respective divorces. For essentially two-dimensional figments of a television show, Felix and Oscar are transformed by the actors' performances into warm, often likable guys that can be laughed with, not at. Their quirks are the characters' trademarks, but the show carefully avoids reducing them to caricature.
Though the writers unquestionably deserve a significant amount of credit (and the classical comedy scenarios are a big reason why it still works so well decades later), the show's creative success firmly rests with the unparalleled work done by Randall and Klugman in nearly every scene of every episode. Felix and Oscar have gone through repeated incarnations, from the original play and film to a race reversal television update with Ron Glass and Demond Wilson and a recent Broadway revival with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, but Randall and Klugman are probably the definitive teaming and likely to remain so. Klugman detailed the real-life bond that paralleled the characters' in a book only a few years ago, but it's really all on screen.
Take "The Princess" episode as an example, guest starring Jean Simmons as a foreign royal photographed by Felix and befriended by Oscar. Both men are invited to a party by the Princess with other royalty, diplomats, and important persons. They arrive separately, Felix first and Oscar a few minutes later. When Felix shows up he makes sure to give everyone what he thinks is a proper greeting, bowing and clicking his heels repeatedly to the point of hilarity. Randall plays the scene perfectly with a complete dedication to making Felix's enthusiasm and arrogance crash into an awkward moment that everyone except Felix sees. Then Oscar comes in, running late, and he nonchalantly walks up to each guest and shakes their hand and pats their shoulder. Again, Klugman is impeccable in making Oscar completely oblivious both to the idea that any kind of etiquette might be called for and that Felix is having a conniption while he's treating everyone like they're friends of his drinking buddies.
The two actors completely wallow in their roles and every word and movement seems absolutely natural instead of rehearsed. Indeed, both Randall and Klugman were honoured with Emmy nominations all five years the show was on the air, with Klugman winning twice and Randall taking home the trophy for the final season - after the series had been canceled. Recurring guest stars like Al Molinaro as Murray the Cop or Penny Marshall as Oscar's secretary Myrna are merely foils for the two leads to play off of. Most episodes, especially the essential ones, are akin to 25-minute mini-plays with the vast majority of the laughs coming from the interaction of Randall and Klugman.
Probably the show's most famous and arguably best episode can be found here in the third season. "Password" finds Oscar and Felix on a double date where they run into TV game show host Allen Ludden and his wife Betty White. Ludden is a fan of Oscar's writing and Felix loves the Password show. The two end up on television playing Password to disastrous and hilarious results. The episode is so funny in part because we see Felix's unflappable confidence quickly turn into disbelief and annoyance while Oscar seethes as only he can. But it's a great piece of television because of what Randall and Klugman do and how they play off each other. It was successful enough that the writers gave the characters another game show to have fun with in the episode "Let's Make a Deal," also found in this set and another of the funnier entries of the series.
CBS/Paramount brings all twenty-three episodes from the third season of The Odd Couple to DVD only a few months after the previous year was released. The good news, then, is that fans of the series have gotten the first three seasons in less than nine months, leaving only two more to go. On the other hand, the last two seasons released have been completely without any bonus material while season one had several well-produced supplements. That initial set had actually been made for Time Life and was sold exclusively through them for several months. Producer Paul Brownstein was in charge of putting together the extras and, as expected from his other work, did a superb job. But after whetting our collective Odd Couple appetite, CBS DVD has gone out on their own with these last couple of season sets and their usual cost-cutting measures have most likely prevented fans from getting quality releases on par with season one.
Similarly, the studio's unwillingness to secure music rights has caused some of the episodes to have slight alterations from the original broadcast versions. Disclaimers on the back of the DVD case read: "Some episodes may be edited from their original network versions. Some music has been changed for this home entertainment version." Sharp-eared message boarders across the internet take these things with the utmost seriousness. On this set, none of the changes are too distracting and they certainly won't ruin the enjoyment of the show for most viewers. Still, I really wish the studio would be forthright and let consumers know on the packaging exactly what was changed for each episode instead of the vague boilerplate language in tiny font size. I spotted a couple of instances that seem out of the ordinary, like what seems to be a missing song at the end of "I Gotta Be Me" and shorter than normal running times on that episode and "The Odyssey Couple" among others.
Most of the episodes do run around 26 minutes, but the final 9 are roughly 30 seconds shorter. The pair I just mentioned run even 15 seconds less. It feels like splitting hairs trying to decipher if this song or that one is snipped out. With the DVD medium already over a decade old, it's at least comforting to know shows as great as The Odd Couple are trickling out at all and that the versions released aren't the shortened syndicated episodes. Plus they look better than ever. Presented in the original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio, The Odd Couple is mostly free from any damage and looks quite good. Detail is a little soft and there's a minor amount of dirt and certainly some grain, but nothing out of the ordinary for a show of this age and with such modest production values. A few instances of the picture going softer than normal do occur, and unfortunately this is most noticeable on the "Password" episode. Aside from that episode, it's not something that happens for any significant length of time or with much frequency. Though the video quality varies throughout the set, the transfers are progressive and, overall, they look natural and satisfactory.
The English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track does an acceptable job of delivering the dialogue-heavy audio. Since the show was filmed live in front of an audience, there's a bit of a stage echo at times. A small, persistent hiss also can be heard if you listen very closely, but isn't problematic. Everything comes through nice and clear and with good volume levels. I am disappointed in the lack of subtitles though.
Lastly, the episode titles, original airdates, and synopses can be found printed inside the cover sleeve. The Odd Couple - The Third Season is housed in a regular size keep case and spread across four dual-layered (and non-overlapping) discs.
This is an easy purchase. The Odd Couple is one of television's best sitcoms and contains two of the best comedic performances in the medium's history. This third season contained several stand-out episodes, including "Password," "The Princess," "The Odd Monks," "My Strife in Court," and 19 other gems. The complete lack of bonus features and minor edits are disappointing, but the alternative is missing out on one of the very funniest comedies of all time.