we’ll give ourselves new names, identities erased

As promised, my final thoughts on The Prisoner.

Short Version (Spoiler Free): The ending was better than the original ending (which isn’t hard), but the interstitial episodes were worse than the original interstitial episodes (which also is not hard). Final verdict: decent.

Longer Version (Contains Spoilers): Well.

When I wrote about the problem of genius in movies, I referenced Mr. Scott’s “transwarp beaming” in the new Star Trek movie. Transwarp beaming is supposedly a genius breakthrough, but it doesn’t seem any more “genius” than flying faster than light or teleporting to a planet. In a universe where all tech is handwaved, calling another piece of handwaved tech “genius” tells the audience nothing.

I had a similar reaction to the middle (middling?) episodes of The Prisoner. Everyone in the Village acts weird – including the one “normal” man, Number Six. We don’t know who’s acting weird because they’re crazy, and who’s acting weird because they’re hiding something, and who’s acting weird because that’s how they always are. As a result, the moments meant to shock – like 1112 stabbing 909 in the neck – just confuse us. Was that supposed to happen? If so, why? If not, what went wrong? We never know, and the show won’t bother to tell us.

Add to this the fact that the Village follows no consistent physical laws and all tension goes out the window. Are Six, Sixteen and the Winking Lady going to find the ocean over that sand dune? Maybe. Is Six going to finish rifling through this apartment before Two shows up? Could be. Is a fiber-optic camera watching Six right now? Probably. There’s no situation that can not be changed, as if by magic. So our heroes are either in constant danger or no danger at all. The visual and narrative cues we would rely on to tell us if they were aren’t available here.

Oh crap! Everything's normal!

The best episodes of the original series – and as much a fan as I am, I must admit they weren’t all gems – hinged around two compelling questions: why did Six resign? and who is Number One?. Simple questions, but exploring them and their ramifications made compelling drama. Why did Six resign his intelligence agency post? What did he know that was so valuable that he’d be thrust into this Village-prison to uncover it? And why won’t he save himself a lot of heartache and just say why? Similarly: if Number Two isn’t in charge, then who is? And why do the Number Twos keep changing? Bizarre little enigmas, especially for primetime television.

The new Prisoner briefly addresses both of these questions in the third episode, “Anvil,” and then abandons them. Six resigned (we learn in the flashbacks with Lucy) because he learned something he didn’t like about Summakor. And there is no Number One in the Village. Problem solved! Next!

Of course, removing these tensions pulls the teeth from the rest of the series. We have no idea why Two is keeping Six in the Village. And we have no idea why Six would engage Two on his own terms, instead of spending every waking minute walking toward those ghostly twin towers on the horizon. So the exchanges between them have no venom, the battles no suspense, and the odd little satires of suburban life no satirical edge.

The finale, “Checkmate,” revisits the interesting questions about the social order that the original series was known for. Can you fix someone against their will? If you can, should you? How aware are the Village residents of the “super-conscious” life that Mr. Curtis’s wife imagines them in? And what of the people who die in the Village – 1112, Lucy, 147’s daughter? This was fascinating. You could have built a whole series around this. Instead, you get protagonists toeing the sand uncertainly or screaming melodramatically.

If I were showing this to someone who’d never seen it before, I would skip “Harmony” and “Anvil” entirely. The rest, keep as they are.

NOM NOM NOM

Advertisements

I lose a dream when I don’t sleep; I’m slumbering

A man wakes up on a desert plateau. The staccato pops of automatic fire draw his attention; looking over a ridge, he sees an old man in an outmoded jacket tumbling down a hill. He picks the old man up and carries him out of the sun. The old man dies; the younger man buries him. Alone, the younger man staggers across the desert until he finds:

The Village.

jim-cavielzel

The notion of a remake of The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s legendarily inaccessible 1967 BBC series, thrilled me more than it bothered me. I don’t like remakes. I don’t like the idea of dredging the same river for new fish. But the original Prisoner, for all the thunder of its premise, lacked something in execution. McGoohan wanted the audience to draw their own conclusions, but a little more explicitness couldn’t have hurt (“yes, Patrick dear, but what do the monkey masks mean?”). And toward the end, the show drifted from challenging-weird to just weird-weird. The same ideas, given a fresh start and a proper budget, would devastate.

Number Six (Jim Cavielzel) stumbles through the Village. Exhausted from walking in the desert all day and afflicted by hallucinations of life in New York, he falls off a rooftop. He awakes in a clinic – The Clinic – under the warm gaze of Dr. 313 and the blue-eyed fatherliness of Number Two (Ian McKellen). “Why are you keeping me here?”, Six demands. Two shrugs: “I see no locked doors.” This is the insidiousness of the Village: it responds to direct confrontation with gentle redirection. Aside from Number Two, no one denies the existence of a world outside – Isaac Newton, Alexander Graham Bell, David Beckham, Manhattan. But they don’t understand why it’s so important to Number Six. They just want to help.

The beauty of the original Prisoner was the distinct visual and auditory style of the Village. Shot in Portmeirion, Wales, the use of gay colors, cheery announcements and signs in Albertus typeface all contributed to the air of stiff, enforced conviviality. AMC’s The Prisoner has a style all its own as well. Identical 60s-era bungalows, duplexes and diners form neat little rows in the middle of a vast desert. The occasional flashback to New York or to static-ridden surveillance footage jars Six out of his attempts to focus. There are no walls and no guards: there are the simple limits of sand and sky. But Number Two keeps control in other ways. He can’t suppress every citizen’s desire for escape or their search for something more, so he gives it to them: the Escape Resort! The nightclub More! And just to remind you that this world isn’t right, there’s the occasional touch of weirdness for its own sake, like the soap opera Wonkers or Brian Wilson’s “In Blue Hawaii” or the twin therapists, Number 70.

And no, they don’t have anything that’s not a wrap.

I love Ian McKellen as the new Number Two. He brings a sinister warmth to the bland pronouncements that he bestows on people: “Every day above ground is a good day.” He lives in a pristine opulence that the rest of the Village aspires to. And yet behind everything there’s an air of instability. Everyone gets very still whenever he enters a room, as if he and Mommy were just having a screaming argument in the kitchen downstairs and it’s imperative that we be good. He carries a grenade with him everywhere, pulling it out of his pocket once or twice an episode and tossing it to make a point. He is the capricious tyrant, just as likely to bestow prizes – a free vacation, a medal for service – as punishments. It takes a brilliant actor to pull that off and still appear sane.

ian mckellen

Jim Cavielzel as Number Six, I’m not as sure on. He plays crazy very well, while McGoohan was always proud and stiff. This is essential: Number Six is the man on the fringes of society, and people on the fringes are “crazy,” even if they’re not disordered. When he’s trying to convince 313 or Two that his memories of a world before the Village are real, he fumbles for the thread of his own thought. He lacks the thunderous contempt that McGoohan’s Six had for the other conspirators in the Village, but that’s for the better. Cavielzel’s is a more sympathetic Six. He bites back, but he doesn’t bark.

What doesn’t quite work for me are the slow-mo shots of Six running through the desert, dropping to his knees when faced with some implacable object – the twin towers, the weird anchor – and screaming. They seem a bit too forced. The horror of the Village comes from its cheerful banality and its absolute impermeability to logic, sprinkled with the occasional bit of grotesque: a giant bubble bouncing down the street and absorbing someone. The horror shouldn’t be something that we sit and watch with flashing lights: hey kids! Here’s where the horror is!

I watched the first two episodes, “Arrival” and “Harmony,” last night (and thanks to Sylvia M. for being a gracious host). So far we already know more about Number Six in two episodes than we ever did in the prior series: he worked for a company, Summakor, that collects CCTV footage to analyze trends in human behavior. We already have a hint of why he resigned as well. Interestingly enough, no one in the Village seems to want to know why: a major plot point from the original series. But this cute and accessible woman he picked up on the streets of Manhattan in flashbacks – Lucy – won’t let up on it. But if she’s the only one who’s curious, why can’t Six leave the Village? And if Two wants to know, why hasn’t he asked yet?

Ultimately The Prisoner is not about Number Six. We are not supposed to see ourselves in Number Six; we are supposed to see ourselves in the rest of the village. The Prisoner is about how the institution of society deals with a man who will not conform. Perhaps he’s not conforming because his brain is chemically imbalanced; perhaps it’s because no one around him can supply what he wants. Or perhaps he has memories of a past that no one shares and every time he tries to pursue them, a giant bubble attacks him.

Regardless of why he feels that way, he can’t fit in. He rejects all attempts to make him fit in. So how do we respond? Some of us watch him with sad compassion. Some of us write him off (“she’s a crazy”; “he’s an old drunk”). If he gets too loud or violent, we lock him away. And if he persists in being unmutual, we gently nudge him to the far edge of the herd.

Two more episodes tonight and two on Tuesday. Expect my final thoughts on Friday. Be seeing you.

the prisoner

and when you said I scared you, well I guess you scared me too

The final three.

THE PROM

Fun. Angel comes to a painful but logical realization – that it’s unfair to tie a beautiful young girl down to a moping immortal. So he breaks up with her (at an inconvenient time, but is there ever a good one?). Buffy spends an appropriate amount of time heartbroken, then throws herself into her work and tracks down a lone psycho training hellhounds to ruin prom. Meanwhile, Xander uncovers Cordelia’s secret day job. Despite her continually hostile attitude toward him, he pays for the dress that she’s put on layaway – a lovely, albeit pathetic, gesture.

I know that the hokey ceremony at the prom, where the entire class made an award just for Buffy, should bother me more than it did. It’s such transparent wish fulfillment – in a show that’s all about wish fulfillment, giving the high school outcasts hot dates and superpowers – that I know I should feel seedy. But I don’t. Because, ultimately, Buffy has given up a lot of her normal life in order to protect Sunnydale from everything. She doesn’t get a boyfriend, she settles for a college other than the best she could get into, and all her friends are weird. So I was moved. Or maybe it’s just really effective wish fulfillment.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?


  • A hellhound that’s been trained to shred people in formal wear? A kid who wants to slaughter a gym full of promgoers because … eh, you know what, the episode isn’t even really about this guy. So I’m not mad enough to give this an AYFKM. It’s still pretty lazy, though.
  • The entire episode hinges on the Precious Magic of Prom, which is a trope I’d prefer vanish from American culture as a whole and pop culture in particular. It’s one night. It’s a dance. You’ve been to dances before; you’ll go to dances again. The industry that’s been built up around this one lacklustre night in the tail end of a high school career sickens me – and I work in marketing, so I know from sickening.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool


  • I buy into Anya’s social ineptitude. For the past several centuries, her only interaction with humans has been to toy with them. I’m not surprised she’d have a hard time telling a pleasing anecdote (“so she wished her husband’s head would explode …”).
  • We knew Angel was going to show up at prom. Everyone knew. Don’t pretend you didn’t know. That being said, I’m glad the show didn’t imply that Angel and Buffy were going to get back together. You can acknowledge that you’re not meant to be with someone and still be fond of them.
  • Also, though Xander paying for Cordelia’s dress is, again, pathetic, it represents a nice note of closure on their relationship. A lesser show would use this to imply that maybe they’re getting back together (I can see Aaron Sorkin doing this, for some reason). But that would be stupid. Buying someone a prom dress isn’t a way to rekindle an old romance, especially if he cheated on her and she nearly died. But it’s a great favor for a friend.
  • “For god’s sake, man. She’s eighteen, and you have the emotional maturity of a blueberry scone.”

Overall Grade: Didn’t blow me away, but you can’t depict the senior year of your protagonists without having one episode at prom.

GRADUATION DAY (Parts 1 and 2)

The moment that Season 3’s been building toward since “Homecoming.” Mayor Wilkins culminates his hundred-year plan to Ascend, turning into a demon and devouring most of Sunnydale. The gang’s in for their most desperate fight yet.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?


  • What little Giles, Wesley and the Watchers know about the Ascension suggests that it’s a terrible cataclysm. Even by the standards of the terrible cataclysms the gang avert every week. And getting the inside scoop from Anya confirms this. Given the monumental stakes involved, why the fuck are the only people who can stop it – Buffy, Willow, et al – still going to school? Shouldn’t they be locked in the library 24/7, doing research and calisthenics? Shouldn’t the Watcher council send some backup?

    And if the answer’s “no, it’s not a big enough threat to justify that,” then why have we spent all season building up to it? Because if Sunnydale’s in no more danger from the Ascension than they are from the Apocalypse Cult of Jhe (in “The Zeppo”) or the demon Lurconis (“Band Candy”), then that’s a supreme letdown. And if they’re in more danger, that demands a proportionally greater response. But no one seems worried that the Ascension’s coming in three days.

  • Xander’s meta-consciousness regarding his role as a supporting character (“I just know there’s no way I’m getting out of this school alive”). Thankfully Whedon doesn’t pay off on this, but there’s the fear he might.
  • The Mayor orders Faith to murder Professor Wirth three days before the Ascension, because Wirth is the only one who knows about the vulnerability of the Mayor’s new form. Except (A) Wirth doesn’t know, really; he’s not a demonologist, (B) as Wesley points out, his homicide only draws attention to his life and research, rather than concealing it, and (C) it’s not exactly a momentous revelation! What an obscure bit of lore – the demon’s vulnerable to massive volumes of fire. I wouldn’t have considered blowing it up with enough fertilizer to vaporize a school library unless I’d read this occluded text.
  • “Guess who our commencement speaker is.” “Siegfried?” “No.” “Roy?” “No.” ARGHLEBARGHLE.
  • “We have to find a spell to stop the Ascension,” Willow declares. You mean you hadn’t been trying before today? Or do you mean staking that vampire with a levitating pencil (which I’ll admit was cool) inflated your self-esteem so much that you think you can undo a century-long ritual in three days? Or are you dumb? Or – and I smell a winner – could Whedon not think of anything else for you to do for the next 44 minutes?
  • “This is mutiny.” “I like to think of it as graduation.” WUT IZ THIS SYMBOLIZMS I IS NOT SURE
  • “All that killing, and you’re afraid to die?” … what? How does the one follow from the other?
  • Buffy feeds her blood to Angel, leading to the two of them thrashing around on the floor of the mansion. Angel grinds on top of her, while Buffy moans and crumples things (like tableware) in her hands. EXCUUZ ME I WAZ TOLD DERE’D BE A SYMBOLIZMS?
  • Does the vampiric vulnerability to sunlight mean anything? Does it have to be direct sunlight, unreflected off any other surface? Because Angel wanders around the library while the gang’s getting ready for war like it’s nothing.
  • For being the “key guy,” Xander doesn’t contribute a lot to the final battle. He stands and tells people when to shoot the things they’re holding. I could have done that. Have I mentioned yet that I hate the character of Xander?
  • “Guys – take a moment to deal with this. We survived […] Not the battle. High school.” UGH.

All Right, I Admit, That Was Cool


  • “I’ll scream.” “Who wouldn’t?”
  • The gang engages in some smart, focused problem-solving. Xander brings Anya in for debriefing. Buffy and Giles accurately deduce that the Mayor killed Professor Wirth to hide something important. Buffy learns that Angel needs a Slayer’s blood to survive and decides, without much angst, to take Faith’s. Plot, action, progress – a neat little march.
  • The Mayor! Always the Mayor. “That’s a spunky little girl you’ve raised. I’m going to eat her.
  • And as dumb as the Mayor’s plan was to kill Professor Wirth, his plan to poison Angel is genius. It is, as Wesley points out, an effective way to split the gang’s limited resources.
  • “Fine! You know what? I hope you die! … aren’t we going to kiss?”
  • The Mayor’s been growing paternally fond of Faith since she switched sides, but it ramps up in this episode. This makes his response to her death more appropriate.
  • Though I thought little of the taunts – as I think little of all Whedon dialogue – I loved the final showdown between Buffy and Faith. A classic furniture-wrecking, window-smashing evening brawl.
  • The gang shows up and takes Angel to task for feeding off Buffy to save his own life. Even if she did provoke him into it, this is their logical response. Who’s going to be more crucial to stop the Ascension – the chosen Slayer, gifted with superhuman strength and speed, or a guy who can’t come out before eight-thirty?
  • Though the “riddles” are hell of lame, I liked Faith passing … her Slayerness? Whichever … on to Buffy in the shared coma fantasy.
  • The graduating class doffing their gowns and going to war on the Mayor. I knew it was coming, but I still got a thrill out of it. It’s so subversive.

Overall Grade: It’s an ending. So there.

# # #

Throughout this recap, I’ve been calling Whedon out for various tendencies I liked or (more often) disliked about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I realized recently, though, that it’d be unfair to lay all of that at his feet. Whedon may have been producer and show runner, but network television gets written by a committee of different writers. Maybe the “Whedonesque” style that I hated so much could be laid at the feet of a few delinquents.

So I used Wikipedia and my prior recaps to search for any trends. Below find a list of each episode and its credited writer.

Episodes I Loved
“Faith, Hope and Trick” (David Greenwalt)
“Band Candy” (Jane Espenson)
“The Wish” (Marti Noxon)
“Consequences” (Marti Noxon)
“Doppelgangland” (Joss Whedon)
“Choices” (David Fury)

Episodes I Liked
“Homecoming” (David Greenwalt)
“Helpless” (David Fury)
“The Zeppo” (Dan Vebber)
“Beauty and the Beasts” (Marti Noxon)
“Earshot” (Jane Espenson)

Episodes I Tolerated
“Revelations” (Douglas Petrie)
“Lovers Walk” (Dan Vebber)
“Gingerbread” (Jane Espenson)
“Bad Girls” (Douglas Petrie)
“The Prom” (Marti Noxon)
“Graduation Day” (Joss Whedon)

Episodes I Hated
“Anne” (Joss Whedon)
“Dead Man’s Party” (Marti Noxon)
“Amends” (Joss Whedon)
“Enemies” (Douglas Petrie)

So, no clear rules but several obvious tendencies:

  • I am more likely to hate an episode written by Joss Whedon, selected at random, than I am to tolerate or love it.
  • I am more likely to like or love a Marti Noxon episode than to tolerate or hate it.
  • Jane Espenson’s good, too.
  • Every writer has at least a chance of overcooking the roast, except apparently David Greenwalt or David Fury. The Davids can do no wrong.

And this half-assed statistical analysis neatly wraps up the theme I’ve been addressing since June: I just don’t like Joss Whedon. He’s creative. He comes up with these fantastic worlds – cowboys in space! secret agents with replaceable personalities! high school kids fighting vampires! – that excite you just by hearing about them. And then he fails to deliver in any way that would engage me. I don’t find anything worth emulating in his heroes; I don’t find the gags he writes funny or the stirring speeches stirring; and the moral of each story, when it’s not ham-handed, is just as likely to offend me as instruct me. He’s a great producer and a mediocre writer.

I gave him a fair shake. But when a given season of his seminal work – voted by his fans to be the one to watch – is just as likely to delight me as it is to bore or annoy me, that’s too random a craps shoot for me to bet on. I have better shows to watch.

Thank you for indulging me while I nitpicked at your idol. If you want to do the same with The Wire or Mad Men or The Prisoner, I’ll sit on my hands.

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.

DOPPELGANGLAND
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.

ENEMIES
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.

EARSHOT
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.

CHOICES
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.

he’s in the place, but I get no joy

Mad Men S3 Premiere (SPOILER-FREE): A gentle easing back in to America’s favorite ad agency. Aside from certain exciting developments in the lives of Messrs. Cosgrove and Campbell, no real plot developments here. But I’m okay with that (which is perhaps an inconvenient bit of hypocrisy, considering how much distaste I directed at stories that favor talking over doing, but if inconvenient hypocrisy turns you off, then sister, you’re at the wrong store already). Mad Men has such a superlative cast and visual feel that a glance, a pause or a well-timed exit can advance a relationship by volumes. Consider Don’s glance at Sal during the London Fog onsite, or Cosgrove’s exit from his last conversation with Campbell. Pristine, artistic television; I will never tire of unpacking it.

My one regret: the cast has grown so large and deep that we didn’t get to spend too much time with any of our other favorite characters. Peggy was on screen perhaps twice; likewise Betty, likewise Roger Sterling. But we saw substantially more of Salvatore than we normally get to, and we got introduced to some of the new British overlords. I question their increasing presence on the show, though. Every major plot change in Mad Men seems to stand for some broader social trend: Peggy getting her own office, the two “hep” young guys brought on in S2 to market to the youth. Is the presence of the English guys a clumsy stand-in for the “British invasion”? Because the Beatles and the Kinks had a loosening, youthening effect on America, and Hooker and Price seem to tighten everyone up. Nobody’s comfortable around them.

I watched this at a Mad Men premiere party at Noir in Harvard Square, with Marie C. and Jarret I. Roughly 90% of the men and 100% of the women dressed in their approximation of period garb: dark suits with vests, swooping dresses with crinoline. I showed up in T-shirt and jeans (fcuk fashion; it was hot out). I leaned against a wall and watched the show for the first time with a crowd. It was enlightening: I laughed at things I wouldn’t normally laugh at, because of the audience, and cheered more openly at things I would otherwise nod at without a word. Don’t know that I’d do it every week, but I had a good time. I’ll get there earlier next time, though.

Burn Notice S3 Mid-Season Finale (SPOILER-FREE): Dark and intense, certainly, but not quite as dark or intense as the episode prior (which took a gut-wrenching turn when Michael had to slap Fiona). And I’d worry a little about the two-steps-forward, one-step-back resolution of the overarching metaplot – Michael’s continuing quest to resolve his agency status – were the show not so fun. But it’s still fun. The plot in this episode surprised me with plenty of twists. Things got heavy (as they always do when Michael has to put a bullet in someone). And we got some backstory on Fiona, which I never noticed how much we missed until today. But she has a history! And family! Who knew?

The Hurt Locker (SPOILER-FREE): One of those amazing, fraught little movies that I don’t feel the need to ever see again. Well cast, well acted, well shot – excellent in every aspect of the film language. Even the few moments that I anticipated well in advance (“that guy’s going to die, isn’t he?”) were carried with such aplomb that I didn’t mind. And the no-name cast, augmented by the occasional big star cameo, never let me down. That being said, I nixed my plans to see District 9 the same afternoon as this movie, as I stumbled out of the theater with a knot in my stomach. At first I feared food poisoning from the burrito I’d had for lunch, but it was a caesar salad burrito. Perhaps the dressing?, and then I stepped into the 88 degree sunshine and still felt cold. Ah, I diagnosed, adrenaline shakes.

I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the lord

This past Saturday ended NBC’s noble experiment, Kings, the modern day, alternate universe retelling of the Biblical story of King David. My amazement that such a wild concept could ever get aired, NBC soon shared with me – the show barely got 4 episodes out before losing its original timeslot, then going on hiatus, then getting canceled.

What made Kings so daring? Again, the concept, while ridiculous on its face, gives rise to such entertaining opportunities. The internecine power struggles of a royal family, living in a one-off Manhattan, with all the intrigues that modern technology and economics can bring to bear? How could that not be awesome? Add in the tangible presence of God – a real God, a jealous Old Testament God, a God men worship not because he’s the source of good but because he’s the source of power. The possibilities intoxicate.

king_silas On top of that, the casting was nearly perfect. Christopher Egon, the unknown Australian who played David Shepherd, blended the seriousness of patriotism and the naivete of youth: at times stern, at times confused. Allison Miller brought fire to one of the weaker roles on the show – Princess Michelle – by plunging into whatever conflict was in front of her with an equal and believable passion. But the prize goes to Deadwood‘s Ian McShane as the eloquent, untouchable King Silas Benjamin. He delivers kingly speeches in iambic pentameter with such casual gravitas that you don’t even notice their artificiality.


And that highlights the greatest of Kings‘ strengths: the ability to make you believe in a fantastic premise. A king, his family, his rivals and a God visible through signs and omens: that’s a premise better suited to a Lois Bujold novel than a primetime broadcast TV series. But the show makes it work. You believe that these people are kings and queens, even though (in the show’s own history) the monarchy of Gilboa is barely twenty years old, because they carry themselves with royal dignity. You believe that God exists not just because Rev. Samuels can black out an entire building by striking it with an open hand, but because Silas reacts to the stunt with such disdain (“Changing from arcana to tricks?”).

People talk as if they believe what they’re saying and they know what it means. That’s what made Kings work.

So why didn’t it last?

I had no trouble with the dialogue, but I recognize that it grew elusive at times. Highly poetic, even in casual conversation, it ran on into rambling sentences that referred back to earlier images. On top of the words, the show itself relied on conveying meaning through imagery: smokestacks and flags blowing in opposite directions, butterflies, sunlight and birds, etc. Like The Wire, Kings was less of a series than a novel put to video – and like The Wire, that complexity might have cost it an audience.

On top of that, shooting all those locations and exteriors in New York City gets really expensive.

The producers knew the show was doomed by the midway point of the season. The last five episodes – from “Pilgrimage” to the climactic two-parter, “The New King” – take on a very rushed feel as a result. Each episode carries the weight of three, introducing and burying multiple threads at a time. It made for very exciting television, even though some of the more interesting minor characters – Katrina Ghent, the palace guards Boyden and Klotz – got run over in the crush.

Does Kings have any hope? I’d like to see HBO or Showtime pick it up, though they likely couldn’t match NBC’s budget and the resulting series would feel claustrophobic. So I’m not sure we’re going to see the evolving war between Silas and David. Kings has no future; it remains in the mythic past that it borrowed from.

silas_crowd

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.

BAND CANDY
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.

REVELATIONS
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.

LOVERS WALK
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.

THE WISH
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.

AMENDS
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.