Garry Marshall's Happy Days was a series that helped redefine the television map -- it heralded the unprecedented period of ABC's dominance of the television landscape after decades in the shadow of CBS and NBC. It also represented the beginning of a distinctly new generation of sitcoms to come (indirectly) out of the orbit of producer Sheldon Leonard. Creator Garry Marshall had cut his teeth as a television writer on The Dick Van Dyke Show, made by Leonard's production company, and the latter was a series whose setting and atmosphere was descended from the '50s television that Happy Days sought to emulate. The difference was that Marshall had the advantage of two decades' perspective from the 1950s in recreating an idealized version of the society that spawned that entertainment. Happy Days lost focus after the first four seasons and ran out of ideas before the '70s were done, and then spent years coasting on the personalities of its stars, but the early seasons had a refreshing charm, especially when the producers were still trying to figure out who and what each character would be. The first season represented on this three-disc set consisted of 16 episodes, the series having debuted in January of 1974 as a mid-season replacement. They're fascinating to watch, not only because this is the first uncut airing of those shows since they left the network, but also because the players, especially Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham, are so fresh in their roles and the 1950s setting is put together very smoothly. What makes Happy Days different from the sitcoms from the period it represents, apart from a sense of irony, are the nuances: the presence of Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" (replacing the intended "Happy Day" theme song by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox during the first two seasons), in lieu of a pop instrumental by some composer of the period; the presence of Henry Winkler's Arthur Fonzarelli (aka Fonzie), even in the early episodes when he was a supporting character; and the references to period politics. It's eerie looking at the first episode, to see how impressive Henry Winkler is; sans leather jacket (the network insisted he wear a windbreaker), and with no dialogue until the last of four scenes in which he appears, he still dominates those scenes with his presence -- and already, there's a hint of the preternatural powers that he would later manifest with girls, in a scene where he unhooks a handy brassier with one finger. Anson Williams also is interesting to watch as a somewhat different Potsie Webber -- less a comic nerd than a rather overeager Lothario, he's a much more interesting character, if not as likable, a kind of slightly gawky Eddie Haskell to Howard's Wally Cleaver. The plots themselves draw from lines similar to those in very late-era Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best episodes, with the obvious influence of the Dick Van Dyke Show: Richie and Potsie buy a car together; their friend Ralph Malph (Donny Most, not yet an equal co-star) gets his car into a drag-race; Richie finds himself committed to a date with a girl (Diana Canova) half-a-head taller than he is; Richie and Potsie sneak into a strip-joint, where Richie spots his own father (Tom Bosley) in the audience.... By episode seven, "Fonzie Drops In, they're working Winkler and Howard for their talent and doing well with it, and by the next episode, Winkler is providing the punch line to the show. Finally, in "Give the Band a Hand, Winkler is wearing his leather jacket (and Williams, Howard, and Most are singing as members of a band). And in "Knock Around the Block" you actually see the Fonzie character's darker, more threatening side for the first time. By end of the first season, the producers even had the courage to do a show about civil rights,"The Best Man" (and this was in 1974, when integration was still a hot-button issue in a lot of white neighborhoods, and a lot of elections). The full-screen (1.33:1) film-to-video transfers are generally excellent, in terms of both color and detail; one or two shots might be a little soft in certain close-ups, but generally this is a better presentation than the uncut episodes have ever received, especially as the episodes, each running slightly over 25 minutes, were all cut (sometimes very obviously and awkwardly) by as much as two minutes as soon as they went into syndication. The audio is mastered at a decent volume level, and one can easily hear the details in a lot of the pop and rock songs (especially the Les Paul and Mary Ford material) that wasn't evident on the original telecasts. The three single-sided discs each contain five or six episodes, accessible individually in a simple menu or with a "play all" command. Each episode is broken into five chapters, covering the "Rock Around the Clock" opening credits (making it easy to skip), the opening of the show, the start of the second half, the coda at the end, and the end credits. There are no extra features of any kind, which is sort of a pity, because the series had a pretty complicated pre-history. The pilot, starring Howard, Williams, and Marion Ross, with Harold Gould in the role of the father, and set in an urban area (as opposed to suburban) had actually been shot in 1971. At the time, Howard was hoping to avoid the military draft and was advised that one way to do this would be to star in a TV series (the law provided an exemption for anyone whose being drafted would lead to the unemployment of 35 or more workers), but it didn't sell and was folded into Love, American Style as "Love and the Happy Days, broadcast in February of 1972. In the meantime, the nostalgia boom took hold on television, and Howard starred in George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973), a film set at the end of the 1950s, which was a hit, so much so that it got ABC newly interested in the series. The makers of the disc could at least have thrown in "Love and the Happy Days" (which is owned by Paramount) as a very obvious bonus.