Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman's newsletter cataloguing the weird
and wonderful in their home state of New Jersey spiraled into an underground phenomenon, inspired them to scour the rest of the country for their book Weird U.S., and eventually culminated in a basic cable TV series that The History Channel and New Video are now issuing on DVD.
This third volume collects two episodes (right at an hour and a half total) from the series. San Francisco is the first stop in "Rebels and Traitors", as Mark and Mark investigate Joshua Abraham Norton, a bankrupt rice merchant who declared himself Emperor of the United States in the mid-1800s. Despite making such an outlandish claim, his fellow San Franciscans were more than happy to play along, and some of the Emperor's decrees would later prove not to be so nutty after all. From there, the Marks bounce from Key West to Hampton, Virginia to explore the brief but unforgettable reign of privateer-turned-pirate Blackbeard over the Eastern seaboard. He wasn't as hated by the then-colonists as you might expect, and some of that reverence even continues today as seen with a visit to the Hampton Blackbeard Festival. Their investigation into Smedley Butler's claims of a Wall Street plot to overthrow FDR doesn't take them
any further than a desktop computer, but the episode closes with Mark and Mark in Key West...or rather, the Conch Republic, the name the tiny Floridian island adopted after a poorly-placed immigration checkpoint in the early '80s prompted a tongue-in-cheek but still effective secession.
"Crimes and Punishment", the second and final episode, opens by examining the Depression-era reign of terror of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow and by dropping in on the annual re-enactment of their grisly deaths at Gibsland, Louisiana. If Barrow hadn't been gunned down, he probably would've wound up being electrocuted in Old Sparky, the Texan electric chair that brought an end to 361 criminals over the course of more than a half-century. Old Sparky is one of many exhibits on display at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, a town who's home to six (!) prisons rich in history. Their next stop is to the historic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, one of several prisons that bank robber Willie Sutton managed to (very briefly) escape. Finally, Joe Arpaio has been nicknamed America's Toughest Sheriff, and Mark and Mark learn how well-deserved that reputation is as they bake in the Arizona sun during a tour of Tent City.
As someone with a long-time fascination with Roadside America-esque books and TV series, I really enjoyed Weird U.S.. Mark and Mark celebrate the strangeness of their subjects rather than poke fun at them (well, for the most part), giving the people involved -- or at least, whatever caretakers or experts they could dig up -- a chance to explain things in their own words. As you'd probably expect from a series on The History Channel, it's not just a travel log either, and Weird U.S. makes it a point to explain the historical context of each story. The off-kilter camera angles and lenses, a constant parade of corny puns, and the barrage of out-of-left-field public domain clips used as punctuation give Weird U.S. nearly as much personality as its two narrators-slash-hosts. Weird U.S. is a lot of fun, and...what was it Bill Cosby used to say? "If you're not careful, you may learn something before it's done. Hey, hey, hey!"
Video: The full-frame video has somewhat of a digital texture that becomes really apparent during pans and zooms, and viewers watching Weird U.S. on displays with little-to-no overscan will spot a thin black bar with white dashes that buzz throughout the entire length of each episode. The palette
seems a little more robust than I'd expect from the analog signal through my lousy cable provider, but there's otherwise not the sort of leap you'd expect from broadcast to DVD.
Audio: Straightforward Dolby Digital stereo (224Kbps) that's almost completely indistinguishable from piping the show on cable through the built-in speakers on your TV. Unremarkable enough for me not to describe it using complete sentences. The DVD doesn't offer any subtitles or closed captions, so if that's a deal-breaker for you, you'd be better off waiting for these episodes to wind up back in circulation on The History Channel.
Supplements: Nothing, really -- just a set of 4x3 menus, episode selection, a 'play all' feature, a few chapter stops...that's about it.
Conclusion: Aside from the lack of commercials and the fact that you can pop this disc in whenever you want, watching these episodes of Weird U.S. on DVD really isn't any different than sitting through 'em on cable. Some extras or another episode or two would've made the $15-$20 sticker price easier to swallow, but Weird U.S. is fat-packed with info-tainment and worth a second look on DVD. Recommended.