A legitimate TV oddity, Casablanca the TV series ran for a whole five episodes on NBC during 1983. Based on the classic film of the same name, the series was set in the titular city and tells the story of what that film's central character, Rick Blaine (played by David Soul, quite a change from Humphrey Bogart), was up to before the German occupation that took place during the Second World War. Contributing to the cast are notables such as Hector Elizondo as Captain Renault, Reuven Bar-Yotam as Ferrari, Ray Liotta as Sacha, Patrick Horgan as Major Heinrich Strasser and Scatman Crothers as Sam - and yes, Crothers does perform 'As Time Goes By' which is used as the opening for each episode in the series.
As far as the storyline goes, it's not so far off from what you'd expect it to be if you've seen the movie. Rick Blaine is an American living in Casablanca where he runs a café. The Second World War has started moving out of Europe and across the globe and the socio-political climate in the area is starting to reach a boiling point. As the five episodes play out, someone inevitably walks into Rick's 'gin joint' and he winds up having to help them. David Soul does a decent enough job in the lead, at least as decent as anyone could do trying to step into Bogart's shoes (part of the problem with the series is that the Rick Blaine character is so instantly identifiable as Bogart and nobody but Bogart that it's nearly impossible for Soul to make the character his own) and gives a similar 'likeable rascal' sort of vibe that jives with what he had going for him in the movie. He's generally porting the same outfit as seen in the film as well, though the white tuxedo/black tie combo doesn't look quite as dashing in living color as it does in classic black and white. Regardless, Soul is as good as you could hope he'd be in the lead and he doesn't try to completely reinvent a character that's very familiar to pretty much any fan of classic cinema - likely the right choice.
The supporting cast are also fine here - Scatman Crothers is a good choice to play Sam, he sits comfortably at the piano and periodically sings along with some of the patrons who walk through Rick's bar, giving them a warm welcome and making them feel at home. His take on his character is about as good as anyone could do, and he's probably the most natural feeling performer in the entire series. He also does well with the music when the series calls for it, which really isn't all that often. Hector Elizondo isn't the best choice for Captain Reneault but he's not a complete embarrassment - just maybe a bit of a fish out of water here. Again, he does alright in the part but we know he's not Claude Rains and if that's not fair to Elizondo, such is the reality of the actor who winds up affiliated with updated versions of classic movies. It is interesting to see a young Ray Liotta pop up in the show as Sacha as you don't automatically think Leonid Kinskey as he's maybe not quite as recognizable as the other stars of the original film. Liotta's got that cockiness to him here that he would bring to later films like Goodfellas and it suits the part quite well. Of course, he's a supporting character and isn't given as much to do but his presence in the series is a welcome one.
The episodes that make up the entire run of the series are presented as follows:
Who Am I Killing?
Master Builder's Woman
The Cashier And The Belly Dancer
Divorce Casablanca Style
With only five episodes under its belt before the plug was pulled, Casablanca dies before it gets a chance to find its footing. There are moments here where you will wonder, hey, maybe this series could have gone somewhere had it been given more time to find an audience and expand its universe a little more. The series is well acted and written fairly close to the spirit of the original film. There's a sense of romance and optimism in the face of difficulty here just as there was with the film and there's a lot of style and a lot of drama, the kind that can occasionally pull you in once you sort of give yourself over to this interpretation of the material. There is an eighties TV aesthetic to the series that doesn't feel right, however - it has that frequent soft focus that was popular in made for TV movies of the era and with dramatic TV series of the era and winds up sometimes feeling like a daytime soap opera. Some well shot action scenes help, such as one where a small battalion of Nazi's riding in a truck open fire on a moving plane as it's trying to lift off or a couple of scenes where various characters try to evade the police who are constantly trolling the bar in search of information or informants. Nice use of shadow is a constant throughout the series, with the obvious intention of giving the series (which was shot on film) the same sort of noirish look as some of Bogart's more popular films like, to name one, The Maltese Falcon. Plenty of eye candy pops up throughout the short lived series, be it courtesy of an exotic looking belly dancer decked out in sequins or a mysterious woman clad in various colored scarves and hats requesting Rick's assistance using her feminine wiles to sway him to see her point of view. Beautiful women are everywhere in the series, and if their fashions occasionally belay the series' eighties roots, well, that's likely to be a bit of a problem for some viewers.
While the storylines are generally less than completely engaging, you have to give the crew behind the series top marks for nailing the look of the show. The set design for Rick's Café (complete with a glowing red neon sign perched atop outside) is top notch and there's a lot of detail put into the work on display ensuring that even when the plots are lagging the show always looks great. The same attention to detail is afforded The Blue Parrot, which is nice to see. It's not so surprising then, with that in mind, to learn that the series received an Emmy nomination for Art Direction and to learn that it actually won the Emmy for Cinematography. Compared to a lot of other TV shows broadcast around the same time it is easy to see why this series would earn top marks in that department - it's shot with the same sort of care and attention that would have been put into a feature film. The biggest problem with the series, however, is that it seems to have tried to turn Rick into an Indiana Jones type of character. The most obvious example of this occurs in the third episode where he's wandering around in a worn brown leather coat and brown hat and where he gets into a fight in the middle of the street - he might as well have had a whip, it's that obvious where they inspiration for the scene (and other parts of the series - this outfit pops up a few times) came from, and it's not at all in keeping with the original film that it took its inspiration from. This 'turning Casablanca into a rip roaring pulp adventure' motif that does pop up in the five episodes doesn't quite work and it feels untrue, as it those behind the show wanted to come up with their own take on what was at the time a box office sensation by mining classic cinema of the 1940s for no other reason than to find an established character with a pre-established mythology that could be shoehorned into the Raiders Of The Lost Ark style formula.
Casablanca: The Complete Series looks good on DVD, presented in its original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio and in full color just as it was broadcast. Though more work probably could have been put into cleaning this material up, the source elements appear to have been well preserved. As such, detail is fairly solid and colors are well produced. Black levels aren't quite perfect and are sometimes more of a dark grey but there are no issues with compression artifacts or edge enhancement. All in all, the transfers here wont' floor you but they look pretty good.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono track is crisp, clear and well balanced. There are no alternate language options or subtitles provided. Audio quality is about what you'd expect for an early eighties TV series. It's not a fancy mix but the dialogue is clear and easy to follow and the levels are well balanced. There are no issues with any serious hiss or distortion and the music used throughout the series, Crothers' opening song in particular, sounds pretty good.
As is typical with most catalogue releases from Olive Films, we get menus and episode selection but no actual extra features of any kind.
Casablanca: The Complete Series is interesting to see and definitely that big time fans of the original classic film will want to consider, if only to satiate their curiosity. The problem is that it just can't compete on the same level as the film, which it is impossible not to compare it to. The show itself is marginally entertaining and it does feature some nice set design and an interesting cast - but it falls short of essential viewing by quite a margin. Regardless, it's here for those who want it and if Olive Film's two disc set is a bit expensive for a set devoid of any extras at all, at least it looks and sounds pretty decent. Rent it, if you can.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.