Friday, July 29, 2011
Alternate universe stories are a time-honored tradition for genre television, and what makes Buffy's interpretation so special is in its clever subverting of our expectations as an audience, as well as its really beautiful ideas about having faith in something. Cordelia takes center stage for the early stages of the episode, angry and bitter over Xander's infidelity, and repeatedly humiliated by the bitchy popular girls she abandoned in order to be with him. She encounters a new girl in school who unexpectedly grants her wish to live in a Buffy-free Sunnydale, only to end up in a world where vampires rule, the human population is rapidly dwindling, and few saviors are in sight.
I really missed Spike. And considering I grew to violently dislike his omnipresence on the show in its later years (an opinion that may change during my re-watch), that's some feat. But while season three has been pretty spectacular so far, my biggest complaint is about the use of its cast of players. Buffy and Giles have never been better, but with Oz and Cordelia majorly on the periphery of things and Xander and Willow both becoming hateful, a vital element on the show had been lacking somehow. And while Spike's one-shot appearance doesn't turn that complaint around entirely, his presence is really, really welcome. I love his humor, his insight into the characters, and the fact that he's such a whiny sad-sack here.
I hate Xander Harris. I've always been sort of ambivalent to him as a character, been occasionally annoyed at his inappropriate quippery, but this episode truly sewed the seeds of my hatred of him. Revelations sees him as jealous, petulant, obnoxious, reckless, stupid, arrogant and hypocritical, arranging for all the Scoobies to gang together to take a big metaphorical dump on Buffy, and then further betraying her by teaming up with Faith of all people to kill Angel. I had a lot of problems with this particular storyline, but Xander's actions were entirely reprehensible. He's a cowardly butt-munch here, stretching whatever credibility he may have by creating elaborate reasoning for why Angel must die, and doing everything in his power to humiliate and degrade Buffy for doing something stupid. He makes my skin crawl.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Considering it still doesn't exactly justify being spread over two episodes, I actually enjoyed Dreamland II a lot more than its predecessor. While it still remains a little flat and spends far too long coasting ahead of its underwhelming conclusion, I enjoyed the general theme that ran through the hour, of Mulder somewhat having wasted his life. Here's a man who had it all at one point, yet became so consumed with alien conspiracies and hunting for the truth that it eclipsed what could have been a successful career and personal life.
There's obviously an artificial quality to the drama present throughout this episode. Brendan McNamara, until this point, never existed, and his presence is ridiculously jarring. It's another example of the writers pulling faux drama from their collective butts to create some kind of standalone storyline... and that sucks. However, there are sparks of intrigue here and there, things that render Christian once again an interesting character.
I can't really watch Rainn Wilson's guest spot in this episode without thinking of his later confession on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon that his performance here was the worst piece of acting he'd ever done. It got me thinking what the hell the show was thinking with its various demon characters, the far majority of whom were played with a scenery-chewing, melodramatic menace, like something out of a bad Shannon Tweed movie. I blame Billy Drago, presumably the bench-mark for all similar evil characters on the show. Rainn is spectacularly awful here, especially in that early scene with Terra that he recreated on Jimmy Fallon years later. But regardless of the ham, this is a pretty awesome episode.
This episode, more than any other this season so far, truly reflects the themes that I'm assuming the writers were aiming to explore this year. Cole is the series' most successful example of a morally gray character, somebody who orchestrates evil, has no problem with killing anybody that gets in his way, yet is suddenly cursed with a sense of humanity and passion after falling in love with somebody he really shouldn't have fallen in love with. Phoebe, too, is almost possessed by their affair, lying to her sisters and covering up Cole's escape, all because she believes he can somehow change him. It's a story as old as time: the good girl who thinks if she can just try hard enough she'll be able to make her boyfriend somehow different. The story bleeds into the next couple of seasons, and you can see why it was so beloved by fans.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Like Homecoming, this was another comedy episode. But, annoyingly, it didn't have the emotional resonance or logical sense that made Homecoming such a classic. I know that Band Candy is popular with so many folks out there, but I never really got the love for it. It's amusing, sure, but it's one of the few Buffy stories that's essentially a one-joke hour. And once you get over the initial humor of all the adults acting like teenagers, it becomes kind of flat. It's nowhere near a bad episode, of course, but I'm not exactly a fan. And can we please stop the 'Willow and Xander secret love affair' subplot, show. It's seriously grossing me out.
Buffy became a sensation at a time when Hollywood once again began paying attention to the young buck, filling movie theaters with teen movie after teen movie, all generally involving some high school hijinks, a Shakespearean metaphor of some kind, and Freddie Prinze Jr. Buffy easily folded into that era because it was funny, had knowing humor, had a star destined for the big-screen (at least for a little while) and threw teenage characters into an unusual, dangerous world of monsters and vampires. Homecoming, one of my favorite episodes, balances those teen movie aspects so well with routine Buffy violence, the first half a cake-walk in breezy, light-hearted high school comedy all about homecoming queens and school politics. Man, this episode is fun.
This wasn't good. I was reminded a lot of early season two here, episodes like Some Assembly Required, featuring flat one-episode characters who get wrapped up in thinly-drawn monster hoodoo and are so stupid that you don't care if they live or die. Beauty and the Beasts is a hollow attempt at depicting domestic violence in high school, featuring an angry teenage boy, his abused girlfriend, some magic goo which turns him into a beast, and lazy attempts at 'morals'. There's also an annoying "all men are beasts" message floating through, which is just offensive and way off compared to other metaphorical storytelling on this show.
Body swaps are an inherent part of science fiction, and usually follow one of two threads whenever they are featured. Sometimes you get a body swap episode that reveals a lot about the characters involved, exploring new depths to their psyche as they inhabit opposing bodies. Then there are the episodes which are pretty much played for laughs. Like season four's previous Mulder body swap episode Small Potatoes, Dreamland is another comedy X-Files hour, enlivened by some engaging performances from David Duchovny and Michael McKean, but something that struggles to be more than the sum of its parts.
I have no idea what the show was trying to say with this one. Lola dares to be both confident and sexy as well as fat, but it turns out that she's just as sad as anybody else. Kimber is sexy and thin, but doesn't enjoy the pleasures in life and spends most of the episode counting calories and indulging in bulimia. So what's the message here? That you're unhappy in both extremes? Christian enjoys sex with Lola, but insists that he's not a 'chubby-chaser'. Lola is diagnosed with cancer. A punishment for being sexually vicarious? Huh? I enjoyed Danica Sheridan's performance, but the story was tonally bouncing off the walls. From fat suit sitcom sex to crushing cancer drama. Shivers.
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Can we talk about Jason Carter? Lord is he embarrassingly awful in this episode! Did the directors on Charmed actually tell its guest actors to be as hammy, theatrical and melodramatic as possible? Carter chews up, spits out, re-chews and then once again spits out the scenery throughout this episode, looking like he's in physical pain whenever he talks. Poor Julian McMahon, who always portrayed Cole with a hint of subtlety, sharing scenes with both this guy and the increasingly annoying Alyssa Milano. I guess Carter's performance is something to be laughed at. It's like he saw everybody in The Wedding from Hell and just thought "Hey! I'll do what they're doing!". Shudders.
Ordinarily I dislike it when an evil character seems to come up with a new evil plan every week. But, for some reason, I'm not actively disliking Cole's various one-episode schemes. I don't know if it's Julian McMahon's performance (which is as subtle as possible, making him stick out like a sore-thumb compared to the hideously melodramatic guest actors on this show), or if the writers are evolving Cole as a character at just the right speed, but it's working for me. I buy Cole's rash of feelings for Phoebe, and I also buy that he wouldn't be so eager right now to cause Phoebe so much pain. It's an interesting moral dilemma, and pretty funny that the most fascinating character on the show right now only appeared six episodes ago.
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
I always loved the Buffy and Faith relationship, since both come at their identical destinies from vastly different perspectives. Buffy sees her destiny as a burden, something she's been plagued with and something that cuts her off from an ordinary existence. Faith, on the other hand, loves her destiny, seeing it as something that makes her special and interesting. She sees it as fun, and as a result she's more reckless and violent in battle. But when you look at their individual backgrounds, Buffy has always seen everybody else in the world as an 'other', people who are able to have fun and live fulfilled lives, while Faith (somebody from a poor background with a supposedly fragile family history) loves being a Slayer so much because she doesn't believe there'd be any 'other' life she could lead which would be better. In Buffy's mind, the grass is always greener. With Faith, her life right now is the best it could ever be.
"'Do you like my mask? Isn't it pretty! It raises the dead!'" Before I talk about the character-driven 'juice' of the episode, I need to mention how insanely awesome the zombie scenes were in this episode. The final act, filled with zombie carnage in the Summers home and all the cast fighting the undead, was hugely impressive. They clearly had a budget increase this year. The story itself is ridiculously goofy, the presence of the zombie mask on Joyce's bedroom wall so silly, but in general it's pretty hilarious. I guess in tone Dead Man's Party is all over the place, but the humor saves the episode from being an angtsy melodrama-fest. And Buffy's inherent fear of nutty Pat was equally hilarious, especially her desperate shriek of "Mom!" as soon as she was forced to be around her.
Like last season's opener, the year opens with the characters re-grouping somewhat, Joss resolving the cliffhangers of the previous year and exploring new depths to Buffy as a character. Following Buffy running away from Sunnydale last episode, she's now angsty and isolated in a sleazy corner of Los Angeles, filled with various homeless runaways just a notch below her current status. Outside of a couple of corny moments of maudlin hokiness, Anne creates a vividly bleak portrait of 'another world' outside of Sunnydale, reflecting Buffy's state of mind. The episode isn't perfect, but it's another sign of the series maturing and evolving.
One of the numerous highlights of this episode is the use of tracking shots throughout. Almost every scene is one long take, and the sheer number of extras and guest stars all of whom get entrusted to remember their lines and their cues is really awe-inspiring. It's funny though that it took about twenty minutes for me to realize I was actually watching numerous long takes, and it was the scene with Scully dramatically pacing around the FBI's offices that finally made everything click together for me. That scene in particular is staggeringly successful, Gillian's performance entirely on point as she rushes from corridor to corridor, stumbling into meetings she shouldn't have access to and bumping into folks she can't trust. It's one of the greatest sequences this show has ever done.
Erica makes an interesting point at the start of this episode, where she criticizes Sean and Julia for repeatedly making the same mistakes over and over, without learning anything in the process. It's one of the few bright spots of wisdom in a final season full of people making the same dumb choices that they've always made. And considering Erica's fate, I'm not sure what the show is trying to say. Erica isn't a nice person. She's rash and arrogant and judgmental, but generally her heart is in the right place. And while she did endanger Annie, I don't see why she deserves to be falsely imprisoned yet Sean, for doing the exact same thing just a couple of weeks ago, gets off scot-free. I guess it's another amusing example of Nip/Tuck's fractured morality, and the same questions remain. Is this intentionally batshit and unfair, or is it just poor writing?
Monday, July 11, 2011
I've always been a huge fan of this episode, presumably because it features a truly human bad guy. Prue spends a lot of the episode insistent that a demon is stalking her, and the well-crafted script ends up producing two very different villains, one another melodramatic demon, the other somebody more familiar to the Halliwell's. Abbey is hilariously nuts, stalking Prue for months, writing about her every move in her journal, stealing her clothes and eventually expressing a desire to actually become her. There's also an entertainingly paranoid tone to the episode, with a fun pastiche of The Eyes of Laura Mars at the end, while the guessing-game of trying to work out who's the person responsible for the thefts providing a lot of amusement.
Finally, we have a semi-decent episode. All Halliwell's Eve doesn't at all have the emotional resonance of past time-travel episodes, but it's a fascinating and mostly authentic-feeling depiction of old-time magicks. Most of the fun is derived from the various obscure magic that the 1600's witches use, from leaves in apples to brooms sweeping away evil. Equally fun is seeing the sisters rendered powerless and having to quickly learn how to use all this old-time magic, in order to save the day once again. I'm not sure they captured the time period all that well, but in terms of enriching the Charmed mythology, this episode completely works.
This is the moment where Buffy becomes a true hero. In the end, she sacrifices her one true love to save the world. It's something selfless, soul-destroying, and painful. But it's necessary. Following her destiny, she puts the world before herself. It's heartbreaking to watch her face as she reunites with Angel, only to realize the world is ending and that she has to do the inevitable deed to save the day. But, as the credits close and we join in with the Grr... Aargh! vamp at the end and ask for a hug, it's not just Angel she has lost. She's lost her home, her education, she's presumably still a murder suspect, she feels the weight of the world on her shoulders, she feels responsible for the attack on her friends. She's lost everything, and in her best 'homeless woman' pants, flees town. It's a devastating ending, one of the most poignant moments the show ever depicted.
The theme of season two has been 'growing up', forced to deal with adult circumstances whether you like it or not. Here, in part one of the finale, we see an elaborate contrast between the vacuous 1996 Buffy fumbling around trying to stake her first vampire, and the wounded 1998 Slayer who is faced off against her first love and loses her friends in the process. Like Buffy, we also see Angel's history played out in front of us. His journey from drunken, sleazy Irishman to murderous vampire to a homeless man crippled with regret and pain, and finally back to the murderous vampire once again. Watching this exploration of both character's histories is pretty darn epic, another indication that Buffy as a series is stepping into adult and somehow legitimate territory. Compare Becoming to one of the earlier season two episodes (or even Go Fish last week), and it's pretty astounding to see how far the show has come in so short an amount of time.
Here we are in standalone city once again, a monster-of-the-week episode clumsily slotted in between an episode that pushed forward momentum, via the combining of various standalone and arc elements and a doozy of a cliffhanger, and the two-part finale. Go Fish suffers because it's not even a particularly strong standalone episode. There are some interesting moments, but too much of the humor is of the goofy variety, while the 'message' at the center of the world is a little too preachy for me. And, once again, we have Angelus relegated to one scene of unnecessary violence, presumably because they contractually needed to use David Boreanaz every week. This may have been an average monster episode if it were made in season one or at the start of season two, but at this point in time it just looks and feels dated.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Mulder references it himself, but this is essentially Speed inside a man. It's also very cool. Vince Gilligan is always reliable for high-concept standalone episodes, and from the atypical teaser sequence with its 'live breaking story' opener you're aware that you're watching an episode that's a little off the beaten track.
Nip/Tuck unearths its past here, resurrecting Erica to create some sparks. It's a typically soap opera-style storyline, with double-crosses, secret filming, extreme hostility and mother-daughter slaps across the face, and it's a wonder how a respected actor like Vanessa Redgrave can slip so easy into this silliness. Erica's actions may be overt, but she's finally somebody who recognizes Sean and Julia's obnoxious parenting over the last couple of years, so consumed by their own self-involvement that they've ignored the rapidly-increasing insanity of two of their children. Parts of this episode almost feel like fan service, a final acknowledgment of how awful most of Nip/Tuck's characters are. That self-awareness doesn't last for long, but it's welcome here.
Monday, July 4, 2011
If you look close enough, you can just about spot Shannen Doherty's soul dying as she crawls around on the floor acting like a six year-old. Once Upon a Time is bad. Like really bad. For some reason, Alyssa Milano believes she needs to put on a slurring, lisping voice and awkwardly stamp around like she's stuck in a perpetual tantrum when playing her younger self. Seriously, the scenes where Phoebe and Prue become children all over again are hideously embarrassing. The rest of the episode is just as heinous, with strangely awful special effects, painful acting from the guest stars, and a storyline that makes you want to ingest battery acid.
The conceit of this episode is ripped straight from Ladyhawke, Piper even referencing the fact that she's sure she's seen it all before in a movie somewhere. Admittedly, the idea of two lovers cursed to exist separately in both night and day is an interesting one, especially if the lovers concerned are fascinating people. However, the guest characters here are so shallow that any sympathy you have for them is quickly dismissed. Throw in a sleep-inducing Piper and Leo subplot, Magic Hour is pretty darn awful, the nadir of the hour being that hilarious moment where Brooke weeps over her owl lover, stuck to the floor with an arrow through its chest. Hah!
What opens as a traditional ghost story, full of poltergeists, visions and monsters, suddenly becomes a whole lot deeper, creatively tying in season two's Angelus arc and creating a character-driven episode that is still standalone in nature. It's a huge success. Watching season two again, the writers really struggle to utilize Angelus effectively outside of the major Angelus-driven episodes. Instead of simply not featuring him, he is written into indulgent cameos with little purpose. I Only Have Eyes for You is the only episode in late season two (besides the heavy-hitter arc hours of Innocence and Passion) to effectively use the character, and his inclusion is a masterpiece in characterization and horror.
I've written before about the annoying stop-start feel to season two's major arc, and as we inch closer to the finale it's even more noticeable. Killed by Death is filler material of the highest order, an episode that features little of the spark that make everyday Buffy hours so compelling. You always know you're watching a below-par Buffy episode when you could easily swap out so much of the action and dialogue with any other fantasy series from the same era. Dean Batali and Rob Des Hotel as writers always seem a little unsure of what tone they're reaching for, like they're out of their comfort zone (presumably sitcoms, judging by their IMDb pages) and pasting together a bunch of random horror movie elements. Meh.
Things aren't fun anymore. That's the message from this episode. Before Passion, we had the "Angel's gone bad" arc, where we're shocked and intrigued by Angel's reversion back to his Angelus persona. Here, the story becomes far heavier than simply another big bad. Passion is incredibly disturbing because the series doesn't shy away from depicting Angelus as a complete monster who casually enjoys the torment and misery he is inflicting on others. Spike doesn't get it. Angelus could easily just murder Buffy and her friends at the drop of a hat, but there's no fun in that. What Angelus wants to do is break the Scoobies down piece by piece, tormenting them in increasingly personal ways until they just can't take it anymore. He's a monster, through and through.