'So soft and warm,' 'Howser' had heart

DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D. SEASON 4 / / Anchor Bay Entertainment / $39.98

To fully enjoy sitcoms from the 1980s, in the pre-Seinfeld era, it helps to first strip away the protective shell of irony that has formed in the last 15 years, to forget the sarcasm and heartlessness that too many shows now try to pass off as comedy.


Doogie Howser, M.D. wasn't afraid to show its heart. In the show's final episode, included on this four-disc DVD set of the Doogie's last season, our genius boy doctor chokes up while reciting the poem When I Was a Child in a community college acting class: "When I was a child, I wondered when will I be grown. Now I'm an adult and I wonder, can I ever be a child again?"

Watching this, you're tempted to cry, too, for Doogie's lost childhood. But save your tears: It was worth it for four years of great entertainment. The Doogie Howser character famously breezed through high school in nine weeks, graduated from Princeton at age 10 and passed his medical board at 14.


The series covers his late teen years, and this final season follows Doogie as he moves out of his parents' house and becomes more experienced with women. In one episode, Doogie wins back a girl who had left him when he compares her to a loaf of bread. "You're a quality loaf," he says, "so soft and warm."

Lines like that elicit groans, but also laughter, as the show's star, Neil Patrick Harris, is able to pull them off with a light touch. The show succeeds because of the humor and grace he brings to the role of the young doctor. But Harris also shows a hint of his devilish side, which has won him good reviews in the current comedy, How I Met Your Mother.

Watching Doogie, one is reminded of the odious -- and indefensible -- sitcom practice of occasionally offering "very special episodes" to teach us life lessons. The fourth season of Doogie contains two doozies -- one on the Rodney King riots and another, called "Doogie Got a Gun," in which our star copes with a home invasion.

But the missteps were rare, and Doogie Howser was usually a smart and well-written comedy about family and friendship that would casually toss off references to John Donne and had heart and sincerity to spare.

Special features: The set's special features begin and end with two interviews with minor cast members -- Lawrence Pressman, who played the hospital administrator, and Kathryn Layng, who played a nurse. The interviews provide little insight into what made the show work. An interview with Neil Patrick Harris would have been more interesting, but he was featured on the Seasons 1 and 2 special features.


SHOPGIRL / / Touchstone Home Entertainment / $29.99

The 2005 film is adapted from Steve Martin's near-perfect novella of the same name, though with slightly mixed results. Shopgirl tells the story of Mirabelle (the lovely Claire Danes), who works the glove counter at Neiman Marcus in Los Angeles. Lonely, perhaps depressed, and not quite grown up, Mirabelle must choose between two men -- Ray Porter (Steve Martin), a millionaire businessman who lavishes her with gifts but is stingy when it comes to his emotions; and Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a semi-charming hipster slacker who doesn't know the first thing about wooing women. Both the film and the novella are small creations, with the novella the more tender and sweet of the two. The film is buoyed by strong acting but slowed down by the awkward direction of Anand Tucker.


Special features: Audio commentary by director Tucker and a featurette, "The Making of Shopgirl."