This reviewer was sent 10 check-discs with no packaging -- never the best way to review DVDs since the final product occasionally differs from that sent out for reviews. It's not clear even if these shows are in broadcast or production order, but in any case here's the breakdown of all the shows, for Volumes 1 and 2:
Disc 1: Ice Cream Soup, Luau for Two, Rainy Day, Now You See Me, Now You Don't, Just Another Day, Beauty Makeover, The Restaurant.
Disc 2: Ants in Your Pants, Monster in the Playhouse, The Cowboy and the Cowntess, Stolen Apples.
Disc 3: The Gang's All Here, Party!, Open House, Puppy in the Playhouse.
Disc 4: Store, Pee-wee Catches a Cold, Why Wasn't I Invited?, Tons of Fun.
Disc 5: School, Spring, Playhouse in Outer Space, Pajama Party.
Disc 6: Reba Eats and Pterri Runs, To Tell the Tooth, Pee-wee and the Del Rubios, Fire in the Playhouse, Love That Story, Sick, Did Someone Say Sick?.
Disc 7: Miss Yvonne's Visit, Rebarella, Heat Wave, Chairry-Tee Drive.
Disc 8: Let's Play Office, I Remember Curtis, Conky's Breakdown, Mystery.
Disc 9: Front Page Pee-wee, Tango Time, Playhouse Day, Accidental Playhouse.
Disc 10: Fun, Fun, Fun, Camping Out, Something to Do, Playhouse for Sale.
Volume 2 highlights, assuming that the second set begins with Disc 6, include "Fire in the Playhouse," during which Randy the mischievous marionette turns an oven up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit and nearly burns down the playhouse in the process. This show features some of the most explicit references to Pee-wee Herman's (Paul Reubens) crush on "the most beautiful woman in Puppetland," Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart). Early in the show Pee-wee dreams he's a superhero coming to Miss Yvonne's rescue, checking her for injuries with his X-ray vision. ("Mmm, floral print!" exclaims Pee-wee.) Later, when Fireman Frank (Stephen Parr) saves the playhouse and teaches everyone about fire safety, Miss Yvonne can hardly keep her hands off him: "I have a smoke detector in my bedroom," she tells him seductively, "over my bed."
However, in "Miss Yvonne's Visit," Pee-wee's crush is sorely tested when she spends several days at the playhouse while her house is being painted (by one Michael Angelo). Her invasion of his space soon has Pee-wee amusingly climbing the walls. Another highlight is "Mystery," in which various items belong to Pee-wee, including his suit, cereal bowl and "favorite spoon," turn up missing. The Del Rubios, the singing triplets featured on Pee-wee's Christmas Special sing "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" in "Pee-wee and the Del Rubios," another memorable show.
One of the best additions to later episodes is a regular cartoon segment called El Hombre, about a Hispanic crime fighter. With his red bandana and sleeveless t-shirt, El Hombre teaches kids about consequences of shoplifting and the need to be kind to animals. Typical of Pee-wee's Playhouse, the segments are irreverent and funny, but also slyly educational. Almost bravely, the El Hombre spots are entirely in Spanish with no English subtitles (though they're always easy to follow). Kids undoubtedly picked up a few words of Spanish watching these well-designed cartoons, though one guesses CBS (the network that aired Pee-wee) probably had a fit about running them.
Another cross-cultural show is "Accidental Playhouse," in which Oki Doki, a Japanese fan, flies all the way in from Tokyo to pay the playhouse a visit. Though Pee-wee is repulsed by sushi and nonplussed when told that Oki's family "sits on the floor and eats dinner with sticks" (Reubens does a hilarious take here), the episode does a great job introducing children to another country's culture, pointing out its similarities and differences, while throwing in clips from Gamera movies and some origami to keep it interesting.
Video & Audio
As with Pee-wee's Playhouse Volume 1, episodes look soft much of the time, possibly the result of the program's habit of mixing film and video visual effects, layering elements one atop the other. The quality varies from segment to segment, though one assumes some of these (such as the "Penny" cartoons) could look a lot better sourcing original elements rather than episode masters. The full frame image serves its purpose, but is better viewed on smaller sets. The stereo sound is good, however, though the lack of subtitles is disappointing.
No extras, with menu screen limiting choices to "play all" and "episode selection," with a minimum of chapter stops.
At roughly $2.75 per show, even without extras, these box sets of Pee-wee's Playhouse's entire run are a natural for parents looking for an appropriate balance of entertainment and education, and they may find themselves sucked into watching it, too. Highly recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.