don’t bring tomorrow to justify tonight

I haven’t forgot Buffy, don’t worry. But with the mid-season finale of Burn Notice and the season premiere of Mad Men and the final days of Kings and discovering old episodes of I Spy on Hulu, well, I had a lot more interesting TV to watch.

Whedon never misses an opportunity to indulge in fan service, so why not bend the fabric of reality to put Allyson Hannigan in a corset again? I shouldn’t complain, though, as this episode turns a minor villain – Anya – into a recurring character with interesting motivations. And aside from the usual first-act meandering, this is a really good episode! Every character does what they’d reasonably do; we have some fun chase scenes and vampire brawls; Faith barely shows up. Almost perfect.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • The evil lair where Anya petitions her demon master for her powers back is clearly some guy’s basement with a few Hot Topic throws. Clearly. You can see light coming through the ground-level window.
  • Nothing highlights how superb an actor Harry Groener is, and how poor of one Eliza Duskhu is, then putting them in a scene together (“this place is the kick”- ugh). To be fair, maybe Whedon’s deliberately writing Faith as dumb.
  • … y’know, other than that I’ve got nothing.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • I like Anya. She acts emotionally invested in her situation, rather than with the witty remove that Whedon tries (and fails) to inject in all his dialogue. I’m given to understand that she becomes a recurring character; if so, I approve.
  • “I swear, I’m just trying to find my necklace.” “Well, did you try looking in the sofa in Hell?” I chuckled.
  • After the sluggish first act, the presence of two Willows in Sunnydale proceeds at a reasonable clip. Evil Willow immediately begins consolidating her power, bullying vampires into submission and turning them into a goon squad. Meanwhile, Buffy and crew realize that their Willow isn’t a vampire after thirty seconds – which is good, because a 45-minute comedy of errors would have been appalling.
  • Willow acting as evil Willow. I think Hannigan’s a better actor than Whedon’s dialogue and coaching give her the opportunity to be. She delivers every line with the same perky cadence, punctuating them with a smile and some chin movement, regardless of their content. Here, though (and in “Earshot”), Hannigan portrays a wide range of emotions. The scene in the Bronze, where she must simultaneously keep up a vampiric facade, send as many bad guys outside as she can, allay Oz’s fears and still act tough was very entertaining.

Overall Grade: Lots of fun. A high point of the season.

And then, well. I remember this being the first Buffy episode I ever watched, not long after it originally aired. I formed my first low opinions of Whedon from this one. When it came up again in the queue, I hoped that time had exaggerated its flaws.

Nope. This episode starts with Buffy and Faith running into a demon who wants to sell them the Books of Ascension (why should they care? how does he have them? if the Mayor’s been planning this for over a century, why doesn’t the Mayor have them already?). Faith jacks the demon, steals the books for her new boss, and tricks Angel into standing still long enough for an undead wizard to yank his soul out (that easy, huh?). Angel and Faith go on a tear, screwing and bludgeoning their way across Sunnydale until they lure Buffy back to Angel’s mansion. He ties her up until Faith reveals the Mayor’s master plan, at which point – ah-ha! It was a trick all along! Also, Cordelia’s seducing Wesley.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?
Deep breath. Here we go:

  • Why is Buffy interested in the Books of Ascension, which she hadn’t heard of until 10 seconds ago? The demon trying to sell them drops the Mayor’s name; does that constitute any sort of bona fides? If I showed up at the Pentagon tomorrow claiming to have Osama bin Laden’s address in a Hello Kitty diary, would that obligate the DoD to take me seriously?
  • I’m glad Wesley suggests beating the rather feeble demon up and stealing the books from him. But nobody considers that this might be a trap to lure the Slayer out? Then again, if it were a trap, it’d be a rather poor one. So I suppose Giles and Wesley’s ignorance gets saved by the demon’s stupidity.
  • If it’s that easy to separate Angel from his soul, why hasn’t anyone tried it before? The Mayor makes some throwaway reference to the effort and sacrifice of getting the wizard to show up, but we never see it cost him anything. And the actual ritual involves throwing some alchemical goop on Angel, then the wizard showing up and chanting for a few seconds.
  • The entire episode hinges on Buffy and Angel deciding, off-camera, to run a sting on Faith. When do they do that? Here’s how the sequence of events has to go: the Mayor summons the wizard and makes his request. The wizard, that same day, grabs Giles and tells him, “Hey, you owe me, so I’m telling you: the Mayor wants me to go corrupt a friend of yours.” Giles, having forgiven Angel for murdering his girlfriend and torturing him, tells Buffy, who was on her way to go ask Angel what Faith was doing visiting. Buffy and Giles hurry over to Angel’s mansion, telling him what’s about to go down. In record time, they come up with a plan to make it look like Faith has turned Angelus back. Giles calls the wizard back (which apparently takes him zero effort, compared to the Mayor) and briefs him on the plan. The wizard agrees. Faith shows up with a vial of goop, etc, the episode proceeds as recorded.

    That’s an awful fucking lot of stuff to happen off-camera.

  • Buffy’s rather tolerant of Angel sleeping with Faith. We never see that happen, of course, but we have to presume it did. Because if a ravenous amoral creature like Angelus got his hands on a nubile young sexpot like Faith, made out with her hot ‘n heavy, and then said, “Hold up, let’s not take things too fast here”? The ruse would fall apart in a second. So, Angel screws Faith without turning back into a demon (I never saw Season 2, but I presume the “true moment of happiness” that did him in was the consumnation of his love for Buffy, not the moment of climax) and Buffy forgives him.
  • Every line of dialogue Xander has in this episode makes me hate his character more. I did not think it possible.
  • And Willow’s isn’t much better.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • Angel relishing his released status as a vampire. Boreanaz is a much better actor than Whedon’s dialogue and coaching, oh wait, I’ve already given this note.
  • Angel punching Xander in the face. I know technically it’s part of the first bullet, but it deserves a call-out.

Overall Grade: Not the worst episode of the season, but it’s fighting “Anne” and “Dead Man’s Party” for that title.

Interesting. I figured this for a daring choice by Whedon, since I knew S3 originally aired in 1999. Then I saw that this episode aired, out of continuity, in September 1999. Probably pushed back several months in the wake of the Columbine shootings. Regardless, it takes an interesting concept – what would you do if you could read minds? – and plays it out to its natural conclusion. I respect Whedon for following the episode’s conceit logically, as well as giving us a few twists to keep us from guessing the real killer until the very end.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Once again, the first act angst that foreshadows the episode’s supernatural bent is tacked on. Buffy feels left out of the gang’s social life? Why now? Why more so than usual? She’s ducked out of their events without hesitation before – and even when she and Angel were on the rocks.
  • Who tries to shoot themselves with a hunting rifle?

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • The mind reading. Whedon was good enough not to skimp on the way teenagers actually think about sex, within the limits of PG-13 television (“I’d like to shove her up against a locker and …”). I liked the introduction of mind reading as a power that seemed useful at first but proved twisted.
  • The thoughts of her friends when she reveals her new power to them. Specifically Oz (“I am my thoughts. If they exist in her, Buffy contains everything that is me and she becomes me …”) and Cordelia, thinking what she was about to say just before she said it. Plus, though I haven’t been on board with the Wesley character yet, he did a fine job with comic timing here.
  • Willow’s questionnaire. Her interrogation of Jonathan was, again, one of the few times I’ve seen her act this season: inflecting words, using body language, etc. But I laughed out loud at every character in this sequence, from Xander interviewing Larry (“what secret? that I’m gay?”), to Oz interviewing Hogan (” ‘Moderate strain.’ Is that a good answer?”), to Cordelia interviewing a teacher (“were you planning on killing a bunch of people tomorrow? It’s for the yearbook”).
  • “You had sex with Giles?”
  • Whedon pulls off an excellent double reversal on who the real killer is. I spent so much time cringing in anticipation of the dark, pseudo-intellectual loner being the murderer that I didn’t mind when it turned out the pudgy, frustrated loser was. And then it wasn’t even him! I don’t always think much of Whedon’s plot twists, but they were well used here.
  • ” ‘Dingoes Ate My Baby play their instruments as if they have plump polish sausages taped to their fingers.’
    “Sorry, man.”
    “No, it’s fair.”
  • A few shots of students watching Buffy vault to the bell tower to disarm Jonathan help set up the shifting tide of popular opinion that culminates in “The Prom.” Nicely done.
  • “We can work out after school. You know, if you’re not too busy having sex with my mother!”

Overall Grade: Didn’t have the preachy impact it was aiming for, but fun in its supernatural aspects.

Once again, an idea taken to its logical conclusion: Buffy, as a high school senior, may one day be heading off to college. What does that mean for her duties as a Slayer? And the stakes get raised even higher when Buffy snags an artifact the Mayor needs for his ritual, but gets Willow kidnapped in the process.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Snyder’s drug paranoia, thrown in as an afterthought. There’s one lame scene in the beginning where he rifles the lunch of two students we don’t know just to establish that he might have a reason to be at the school later.
  • “That won’t cut through steel.” “No, but it will cut through bone.” ARGH. Why not just finish the train of thought for anyone else who misses subtext? “Whose bone are you going to cut through?” “The guy I just shot. I’m going to sever his wrist and remove the cuffs that way.” “So then you can take the box to the Mayor?” ET FUCKING CETERA.
  • The sequence with Oz and Xander decoding Willow’s instructions (“twice-blessed sage or twice-blessed toad?”) serves no purpose in the story whatsoever. And it’s not funny.
  • For as much as I complain about 24 and its false dichotomies (“we need to light this school bus of nuns on fire, or Al-Qaeda will detonate a nuke! there’s no other way!”), it would not be fair to withhold the same judgment from this episode. The only two options are to surrender an evil artifact to the Mayor or see their friend get slaughtered? They haven’t infiltrated heavily guarded compounds against impossible odds before? None of them has the least bit of outside-the-box creativity?
  • Not much of a title.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • I didn’t think Northwestern was worth getting so excited over as a school, but U.S. News ranks it #12 in the country. Shows what I know!
  • “You killed him.” “What are you, the narrator?” That is fucking rich, considering the nature of Whedon’s dialogue. I howled.
  • Faith’s knife as a symbol of her lust for power, and her growing reservations about it. The knife appeared just often enough to be memorable, not so much as to hammer (or stab) the point home.
  • ” ‘Faith, we’re still your friends. We can help you. It’s not too late.’ ” “It’s way too late.” Again, one of the few times Hannigan’s called to really act, and she clears the fences. Unexpected and good.
  • Angel and Buffy fighting the vampires over and around the conference room.
  • I like the “great demonic power” in the box being a lot of spiders. And the terror was scripted very well – two spiders jumping out of the box, scurrying somewhere unknown, and everyone in the room freezing. Sometimes it’s the tiny threats that scare us the most.
  • “I married my Edna May in ought-three and I was with her right until the end …” Again, the Mayor carrying a scene effortlessly. And he introduces a logical complication – is the kind thing for an immortal to do to monopolize the best years of a young girl’s life?
  • Oz saying nothing in the argument over whether to rescue Willow or not, until he knocks the pot into the corner. Excellent example of commitment in a negotiation scenario; Thomas Schelling would be proud.
  • Buffy’s bargain with Wesley: if she stops the Ascension, she gets to go to college. Doesn’t work out, of course, but it represents a refreshing level of proactive effort. It shakes up the cycle of Encounter Threat, Lose Fight, Do Research, Win Rematch.

Overall Grade: I liked it very much.

# # #

Next update will be the last: “Prom,” “Graduation” (Parts 1 and 2) and overall thoughts on the season.

you were a vampire, and baby I’m the walking dead

No introductory paragraph this time. Just more Buffy.

Eh, all right. I understand – and even respect – the coy wink that the show turns toward adult authorities in Sunnydale. Buffy can cut classes with few consequences, and the police throw their hands in the air when bodies show up exsanguinated. So to turn that around and have the town get in an uproar over two dead children – compared to however many died in “Dead Man’s Party” or “Beauty and the Beasts” – cuts at the quick a little. Of course, as it turns out, this uproar has enchanted origins: the ghosts of two German children, who reappear every 50 years to thin out the real world of some witches. Though that draws the question of why Buffy and her friends are immune to the enchantment’s effects, but anyway.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • It makes no narrative sense that Buffy flips out over two dead children (“you mean someone with a soul did this?”) when, as recently as “Band Candy,” she was torching demons that ate live babies. I couldn’t buy this at all. Especially considering the children were largely intact. But maybe I’m just a jaded TV viewer – after watching three seasons of The Shield in rapid succession, my first reaction to seeing two dead kids was “but they weren’t molested, were they? missing any limbs?”
  • “What is this?” “A doodle. I do doodle. You, too; you do doodle, too.” GAH FUCK IT’S IN MY BRAIN.
  • “Fairy tales are real?” the werewolf asks of the witch, the vampire slayer and the old British man who casts spells.
  • “All right. You want to fry a witch? I’ll give you a witch!” … ugh. All it needed was a sinister cackle and an invocation of some dark power, like OH GOOD HECATE well that was terrible.
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • The principal relishing his newfound power. ” ‘Blood Rites and Sacrifices.’ Chess club branching out?”
  • Willow’s interaction with her mom wavers between corny and funny, but lands mostly on the side of clever.
  • “You have been such a champ.” “We should do lunch!” “I’d like that.”
  • Buffy’s accidental staking of the giant German demon at the end of the episode.
Overall Grade: Mediocre.

Very neat. When Buffy starts to lose her super strength on her 18th birthday, she fears it means an end to her Slayer career. But it turns out Giles and the Watchers are poisoning her to test her – intending to lock her in an abandoned house with a vampire serial killer. I seriously feared for a few minutes that the test might go off as planned (it’s the sort of thing I think Whedon might do), but complications arise. Buffy not only has to stake the vampire, she has to kill his new subordinate and save her mom as well.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “I’m way off my game. My game’s left the country. It’s in Cuernavaca!” Ech.
  • Angel confessing that he’d been in love with Buffy for years. This may be my ignorance of canon speaking, but weren’t Buffy and Angel enemies in Seasons 1 and 2?
  • Giles getting fired as Watcher because he cares for Buffy too much. I don’t see how this is a disadvantage. A Slayer getting attached to her Watcher, sure – the Slayer is more important, and anything that could act as a liability should be cut out. But what’s wrong about a Watcher being fond of his Slayer? What’s the worst thing that could happen? It’s an artlessly introduced conflict and it rings false.
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • Buffy taking out the vampire with a glass full of holy water. I wondered for the first half of the episode why the Watchers were so considerate as to give Kralik a glass of water to wash down his pills with. But it’s a nice third-act gun on the wall for Whedon to play with.
  • Cordelia giving Buffy a ride home. I respect that as a character choice.
  • “I’ll kill you for that!” “For that? What were you trying to kill me for before?” I laughed.
  • Buffy walking home and getting leered at. She probably wouldn’t have kicked their jaws off if she had her super strength, but she would have carried herself with more confidence. It made me conscious of how the women in my life – who probably get leered at or catcalled pretty regularly, and don’t have super strength – have to handle themselves.
  • Kralik, and the whole chase through the abandoned house, make a severely creepy sequence.

Final Verdict: Good stuff.

Not as bad as I feared an all-Xander episode would be. I worried at first that it would be another “War Stories” – the unfunny comic relief character complaining that no one takes him seriously, staging a temper tantrum, and finally getting respect through contrived means. But it didn’t work out that way. Granted, Whedon completely bobbles the pacing for the first half of the episode. But when the plot gets moving in two directions at once, with Buffy and the gang closing the Hellmouth while Xander rushes around to find a gang of arsonist zombies? It’s exciting.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Xander picking up the blonde girl, and promptly losing her after the next commercial break, doesn’t advance the plot in any way. It doesn’t offer any entertaining bits of characterization, either. I’m not sure why she’s there, other than to stretch the episode out needlessly.
  • Xander and Faith having sex. Faith getting turned on to the point of uncontrollable lust by a fight with a demon is offensive. It smacks of The Rules according to Dane Cook: a girl in the right circumstances becomes a helpless automaton.
  • “The Zeppo.” Why would Cordelia make a Marx Brothers reference?
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • The second half of the episode, when the plot starts coming together, does something I did not think possible: it makes Xander the normal one. Giles is an absentminded professor, oblivious to the zombies following Xander. Willow’s a flighty, emo witch. Faith’s a walking Maxim pull-out, and Buffy and Angel are practicing for their daytime Emmy. Xander’s flustered but driven need to solve his own real problem – the bomb hidden under the school – seems sane in comparison.
  • “Is it hard to play guitar?” “Not the way I play it.”
  • Again, Whedon hangs a third-act gun on the wall in a way that completely reverses expectations by having Oz take out Jack O’Toole. I laughed out loud at that.
  • And the stand-off over the time bomb played out very well. Whedon figured out what it takes to make someone cool: have him react calmly to pressure without saying very much. He even carries it over to the end with Xander’s final confrontation with Cordelia. Too bad it doesn’t last into future episodes.
  • I liked the conceit of never really seeing what the gang dealt with while Xander was running around.

Final Verdict: My second-favorite episode of this batch of five.

Uneven but interesting. Faith turns out to be a bad influence on Buffy, encouraging her to greater heights of larceny and violence until the inevitable happens. Meanwhile, the Mayor ramps his scheming up into overdrive and a new Watcher shows up to relieve Giles.

The villains of the week didn’t do it for me – a “duelist cult”? what, do they worship epees? – but it made for interesting swordfights, of which I always approve. I think the gang’s distaste for Wesley Wyndham-Price (OH PERHAPS HE’S BRITISH) came on a bit thick. The man’s a stranger, sure, and he’s there to replace Giles, but he’s not particularly incompetent. Just young.

I’m ambivalent on the unwitting murder of the Mayor’s aide as the catalyst for the second part of the episode. It seems a little too … easy. Faith doesn’t watch what she’s doing and totally offs a guy! Sure, I guess, but … eh.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • In this episode, Whedon makes Faith dumb. Not impulsive, not spunky, but stupid. Ignorant of the consequences of her actions. And this is explicit. At one point Buffy tells Faith, “Wait! Stop! Think!”, to which Faith responds, “No, no, no!” What is that supposed to mean? “No, I don’t want to think”? Later, breaking into a sporting goods store for some illegal firepower, Faith forgets how to use nouns: “Want, take, have.” I know making characters temporarily dumb is a staple of sitcom logic, but this is particularly disgusting.
  • “I’m torn between the fast-growing fields of appliance repair and motel management. Of course, I’m still waiting to hear back from the, uh, Corndog Emporium …” I had no reason to think that Xander’s character would change. But I hoped. I really hoped.
  • Is there any reason Buffy doesn’t want Willow to tag along with her, other than “the plot couldn’t handle it”? I might buy that Buffy was too embarrassed to be seen with Willow when Faith was around, except Buffy doesn’t seem entirely comfortable around Faith.
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • Balthasar. Ich. Loved it. How an immobile ball of lard got to be top dog over the most athletic vampires I’ve seen yet baffles me, but whatever. He’s got character.
  • The Mayor and Mr. Trick. The two of them can do nothing wrong. “Nobody can tell Marmaduke what to do. That’s my kinda dog.” And the Mayor’s checklist! Priceless.

Final Verdict: It suits. Good lead in to …

Kept me on the edge of my seat. Buffy and Faith deal with the fallout from their unwitting murder. Twists and turns abound – the story drives forward at a quick and engaging clip.

What I liked most about this episode: I couldn’t anticipate where the plot was going. In most episodes, Whedon either telegraphs the plot twists well in advance, or springs them on you then gives you enough time to dwell on them. Here the story just kept moving. First Faith narcs out Buffy, but Giles actually believes Buffy, then Xander lets slip that he got nailed by Faith, then Xander almost …, then Angel clonks Faith on the head, and then … wow.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “First word: jail, second word: bait.” What makes this funnier than just saying “jailbait”? It’s longer, less clever, and it doesn’t allude to anything funny.
  • Giles is right; new watcher Wesley has no reason to assign the Slayers to investigate the deputy Mayor’s murder. There’s nothing remotely supernatural about it (to an outside observer). It’s a decision made purely to make the plot go.
  • Oh, and the Watchers’ means of securing Faith once she gets captured don’t work for shit. All it takes is one (vaguely) threatened hostage and she’s free again. Nice work, guys.
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • I can’t say I “loved” Faith raping Xander, because, well. But it was definitely a way more shocking, and therefore interesting, choice than anything else that Faith’s done in the last five episodes. Put it this way: I buy Faith raping Xander more than I buy Faith growing so unbelievably aroused that she has to sleep with the first thing she sees, and oh look it’s Xander.
  • “She may have many talents but, fortunately, lying is not one of them.” Giles sees through Faith’s story in an instant. Not that Buffy having to prove her innocence would have been a bad arc by any stretch, but it’s very cliched. This takes it in an interesting direction. Now the tension comes not from Buffy having to prove herself, but from Buffy and Giles keeping Faith at arm’s length.
  • Angel’s intervention with Faith. He is, in fact, the best suited to speak with her: he’s the only one who knows what it’s like to enjoy a murder. The dialogue could have been a little punchier, but I could make that complaint about every scene in this series.
  • Mr. Trick siccing the cops on the Slayers. That plot twist came at just the right time to kick the episode into a higher gear.
  • Xander letting slip that Faith screwed him. I worried that Whedon would try to drag that secret out for another 3 or 4 episodes (like Xander and Willow’s affair), but this was the best time for it. And, as with Giles earlier, everyone gets it without needing to spell it out.
  • “I guess that means you have a job opening.” Ambivalent on the end of the episode, but its unexpectedness nudges it into the Awesome hole. Faith going from “slayer of demons” to “aiding and abetting demons” is a bit of a stretch, but she was never in this to save the world anyway. And when you don’t feel like you have anyone in your life to trust, you make some really shitty choices.

Final Verdict: Fun, tense and plotted with razor precision. More like this, please.

and all the vampires walking through the valley

I’ve been watching the final season of The Shield in concert with the third season of Buffy. This makes for an interesting mix of tastes, like brushing your teeth, then sipping a glass of orange juice. For one thing, almost everyone on The Shield acts more naturally. I prefer naturalism over melodrama, unless the actors crank the melodrama really high (think Mystic River high). For another, as much as Whedon plays at dark, creepy settings, Sunnydale ain’t got shit on Farmington. I know it’s not a fair comparison – FX can get away with a lot more than the WB.

But most jarringly, every given episode of The Shield packs in so much more plot than Buffy does. Whedon struggles to fill 44 minutes with an A and a B plot; Ryan crams A, B, C and sometimes D plots into 48. The cast of major characters tops a dozen – the four-man Strike Team, Wagenbach and Wyms, Sofer and Lowe, Aceveda, Billings, Vic’s family, Shane’s family, the villain of the season, etc.

It just makes Buffy seem … slow.*

My reviews of episodes 306 through 310.

The most fun episode yet. Whedon introduces the evil subtly at first – we see Giles and Joyce compulsively eating chocolate but don’t call much attention to it – culminating in some giggly slapstick at Bronze. The adult actors get to stretch their legs a little, freed from the one-dimensional constraints of their usual roles. And the action and mystery move along at a good clip.

The episode’s fun enough, in fact, that the worn patches only show up on closer inspection. Did Mr. Trick and the Mayor need to turn every adult in town into a carefree teenager just to steal four babies? Mr. Trick makes an awful lot of his final confrontation with Buffy (“I like other people to do my fighting for me, but I just gotta see what you got”), then flees almost immediately. And once again, the powerful demon whose presence would mean terrible things for Sunnydale gets dispatched in about thirty seconds. Oh, well.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “Were you at the Bronze? What was happening there that was so important?” “Bronze things. Things of Bronze.” Ugh. Why not just have Gellar say, “Insert retort here; rewrite later”?
  • “Giles at sixteen? Less Together Guy, more Bad-Magic-Hates-The-World-Ticking-Time-Bomb Guy.” Look, you clearly wanted the word delinquent but didn’t have a thesaurus within arm’s reach, and deadline was in twenty minutes. But don’t try hyphenating eight words into one if what you need is a complete sentence.
  • We check in with Angel but don’t advance the romantic storyline in any meaningful way. Yawn.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • Once again, The Mayor. He pulls off little bits of absurdity (“Now where did I put that Scotch?”) that I would have a hard time with from the good guys. It could be because he’s the villain; it could be because he’s a better actor.
  • “I do well on standardized tests … what? I can’t have layers?”
  • Giles as a rocker. We really got to see his range here; Head pulls off the disaffected teenager (“you’ve got good albums” / “yeah, they’re okay”) with beautiful poise. Plus, you know the cigarettes he and Joyce were smoking were a primetime television stand-in for a different kind of ritual herb. Watch the way he holds his to see what I mean.
  • Setting the demon on fire. It was clearly CGI, but it wasn’t clearly CGI, if that distinction makes any sense.
Overall Grade: Lots of fun. More like that, please.

Decent. The Buffy/Angel tryst finally comes to a head, with Xander catching the two of them making out (only took, what, four episodes?). The crew freaks out that Buffy kept his return secret, since apparently Angel did a lot of despicable things last season. In what becomes a recurring theme this season, Buffy’s sorry for keeping a secret from her friends as soon as they find out about it, but not one second before.

Gwendolyn, the Watcher sent to check up on Giles, bitches a little harder than she needs to, but not too hard for a sci-fi/fantasy TV show. And Whedon scripts her heel turn very well; I didn’t see it coming until about five seconds before it happened (“Destroyed?” she asks, when Giles mentions they’ve found an evil artifact, and then I thought hmm).

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Willow backing down from her confession: “I opened my SAT booklet five minutes early.” That’s not drawing out the tension, Whedon – that’s stalling the obvious.
  • “Faith! A word of advice: you’re an idiot.” Really? I think Faith reasoned pretty accurately from the limited data available to her. And “you’re an idiot” isn’t advice.
  • So this terrible artifact’s power is to shoot lightning? This ancient relic, which we certainly can’t let fall into the hands of a demon, is like a less convenient assault rifle?
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • The Buffy vs Faith fight.
  • Giles lecturing Buffy. Buffy does expect an awful lot of slack for a guy who murdered a bunch of people, including Giles’ girlfriend.
Overall Grade: Serviceable.

Up and down. Spike shows up, getting both the episode’s best and worst dialogue, and kicking the plot in motion. He kidnaps Willow so that she can cast a love charm on his ex-lover Drusilla. This sets Buffy and Angel on a hunt to find her – a fun little jaunt through downtown Sunnydale that puts them in the middle of a huge vampire brawl.

We also get some closure, finally, on the Xander/Willow thing. Again, the two of them become sorry for all the heartbreak they’ve caused as soon as they get caught – which leads me to doubt the sincerity of their apology, but whatever.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Spike’s speech about what love does to people goes on exactly two sentences too long to be cool. I respect the effort, though.
  • Angel can’t enter a home unless invited, but that doesn’t seem to bother Spike when he shows up in Joyce’s kitchen.
  • Speaking of “the rules of vampires,” how much sunlight does a vampire need to be exposed to in order to start crisping? Is it direct sunlight or nothing? Spike spends a lot of time in ambient, reflected sunlight in this episode with no obvious downside.
  • I get that Buffy lives in a universe where magic and demons are real, etc, but the contented little shopkeeper at the Magicke Shoppe struck me as, well, a Hollywood caricature of paganism. “Blessed be,” and all that.
  • The whole “soft like baby food” confrontation between Lenny (vampire scumbag) and Spike seemed a bit tacked on. Spike’s reversal from sad sack to proper villain comes on too quick to be believed.
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • Spike’s initial confession of his heartbreak to Willow went on a few minutes too long. But repeating that same confession to Joyce made it funny.
  • Hell, Joyce was on fire for that whole kitchen scene. “Willow’s a witch? Wait, Xander’s a witch?”
  • “Oh, sod the spell. Your friends are at the factory.”
  • The fight scene in the street, and in the magic shop, was a lot of fun.
  • I was worried the episode was going to end on a string of close-ups of our heroes staring sadly into the distance. But the splash-cut to Spike balling down the highway, screaming along to Sid Vicious, made me laugh out loud.
Overall Grade: Not bad. Fun in places, a drag in others.

Very impressive. Whedon takes too long to get to the crux of the episode – Cordelia’s wish creating an alternate reality in which Buffy never came to Sunnydale – but things ramp up and stay interesting from then on out. We get a quick but encompassing view of the city without Buffy: dark, deserted, and terrified of its own shadows. Cordelia tries to warn alternate-universe Giles and crew about the danger they’re in, but gets ganked by Evil Willow (“bored now”) and Evil Xander before she can spell things out. Buffy shows up and a massive brawl breaks out at the ubiquitous factory. Good times.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Vampires are attracted to bright colors? What?
  • So this wish-granting demon’s “center of power” – its secret vulnerability – is the necklace hanging over its heart. Given that, why would it ever stand within arm’s length of someone? It has the power of wishes. Let other people cause trouble for you.
  • Buffy gets from Cleveland to California awful fast.
  • “If anyone saw me hanging with Xander Harris’ castoff on top of that …” I’m not going to suggest that high schoolers don’t talk like that. But they don’t talk like that to each other. At least not if they’re not trying to be deliberately cruel.
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • I like Evil Willow and Evil Xander much more than normal versions of same. They seem to be real people inhabiting the situations they’re in, as opposed to poorly constructed punch lines waiting to stumble into a scene.
  • “Look,” Oz tells Willow. “I’m sorry this is hard for you. But I told you what I need. So I can’t help feeling like the reason you want to talk is so you can feel better about yourself. That’s not my problem.” What? Characters on Buffy calling each other out on their self-centeredness? How can this be?
  • The fight in the factory was epic.
  • And that girl being drained of her blood, by a machine, while still alive, creeped me the fuck out.
  • Whedon plot twist that pays off: Cordelia, the only person who knows what the “real world” is supposed to be, getting killed at the end of the second act. Holy shit! Now we’re stuck, right?
  • Loner Buffy, straight outta Cleveland, seemed distinctly different from Sunnydale Buffy. I respect the effort put into that acting distinction.

Overall Grade: Just one coat of wax shy of perfect.

Oh, fuck, a Christmas episode. I can’t think of the last Christmas episode in any TV series that I enjoyed. This one’s no exception, with Angel struggling in unconvincing torment over his past monstrosities. It’s not that I don’t buy his agony when the ghosts of his former victims get in his face – that makes sense. It’s that I don’t buy his borderline turn into a “beast.” He seems scared and annoyed by the memories of the people he’s tortured, but not particularly aroused.

Regardless, Buffy tracks down the cultists griefing him – creepy priests with tattoos where their eyes should be who serve “The First.” Again, for such a primal vessel of Evil, the First’s minions go down like a stack of china. Buffy then goes to track down Angel, reversing the decision she made two episodes ago (but which we all saw coming) to fall for him again. Happy ending. Blech.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • The sun doesn’t come out? That’s the “Christmas miracle” this episode ends on – cloud cover so heavy that it plunges the city into supernatural darkness? Never mind that this is the lamest Christmas miracle in the history of Christmas miracles (which it is). But doesn’t another twelve hours of darkness in a city on the edge of the Hellmouth mean that the Slayer has to work overtime?
  • I know sarcasm’s part of Buffy’s repertoire, but it doesn’t help impress me about how dangerous The First is supposed to be. Could at least one person in this episode act scared of it?
  • This is me being new to the franchise, but – Angel tortured Giles and murdered his girlfriend? As well as a bunch of other people? How are we supposed to like him now?
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • Remember how I sneered that the dress that Willow changes into in “Homecoming” isn’t that flattering of a dress? Okay, the little red number she’s wearing when Oz shows up at her place? That’s a flattering dress.
  • Angel showing up at Giles’ place. Angel plays his desperation at having to turn to Giles really well. Giles is equally cool in turn, producing that crossbow almost out of nowhere.
  • Whedon didn’t run the “Hanukah spirit” joke into the ground! Three times, and done.

Overall Verdict: No worse than any other Christmas episode in any other TV series.

* I bring this up so people don’t accuse me of judging Buffy too harshly for failing to live up to the greatest thing which the medium of television has yet to produce. The Shield is really good but, to my jaded eye, it’s not as good as The Wire. I’ll explain why if you’re really curious.

the victims have been bled

I’ve struggled for a while on what exactly bothers me about Joss Whedon’s writing style. Realizing that Whedon cut his teeth as a writer for Roseanne clinched it for me: every scene he writes feels like either a sitcom or a soap opera.

His characters take awkward pauses between each sentence – pauses which make no sense in the context of dramatic television, but would make perfect sense if someone were waiting for a laugh track to be dubbed in. The camerawork makes each scene take half again as long as it ought to, lingering on non-speaking characters for reaction shots … which would be fine, if the actors were any better. And most episodes peak with cheap moralizing of the Lassie variety (“y’see, Timmy …”). Ick.

Whedon’s a man of immense creativity but without the stylistic chops to back his vision up. And style matters. Friends had no real concept (they’re these single people who live in Manhattan!) but really clever writing; that carried it for more than a decade. Buffy had a barn-burner of a concept (hot teenagers kill monsters) and mediocre writing, and it struggled to get seven seasons.

That being said: when he gets out of his own way, his stuff can be fun.

Notes on the first five episodes of S3:

Awful. This episode introduces a new season, meaning it should ramp up the conflict early to hook viewers in. Instead, the episode’s nearly half over before Whedon introduces the central conflict (Ricky goes missing; Lily asks for Buffy’s help). The scene where Buffy and Lily ask after Ricky at the clinic – presumably before he got a tattoo of Lily’s name – has some awfully weird cinematography. The camera sticks on the nurse like her face contains Ominous Import, instead of just Ominous Amounts of Cellulite. Buffy quickly finds where Ricky, as well as several other teenagers, have vanished to – a hidden portal to a demonic dimension that manufactures … what exactly? I dunno. Buffy spends all of four minutes here before staging a revolt and escaping; you’d think it wouldn’t be so easy to overpower, slay and evade demons on their home ground, but what do I know?

The A-plot climaxes with a pointless fight scene: Buffy clambers up onto an elevated platform and kicks 20 demons in the head. If those demons were chasing the escaping slaves, why would they climb up after her? Why wouldn’t they just run around this platform – it hardly obstructs the path – and keep after their quarry? And if for some bizarre reason they’re compelled to fight her, wouldn’t the consecutive head-kickings of demons #11, 12 and 13 suggest a need for better tactics? “Hey, let’s throw something at her from one of these dimly-lit railings, maybe.” But the entire scene exists just to make Sarah Michelle Gellar look like a competent fighter, which running with her hands flailing* does not.

Anyhow, Whedon pads out the 44-minute running time with some profoundly dumb B-plots. Xander worries that Cordelia might not like him any more. Willow worries about how they’re going to hunt vampires without Buffy around. So they set a trap for a vampire (“act bait-y”), only they completely screw it up, haw haw. Cordelia and Xander end up on top of each other and start making out – which, in sitcom logic (see above), means they’re together. And I guess the fact that a vampire got disintegrated means the gang can pull off a staking without Buffy. Only we never see anyone acknowledge either of these things; the episode ends with these threads untied.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?:

  • “This is no place for a kid to be. You get old fast here” (OH HAI SYMBOLIZM)
  • “I just want to be alone in a room with a chair and a fireplace and a tea cozy. I don’t even know what a tea cozy is, but I want one.”; and
  • “Humans don’t fight back. Humans don’t fight back! That’s how this works!” (DID I TELL U BOUT DA SYMBOLIZM?)
  • “Want to see my impression of Gandhi?”
  • When Buffy finds Lily being “baptized” (when did this go from non-judgmental place for troubled teens to cult, and why is no one else startled by that shift?), she kicks in the door and confronts the cult leader. Or rather, the door swings open and she walks in rather casually; the sound of splintering wood is Foleyed in. I know Gellar can’t actually kick in a door, but could it have least looked like she tried?

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool:

  • Buffy ripping the telephone off the wall. It’s done casually, the comic timing is perfect, and it’s a subtle (!) reminder of the superhuman strength that Buffy totes around.
  • “If we can focus, keep discipline, and not have quite as many mysterious deaths, Sunnydale is gonna rule!” This was the first character whom I believed was a real person feeling real feelings.

Overall Grade: Second worst episode of the first five.

Wretched. The scene where Buffy’s mom Joyce hangs the Nigerian death mask in her bedroom stands as an example of everything that’s wrong with Buffy when it goes wrong. The acting’s no better than community theater (“leave plenty of pauses between each line, and for God’s sake don’t react when someone else speaks”). Every conversation takes twelve sentences to communicate something normal humans could manage in two. And it would take a psychotic – I mean literally, someone who does not process reality the same way everyone else does – to think that that Nigerian death mask “cheers up the room.” But Joyce has to leave that mask hanging, or else the episode cannot proceed.

Also, Joyce invites Buffy’s closest friends over for a welcome back dinner. Talking it over in the library, they decide to turn this dinner – at which they are guests, not hosts – into a party. A party with a live rock band, two dozen strangers, and liquor (“do a shot! You have to do a shot now!”). Which Buffy’s mom and her weird neighbor Pam are cheerfully attending. Who said this was okay? Who thought this would be okay? Biker gangs behave like this, not teenagers who go to good schools and like each other.

So the entire episode hinges on two instances of stupid behavior that everyone has to pretend are normal. It climaxes with Buffy’s friends yelling at her for running away (right, because nothing keeps your friends around like anger). The confrontation between Willow, Xander and Buffy plays out like bad improv, with characters repeating the same ideas but never advancing the conversation. Thankfully, zombies crash through the window to get things moving again.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “We should figure out what kinda deal this is. I mean, is it a gathering, a shindig or a hootenanny?” I couldn’t hear the rest, as I was vomiting, but Seth Green goes on for another thirty seconds in this vein.
  • The Principal describing the “tingly feelings” he gets when he fantasizes about punishing Buffy. And I don’t think Whedon was trying to make him come across as a pervert – that was his notion of clever, villainous dialogue.
  • “The Watcher’s back on the clock. And just when you’re thinking career change, maybe becoming a … a looker or a … a seer …”
  • “You can’t just bury stuff, Buffy. It’ll come right back up to get you.” (MAI SYMBOLIZM LET ME SHOW U IT)

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • ” ‘Do you like my mask? Isn’t it pretty? It raises the dead!’ Americans.”

Overall Grade: I very nearly bailed on my promise to watch all of Season 3 after this episode. Worst of the first five.

And then suddenly it gets better!

Buffy meets Faith, who got promoted to slayer in the five minutes that Buffy was dead. Whedon ladles Faith’s salacious spunkiness on a little thick – the first anecdote she shares with the gang is about a time she killed a bunch of vampires “without a stitch on … stark nude.” Does he not think that Xander, or the rest of the male audience, would find Eliza Dushku hot unless she talked about being naked? Regardless, Faith is free in all the ways Buffy isn’t, which leads to some tension between the slayers … until Kakistos, the vampire that killed her Watcher, shows up. I don’t buy Faith running from Boston all the way to California – everything about her screams overconfidence, not underconfidence, and nothing about Kakistos makes him look like a threat. But the two team up, stake him, and seem to end up as friends.

B-plot: Buffy acting all confused and coy around Scott Hope, the cute boy who wants to ask her out. Scott has all the backbone of the zombie cat from the last episode: struggling for the courage to ask Buffy to dance, buying her a ring before they’ve even gone on their first date, hoping that they can be “friends,” etc. Then again, maybe a loser like Buffy – a juvenile delinquent with shit grades, no life outside school and no friends except three weird kids and the school librarian – is the best he can do. Ha ha, just kidding: Buffy’s clearly a desirable match, and Scott’s clearly a winner (see sitcom logic, above).

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “They should film that story and show it to children every Christmas.” Upon further reflection, 95% of what I dislike about Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes out of Nicholas Brendan’s mouth.
  • I’m torn between whether or not I like or dislike Giles’ inventing this “binding spell” out of nothing to get Buffy to talk about Angel’s death. Ultimately, I dislike it, simply because Buffy could have legitimately brought up Angel’s death without it (she is dating again, after all) and because I can’t stand the notion of lying to someone for their own good.
  • A pre-emptive AYFKM for Angel reappearing when Buffy leaves her ring at the spot where they fought. We haven’t learned yet how exactly Angel escaped from whatever hell he got sent to, but if it’s “… your love brought me back” or some variation thereof I will spit fire.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • Mr. Trick lunging out of the car window to snag the drive-thru attendant (“… now I’m hungry.”). It was a well-timed shock and a well-delivered line.
  • Mr. Trick casually donning a thick rubber glove to yank the pizza delivery guy in through the front door.
  • Hell, I just love everything Mr. Trick does. You can thank him for turning me around on Season 3.

Overall Grade: Apparently, the A.V. Club’s Noel Murray is also watching Season 3 of Buffy for the first time (note to self: he apparently likes it; discount any future reviews of his). He says that Angel’s reappearance in this episode “seemed like Whedon’s way of announcing that all the season’s main introductory stuff is over. The story starts now.” Though he seems to mean it as a compliment, I’d say that’s one of the places Whedon consistently goes wrong: he thinks that he can waste three episodes on character development and arranging the deck chairs. He can’t. That’s what turned people off of Dollhouse.**

“Faith, Hope and Trick” works because it has three decent fight scenes (Faith taking the vampire outside; Faith and Buffy on patrol; Faith and Buffy vs. Kakistos) in addition to introducing three new recurring characters as well as advancing Buffy’s personality (she’s getting over Angel’s death) on top of a dramatic cliffhanger to cap the episode (Angel’s return). It’s full of action, tension and development. It’s the first episode of Buffy that I would not have minded going longer (compared to “Anne,” which could not end soon enough).

I really liked this episode. It treats the typology of relationship abuse pretty seriously – Pete alternating between a monster, tormenting Debbie both physically and mentally, and then regressing completely to a withdrawn, weeping boy. Abusers keep hold of their victims by becoming so warm and defenseless when they’re “good” that one wants to forgive them for being bad.

Pete’s been slaughtering kids with his bare hands, but Oz takes the blame. Even though he’s been locked in a cage on each night in question (also, which nights does Oz turn into a werewolf?). At first Buffy fears that Oz might be responsible. Then she gets even more concerned that Angel might be responsible, since he’s still a weird, snarling mess.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “Every guy – from Manimal right down to Mr. I-Loved-The-English-Patient has beast in him. And I don’t care how sensitive they act – they’re all still just in it for the chase.” (KIN I INTEREST U IN SUM FINE SYMBOLIZMS?)
  • Angel saving Buffy from super-strong Pete. For an episode that dwells so much on abused and vulnerable women, watching Buffy kick Pete through the air and onto, say, an upright shard of glass would have capped things nicely. But I guess even the prophesied defender of humanity needs to be SAVED BY HER BOYFRIEND once in a while.
  • The episode ends with an exposition dump on what exactly happened. This is a staple of TV drama – breaking down a mysterious plot with a real-world explanation (“so the landlord was simulating those ghost noises with radio static”). The problem: nobody actually explains anything. Willow’s explanation, word for word: “Mr. Science was doing a Jekyll/Hyde deal. He was afraid Debbie was gonna leave him, so he mixed this potion to become super mas macho.” That’s not an explanation – that’s what we, the audience, saw happen. At least invent some Star Trek pseudoscience (“… created a serum out of the genetic material of bulls that accelerated his adrenal and pineal glands …”) to make it look like you did something worthwhile.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • The Oz / Pete brawl in the library. Bodies go flying, furniture gets smashed, people lunge across the room. Honest fun.
  • Giles getting hit by a tranquilizer dart. Giles really is the Professor X of this crew. Since the most common obstacle between the heroes and resolving the crisis is knowledge – what ritual do we use, what item do we obtain, what demon are we supposed to slay – knocking out the most knowledgeable character heightens the stakes. Plus, his reaction made me chuckle.
  • Bookending the episode with quotes from The Call of the Wild. Very literary touch.

Overall Grade: Rather good.

A rollicking treat. Buffy’s abrupt desire to become Homecoming Queen looks a bit forced at first blush – a cheap “idiot ball” ploy (see sitcom logic, above) to get her and Cordelia at odds. But later we realize it is forced. Buffy doesn’t want to be Homecoming Queen so much as she wants to have left an impression on her classmates. Of course, this revelation only comes when Buffy and Cordelia hide in an abandoned cabin, pursued by Mr. Trick’s posse of demonic mercenaries (“Slayerfest … 98!”).

The B-plot, Xander and Willow’s sudden tryst, wouldn’t work if Xander and Willow weren’t teenagers. But we expect teenagers to do stupid, hormonal things, and the addictive intoxication of a crush makes perfect sense. Of course, nothing comes of their “affair” in this episode – it neither gets any hotter nor blows out into the open. Nor does anything happen with it in the next episode. Or the next one. Nice going, Whedon.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • The Xander/Willow affair hinges on the two of them noticing each other in a new light – changing into fabulous clothes for the Homecoming dance. Willow models three dresses for Xander. Xander’s jaw drops at the least flattering of the three – a jaw-to-ankles black number that makes her look like a clove cigarette.
  • Buffy takes out the two Germans with AR-15s by sticking one of them with the device they’ve been using to track her. The two of them, receiving remote instructions, fire on each other through a classroom wall, killing each other. Okay, come on. No one who’s ever handled a gun in their life – much less professional mercenaries – would fire blindly through a wall if there was a halfway decent chance their colleague was on the other side.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • “We all have the desire to win, whether we’re human … vampire … and whatever the hell you are, my brother. You got spiny looking head things. I ain’t never seen that before.”
  • We first meet The Mayor when an aide lays a WANTED poster on his desk. The camera zooms tight to the aide setting the poster on the blotter, capturing just the poster, his hands, and a letter opener. A musical sting suggests that the Mayor’s going to do something with that letter opener … but no. Never even picks it up. Not even when he asks to see the aide’s hands. Cleverly done, Whedon.
  • “Whatever. The point is, I haven’t even broken a sweat. See, in the end Buffy’s just the runner up. I’m the queen. You get me mad, what do you think I’m gonna do to you?”
  • The tie for Homecoming Queen. Though it often backfires, Whedon loves to reverse expectations for an easy laugh.

Overall Grade: I laughed a lot, I cheered a little.

* Athletes pump their arms when they run. Actresses keep their elbows pinned to their sides and flail their arms. Watch this episode again, when she’s dashing around corners to get the demons to chase her, and see what I mean. Or hell, watch any episode where she has to run.

** In fairness, you could also make the case that that’s why the single greatest thing that the medium of television has yet to produce never caught the critical acclaim it deserved: the language, backstory and rich cast of characters take three to four episodes to even get straight, much less get moving. Scott Tobias raises this point in reviewing Generation Kill; I repeat it in the interests of full disclosure.

you see the face on the TV screen, coming at you every sunday

When I called the Internet out last week, asking for the one season of Buffy I had to watch, I took a little flak for the following comment:

“Oh, but you really have to watch these episodes from Season X-1 in order to get Season X.” If that’s true, then Whedon fails as a writer and everything I’ve ever said about him is true. Network television is episodic – it uses a formula to fill a structure. A viewer should be able to pick up any episode of a good TV show and follow along. I might laugh a little more at recent episodes of (say) The Office if I knew that Dwight and Angela used to sleep together, but the episode should still work as a story if I don’t know that.

So now, a series of retractions and clarifications.

First, this probably isn’t something Whedon is guilty of. Whedon’s a master of the sitcom art, capable of making memorable (if not interesting) characters and putting them in situations that escalate at a good clip. He has a season-wide arc as well as an episode-length arc, and that’s fine. But he doesn’t script boring episodes up front and save the interesting characterization for later (Dollhouse being the apparent exception).

However, I am not making the above quote up. People say that to defend TV shows all the time. Babylon 5, for instance: every time someone recommends that I watch that show, I remind them that the dialogue is terrible, the acting pretty mediocre, the plots ridiculous, and even the setting’s a bit of a laugh (the good guys are “the Rangers”; the bad guys are “the Shadow”; got it). And the funny thing is, the show’s staunchest defenders agree with all this. But they insist I try the show anyway because “Stracynzski has such a complete vision. If you watch the whole thing, you’ll see what he was getting at.” I’m sure. But I’m not going to give up 88 hours of my life just to sit back at the end with a reflective “Huh.”

Furthermore, some folks tried to defend that ridiculous proposition. “You wouldn’t say each chapter in a novel has to stand alone,” someone said. Well, no. Nobody does. A chapter is not meant to stand alone. The chapter division of novels is largely artificial – a holdover from serialization, a method of introducing suspense and delineating plot points. But each chapter is not meant to have its own arc. This analogy fails because novels and episodic television are different things, and you can’t evaluate one medium by the standards of another.

That being said, this requirement that each episode in a TV series stand on its own merits belongs primarily to network TV. Cable television doesn’t have to worry about this as much – premium channels, like HBO or Showtime, even less. It’s a function of how advertisers pay for airtime and track a show’s success on a week-by-week scale. That’s a limit on the medium, sure, and it’d be silly to confine a medium to its established limits. But it’d also be silly to expect a show to succeed which blatantly ignores those limits.

I don’t know why I spent so many pixels defending a proposition that doesn’t apply to Whedon (as far as Buffy is concerned). But I like explaining myself.

one thing about living in Santa Carla I never could stomach, all the damn vampires

People of the Internet! I declare the final showdown. I give you the opportunity you’ve been waiting for.

This is your one and only chance, ever, to convince me that Joss Whedon lives up to the hype.

I’ve long maintained that Whedon scripts dialogue beyond his actor’s capabilities, putting A-list screwball in the mouths of B-list actors. That his much vaunted “strong female roles” simply put a new gloss on the same girly stereotypes that we’ve seen in every sitcom for the last fifty years. That his cutesy moralizing is, well, cutesy and moralizing.

But I could be wrong! It’s happened before.

In order to give Joss Whedon the full benefit of the doubt, I will watch an entire season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I’ll watch every episode, beginning to end. I’ll even take notes.

So what do you, Whedonophiles of the Internet, have to do? Easy. Tell me which season to watch. Because I’m only going to watch one.

“Oh, but you really have to watch these episodes from Season X-1 in order to get Season X.” If that’s true, then Whedon fails as a writer and everything I’ve ever said about him is true. Network television is episodic – it uses a formula to fill a structure. A viewer should be able to pick up any episode of a good TV show and follow along. I might laugh a little more at recent episodes of (say) The Office if I knew that Dwight and Angela used to sleep together, but the episode should still work as a story if I don’t know that.

“Oh, but they’re all good.” Then pick the best one.

“Oh, but you should watch Firefly instead.” I’ve seen Firefly. Fun, but hardly amazing.

I’m a busy man and I’ve all but made up my mind on Whedon. But I’m holding out because of the incredible passion my friends have for him. So, in the interests of fairness – and because it’ll make good weblog fodder, if nothing else – I’ll give him a shot.

So, discuss with your Slayer friends which season I should watch, fill out the attached poll, and make me a believer!

if I ruled the world, I’d free all my sons

This media blow breaks in over all TV channels to broadcast its demands:

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog: I would have reviewed this sooner, but I couldn’t watch it for more than 5 minutes without getting bored and doing something else. None of the people involved can sing very well, Fillion perhaps worst of all. Whedon, for reasons obscure to me, ditches his strongest suit – creative storylines – for a paint-by-numbers tale of Love conflicting with Goals, and which will win? Blah.

There’s good stuff there, don’t get me wrong. Whedon has great comic instincts – like when Captain Hammer “saves” the love interest by throwing her into a pile of garbage. That was hilarious. A great throw-away (no pun intended) gag. Now don’t dwell on it for the next two minutes.

Sorry for not being more impressed by Whedon’s amateur efforts, Internet, but I know people who produce things just as clever without the benefit of Neil Patrick Harris.

Persepolis: Brilliantly realized. A better picture of growing up female in Iran – especially Iran during the 1979 Revolution – would be hard to find.

Scotland, PA: Cute and quirky but not much else; a stocking stuffer of a movie. A lot of the plot, particularly the last ten minutes, feels like the author had a checklist of Macbeth tropes to hit rather than a story to tell*. But it’s certainly funny.

Downtown Owl: Ten minutes after the bar closes and the bouncers usher everyone out, an entertaining drunk bums a cigarette off you. He begins to launch into this colorful story about people you’ve never met but who sound fascinating. The story’s not going anywhere but it’s a funny slice-of-life. Suddenly, a black-and-white rolls up, sirens howling, and two cops spring out and force the drunk into the backseat. They take off without a word. Downtown Owl is a similar experience.

This feels like the kind of novel I could have written four years ago – and in fact, it begins very similarly to a failed draft somewhere on my hard drive**. As such, I can’t quite hate this book, like so many people hate Chuck Klosterman, but I have a hard time respecting it. Klosterman’s got a gift for inventive description and the witty turn of phrase, but I don’t know if you can build a novel on those strengths alone. He dances between “clever” and “too clever” and lands on unsteady footing.

As far as novels go in the Man vs. Nature genre – and by “Nature” I mean cruel, capricious fate, although weather plays a part here – Downtown Owl gets nothing wrong, though it doesn’t exactly cut a new trail. You will laugh more than you did at Slaughterhouse-Five or The Stranger, but won’t end up any wiser or feeling much different. It’s all naturalist and absurdist portraits of small-town life, until suddenly there’s a shocker of a climax, and then no denouement whatsoever.

* Also: Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth.

** I don’t mean this to be as dismissive as it sounds. Klosterman has been on the New York Times Bestseller list and I have not; clearly he’s doing something right.