Thursday, July 30, 2009

Handle With Care

"Untouched" from Angel's Season 2 had it's faults, (mostly in that I didn't care for the character of Bethany), yet the episode still turned out to offer a thought-provoking exploration of how a victim's coping mechanisms can cross the line into destructive manipulative behavior.

Daisy McCrackin's Bethany developed telekinetic powers as a result of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Bethany apparently had little control of her powers, and had a tendency to cause serious injury (and even kill people) when she felt threatened. For the most part, Bethany switched back and forth between being frightened and confused as she was literally crying for help, to becoming hostile and sarcastic to those who attempted to reach out to her.

Unless I totally missed something, I don't think we ever learned her age. I assumed that Bethany had already graduated from high school and was attempting to live on her own as an adult. However, there were allusions dropped here and there that she could have been a teenage runaway. I think it makes a big difference as to whether she was a minor or had reached the age of consent. Regardless, Bethany was obviously a young woman who was ill-suited to facing the real world without a considerable amount of guidance.

It was interesting to see how the different adults in Angel reacted to Bethany. Lilah, whom I speculated in an earlier post might have had to adopt a lot of manipulative coping mechanisms of her own when she was a young girl, probably recognized Bethany as somewhat of a kindred spirit and knew how to push the right buttons. While grooming Bethany to be an assassin for Wolfram & Hart, Lilah became a mother/big sister figure to Bethany and used massive amounts of flattery to gain her trust. Bethany probably had close to zero self-esteem at that time, which Lilah used to her advantage. Significantly, I don't think the subject of Bethany's real mother ever came up.

Angel recognized Bethany as being scared and confused, and set out to gently gain her trust in order to be able to teach her how to accept herself and learn to deal with her powers. Cordelia took one look at Bethany, spotted her as a phony, and let her know in no uncertain terms that she wasn't going to be playing Bethany's game.

Bethany's arrival at the Hyperion Hotel was quite revealing. She looked oh-so-pitiful as she stumbled down the stairs in her nightgown (looking childishly demure in her cardigan and clunky shoes, of course) and collapsed for a split second into Angel's arms. Bethany had rushed out of Lilah's apartment in fright after she had unwittingly used her telekinetic powers to hit Lilah with a lamp while she was dreaming about her father. (The dream had been brought on by Lilah's use of some sort of special powders she had taken from Darla.) Presumably, Bethany wandered around for roughly 12 hours or so before she showed up at the Hyperion Hotel.

Angel, of course, was all concerned about the poor innocent young victim who stood before him. Cordelia had Bethany figured as a manipulative bitch even before she stumbled into Angel's arms. The audience had no way of knowing for sure when Bethany was being phony and when she was being sincere. I tend to think that at times Bethany wasn't consciously aware that she was being manipulative. However, Bethany's immediately hostile reaction to Cordy could certainly lead people to think that she was upset by the fact that Cordy could see right through her.

To digress a little bit, there are a lot of high-maintenance, "handle with care" people in the world. I normally think of this in terms of a consequence of aging, though there certainly are a lot of younger people afflicted with this type of personality disorder. In general, if you find that you have a very difficult time dealing with people who don't know you very well, (and don't know about your special whims), and if you find that friends or relatives accompany you whenever you have to deal with strangers as you go about your personal business, you're probably high-maintenance and/or need professional counseling.

An example I can think of is a favorite Leave It To Beaver episode, where June Cleaver's Aunt Martha came to stay with Ward and the boys for a few days while June went out of town. June was raised by her Aunt Martha, and Martha was a very opinionated woman who only tolerated a certain range of acceptable human behavior. Before she left, June ran down a huge checklist with Ward and the boys of how they should behave around Martha. I loved how Ward made June all huffy when he said, "Don't worry, June. I know what it's like to have difficult relatives, too."

Well, predictably, Martha arrived and shamed all three gentlemen into acting prim and proper at all times, even making "Theodore" go to school in knee-pants and a suit jacket. Predictably, The Beaver got beat up by the other kids in his class. Ward had to resort to way-laying Beaver in the garage after he left the house in the morning and having him change into his regular clothes before he left for school.

Anyways, this is how manipulative, high-maintenance people function. People within their spheres of influence feel compelled to change their own behaviors and think in terms of "how will this effect (Martha)(Bethany)" before taking any action. Angel was willing to take things gently and slowly and to humor Bethany. Cordelia worried about Angel being taken advantage of. Although Cordelia couldn't hear what Angel and Bethany were talking about, Bethany, in fact, was revealing just little bits and pieces of herself in dribs and drabs. She would act all sad and confused, then become hostile and deny everything that Angel was able to figure out. It would have taken forever for Angel to achieve any sort of breakthrough with Bethany, since she practically had him dancing around on puppet strings.

When Cordelia voiced her thoughts to Wesley about Bethany and her (sexual) vibe, she spurred Wesley into his full Wesley the Watcher mode where he decided to confront Bethany head-on about her situation. He correctly guessed that Bethany had been sexually abused by her father (no one was aware of this abuse until that point in the show), and decided to play Bad Cop to Angel's Good Cop. I addressed Wes' behavior with Bethany previously here, where Wesley decided that full confrontation was the best course of action. Instead of coddling the young woman, he shocked her by declaring that it would be a complete waste to spend any more time on her. Significantly, instead of literally and figuratively keeping his distance in the way that Angel was behaving with her, Wesley severely invaded her personal space by going face-to-face with her, to the point where she immediately felt threatened and telekinetically threw both Wesley and Angel quite violently across the room.

In essence, Wesley met her sexual vibe and raised it with his own threatening sexual vibe.

Although Bethany was apparently severely traumatized, (to the point where Angel sent Wesley home), Wesley undeniably achieved a breakthrough, allowing both Angel and Bethany to take things to the next level as far as helping her deal with her anger and her past traumatic events.

This was an interesting scene, where Bethany, acting as the quavering little girl, undeniably approached Angel for sex. Bethany came close to openly admitting that she was aware of her manipulative ways when she revealed, "Everyone thinks I'm so fragile and innocent. Men love it." Bethany then went on a woeful "men just use me" kind of spiel without revealing a) her reasoning for indulging in that type of behavior with men in general (Bethany might have been trying to put across the idea that she had sex with men simply because she was used to it and didn't know any other way) or b) what she hoped to gain from Angel by approaching him in this way. This was worth exploring a bit more, but the scene was cut short probably due to a combination of fear of network censorship and the need to get on with the rest of the story.

Fortunately for us, Cordelia wasn't afraid to confront Bethany when she warned her "Don't bone my boss." Cordelia recognized that Angel was in danger of losing control over Bethany without even realizing he was getting played by her. Cordelia said a little later on that Angel "...sees you as, pretty much, the damsel in distress. I think it's a little more complicated than that."


Cordelia: I think you're kind of dangerous. I'm not being mean. I like you. I do. But, you come on all helpless and ... I mean, people that thought that you were helpless before have died.
And finally,

Cordelia: I had a vision of you. That's how Angel found you. I felt everything. And those guys are better off squashed, I truly think, but somewhere in that moment of panic a decision got made and I don't want something like that to happen to my friends, or -- and I can't stress this enough -- me. No matter what, sex complicates the equation, even more than you think.
From what Cordelia was saying, it didn't matter if Bethany was or was not cognizant of her manipulative behaviors. What mattered was that she was exhibiting certain behaviors that could cause a lot of damage! Bethany pretended she understood what Cordelia was saying, but it was obvious the only thing she heard was "Don't screw Angel." Unfortunately, the scene was cut short when she was kidnapped by the Wolfram & Hart goon squad.

However, the scene did serve to bring Bethany's issues out more in the open. Bethany lost her "innocence" at a very early age. She coped with her early sexuality by being the pitiful victim, but found out later on she could use that behavior to her advantage. Instead of exploring the adult side of erotic and emotional sexual intimacy, Bethany was instead playing a mechanical game of "What happens when I do this?"

Or maybe she was exploring the "adult side of erotic and emotional sexual intimacy" in what she thought was a safe manner, with they guy who was helping her out with all of her other issues?

Predictably, Angel rescued Bethany from her kidnappers, and rescued her from her emotional traumas. I was a bit disappointed in the ending. I loved Angel's confrontation with Lilah when he brought Bethany there to pack her things, but I didn't like Bethany's melodramatic reunion with her father where she telekinetically tossed him out of the upper story of the Hyperion Hotel, only to "catch" him just as he was about to go "splat" onto the sidewalk. I thought a subtle, more controlled grown-up conversation would have been more appropriate, but I'm just quibbling at this point.

Closing Thoughts. Another theme that fascinates me is, how can you devote yourself to an unlovable victim who doesn't want any help? I find the thought of uncontrollable Bethanies running around pretty scary, and I would have just as soon seen her squashed like a bug just like her potential rapists. The Powers That Be knew she was worth saving, otherwise they wouldn't have sent Cordelia the vision. It's a credit to Angel that he never gave up on people. I'm often saddened to think of all of the people in the world who won't get the help they desperately need just because others find them too repulsive to work with. (Think of mentally ill people living in absolute filth.)

How did Cordelia spot Bethany as a phony right away? Perhaps it takes one to know one? Not that Cordelia was as bad as Bethany, but Cordelia herself demonstrated early on in the episode how she could get her way by smiling, flashing her big brown eyes, sticking out her tongue, and otherwise acting adorable.

In a quick glance at the episode list, I believe "Untouched" marked one of the last times Angel featured a Season 1 type of "victim of the week" story line. It was time for the series to move on, but it was too bad we couldn't see David Boreanaz reprise the role he did so well of using his deep understanding of human nature to bring hope and redemption to people in need. I think we had to wait until Season 5's "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco" before we could really enjoy that side of Angel's character again.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thoughts on Charles Gunn

I've been thinking for quite some time that there really is quite a parallel between the lives of Lindsey McDonald and Charles Gunn in Angel. Both came from horrific poverty-stricken backgrounds, and both were inspired to devote their lives exacting their revenge on whatever haunted them throughout their childhoods. Lindsey chose to turn his back on his childhood and embrace Evil. Charles chose to help those who suffered, and chose the path to Good.

I therefore found it quite interesting when, for the second time, I watched the introduction of Charles Gunn to the series in "War Zone", that the producers playfully took great pains to compare Gunn with Angel, right down to Gunn emerging from the shadows in his long coat and appearing on the rooftop with Angel, gazing down at the nighttime Los Angeles skyline.

As it turns out, Gunn was just as upwardly mobile as Lindsey. I can't remember the exact episodes, but even before Season 5, Gunn made several references to how anyone who thought he would choose to stay or return to the gutter was sadly mistaken. It just takes longer to acquire the trappings of success when you're fighting for Good, (justice being it's own reward and all of that baggage.) There's a lot of confusion as to why Gunn chose to seemingly turn his back on his friends and join the Angel Investigations team. I've written before that Gunn appeared to be seduced by the more upscale lifestyle and was willing to sacrifice some of his more extreme alpha male tendencies in order to be accepted into the group. So, in a way, he was climbing up the ladder just the same as Lindsey. It was quite telling that of all of the members of AI who joined Wolfram & Hart in Season 5, Charles seemed to embrace the trappings the most of everybody, simply because he would have fallen the farthest if things didn't work out.

Gunn was deep-down very sweet-natured, as we could tell in his relationship with Fred, and we could sense that his street background wasn't really his natural element. Some people seem to embrace their tough poverty-stricken lives and learn to adopt some pretty remarkable coping strategies in order to survive. Others are miserable and would like to leave, but feel honor-bound to stay and help others.

Of course, and this is what I love about the Whedonverse, you can never easily categorize people, and Charles was actually a pretty complex character. When I first encountered Charles Gunn, I could not understand why his character was so seemingly acquiescent to Angel, Wesley and Cordelia. Of course he kicked up a little bit of a fuss at first, but he quickly settled into the "yes man" role. Even Angelus, who served the valuable role of telling people the honest truth, could sense that Charles felt that he was purposefully allowing people to step all over him.

I felt uncomfortable because I thought actor J. August Richards was being underutilized. I thought the producers felt guilty about it and even made his plight part of the storyline in Season 5.

I never advise anyone to just "get over it" and take what's given to them unquestioningly. However, in the Whedonverse, I've learned that, after you recover from the initial shock, you sometimes have to eventually take what's given to you at face value and sincerely work your way through the implications. You're always free to reject things later on. Charles was full of contradictions, just like people are in real life. He was upwardly mobile, but didn't take the easy way out and fall into a life of crime. He wanted to escape the streets, but probably loved "dusting it up with vamps" more than anything else in the world.

Gunn followed a true calling for helping out those in need. He remarkably decided to answer that call at age 13. On what was probably his last day on earth, Gunn quite tellingly chose to help Annie at the youth shelter back in his old neighborhood. I know he was busy feeling guilty about Fred's death and trying everything he could to make himself suffer in atonement, but I have a feeling that Charles would have headed back to help Annie regardless.

I could understand why Charles, after a bit of posturing, decided to fall in line behind Angel. Results spoke louder than anything, and Angel was undoubtedly the best around. He was 100% devoted to the cause, he was always the smartest guy in the room, and, best of all, he could destroy just about anything in the world in a fight.

I could never fully understand why Gunn allowed himself to stand behind Wesley in the pecking order. When TNT last showed Angel's Season 2 episodes, they chose not to show "The Thin Dead Line". I was bitterly disappointed because much was made later on about how Wesley took a bullet for Gunn. I felt this episode was pivotal in the drastic change in the relationship dynamics between Charles Gunn and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, and I hope TNT airs it the next time around (which should be coming up pretty soon.) While I'm at it, I might as well openly admit that I've been wondering if TNT purposefully censored "The Thin Dead Line"? Is there something horribly objectionable about it that made TNT decide not to air it?

Regardless, as much as Charles made fun of Wesley's book learning and mildly-comic British ways, I think he also felt an inferiority complex because Wesley had a valuable skill while Gunn only provided "the muscle". I felt that several times Angel did a wonderful job of exploring conflicts within the working world, with Season 4 "Harm's Way" commenting on the thankless job of being an admin being the best example.

In corporate life (and, really, in just about any job), there's a natural divide between those who are considered to be the valuable employees and those who act as worker drones. No organization can survive without highly dedicated and competent worker drones, but management and those with special skills like to remind the drones on a regular basis that they deliver quite little in overall value to the organization and can be replaced at a moment's notice. If drones felt that they mattered at all, they might start demanding pay raises, and we can't have that!

Angel was the CEO, and Wesley and Fred were the brainy lieutenants. Cordelia had her visions, although even she showed us she was wrestling with her insecurities when she admitted she was afraid she had nothing to contribute to the group if she lost her visions. Gunn was a highly valuable employee. The mission statement of Angel Investigations was to fight demons, and Gunn was one of the best around at fighting demons. It brings to mind turf wars in a manufacturing company where the guys in finance are able to convince everyone that they are more valuable to the company than the people who design and build the end products.

Back to Wesley. By the beginning of Season 3, he was clearly "The Boss" (until Angel reasserted his natural leadership later on). I think the creators could have done a better job of showing the audience just how Wesley earned that title, but I still think they provided a reasonably clear pathway. (Note: I think it was implied that some of his growth as a leader took place in the foggy months between the end of Season 2 and the beginning of Season 3.)

Outside of Angel, Wesley was the best strategist, as he proved in the Pylea dimension. Any time you have a group with supposedly equal partners, you will inevitably have someone who starts acting in the Executive Officer capacity. In other words, when everyone else is just looking around to see who's going to move, someone will naturally step up and start taking action. The key is, will this person be considered the patsy who does all of the work? Or will this person take charge, provide the overall vision, and inspire others into action? Wesley fell into the latter category during the time when he, Gunn and Cordelia started their own business. He was extremely intelligent and had the ability to quickly plan a logical course of attack.

Even though Wesley wasn't quite the dashing heroic figure, he still inspired confidence. Charles also knew that Wesley didn't have an easy job. Despite his beginning doubts, Wes was probably more suited to carry the overall burdens than Charles. Charles figured he could devise plans to get people to go out and bust heads, but he had a lot to learn about other aspects of leading a team, like, keeping an eye on the bigger picture. Gunn could either fight Wesley tooth and nail, asserting his alpha male dominance every step of the way, or he could save everyone the time and trouble and fall in line like the rest of them. Of course, Charles did challenge Wesley quite a bit, just like every employee should. He just chose not to make an asshole out of himself.

Even though Charles seemingly accepted his place, it was more out of convenience than anything else. He was used to being a leader of a street gang, and it must not have been easy to relinquish his Top Dog status. With Angel Investigations, he was in a different world, and he had a lot to learn before he could even think of applying for the top spot. I even grew to admire him for his actions in certain ways. Let's face it: in the real world, there are leaders and there are followers. Leaders are higher up in the pyramid, and nothing can ever change that. People who think they need special status are high maintenance and need a lot of constant coddling. What a waste of everyone's valuable time! Charles didn't like being in the lower part of the pyramid, but he was too intelligent and devoted to the overall mission to make everyone shower him with exaggerated praise on a regular basis just to keep him happy. Quite frankly, Charles acted in a mature manner and was above it all.

Afterthoughts. Notice how Charles came from a lower-class gang to join an upperclass group.

Please also note that I carefully chose the wording up above when I said that Charles "chose the path to Good". I think that being Evil and being Good are equally easy. The key difference is that when you choose Evil, you have no doubts. Once you choose Evil, you're already there. (Although Lindsey showed that you can have your doubts after you've arrived at Evil.) When you choose Good, you're plagued by temptation and lingering doubts the entire time. You never feel Good enough, and the choice of Good feels like a lifetime journey where you never quite reach your destination.

Monday, July 27, 2009

My Top 6 Favorite Angel Story Arcs

Faith collage, From Buffyverse Dialogue Database

I'd written in my "Top 10 Favorite Angel Episodes" post that I left some shows off of my "favorites" list because they belonged to particular story arcs in which each episode seemed to be equally good. I started to do a "Top 10 Story Arc Post", but I thought that would be cheating, since I could conceivably have anywhere between 20-40 episodes listed in total. So much for an exclusive list. Plus, I also feel that people putting together favorites lists should feel real pain in making their decisions (which I most certainly did).

Finally, I didn't include my obvious favorite story arcs, Wesley and Lilah, and Wesley and Illyria, because they were a little too obvious. I've written way too much about these arcs as it is.

My Top 6 Angel Story Arcs (In Chronological Order)
(I admit I'm playing a bit fast and loose with the definition of "story arc".)

1. Faith - Season 1 "Five by Five" and "Sanctuary". (My previous episode reviews here and here.) Eliza Dushku is such an amazing actress! She has that rare quality where she can both dominate every scene she appears in and make other actors give even better performances. I guess you have to crank it up a few notches to be able to compete with her. You know that a story arc that features my favorite character being brutally tortured has to be good to make it to my Top 6 List.

Highlights include: that sleazy bastard picking on the wrong little girl (Faith) when she stepped off the bus in Los Angeles; the flashback sequences with Darla, (btw, I think "Five by Five" had some of the best flashback sequences in the entire series); Faith's encounters with the Wolfram & Hart lawyers; Faith's breakdown in the rain when she first begged Angel to kill her, then slowly surrendered herself to his care; Wesley's "I do not, however, understand why the woman who brutally tortured me last night, this morning - gets pastries"; Angel's speech to Faith when she asked "So, how does this work?"; Lindsey & Lilah's "curses, foiled again" moments; Wesley's meeting with the Watchers Council goon squad and his subsequent warning of Angel et al of the upcoming attack; Angel repeatedly telling off Buffy whenever she started her incessant whining, including when he told Buffy at the end to "Go home"; and Faith's surrender to the police.

David Boreanaz was magnificent in this story arc as his Angel character kept working with Faith and never gave up on her. He was the best speechifier on the show, and he gave some good ones in these episodes. I also admired how Eliza Dushku was able to shut down and recede into the background, figuratively speaking, when it was Boreanaz' turn to take center stage. I'd written before how Faith's tantrums were childlike, and she readily turned into the little girl being comforted by the father figure. I was also struck by, and really enjoyed, how Angel and Faith could share such strong emotional bonds, even being in each others arms at times, without the least hint of romance or sexuality. What a pure form of love they had for each other.

I did not view Wesley and Cordelia as "bailing out" on Angel in "Sanctuary" when they both left the office early in the episode. Both wisely knew that their presence would only complicate matters, and it was best to leave Angel alone to work his magic on Faith.

There was an element of trying things out and seeing what worked in Season 1. I've written before that Season 1 introduced a lot of story ideas which were not really followed up on in subsequent seasons. Some of the things I would have liked to have seen continued was: Angel gazing at the night skyline, contemplating his life while being on the lookout for innocent victims; the natural follow-up where he rescued the victims from the evil that lurked in the dark alley ways; and Angel working on helping both agressors and victims find redemption for their deeds.

2. Crisis of Faith in Season 2. "Reprise" and "Epiphany". (My [sort of] episode review here.) I've never written any real reviews of these episodes because I really wanted to see all of Season 2 one more time before doing so. I could make a strong case for saying these are my two favorite episodes of the whole series. The only thing that's holding me back from making that strong endorsement is that the conclusions Angel reached in Season 2 were somewhat negated by what happened in Season 5.

Highlights include: Lindsey and Lilah's uneasy alliance where they had to work together to carry out the Senior Partners' objectives while simultaneously fighting each other for the desired promotion; Kate's confrontation with Angel over the massacre in Holland Manners' wine cellar; Lindsey's interactions with Darla; Lorne more than once providing Angel much neeeded advice in his Caritas karaoke bar; Angel's encounter with the priest in the bookstore, before Darla ruined things by murdering the priest; Virginia trying to break up with Wesley, while Wesley turned the tables and tenderly finished the job for her (my review here); Angel crashing Wolfram & Hart's big 50-year review meeting; Angel's revealing elevator ride with the deceased Holland Manners; Angel's "Epiphany" with Darla; Angel's fight with Lindsey; and Angel's encounters with Kate, first, when he saved her life, and, second, when he poured his heart out to her in what I think is probably the best scene in the entire series.

Trust the Whedonverse creators to never neatly compartmentalize their story elements within a single season. These two episodes were part of a much larger story arc featuring not only Angel's, but Lindsey's crisis of faith. This started for both of them with Season 1's "Blind Date" and ended probably when Lindsey left town a few episodes after "Epiphany" in "Dead End" . You can tell by this post that I was profoundly moved by "Blind Date". In fact, the only thing wrong with "Blind Date" was that it marked a beginning to a story arc, and by definition, the beginnings will always pale in comparison to the endings.

David Boreanaz, Christian Kane and Sam Anderson (as Holland Manners) all put in excellent performances in this story arc. It's too bad that Christian Kane and Sam Anderson both left the series (Kane, of course, returned in Season 5), because I thought the writers could have had a lot of stories left in them regarding their two characters. Happily, one consequence was Stephanie Romanov's Lilah being brought out more noticeably into the spotlight.

3. The Pylea Arc in Season 2. "Belonging", "Over the Rainbow", "Through the Looking Glass" and "There's No Place Like Plrtz Glrb". (My [sort of] episode reviews here, here, here, and here.) I have a definite fondness for this arc because both my unofficial and official introductions to Angel started in Pylea. ("Unofficial", in that, some time in the distant past, I caught most of "Through the Looking Glass" and thought, what a cute series. "Official", in that earlier this year I caught most of "Over the Rainbow" and immediately became hooked on the series.)

I fell in love with Alexis Denisof/Wesley Wyndam-Pryce literally at first sight, when he came rushing into the room after he had his "Eureka" moment. I'm still amazed how I thought he was about the most adorable creature I'd ever seen towards the end of Season 2, and he just kept getting better-looking almost throughout the rest of the series.

There were too many great things happening to list all of the highlights. I do have to single out: every single scene featuring Andy Hallett as Lorne; Joss Whedon's surprise appearance as Lorne's brother, Numfar, doing his musicless dance of joy; some particularly good one-liners from J. August Richards/Charles Gunn, including the handcuffs with the magical alloy and "you take the 30 on the right"; Cordelia's hilarious encounters with the Groosalugg, particularly where this impossibly handsome warrior apologized for his hideousness, and Wesley's leadership during the final battle sequences.

Judging from user forums, I don't know if any Angel story arc has divided fans more than the Pylea one. It's probably the least typical story arc of the whole series, which probably left a lot of fans feeling discombobulated. What I enjoyed was the light-hearted Midsummer's Night Dream element to the episodes, where there was a lot of enchantment, intrigue, and the inevitable happy ending. Although serious issues were addressed in this arc, particularly Wesley's so-called "ruthlessness" and his admirable growth in leadership skills, overall these episodes left me with a song in my heart and an overall good feeling. Despite my boasts about my love of shows that challenge viewers and don't provide easy answers, deep down, I always like going back to the more conventional, cuddly-happy ones.

4. Cordelia Arc in Season 3. (My [sort of] episode reviews are here, here, here, here and here.) The Season 3 Cordelia arc is kind of an ill-defined concept for me. In a way I could lump in Season 2's Pylea episodes into my overall Cordelia arc. However, for my immediate purposes, I'll include roughly most of the episodes between "That Vision Thing" and "Couplet".

These episodes showed Cordelia as she made her steady march from a ditzy bitch-queen to a warm, mature (but still wickedly funny) woman. Her friendship with Angel was also progressing during this time, although both were a bit clueless as to what was happening between them. There was a fair share of tragedy in these episodes, but overall, a warm happy glow permeated throughout, culminating in what's probably still my favorite all-time favorite Angel episode "Couplet".

Again, too many highlights, but I will mention a few standouts: Cordelia's development of an empowered kick-ass attitude in Billy; Cordelia's shameless flirting with the musclemen in the gym in "Carpe Noctum"; the entire "Birthday" episode; Cordelia's magical amorous backstage encounters with Angel in "Waiting in the Wings"; and her clueless yet still lovable overall joy at being with her beloved Groosalugg in "Couplet".

The ending of this arc (when Wesley translated his false prophecy about Angel killing his son) was particularly rough on me since the wonderful Cordelia arc shows were among the first Angel episodes I had ever seen. It was like having a happy ending turn into a horrible nightmare as Wesley kidnapped and lost Connor, got banished from the group, and The Beast and Angelus made their dreadful appearances. I quickly learned that whenever something good happens in the Whedonverse, something horrific will immediately follow.

5. Wesley's False Prophecy/Daniel Holtz Arc in Season 3. "Loyalty" and "Sleep Tight". (My episode review here.) This is another instance where horrible things happened to my favorite character, yet I still include these episodes in my "Favorite Story Arc" category. Alexis Denisof's fine acting (along with his exponential leap in handsomeness) make these episodes worthwhile.

I don't want to repeat everything I wrote in my review listed above, but I will highlight a few things. I didn't agree with Wesley's decision to act behind the group's back. However, I do recognize that he made what he thought was the best decision possible in order to try to achieve the almost mutually exclusive goals of protecting Connor, protecting Angel and protecting the rest of the group. I also enjoyed the warm moments shared by Wesley and Angel that manifested themselves in so many ways. The two of them had quiet moments where they shared a few thoughts, but the comfortably silent pauses were almost twice as informative. Wesley also talked about how much Angel meant to both him personally and the rest of the group, while Angel shared his wonderfully happy thoughts about fatherhood. These moments were all the more poignant in that, although Wesley was busy formulating a plan to kidnap Connor, he was being achingly sincere about the sentiments he was sharing with Angel the entire time.

There were also some delightful moments with Lilah, as she met with Sahjahn first in her office, then a few times at the bar (with one of those times being a delicious encounter with Angel).

If I didn't know for sure that Wesley and Lilah were going to hook up soon after the failed kidnapping attempt, I probably would have stopped watching Angel shortly after watching "Sleep Tight".

6. Wesley and Faith in Season 4. "Salvage" and "Release". (My [sort of] reviews here, here, here and here.) Notice how the word "faith" pops up repeatedly in my favorites list?

I don't make it a point to do formal episode reviews, but it's hard to believe I didn't write a lot more about Wes and Faith in these two outstanding episodes. I'm sure it had everything to do with how blown away I was by Wesley's dialogue with the deceased Lilah just before he chopped the head off of her corpse.

In these two episodes, Wesley was at the height of his bad-ass days. He was positively dripping with sex! Add an equally bad-ass Faith with her always in-your-face sexuality, and you get explosive results. These two never kissed, never almost-kissed and never even thought about almost-kissing. They didn't have to. Their scenes were hot enough as they were. Anything else would have been overkill. (But hey, a little bit of overkill once in a while is OK by me.)

I liked how Wesley was still acting as sort of the independent operator, and not quite fully merged with the group yet. "Angel" was gone, but the rest of the group naturally gravitated towards Wesley as their leader, despite some lingering doubts. The man commanded respect, and no one else came close to stepping in and taking over.

I also loved Faith's reaction to Wesley when she first saw him during his prison visit. She was quite taken by the New-and-Improved Wesley and could tell he wasn't someone who could be messed with. I also loved how she accepted him right away as the New Wesley, and didn't bother with constant little reminders of his ineffectual Watcher days. That was all in the past, and Faith was 100% in the present. Right away she started calling Wesley "Boss", not so much as a sign of servitude, but as a badge of honor that she bestowed upon him.

They quickly worked out the roles they'd be performing, and that brings to mind one of the reasons why I regret not seeing Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I never saw any true scenes of Watcher and Slayer until I saw Wes and Faith in Season 4. Consequently, I don't know if their interactions were typical or not. Regardless, their leadership roles reversed effortlessly back and forth, as Wesley always retained overall leadership while relinquishing the role to Faith as the situation demanded. I loved how Wesley openly beamed with pleasure at Faith's performance several times, particularly when Gunn remarked at one point how all Wes had to do was sit back and let Faith do all of the work.

You could make a strong case that Wesley ultimately abused Faith and abused her trust. Faith had turned a corner and was on her way to becoming reformed while being in a relatively sheltered prison environment. Her next logical step would be to try to continue being the "good" Faith in the outside world after her release from prison. Wesley ripped her away from her safe world and demanded that she return to her dark ways, all for the cause of capturing Angelus. He knew damned well that she had every potential of turning back into the psycho slayer, but he pushed her anyways. Sometimes there's a greater good that needs to be accomplished, and the world was more dangerous with Angelus on the loose than a temporarily off-the-wagon Faith.

I also didn't like how they ultimately caught Angelus, when he fed off of Faith after she shot herself up with drugs. What an inglorious way to capture Angelus, but it got the job done. This was totally in line with how the Whedonverse is loath to give us a satisfying conclusion to any situation.
Throughout most of these episodes, the two were a couple who looked as good together as Wes and Lilah did. This was particularly noticeable when Fred was commenting on the two of them while she was watching them at the Hyperion Hotel (after saying Supergirl would never make the mistake of being fooled by Angelus), and when Wesley carried the injured Faith back to the Hotel. What a great team these two made. It was a pity that their partnership had to end so quickly.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Look Behind the Curtain

One topic I explore occasionally is exactly why I'm fascinated with the Angel TV series. I won't hide the fact that falling in love with a main character played by a sexy actor played a huge part. However, it's not like that's never happened to me before. What is it about Angel that has me hooked and keeps me coming back for more?

DVRPlayground posted a recap of Joss Whedon's Q&A session at San Diego's 2009 Comic-Con, and I came across this intriguing item:

On his fascination with large corporations and government messing with people’s minds.

Have you been in America? I like to consider myself the great documentary film maker of our time. The entire structure is designed to mess with your minds, sell you things, entertain you, keep you in line, make you think you need things they want you to need, keep them in power, share none of it. But there are lights in the darkness, the art we get to create because the powerful patrons let us. But sometimes it’s like running the daycare on the death star. There is power and manipulation controlling almost all of our every thought, that is why I love this show [Dollhouse] so much.

I'm fascinated with peeling back the many layers and finding out what's really going on and who's really in control, which is something I try to convey in my other blog, The Wolfram & Hart Hall of Fame. (One hint: our Republican and Democratic leaders have far more in common with each other than with their electorate.) The real Powers That Be like to keep us clueless and divided by our petty differences while they literally loot the store.

The entertainment industry is useful for two purposes: one, as a way to peddle corporate propaganda, and two, to keep a population distracted from the real issues plaguing our nation. John Guilfoil wrote an intriguing piece for Blast Magazine about how close Dollhouse was to getting cancelled. His article, "Why NOT Dollhouse" could have easily been written about any of Whedon's other shows. Guilfoil wondered why people were shocked when Dollhouse was renewed for a second season since, as he puts it, between the live TV viewing audience and the DVR viewers, the show was "...perhaps one of the top three most-watched television shows last season."

Guilfoil then chronicled how Fox has slashed the show's budget, and how "grittier" and "darker" are code-speak for "fewer expensive special effects". (I disagree with his insinuation that bringing in Alexis Denisof also cheapens the show). He then concluded his article by saying:

Are we to believe that Fox somehow has failed to make a fat enough profit off of this show? Are we to sit here, critics and fans alike, and buy it that, with all the hype, fan sites, forums, promo spots, convention panels and fucking TiVos out there, that the sales team at one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world couldn’t turn a decent profit?

YES! That’s exactly what we have to believe, because otherwise Fox would be pouring resources back into the show to squeeze more milk from the cow.

Someone needs to get fired over this, but it’s not Joss Whedon.

I'll posit that Whedon's shows are doomed to be perpetually on the chopping block because he comes uncomfortably close to showing us the man behind the curtain controlling our thoughts. Some of the biggest conglomerates in the world own TV networks (think General Electric and NBC, and Rupert Murdoch and FOX), and they certainly don't want their viewers to start asking too many questions.

Postscript: In all fairness, I'm sure a lot of it has to do with advertising revenue. If a show attracts viewers who can't be easily manipulated into buying products that they don't need, a network won't be able to command top dollar for commercial air time. Audience size doesn't matter as much as the willingness of the audience to open up their wallets to buy products from companies that have the biggest marketing budgets.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Alexis Denisof and Eliza Dushku - Together Again

It was all over my Google Alerts this morning that Joss Whedon let it be known at San Diego's 2009 Comic-Con that Alexis Denisof will appear in anywhere between "a few" to "several" Season 2 Dollhouse episodes. I'm hoping for "several", although "a few" seems to be more widely reported.

Phooey! Time for Alexis to stop gazing at beautiful little Satyana and head back to work.

The sites are also reporting that Firefly's Summer Glau might appear in some episodes, and that a "lost" episode of Season 1's Dollhouse featuring a post-apocalyptic future was screened at the convention.

I've seen two Dollhouse episodes. Naturally, I loved the first one and didn't care for the second one. I've always wanted to give the show an honest shot but, quite frankly, I'm spending so much time on Angel re-runs, I really don't have time for anything else. News that Alexis will be showing up once in a while will certainly give me an incentive to give the series another try.

One of the more intriguing little write-ups is from Blast Magazine, where Kellen Rice reports that Denisof and Dushku will "cross swords". I assume that means they'll be adversaries. I've written before about the incredible erotic tension that seemed to exist between their Wesley and Faith characters in Angel's Season 4, and I hope some of that carries over to Dollhouse. Although I'd rather see their Dollhouse characters working together, I know that anything goes in the Whedonverse, and Denisof and Dushku "crossing swords" could be quite entertaining (if it's really true.)

This TV Guide post includes a few negative comments about Eliza Dushku. I thought she was the best part of the show in the two episodes that I saw. (By the way, my husband adores her.)

A.V. Club reported that when the audience was polled as to whether Emily Deschanel's and David Boreanz' characters from Bones should sleep together or keep things platonic, "...both options received almost equal applause..." I personally think the two of them should keep things platonic, but then, I've never seen a complete episode of the series before. Emily Deschanel doesn't do anything for me, and Boreanaz looks hemmed in by his character. There's at least one other recurring actor who looks pretty good, but, from what I can tell, just about everyone else looks like kids who were performing as Smurfs at amusement parks the year before. I have some friends who adore Bones, and I really should make an honest effort to get to know the series. But again, so little time.

Variety Magazine reported that, for Season 2, "They're [Dollhouse creators] also working with a new director of photography to 'create a new look that's a lot more immediate, a lot less conventional.' And one episode will be directed by John Cassaday, a comic book artist who previously collaborated with Whedon on issues of 'Astonishing X-Men'." I always appreciate any effort to challenge audiences and push the envelope on network television.

The TV Addict quotes Joss Whedon as describing Alexis Denisof as a "young ingenue". This post, along with several others, addresses the fact that Joss Whedon likes to cast the same actors in different series (which seems to invoke a lot of snarky comments in general, although I hasten to add, not from the TV Addict). My answer is, I don't recall anyone ever criticizing John Ford for casting the same actors in his movies.

There are several sites on the web (I won't single them out) that are reporting the same story, word-for-word, about the Whedon announcements. They all refer to Denisof as the guy who played Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, the bumbling Watcher, sent to look after Faith. I can understand why that aspect would be reported, since their pairing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and possibly Season 1 of Angel) was probably more famous than their pairing on Season 4 of Angel. However, why does Wesley always have to be remembered as the bumbling idiot even though he evolved into such a fantastic bad-ass character? Is it because no one watched Angel after Season 1? It's like the little fat girl who grows up to be a gorgeous super-model doomed to be forever remembered as her old fat self at family reunions.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Was Lilah Really a Fight Fan?

I saw Angel's Season One episode "The Ring" again today and I have a huge question. Was Lilah Morgan, working on behalf of Wolfram & Hart, in on the plot to kidnap Angel? Or, was she tipped off ahead of time that Angel would be kidnapped, which sort of amounts to the same thing? Did she want to observe him in a controlled situation to test how his soul affected his actions, and if having a soul gave him a conscience? I know that she would have known about Angel ever since the series premier episode when Lindsey called a staff meeting to talk about "the new player" in town.

The first time I viewed the episode, I thought Lilah just happened to be at the fight club because she enjoyed that sleazy sort of action, and also because she was on the lookout for anything that might have been of interest to Wolfram & Hart. Now I'm thinking that she knocked her ticket off the table on purpose as a way to catch Angel's attention and to initiate an informal introduction. (Her knocking the ticket off the table on purpose looks pretty obvious now, but I thought she did it by accident the first time I saw the episode.) Regardless, I don't think she just happened to show up at the fight club the same day he was scheduled to be kidnapped.

I also speculated in another post that Lilah rather enjoyed these reconnaissance assignments for Wolfram & Hart because it was the closest thing she could have to a social life.

When Lilah had Angel brought to her office in order to offer him his "freedom", she was definitely being quite seductive, which became even more obvious as she brought her face in close to his during part of the dialogue. Contrast that with her first encounters with Wesley toward the end of Season 3. You'd have to be pretty slow to not be able to tell she was trying to seduce Wesley, but she was being a lot more subtle about her attempts by that time. Did Lilah act all femme fatale with most of her quarry? Or just when the mood struck her?

I'd written in an earlier post referenced above that I thought Stephanie Romanov was a bit tentative in Season One episodes as she and the creators tried to get a feel for her Lilah persona. However, I thought that delightful chemistry with David Boreanaz started bubbling right from the very beginning, as we could tell from their first encounter at Wolfram & Hart. I had mentioned in my previous post that the producers' supposed attempts to throw different women at Boreanaz every week in order to see if any sparks would start flying didn't seem to work out too well. I'll have to take that back since, definitely, Lilah and Angel turned out to be quite the dynamic pairing for several years to come.

To be fair, I meant what I wrote in the context of whether the producers would be able to find a romantic partner for Angel. In addition to Lilah, Angel/Boreanaz already had quite an interesting relationship with Elisabeth Rohm as Kate Lockley. I thought their chemistry was marvelous! Unfortunately, I think the creators really squandered their opportunity to allow Angel and Kate to have a more meaningful, nuanced, non-romantic relationship by turning Kate into a mentally unbalanced hysterical female who kept rejecting Angel even more every time she came into contact with the demon world. It took Season 2's "Epiphany" to really bring Kate and Angel together in what I thought was one of the better scenes of the whole series. By then it was too late, as it turned out to be Elisabeth Rohm's last appearance on Angel.

I periodically try to atone for my lack of attention to the character of Angel, so here I am at it again. In some ways, I liked David Boreanaz best in Season One because he had really perfected that combination lost, tortured soul/adorable puppy dog look. He was cute, and I really felt that Lilah actually might have felt just a little sorry for him in the fight ring. (Although it's usually a mistake to attribute any human emotions to Lilah.) Angel acted like kind of a big brother to Wes and Cordy, as opposed to the father figure he became in Season 2. I shouldn't say I liked him better as Big Brother, but I still enjoyed that characterization all the same.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Why "She" Doesn't Work For Me

Prototype for Oden Tal Women?
Ursula Andress in Dr. No. (1962)

If I had to describe Angel's Season 1 episode "She" in one (hyphenated) word, that word would by "heavy-handed". The creators seemed to have approached this episode with good intentions, but just couldn't seem to deliver the goods.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed watching the episode as a pleasant one-hour time killer. I particularly enjoyed the beginning, where Angel struggled through Cordelia's party and performed his famous Dorky Dance. I also loved the ending, where Wesley groveled over the spilled coffee beans. I do have plenty of criticisms though.

1. Female Genital Mutilation. This episode is an obvious commentary on African female genital mutilation, which must have been the cause celebre of the week at that time the show originally aired. By making it the main theme of "She", the producers seemed to have cheapened this disturbing subject matter by turning it into something worthy of an appearance on the Lifetime channel.

2. Faux Feminist Issues. "She" featured everything that would make a strong, independent woman's blood boil, including: women being forced into complete servitude to males; women having all sexual desires eliminated so they would not be tempted to stray from their individual male masters; males justifying their self-serving torture of women by supposedly knowing what's best for women, and also supposedly knowing that women would be happier after they were "unmade"; and uppity independent women being viewed as menaces to society who must be defeated at all costs.

Actually, the whole episode screamed, "Let's do one for the ladies". I've often wondered, do producers really think women enjoy watching shows about other women being exploited and abused? If the same logic was applied to men, a lot more movies like Deliverance would have been produced over the years.

And don't get me started on this weird fascination moviemakers seem to have with women being impregnated by demons, and the fact that the spinal columns of women from Odel Tal lit up like Christmas trees every time they become sexually aroused.

So instead of a classy discussion on gender inequality, we were instead treated to naked women falling from the ceiling, women getting all hot and bothered and not being able to control their sexual desires, and women "on ice" dressing in bulky bikinis similar to what Ursula Andress would have worn circa 1962. At times, "She" seemed more like a Roger Corman B-grade movie.

I have a sense of humor. B-grade movies have their place in society, and I like good camp as much as the next person. I just think the creators should have made an either/or decision regarding whether to make this episode serious or campy, then stuck with the idea until the end.

3. Unsympathetic Female Character. Jheira, played by Bai Ling, reminded me of Laurel Holloman's Justine, in that she was unsympathetic, unappealing, and completely lacking in humor. Bai Ling's Jheira was also a little too androgynous. The makeup, quite frankly, didn't add any touches of mystery and actually made her look like a freak. I thought her costume was cut to show a fair amount of cleavage simply because otherwise the audience might not have been able to figure out that Jheira was supposed to be a sexy siren.

4. Lack of Sexual Chemistry Between Angel and Jheira. I hate posting things without including my sources of information, but I'll have to do it one more time because I couldn't find a link I found a few months ago. I read somewhere that in Season 1, David Boreanaz was cast with different "females of the week" to see if any sexual chemistry would develop. The implication was that, if there was any sort of onscreen sizzle, the female(s) would possibly be brought back for later installments. According to this Wikipedia link, Bai Ling was quoted as saying in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer Magazine interview,

"After that episode aired, David [Greenwalt] called me. They were so pleased by it, they wanted me to come back. I'd very much like to go back to Angel, because we all had a great time, and they loved the character. I don't know what the schedule is; I guess they're still working on it, so we're gonna talk about it when it is ready. I'm looking forward to contributing something."
This sexual chemistry thing obviously didn't work out since, to my knowledge, no female was brought back in any recurring roles as a romantic interest for Angel. I'm not saying this actually happened, but I couldn't help but think that a lot of the scenes featuring David Boreanaz and Bai Ling were rewritten and re-directed because the sexual tension was totally non-existent during the original, more subtle, takes. This comparison will only work if you've actually seen these episodes, but contrast this heavy-handed scene between Angel and Bail Ling, which featured a lot of sweating and panting from the two leads, to this scene with Wesley and Lilah, where Lilah showed up at Wesley's apartment for the first time.

Wes and Lilah practically wrote the book on smoldering sensuality while simply discussing Dante's Inferno. In "She", the producers felt compelled to add a scene where Wes and Cordy caught Angel toweling off from a cold shower, just in case the audience didn't quite catch on to the fact that Angel was supposedly turned on by Jheira in their earlier scene.

5. Any episode that makes Wesley look like a complete idiot gets a black mark in my book. Most of the time, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce could pull off being a complete idiot because he had his boyish good looks and charm to fall back on. This moment from "She", where Wesley was totally lacking in self-control and was furiously hitting on these unfortunate ladies who were trying to keep their cool in their ice baths, was just flat out embarrassing!

Closing Thoughts. "She" had a fairly good dose of my favorite moral ambiguity, where Jheira felt compelled to let some humans die as collateral damage in her quest to rescue women from her home dimension. Angel and Jheira had some fairly decent dialogue regarding this topic, including this closing piece where Angel warned Jheira he'd be keeping an eye on her just in case she decided to cross over the line. It's too bad that this potentially redemptive part of the episode didn't quite work out simply because the Jheira character had too many faults to allow this scene work as intended.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Not Enough Charisma

I've never bothered to hide my dismay with how Charisma Carpenter's Cordelia character was treated on Angel starting with Season 3. The creators decided to: turn her into a half-demon; stick her on a higher plane in Season 3's finale; keep her suspended there for several weeks until she was returned to earth as an amnesiac; have her memory ostensibly "restored", but in reality had her inner Jasmine demon (the one who took over her body) activated; have her sleep with Angel's son Connor (the closest thing to incest without actually being incest); have her turn into a Beast Master and kill Lilah; give her a demon pregnancy where she gave birth to her Jasmine character in short order (with a lot of this going on during Charisma's real pregnancy, where she was forced to think of her own baby several times a day in terms of being demon spawn); put her in a coma for several weeks at the end of Season 4 and well into Season 5; and finally kill her off after she put Angel on the right path in "You're Welcome".

In this Wikipedia entry about Cordelia Chase, author Jennifer Crusie is quoted as saying, " this point that the Mutant Enemy Productions writers evidently lost their minds". Although she wrote this apparently in the context of the Series 3 finale where Cordelia was taken up into the heavens, that statement could apply to just about everything that happened to Cordelia in Angel from that point on.

There's a huge number of online articles that have been written about the series creators' decision to kick Charisma Carpenter off of the show. Naturally, the facts are presented a little differently in each article. Since I don't have first-hand knowledge, I can't possibly pick one out and call it the definitive article. Also, there's a certain element of "he said, she said" as each party presented their sides of the story. So with that, I'll just grab excerpts of three articles that appeared to be the most informative.

The first one is a from an interview that series producer Joss Whedon gave to TV Guide Online.
TV Guide Online: Why was Charisma's name removed from next season's cast list?

Joss Whedon: Mainly because we felt like we had taken that story — just like Buffy for seven years — about as far as it could go. The Angel/Cordelia [love story] had gone pretty much as far as we wanted to take it. Their romance was definitely not a popular move on our part, and I think with most fans. It just seemed like it was time because we were revamping the show, and then paring it down... it just seemed like a good time for certain people to move on. Not completely, obviously. I'm hoping that we'll get Charisma to do some episodes as Cordelia sometime during the year. She's a new mother, so, like Sarah [Michelle Gellar], I'm waiting to hear what her schedule is like. But it just seemed creatively like... I once said that I finally got to tell the story of Buffy that I tried to tell in the movie, and I did it with Cordelia. Which was the story of someone who was completely ditzy and self-involved becoming kind of heroic. But the way the series was different from the movie was that I didn't know where you go from there. So, I felt like we spent seven years playing that very arc, and it had played. Like Buffy itself, it's time to look at something new."
Whedon also went on to hint that Carpenter's plans were somewhat up in the air because of her pregnancy, and that she might have been a victim of budget cuts.

I never cared for the part about "we had taken that story....about as far as it could go." I could have figured out a hundred different entertaining directions to take her character and kept her on the show. Charisma Character was a vital part of Angel. Just look at all of the series DVD's that have her pictured prominently on the cover. As far as the Angel/Cordelia romance not being a popular move on their part, whom did the producers poll, seven-year-old boys who go "ewwww!" when two people kiss on the screen? I've written before that romances don't have to kill a series. If handled correctly, a relationship can be a great source of stability for characters, which allows the creators to get on with the rest of the show.

To me, the decision to let go of Cordelia sounds like a combination of the writers going absolutely idiotic with their story lines and not being able to extricate themselves from the mess they created, and Joss Whedon getting bored with Cordy after she turned into Saint Cordelia. I've read in several places that network officials wanted Season 5 to be more "story of the week" rather than one convoluted story arc. I can't help but think that the executives looked at the disaster that killed off Cordelia and didn't want to have to live through that again.

Here's an excerpt to an interview Charisma Carpenter gave to Femme Fatales, apparently just before Angel was picked up for Season 5.
Carpenter here discusses her feelings about this storyline and, in a surprisingly candid manner, her opinions on the state of Angel and its future. Still, it's admittedly difficult to get past her opening salvo: "I want to get laid or go back to being ditzy. I never thought I would say that. I used to beg for deeper and more poignant story lines, then I got it, and I kind of want to go back. Well, not exactly go back, because that doesn't seem realistic, but I'd like to recapture some of that Cordelia."


"Femme Fatales: How do you feel about Cordelia's relationship with Connor?

Charisma Carpenter -- It's weird; my stomach totally turns. I like him as a person and everything, and I like working with [Vincent Kartheiser], but I don't like my character being with him. It's icky to kiss someone when you're pregnant [Carpenter was two weeks from giving birth at the time of this interview]. It's got to be icky for him, too. But if Angel and Cordelia got together, that would be a big snorefest, so what else were the writers going to do?"
I like what Carpenter wrote about "..wanting to recapture some of that Cordelia". She claims that she begged for "deeper and more poignant story lines", and see how she was rewarded? Why couldn't the writers continue with how she was developing in Season 3, particularly with "Billy", when she became more confident and mature, but didn't lose any of her razor-sharp wit? As for the rest of Season 3, she maybe mellowed out a little too much, but that would have been easily fixed with one or two sharp lines of dialogue per episode.

I also like how Carpenter apparently didn't like having her character sleeping with Connor, because it really was weird. I think the creators liked to continually push the envelope and challenge the audience, but they needed to make sure the audience stuck around to see how things played out. If you cross over the line too far, you run the risk of losing a substantial part of your audience for good. The only reason why I stuck with the series was because I knew Wesley Wyndam-Pryce would continue on through most of Season 5. If I was watching Angel for the first time, I honestly think I would have abandoned the series somewhere in mid-to-late Season 4.

In this interview, Carpenter also echoed the thoughts that a romance between her and Angel would not have been a popular move. I'm glad she seemed to change her mind by the time she gave this interview with IGN TV.

Finally, after finding out she would not be returning to Angel's Season 5, Carpenter told the Boston Herald.

Fans were shocked when they learned that Charisma Carpenter, who stars in this weekend's ABC Family movie "See Jane Date," would not be returning to the WB's "Angel" for the show's fifth season.

The actress - who played the hilariously frank Cordelia Chase for three seasons on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and for four on "Angel" - was equally stunned.

'`I was not prepared," Carpenter said in a phone interview. "I don't think you're ever prepared for that kind of situation. Seven years, that's a long time. I started that show. To not be finishing it is a pretty big deal for me. They went back to work on July 24 . . . On that day I thought, `Oh, today is officially my first day of unemployment.' "

Last spring, Carpenter returned to "Angel" just 10 days after giving birth to her son, Donovan, and spent two long days on the set, wrapping up the season. She said she is absolutely willing to return to the series to provide closure to her character's story arc and bring the beloved Cordy out of the coma in which she remained during last season's finale."

What's frustrating is that I could not find any articles I seemed to remember that more clearly described a dispute regarding Carpenter's willingness to return to the series after the birth of her son. I swear I read in one place that the creators felt forced to write her character out of the show because Carpenter wouldn't give a definite return date. Carpenter then countered that she did everything she was asked to do and even returned to the set, as mentioned in her Boston Herald interview above, ten days after the birth of her son. Regardless, it's a cruel world, and Carpenter didn't fit into Whedon's plans.

A case could be made that Cordelia simply would not have fit into Wolfram & Hart because she was too idealistic. Here's my stock answer again; the writers can write whatever they want. Cordelia could have very well have been seduced by the amenities just like everyone else in the Angel Investigations team. She could have run the business operations or the marketing departments. All I know was there was a big gaping void in Season 5 where there should have been a strong female character. Instead, we were left with sugary-sweet Fred, the odious Eve, and the ditzy, albeit highly-entertaining, Harmony.

I've also wondered, was Charisma Carpenter too good for the show? What I mean is that her character of Cordelia Chase dominated just about every single scene she appeared in, and easily upstaged David Boreanaz' Angel many times as well. At Cordelia's peak, I think the writers had a wonderful time with her character and fed her a lot of good lines. If they wanted her character to recede so other characters could come into the forefront, would Charisma/Cordelia have been in danger of just withering on the vine? At that point, was it just better to eliminate her character altogether?

Does a show's creators have a duty to keep around a popular character? In spite of my disappointment with the loss of Cordelia, I say, no. Creators need to be given a chance to execute their artistic vision. If we don't like their vision, we can stop watching the show, pure and simple. The worst thing in the world is to watch a TV show that consistently plays to the lowest-common denominator as dictated by network executives and focus groups. Despite the loss of Cordelia, I still really enjoyed Season 5. I thought James Marsters was brilliant as Spike, and I was delighted with the return of Christian Kane as Lindsey McDonald. Angel had always been blessed with many wonderful actors, and the headcount needed to be reduced periodically.

Although I believe the creators had a right to drop Charisma Carpenter from the show, I, in turn, have a right to say that the series suffered from her loss, and that I was disgusted with the brutal way they they decided to dispatch her character. Fans want to be able to look back fondly on a discontinued series. The producers' treatment of Cordelia left a permanent sour taste in a lot of peoples' mouths that simply cannot be ignored.

Idle Thought. I found out about a month ago that the delightful actress who played Kira the Seer in Charmed was Charisma Carpenter! I don't pretend to be up-to-date on these things. I remember her well, because usually I don't care for overly-buxom actresses constantly falling out of their costumes. Carpenter was so funny and so talented, I liked her in spite of myself.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Eagle Has Landed

Happy 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing!

I remember it well, even though I was quite young at the time.

We need to get back up to there some time soon!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Top 10 Favorite Angel Episodes

Now that I've seen all of the Angel episodes from beginning to end, it's time for me to start my series of Top 10 lists. I have a lot of problems with these lists, because my Top 10 favorites today might not even make the list tomorrow. I feel somewhat like I'm writing things in stone when I publish Top 10 lists, but I'll get over my hangups and start on them anyways.

So today, I'll start with the obvious, my Top 10 Favorite episodes.

My criteria for "Favorite" episodes are ones that I like to watch over and over again, and that are uniformly good or fun to watch from beginning to end. Some that didn't make the list, like "Epiphany", are incredibly moving and profound, but didn't make my list simply because they belonged to a story arc where the episodes flowed seamlessly from one to another, making it difficult to pick out one episode as being better than the other. For example, I think of "Epiphany" as being too-closely intertwined with its immediate predecessor, "Reprise", to be able to pick out either of them as the better stand-alone episode. It does not mean that I like these episodes any less than the ones appearing in my Top 10 Favorites list.

MY TOP 10 FAVORITE ANGEL EPISODES (in chronological order).

1. "Guise Will Be Guise" (Season 2). (My episode review here.) This episode not only has the delightful plot twist of Wesley pretending to be Angel while he romances the beautiful Virginia, but we also have great scenes where Angel gets some surprisingly good advice from the phony swami T'ish Magev. I loved the ending, where Angel allowed Wesley to take over as the leader of the group and lead the charge in rescuing Virginia, not to mention where Angel was dismayed to find out that he was originally slated to be Virginia's protector because her father mistakenly thought he was a eunuch. This episode also bumped Wesley's character development a little farther along as he transitioned from being a bumbling twit to becoming a much more heroic (and normal) character.

Art LaFleur is a terrific character actor and it was good to see him making the most of his role as the all-knowing swami. Brigid Brannagh, also a talented actress, played the heiress Virginia Bryce quite charmingly. Wesley and Virginia made a wonderful couple, and it was too bad their relationship didn't last past the 2nd season.

2. "Billy" (Season 3).(My episode review here.) It certainly is odd that the episode featuring my favorite character at his very worst is probably my favorite "Wesley" episode. It is probably even more odd that an episode that features an extended scene of a madman chasing down and trying to kill a young woman would fit within my criteria of an "episode I want to see over and over again". What makes "Billy" truly remarkable is the depth of Alexis Denisof's acting skills, as he moves from nice guy, to chillingly evil killer, to a man heartbreakingly tortured by guilt and remorse. It's been said many times, but it bears repeating: you know an actor turned in a terrific performance when his potential-killer character turns out to be the most sympathetic character on the entire show.

This episode also featured great performances by Stephanie Romanov, Charisma Carpenter and Amy Acker. The scene with Stephanie and Charisma (Lilah and Cordelia) was somewhat poignant because it showed the audience what a great duo these two ladies would have made. The Angel/Lilah scenes were always entertaining (and "Billy" featured one of their great scenes), but additional Lilah/Cordelia scenes could have blown the show wide open.

The writers did a great job of developing Cordelia's character to the next level in this episode, making her much more confident and mature. Unfortunately, I think the creators squandered their opportunity, and I don't think Cordelia's character ever consistently matched the promise she showed in "Billy". (And I don't place the blame on Charisma Carpenter.)

3. "Couplet" (Season 3). (My [sort of] episode review here.) For out-and-out "Aw, that's so sweet!", this is my favorite Angel episode of all. All of the actors hit perfect chords in their performances: David Boreanaz (Angel) as the jilted lover trying his best to not look jealous as he dealt with not only the loss of Cordelia, but from being constantly upstaged by The Groosalugg, and who also graciously stepped out of the way so Cordelia could have her happiness; Mark Lutz (Groosalugg) as the naive but noble, good-hearted warrior whom Angel simply could not stay angry with even though he stole Cordelia away from him; Charisma Carpenter as the glowingly ditzy and ecstatic Cordelia, who was too lost in her love for The Groosalugg to realize how her actions were affecting Angel; and Alexis Denisof, as Wesley, coping the best he could with losing Fred to Charles Gunn, while he continued to run Angel Investigations as a tight ship.

I think of this episode as having three sets of couples. Cordy and Groo, and Fred and Charles were the first two sets. Angel and Wesley made up the third set, as they seemed to turn to each other for support while trying to cope with losing their loved ones to rivals within the group.

I give special kudos to Charisma Carpenter for turning what could have been an unsympathetic character into someone we could rejoice with her as she celebrated her happiness at being with her true love.

4. "Deep Down" (Season 4). (My episode review here.) Probably the only thing that keeps "Deep Down" from being my favorite episode is the fact that the humorless Justine has such a prominent role. Despite that, it's still an outstanding episode from beginning to end, from the heartbreaking banquet dream sequence where Angel was dining with all of his loved ones, to a particularly luscious love scene with Wesley and Lilah, to a shirtless Wesley looking might fine as he informed Justine it was time for a boat ride, to Wesley's loving devotion as he tenderly administered treatment to the close-to-death Angel, to Lilah turning a potentially disastrous personal job performance review meeting to an opportunity to behead her boss and get her much-wanted promotion, to Wesley's seemingly cruel but in reality tough-love treatment of Justine, to Angel summoning every bit of strength and energy he could muster in order to kick Connor out of the Hyperion Hotel.

Wesley more than proved his continued loyalty to Angel even though he had been cast out of the Angel Investigations group in his misguided attempt to save the infant Connor by kidnapping him.

5. "Habeas Corpses" (Season 4).(My [sort of] episode review here.) This was one of the more action-filled of my "Favorite" episodes, but also featured some fine dramatic performances as well. Wesley delivered his famous "There is a line...." speech as he broke up with Lilah. Both Alexis Denisof and Stephanie Romanov were superb in the breakup scene, with Denisof being strong, gentle and firm, and Romanov looking quite vulnerable as she tried to keep her emotions in check. I also enjoyed the interplay between Connor and Lilah as Connor naively went to Wolfram & Hart to try to find answers about his true identity. Lilah almost had him killed, but Connor nobly shielded Lilah from The Beast until he was knocked out and temporarily disabled. Wesley, showing his true nobility and depth of feelings for Lilah, rescued her from The Beast and from the offices of Wolfram & Hart. Lilah, perhaps inspired by Wesley's innate goodness, informed Wesley that Connor was still trapped inside the building. Finally, most of the rest of the gang came to rescue Connor from Wolfram & Hart while they went through some truly harrowing experiences fighting their way through the newly-deceased Wolfram & Hart employees who had become re-animated as zombies.

6. "Salvage" (Season 4). (My [sort of] episode reviews here and here.) I actually could have equally chosen the next episode in the series, "Release", as a favorite, but chose "Salvage" because it had that devastatingly emotional scene between Wesley and Lilah as Wesley contemplated having to cut the head off of her corpse. From then on, the show took off and never stopped, as Wesley broke Faith out of prison and tested her on some vampires who were patrolling the city streets; as Faith made her grand entrance into the Hyperion Hotel, acting like she owned the place, and laid down the law regarding the rules of engagement for bringing back Angelus; as Faith gave Connor a long-overdue butt-kicking; and as Faith had her first encounter with Angelus. Just about any episode with Eliza Dushku in it is worthy of Top 10 status.

7. "You're Welcome" (Season 5). (My episode review here.) Charisma Carpenter was absolutely brilliant in her series farewell, as she portrayed Cordelia waking up from a coma to find her world had turned completely upside down. What the hell was Angel Investigations doing hooking up with Wolfram & Hart? Cordelia had heartwarming reunions with both Angel and Wesley, and some interesting, to say the least, reunions with Harmony and Spike! In a nod to their beloved Wes/Cordy days, the two of them hit the books the "old school" way before they both agreed they liked the high-tech way better. Cordelia figuratively kicked Angel in the butt as she challenged him to justify why he was working for his mortal enemy. After talking with Spike; the gang figured out Lindsey was back in town, Harmony cheerfully "tortured" Eve to get her to talk, Wesley discovered the correct magic spell that was needed to make the protective runes disappear from Lindsey's body, Fred started making goo-goo eyes at Wesley, Cordelia accompanied Angel to do battle (against Lindsey) one last time, and Cordelia said her final good-bye to Angel (sealed with a kiss) in the most heartbreaking way possible. That was a perfect ending to a perfect show.

8. "Smile Time" (Season 5). (My [sort of] episode review here.) I don't know why I hated this episode the first time I watched it. Fortunately, by the end of the day, I saw the show one more time and I loved it. What's not to like about this episode? Highlights include Wesley berating Angel for his lack of awareness about Nina's attraction to him; Wesley being completely clueless about the signals Fred was sending to him; the fight between Angel and Spike after Spike called Angel a "wee, little puppet man"; Wesley and Fred's cozy/cute moments in the wee hours of the morning as they reviewed the Smile Time tape; Lorne desperately calling out "Is there a Geppetto in the house?" after discovering a badly torn Angel who had almost been devoured by werewolf Nina; the team striding down the corridors of Wolfram & Hart with fearless leader Puppet Angel leading the way; and the final battle scene against the evil puppets, complete with cute little sound effects made by the huge furry creature who was attacking Wesley. And to top it off, the episode was sealed with a kiss between Wesley and Fred, when Wesley finally caught on that Fred was interested in him. The "Self-Esteem" song playing in the background during their kiss was both the whipped cream and cherry on top to a very sweet episode.

9. "A Hole in the World" (Season 5). (My episode review here.) The beginning of the show was incredibly poignant as it showed a flashback to an excited Fred packing for her big move from her childhood home of Texas to exciting university life in California. Then, almost as soon as Fred and Wesley's relationship began, it was over. The contrast between Angel and Spike's desperate flight to England to meet with Drogyn and try to find a way to save Fred, and Wesley's attempts to comfort Fred as she was dying, was absolutely phenomenal. Wesley's final moments with Fred were heartbreaking, as I thought it portrayed a very realistic view of what it's like to spend time with someone who is frightened and close to death. Not all deaths are serene, and not all friends and relatives are able to keep their composure while their loved ones are dying. Spike and Angel worked magnificently together, bound together by their common love for Fred.

I'd like to give special mention to Alec Newman as Drogyn. He reminded me of The Groosalugg for his good-hearted nobility. It's a real pity that the series came to an end and Drogyn was killed off before his character was fully developed.

10. "Power Play" (Season 5.) (My [sort of] episode review here.) I blogged previously that:
I enjoyed "Power Play" more than the series finale, "Not Fade Away", because I enjoyed the buildup leading to the final countdown. I also enjoyed Wesley's leadership and the teamwork involved when the Angel Investigations team was trying to figure out which side Angel was on. Plus, Angel's speech at the end of "Power Play" was probably the highlight of the whole series for me!
I also enjoyed what looked like the beginning of a more formal friendship between Illyria and Spike, which we guessed would happen a few episodes earlier when they were obviously having such a terrific time sparring against each other in the training room. With the loss of Wesley in the series finale, we're free to imagine that Illyria was able to lean on Spike to help guide her through what was still a considerably new world for her.

Closing Thoughts. I had to take 26 episodes and pare them down to 10 for this list, which was not an easy task. Even then I was upset at the ones I left off the Top 26 lists. My hardest omissions from this blog post were Season 1's "Bachelor Party", where Doyle was almost sacrificed to a demon clan as part of his ex-wife's wedding preparations, and Season 2's "Dead End", marking Christian Kane's last appearance in the series as Lindsey McDonald until Season 5. If you don't see any of your favorites here, they'll probably show up on some other list in the future.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Angel: The Continuation

I've now seen the entire Angel series in order, from the beginning of Season 1 to the end of Season 5. I realize that this is all fiction, so none of this is reality. However, I can't help but come up with the embarrassing question of what really happened after the end of the series? It sure gives me a more clearer definition of those "reality" shows on television, where "reality" is defined only as a bunch of people pretending what they're doing would have normally happened if there were no TV cameras, producers, directors, scriptwriters and editors.

I try to imagine the continuation of the series in a make-believe Season 6. In my warped view, that changes "reality" into two parallel directions. I realize that the character of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (as played by Alexis Denisof) only died because the series was prematurely cancelled. Can I pretend Wesley is still living because a "real" Season 6 would have come into being only if the series was never cancelled? Or do I have to accept Wesley's death because I can't change "reality"? (Which would have happened if the network executives changed their minds and picked up the series again after Wesley already died.)

Could I be justified for thinking that he could be dead and buried, crossed over to the light and gone for good? OR, for hoping that he's a typical Whedonverse character who can be resurrected at a moment's notice and brought back into human form? I'm still pretty new to all of this alternate reality stuff, so this gets kind of weird for me. I know that it's all make-believe, and I have the freedom to accept or reject anything that comes along.

Except, I'm dimly aware of the canonical continuation of the series through the comic book series, After the Fall. I learned that a fictional "canon" means that whatever is created is "genuine". Apparently, Joss Whedon has put his stamp of approval on After the Fall (and Aftermath) as the official continuation of the series. As much as I want to come up with alternate endings or continuations, I'm haunted in the back of my mind that whatever I come up with is "false" and differs from the official "reality". That would be like watching the entire series on TV, and pretending that the gang stayed on in the Hyperion Hotel in Season 5.

Would I be justified in thinking that the "real" series ended with Season 5, and After the Fall was just a crass money-making operation to provide an additional source of income for Joss Whedon and others? Or am I just too narrow-minded to be able to think in terms of a "story" legitimately continuing on in different modes of entertainment media?

I understand that in After the Fall, it's revealed that Wesley had signed a "standard perpetuity" contract with Wolfram & Hart, and, presumably, he spends most of his time in their hell dimension. As far as I'm aware of, he's made some ghostly appearances, (mostly?) acting as a messenger working on behalf of the Senior Partners. So, (unless some really great things happened to him after his death that I'm not aware of), from what I know about After the Fall, added to the fact that I'm a huge Wesley Wyndam-Pryce fan, does anyone really think I'm going to rush out and purchase After the Fall?

That's a pity, since from what I've heard, After the Fall is an excellent continuation series, particularly since Brian Lynch was involved. If you like pure adventure, that's the way to go. If you love the characters and want a happy ending for Wesley, After the Fall seems like it would be a tough pill to swallow. Which brings me to my next thought. Would I ever actually go out and by a comic book?

I'm of an age where I still tend to think of comic books as being strictly for kids. To me, those are things that you buy at the drug store along with your candy bars. I'm a lot better about my prejudices against comic books since several people have educated me about how the best of them can be considered high art forms in their own right. They can even come in hard-covered books!

Another problem I wrestle with is that I worry too much about what other people think of me. My family has been good-naturedly indulgent with my obsession with the Angel series. Would they think I've really lost it if I went out and started buying canonical continuations, spin-offs and alternate reality books? I'm one of those moms who thinks that anything I buy for myself means there's less left over for the rest of the family. I therefore feel like I have to justify every purchase. There's always the possibility of receiving Angel publications as birthday and Christmas gifts, but quite frankly, I would be uncomfortable asking anyone to purchase those items for me. Plus, a part of me tells me that if I actually read After the Fall, it would be that much harder for me to come up with and accept my own world of alternate reality.

I've read a just a tiny bit of fanfiction, and some of it is quite good. However, for the most part, I think of reading fanfiction as just viewing someone else's daydreams in written form. I can rarely accept these works on their own merits. I also recognize that writing fanfiction is a release for the writers, just like writing my series of thoughts in blog form is a release for me. Never say never, I guess. I never dreamed I could become so obsessed with a TV series, so I never dreamed I would ever actually start blogging about a series. I should therefore not count out the possibility that I would ever start writing fanfiction of my own.

I've been writing business contract agreements, pamphlets and manuals almost all of my working career, so it would be kind of a daunting task for me to write something other than a straight series of facts. I don't think I've done any real creative writing since high school! I also think writing fanfiction would be a constructive way to expand my horizons and get different parts of my brain working. I have kind of a "use it or lose it" philosophy regarding how people use their minds, and I think you function better if you use all parts of your brain on a regular basis. My analytical writing could possibly improve if I allow myself to indulge in creative fiction.

In the meantime, I know I still have quite a few regular posts left in me just based on the five seasons of Angel. I still want to devote entire posts to Cordelia, Charles and Spike, and I want to compare and contrast Angel's crises of faith from Season 2 and Season 5. I'd like to do posts on Top 5 or 10 favorites episodes, story arcs, characters, scenes, etc. I'd also like to devote a post to Wesley and how he treated the different women in his life, and maybe delve into his personality a little bit more in other posts. Finally, there seems to be an endless number of posts left in me about the very nature of good and evil, the shades of gray between the two extremes, how one goes about attacking evil, and if we should even bother with attacking evil.

So, stay tuned, I guess.

Idle Thought. Hopes for a resurrection to the series or the production of TV movies starring the main characters become dimmer after each passing year. The likelihood of the series coming back to TV is probably pretty close to zero by now. Much as I'd like to see everyone back on the screen again, the last thing we need is some sort of disastrous anniversary special. Besides, the loss of Andy Hallett would loom too large over any type of TV reunion.