Before videotape and multiple takes cooled the medium’s ambitious possibilities, television gushed with the hot rush of live drama, granting writers unprecedented control over the material and permitting emerging thespians like Paul Newman to erupt into public consciousness. Dutiful collectors will pluck up this handsome DVD set for Rod Serling’s career-making “Patterns” and the one-hour prototypes for “Marty” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (both later expanded into poweful feature films). But the understated Irish romance “A Wind from the South” and Serling’s “The Comedian” are equally worthy for the robust blocking, elaborate camera moves, and live four-camera montages. All of this required meticulous rehearsal, but one flub could tear down the whole house of cards. Part of the fun resides in watching the cast sustain compelling drama even as they adjust positioning for a jerky camera or make do with a rug clearly painted onto a soundstage floor.
The extras include several commentaries, in which director John Frankenheimer reveals that meager pay ($250 for the star, $200 for the director, and $150 for the writer) and bad backs were the hidden toll for these exciting experiments. Criterion has done what it can to transfer the 16mm kinescopes — the only remaining copies of this television history — but the muddled audio and clusters of gunk caught within the film gate sometimes detract. The only real dud here is “No Time for Sergeants.” Despite Andy Griffth’s aw-shucks chops, the results feel more like middling community theater with a laugh track. Still, the overall sizzling quality of these shows causes one to wonder why such experiments can’t be attempted through a live YouTube steam and why today’s actors and directors are too terrified to smolder on the small screen by putting their talents on the line.