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By Renata Joy
Producer/director Kevin Sullivan is no stranger to Victorian Canada, most particularly Prince Edward Island. No, he is not a historical figure: he was not even alive until the middle of the 1950s. Sullivan's claim to this era is that since the mid-1980s, he has brought a number of works from Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery to the small screen.
The hour-long Disney Channel drama "Tales from Avonlea" (originally called "Road to Avonlea" in Canada, or as each episode from this set is titled, simply "Avonlea") is loosely based on four of the celebrated writer's books. There are The Story Girl and The Golden Road, both novels which center around the trials and tribulations of the extended King family, the focal point of the television series. Other ideas for episode plots come from Chronicles of Avonlea and Further Chronicles of Avonlea, two collections of short stories which take place in the fictional town first made popular in the Anne of Green Gables series, the books for which L.M. Montgomery is most well-known.
"Avonlea" follows Sara Stanley (Sarah Polley), a young girl who leaves her upper-class life in Montreal to stay indefinitely with her late mother's relatives, the Kings, a prominent and large clan in the small town of Avonlea. She is sent by her father, a business owner who has been falsely accused of embezzlement and wishes Sara to be far from any sort of trouble caused by the scandal.
Apparently, Mr. Stanley is not a favorite among the King family, and is particularly disliked by Sara's old maid Aunt Hetty (Jackie Burroughs), the oldest and strictest
At first, fans of the novels might feel a little disoriented in this strange hybrid of L.M. Montgomery's works. Marilla Cuthbert and Rachel Lynde, substantial characters in the Anne of Green Gables stories, make a number of appearances. Also, many might be surprised to discover that Aunt Hetty is nowhere to be found in the King family's origins. She perhaps most closely resembles Aunt Elizabeth from the Emily of New Moon trilogy. Admittedly, it is odd to see characters from one series of books interacting with those from a different setting. However, if one is open to changes (and nobody likes those who are not), there is a great deal of fun to be had. In the long run, it needs to be accepted that the world presented in "Avonlea" is not a mirror image of L.M. Montgomery's creations, but it comes pretty close.
Typical of L.M. Montgomery fare, "Avonlea" presents a fairly large variety of characters, each with their own quirks. The fact that there are so many personalities and a multitude of plots featuring each makes for no shortage of enjoyable viewing. True, the King family, particularly the children, assume the majority of screentime, but their stories are rarely limited to them alone and are readily expanded to include passing or recurring individuals. The resulting effect is that the viewer feels very much a part of this small town and there is always something to occupy one's interest.
This is far from the first appearance that "Avonlea" has made on the DVD format. The series made its Region 1 debut in February 2003, with the release of The Complete First Season from Sullivan Entertainment, the executive producer's company. This 4-disc box set originated from Sullivan's home country, Canada, and never made it to stores south of the border. Subsequent seasons have followed; most recently, Season Five became available in June. Overseas, individual episodes made their way to disc as early as 2001. In the United States, Disney's video branch Buena Vista Home Entertainment holds distribution rights. They first released the series (with this new title "Tales from Avonlea") in March of 2004 as a two-disc compilation subtitled Beginnings, holding eight episodes from the first and early second season.
This November, alongside three widely-admired series from the 1980s, Disney nonchalantly released "Tales from Avonlea": The Complete First Season, a 3-disc set containing all 13 episodes from the series' debut year. While this chronological collection offers an ever so slightly higher per-episode cost than the recently-reduced Beginnings, it offers massive savings over the previous exclusive and now sole alternative Sullivan set. The Canadian releases of the first four seasons' carried a list price of 2 CDN (about US). Even with the typical Internet discounts and a lower suggested retail price (SRP) on the fifth season, the Sullivan Entertainment box sets typically cost you about - USD. By contrast, upon release, Disney's set (bearing the modest SRP of .99) sold for less than half that on Amazon.com.
Sounds pretty good so far, right? Unfortunately, there is a trade-off for the much lower American retail price. For reasons unknown, Disney's Season 1 set contains shortened cuts of all but one of the episodes within. Here, each show runs in the neighborhood of 44 minutes. This entails a loss of footage, ranging from 17 seconds on "The Story Girl Earns Her Name" to a whopping nearly 13 minutes on the debut episode "The Journey Begins." Most episodes are missing about 1-2 minutes, but several lose 3-7 minutes. Altogether, Disney's box runs just a shade under 571 minutes long, or just under 40 full minutes shorter than Sullivan's Season 1 set. That is no insignificant loss; it amounts to almost a full episode's worth of missing content. What's worse is the inexplicably absent footage is not merely standalone sequences; the episodes are marked by frustrating fadeouts that prematurely leave several a scene before it reaches its dramatic conclusion. As the Disney Channel has never had traditional commercials and, as far as I know, "Avonlea" has never appeared in reruns on any other ad-supported network, the shortened versions aren't obvious syndicated cuts. Nor were they likely done to provide optimal picture and sound, for Disney's set is sorely lacking in both departments (as all previous DVD versions are complained to be).
Following is a list of the First Season episodes with a star () marking my five favorites.
DISC 1 (Volume One)
1. The Journey Begins (44:13) (Originally aired January 7, 1990)
The first episode of the series follows Sara on her journey to Avonlea, along with her overbearing Nanny. Aunt Hetty is most definitely not pleased with the idea of a nanny living under her roof and is finally able to make her leave via local law enforcement. Sara and Andrew, who has also just arrived in Avonlea, devise a plan to get back at their other cousins who are slow to accept newcomers with the help of local "witch" Peg Bowen.
2. The Story Girl Earns Her Name (43:53) (Originally aired January 14, 1990)
A benefit magic lantern show planned to help pay for new library books turns disastrous when the coordinator runs off with the ticket money before the show has even taken place. Determined to rake in the most money, Sara takes it upon herself to put together her own magic lantern show with the aid of stammering Jasper Dale, otherwise known as The Awkward Man. Her narration of "The Little Match Girl" earns her a new nickname in town, a name which she only lives up to once in the first season, much unlike her literary counterpart.
3. The Quarantine at Alexander Abraham's (44:01) (Originally aired January 21, 1990)
Rachel Lynde, Avonlea's resident busybody, takes on position of Sunday School teacher at the local church and takes it upon herself to call on (and subsequently let herself into the house of) bachelor Alexander Abraham, resident hater of women, to inquire after his hired boy who has been absent from recent sessions. As it happens, the boy is in the hospital with smallpox and the entire house is under quarantine. As a result, the couple are forced to live with one another for a matter of weeks, along with Sara and Felix, who have also found themselves in the ill-fated house in a rather contrived fashion. Can Rachel and Alexander put aside their differences and learn to get along? Only time, and a couple more cases of smallpox, will tell.
4. The Materializing of Duncan (44:00) (Originally aired January 28, 1990)
Marilla Cuthbert never married and has had but one (unsuccessful) love in her life (see Anne of Green Gables). Amid a gossipy sewing group, she feels the need to create another past flame, one that nobody has heard from. The name Duncan McTavish arises from 1) a particularly favorite first name and 2) a name she sees in a newspaper ad concerning a drug peddler. Imagine her surprise when the real Duncan McTavish comes to town to sell his wares! As can be expected, a moral is in store: Don't make up stories because they will probably come back and bite you in the backside. Kevin Sullivan aficionados will recognize music from his Anne of Green Gables mini-series playing throughout this episode, including the opening and closing credits.
DISC 2 (Volume Two)
5. Song of the Night (a.k.a. Old Lady Lloyd) (42:51) (Originally aired February 4, 1990)
Shenanigans of the King children lands Sara inside the decrepit mansion of Old Lady Lloyd, whose pastimes include moping around the family cemetery and getting scolded by Peg Bowen for moping in the first place. As coincidences go, a singer friend of Aunt Olivia is visiting, who is the daughter of Miss Lloyd's lover of yore. Some friendly interference from Sara encourages the miserable recluse to mend ties with wealthy relations in order to start the musical career of her would-be daughter.
6. Proof of the Pudding (44:02) (Originally aired February 11, 1990)
In one of the more amusing episodes of the season, the young Kings (plus one Stanley) are left alone for the weekend sans adult supervision. Felicity is in charge of the gang during this time and her bossiness drives Felix to eat some berries which may or may not be poisonous. At the same time, the governor's wife comes to visit, only the kids treat her as their hearing-impaired great-aunt.
7. Aunt Abigail's Beau (44:01) (Originally aired February 25, 1990)
In this episode, we are introduced to yet another member of the family, Aunt Abigail (Rosemary Dunsmore of Anne of Avonlea). There seems to be a number of old maids in Avonlea and she is yet another of them. Fastidiously neat and extremely set in her ways, she seems well-prepared to live a life of spinster-hood until an old beau, Malcolm MacEwan, returns to town having struck it rich in Alaska and is determined to marry her. The mystery here is whether Aunt Abigail will be able to overlook some dirty boots and a personality or if she will kick Malcolm to the curb.
8. Malcolm and the Baby (43:54) (Originally aired March 4, 1990)
Believe it or not, opposites do attract, and Malcolm and Abigail have just returned from their honeymoon. Everything is going fine and dandy until Malcolm decides he wants a baby, something that his wife does not even want to think about. Meanwhile, a young couple in a different town has died, leaving behind a baby over whose custody Rachel Lynde (a distant relative) and Aunt Hetty (a distant friend) are fighting. Believing this to be just what Malcolm and Aunt Abigail need, Felicity and Sara take the baby and leave it on the newlyweds' doorstep. Meanwhile, Rachel and Hetty duke it out over an argument dating back to the seventh grade. (That's a long time.)
9. Conversions (43:55) (Originally aired February 18, 1990)
After being inspired by a visit from a missionary, Sara decides to try and convert Rose Cottage hired boy Peter to Presbyterianism. Not exactly a "heathen" but is heading down the dangerous road (by Avonlea standards) to become a Methodist like his aunt. Because of this, and more so because of his working status, he has trouble fitting in with the others and can relate more with Peg Bowen then any other citizen of Avonlea. And then, as sometimes happens, Peter becomes very ill and only then do people appreciate him. And, of course, it takes Peg Bowen's medicine, the unconventional cure, to make him better.
DISC 3 (Volume Three)
10. Felicity's Challenge (43:51) (Originally aired May 7, 1990)
It's autumn harvest time and every year in Avonlea there's a Harvest Ball complete with costumes. In a sort of Pygmalion-esque twist, Felicity takes on a bet from some snooty classmates which involves transforming odd duck Clemmie Ray into a charming princess for the ball. Needless to say, it is a challenge (hence the clever title). Meanwhile, Uncle Alec refuses to be swayed by a political candidate.
11. The Hope Chest of Arabella King (a.k.a. The Blue Chest of Arabella King) (44:00) (Originally aired November 4, 1990)
A distant aunt (there are oh so many of these in the King family) has died, meaning that it is now time to unlock her hope chest and to learn of her tragic love story. At the same time, Aunt Olivia, along with Jasper Dale as her trusty photographer not to mention potential love interest, is struggling to find material worth promoting her to reporter for the Avonlea newspaper. "Time" will tell whether this family tale will merit a front-page story.
12. The Witch of Avonlea (44:08) (Originally aired October 21, 1990)
Felix is having spelling difficulties which result in an afternoon spent sitting in the corner wearing a dunce cap (that Aunt Hetty rules her schoolhouse with a strong arm). It takes a visit to Peg Bowen to give Felix the confidence (read: magic) he needs to win an all-important spelling bee. Who's the witch of Avonlea now, Aunt Hetty?
13. Nothing Endures But Change (44:05) (Originally aired November 11, 1990)
In the final episode of the season, Sara's father, apparently acquitted of his alleged crimes, comes to Avonlea to take Sara back to Montreal. His presence in the area brings much distress to Aunt Hetty, who still blames him for her younger sister's death and there is a fight of a very angry variety. Sara, caught up in the stress of the moment, somehow manages to fall a few stories in a Pollyanna sort of way (dramatic, I know). She comes out with only a minor leg fracture and concussion, but the brief moment of uncertainty pertaining to her situation unites family members and mends disagreements. This is probably the most contrived plot of the season but wraps things up nicely, while at the same time paving the way for more adventures. As it turns out, Sara will not be going back to Montreal, but has decided to remain in Avonlea for the time being. Stay tuned for Season Two.
VIDEO and AUDIO
"Avonlea" is presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen, which is appropriate considering that this is
The previously-released Sullivan sets garnered their fair share of criticism in the picture department. Without seeing them, I can't make a direct comparison, but I can't imagine the Canadian DVDs looking any worse. In fact, I can't imagine any 15-year-old television show released by a major studio looking as rough and troubled as "Avonlea" does here.
Sound quality is not as bad as picture, but there is definitely room for improvement. Most noticeable of the Dolby Stereo soundtrack's flaws are the somewhat rare occasions where the audio goes out of synch with the video. Of course, if you are a fan of watching dubbed foreign films, this aspect of the DVD transfer might be something you find endearing. There is little range to the dynamics and little else remarkable about the sound presentation. Dialogue is generally understandable, if not as crisp as you'd like for a barely-teenaged show, and the soft score comes through just well enough to appreciate.
BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN
Unfortunately, Disney hasn't seen "Avonlea" fit to be accompanied by any bonus features, new or old. On the first disc of Sullivan's First Season set, the premiere episode was joined by 9 minutes of screen tests and a 10½-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. Whether or not either could have been included, they were not, which is bound to disappoint fans. More than even movies, the release of television shows on DVD often lends itself to nostalgia, which either newly-created or archival supplements can both serve. The lack of extras is nothing unusual for the studio, though. Each of the three TV show box sets concurrently issued similarly went without any kind of supplements.
The three discs of this Season 1 collection are packaged in a cardboard box and stored individually in clear slim keepcases. The back of each case provides a brief overview of the episodes, with a summary accompanied by writer, director, and guest cast information.
The 16x9-enhanced menus are very simple - there is no animation or accompanying music (unlike the Sullivan DVDs). There are pictures of various scenes and characters; several recycled, more than a few taken from the opening credits montage, and most relegated to watermarked background. The Episode Selections menus rely merely upon titles (not even pictures) for your choosing, but at least they don't list extraneous episodes as the Sullivan discs did. Each disc is equipped with a "Play All" option for those who like their TV DVDs in doses of 3+ hours. A number of chapter stops are provided, though not as many as you might hope for on an hour-long show and not always in the places you'd suspect. For instance, attempting to skip the lengthy opening credits sequence will make you miss a good deal more.
Though loosely adapted from a hodgepodge of L.M. Montgomery's writings, "Avonlea" consistently pleases with its character-driven small town tales. Such a strong show would merit a wholehearted recommendation if Disney's First Season DVD treatment did something other than plainly disappoint. This 3-disc collection improves upon the previous Canadian DVD release from Sullivan Entertainment only in price; Disney's set can be had for less than half the cost of its expensive northern counterpart. Poor video and audio quality, the absence of any bonus features (including two which appeared on Sullivan's set), and the disconcerting loss of 40 minutes of content all add up to one Halifax of a letdown for those with fond early '90s Disney Channel memories and those craving some good old-fashioned family fun. While such careless treatment can't rob "Avonlea" of its period charms, the series deserves far better than this, which only satisfies in the fact that it preserves this gem in chronological order.