Behind the Scenes
First Run Features // Unrated // $59.95 // December 24, 2002
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted February 17, 2003
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Behind the Scenes... those who caught this series on public television already know what it's about, but for those who have never heard of it, the question is, "behind the scenes... of what?" As it turns out, "behind the scenes" is not necessarily a particularly apt title for what this series has to offer, which is a look at different aspects of the creative process across the arts, from drawing to sculpture to music.

The DVD release of Behind the Scenes contains the complete series, broken down into three categories: painting and drawing; theater, sculpture, and photography; and music and dance. Each 27-minute episode features a working guest artist from the area being presented in that episode, and is hosted (unfortunately, in my opinion) by magicians Penn and Teller.

The series seems to be aimed at a mixed audience of adults and children, as if the makers were trying to aim the content at kids but give the parents something worth watching as well. The result is a rather odd hybrid. In each episode, there are many segments that are obviously kid-oriented: the cartoon of the dog Aldo, who comes up in each episode with some problem related to the topic; the silly songs; and the fact that each episode has a group of kids on-stage in at least one (if not more) segment to help out or interact with the stars. But the choice of content for the episodes, particularly those sections that have the guest artists, always includes something that seems to be aimed squarely at adults. For instance, David Hockney draws a surrealistic chair from the point of view of moving around the chair; conductor JoAnn Faletta works with college orchestra on a complex fugue; and photographer Carrie Mae Weems takes a series of photos of semi-abstract folk art sculptures, all artistic endeavors that will be appreciated and understood much more by adults rather than children.

So, how does the balance of kid- versus adult-oriented content work out? I didn't have any kids handy to test out the show on, but from the adult-only perspective, Behind the Scenes ends up being rather unsatisfying. There's enough potential in each episode's content to make it intriguing, but the execution in each case ends up being only so-so. The little informational songs that are used in the episodes, for instance, rapidly became irritating rather than cute; they're drawn out rather longer than necessary, and present only minimal information.

I've hinted at a certain dissatisfaction with the hosts of Behind the Scenes, and now I'll elaborate on it. Who on earth made the decision to have Penn and Teller host this program? What were they thinking? "Hey, let's make a children's show about artists! And let's hire a pair of obnoxious jerks to host it!" OK, maybe not everyone will have the same allergic reaction to the duo of magicians that I had, but still, they just don't seem the right types to host this program. Penn's overly bluff and booming presentation, and Teller's conceit of not speaking, may work well on stage in their shows, but the escapades that they put on in their hosting segments of Behind the Scenes just don't add anything to the show.

All in all, the most interesting portions of the episodes are, clearly, the segments with the guest artists themselves, in which we get to see truly "behind the scenes" at working artists in a variety of media. If the series had focused more squarely on this part of the content, I'd have found Behind the Scenes to be very insightful indeed. As it is, the series is mildly interesting, something I wouldn't mind watching but that I also wouldn't seek out.



The transfer of Behind the Scenes offers an image that is adequate, and that's about it. Granted, the content of Behind the Scenes doesn't really call for knockout image quality, but I still would have wished for a nicer transfer. As the series uses a variety of different source materials, from studio shots of Penn and Teller to cartoon animations to segments shot in other places with the guest artists of the shows, it's hard to pin down any characteristic problems, but there's nothing that looks particularly outstanding, either. The overall image tends to be a bit on the grainy side in some scenes, and the studio shots often exhibit colored haloes around the edges of objects; colors on the whole are sometimes a bit muddy.


The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack fares better than the video portion of the series in its transfer to DVD. The sound as a whole is competently clear and distinct; the hardest test comes in the episodes that focus on music, and in those, the soundtrack carries the music quite well, with satisfactory depth and fidelity. No background noise is evident, and the only drawback of the soundtrack is that it is sometimes rather flat-sounding. Oh, and Penn's irritating voice... not that the DVD makers could do anything about that, alas.


No bonus content is included in this set, but the menus are nicely clear and easy to navigate. The three DVDs are packaged in a nice three-disc plastic keepcase.

Final thoughts

The DVD release of Behind the Scenes will please fans of the show, with its presentation of the whole series conveniently in one set. The image quality isn't great, but it's certainly adequate for what's being presented, and the sound is good. For viewers unfamiliar with this look at art and artists, it's best to keep in mind that it seems to be aimed at a family audience: a lot of kid-oriented material with some tidbits thrown in to interest the adults. I'd suggest a rental if you aren't already a fan.

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