The second episode of the second season of Angel may not be entirely perfect, but it’s reallyreally beautiful; visually, musically, thematically. As if there weren’t enough backstory dragging behind a 240 year-old vampire, this episode loops a single thread of his shameful past from the present through a lyrically assembled series of events that localize crucial choices, filmic allusions and shame-based behaviours to a personal emotional disaster frozen fifty years in his past. It does this without the jarring, unpredictable, blinding flashes and ear-splitting noises that make most of the episodes in this series remarkably difficult to watch — even though I know that these interstitial transition story-devices mark the inevitable approach of Jasmine, two seasons down the vampire’s steeply-uphill path to redemption.
I suspect the 8 minutes trimmed for time, and moments removed to appease Standards & Practices might make this episode still more sublimely satisfying than the produced version already is, but putting them back wouldn’t alter the look that comes over Angel’s face at the very end of the episode as he gazes kinda-lovingly around the lobby of the haunted, insecurity-riddled hell of an old hotel he’s just liberated from the fascinating/abhorrent paranoia demon. It’s a legible look of homecoming that foreshadows Malcolm Reynolds’ first, enraptured visual study of Serenity, at the end of Out Of Gas, my favorite episode of Firefly (also written by the same remarkable guy).
Tim Minear’s fine-toothed commentary doesn’t go much out of its way to itemize each of the chewy allusions he wrote into this episode, beyond the mention of Chinatown. I noticed/imagined quotes from a host of hotel-based horror/noirs; The Shining, Barton Fink, Psycho with fond nods to Rebel Without A Cause, The Defiant Ones, Ox-Bow Incident, Pinky, Advise and Consent, and possibly The Manchurian Candidate, with strong tonal resonance with Bad Day at Black Rock and Shock Corridor — but then, the content and the context of this episode is steeped in still-topical issues that bleed from most episodes of The Twilight Zone; prejudice, self-interest served at cost to others, alienation, mob violence, lethal secrets, insupportable shame and manipulated insecurity — it’s as though Tim Minear were Serling’s unsung son. Temporal variations in our collective sociocultural attitudes toward racism, homosexuality, miscegenation, communism, lynching, scapegoating, crowdsourcing, and bullet-headed stupidity play tacitly, deep in the viewer’s imagination without crowning The Present Day with bullshit awards for enlightened, progressive platitudes (except for one unfortunate line that Minear explicitly regrets). It’s an amazingly tidy, nonlinear, meandering, complex and contradictory, yet beautifully-managed, profoundly-disturbing episode. HUACpaTooie!
In the interest of candor, I might as well report that I find Angel (one of my favorite television series) a real chore to watch because of the
- aforementioned, blinding and deafening interstitial transition thing,
- mumbled/whispered dialogue alongside BIG musical score and (industry-standard bogus) violent sound effects,
- the increasing prominence of the Cordelia Chase character,
- 80% of the Pylea excursion,
- most things involving Connor,
- and the mercifully-rare instances of crossover in which the hit&miss chemistry of Geller/Boreanaz usually leads me to gag on the smarm.
But it’s worth it because these shows are almost always about something real and pending that deserves to be re-evaluated regularly. And Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been? is certainly one of the best of them, right up there with The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. And there’s Billy, Skip and the indescribably delicious Alexa Davalos.
Jasmine’s the personification of the internet, the singular server of an ever-widening social network, the adversary of oldschool privacy, free will, and both the highest ideal and the ugliest dreads of humanity. The interstital transitions persist more intermittently after Jasmine’s vanquished (in the Whedonverse, where death isn’t necessarily terminal). Jasmine’s termination may have been instrumental in the liberation of Illyria, lest two monumentally-powerful higher largely-female powers converge on Earth kinda simultaneously to vastly overshadow the vampire from whose name the show derived its title.
Given the vicissitudes of unexpected preganacy (in season four), network anti-seriality notes and series cancellation, Mutant Enemy ground the standalone form of season five to an incredibly satisfying halt. Perhaps its a little more accurate to say they modified the course of a streaking killer-asteroid into a stable orbit.
I’ve just reached the end of Episode 13, Kill Them All. It isn’t called that coincidentally. Episode 12 concludes with those fateful words, and the season of WAY over-the-top violence (with more than a little sex in it) and frequent paroxysms of difficult, sidelong, elevated speeches comes to an abrupt stop. One pants in anticipation of the second season.
On the other hand, Andy Whitfield’s summation oration lights his face oddly from below. The camera, which is also low, finds Berchtesgaden darknesses on Whitfield’s upper lip. His rousing Bravheart oratory kinda stinks of Roman corpses that litter the central square of the villa and foul the bold and hopeful words with rivers of elite Roman blood. St. Crispin’s Day, it ain’t. Also, I don’t imagine Andy Whitfield was hired for his uncanny resemblance to Laurence Olivier’s acumen with the written word:
“Dude doesn’t look totally ridiculous in a loincloth, so yeah. Lex Barker, Jr. Yeah, that’ll work.”
It worked fine! Unfortunately, most of the BigBads that drove this season probably died. Chief among these was the almost-credible John Hannah, as Batiatus (formerly Peter Ustinov as Bat Eye At Us), the ambitious, plotting, conscienceless weasle almost-absolutely-positively-certainly died. Lucy Lawless as Lucretia definitely took Crixus’ blade in the foetus, but she was still twitching when credits rolled…so…? And there absolutely was no shortage of deeply nasty people this season to get in the way of the run-up to the (to be continued) inevitable slave revolt, next season (and maybe a couple of seasons after that). See, Spartacus (1960) wound up weaving his army up and down the length of the Italian peninsula as though they were lunch-hour customers at a preChristian Taco Bell.
However it gets where it’s surely going it’s going to be fascinating television.
I came to the series solely because of Steve DeKnight, the creator, and nobody who spent years writing at Mutant Enemy takes bloodshedding lightly, so WAY over-the-top violence (the cardinal signature of this rendering of the story) won’t go gently into that good DeKnight. Even utterly-righteous violence leads to dire consequences for heroes, or I’ve been misreading a lot of amazing writers for a long, long time. (Entirely possible.)
And on yet another hand. Henry Jenkins, today, called Twitter-attention to an interview here:
The discussion of his evolving perception of the myth of media violence is pretty cool. I’d just like to add the notion that most media violence is packed with amplified bullshit, and that systemic violence tends to go largely unnoticed. Systems that fail to meet the needs of the people (who subscribe to and support those systems) exhibit deeply embedded flaws in particularly interesting television shows like Breaking Bad, Deadwood (where we watch those infrastructural systems grow from nothing to institutions in the course of several months) and pretty much every show that David Simon’s ever touched.
It’s bound to be months before I tie into Treme, but the stuff I’ve read suggests that Hurricane Katrina wasn’t the problem that devastated New Orleans. Criminal systemic failures did kill, displace, and brutalize people. And the acts of violence visited on the inhabitants of that city will (if I’ve read the intent of the creative force behind the production correctly) show through even to the dimmest of us; acculturated to see criminal behavior as confined to certain strata of our society. Guns and anonymous decisions made deep in the safety of corrupt institutionalized infrastructures don’t kill people, people do. Actually, bullshit kills people.
Systemic violence and technological innovations that reduce personal options are aspects of the same thing. It’s not a popular subject, but needs considerable attention. That’s why I wish Professor Jenkins had elaborated on his description of things that suck (the life out of people/culture) because many of them are directly attributable to systemic, bureaucratic, ideational quagmires; beta slop that needs field testing. And there’s no better time to be a corrupt politican (or firmware developer) than the moment when the press provides less-credible criticism of our institutional systems than fictional drama.
Interesting that I’ve been watching television for 50 years and yet I’d never seen a castrated man crucified until Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Sure, that’s an awful thing, but what’s even worse is the institutional repression that blunts the shock of violence people do to people. In that context, media violence is far from mythic. It amplifies the bonebreaking sound of a slayer’s punch (that never lands) and refuses to show the stump of a severed dick. That’s downright bizarre.
“But what about the children?!”
Just when a kid needs and deserves an honest clue in order to make informed choices about (you name it), some asshole farts that moronic question as a justification for bullshitting. No wonder people who risk their lives to preserve our ways of life believe we can’t handle the truth.
I really liked John Hannah’s work in Rebus, and yet Ustinov played BatEyeAtUs more interestingly than Hannah’s BattyAtus. The differences between these two recitations of the Spartacus story are numerous, but I think the essential differences are localized in Batiatus. John plays him like a grasping, malicious, tolerated, minor Wall Street criminal. Peter’s portrait (of Judas) bats-his-eyes-at and flatters Real Power. Both portrayals present a man who goes-along-to-get-along. John plays a tragic, rigid paranoid, Peter plays a flexible coward.
Given that historians and storytellers lie, each of us is obligated to play the role of Batiatus. More decently. What redeming quality resides in your Batiatus that punches through the web of lies and 41st Century agendas fashioned by future historians? I wrote goofy sentences. I’m obligated to do better.
At the end of season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the BigBad has been vanquished and The Initiative is not only broken but obliterated, scattered and denied as though it had never happened beneath the plausible deniablility of “scorched earth” and governmental scoffing. The season-long arc has climaxed in episode twenty-one, which leaves Restless as an aftermath of summing and evaluating the work the show had done — for four years. And it’s written in ancient iambic Sumerian, Buffy Summerian, that is; swimmin’ pools, movie stars…
It’s an anthology of dreams of the four principle characters who joined together (even more completely than of-yore) to defeat the BigBad by invoking the soul of the power of the slayer, which just happens to annoy the hell out of the entire tradition of slayers, which manifests in each of their four more-or-less fragmentary dreams to threaten their waking lives for having the temerity to flout the chain-of-command (slayer tradition) by going directly to the source that’s personified in the original slayer, a solitary misanthrope, the victim of frightened old men.
And the writer’s/director’s commentary for that episode reflects his intentional, insistent break with tradition to write an hour of only-vaguely-linear, subtexual exposition about the sandbox in which four characters met to create a television show; the writer’s sandbox.
Buffy’s success as a programming victory for an insignificant market reached more people than were targeted in an age-appropriate demographic by breaking with tradition, remixing staid conventions and going directly to the source of the power that unites writers and audiences; by making something new from stuff that had already been done to death. And Restless departs from the customary path that defines the rise and fall of television shows. It specifically and particularly defies its own traditions by (among other things) previously portraying Spike in The Yoko Factor as the maniplative influence of network/studio executive notes and messageboard remarks from fans. Everybody meddles, well-wishers, censors, sponsors, fans…even artists meddle with their own work.
Call it classic or cheesy television, if you must. I’ll just describe it as art. Like fashions, cultish devotion and popcultural references, obsession with novelties wax and wane, but Mutant Enemy produces work that continues to delight me as I age, finding rich new layers of meaningful content embedded in each successive assay; not unlike Casablanca — it never seems to get stale. I don’t see Dollhouse in the same light, but it’s loaded with ideas that deserve (and will receive) plenty of additional scrutiny.
Restless is a remarkably transparent statement about nourishing the writer/artist/content-creator by flouting the interests of significant others by engaging with the source of pleasure in writing stuff people will eventually come to realize they need because it keeps the saga alive in the souls of the writers/artists/content-creators who refuse to work on their knees, pandering to past success; pandering to pandering. It also does that for the audience.
I believe that the factor that killed the Beatles was their unqualified success, the overwhelming public adoration for what they’d already made together acted as a profound deterrent to whatever hadn’t happened yet. It wasn’t/isn’t Yoko, but public inertia; popular yearning for more-of-the-same that kills artists (by rewarding copyists and meddlers).
The most singularly valuable thing I’ve leaned while following the blog of The Ad Contrarian came from a guy named Guy who said that discovery and invention are very different processes; that academics invent categories, classifications, comparisons and contrasts, while fortunate and talented scientists and artists discover things that really can’t be vivisected without significant loss. And the death of social media happens when reputation acts as an impediment to stepping out of character and discovering something new.
Rhymes with “solace” as the antimatter reboot episode of Angel 4.11 in which Angelus is tactically invoked to replace Angel for the specific purpose of putting an end to The Beast (that blotted out the sun and would probably devour Cleveland). And that’s quite enough about that.
I’d like to take this opportunity to bitch about Connor and Cordelia. The two of them are written in a way that makes this fourth season a very difficult passage to the series final year. I’ve now seen Vincent Kartheiser in only two roles, but both of the characters he’s portrayed are disgustingly ambiguous. In Mad Men, Kartheiser’s acknowledged talents elicit moments of tremendous sympathy that rise high above my accustomed contempt for his character’s slippery, self-serving values and tendency toward treasonous toadying…but Pete’s been there since the beginning of that series; integral to its success. In Angel, Connor is a climactic insert, an add-on, an appendix that never seems to go away, adding a bottomless suck-hole of selfpity, sexual perversity and quasi-religious fixated venom that borders on insanity.
Mutant Enemy’s fondness for Charisma Carpenter has never seemed less justifed than in the course of this season of Angel, in which Cordelia’s everpresent influence thwarts everything I enjoyed in the show. As a foil, Cordelia was invaluable, but as a scold and a pillar of reason, she’s utterly superflous…and I say these things about the characters who were written by the most admirable brand I know. Cordelia and Connor stink, while Kartheiser’s brilliant portrayal of a crap-hole sings with an actor’s sensitive and intelligent choices, the character just sucks ass. The thing is that I blame the writers for driving an incredibly complex, multiseason plot-arc through the incestuous liaison between Connor and Cordelia that’s foreshadowed by Angel’s implausible fixation on the wellbeing of his dearly beloved but mostly-evil son.
Sidebar: I’ve known admirable individuals who marry admirable individuals and reproduce in order to become horrid parents who make contemptible choices, persistently, whenever they’re obliged to choose between sane behavior and actions that might possibly infringe upon the wellbeing of their little ones. These choices extend to barring the use of profanity within fifty yards of their kids, smoking most anything, the display of affection between unmarried adults…It’s the kind of drastically-altered, hypocrital mindset that murders longstanding friendships, and results in horrid kids who sometimes become admirable individuals, especially if they estrange themselves from their parents early.
Angel leans quite deeply in that revolting direction. He prevents Cordelia from joining in the search for The Beast stating that she’s far too precious to him to risk her life and safety needlessly, then he tells Fred to get a move on (as though Fred were labelled BEASTFODDER). The wizards at Mutant Enemy pointedly drew the distinction between Fred and Cordelia to highlight Angel’s Cordelia-related compulsion that would require several more episodes of tedious semi-credible explanation, but the special place for Connor and Cordelia in Angel’s theoretical heart casts piles of unloving disregard on every other character for a very long time…and that’s why season 4 seems a great deal longer than all of the others. The moment in Orpheus when Angel rescues a small dog from the path of an oncoming car in the 1920s reminds me of the Shatner-meets-Collins temporal paradox that’s pivotal in The City at the Edge of Forever. Just sayin’. Thirteen bucks to download nearly 29 hours of Star Trek season one from iTunes. Such a deal! I ought to be able to check the ostensible parallel/quote/homage and make a report in about 48 hours.
Paraphrasing Angel: The purpose of a champion is to behave as though the world were a better place, and thereby set an example for the rest of us. When Angel behaves like a parent/knave, his show might as well be Ozzie and Harriet. And I’ve better things to do than that.
A little more bitching: Interstital transitions are very unlike act breaks. They don’t adhere to the narrative structure that makes their occurence predictable. An abrupt change of scene or timeframe on Angel is often accompanied by instantaneous flashes of lightning and attendant bursts of thunder. These instantaneous overstimulations of the audience sensory instrumentality contrast markedly with several mumbling actors and signature dark cinematography and really piss me off. They’re all so unpredictable, painfully bright and disconcerting that they also serve as foreshadowing intimations of the arrivial of Jasmine, who, as Skip explains, in Inside Out, is the all-powerful unknown force that’s been nudging, manipulating and influencing important events since long before the start of season one. I love Skip. I loathe Jasmine’s bargain that equates world peace with theocratic world domination — and I also loathe blinding interstitial transitions, even when they’re deeply integrated, innovative and intentional enhancements of story. They fucking HURT.
There are a couple of notable parallels that won’t bear up under serious scrutiny, but I’d be remiss in failing to mention Jasmine’s blatant and subtle resemblance(s) to Oprah, beauty queens and Michelle Obama. I think that in the moment of her ascension to First Lady, the media reduced our collective perception of her intelligence and personal dynamism by 75%, and has been feeding the world a steady diet of her private sleeve-lengths, child-rearing advice and bits of traditional role debris. It’s as though media artisans are tirelessly revising Michelle Obama’s breathtaking native identity into the mandatory First Lady’s graven image that generates adoringly-favorable global impressions far more like Oprah’s, Elizabeth II’s, or June Cleaver’s than Hillary’s. If so, we’re too dumb to pity.
Gwen Raiden is introduced in Ground State (4.02). Portrayed by the remarkably attractive and adept Alexa Davalos, Gwen appears twice in a couple of later episodes in the middle of that season and never shows up again. Why? Rogue didn’t have some of the finest writers in the television industry fabricating snappy banter for her to deliver, though the nature of her superpower made Gwen Raiden almost exactly as incapable of physical intimacy as the X-Men character, Rogue. Mutant Enemy failed to service the Raiden character adequately, yet they made her emotional isolation chamber infinitely more empathically recognizable in fragments of three episodes than the X-Men franchise managed in three excessively expensive films to make Rogue matter, meaningful, memorable. See Players for the soul of a spin-off pilot that unfortunately didn’t extend the domain of the slayers beyond Players.
Their commentaries indicate that Mutant Enemy was constantly formulating work-arounds for practical, financial and logistical difficulties, many of which were imposed by their dinky networks or the studio. I’ve always suspected that the season arcs were exquisitely designed to tell the audience more about the obstacles besetting the production process than all the cumulative speculation in print by academics, fans and critics. Whistler was replaced by Doyle. Corruption was replaced by Lonely Hearts. Angel almost never tasted of human blood, but would have done so in Corruption…it’s the notes and meddling of network and studio executives that lead me to speculate that an angel in theatrical production is a soulless wad-of-money with legs that makes a television show like Angel possible. The trick of turning angels into Angel involves making the best possible compromise with hosts of variable-sized demons. Most production companies don’t entertain by itemizing the cost (in souls) of creating products that give solace.
Some day the final departure of the Groosalug from Angel will make even more poignant sense than Mark Lutz’ last line — if I can grab somebody who knows more than I do (about the Sandy Grushow relationship with Mutant Enemy) by the lapels and torture them until they confirm/contextualize my irrational suspicions regarding Firefly, Buffy and Angel. No, probably not an opportunity I’ll ever have (to learn a thing or two).
And that passage of The Teddybear’s Picnic that introduces a caged Angelus as the teaser closes in Soulless really should have been overdubbed by a superb vocalist with perfect pitch, to contrast with Angel’s off-key, arhythmic Manilow covers; Anthony Stewart Head, maybe: Audience notices the markedly-improved voice with surprised satisfaction, then recognizes the singer and with keen curiousity attributes a wealth of deceitful talents to Angelus that make him a more formidable antagonist than Angel. That’s the note that prompted this post. Show the viewer someone new, don’t just always tell us.
The commentary track of Lullaby (Angel 3.09) is provided by Tim Minear, who co-wrote and directed the episode, and Mere Smith, writer and script coordinator. It’s the funniest and most insightful 43 minutes of focussed conversation since Lem Dobbs and Steven Soderbergh argued their way through The Limey.
Lullaby is a pivotal episode in the development of the saga that brings a final end to Darla and introduces Connor, but Minear and Smith somehow manage to kill (one another and me) in the course of a stand-up/sit-down, microscopic leer behind the scenes of the making of M.E. product. (I really believe that Darla became the soul of the franchise [and Connor was the stake in its heart]). Plymouth Cock landed on Darla in a way that permitted her backstory to drop dimensional shadow on the whole whore of American history. Mutant Enemy barely utilized that exquisitely beautiful teaching aid.
Late in the lively frivolity, derisive mention is made of That Old Gang of Mine (3.03) in which Gunn’s loyalties are divided between his old crew and his new one, while black characters perpetrate violent acts of indiscrimate racial intolerance against a local minority population (of dangerous and harmless demons). I mentioned the rarity of media insight into black racism in an earlier post on Lakeview Terrace, which leads me to marvel at Tim Minear’s (and Mutant Enemy’s) courage in exploring that special brand of darkness that doesn’t seem to win awards or even lift many eyebrows. (District 9 tried to go there too, but it overdosed on Stupid and Brutal before it succumbed to Moronic.)
I wonder that a white guy from Whittier (Nixon Country — 43.2% white, 1.2% black, 1.3% Indian in 2000) even took a sympathetic shot at addressing the black experience, let alone an intriguingly clear, equivocal one. Apart from the unambiguously negative regard with which Tim remarked on That Old Gang of Mine, I’d really like to know how it was meant to fit in the M.E. product line, and how it failed to make the more satisfying statement he obviously intended.
The purpose of this post, however, is to mention a kind of alternative interpretive overlay in which I see significant similarities between Charles Gunn and Malcolm Reynolds.
Gunn’s pickup truck is introduced in War Zone (1.20), bristling with a stake-throwing, bed-mounted machine gun, and Reaver-style Wash-stickers, strongly resembling “the boat”, late in the BigDamnMovie. I see another similarity in the gradual raising of Gunn from the heartbroken leader of a streetgang (“muscle”) to the stature of a diplomat in the struggle against overpowering and nearly-immortal sanctioned corruption…which (to my mind [vampire/empire]) resembles the evolution of Malcolm Reynolds from the ungenteel son of an independent rancher to heroic soldier, outlaw, bearer of bad news for the established Allied government, and (ultimately) a leader and diplomat in a subsequent war for interplanetary independence. I even wonder whether J. August Richards was eyeballed to play the role that was given to Nathan Fillion. No telling, but there’s room for speculation.
One of many latent conflicts deeply embedded in Firefly is the distinct possibility that slavery and indentured servitude remained to be explored in later episodes/seasons, foreshadowed by Badger’s inspection of the teeth of a woman as Mal enters Badger’s office all the way back in the pilot episode, and Badger’s insistence, in that scene, on the importance of his elevated place (above Reynolds) in the wider social hierarchy in which a businessman on a border planet like Persephone ranks significantly higher than the captain of a Ford F-100. I think the poignancy of a black Capt. Reynolds, veteran of a war of independence against a culture dependent upon the institution of slavery, would have provided the writers additional leverage in telling tales of biting contemporary relevance by means of the microscope of American history and the telescope of speculative, character-driven fiction. Tag Glory, buzz Ali, circle The Hurricane and honor The Killer Angels by citing George Pickett’s parable of a gentlemen’s club from the point of view of someone who would not or could not belong to a society that would love to have him as a member; choice/no-choice; states’ rights versus federal obligation (to obliterate slavery). We just can’t seem to put that pesky slavery thing to bed.
Sexual and racial imperfections in the American character were masterfully massaged in the course of the first two series, and what’s coming from the brand I most admire (Mutant Enemy) remains to be seen repeatedly and reinterpreted to death…the overdue death of obscene and obsolete institutions.
Can entertainment production companies teach, change unquestioned practices? Can television teach? Where’s Murrow?
In Sanctuary (Angel 1.19) Detectives Lockley and Kendrick converse casually but meaningfully while investigating one of Faith’s innumerable crime scenes. They talk about pithy junk before Kendrick challenges Lockley’s faith in ooga-booga-stuff with unassailable, empirical and logical reason by nailing her with a topical X-Files reference, which Lockley corrects by undercutting Kendrick’s faith in his generally cocky cop-hipness. Whatever. The most remarkable aspect of this interaction is that all of the plainclothed and uniformed cops trooping around the room are sporting blue(-gloved) hands in an episode that aired 02May00, which is just about 28 months before the BlueHands guys made their first appearance on Firefly.
Sanctuary was written by Tim Minear and Joss Whedon, who must have noticed the striking visual peculiariarity of the viagra/TidyBowl-mitts-effect and simply incorporated that unsettling visual event into the repertoir of the disturbingly bureaucratic and lethal Blue Hands duo, like an ace-in-the-hole. The other intriguing similarity resides in the Firefly episode, Safe, in which some stress is placed on the irony of the episode-title in that nobody we care about (not even two very rich generations of Tams) is remotely free of danger — and just as Angel confidently comforts Faith in the certainty that no harm can befall her in the comfort of the sanctuary his ultra-low-profile fortress will afford, a heavily-armed Council of Watchers taskforce descends like nightmare terrorists into her morbid gloom and attempts to put the boot to the big damned hero-vampire, rogue slayer and most anybody dumb enough to be caught in Angel’s subtextual asylum.
I’m not saying that any of these casual observations are important or terribly meaningful, but they’re nothing less than noteworthy, either.
I’ve always said that Angel 1.14 is my favorite episode in that series, citing the fine narrative devices that lead the viewer to the deeper reveal beyond the dear old hackneyed. I don’t remember noticing previously that The Prodigal episode (that directly follows my permanent favorite) drops our titular protagonist into the eternal Oedipal soup in the very same position that Ryan occupies in the preceding hour. Angelus’ consternation arrives with Darla’s incontestible observation, to blight the hellish victory he’s made of his liberated future on the bodies of his parents and the blameless faith of his murdered sister.
I’ve always thought that I’ve Got you Under My Skin speaks with uncommon brilliance, through the horror of an Ethros demon, of the writer’s void. It also opens the cover on a study on the properties of bullying. The thing is that The Prodigal ends by refreshing the infinite uncertainty of the challenged, writerly point of view, and expressing it in the wordless revelation of tragic futility or divine humilation that plays across Liam’s face. A transposed and augmented echo that’s approximately as indescribably cool as the last chord in A Day in the Life.
There’s an allegorical warning there, lurking in the darkness. It’s probably meant to caution those who aspire to be either vampires or writers; not so much to dissuade anyone, as to fairly present the first, unpublicized sacrifice that marks the turf where a person died and a writer arose it its place. Great stories sometimes appear long before we’re ready to appreciate them whole.
“Let’s get to work”, is an unremarkable phrase that ends the series’ final episode as aptly and succinctly as it punctuates the first. It’s a phrase that goes entirely unnoticed on the first pass through the show, yet stands out like a hitchhiker’s swollen thumb sticks out from beneath the tires of the bus, whenever the story’s retold, with the shocking inevitability of half-forgotten prophecy.
I’m just sitting here ruminating about Episode 19 of Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in an exploratory kind of way. Thinking that Faith is a fairly obvious name for a character that may also extend a metaphor made popular by J. Michael Straczynski in Babylon 5. That
- faith and reason are your shoes, you’ll get farther with both.
There are two slayers in Sunnydale, despite prophecy and tradition and common sense which dictate there can be only one at a time…on. the. entire. planet. And Faith (Id) is a trifle unbalanced, perceiving the gift of her slayer powers as unqualified license to satisfy all of her amoral appetites, spurn all personal responsibility for her independent actions, and deny the importance of untoward consequences that flow naturally and logically from the free exercise of those powers. It’s all 5×5 to terminate vampires, but the moment she exterminates one measly human, a scrutinizing circle of social condemnation converges on her judgment and her capacity for reason…which leads her into the ridiculous happy arms of affable, fatherly evil. Faith in The Unknown versus rationally-deduced knowledge of empirical fact; there’s probably a wildly-successful televison show or 50, somewhere in that dogfight.
Two slayers in Sunnydale should lead one to the natural conclusion that Buffy, is probably the story’s repository of reason. Um, no. Regroup. (Return with us now to Dopplegangland, where ultra-inhibited Willow meets her evil alternative-self, who’s surprisingly attractive, amoral, and kinda gay [Foreshadow much?]) I’m thinking it’s gotta be Willow because this episode coincides with the (shockingly-arbitrary) natural order of high school seniors choosing which college (destiny) toward which they’ll embark for the following season(s). Willow’s option-identity is exactly opposite Faith’s with regard to offers from Oxford, Harvard, MIT…while the more-amoral slayer (who dropped out of high school long ago) is presented with a decidedly limited number of far-less-illustrious options (that might involve hopping a freight out of town). And this episode’s entitled, Choices. But Willow’s abduction by the forces of mayoral evil (during the theft of the box of bat-spiders) forces the Slayity (Scoobies — I just prefer to call them the Slayity) to choose between rescuing Willow from torture and death or to thwart the mayor’s plans for the box. Oz wordlessly casts the deciding vote. No choice.
I’m going with the college-choice thingy, for now. So if Buffy isn’t the Fort Knox of Reason, I’ve just got to conclude she’s always been the dynamic balance between two terms of an inspired contradiction; the primary target of terrifying evil…who just happens to be a champion evil-ass-kicker. Buffy’s always been the pivotal oxymoron, the neo-iconic contradiction to the hackneyed stereotype of cheerleader victimization, damsel in distress, virgin/whore…and stuff, taking back the knight for refund (and maybe a delicious cookie — I just love the way she delivers that line, as though this show were Sesame Street and she’s a precocious 3year-old). So Faith and Willow represent a cardinal opposition of faith and reason that encompases a rare confrontation between the two of them in the mayor’s office when (to my ear it’s entirely clear that) Willow’s the master of her destiny, while Faith is a leaf on the wind of fatal circumstance. “Tough life? Boo-hoo.” (Do better!) ♫Willow, weep for M.E.♪ (Superego much?)
But, while faith, reason and balance work just fine as a nifty, patented triunity of Goddessnessness ness, Cordelia presents an interesting problem in the narrow confines of my tidy little uberchick-community. In Earshot, she’s the only person who speaks her disgustingly-human mind without restraint, shame, edit or euphemism…and Buffy’s new telepathic ability makes Buffy (Ego) a psychological leper in her tightly-knit knot of hypocrites, who uniformly flee her company — except for Cordelia, who seems never to have met an unpleasant thought she didn’t express immediately, which calls directly back to Out of Mind, Out of Sight; to the soliloquy in which she candidly expresses her preference for being an isolated, ignored and unknown star at the gooey center of popular attention, offering up a fascinatingly paradoxical perspective on the universal human condition of agonizing isolation with relatively-acceptable options. By the way, she’ll become that solitary star more literally, a few seasons later. Ripper Giles is a living validation of the hope of redemption, while Angelus and Spike are unliving examples of that hopey principle. Anyanka and Amy also, kinda. And Wesley will shortly justify some small extension of our charity, because, well, what the Hecate.
So, for now, I’m dropping Cordelia into the Goddess pot of tetrunity, positing faith and reason as opposites to the fist of secrets (Buffy) and the slap of streaming insults (Cordelia), as the four-part manifestation of Joss Whedon’s philosophy of human ecology/psychology/entomolgy. And that makes Xander…? Joss!, the Jimmy Olson of The Daily Hellmouth, the erratic/spurious chronicler and life-restoring resident fuck-up whose attentions and affections wobble from one cardinal female character to the next (serially and in peculiar combinations), forming a kind of eternal pyramid that’s mystically resistant to network cancellation, which Willow chooses to maintain in Sunnydale. Nice Choices. Cookie!
In the best of Cartesian worlds, Faith and Willow define a locus of points on the X-axis; Buffy and Cordelia are on the Y; while Zander/Joss lends canny and inane perspective from the semi-illiterary Z.
I stink, therefore I am. 3D!
The pilot episode of Alias presents a styilish whirlwind of information that shoots out at the audience like a torrent of unrelenting Cool from a gilded firehose. It isn’t recognizably boring or flawed…until about 55 minutes into the episode, when Sydney Bristow races down a staircase in a public building with semi-automatic pistols blazing from her fists as she shoots the hinges off a fire door, then kicks the door down without breaking stride, while craftily and resourcefully continuing to elude her heavily-armed pursuers. Bullshit!
There are a couple of glaring flaws in the scenario I just described:
Doors leading into stairwells open into stairwells (since the Triangle Shirtwaiste Factory Fire of 1911). Kicking down a door from the stairwell side — even if the hinges were magically removed or shot away — could not permit you to pass fluidly through to the floor below. The door would have to fall into the stairwell side of the opening. (Disbelievers should consult the Uniform Building Code, or explore a stairwell door in any office building). The absurdity of Sydney’s solution to the door problem completely prevented me from wanting to give a crap about the stylishly presented whirlwind of information (largely exposition) spewing from the Alias firehose. More-or-less unfortunately, the bulk of Season 1 awaits me this Christmas holiday weekend before I can send the DVDs back to NetFlix. Alias watching is taxing. Lots of television and movies isn’t Show Business at all, it’s Tell Business.
The other flaw, apart from the door problem (that would have gummed up Sydney’s fast-paced, fluid escape from her pursuers), is that hinges on a closed firedoor don’t sit flush on the surface of the frame to be shot away (like a corral gate), they’re recessed into the reveal at the hinge-side of the frame; so a handheld disintegrator pistol from some episode of Star Trek might eliminate all three hinges swiftly, but the configuration of the frame (its stops) would still prevent the door from falling in the desired direction. I stumbled over a stupid trick that prioritized storytelling style over substance. I don’t want to look more closely for subtler cheats. Alias is slimy-slick and interesting, but taxing.
Alias, on the strength of this otherwise insignificant moment in the pilot episode, doesn’t bother to earn the respect that’s absolutely necessary for this audience-member to bother following its rapid-fire permutations of narrative. Buffy does.
Xander, in an episode I just passed through (The Wish, I think), at one point bars the entry of a mob of Xander-loving girls through the paired opening to the school library. He pushes a heavy card-catalogue-desk up against both doors. Moments later, Giles pulls open the active door from the corridor side, and enters the library. It’s a tactical error in barricade-maunfacture that Xander makes quite frequently. And it’s exactly the kind of pointless, swashbuckling actionism that underscores comedic flaws in his intermittenly-manly yet deeply heroic and intolerant character. These flaws in Xander’s self-image naturally flow into his final confrontation with Jack O’Toole near the end of The Zeppo, when Xander’s (not particularly manly) capacity for self-sacrifice undercuts the dead bully’s lust for self-preservation (ironic). Cowed, O’Toole defuses the bomb. Xander leaves the boiler room triumphant. O’Toole mutters a promise to make Xander’s life a living hell, as Oz, in the form of a werewolf, bursts into the boiler room to re-kill and devour O’Toole, which explains why Oz is “oddly full” the next day when Xander offers him snackfood. Tidy. Earned. Fascinating attention to cohesive storytelling detail.
Doors, by the way, are far more wonderfully interesting machines than you probably think they are. I’ll ramble on in this post for a while, but if the stuff I’m writing here leads you to explore any door of your choosing in minute detail (or two) I’m very happy to have been of some small service to you.
Joss sometimes speaks (in interviews and commentaries) of the inflence of True Believers on their social environments. These scraps of information serve to shed particles of light on his use of True Believers as a force for ungood in Mutant Enemy stories, but gradually hypotheses form. The Eliminati in Bad Girls are, for example, sword-wielding vampire warriors whose numbers decrease prodigiously because of their true belief in a bigbad pile of excrement who somehow inspires their unswerving alliegence, while barely lifting a finger. I wish Joss would take the time necessary to define his use of industry terms more clearly; moments, beat, moves, earn, undercut…there are lots of them that don’t necessarily yield useful information when other people use or explain them.
Seemingly-heroic acts of terrible violence are perpetrated by dedicated followers of vengeance, mock-rebellion, nonsense, the whims of unprincipled leaders…these True Believers don’t get much respect from Whedon, who has them break store windows, sacrifice civilians, kill, mame, loot and destroy…usually under the cover of darkeness, various forms of flobotnam or simply out of deranged and misguided values. These seeming-heroic acts of violence seem to fit into my view of his perspective on various forms of cowardice — unlike Angel’s surprising confession to Buffy in Amends that the demon within him is an insignificant threat to civilization compared to the weak and cowardly man he was even before the demon possessed him. Human frailty, imperfection, and deep aspects of universal human character drive these stories. Flobotnam is smoke that mirrors window-dressing. Sometimes a window is a mirror that unites the viewer (rather than separating us from) the enactment of fantasy on the other side of it; quite often, when the fantasy is produced by Mutant Enemy.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t as good as it gets. I mean, for example, that the “play-all” (episodes) option on Alias DVDs is vastly superior to the Buffy format (which requires lots of cursor movement and/or remote-control clicking and interminable waiting between episodes for the annoying bits of redundancy and loudness, to which I objected in the previous blogpost). But the good stuff (narrative content) that flows from Buffy episodes is vastly more valuable to me personally than the stuff that flows from Alias, LOST, Fringe and Heroes, because it’s about stuff that interests me in the real world. The other shows dwell on moral particulars that only exist in their own storyworlds. Buffy’s writers use the embarassingly manifold flobotinous devices (of mystical instrumentality, incantation and possession) unabashedly to tell informative tales about real people’s real problems.
Most fantastic television builds fanciful stories about apocryphal science (Fringe) or covert operations (Alias) or a bizarre array of contradictions that were never properly explored on Gilligan’s Island (LOST) about entertaining problems people don’t have — see Heroes for an endless litany of choices you’ll never have to make;
- if I slip back in time to save my mother’s life, will I step on more history-changing butterflies than if I save my girlfriend’s life? or
- is confessing my invulnerability to yet another guy who can fly an aspect of my dysfunctional and marginalized identity? or
- when does Heroes exceed the velocity of entertaining fun to become instructvely meaningful?
It never, ever will. That’s not its purpose. It’s about commerce, like other forms of utilitarian pornography that don’t bother to earn the permanent respect of any audience by teaching us anything useful.
Whedon’s fancies (in terms appropriate to David Milch) are meaningful and applicable to Murrow’s observation that television can teach. For all the Byzantine complexities of the shows I’ve mentioned, and dozens of others, the lessons are rich in information about stylish presentation, the limits of fantasy in audience-engagement, mirth, manipulation and crafty storytelling, but Buffy’s my chosen channel of engagement with entertainment. It’s less concerned with its smoke&mirrors than with helping me make sense of the real world: And yet it strives a good deal harder than most television to preserve several coherent layers of narrative consistency internally, within its constructs; so that the doors of perception swing meaningfully, as though a rare respect for the expertise of below-the-line crew (and other Ordinary Americans [like the national and global audience]) were just as important to ethical storyelling as the inevitable high-profile showrunning bullshit.
Whedon’s fanciful ideas about reality are instructive, as are those of David Milch (e.g., the functional utility of the Miranda Warning, as practiced or taught by Bill Clark).
I’ve hours of the first season of Alias to wade through before I sleep again. One of us will slay the other. I plan on playing computer solitaire while cruising through the DVDs, so I’ll probably have nothing more to say about Alias…I hope not.
My favorite episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has, for years, been the eleventh of the first season, Out of Mind, Out of Sight. I’m fond of the fundamental notion that people can be rendered invisible by the oxymoron of concentrated social negligence and focussed indifference, and then there’s Cordelia’s brief, casual, touching soliloquy in which she details the isolation from which she cowers, deep in the cover of her own cruel popularity. Also the intriguing link between Sandollar Televison’s Marcy Ross and the bigbad Marcie Ross at the heart of this episode, which reminds me that Joss did (Toy Story) time at PIXAR long before Violet Parr appeared/disappeared in The Incredibles and the words in Marcie’s text at the end of the story require a pause-button to read John Lennon’s lyric. This stuff was designed for broadcast, but was always meant to be revisited multiplatform.
So there’s plenty to like in Out of Mind, Out of Sight. It remains my favorite sode, but close on its heels is I Only Have Eyes for You, which comes near the end of the second season to foreshadow the season finale showdown between Angel and Buffy by turning them into gender-role-reversed dolls playing out an unresolved script enacted by mismatched lovers forty years earlier (40 centuries?). What appears to be a discrete, episodic, 43minute short story really isn’t, because it so greatly enriches, cures and flavors the contradictions that culminate in the season’s very-serial, un-reconcilable conclusion. Meredith Salinger and John Hawkes bring impressive chops, and I always liked James Whitmore, Jr. (even when he’s only directing), and Marti Noxon’s some kind of branding touchstone for me. (“Irreconcilable” is the wrong word.)
There’s also a thing involving the 50s that accentuates Mutant Enemy themes that always heighten the recognizable paradoxes of choice & consequence, appearance & reality, vengeance & redemption — as though those things we had “yesterday” (standards) lend judgmental dimension to everything that plays out contemporaneously at the end of the 20th Century. The Angel episode, Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been…wields that discrepency brilliantly, like an inescapable weapon. By Out of Gas on Firefly, the scathing edge of backstory was so finely honed it isolated vital organs (of the riveted) absolutely imperceptibly…but the effect is nearly identical to the noir presentiment of inevitable surrender to an utterly distasteful fate; used car dealer(s) pimping junk, wooing Jayne into betrayal of his previous crew, Zoe’s contempt for Mal’s flying car, Wash contemplating modifications, Kaylee caught starkers in the backseat while she toils beneath the hood. (I think that everybody in the 50s strove to appear adult and middle aged, which looked especially strange on us kids.)
Recruising Buffy is a wonderful treat. It’s like gazing through a telescope backward and looking for thematic similarities to show themselves in the context of DollhouseHorribleDriveWonderfallsFireflyAngelBuffyToystoryWaterworldSpeed and information gleaned from interviews. It’s fun to keep revisiting a body of masterworks-in-progress. Aspects that once seemed set-in-stone transform like treasured, moth-eaten butterflies because I bring a different set of stones on each successive pilgrimage. (Veiled cathedral reference with a hint of gallows humor [masquerading as windows humor; because I don’t do gallows.]) I also don’t do emoticons with punctuation symbols; well, not here.
Interestingly, Mutant Enemy products are always about real life in ways that LOST and Heroes are not. In fact, the entertainment values (that woo the crap out of an audience) often disguise the bedrock aptness of salient points, and only upon revisiting these stories do specific diagnoses and potential paths to remedy for universal human conditions become clearly visible behind the joys of clever language, layers of wit, knowing winks, cheesecake/beefcake, abundant humor and cool flobotnam. They’re stories about people in remarkably familiar situations. Not cinematic manipulations, not superpowers, not idiosyncracy and formulaic media-enabled nonsense. Okay, less rote and manipulative than most popular shows built for more popular networks, but lots less locked into bait-making…with frequent revisits, the moves grow less novel, but the moments emerge like amendments to the viewer’s constitution…chief among which is the right to be wrong in every previous assessment.
If Hansel and Gretel are society, the breadcrumbs that lead them to permanent gifts of culture come from bakeries with familiar names that build strong imaginations 12 ways. Mutant Enemy’s one of these. They’re rare. That’s all I’m saying.
Oh yeah, the downside: I’d download all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if I could afford to do so, to fix what’s wrong with the DVDs:
- Slow down the vitally-important credits so I can fucking read them.
- Drop the volume of the music that runs under credits.
- Make the volume of commentaries independantly variable.
- Always engage subtitles because the language in performance is often underarticulated, and at least as important to me as the extra-verbal interpretations of the actor(s).
- Edit out the terribly redundant “Into each generation…” speech that intrudes on the top of early episodes and usually leads directly into the same too-damned-loud credits-music that runs under titles.
Point 4 deserves the additional note that Joss Whedon’s adventures in graphic novelty (X-Men, BtVS, Angel, SereniFly) have always suffered (in my opinion) from a devastating lack of continuity from panel-to-panel, as though the actors in his television shows were absolutely necessary to communicate the flow of context between moments that are storyboarded into a hell dimension devoid of coherence. It’s WAY too easy to blame the illustrator/penciler, because this enthusiasm for Whedon-narrative led me to the graphic novels of Brian Kellar Vaughn, whose stories are wonderfully fluid when rendered by a handful of splendid collaborators. So Point 4 is partly a criticism of young actors who generally speak/mumble their lines too quickly for my taste, and it’s a reminder that the success of a television showrunner doesn’t necessarily signify unqualified genius in every medium. I won’t part with the bucks necessary for experimental editing of the intellectual property owned by 19th Century Fox Home Entertainment…yet. There’s plenty of stuff I can fail to accomplish in the meanwhile.
I think our most valuable cultural endproducts reflect the contributions of collaborators more than we’re disposed to believe. Auteurs, studios and expensive logos may be lightning rods for attention, but under-hyped people below the line-of-sight are probably more indicative of quality in the endproduct than the famous names that garner most of the attention. So I want to see credits clearly and follow people like (for example) Jose Molina,whose work with Mutant Enemy led me to Castle, which also involves Nathan Fillion, but the lightning rod was Molina. So I’m inclined to believe that modern storytelling (transmedia or whatever) is and has always been far more rooted in the complex relationships, skills and dedications of the armies of people who make them than the reputations of branded auteurs, studios and networks. You follow the money. I’m following the people.
I’m saying this entertainment stuff is
- of people,
- by people and
- for people
…a whole lot more than it’s about business plans, MBAs, egomania and box office receipts. And probably shall not perish from the earth when things (like the fortunes of media moguls) change. Things do.