Monday, January 17, 2011

T.V. or not T.V.? - Part III - Hope Springs Eternal

Bonjour, Mes Amis!

Despite lamenting the amount of time I'd spent watching the boob tube as a kid, every once in a blue moon a television show would come down the pike that would re-instate my faith that not all programs were craptacular.

The show that forever changed my perception of what prime time television could be capable of was David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1990-1991):

Every episode of this show was like a brilliant short film.  The murder of Laura Palmer and the hunt for her killer kept audiences on pins and needles for two seasons.  The labyrinthine plot, memorable dialogue, evocative soundtrack, iconic imagery and host of quirky and darkly humorous characters always seemed oddly out of place on prime time T.V., especially when juxtaposed against crap like Perfect Strangers and Major Dad.

Nowadays, Twin Peaks would have been better served as, say, a finite HBO miniseries.  After all, it dealt with some pretty harrowing subject matter: murder, assault, drug addiction, prostitution, spousal abuse, and moments of abject terror (courtesy of uber-bogeyman Killer Bob).  In many ways it was kinda like Blue Velvet: The Series.  Despite (or perhaps because of) the dark subject matter, Twin Peaks wormed its way into the zeitgeist of pop culture and became an unlikely hit.  So much so that a handful of us living in residence at the time became obsessed with trying to figure out who killed Laura Palmer, even purchasing and pouring over her tie-in diary book release.

Regrettably, the show's producers decided mid-way through the second season that people had been tortured enough and let the cat out of the bag.  As expected, the revelation was psychologically punishing and kept right in line with the show's assertion that every small town has more then it's share of skeleton-filled closets.

Although brilliant, by disclosing the central mystery plot, the show's raison d'etre melted away like air from a tire.  I stayed to the end, still fascinated with the show's turn towards the philosophical and the paranormal.  But most of the audience had tuned out and the cliffhanger at the end of Season Two was never resolved.

Twin Peaks really deserves tremendous praise for moving television away from its perception, whether real or imagined, as a ghetto medium.  I really believe that the keen aesthetics of the show (cinematography, scripting, performances) really had a positive impact on modern-day HBO-style television dramas.             

In my opinion, nothing really worthwhile came down the pike until two years later when I first heard the following haunting strains:

Xfiles intro
Uploaded by deathnetworks. - News videos from around the world.

So began a six year love affair with one of the ballsyist, quirkiest, funniest, scariest shows ever to grace the glass teat.  "Wait!" I can hear you saying out there, "X-Files lasted for eight seasons!" to which I would reply: "Nope.  Not in my book."

Sadly, X-Files was partly undone by David Duchovny, who practically held the show runners hostage by threatening to leave if the entire production didn't up and migrate from atmospheric (but incessantly rainy) Vancouver, to sunny California where "Double D" could be closer to his wife Tea Leone.

Well, the show eventually did move, losing a tremendous amount of character in the process.  It still managed to crank out the goods for another two seasons until Duchovny decided he was going to take his ball and go home anyway at the conclusion of Season Seven.  But as much as I think that Duchovny's a bit of a d-bag, his presence on the show was sorely missed and it really hobbled the proceedings somewhat.

But before that happened, X-Files was a real winner.  The one-off M.O.T.W. (that's Monster of The Week for the uninformed) episodes could be uproariously funny (like "Bad Blood" or "Jose Chung's From Outer Space") or scare the friggin' poop out of you (witness "Home" or "Folie a Deux").  And the so-called "mythology" eps dealing with the government concealing plans from the unsuspecting public about aliens colonizing earth, were always a treat for die-hard X-Philes who wanted to see just how much farther the rabbit hole could go.

But, as much as I want to bash Duchovny for ruining X-Files, it's the show runners and writers that eventually resulted in this:

There was a time when I had the mythology and all of it's players (the colonists, the alien bounty hunters, the black oil, the rebels) but eventually you got the distinct impression that the writers themselves were painting themselves into a corner.  Eventually the mythology collapsed under it's own convoluted weight.

The real death knell came when the entire impetus of the show, I.E. Fox Mulder's quest to discover what happened to his sister, was dispatched in the ironically named episode "Closure" which saddled the character with a very mundane and decidedly terrestrial fate.  Boo-urns

Nevertheless, for treating audiences as if they were smart enough to remember what happened two episodes ago (not to mention accelerating the role of women in television into the 20'th century courtesy of the courageous, intelligent and resourceful incarnation of Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully), The X-Files deserves some major props.

A few years ticked by and I really saw nothing else to catch my attention.  I recall one night when I was sitting at my computer playing Warcraft I caught my soon-to-be-proven-infinitely-smarter wife watching a new show featuring former soap star Sarah Michelle Gellar wrestling with a stuntman wearing some kind of facial appliance like a overwrought Bajoran on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

That show was Buffy The Vampire Slayer:  (1997-2003)

I actually remember tormenting her by saying: (in my most pompous British accent): "Honestly, My Deah, why do you persist in watching such tripe?"

"It's a good show!" she'd shout back.

"S-u-u-u-u-re it is," I sniffed, turning my nose up and immersing myself back into the infinitely more mature world of Azaroth.

It wasn't until I got into a heated argument with a hardcore Buffy fan at work before I decided to give the show a whirl.

"But you've gotta watch it from the first episode!" she wailed.

"Yeah, I'm sure that's gonna make all the difference," I said, rolling my eyes.

But I'm not one to pass up free potential entertainment value so when she offered to bring in her VHS (!) copy of the pilot, I gave it a spin.  Although the show's production values looked a little dodgy, I could easily look beyond that in light of the rampant wise-assery on display from the characters.

Case in point, I love this line by rich-bitch Cordelia to nerdy Willow:

"Willow! Nice dress! Good to know you've seen the softer side of Sears."

After hearing this (and toiling away at Sears at the time) I decided on the spot that this was surely the greatest television show ever created.

It became the only show that I went out of my way to watch religiously.  Regardless of where we were or what we were doing that day, you could rest assured that Monday (then Tuesday) night I'd be ensconced in front of the T.V., getting a status report from Buffy and her Scooby Gang as they squared off against what ever Big Bad the current season was throwing their way.

Series creator Joss Whedon is a frikkin' genius.  Not only did the word-play of his characters reflect the vibrant, informal and innovative way in which young people could sometime speak, it actually changed our language.  Witness the following clever quotes:

Xander: "I laugh in the face of danger. And then I hide until it goes away."

Riley:  "Besides, 'I'm here to violate your firstborn' never goes over with parents. Not sure why."

Buffy: “Because I don’t trust you. You’re a vampire. Oh, I’m sorry, was that an offensive term? Should I say ‘undead American’?”

Spike: "You Englishmen are always so...Bloody hell! Sodding, blimey, shagging, knickers, bollocks, oh God! I'm English!"

Dawn: ""It's like there's a meat party in my mouth. Wow, I'm young and even I know how wrong that sounds."

Willow: "It's horrible. That's me as a vampire? I'm so evil and skanky. And I think I'm kind of gay."

Angelus: "I wanna torture you.  I used to love it, and it's been such a long time.  I mean, the last time I tortured someone, they didn't even have chainsaws."

Giles: "He's clearly a bad influence on himself". 

Now as funny and original as the dialogue was, the show was also responsible for adding now-famous phrases to our lexicon, like: " What’s your damage?", "Morbid much?" or brilliantly transforming proper nouns into verbs, such as when Xander asks plaintively: "Does anyone feel like we’ve been Keyser Sozed?".  It's always a high testimony to the writers when the lines they forge worm their way into our everyday discourse.

Joss Whedon is one of the best nuts-n'-bolts writers out there right now.  In addition to having an ear for clever dialogue he's also quite adept at crafting a solid, stand-alone forty minute episode as well as building a compelling story arc throughout twenty-two episodes.  In fact, the second and third seasons of the show still stand as one of my all-time favorite television experiences EVAR.

Whedon also loves to screw around with audience expectations.  Who would have thought that a show called Buffy The Vampire Slayer would feature such genuinely unnerving fare as the mostly silent episode "Hush"?  Or produce an entire soundtrack loaded with ear-worms in the musical episode "Once More With Feeling"?  Or put audiences through an emotional wringer and evoked David Lynchian-levels of discord with the tragic demise of Buffy's mom in "The Body"?

The man is a masochist when it comes to creating a beloved character and them killing with the same neutral regard Alfred Hitchcock had for Janet Leigh.   

A lot of credit is also due to the show's three principal actors.  Sarah Michelle Gellar's  Buffy went from vapid valley girl to motivated leader.  Alyson Hannigan's shy and sweet Willow overcame terrible self-doubt, went over to the "Dark Side" at one point and was redeemed in the end.  Nicholas Brendon's Xander evolved nicely from a dorky, wise-cracking fifth wheel to an undead-killing morale officer.

The real testament to the show is the variety of answers you'll get from fans when asked who their favorite characters are.  Even second-tier players like the Billy Idol-esque vamp Spike, laconic Oz, stuffy Watcher Giles, tough and sexy alterna-Slayer Faith, bitchy Cordelia, brutally blunt Anya and sensitive Tara have massive followings.

The show peaked early with a stellar third season which saw the kids graduate from High School and battle the town's incongruously germ-phobic, demonic Mayor.  Although the last four seasons weren't quite as good in comparison, I've always said that relatively weak episodes of Buffy was still better then 90% of everything else on television.

It could be argued that the show took a dip in quality when Whedon and company decided to spin the character of Angel off into his own show.  Frankly, I can't get behind that, mainly because the show that resulted (aptly titled Angel 1999-2004) almost eclipsed my love for its parent.

Let's be upfront here, folks: Twilight totally ripped off these shows.  Angel was the original tortured vampire, but unlike Edward Cullen, he wasn't a whingey, emo twat about it.  In fact, his original incarnation of Angelus was a ripe evil bastard, who cut a swath of death and misery across the globe before gypsies cursed him with a soul.  Now burdened by a conscience, Angel attempts to reconcile himself for his past transgressions, "help the helpless" as atonement and puzzle out if he's doing good by choice or because of divine intervention. 

All throughout the first season and a half of Buffy, the relationship between Angel and the titular Slayer slowly evolved into a burgeoning romance.  Whedon and his script-writers continued to give us brief glimpses into  Angel's dark past as one of the most sadistic and evil vampires in history.  But we got a helluva lot more than flashbacks when Buffy and Angel consummated their relationship midway through season two.  By experiencing a moment of "pure happiness" the gypsy curse is revoked and Angel reverts back to his soulless persona.

For the balance of season two we get to see just how unremittingly nasty Angelus truly is.  He gleefully terrorizes Buffy and her friends, murders Giles' main squeeze Jenny Calender and attempts to destroy the world by raising a demon.  Tragically, Buffy delivers a killing blow and sends Angel to H-E-double hockey sticks just as neophyte witch Willow manages to re-instate his soul.

I'm tellin' ya, this is some classic, Shakespearean, tragic star-cross'ed lovers s$#% right here!

Well, of course, Angel eventually comes back but he decides to leave town when being so close to his forbidden love proved to be just too torturous.  So, he re-locates to Los Angeles and opens up a supernatural detective agency with the aid of several Buffy alumni and an Irish half-demon with psychic powers named Doyle (Glenn Quinn).  Over the course of six seasons, our heroes struggle as pawns of the fickle Powers That Be as they face off against such diverse opponents as the more-evil-then-average law firm Wolfram & Hart, Angel's twisted sire Darla and the demonic Beast.

Whedon brought his stellar penchant for character development to Angel as well.   As the titular character, David Boreanaz went from a brooding, laconic, loner to a leader, father (!) and a true champion.  Charisma Carpenter completed her evolution as Cordelia Chase, going from superficial and snotty to heroic and self-sacrificing.  J. August Richard's Charles Gunn transformed from street slayer to suave executive.  And in a heart-rending twist the benevolent and prescient lounge-singing demon Lorne (the late Andy Hallett) was finally forced to embrace his considerable dark side.      

But perhaps the most amazing transformation was that of Wesley Windam-Price, as portrayed by Alexis Denisof.  The character was first introduced on Buffy as a know-it-all replacement Watcher, essentially a foil for Giles.  He was portrayed as pompous, inflexible and completely useless.  Except for his intrinsic value for comedic effect, fans despised him.  So, naturally, when he first turned up on Angel driving a motorbike, clad in leather and referring to himself as a "Rogue Demon Hunter", you could almost hear a chorus of disappointed groans.

But then something amazing happened.  Over the course of five seasons, Whedon and company subjected the character to unimaginable torment.  He gets tortured, shot, ends up in wheelchair, gets his heart shattered and even manages to generate audience sympathy when he's forced to betray his friends.  These heady twists (not to mention Denisof's consistently strong performances) turned the character of Wesley into a grizzled, world-weary veteran and, subsequently, a fan favorite.      

Also I can't talk about the cast without mentioning the winsome and super-cute Amy Acker as Winnifred "Fred" Burkle.  Talk about your character transformations!  Amy is a delight to watch as she takes Fred from socially stunted hermit to nerd hottie to prime real estate for demonic possession.  Again, here's another example of Whedon taking a sweet, innocent, shy character and really putting them through the proverbial wringer.

Begging the question is there a more sadistic writer then Joss Whedon?  Hmmmmm.  Well, maybe Ken Follett....  

Whereas Buffy started to flag a little bit in it's later seasons, the quality of Angel just kept getting better and better.  Unfortunately the show's so-so ratings always kept it on the bubble of cancellation.  As you can imagine, the show runners soon became weary of the network's incessant eleventh hour renewals.  Rumor has it that when Joss Whedon tried to play hardball with the network to get confirmation for a season six (and ensure members of his cast and crew didn't turn down jobs ) the then-head of the WB network Jordan Levin called back the next morning and told him they were done.

According to head writer David Fury:  "I guarantee that, if we waited as we normally did, by the time May had come around they would have picked up Angel. I can guarantee that."  He also said that not long after "The WB said that it was a big mistake to cancel Angel."  Kinda sad that one of my all-time favorite television shows ultimately became a casualty due to a game of "ratings chicken" between frustrated artistic types and corporate pinheads.    

What followed in the mid-to-late 2000's only served to justify my opinion that the reality-show glutted prime-time network television vista was nothing but a vast wasteland.

But little did I know, there was still a promise of hope.  In 2006, a former co-worker became my television Jedi Master and I would soon take my first tentative steps into a larger world.

Twin Peaks - The Definitive Gold Box Edition (The Complete Series)The X-Files: The Complete First SeasonBuffy the Vampire Slayer - The Complete Series (Seasons 1-7)Angel: Seasons 1-5 (Collectors Set)

ALSO IN THE EPIC CATEGORY: Clip for a proposed Buffy animated series. It's still not too late, people!

RESEMBLING SOMETHING EPIC:  Don't even bother watching this unless you've seen at least one episode of Twin Peaks.  Look for Conan O'Brien as a Deputy!

FAIL:  Whedonless, I fear this is destined to fail...



No comments: