Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Buffy The Vampire Slayer — Season 5

**Warning- contains spoilers**

Why didn't I rate this season higher when I first watched it? I never had a problem with Dawn, I didn't hate Glory; since those are the only two complaints ever leveled at this season, why didn't I count it amongst my favorites? Whatever the reason, as I sped through it a second time, I've come to regard this as perhaps "Buffy's" finest season.

Opening with the so-damn-bad-it's-kind-of-hilarious "Buffy vs. Dracula," the fifth season doesn't exactly instill confidence and almost leaves one wondering if "Restless" was one last fluke on the slide into mediocrity. But a funny thing happens at the very end of the episode that demands your attention: Buffy's sister Dawn appears.

What's all this, then?

"Who?" Yeah, that's just about the only reaction you can have to the situation. Buffy has a sister named Dawn, and she's always been there. I wonder how flummoxed people were when they watched it as it happened. The mystery continues for a few episodes until we learn the truth: Dawn is actually "The Key," a ball of energy that unlocks the boundaries between dimensions. She was made human by a group of monks who wished to hide the key from a god named Glorificus (or Glory, as everyone calls her), who is trapped on Earth and will destroy the universe by using the Key to get back to her dimension.

Glory is the most subversive Big Bad of the show; she's vapid, vain, and nearly invulnerable. She's annoying, but then that's the point: Glory is Joss' tongue-in-cheek image of what a god might actually be like. Of course a being that inspires unwavering worship would have a massive ego, and Claire Kramer plays up Glory's vanity and her insanity for a killer combination of creeps and laughs.

Think Veruca Salt, but with god powers.

Apart from Glory's quest to find the Key and Buffy's attempts to protect Dawn, we get a slew of fascinating subplots. Perhaps as a result of the strain of added memories, Joyce develops a brain tumor and requires surgery. Riley comes to realize that Buffy views him more as a rebound and a convenience than a serious partner, and starts visiting vampire brothels to be fed upon out of a perverse desire to be "dark" enough for Buffy. Eventually their relationship crumbles, and the ashes are stomped out under the steps of my joyous dancing.

Some people say that "In the Woods," the episode in which Buffy and Riley's relationship ends, is a bit too sudden, and the notion of Riley returning to the military after what they've done to him, even as some bizarre resentful message to Buffy, is a bit senseless. To them I caution the dangers of looking gift horses in their mouths. I don't care if the Scoobies got lost on an island, or if they ran into the actual Scooby gang and conversed with a dog; if it means Riley leaves, Buffy could literally jump over a shark for 42 minutes and I'd pass out cigars like I just had a child.

Meanwhile, Giles, still jobless and still trying to ween Buffy of her dependence on him, opens a store selling mystical trinkets, called The Magic Box. Along with hiring Anya (and thus setting up no end to the hilarious exchanges between the two), it allows him to exert some independence of his own and brings back a bit of the feel of the first three seasons, even though those relatively halcyon days are shortly coming to an end.

Relevant? Hardly. But awesome? I think it speaks for itself.

But the biggest development is Spike's crush on Buffy. In the absolutely excellent "Fool For Love," we see how a lovesick lad named William was sired by Drusilla, and how he eventually evolved his persona into the Spike know and love. We also learn in these flashbacks that Drusilla, a psychic, could see this coming and threw Spike out because she knew long before he ever did that he was in love. At this stage, his crush is both hilarious and oddly endearing; it took a whole season, but they finally justified keeping Spike around for reasons other than "because he's awesome."

As the season progresses it seems to just get better and better. Starting exactly at the halfway mark with the episode "Checkpoint," the pathos involved with Dawn coming to terms with the fact that she is a fabrication sends the emotional levels into the red, and it just keeps ramping up. At the end of the surprisingly moving "I Was Made to Love You," we see Buffy come home to find her mother dead on the couch. The resultant trauma spills out in perhaps the most brutal episode in TV history, "The Body."

Filmed with crushing realism with only the occasional diegetic music as a soundtrack, "The Body" is the most honest portrayal of death ever put on the small screen. Wisely, it leaves out Giles' and Spike's grieving, because the episode is about youth coming to terms with the deaths of a loved one. I think I cried even harder when I watched it a second time. Particularly devastating is Anya's monologue in which she states that, as a former demon, she simply doesn't understand this sort of death.

Just hand me the Kleenex, now.

Joyce's death launched the final part of the Buffy saga, one significantly darker than even the material that preceded it. From here on out, there would be no hanging out on campus (especially since Buffy had to quit college to support Dawn), no happy sitcom endings. No, things would never be the same for Buffy, and many fans have yet to cope with it.

The last episodes in which Glory chases down and captures Dawn and the Scoobies mount an all-scale assault to rescue her are uniformly excellent, with the possible exception of "Spiral," which features the moronic Knights of Byzantium, a religious sect sworn to destroy the Key at all costs (though considering how the Key was a collection of pure energy until a few months ago, I don't understand why there's a medieval group after it).

It all leads up to the astonishing finale "The Gift," one of the best episodes of the series. It's action packed, hilarious, and emotionally devastating in a way that only the second season's "Becoming Pt. 2" could top. The fight with Glory is both personal and epic, and Buffy's sacrifice at the end wins almost as many tears as "The Body."

The character development of this season is off the charts. Buffy deals with the knowledge that her annoying little sister isn't real and in turn comes to treat her like a human more than ever before. When her mother dies, Buffy suddenly has to grow up and support her sister. They took everything from her this season, and when she leaps into the portal to seal the dimensions at the end, part of me thinks it's because she can't take it anymore as much as it is because Dawn is the only thing she has left and Buffy couldn't lose her too.

Meanwhile, Spike gets a solid foundation this season, laying the grounds for the most interesting character arc of the show. His crush on Buffy will lead to some horrifying lows in the next season, but here it's pitiable. Also moving forward are Willow with her burgeoning reliance on magic and Anya, who goes from the hilarious sex kitten to the layered, innocent hilarious sex kitten. Her relationship with Xander grows into one of the most tender in the Whedonverse, and frankly I don't trust anyone who doesn't love her.

There are those who despise Dawn, and she's usually referred to as the "jumping the shark moment." However, I think the writers made her work and, frankly, she's the most realistic character on the show. Anyone who has a younger sister knows Dawn is just as she should be; yes, she can be annoying and self-centered, but then what teenager isn't? Personally, I think she inspired more character growth in Buffy than ever before (even above the Angelus predicament), and she's fleshed out enough in her own right to make her a great character. Eff the haters.

When you get right down to it this is the best season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." It mixes the consistency of the third season with the emotional impact of the latter half of the second season and the character development of the fourth season. My favorite is still the sixth for its darkness and its unparalleled character growth, but this moves into an incredibly close second. The finale is so epic and beautiful that, when Buffy returned next season and everyone plunged into depression and addiction, many fans said they it should have ended here.*

*They're wrong, by the way.

The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke delivers a performance for the ages as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a broken down, washed up professional wrestler on his last legs. His own weathered face makes him look more like a scarred fighter than even the best makeup job could have faked. Once the most popular wrestler around, Randy gets by in local underground matches in that futile chase for a nostalgic thrill.

In these weekend romps, director Darren Aronofsky peels back the curtain on professional wrestling. Yes, the fights are rigged, but the fighting is real. Before the matches the two wrestlers work out how they're going to beat each other, almost like some barbaric dance. In the middle of a fight, The Ram surreptitiously sneaks a razor and cuts his own forehead so it looks like the other guy got in a great hit. It's all about the show.

Offstage, the wrestlers form a tight fraternity, applauding their brethren for a good show and generally supporting each other. Even among these surprisingly kind men, Randy stands out as genteel; the younger men look up to him as an idol, and his genuine compliments seem to be worth as much to them as the roar of the audience.

But as with all great sports films, the point is not the game. As soon as he agrees to a rematch of his famed bout with arch-rival "The Ayatollah," Randy suffers a heart attack, dashing any hopes of a comeback. His coronary inspires him to try to reconnect with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who wants absolutely nothing to do with the man who was never in her life. In his free time he goes to the strip club and hits on dancer Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who is gorgeous but — I presume because she's not in her 20s — never seems to have any customers other than Randy. Randy never does get it through his thick skull that Cassidy is, like him, a performer.

Randy's attempt to win over the two women in his life showcase Mickey Rourke's emotional range. When he hit the scene in the 80s he gained a name for himself as someone who could play tough guys with a lot of heart, and he's lost none of that ability to let his tenderness bleed through that battered exterior. When he breaks down trying to if not win the love of his daughter at least rid her of her hatred, I wondered if it was Stephanie fighting back tears or Evan herself.

The ending is about as beautiful as it could be, precisely because it does not pander to us. He spends the whole film trying to win the love of his daughter and his stripper friend, but it is when Randy climbs the ropes to deliver the killing blow to his old "foe" that we see the only people who truly love him.

This is a career-defining role for Rourke, who makes up for a near 15 year absence from the spotlight with his performance here. "He could have been the next DeNiro," so many point out; indeed, Rourke costarred with the legendary actor in "Angel Heart," yet people only praise Rourke when the film is mentioned. His Randy Robinson certainly has echoes of DeNiro's Jake LaMotta; both had so much and ended up with so little, even if Randy's life was never as seedy as Jake's.

This is a big departure for Darren Aronofsky. His previous films were jarring and disorienting, particularly "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream." In those films, the camera displayed the movie as the characters might view it; the paranoid, migraine prone Max of "Pi" and the various drug addicts of "Requiem" would see things in a jumpy fashion. "The Wrestler" operates in the same fashion, but this time we see things through the cold sobriety of a man who knows his fate and accepts it. No wonder, then, that we feel a rush of elation only when the camera enters a wrestling arena.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The West Wing — Season 3

**Warning- may contain spoilers**

After the nonstop excellence of the show's second season, "The West Wing" had a hell of a challenge ahead of it; surely nothing could compare to the bar set. But I learned not to sell Aaron Sorkin short, as he delivers yet another classic season of television.

The last season ended on a cliffhanger of sorts with the President poised to answer whether he would seek a second term. However, like all shows of the 2001-2002 season, "The West Wing" was impacted by the events of September 11th. Postponed a few weeks out of respect, the show returns not with a continuation of the story at hand but a special one-off episode written by Sorkin to address the issues that 9/11 brought up and to raise money for affiliated charities. The special, entitled "Isaac and Ishmael" revolves around a terrorist threat that locks down the White House while a group of specially selected students are touring. To keep them calm, Sam and the other staffers speak to the group about terrorists and what motivates them. As this goes on, Leo and the Secret Service confront a Muslim staffer...just to be safe I guess, because they figure out quickly that he's done nothing wrong.

I know what Sorkin wanted to accomplish with this episode, but it's heavy-handed and comes off like a PSA rather than an episode. Then again, at the time, I can understand why Sorkin was so blunt. I may be young, but I remember the hate, the unabashed open hatred of anyone who even "looked" Arab after 9/11. The message is clear to anyone remotely level-headed (and probably to the entire target audience of the "West Wing"), but Sorkin's insistence on trying to educate everyone makes it stifling.

However, once we really return to the season's canon with the second episode, things get right back on schedule. We learn that Jed Bartlet will indeed seek a second term, and he'll weather whatever Congress throws at him. The last season showed Bartlet and his administration trying to pass their legislature in a Republican-controlled Congress, and this season continues that by having the Republicans come down hard on Jed. My favorite aspect of this is that Sorkin never demonizes them for doing so; indeed, he lets both Jed and Abigail know that what they did was wrong, plain and simple, and they have no right to be outraged or indignant over their treatment.

The MS scandal finally concludes with a run of superb episodes, chief of which is "Bartlet for America," in which Leo testifies how long and how much he knew of the President's illness. I love the flashbacks for this series almost as much as I love the ones of the "Buffyverse;" they always offer such rich insight while remaining immediately entertaining.

In the wake of the huge MS arc, Sorkin needed something big to plug the gap, and he filled it with an explosion of new subplots. Apart from Bartlet gearing up for his re-election campaign, Josh hooks up with a feminist leader and the two constantly debate over legislature important to women, Sam gets duped by the Republican campaign into getting a negative ad on the Bartlet administration played on the news, and, most importantly, the United States must contend with the rising threat of a terrorist attack in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Qumar.

"Isaac and Ishmael" had a good concept but was clearly Sorkin's attempt to appeal to even the lowest common denominator to temper their outrage with contemplation. However, the ending Qumar arc is very much Sorkin working within the actual parameters of the show to deal with the subject of terrorism. A failed attack on the Golden Gate Bridge reveals that Qumar's ambassador to the United States is actually a terrorist organizer, which puts more pressure on President Bartlet than ever before. He and his chiefs of staff debate on how to handle the situation, but eventually only one course of action becomes feasible: they must assassinate the ambassador.

Everything comes to a head in the astounding season finale "Posse Comitatus." As with last season's "Two Cathedrals," it manages to both tie up loose ends and spark a whole new wave of interest. After meeting his Republican opponent, Bartlet vows with increased vigor to win his re-election, while CJ's budding romance with her Secret Service bodyguard is cruelly cut short. The assassination itself sets up a big question for the next season: how will Qumar respond?

When it comes to season finales, I think I'd have to put Sorkin just behind Joss Whedon as the best writer. So far all three season finales have been among the best the show has to offer, and some of the best TV around. Even the first season's big cliffhanger earned its suspense. While I tend to pick the finales out more than anything else, I don't think the actual bulk of the season is weak; on the contrary, it continues the last season's trend of thorough excellence, to the point that picking highlights from the middle is hard. Special mentions would have to go to the aforementioned "Bartlet For America," as well as "The Two Bartlets" and "Hartsfield Landing," in which Jed must come to terms with his abusive childhood, mainly because Toby brings it out of him.

The big weakness this season is the Republican candidate, Florida Governor Robert Ritchie. Clearly a parody of George W. Bush, Ritchie is the anti-intellectual candidate, establishing himself as the opposite of the "elitist" Bartlet. Sorkin fleshed out a number of Republican characters in the course of the show, but Ritchie is so one-note as to be painful. He's just setting this up to be the 2000 election the way Sorkin wanted it to turn out.

Ritchie serves to get in a bunch of jabs at Bush. "Why would they pick him when there are so many qualified Republicans to choose?" ponders Bartlet aloud. Ritchie challenges Bartlet to a clean campaign (even though Bartlet has run all of his campaigns so) only to start throwing out loads of dirty tricks. Look, I don't like Bush either, and I know the "The West Wing" has a liberal bias, but I expect something a bit subtler. Frankly it doesn't even make sense why the Republicans would run Ritchie as the folksy, relatable candidate when Bartlet is so immediately likable. Take the exchange between Charlie and Jed when Jed helps him with his taxes; when Charlie discovers he actually owes money instead of getting a refund, Jed just smiles, holds out his hand, and tells him "you don't even need a stamp. Pay up." He doesn't need to manufacture an image of relatability; he simply is.

Thankfully Ritchie stays in the background - he only appears in one episode- and the focus is more on the staff convincing Bartlet to run as himself and not what he thinks he should be to fight Ritchie. Combined with the rest of the season's predicaments, it makes for another thrill ride of issues and scandal that kept me on the edge of my seat. It's not quite as powerful as the last season, but its still superb.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

[Ed. note 11/25/09 -- I feel that my initial reaction to this film was perhaps too rooted in the aesthetic experience, and while that's not inherently a bad thing in a visual medium I believe I need to revisit this film in the near future to form a more concrete opinion.]

I remember when I read The Great Gatsby. I was in the 9th grade, and I didn't care for it. I thought it was detached and emotionless, setting up the tragedy of Jay Gatsby's life without ever letting us feel his pain. However, in the years since it has become perhaps the only school book I've ever changed my mind on; either I still love the ones I loved then (To Kill a Mockingbird, Othello) or still hate the ones I couldn't stomach (anything written by a Brönte). But I've come to see Fitzgerald's magnum opus in a new light: Fitzgerald was detached because he wanted to be. He spent so much time outlining Gatsby's accomplishments and his riches in order to mock America's system of values; he relegates Daisy to the background so that we do not understand her importance until it is too late for Jay. Perhaps watching "Citizen Kane" turned me around on it, since Welles took so overtly from the story.

"Why is he going on about The Great Gatsby?" some of you may be wondering. "Isn't this film about, I dunno, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?" Yes and no, as it turns out. David Fincher and "Forrest Gump" scribe Eric Roth work with the basic premise of the short story, but they gut everything else. I flipped through the short story a month or two ago, and nothing in that story made it into the film. I think it was for the better; the original was comic farce, but Fincher and Roth retooled it into a moving elegy of Benjamin's predicament. Along the way, it becomes a cinemtic representation for the totality of Fitzgerald's work.

The film opens in a present-day hospital, in which a dying woman has her daughter read to her the memoirs of the titular hero; we then travel back to the end of World War I to witness the birth of a special baby. Born with all the features of a man "well into his eighties and on his way to the grave," Benjamin is abandoned by his father (Jason Flemying) on the doorstep of a black woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who runs a nursing home and takes in Ben as her own.

As Benjamin moves through his life, Fincher paints a gorgeous picture of Fitzgerald's prose; everything shimmers with cold, impersonal lighting that makes everything both alluring and repellent. When a teenaged Ben (still an old man on the outside, of course) joins a tugboat crew and winds up in a brothel and bar, the images seem ripped straight from Fitzgerald's Jazz Age. Claudio Miranda is a shoo-in for the Cinematography Oscar (though to be fair, that's because everyone seems to be inexplicably ignoring "The Fall").

Eric Roth's involvement made me wary, but he largely abandons the heavy-handed, preachy stylings of "Forrest Gump." Benjamin is a strange man walking through vital American history, but he does so in the background rather than finding himself in the midst of great historical and pop cultural moments for the sake of winking at the camera. Indeed, a man like Benjamin must live a quiet life; otherwise people wouldn't allow him to live a life at all.

As with Gatsby, Ben's only human connection is a woman. At an early age, Ben meets a young girl named Daisy (probably the biggest nod to Gatsby), who comes to the home to visit her ailing grandmother. There is an instant spark between the two, and as they age Daisy comes to love Benjamin despite his condition. We know from the start that their relationship is doomed, and Fincher directs with the same brutal detachment in which Fitzgerald wrote, yet neither of these traits keeps Ben and Daisy's epic romance from being emotionally devastating. Fincher moves at a lesiurely pace, letting the two grow close ever so slowly only to gently break them apart. Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt help bring the story to life as much as the cinematography; they move through the film at once blending into the Fitzgeraldian world and rising above it as Fitzgerald's characters so often did.

I can't believe I've gone this long without mentioning the effects. In a year where Guillermo Del Toro, the master of modern effects, put out a film, the fact that someone else has the most astonishing and thematic effects is mind-boggling. Fincher uses CGI liberally, but in ways that do not draw attention to themselves: a fluttering hummingbird, the tugboat; these are the types of things people usually bring in computer imagery for. And the makeup? Don't even bother nominating other people in this category; Blanchett and Pitt had to look both older and younger than they are, but not once s their makeup obvious.

The only flaw I can pick out in this three hour journey is the overabundance of cutaways to the hospital. Three of these scenes (the beginning, end, and the moment that Daisy's daughter figures out why she's reading these memoirs) are thematically necessary and relevant, but the rest are simply distracting. But such distractions cannot truly detract from such a visually resplendent, thematically beautiful film.

There is a scene in the middle of the film that will become one of the most iconic in Fincher's oeuvre: a silhoutted Daisy, surrounded in smoke, dances for Ben in an attempt to seduce him. It says all you need to know about his plight: Benjamin gazes in awe, but does not accept her entreaties because he knows that their relationship will end in regret. Of course, he will regret this decision as well. Perhaps that's all the ordinary world can offer for the extraordinary.

The West Wing — Season 2

**Warning- may contain spoilers**

I could barely contain my excitement when I opened this box set Christmas morning. I almost wanted to immediately rush into my room, family gathering be damned and plop down to continue watching after the first season so thoroughly enraptured me. Of course I didn't, but the second the family packed it in I put a Do Not Disturb sign on my door and went back to the Capitol. The first season, though flawed in minor spots, set the bar incredibly high, but this season blows it out of the water.

At the end of the last season, President Bartlet and the staffers who surrounded him were fired upon by a group of gunmen. It ended up a bit of a cheap cliffhanger (although it's a hell of an episode), ending before we knew who was shot and why it happened, and forced viewers to wait months to find out. But the two part season premiere, "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen," answers the questions in a way that not only makes the wait worth it but surprises us with a deep insight into what brought the characters to work for Bartlet. As it turns out, White House aide Charlie Young's interracial relationship with the President's daughter Zoey was the basis for the attack; the President wasn't even the target at all. To be honest, I question the intelligence of someone who tried to shoot anyone in the vicinity of the President of the United States, but then one less racist in the world (even a fictional one) is fine by me.

The flashbacks of the episode set up much of the emotional arc of the season. Indeed, even though the Bartlet administration begins to come into its own this season, the real focus is on the characters. The character who gets the most setup here is Josh; wounded severely by the gunmen, Josh spends much of the first part of the season coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet he is never pushed to the sidelines, never dismissed, and never exploited for cheap sympathy.

Ultimately the focus of the second season rests on the Bartlet administration really setting down policies after the first season's excellent "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" pointed out the administration's wheel-spinning. Jed and his staffers cover a wide range of topics, from a proposed crackdown on racist groups in the wake of the premiere to a nuclear test ban. Then, we learn of the President's MS, which launches a whole new plot concerning if he lied to the public and whether or not he will run for a second term.

This final arc shows just how thought out the season was from the start. In the premiere, we see how the staffers, ideologues all, threw away their careers to work for Josiah simply because they finally found something to believe in. Thus, when Bartlet finally confesses to them his multiple sclerosis, it devastates them. Sorkin knew he was going to tear them down, so he gave us their zenith at the start.

The loss of his staffers' trust, a slew of his biggest political decisions yet, the inevitability that he must tell the people his secret, and the death of a close friend bring Bartlet to the brink in the jaw-dropping season finale "Two Cathedrals," in which the President finally breaks down in private and curses God for his woes. His tirade is made all the more impressive by Thomas Schlamme's impeccable direction, some of the best you'll ever see on a television program. When he stands in front of a press conference and they reporters ask him if he'll run again, Sorkin and Schlamme end the episode thinking they've once again hung us on a cliff. But you can see the answer plainly on Martin Sheen's face. Everything about this episode is perfect.

The best part of this season is its flow; apart from the premiere and finale, it's hard to pick out individual episodes. I mean that in the best possible way. Instead of standout episodes, the whole thing moves along with such narrative force that you'd almost suspect it was some sort of detective program; the notion that it is instead simply a look into political issues is almost baffling.

The only flaw I can find in this season is the occasional disappearance of minor characters. Mandy, the ill-fitting, useless character from the first season, simply vanishes without a trace. I admit I was too happy she was gone to look a gift horse in the mouth, but this issue arose again when White House Counsel Lionel Tribbey up and left to be replaced by Oliver Platt's Oliver Babish. I know it must be hard to keep track of things in this massive ensemble drama, but you can't just switch people for no reason; even tired TV cliché reasons are better than nothing.

Still, that is the only issue in an otherwise perfect season of television. Even though no one character gets more than a moment in the spotlight (how could they with the show's structure?), we get astonishing amounts of insight and personal evolution. From as objective a standpoint as I can judge, "Two Cathedrals" might just be the best hour of TV I've seen. It's not quite my favorite ("Angel's" "Not Fade Away" still reigns triumphant in my heart), but rarely will see a character so thoroughly devastated in the course of 42 minutes. What few flaws existed in the first season have given way to an idealistic yet grounded exercise in narrative of a cinematic scope, one that I can't wait to watch again.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The 25 Best (and Five Worst) Angel Episodes

**warning- contains spoilers**

Picking the best episodes of "Angel" is even harder than choosing the cream of the crop of its sister show. Even though it boasted some major arcs, it got across a great deal of story and character movement even in its most inconsequential of episodes. But some are just great even by the standards of the show. Below is a list of the finest hours of one of the best shows ever made.

25. Orpheus (4x16)

As great as Faith was in "Buffy," her limited appearances on this show pushed her character farther than she went in a full season. Her return as a recovering villain hell-bent on saving Angel even at the cost of her own life was the true conclusion of her story. The personal risks Faith takes to save the only person who ever believed she could reform is touching and harrowing, and her story provides a nice juxtaposition to the hilarious take of Angel's tortured recollections that forces Angelus to revisit the heroic deeds of Angel, much to the demon's outrage.

24. Waiting in the Wings (3x13)

"Waiting in the Wings" is one of the more unlikely hits of the series, but then when Whedon's name is attached, you shouldn't be surprised by greatness. The neverending ballet serves as one of the better metaphors for not only Angel's struggles but with his budding feelings for Cordelia, which first start to manifest with this episode. It also marks the first TV appearance of future Whedonite Summer Glau. Everyone wins.

23. Spin the Bottle (4x06)

"Angel" was much darker than its parent, which was dark enough as is, but occasionally it boasted moments of pure Whedonesque glee. "Spin the Bottle" stands up to the very funniest of "Buffy's" romps through silliness. Angel turns back into a young adult in the 1700s in the middle of present-day Los Angeles, Fred a timid pothead, Gunn a solitary street warrior, and we get a glimpse back into the early personas of Cordy and Wesley. There are far too many great lines to even begin to list.

22. Underneath (5x17)

An unrelentingly dark look into the hell that is modern suburbia seems like a total aside after the events of the two episodes preceding it, yet it plunges the characters even further towards their inevitable conclusion. It’s hard not to get chills when Gunn takes Lindsey’s place at the end as penance for his role in Fred’s death.

21. Home (4x22)

The end run of Angel’s fourth season seemed hell-bent on ruining everything; it was so bad that Tim Minear came back after a full season off to pen this stunning, wrong-righting finale that moved the show in a completely unexpected direction. The way Wolfram & Hart perverts the Fang Gang’s victory over Jasmine is the first truly sinister thing they’ve done since Season 2.

20. Power Play (5x21)

The episode that finally completes the theme presented in “Reprise:” that in the grand scheme of things good and evil give way to the simple question of power. On the surface level it’s a brilliant exercise in constant misdirection as Angel moves into darker territory before he finally reveals his plan to the team. But the questions it raises about the true evil of the world pushes this over the edge of a fun episode into a classic one.

19. You're Welcome (5x12)

Cordelia’s arc in Season 4 almost made me abandon the show for good. Even in the great episodes of the season the undercurrent of her possession and the acts she commits made me want to throw my TV away. But this one episode rights almost everything by bringing Cordy back for only a fleeting moment to help Angel get his life back together and to send her off in a surprising yet affectionate way.

18. Sleep Tight (3x16)

One of the most Shakespearean hours of TV I’ve ever watched. Not only is Wesley a tragic hero, but Holtz turns into a true villain after a season of moral ambiguity through his subversive manipulation of both Wes and Justine in his single-minded obsession with revenge. The final scenes where Angel can only sit in anguish and Wes lies half-dead in a hospital is perhaps the most haunting moment of the entire series.

17. Sanctuary (1x19)

I’ll be honest, I struggled on whether to include this or its predecessor “Five By Five.” Ultimately, I came down on the side of this because Five By Five contains the bulk of its excellence to its final gut-wrenching scene while this is transcendent throughout. It juxtaposes Faith’s desire for redemption with Angel’s and proves to be one of the most thematic episodes of the series. Oh, and the philosophical discussion that accidentally spawns from a question about a microwave is both deep and hysterical.

16. Deep Down (4x01)

After the insufferably derivative and hollow Season 3 finale “Tomorrow,” Angel needed a rebound to make the ten seconds it took me to switch discs in my DVD player worth it (to say nothing of the poor sods who had to wait months between seasons). Happily, “Deep Down” fires on all cylinders; it presents some of the darkest developments to come along since “Reprise” and rewrites the thematic focus of the show once more to fit the season ahead. Shame that the season itself so completely failed to deliver.

15. Somnambulist (1x11)

Both Buffy and Angel had their share of standalones that were distant from the seasonal arc but still got across a great deal of development, yet this underappreciated gem inserts its character insights so subtly it almost seems like a throwaway. Penn serves to remind Angel (and we the audience) that his past will always come back to bite him and why perfect happiness eludes him.

14. Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? (2x02)

Quite possibly the most richly metaphorical episode of the series, AYNOHYEB? points to the direction Angel would take later in the season via an entrancing series of time jumps and a dark mystery. The main focus of the episode is fear and how people respond to it. Some of the allusions include xenophobia, racism, the Red Scare, and how these fears can influence a mob. The fact that Angel decides to relocate the gang to the site of his most terrible deed (post-soul, of course) is the biggest display of how he always keeps his demons on his mind.

13. I Will Remember You (1x08)

Yes, it’s melodramatic. But people need to stop equating melodrama with bad acting. IWRY is a devastating episode that teases Angel, Buffy, and us with the possibility of happiness before brutally pulling the carpet from beneath our feet. That Angel would sacrifice his chance at a life with Buffy to help her fight down the road is inspiring, and the final moments of their time together is heartbreaking thanks to SMG’s and Boreanaz’s stellar acting.

12. City Of (1x01)

Just about the best pilot you could hope for. It wastes no time introducing Angel and Cordy to this new world and tweaking their characters to fit it while keeping to their established traits, presenting us with a new character (Doyle), and laying down the fundamental themes of the show. The thematic direction of the series shifted often in brilliant ways, but the immobile core was formed here.

11. Destiny (5x08)

It’s been a long time coming, baby. The fight between Angel and Spike gets right to the core of their relationship, and the fight itself is the best in the series. It also tackles what it means to be a hero. The twist following the battle tops the whole thing off with a big laugh.

10. Smile Time (5x14)

Do I really need to explain this? The most brilliantly crazy concept in the Whedonverse (yes, it even beats out Hush and Once More, With Feeling for pure zaniness), “Smile Time” doesn’t have any real emotional highs or lows (apart from the pure elation of Fred kissing Wes at the end), but it’s such a bellyacher that I chuckle just thinking about it.

9. Epiphany (2x16)

The episode that preceded this, “Reprise,” was a cataclysmic affair philosophically and thematically, and “Epiphany” rebuilt the show out of the spectacular ashes. It reverts the themes of the show to those outlined in “City Of” while never backtracking. As terse and brutal as “Reprise” was, the idea of suddenly putting pieces back together in one episode seemed like an avenue to contrivance, but “Epiphany” is every bit as deep.

8. Reunion (2x10)

As I get closer to number one I’m finding it harder and harder to rank these. The number next to “Reunion” says 8, but it’s really tied for third or fourth. Wolfram & Hart gets their biggest victory over Angel by re-siring Darla, and it unleashes a being we’ve never seen before, one neither Angel nor Angelus. Wolfram & Hart were always trying to turn Angel, but they got more than they bargained for here. Though I’ve only watched the series twice, I’ve sat down with this one several times, and I still gets chills when Angel utters “And yet somehow, I just can’t seem to care.”

7. Lullaby (3x09)

I feel that Darla’s arc is somewhat overlooked by many because she was never a title character. However, hers is perhaps the most understated evolution on the show (after Fred's pre-Illyria days, of course), and her decision to sacrifice herself rather than lose her newfound love for her unborn child is deeply affecting. The juxtaposition between this touching selflessness and the cruelty both inflicted on Holtz and the cruelty he inflicts is one of the more cinematic touches of the series.

6. Darla (2x07)

I admit it, I’m a sucker for a Buffyverse flashback (the only ones that are actively bad are the retconning bores in “Heartthrob”), and the crossover smash “Darla” (it syncs up with Spike’s flashbacks in “Fool For Love,” only from Darla’s perspective) features my all time favorite looks into Angel’s seedy past. Equally as exhilarating is Angel’s desperate (and doomed) attempt to save Darla from herself which starts ramping up the show’s penchant for noir moods. This style would hit a high after Darla’s re-siring, but here it effectively builds tension for their plight.

5. Shells (5x16)

In the wake of Fred’s death, the Fang Gang is maybe as devastated as we are, and widens the scope of issues covered by its predecessor. Surprisingly, it packs almost as much emotional impact as AHITW with the revelation that Fred’s soul died with her, proving that Joss' series are so well-written, I can identify with them even on a surface level. Angel and co. took over Wolfram & Hart seemingly without consequence, but this was fate’s way of catching up.

4. To Shanshu in L.A. (1x22)

After a first season of disconnected rambling (which had its pros and cons), Angel stunned us all with an abrupt move into something bigger. Angel finally snaps out of his rut and the revelation of the Shanshu prophecy would loom over much of the rest of the series. Yet, until the fourth season at least, the prophecy never got in the way of the personal tale of redemption. A shockingly epic 42 minutes of television.

3. Reprise (2x15)

“Reprise” is the deepest hour of TV I’ve seen. If the thematic foreshadowing and complexity of Buffy’s “Restless” was a subtle dreamscape, “Reprise” is a sledgehammer to the forehead; it tears down the epic themes of “To Shanshu in L.A.” with the blunt admission that evil can never be triumphed over because it exists even within the good. Tim Minear made his mark with the Beige Angel arc, and here he proves himself to be the finest writer Joss ever hired, and the only one who makes me as excited to spot in the credits as Joss himself. Rarely has a series (much less a single episode) so curtly laid out the nature of the world for all to see.

2. A Hole in the World (5x15)

I’ve never put stock in any awards; most are motivated by a desperate desire for ratings and star coverage and the rest are just the industry’s way of patting itself on the back. Yet the fact that Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker didn’t nab Emmys for their heart-wrenching performances shows just how clueless some people are. It starts out with a hilarious and deceptively insightful debate over Cavemen vs. Astronauts (the answer is astronauts, by the way) and winds up a bleak look into religious fanatics (Knox) and never considering the consequences of our desires (Gunn). For my money this depresses me even more than “The Body” from Buffy's fifth season. Fred was the one character who couldn't be corrupted morally (Gunn even killed for her to keep her from doing anything vindictive), and so it was all the more devastating when this ancient evil corrupted her physically. And it gave people the chance to see what an incredible actress Amy Acker really was (as if the rest of her time as Fred wasn't subtle brilliance).

1. Not Fade Away (5x22)

There are those who view this episode as a cheap cliffhanger, a great first half to an unaired two-part finale. However, it is the truest send-off I have ever seen for any show. The depths the characters steep to in order to go out swinging is astonishing (Lorne’s finale in particular shook me deeply), and the last scene encapsulates everything about “Angel:” the daily, unwinnable struggle against evil. The fights manage to look epic without losing the working man feel of the series, and Wesley's death tore me up even more than Fred's, if that's at all possible. This is, quite simply, the best hour of TV I’ve ever seen.

Honorable Mention

Hero (1x09)

I wanted so badly to add this to the list (and high too), but I just couldn’t leave off any of the others. Doyle was a character who never had the time to win our hearts but did so anyway, and the fact that he sacrificed himself so Angel could keep fighting is a harbinger to Angel’s newfound importance in the wake of the Shanshu Prophecy. However, the cheap Nazi allusions really bring it down, to the point that I just couldn’t put it on the list.

The Five Worst Episodes of Angel

Angel is unquestionably my all-time favorite show, but that does not mean it's perfect. To date the only show I've ever watched with not a single weak episode is "Arrested Development" (I'm not counting short-lived British shows like "The Office" and "Spaced" because their runs are so short), but then that show only ran for 2.5 seasons. However, even though "Angel" doesn't always fire on all cylinders, I had a great deal of trouble coming up with even five all-out bad episodes. Comparatively, I can think of 8 clunkers in "Buffy" off the top of my head, and I still haven't finished going back through the series. So, let us take a moment to acknowledge the lesser moments of a great series.

5. Tomorrow (3x22)

To be honest, the whole end arc of Season 4 pisses me off to no end, but separately they aren’t bad enough to be rank as the worst of the series. But “Tomorrow” was hands down the worst finale of either Angel or its parent show. It squandered so much great lead-up in preceding episodes by falling into the trap of rampantly derivative devices. You’ve got your lack of action, waste of tension, all to set up a cheap cliffhanger that smacks of the absolute worst of TV clichés.

4. The House Always Wins (4x03)

The end run of Season 4 was shittier than the sum of its parts, but this early season clunker provides me with all the ammo I need. It’s a microcosm of all the flaws of the season: the initial awe at the bombast quickly gives way to the realization that the writers are dragging a character through emotionally devastating territory only to act like it’s no big deal and not move the character forward. Of course, Lorne’s story wasn’t half as offensive as the protracted ruination of Connor and Cordy.

3. Double or Nothing (3x18)

When he was a teenager, Gunn sold his soul for a pickup truck. I almost want to stop there. Now he has to pay up, so he breaks up with Fred so he doesn’t hurt her when he dies. On the day that he is going to die. Nice “strategery” Charles. I’m sure Fred will move on in the three hours between breakup and the news of your death. It’s stupid, emotionally vapid, and frankly insulting to both the audience and the characters.

2. Provider (3x12)

I have such a hard time writing anything about this episode. Angel Investigations needs money, so they immediately agree when a group of mysterious creatures offers $50,000 to take Fred back to their place to literally solve a puzzle. Of course, once they have her they plan on doing something stupid with her genius mind and the lesson is that money isn’t as important as friendship. That’s right, we have to sit through a moral normally reserved for a preachy sitcom. Man, why didn’t I spot the huge weaknesses in Season 3 the first time around?

1. She (1x13)

Joss Whedon always prided himself on the fact that "Buffy" never operated in the hackneyed "In a very special of..." style that every other show out there used to drum up ratings. But "Angel" got me worried when I watched this early disaster. In a blatant, heavy-handed metaphor of female genital mutilation, we are forced to endure Bai Ling's Jheira and those young girls she protects. Why? Because they have a mysterious appendage known as the Ko, which drives the males of their species to madness, so they remove it. While I agree that such practice is horrifying and deplorable, so what? Does anyone really NOT think that? It so cheaply smacks you over the head with a message that everyone agrees with anyway that it proves far more abysmal than a piece of filler. It is to TV what “Crash” is to film.

(See also: The 25 Best (and 5 Worst) Buffy Episodes)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Angel — Season 5

**Warning- contains spoilers**

Well, here we are: the end of "Angel." After suffering through the fourth season the first time I could barely bring myself to even care about the show anymore. But once I start something I have to finish it, so I popped it these discs expecting to either feel totally indifferent or to somehow get even angrier at the series that had rewarded me so often only to take so much away in only one arc. Instead, I was treated to the single best season of TV I've ever watched, one that —though not without weak moments— contained no weak episodes. It took the characters into territory far darker than they had ever gone before, but also featured many of the funniest moments of Whedonverse television. On a second viewing, I amazingly like it even more.

The writers had a lot of pressure on them this season. After the operatic bombast of the fourth season, "Angel" enjoyed great ratings but still couldn't bring in enough advertising money to pay for its hefty budget. So, when the Fang Gang moved to Wolfram & Hart, they also went back to basics. On a related note, WB execs told the writers to focus more on standalone episodes after the lengthy, dense arcs of the past two seasons. Normally, forcing shows to abandon the formulas that won them their fanbases leads to a big downturn in quality, which allows the studio to cancel the show guilt free, but "Angel" excels even in these early episodes.

The season opens with "Conviction," which shows our heroes adjusting to their new jobs at Wolfram & Hart, with Angel unable to go out and help the helpless without a squad of protectors around him. The main plot of the episode (a violent gangster threatens to unleash a virus on L.A. if Wolfram & Hart fails to convict him) is fairly incidental, but it brings about two major changes: 1) Gunn, feeling useless in this new, more elite world, undergoes a procedure that fills his head with full knowledge of the law and 2) Spike materializes in Angel's office.

The former is an interesting development into a late-bloomer of a character. Gunn mainly served to move forward others (chiefly Wesley) up until the fourth season, when he killed Fred's evil professor in order for her to keep her innocence. The resultant emotions over the event destroyed their relationship, and we really got a deep look into Gunn's masked sensitivity. Here, we get to see a man deathly afraid of being left behind, perhaps because it took so long for his character to go somewhere in the first place. His decision would have terrible repercussions down the line and would make him more central to the plot than ever before.

This won't end well, my little droogies.

But nothing compares to Spike’s appearance. Somehow, his essence was contained in the amulet that he used to destroy the Hellmouth in Buffy’s series finale, and that same amulet makes it way to Angel before Spike pops out as some sort of incorporeal ghosty type thing. Spike’s reappearance could have so easily undone his emotional end in “Chosen” (and some believe it did), but his instant rival siblings/old married couple rapport with Angel is a total riot, and he manages to grow just a little bit more throughout the season.

The best thing they could have possibly done.

I’d rather not dwell on the standalones since they all have their various strengths and weaknesses. “Life of the Party” is a terrifically funny Halloween episode, while “The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco” has such an absurd concept that I get a kick of out no matter how empty it is. The best of the first half of the season is unquestionably “Destiny,” in which Angel and a freshly corporealized Spike do battle to determine who has the rightful claim to the Shanshu prophecy. Not only does it contain the best fight sequence in the show by far, it gets deeper into the Spike/Angel relationship than we’ve ever seen. The worst of these episodes by default would have to be “Soul Purpose,” which is actually a great episode but features an atrocious dream sequence in which Angel hallucinates that he “loses” Buffy to Spike. This isn’t bad at all, but factor in the obvious stunt double to make up for SMG’s absence and the non-sequitur lines ripped from the old season 3 episode “The Prom” are the absolute worst. It is the only moment of the season that really grates me.

The first half was strong enough in a Season 1 kind of way, but starting at about the halfway mark, Whedon and co. knew the show’s days were numbered, and they went all out. “You’re Welcome” brings back Cordelia for only one painfully brief episode, but it restores her character back to the person we came to love. The final scene is one of those simple, heartbreaking moments that brings you tears every time.

Apart from a slight stumble in execution in the interesting “Why We Fight,” season 5 hits the throttle. First up is the single funniest, most absurdly brilliant episode Joss Whedon has ever penned: “Smile Time.” A story of the seedy side of the show business, the emptiness of TV and how it enslaves our children, and puppets, “Smile Time” alone should have guaranteed “Angel” another season.



I came.

At the end of the episode Wesley finally gets with Fred, and we all should have known that would spell trouble. Enter “A Hole in the World,” quite possibly the most depressing hour of TV Whedon’s ever penned. Yes, even above “The Body.” When Whedon kills his characters, he tends to do so in the most abrupt ways, but when he does allow for melodrama, he does so in inventive ways. After Fred is infected with a mysterious pathogen when she opens a coffin, she spends the entire episode slowly dying. However, instead of her spouting out tearful monologues, she has more subdued (and therefore more affecting) moments with Wesley while the rest of the Fang Gang desperately searches for a cure. Those final scenes where Angel and Spike realize that they can do nothing and Fred’s final, innocent last line will tear out your heart and puree it in front of you.

Fred’s death ushers in an amazing new character: Illyria. An ancient demon resurrected in Fred’s body, Illyria is disgusted to even have to reside in such an unworthy “shell” and even more repulsed that she is surrounded by everyone’s grief over losing Fred. Their grief is only more compounded with the knowledge that Illyria’s resurrection not only killed Fred but also destroyed her soul. It’s a testament to the writing that this revelation devastated me, that I was so into the show that even thinking about it purely on its surface, supernatural level could affect me.

Amy Acker didn't win an Emmy for this. Emmys mean nothing.

The end run of “Angel” is stronger than any other run in the Buffyverse: above the original Angelus arc., above Buffy’s third and fifth season, above the beige Angel arc. Wesley turns into a pathetic wretch who clings to Illyria as his only link to the only thing he ever loved on this planet, and his feelings seem to bring out latent remnants of Fred in a clearly vexed Illyria. Wesley’s not the only one who suddenly has nothing to lose. Angel, fed up with sitting by, plans a last-ditch attack on Wolfram & Hart, leading to the epic two-part finale.

In “Power Play,” we cannot be sure that Angel has truly snapped over his grief for Fred and has turned evil. He goes so dark that the Circle of the Black Thorn, the highest agents of the Senior Partners on Earth, invites him to join. When his friends confront him on his sudden change, he reveals his plan: gain entrance to the Circle in order to kill every member. This plays out over the final episode, “Not Fade Away.” The finest and truest series finale I’ve ever seen, NFA shows our heroes mount a large-scale attack on an unbeatable foe while still keeping to the central theme of the series: a daily struggle against evil as a means to redemption. The seedy depths that the characters stoop to (Lorne’s final act for the gang still turns my stomach because of what it means to him), the beautiful parting moment between Illyria and Wesley and that much debated final scene display everything that made the show great. If this is not my all-time favorite episode of TV I can’t tell you what is.

I’ve been trying to make these things more concise because let’s face it, no one reads this anyway and it’s never fun to surf through a big essay online. But I can’t help myself. If I went into even half the moments of this season that affected me deeply it would be four times as long. Apart from a few moments in a couple of episodes, I love every second of this. Even “The Girl In Question,” which I completely agree should have been moved earlier in the season (even though Buffy threw in a comic relief episode plenty of times in the middle of a dark arc), is so damn funny I don’t even mind that stupid stereotypical Italian Wolfram & Hart executive.

When you boil it down to its essence, Angel’s fifth season mixed the best of the solitary quality of Season 1 with the emotional impact of the big arc structure of the other three seasons. The fact that I have to resort to pointing out individual scenes to demonstrate any dip in quality is a testament to at the very least my undying love for it, if not the actual quality. “Angel” became my favorite show the instant I watched it (yeah, even including the fourth season), but even when I take a step back from it I can do nothing but shower this season with adulation.

Let's get to work.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Angel — Season 4

**warning contains spoilers**

You know the thing that made me love "Buffy" and "Angel" the most? It wasn't just the strong female characters, the emotional resonance, the relatable quality of even the most supernatural of characters, or the pop culture-laced wit; it was for a very simple reason- they were both just so damn good. Even the weakest episodes of each could outclass just about every other show on TV, and the writers managed to make even the lesser episodes worth watching.

After I ran through Season 3 for the first time, I was so insanely high on this show that it couldn't possibly let me down. In retrospect that season suffered from a great deal of empty tension and had a severe problem with episode consistency, but at the time it managed to gleefully misdirect from its problems and, apart from its terrible letdown of a finale, was one of my favorite seasons of either show. But nothing could prepare me for the shock of what was in store.

Season 4 starts things off by magnificently fixing everything that was wrong with the previous season's finale. "Tomorrow" had been chock full of interesting developments, but threw them together so sloppily that it played like the most generic episode of TV that Mutant Enemy had ever put out. "Deep Down" brings it back from the abyss (in some cases quite literally) by firmly establishing Wesley's new attitude, bringing back Angel from the briny deep, and laying out Connor's plan for all to see. It was the darkest episode since "Sleep Tight," if not season two's existential nightmare "Reprise."

Then we hit the skids almost immediately. "Ground State" introduces Gwen, a bizarre combination of the X-Men Rogue and Storm (anyone who touches her skin gets fried), who works as a expert thief. It's fun enough filler, but nothing of note happens other than setting Gwen up as a possible love interest for Angel. "The House Always Wins" is one of the all-time worst episodes of the series; it points out that gambling is risky and can ruin lives, all with metaphors about as subtle as the neon lights of the casinos. It could have been so interesting too; Lorne's dream had always been to perform at Vegas, and to see that dream so thoroughly perverted could have set up a killer character arc. Instead, he gets rescued and is exactly the same as he always was.

Things begin to get back on track with the superb episode "Spin the Bottle," a wholly irreverent standalone that came about simply because Joss wanted to see the old bumbling Wesley again. The result is the second funniest of the series (after "Smile Time") and one of the funniest in the Buffyverse.

"Spin the Bottle" marks the start of an incredible run that rivals anything Mutant Enemy's ever done. "Apocalypse Nowish" introduces the Beast, an unstoppable creature who brings with him all sorts of plagues. We sense immediately that he is not the brains in charge of the operation, however, which serves the story much better (remember how lame Adam was when left to his own thought-processes?).

Not half as sinister as the writers.

The best development of the Beast arc? The return of Angelus. Oh, it's been a long time coming indeed, and Boreanaz looks like he's been waiting for it too. Mix the Beast's rampage at Wolfram & Hart with the unleashing of the greatest villain in the Buffyverse and you've got a cocktail for success. Things couldn't get any better right? WRONG. Enter Faith, sprung from prison by Wesley to save Angel from turning permanently evil. Faith's reapperance cements the journey of her arc, proving that she, like Angel, has learned to live with her sins and to live a life of goodness not to redeem herself but because it's the right thing to do. Faith would go from here back to Sunnydale to make peace with "Buffy" in some of the better moments of that show's final season, but this is the true payoff of her character.

The Beast/Angelus arc is such a long, consistent arc that I got the feeling that "Angel" is on top of the world and that anywhere the story went from here was going to be epic. I was wrong Dead wrong. "Angel" goes from great to bad so fast it makes your head spin.

Thank Christ for Faith.

Signs of trouble were present even in the excellence of the middle arc. Connor, who was such an interesting character in the third season, is destroyed. Last season, he came back from Qu'or Toth after a few weeks suddenly a full-grown teenager brainwashed against his father by Holtz, who used Connor as his avenue for revenge; upon his return Connor adamantly hated Angel but retained his father's moral code. Even when he locked Angel in a crate and threw him into the ocean, you pitied him.

Not so in Season 4. Instead of the complex, tortured character who promised so much, the writers lock Vincent Kartheiser into playing Connor as a one-note, insufferably annoying bitch who pushes emo teenage angst so far into the red it leaves you begging for someone to hand him a razor and a copy of "The Virgin Suicides." After Angel proves beyond shadow of a doubt his love for his son no matter what he did, Connor hates him more than ever, just because. At every turn he tries to convince everyone to kill Angelus not because he's evil, but because he just doesn't like his dad.

Compounding Connor's descent is the utter destruction of Cordelia. Cordy's arc was certainly one of the more surprising of the show. She had started her journey at the very start of Buffy as a vain, stereotypical valley girl and matured into a more intelligent yet no less biting character by the time she left Sunnydale impoverished by her father's illegal business practices. When she arrived in Los Angeles, Cordy still had that crazy dream of becoming a star, but came into her own. She went from a bitch to a caring, almost motherly individual, and while her acension in the Season 3 finale was so insulting and stupid that it defies reason, it was a nice touch for her.

Then Cordelia returns, possessed by a higher power. She manipulates Connor into sleeping with her in order to impregnate her so the higher power can be born into a body of its own. She takes Angel's bottled soul to keep Angelus around. She stabs Lilah. Finally, when you couldn't possibly be any more outraged with the treatment of her character. Cordy gives birth to Jasmine and slips into a coma.

Even screencaps of this piss me off.

If the undercurrent ruination of two major characters wasn't bad enough, the Jasmine arc is enough to tip things over the edge into downright badness. It all starts with "Inside Out,"{ an episode that so fearlessly tackles a range of philosophical questions and features such great acting all around that it never hit me at first that it set up the worst development of this or any other show in the Whedonverse. Jasmine's appearance is the result of her tampering with all of the events of the show to make possible her birth; everything that moved the characters forward, led to emotional and thematic breakthroughs was all predestined. I must admit a bias against predestination; it is the philosophy that resulted when real logic collided with Bible logic, and I think it's the stupidest concept in the world. It also has no place in a show, because it strips events of their importance and resonance.

It also doesn't help that Jasmine is perhaps the worst major villain I have ever seen in a TV show. A goddess, she inspires tranquility in all who gaze upon her. Unless some of her blood mixes with yours, that is. If so, you look at her and see not a beautiful goddess but a rotting, maggot-infested corpse. I don't know why either. Oh, and Jasmine eats people, who consider it an honor to be feasted upon by her.

Eventually the Fang Gang all snap out of it and fight Jasmine and kill her fairly easily. Yet for some reason it takes them four episodes to do so. Four. Looooooooonnnnnnnnnnnggggggg. Episodes. I just watched this three days ago and I can't remember anything about this arc that would necessitate more than two episodes. Then again, I wish it had never happened at all. Part of me thinks that the writers used Jasmine as a placeholder for the writers, much as the Trio in Buffy's sixth season represented the more nitpicking fans.

But don't count out Tim Minear, who swoops in after an entire season away to write one last episode for the show he made so great. His season finale, "Home," is every bit as redeeming as "Restless" was for Buffy's own weak fourth season. Lilah returns as a ghost and deliciously turns Angel Investigations' victory on them; by killing Jasmine, they effectively ending the possibility for world peace. Ergo, the Senior Partners were so impressed that they offer Angel and co. the L.A. branch of Wolfram & Hart.

"Home" rights so many wrongs it looks like Minear kept tabs on everything that went wrong and found a way to twist almost all of it into a positive. Giving Angel the keys to Evil on Earth is just about the most interesting thing he could have done, and it makes the fight against Jasmine darkly ironic. The fact that Angel agrees on the condition that everyone's memory is erased so Connor can live with a normal family and have a happy life calls to mind the agonizing finale of the early classic "I Will Remember You," and it reinforces his heroism.

Despite this incredible end note and the promise it contains, Angel Season 4 is unbelievably frustrating and even moreso on a repeat viewing. It continues to push forward Wesley's arc, and it FINALLY develops Fred and Gunn and splits up their initially promising but ultimately banal relationship. However, Angel remains stagnant (apart from the re-emergence of Angelus) and the utter bungling of both Cordelia and Connor is unforgivable. The saddest thing about those two is that both get one episode's worth of attention in the fifth season ("You're Welcome" for Cordy and "Origin" for Connor), and both of those episodes fix just about all the problems that an entire season piled upon them, which tells me that all this could have been avoided. I understand that Charisma Carpenter's pregnancy threw the writers off a bit, but this was the best solution?

The operatic tone of the season is a bold new direction for the show, and the Beast arc still ranks among my favorites, and it's got enough to make the season worth owning. But this is the first and only season of Whedonverse TV that has not only failed to entertain me over the course of more than one episode but has actively put me off. I was reluctant to watch the final season after this, but thankfully the fifth season more than redeems the show and stands as the best season of TV that Mutant Enemy has ever produced.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Buffy The Vampire Slayer — Season 4

**warning- contains spoilers**

After a shaky but bold first season and two followup seasons that firmly established the show in the annals of TV history, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was on top of the world. The third season ended (quite literally) on an explosive note, and I couldn't wait to see the Scoobies go off to college. Sadly, like seemingly all shows about high school life, the transition to college was shakier than any real life experience.

At the start of the season, Buffy, Willow, and Oz are setting up in their dorms and registering for classes. Y'know, the usual stuff. But before long it starts to spiral. Buffy's roommate is annoyingly chirpy and turns out to be a demon for no other reason than to put Willow up as her roomie. Why not have just made Willow her roommate from the start, letting the two grate on each other, and show that you have to learn to overcome differences instead of just sending the annoying one back home?

Furthering the half-assed way in which the writers shift the setting is Buffy's sudden dip into idiocy. While I certainly sympathize with her for her doomed relationship with Angel, suddenly falling for a guy who is clearly using sweet talk to get to her, sleeping with him, AND THEN still not catching on even when she spots the guy using the same tricks on another girl. The despair of being used leads Buffy to turn to that most trusted of friends: booze. The resultant episode, "Beer Bad," is the worst episode to come along since Season 1's nadir "I, Robot...You, Jane." A simplistic message hit home with all the subtlety of a heroin-crazed bull in a shop that sells only red china, "Beer Bad" is an unfunny, uninsightful exercise in incompetence.

Amazingly, things get worse when the season's arc begins to form. Buffy moves on from Parker and slowly comes to be with Riley, the T.A. of her difficult psychology class. Riley seems to be everything that Parker (and even Angel) is not: a nice guy with no scruples. Well, that would have apparently been boring, so suddenly we discover that Riley is actually a footsoldier in some offshoot branch of the military that deals with paranormal activity. The branch is called the Initiative and it's run by Mulder and Scully Maggie Walsh, the psych professor (even though Riley is the most prominent member).

Captain Cardboard and the Spiders from the Military Industrial Complex.

Basically, this season replicates most of the themes of the first season, but moves it all to college and tacks on an army. This might have been OK if the Initiative guys could act, but it's like they went down to the nearest local theater and just grabbed all the understudies. In particular, Marc Blucas (the "actor" who "plays" Riley), has all the range of a heavily medicated Keanu Reeves. The Initiative is probably the most inept special soldiers in the history of masturbatory governmental paranoia; they have absolutely no understanding of demons and Walsh's horrible creation, the half-man, half-machine, half-demon Adam, is a henchman that gets elevated to the status of Big Bad for no reason. He is uninteresting and spouts the kind of philosophical musings that would have been ponderous in small doses but are overbearing since he gets the screen time befitting a major villain. We got Angelus and The Mayor in quick succession; Adam doesn't stack up in the least.

But enough about the terrible main arc, let's focus on why Season 4 claws its way out of the abyss. For one thing, Spike becomes a regular. I'll admit a bias: I cannot ever pick a favorite character on this show or its spinoff, but Spike is in my top five with Angel, Fred, Wesley and Anya. Seeing him go from show-stealing minor baddie to constant presence was an absolute delight, even if the reasons for it (Initiative chip renders him evil but incapable of attacking humans) made no sense and pushed the show dangerously close to jumping the shark. James Marsters has the ability to play off anyone, and his ability to do so is second only to Anthony Head's. He has terrific interplay with Buffy, Joyce, Willow (in the scenes where he discovers his new biting impotence), Giles, and Xander, any one of which would be reason enough for him to stay a regular despite the ham-fisted circumstances.

Only a demon couldn't love this.

Another big plus is the fact that Season 4 of "Buffy" boasts the best standalone episodes of the series and its spinoff. "Fear Itself" is the first episode of the season to really nail it, with an interesting premise and Giles' hilariously practical solution to getting into a sealed building. For some reason they did this exact episode later on in the season, removing all of the humor and development and renaming it "Where the Wild Things Are." "Pangs" is one of the weakest episodes of the show plot-wise (Buffy trying to corral everyone for a normal Thanksgiving dinner), but it's so insanely funny that you have to love it.

Of course, the standalone that everyone knows is the Emmy-nominated "Hush." Ostensibly a self-challenge to prove critics wrong, Joss Whedon created an episode that was mostly silent. Instead of relying on his pop culture-laced conversations to attract fans, he made do with unsettling Monsters of the Week and silent comedy. "Hush" wasn't the first off-the-wall episode (see both of the Xander-centric eps, "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "The Zeppo"), but "Hush" is the most brilliant. Not only was it a fun concept, but it featured a great deal of plot advancement that is both essential to the story at large and accessible to people who just drop in to watch this. "Superstar" is a glorious joke on fan-fiction, in which then-minor recurring character Jonathan suddenly becomes the hero of Sunnydale after he casts a spell to be popular. It's wildly funny on both a surface level and a deeper one and it's one of the most off-the-wall ingenious eps of the series.

But perhaps even stronger than "Hush" is the season finale, "Restless." A Lynchian mixture of thematic advancement, foreshadowing, and cheese, "Restless" is like every great aspect of "Twin Peaks" rolled into one episode. Looking back, it so cryptically yet so clearly points to the future developments of the show that you cannot help but be amazed at how sure of himself Whedon is. It also ties together all the loose strands of themes and character that stuck out during the season in a way that is not only not ham-fisted but stunningly original. I defy you to find a more dense and complex hour of television around.

Where's his spinoff, Joss?

So what can I say at last about the season as a whole? For all the floundering and retreading of its arc and the insufferable quality of "Beer Bad" and "Where the Wild Things Are," Season 4 gets across a great deal of character development (even by the standards of the show). It gets Buffy out of her rut before I we all go insane, they make the Buffy/Riley relationship work (even though Marc Blucas is the worst casting choice they ever made), Willow becomes a lesbian, Faith comes back for a hell of a two parter, and "Restless" gets across a lot of truths for the characters. The humor is among the series' best (even eclipsing the wildly funny third season), which is good because it keeps you laughing enough to forgive the plots. Add to that its handful of astonishing standalones, and you've got a perfectly entertaining season (although I don't know if I'd classify "Restless" as a standalone since it's so vital to both the events of this season and of future ones). But I must say, it certainly doesn't help that it's sandwiched between the two most consistent seasons of the series.

Choice Episodes

Fear, Itself
Who Are You?
The Yoko Factor

Letdowns/Bad Episodes

Living Conditions
Beer Bad
Where the Wild Things Are

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Angel — Season 3

**warning- contains spoilers**

On a second viewing of the Buffyverse I've had differing opinions of just about all the seasons. Apart from Buffy Season 3, which remained almost entirely constant, I've found new things to love and new things to criticize. Occasionally my opinion differs drastically, with Angel Season 3 representing likely my biggest change in opinion.

The first time I watched the season, I was completely enraptured. As I was still watching Buffy seasons concurrently, I liked the Big Bad concept and, while I loved "Angel" very much, I missed the sense of a season-long arc. So when I sat down and finally saw the darkness of "Angel" mixed with the structure of "Buffy," I was over the moon. However, a re-run pointed out glaring quality inconsistencies and empty tension.

The season starts out with unquestionably the worst season premiere in the Buffyverse, "Heartthrob." After Tim Minear plunged us into the despair and mutual defeat of Angel and Darla's relationship throughout the big middle arc of the last season, the writers decided that apparently we all didn't get it and make this shambles of an hour. Basically, they show a vampire couple that traveled with the two who were truly in love, and in the present the surviving male provides a contrast to Angel's conflicted feelings for Darla. The problem (apart from vampire Romeo's acting)? The writers retcon the Angelus timeline for the sake of haphazardly inserting this couple, ostensibly showing a disregard for continuity that I'd never expect from Mutant Enemy.

From there the main plot sets in: Darla, despite the impossibility of vampiric conception, is pregnant with Angel's child. The ripple effect of this event will completely change the tone of the show yet again, and leads to numerous unexpected developments. The season takes a few episodes to get going (apart from "That Old Gang of Mine," which is reviled by its writer, Minear, but is the best look into Gunn until the middle of Season 4). Fred is still (quite understandably) disturbed by her experiences on Plyea, and the first few episodes show her very slowly coming out of her shell. Then we get "Fredless," which inexplicably wraps the whole thing up in a single hour.

As Darla gets closer and closer to term, the season heats up. She alternates between not just hormonal anger but rage that she shares the baby's soul. This leads to one of the most shocking, best written, and utterly moving decisions in the series. As the child's soul influences her (or infects, depending on your point of view), she comes to truly love something in the world. It all comes to a head in "Lullaby," in which she sacrifices herself because she knows that once the baby leaves her, she'll be soulless again and will likely kill him. It's a stunning end to one of the most understated and brilliant character arcs in the Whedonverse.

A beautiful end to a great character.

The birth of Connor sends Wolfram & Hart into a frenzy. Unfortunately, when Lindsey left and Holland Manners died the collective intelligence of the firm seems to have gone with them. While Stephanie Romanov is still wonderfully sinister as Lilah, the additions of Gavin Park and Linwood seem like almost parody. While Lindsey and Lilah always feared for their lives and warred with each other for power, they never came off as cowardly or petty. Linwood and Park, on the other hand, are incompetent one-note dolts; it's as if they took those two Team Rocket morons from "Pokémon" and made them lawyers. Park, thankfully, would become more calculating and devious by the end of this season and into the next one, but it doesn't excuse the fact that the writers took Wolfram & Hart, argubaly the single greatest entity in the Whedonverse and made it into a cartoon. It wouldn't recover its unsettling glory until the gang moved into their HQ in the final season.

Hey there, champ. Who's gonna ruin this show one day? You are! Yes, you are!

So with Wolfram & Hart more or less out of the picture, we need a new villain; not necessarily a Big Bad, but someone more important than a MOTW. Enter Holtz, a demon hunter revived after over 200 years by a demon named Sahjahn with a personal vendetta against Angelus. If we can't have the insidious scheming of Wolfram & Hart, then Holtz is about the best possible substitute you could have. Though he is steadfast in his hatred of Angelus, even upon learning of his foe's re-souling, Holtz is a complex figure. We see that he has every reason to hate Angel, and we're left wondering if Holtz really is the bad guy. However, when he settles on young Connor as the avenue to his revenge, we see how vengeance can turn even a good man into a beast.

Holtz's desire to take the baby from Angel receives support from a prophecy Wesley translates, which states that "The Father will kill the Son." This simple sentence results in what is inarguably the most unforeseeable, shocking, and complex development arcs in Buffvyverse history: the fall of Wesley. People throw out the term "Shakespearean" too often (I myself am a bit too liberal with it), but you'll be hard pressed to find a story arc on television that comes closer to classic tragedy than Wesley's.

When we first met him, Wesley was a craven, inept, friendless Watcher who used his position to (try to) coldly boss around a teenage girl, likely as an outpouring of his own forceful father. If Alexis Denisof hadn't been so damn funny Wes could have been downright loathsome, but you couldn't help but love the goof. Then, he went to Angel Investigations and grew into a new man. Slowly leaving his nervosa behind, he becomes a surprisingly capable fighter and forges close bonds with these new friends. After years of fantasizing about being the hero, Wesley had finally become heroic. But his unrequited crush on Fred began to separate him from the crew, and the knowledge that Angel was prophesied to kill his own son drove him to make a bold decision.

In "Sleep Tight" the tragedy explodes. Wesley steals Connor, gives him to Holtz, and gets his throat slashed by Holtz's right hand lady Justine. He has truly reached rock bottom, where he will reside for quite some time. When Holtz takes Connor into an alternate dimension, he destroys his nemesis. Angel completes Wesley's fall from grace by attempting to smother him as he lay recovering in a hotel room.

In all honesty, the season should have ended here. It would have left a lot of questions unanswered while not feeling like your usual cliffhanger. But it carried on. Just when you thought it had gone as far as it could, Connor returns as a teenager. As much as I wanted the season to have ended, I admire this last leg, strangely enough because of the actions of maybe the worst character in either Buffy or Angel. When Connor returns after only a few weeks worth of Earth time, he has spent a lifetime getting brainwashed against his father by Holtz. Holtz's final victory is what cements him as a true villain; in his quest for revenge, he ruined not only his foe's life, but that of an innocent child. Connor's barely suppressed rage generates almost as much tension as Wesley's agonizing choice.

Too. Awesome. For Words.

Sadly, my fears were confirmed when "Tomorrow" ushers in the close of the season with...a cliffhanger. Come on, man; the whole reason I took such a shine to Whedon's work in the first place was that it played so far outside of the usual conventions. It's all setup and no payoff, which I have no problem with...provided that it's followed by the kickass season finale. But this is the finale. I'll concede that it sets up a killer episode in the form of next season's premiere, but what must it have been like to have to wait five months just to get to the goddamn point?

Apart from my nitpicks at the end, you're probably wandering when all this new criticism is supposed to kick in. Well, looking back, Sahjahn, though a wildly entertaining character, fails to let us all know why he's here until after Wesley commits his dasterdly deed. It turns out that the dreaded prophecy originally stated that Connor would kill him, so he went back in time and rewrote it to say that Angel would kill Connor. I don't get it; does this point out the inanity of prophecies? I could get on board with that, but knowing what I know now about the events of Season 4 and what they meant to the show philosophically, this turn of events is out of place. Also, we should have learned about these events before Wesley made his choice. Imagine how much more suspenseful, it would have been to see Wesley slowly come to a conclusion that he knows is right even as we know that he's being played.

And that's the chief problem of the season: the tension has no foundation. Upon a first watch, we're being jerked around so much on a leash that we have no time to question. Every time you stop and wander aloud "Are Fred and Gunn going to go anywhere?" they toss a bone with yet another Wesley development or some crazy new happening. When I plowed through this again, I was almost excruciatingly bored at times. Whereas the last season mixed impossibly deep character and story advancement wrapped up in thoughtful yet entertaining episodes, Season 3 suffers from a notable disconnect between the episode plots and how the characters move forward. You still have to watch the episodes to see how the characters grow, but it's too often a chore.

Still, there are some strong episodes. "Billy" is total MOTW material, but it's one of those immensely unsettling and memorable ones along the lines of "I've Got You Under My Skin," while the aforementioned "Lullaby" and "Sleep Tight" are some of the most affecting and thematic in the show's run. A surprising treat is the metaphorical "Waiting in the Wings," in which the gang sees a ballet that's been repeating for a hundred years under the spell of a perversely lovelorn patron. The final stretch, though very much tacked on, is mostly superb, except for the finale.

Upon a first watch this was my favorite season until I got to S5. By then, Season 4 had purged me of my need for a big arc and it's mammoth run in its second half blew away everything I'd ever seen. But now, this rests near the bottom of the Buffyverse, along with S4 of both shows and Buffy's first season. It's still entertaining in a number of places, but apart from Darla and Wesley and, occasionally, Angel, we get too little character development. Holtz is a great villain, but Wolfram & Hart take a severe blow. If you haven't watched it yet (and I hope you have since I threw a spoiler tag at the top), then you'll likely find a lot to love about this season. But eventually you have to face the facts and admit the emperor has no clothes.