Saturday, October 31, 2009

My Official 10-Year Anniversary Post for Angel

Angel's 10-year anniversary came and went on October 5, 2009. I honestly don't feel qualified to do an official post for the occasion as I've only been following the series since March of this year. It does give me a good excuse to stand back and take stock of what exactly makes the show so appealing to me.

Alexis Denisof as Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. (Surprise, surprise). I fell in love with Wesley at first sight right when he had his "Eureka!" moment in Season 2's "Over the Rainbow". As I wrote in a post last April:
"Wesley was absolutely adorable! He was so boyishly pleased with himself for making the discovery. And what a sight he was, as if someone conjured up the perfect man for myself. Tall, thin, athletic, bookish, curling hair, and I love those glasses. I always fall for the handsome, serious, yet slightly goofy, intellectual types...."
Needless to say, that was was before he went all dark and handsome on us later in Season 3 and became so impossibly sexy.

The writers deserve accolades for presenting the storyline in such a way that even a novice viewer like myself could tell I was witnessing a major turning point in his character during the Pylea arc. Wesley was turning from a weak and indecisive leader into someone who was becoming bold and more confident of his abilities. From that point on all I could do was sit back and admire Alexis Denisof's astonishing acting range. He must be eternally grateful to Joss Whedon and the rest of the production team for allowing his character to grow from the bumbling Watcher from his Buffy days, to a steadily toughening (although still lovingly inept) rogue demon-hunger during Angel's Season 1, to a steadily maturing and confident leader in Season 2 and early Season 3, to a dramatically dark character sinking and rising from great emotional depths in Seasons 3 and 4, to a more well-balanced and integrated character in early Season 5, only to lose it all over again and sink back into despair after the loss of Fred towards the end of Season 5.

Although the other main characters were tagged with strongly identifiable character traits (Angel was dark, brooding and heroic, Cordelia was vain and bitchy, etc.), Wesley appeared to be somewhat of a blank slate for the writers. One wonders if when they had some ideas that they wanted to work through and couldn't figure out who else to experiment on, perhaps they just automatically used Wesley as the guinea pig. While being ostensibly naive, klutzy and timid in the beginning, Wes was also simultaneously quite confident, assertive, and brave at times. Alexis successfully portrayed Wesley as being bullying, stuffy, klutzy, blustery, sweet, witty, lovable, charming, gallant, stubborn, brave, enthusiastic, kind, naive, idealistic, dark, pragmatic, ruthless, deadly, calm, commanding, respectful, arrogant, iconoclastic, level-headed, sexy and a bunch of other things I'm sure I'm leaving out.

Alexis mentioned in his BlogTalkRadio interview yesterday that the writers tortured and otherwise did terrible things to Wesley as a way of allowing him to grow up and mature. People pretty much agree that Wesley went through the most dramatic character development in the entire Whedonverse. Despite all of the changes that he went through and all of the personality traits the writers threw at him, Wesley seems to be the most ill-defined main character on Angel. In a supreme piece of irony, I feel I'm not any closer to "understanding" or "knowing" Wesley now than when I first started watching the series. There seemed to be an element of Wesley going through all of these changes as a way of trying to forge his own identity and figure out his purpose in this world. In essence, Wesley spent his entire life trying to "find himself".

I hesitate to say that Alexis must have truly identified with Wesley, since only he knows that for sure. However, Alexis appeared to have found a wonderful comfort zone with his character as he always remained a truly identifiable, and, in some ways, unchanged Wesley Wyndam-Pryce throughout the series. I consider it to be a true privilege to have been able to witness Denisof's portrayal of Wesley through those five seasons.

The Main Cast. I'm always a sucker for a strong ensemble cast (e.g. M*A*S*H, Seinfeld, etc.), and a supportive friends-as-family atmosphere. In my mind, the cast of Angel ranks as one of the strongest. They were able to succesfully portray the characters as being loving and supportive of each other despite all of the trials, tribulations, squabbles and jealousies they endured.

Amazingly, the series was able to seamlessly absorb so many new cast members as the warm glow of the family atmosphere rubbed off on each and every new character. The original members were Angel, Cordelia and Doyle (David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter, Glenn Quinn). Wesley (Alexis Denisof) was added early in Season 1 when Doyle was killed off, then Gunn (J. August Richards) was added in late Season 1. Lorne (Andy Hallett) was eased into the mix throughout Seasons 2 & 3, while Fred (Amy Acker) was added late in Season 2. Connor (Vincent Kartheiser) came on board in Season 3, then finally Spike (James Marsters) was added in Season 5. (I don't quite consider Harmony to be part of the main cast.)

The series was able to successfully explore some of the secondary relationships between the main characters, in addition to the primary relationships such as the ones between Angel and Cordelia, Angel and Connor, Gunn and Fred, and Wesley and his various love interests. Some of my favorite secondary relationships were the ones between Wes and Cordy, Angel and Lorne, Angel and Wesley, Lorne and Connor, and Wesley and Gunn.

I absolutely adored each and every character with the exception of Fred and Connor. I liked Fred well enough but I always thought her character was rather weak. Despite my reservations about Fred, there's no doubt that the series really took off and went on to the next level when Amy Acker joined the cast. Regardless, her portrayal of late Season 5's Illyria more than made up for my disappointment with Fred's characterization. As for Connor, his character was just too unlikeable for my tastes, despite Vincent Kartheiser's terrific acting performances.

Supporting Cast and Guest Stars. In a way, the excellence of the supporting cast was even more impressive than the peformances of the main cast, since you figure the main cast has to be good. I made a comment on a previous blog post where I wondered if the casting directors were even capable of hiring a bad actor. Even brief walk-ons like Deborah Zoe as Season 3's Mistress Meerna were quite memorable.

Lilah Morgan (Stephanie Romanov), Lindsey McDonald (Christian Kane), Darla (Julie Benz), Mark Lutz (The Groosalugg), Holland Manners (Sam Anderson), Harmony Kendall (Mercedes McNab), Gavin Park (Daniel Dae Kim), Daniel Holtz (Keith Szarabajka), Sahjhan (Jack Conley), Skip (David Denman), Gwen Raiden (Alexa Davalos), the Archduke Sebassis (Leland Crooke), Drogyn (Alec Newman) etc. were all absolutely outstanding. I've said unflattering things about Justine (Laurel Holloman) and Eve (Sarah Thompson), while not being particularly fond of Linwood Murrow (John Rubinstein), or Drusilla (Juliet Landau). To be fair, I think their characters were just too unlikeable for me to be able to pass fair judgment on the performers' acting abilities. The only weak performances I can think of (my opinion only) off the top of my head were put in by Thomas Burr as Season 1 Wolfram & Hart lawyer Lee Mercer, Daisy McCrackin as Season 2's Bethany, and Gerry Becker as Wolfram & Hart late Season 2 bossman Nathan Reed.

Writing. Most of the time it's not a compliment to say that a one-hour show feels like it lasts much longer. Usually if I'm enjoying a show I'm disappointed at how quickly the episode ends. I don't know how the Mutant Enemy writers managed to pull this off, but they had so much happening in each episode, I'd think that the episode was almost over, only to happily find out I still had another 30 minutes to watch. I was usually well-satisfied and satiated by the time the 60-minute mark came along.

I'm also continuously amazed at how scriptwriters can get such great mileage out of just a few words. On paper, it didn't look like the writers came up with any great soliloquies, which I don't mean as an insult. In most scenes it would have been overkill if the writers gave any more lines to the actors. The Whedonverse writers, directors and actors were quite adept at working together to really make a scene come alive.

Two of my favorite "speeches" in Angel weren't really speeches at all. They were more like short, but powerful, well-placed fragments of dialogue within a scene. Two examples are Angel's "if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do" from Season 2's "Epiphany", and Wesley's "There is a line, Lilah. Black and white, good and evil." from Season 4's "Habeas Corpses". Ironically, one of the few really good speeches turned out to be a deft comedic moment, when Angel misinterpreted Faith's confusion as to how the operate the microwave as a cry for help.

I'm also amazed at how the writers could pack in so many different scenes into their episodes, which makes summarizing even one single episode an almost Herculean task. Just grabbing an episode at random, in Season 3's "Offspring", we have an 18th century Holtz, Darla and Angelus flashback: Darla taking a wild bus ride in present-day Los Angeles; Gunn and Wesley breaking into a gazillionaire's house; Wesley and Fred translating a prophecy; Cordelia and Angel almost sharing a true "I love you" moment; Darla making a dramatic entrance into the Hyperion Hotel; Cordelia getting all huffy when she found out Angel was responsible for getting Darla pregnant; the gang bringing Darla to Caritas for Lorne's insight and wisdom; Darla almost killing Cordelia; Darla stalking young children at an amusement park; and Sahjhan awakening Daniel Holtz into present-day Los Angeles, not to mention all of the usual filler dialogue where the different characters comment on the surrounding action.

I've also tried to figure out if I have a "few" favorite writers for the series. I was able to identify two or three standouts, (including Joss Whedon himself), but it seems unfair for me to single these individuals out for praise since so many different Mutant Enemy writers wrote so many outstanding episodes.

Perfect Blend of Comedy and Drama. A lot of people who see Angel for the first time are surprised at just how damn funny the show is! Many people have told me that they avoided the series for years simply because they thought it would be too depressing to watch. Although Angel was definitely a drama with comedic elements, (as opposed to M*A*S*H, which was a comedy with dramatic elements), there were usually enough light-hearted moments along the way to make sure we didn't get too down while we were watching. I probably never would have watched the show if it wasn't for the comedic elements.

The creators also did a good job of mixing up the dramatic and humorous moments. Some shows were very dark and dramatic, with just a few touches of comedy thrown in to give the audience a little bit of a respite, while other episodes were light-hearted the entire way through. Even more episodes seemed to offer an equal mixture of drama and humor. Quite effectively, my favorite light-hearted episode, Season 3's "Couplet", ended on a terrifyingly dramatic note when Wesley translated the ominous message of "The Father Will Kill The Son". This is just a long way of saying that not only did the creators come up with different mixtures of dramatic and humor within single episodes, they also managed to do so over the course of an entire season. The dramatic elements made the comedy that much funnier, and the comedic elements made the dramatic moments that much more powerful.

I didn't realize until I wrote this post that this somewhat unpredictable mixture of comedy and drama helped keep Angel from turning into a simple formulaic show. Although I can often appreciate repetition within a series (think of the weekly chat the Taylors had with Wilson the Neighbor in Home Improvement), a series without these predictable plot elements have a much more realistic feel about them.

Realistic SuperHero Characters. Although every one of the main cast of characters have definite Superhero elements (Angel the Vampire With A Soul, Cordelia the Vision Girl, Wesley and Fred the Brainiacs, Gunn the Muscle; Lorne the soul-reading demon), I can actually relate to each and every one of them on quite ordinary levels. The very fact that each character has certain faults and foibles provides me with a great deal of comfort. Angel was socially inept, set in his ways and somewhat of a Luddite (e.g., his early dislike of cell phones); Cordelia was bitchy, materialistic and vain; Wesley was klutzy, too sure (or full) of himself, and quite clueless a large part of the time; Gunn hid his inferiority complex behind a tough guy persona; Fred used her basic sweetness and goodness as a filter for denying how the world around her really operated; and Lorne was somewhat of a cowardly inebriate.

All of these character weaknesses were used to great comic effect, but were also used as springboards for some of the most tragic events within the series. The biggest example would be how Wesley's uber-confidence in his abilities led to his ill-informed decision to kidnap Connor in Season 3.

Moral Ambiguity and Good and Evil. I like to say that Alexis Denisof as Wesley attracted me to the series' while the constant explorations of the shades of gray that exist between Good and Evil kept me hooked. I've never known a series to explore all of these area of moral ambiguities with quite the same finesse as Angel. Other series that attempted to do so, like M*A*S*H, produced way too many "Anvilicious" moments, which is described at TV Tropes as being:
"heavy-handed", or, "a writer's and/or director's use of an artistic element, be it line of dialogue, visual motif, or plot point, to so obviously or unsubtly convey a particular message that they may as well etch it onto an anvil and drop it on your head.
Although the TV Trope page mentions several anvilicious instances in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, those moments were few and far between on Angel. I know there must be several other examples, but the only two Anvilicious episode I can think of off the top of my head was Season 1's "She", which was an episode that acted as one huge metaphor for attitudes surrounding African female genital mutilation, and Season 2's "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been", which acted as a metaphor for racial prejudice and political witch hunts . I don't mean to imply that mutilation, prejudice and witch-hunts are not serious subjects. I just thought the creators could have handled these issues with a slightly lighter touch.

Huge ethical issues that were introduced (and never completely resolved since there are no definitive answers) include: Are we ever justified in operating outside of the law? Should we spend most of our time giving active aid and comfort to victims, or should we concentrate on going after the source of all Evil? Should we always work for the common good even though individuals may be harmed in the process? Should we work with the enemy to save innocent lives even if it means compromising our own principles? Are higher beings looking directly after our best interests? Will all of our good deeds lead to a greater reward? Do we have free will? Do demons and vampires have a right to exist in our world? Should we take our battles directly to our enemies, or should we wait for our enemies to bring the battles to us? Angel quite notably addressed some of these issues in what I considered to be two of the best story arcs, which were Angel (the character's) Season 2 and Season 5 crises of faith.

Use of Metaphors. I'm amazed at how the use of metaphors in a fantasy series like Angel often conveys certain messages much more effectively than what is introduced in more realistic dramas. The use of metaphors also allowed the characters to take the moral high ground in Angel without getting in danger of being too preachy for audience tastes.

For example, in Angel, the fight against the Senior Partners and who they represent is a powerful metaphor for the populist fight of ordinary citizens against the monied interests of the ruling classes. Other metaphors include: the dual nature of Angel/Angelus in describing our own personal struggles between our better and basest instincts; the frequent explorations of the themes of loneliness and despair as equating with our own efforts to connect with fellow humans in an increasingly fragmented society; the comparison of demons inhabiting an "underworld" with our criminal classes and their versions of an underworld; Angel being one sip of human blood away from turning back into a killer vampire, similar to how a reformed alcoholic is one drink away from turning back to a life of booze; the fight against vampires in the poorer African-American communities compared with the fight against exploitation, injustice and crime in our lowest-class neighborhoods, etc.

By using these metaphors, the creators were able to push the envelope and more fully explore certain themes without becoming too moralistic and "Anvilicious". The end result is that the exploration of these themes is often conducted in a more sophisticated manner on fantasy shows than on truer to life dramas.

Religious Symbolism. For being an atheist, Joss Whedon wasn't afraid to put in a lot of Christian symbolism into the series. I have no doubt he added plenty of elements from other religions, but I just didn't recognize them outside of a few Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist references. Being a creative personality, Whedon recognizes the power of the narrative, and also recognizes how religious beliefs provide the most powerful narratives of all. Examples of Christian symbolism I can think of include the frequent uses of crucifixes and Holy Water, references to Catholic priests being used to expel demons, a discussion of Dante's Inferno, Lilah's stigmata wounds in Season 4's "Calvary", etc.

Although a lot of the themes explored in Angel are universal, some devout Christians will claim these themes as being central to their own beliefs. Some of these themes include the search for forgiveness and redemption, faith (or doubt) in higher beings, feelings of abandonment by higher powers during times of need, life beyond death, the concepts of Heaven and Hell, the existence of souls, and sacrificing yourself for your fellow man.

Closing Thoughts. I really should have a category for the exciting action sequences, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Unfortunately I'm not very good at writing about fight scenes. The best I can come up with is what a great cathartic release it was for me to see Angel & Co. beating up the bad guys. Some of my favorite action moments occurred when Angel dramatically revealed his true nature to the enemy, including the scene in "Expecting", when Angel single-handedly took care of all of those jerks who impregnated the females with demon spawn.

Come to think of it, I should also have included a section on the production values. Suffice it to say, Angel was a highly-polished series, and everyone associated with putting on the show, from the producers, directors, writers, editors, camera operators, etc., deserves kudos.

If someone had told me a year ago I'd be spending at least seven months keeping up a blog about a single TV series, I would have thought that person was nuts. Now, after falling through the rabbit hole into the Whedonverse, it seems I've discovered a whole new world that needs to be explored. I feel like I'm currently traveling concentric circles through one corner of the Whedonverse (Angel), and I'll have to decide whether to expand my range by going on to explore Buffy, Dollhouse, etc., or to head back home. Regardless, it's been a wonderful journey for me.

Angel also came along for me at the right time in my life. I'm down to one older child at home, and I have a chance to spend a little time on me rather than the rest of my family. If TNT was not currently showing Angel reruns during the morning, would I have become hooked on any other TV shows instead? Something tells me, no. I may have come close with Charmed, but that series represented more of an extremely agreeable diversion for me rather than something I could really sink my teeth into.

I can't help but notice that Joss Whedon and a lot of the other Mutant Enemy production team members are roughly my age, so it's possible we're all going through the same generational existential-angst traumas at the same time. Perhaps if they could pioneer some sort of fantasy-horror series named Forty and Fifty Something.......

Update - Criminal Oversight. Good grief! How could I fail to mention that Angel had by far the coolest theme music and opening credit sequences in TV history?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nice Alexis Denisof Interview on BlogTalkRadio

Mark at Somewhere in Vegas conducted a very nice interview with Alexis Denisof via BlogTalkRadio. My only disappointment is that it was only 30 minutes long as opposed to the 60 minutes that seemed to be originally advertised.

Here's a webpage for the interview. Again, I'm always confused by what BlogTalkRadio throws at me. The interview was online for several hours this afternoon and early this evening, but it seems to have disappeared as of this time. I'm sure it will show up again, perhaps on what is possibly the November 2, 2009 (November 3, 2009 at 1:00 am UTC) re-broadcast(?).

Alexis, who always sounds great, talked about his love for baby daughter Satyana and his wife Alyson Hannigan, how he's the "Nanny Daddy" who babysits "Saty" at a little nursery that's been set up at Fox studios so mom Aly can come visit during breaks from filming How I Met Your Mother, his enjoyment of working with other Whedonverse actors, the Whedonverse stable of actors in general, his on-again and off-again British accent, how much he enjoyed his voice work for "Justice League", and his admission that he'd like to do more voiceover work.

Happily, Alexis talked at great length about his role of Wesley Wyndom-Pryce on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and the amazing character development Wesley went through over the years. At one point Alexis mentioned "Wesley holds a very special place in my heart, no question". He poignantly described how even though Angel lasted for over 100 episodes during the course of five seasons, he really felt like the show was setting the stage for at least five more great seasons. Alexis also described his deep disappointment that the show was cancelled since "so much was possible" at that point.

I have to admit that I was afraid Alexis might be bored with talking about his Wesley character. He strikes me as being a very gracious person and he could have just been being polite, but he did come across as being quite enthusiastic as he talked about his time on Buffy and Angel.

(Possibly a mild spoiler). Alexis mentioned he was "delighted and surprised" that Joss Whedon called him about appearing as Senator Daniel Perrin on Dollhouse. He spoke about his character, and said "things do not go exactly as planned" as Senator Perrin goes after Rossum Corporation and the Dollhouse. Alexis thought the two upcoming episodes, which will air on December 4, are "as exciting as anything that I think I ever shot on Angel". Alexis was careful not to give away real spoilers, but he did mention that he enjoyed working with Eliza again, and I believe he mentioned that he appears in one or two scenes with Miracle Laurie!

For only being 30 minutes long, there's a lot of information packed into this broadcast. I left out a lot of good stuff, so enjoy the interview, if you manage to find it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Alexis Denisof on BlogTalkRadio

Alexis Denisof will be interviewed soon about his upcoming Dollhouse appearances on the Somewhere in Vegas show via BlogTalkRadio. I say "soon" because I can't quite figure out the broadcast dates. The BlogTalkRadio site mentions Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 2:00 pm (Pacific time or Eastern?), along with a (presumably) repeat airing Monday, November 2 at 8:00 pm. The October 29/2:00 pm time slot is confirmed by an alternate BlogTalkRadio page. (Note: See Update below.)

Just to make things interesting, a Somewhere in Vegas page only lists a "Live" broadcast time of Monday, November 2, 2009 at 5:00 pm Pacific/8:00 pm Eastern. What's really freaky is that when I originally looked at one of the BlogTalkRadio pages, I saw a UTC time listed. When I refreshed the page, the UTC time was gone.

Whedonesque isn't reporting anything yet, but I'll keep checking.

Regardless, there is a call-in number listed as being (347) 215-7952. Give him a call if you can figure out the correct time.

This is kind of par for the course for me, since I've never listened to anything on BlogTalkRadio without encountering a lot of problems and confusion. If anyone has any definitive information as to the broadcast dates, please let us know. In the meantime, I'm assuming the episode will be featured as a podcast later on.

Update: A reader sent me an email informing me that when the BlogTalkRadio site first loads, it gives the UTC time for the upcoming broadcast, then immediately refreshes itself to give you your local broadcast time. I hate it when I get confused by something that's so simple! So, apparently, the 2:00 pm listing that I spotted for tomorrow's possible broadcast is Eastern time.

That's my story, and I'm sticking with it until I get better information.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Movie Love Scenes


The MSN homepage is always good for coming up with those trashy articles we need to read during our brain dead moments. Keeping up with the general theme of my blog lately, MSN briefly featured earlier today the October 20, 2009 article from The Wrap, "Sex Scenes Make Treacherous Terrain for Actors". Contrast that article, with the basic premise being that actors do feel a spark when performing these scenes together, with another MSN article (undated, from Back Stage West,) "Fakin' It", where the basic premise is that a lot of times actors who can't stand each give the hottest performances.

Strange Comfort Zone

"Supersymmetry", from Angel's Season 4, has always fascinated me for offering a direct contrast between Wesley Wyndam-Pryce's relationship with Lilah Morgan and his relationship with Fred Burkle. I wrote about this episode extensively back in June.

While watching "Supersymmetry" again on TNT this morning, the phrase that kept popping into my head was "comfort zone". For all of the betrayals, angst and heartaches that defined his relationship with Lilah, Wesley seemed to be operating within a surprisingly secure comfort zone. Even when he was putting on an act with Lilah (e.g., pretending not to care about Angel), he wasn't putting on an act, if that makes any sense at all. He was being 100% genuine Wesley at all times, comfortable with his own skin, and not suffering through awkward moments or worrying about how to act or behave. Wes didn't try or even want to do anything to impress Lilah. The pressure was completely off his shoulders. In essence, he could relax and be himself around Lilah. Even though he tried to hide behind a wall and keep some of his emotions in check, Wesley still unwittingly allowed his best qualities to seep through. Lilah appreciated these qualities and started falling in love with him.

Much as people would like to think that Wes and Lilah's relationship was purely physical, what the two of them revealed about themselves during their unspoken literal moments of intimacy cannot be discounted. No matter how hard they tried to deny what was happening, Wes and Lilah opened up to each other (so to speak) in bed and grew much closer together on an emotional level.

With Fred, Wesley was tense and awkward because he loved her so intensely for being the ideal embodiment of womanhood. I've had a theory for quite a while that Fred brought out the "real" Wesley as he understood himself, as being the loving, kind, gentle, protective man who emerged during his short-lived relationship with her in Season 5's "Smile Time" and "A Hole in the World".

The emotions Fred brought out in him, and the implications for the possibility of blissfully perfect happiness with her, was all too powerful for Wesley to be able to handle most of the time. The cost of failure was high, which made Wesley nervously bungle just about every chance he had to start a relationship with Fred. It's amazing how our minds can fail us at crucial times. When Fred came to Wesley for help in killing Professor Seidel, all Wes could think of was how he could be the hero for Fred while Charles would be labelled the "failure". The "real" Wes would have never made the decision to encourage Fred to kill a fellow human for revenge. Ironically, the girl Wesley was madly in love with never really had the opportunity to know the "real" Wes until it was almost too late.

It's that dichotomy in Wesley (strong, confident and mature with Lilah, and warm and gentle with Fred, while loving both in his own way) that makes him such a fascinating character for me. A person can act like two different individuals at times, with both personalities having equal validity. A simple example I can give is how someone like me can enjoy watching a hockey game one night and a ballet performance the next. One-note characters always seem undeveloped to me, and really, quite boring. Indeed, one-note people in real life always leave me thinking, "No one can possibly be that well-adjusted. What is this person trying to hide?"

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dollhouse Shelved Until December; Cancellation Next?

Well, this sucks! We won't be able to see the Wesley/Faith reunion until December. See the Futon Critic for new Fox broadcast schedule details. I'm beginning to figure out the trustworthiness of network press releases.

Michael Ausiello further speculates at EW.com that the fact that back-to-back episodes will be aired on Friday nights in December does not bode well for the series. Barring a minor miracle, don't be surprised if the series is cancelled after it completes its already-filmed 13 episodes.

Update: Here's part of a comment that Joss Whedon posted at Whedonesque:
"....Howzabout that schedule? Well, I'm not as depressed as everyone else. We weren't about to rock sweeps anyway, and though there's a chilly November, December is CRAZY. It's like an Advent calendar of episodes! We get November to try to spread the word (which I'll be leaning on Fox to do, though it's hard to imagine them doing as good a job as the WhyIWatch guy) and then December is pure gluttony. Plus the episodes line up extremely well in these pairs, and we'll have an absurdly appropriate lead-in......."
Three cheers for Joss' optimism!

Story Arcs vs. Stand-Alone Episodes

There's a joke floating around about how there are two types of people in the world: those who put people in categories and those who don't. The categories du jour for this post are people who prefer story arcs in TV shows versus those who prefer stand-alone episodes.

If a gun was put to my head and I was absolutely forced to make a choice, I would take stand-alone episodes over story arcs, simply because long, dreadful story arcs can be absolutely excruciating to try to sit through. (For example, Season 4 of Angel where we had to suffer through Connor, The Beast, Bad Cordelia and finally Jasmine). With bad stand-alone episodes, at least they're over in 30 minutes or an hour.

What inspired me to write this post is I've observed that whenever there is a series that has story arcs, (or a significant percentage of the audience feels like it should have story arcs, like Dollhouse), and the network airs a stand-alone episode, the Story Arc Nazis come out in full force on the message boards and complain about how the episode doesn't fit in with the overall structure of the series. Perhaps I'm being a little paranoid and overly sensitive about the subject, but I have the distinct feeling that the story arc fanatics feel they are of superior intelligence to those who can tolerate (or heaven forbid, even prefer) stand-alone episodes. I would compare it to how 2nd graders who read chapter books are considered to be superior readers to those who prefer picture books.

My next made-up categories are the different types of loyal viewers attracted to a TV series. Tier I loyal viewers watch every episode at the original air time if possible, and will definitely record the ones they miss. Regardless, they will probably record all of the episodes so they can review them later on at their leisure. I was definitely a Tier I viewer with Angel reruns on TNT.

Tier II viewers will make every effort to watch an episode, will perhaps record the ones they miss, but won't sweat it if they just flat out forget about the show during the week. I'm a Tier II viewer for Dollhouse, except for for the Alexis Denisof episodes. Tier III viewers enjoy a show and will sit and watch it if they happen to be in front of the TV, but it has not become an ingrained habit to sit down and watch the show at the same time every single week. I fit into this category for Ghost Whisperer.

Tier I viewers are the most loyal viewers, while Tier II and III viewers tend to pay the bills for the networks. In other words, casual viewers are not to be taken lightly.

Presumably, the more loyal a fan you are to a series, the more likely you are to enjoy story arcs. If that is a genuine rule, than I would be an exception. I tend to like TV series in spite of their story arcs rather than because of them. For whatever reason, I'm hard-wired to prefer a beginning, a middle and an end to every single TV show. If the episode doesn't have a clear-cut conclusion, I tend to feel as though I've just wasted one hour of my valuable time. Angel was an exception for me, but when I first started watching the series, I was watching 12 - 14 episodes per week. If I didn't see a conclusion one day, chances are I only had to wait one or two more days for the story arc to wrap up.

My preference for stand-alone episodes more than explains my high regard (in comparison to a lot of other people) for Season 1 of Angel, and, to a certain extent, Season 5. Season 1 in particular started off with a lot of stand-alone episodes until the producers decided to switch gears and start the story arcs. I've written before that it would have been intriguing if Angel had become an anthology-type series somewhat on the order of Naked City from the early 1960's. However, it doesn't take too much internet research to find out that TV anthology series perform abysmally in the ratings systems.

Another criticism I have of story arcs is that a lot of times they are too heavy-handed, where nothing much happens while the show slowly crawls toward a conclusion, sort of like ocean slime oozing across a beach front. Sometimes I'll watch one show, then tune in a month later and find out that the storyline hasn't noticeably progressed very much during my absence. A good story arc will have lots of exciting events occurring throughout, and will even introduce little mini subplots that peak and come to a conclusion within each single episode. For me, the worst thing that can happen is when a story arc should logically wrap up within a certain episode, but improbable events are plopped in to drag things out even further. For example, when The Beast was killed in Season 4 of Angel, Cordelia was revealed to be the Beast Master, who then proceeded to put Angelus under her control.

At certain times, stand-alone episodes that are tossed into the mix are welcome respites from grim ongoing story arcs. Some examples I can think of from Angel are Season 3's "Double or Nothing", and "The Price" where viewers were able to recover from Wesley's tragic kidnapping of Connor, and Season 4's "The House Always Wins", where we took somewhat of a break from the "Where's Cordelia?" game. Of course the story arcs weren't completely abandoned within these episodes, but that didn't stop the naysayers from coming out with their complaints.

I also noticed that Season 5 of Angel had a much more subtle story arc in the earlier episodes, which really didn't become apparent until we started realizing later on that the series was setting the stage for the final countdown with the Senior Partners. While Angel et al were floundering early on in the season like fish out of water, there was a method to the madness. The crew was busy finding their footing and eventually realized, to their horror, that they had been duped and needed to drastically start changing their ways.

I tend to be a more casual type of TV viewer. Again, Angel is my obvious exception, which is why I'm blogging about the series. Otherwise, I just don't have time to get hooked on any other TV shows. There are certain shows that are so story arc-y, like Lost, I don't even bother to tune in. For most series, I tend to feel annoyed when things aren't tidied up at the end of an episode since I know I probably won't be able to tune in the next week to see the conclusion.

I recognize that fans look for many different things in a TV series. A lot of people adored Season 4 of Angel for the very reasons that I hated it. I'm equally as guilty of accusing series producers of destroying a series by making horribly rash decisions, when in reality, they came up with their ideas after a lot of careful and thoughtful consideration. It can be a real juggling act for series creators to try to please everyone, and to try to not alienate a crucial percentage of their fan base by offering a mix of viewing experiences.

Idle Thoughts. Both story arcs and stand-alone episodes have the potential to delve deep into the characters' motivations and psyche, and carefully examine all of the moral issues surrounding the issues at hand. (Which would probably fit some people's definition of "slow and excruciating".) In fact, a lot of times we learn a lot more about individual characters during the stand-alone episodes, which helps us understand them better when the story arcs resume.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In Their Own Words: Alexis Denisof



In my previous post, "In Their Own Words: Stephanie Romanov", I discussed how I have a hard time letting go of the main questions I have about Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and Lilah Morgan in Angel, being, did they love each other and did they have a relationship? (Hint: I always shout out an emphatic YES to both.)

Alexis Denisof has said some very lovely things in the past about his character Wesley's relationship with Lilah in Angel. Here's a transcript of the above YouTube video of a Q&A session held at a Slayercon event in Oakland, California that I believe was held in August, 2004. Again, the usual disclosures where I apologize in advance for any transcription errors I made, the light editing I've done, etc.

Alexis was responding to an audience member's request for him to elaborate on the differences between Wesley's relationship with Lilah and his relationship with Fred.

"The difference in the relationship between Wes & Lilah and Wes & Fred - sex and love. (audience laughter). I mean saying that - making light of it but - the relationship with Lilah is a very powerful one that comes in a very interesting time in each of the characters. It had inherent in that relationship the struggles that Wesley is going through as he's kind of descending into this darker area. Of course it's perfect that the person that he sees very clearly at that time is Lilah, and the person he can't really quite be [with?] because he's not really right for her yet even though she's been the flame in his heart for a long time.

And then the interesting thing I think about the relationship with Lilah is how it's sort of one little step in time - the orchestra doesn't break out when they lay eyes on each other. It's just that they start kind of walking along side one another and having sidelong glances that end up [with] them being in bed together, and it becomes more than just being in bed together. And it's complicated of course because how much is it kind of spy versus spy manipulating information and how much is it that they're cautiously making a real connection? And in my opinion they are making a real connection and it's a connection in such an impossible circumstance because of where they are - two enemies looking at each other across the battlefield knowing that they could really never possibly be together, but they wonder if they could, and so I think that they have a powerful thing with each other.

But I think it's different from the Wesley and Fred [relationship]. I think in a sense that the whole thing about Fred is that - she's everything that the world is worth fighting for. And so she's everything that's worth dying for, and that's why there's only certain times where it's possible for Wesley and Fred to really see each other and fully allow it to happen because it's so powerful for him on other levels."

I actually wrote about this YouTube video in my "What's Love Got To Do With It?" post from last April, where I noted Alexis' reluctance to use the word "love" when talking about their "relationship". I also noted how the question of "love" might be more of a matter of semantics, where some people (like me) seem to have a much broader and more inclusive definition of "love" than others.

In Nikki Stafford's excellent Once Bitten: An Unofficial Guide to the World of Angel, Alexis Denisof spoke even more eloquently about Wesley's relationship with Lilah. I was absolutely delighted with his response since he talked about how the word "love" means different things to different people.

(Page 89 of Google Books Link)
"Did Wesley Love Lilah?"

Love is a term that, when people say it, they know exactly what they mean and the other person has an idea of the what the person means - and do the two people mean the same thing? So you and I could interpret this forever because you probably have a concept of what you mean by love, and then I interpret it in my way and then it gets interpreted by both Wesley and Lilah and we don't really know where we're at with this question. But what was the nature of their relationship? I think that it's everything that you see on the screen, which is two people highly charged by the danger of their interaction and fascinated by the possibility of having a future with somebody they can't have a future with. So it's sort of like Icarus - the closer Icarus gets to the sun, the wings melt and he falls to Earth. And that's sort of how I feel about [Wesley and Lilah]. The closer they get, the heat is too intense and they burn each other. They desperately want to trust each other and they don't know how and they desperately want the intimacy and they don't know how and they're really interesting together as a result. They definitely have chemistry, those two characters. I can't sum it up as Yes, he loves her or No, he doesn't; it's really more a question of the possibility of love rather than the actuality of love."
Notice that, just like in the YouTube video Q&A, Alexis is again reluctant to take a definitive stand as to whether Wesley and Lilah were in love with each other. As I discussed in my "What's Love Got To Do With It" post referenced above,

The third hang-up is a matter of semantics. "Love" and "relationship" imply stability. A case can be made that if we start talking about Wesley and Lilah being in a loving relationship, and do not offer much in the way of further explanation, we tend to get a distorted or even inaccurate description of what they went through. The English language certainly cannot describe the complicated relationship Wes and Lilah enjoyed. Perhaps I'm saying this too late, but I'm not criticizing Alexis' answers in the YouTube video. He is simply trying to explain things to an audience in words that will give a more accurate picture of what was really going on between the two characters."
I would take a wild guess that Alexis may have a narrower definition of "love" than I do, but it really doesn't matter as long as everyone can clearly see what was happening in their relationship.

Stephanie Romanov was quite open about how she first approached the story arc as having her character more or less strictly sleeping with Wesley for information. I wonder if Alexis approached it the same way, and felt equally surprised when the two characters started falling for each other? To be honest, Stephanie's admission somewhat surprised me, although it shouldn't have since it was such a nice and tidy way for her to score a performance.

Personally, I always felt there was a lot more to it than starting off as just "sleeping with the enemy for information". I know I'm not breaking a lot of new ground in relation to my prior blog posts, but bear with me. We don't know for sure if Lilah was in the habit of using sex in fulfillment of her duties at Wolfram & Hart. However, we know she did have an attitude that she would do whatever it took to get the job done. In that context, sleeping with Wes for information wouldn't sound in the least bit out of character.

I can go on and on about how Lilah certainly had a huge arsenal at her disposal for obtaining information, and, perhaps, after looking at all of the options and looking into Wesley's past history and character, decided that using sex would be the most efficient way to win him over to Wolfram & Hart. But, gee whiz, can't we imagine that she just looked at the guy, or liked what she saw in his personality assessment, and decided that maybe she could make a go out of mixing business with pleasure?

As far as Wesley, I've also written at great length about how I was convinced that he was attracted to Lilah in spite of himself from the very moment they met. She kept coming around to his place and bumping into him in public. Wes must have figured, "What the hell? It's not like anything else is happening in my life."

Regardless, Alexis' analogy of what happened between Wesley and Lilah to Icarus flying too close to the sun is by far the best explanation I've ever seen of how their relationship worked. I also liked his continued insistence that they were perhaps not really believing they could have a life together, but they dared to dream about the possibility.

The impossibility of their relationship was all the more poignant since they seemed so well- matched with each other. As far as I could tell, they might have been roughly the same age and/or maturity level, were both highly intelligent and scholarly, had similar senses of humor, had the same bent for kink in the bedroom and, most importantly, looked damned good together! The element of being on opposite sides of the battlefield undoubtedly added a lot of excitement to their relationship. In a way I can't help but feel that they respected each other for who they were and what they represented. If one had formally broken ranks and joined the other, would that have destroyed the entire dynamic of their relationship? Would Wesley have loved a saintly and sweet Lilah, and would Lilah have loved an Evil Wesley?

Closing Thoughts. Oddly enough, of the two, I think Lilah working for Angel Investigations (as long as she wasn't alone with Fred for too long) would have been more successful than Wesley working for Wolfram & Hart (in its original inception). Her take-no-prisoners approach and insane work ethic would have been a great asset to the group, whereas Wesley could have easily settled into boring, comfortable mediocrity.

I would have loved to have seen a lot more uneasy alliances between Lilah, working on behalf of Wolfram & Hart, and Angel Investigations, similar to how they worked together to try to figure out the secrets behind The Beast who was rampaging through Los Angeles. I think the creators also could have gotten a lot of good mileage and dramatic tension out of a still-independent Wesley tentatively trying to work his way back into the good graces of Angel Investigations while serving as somewhat of a go-between between Lilah and Angel.

Wesley and Lilah, (along with Alexis and Stephanie), seemed to really feed off of each other's energy level during their scenes. Alexis' statement about flying too close to the sun and getting burned could also apply to how Wes and Lilah sizzled during their ever-escalating battles of one-upmanship, which usually resulted in (presumably) incredibly hot sex. That high level of constant intense interplay would have been unsustainable.

On page 87 of the above-linked book, Once Bitten: An Unofficial Guide to the World of Angel, the author asked Alexis Denisof about his favorite storyline or moment of the show. Notice his lack of mention of the Wesley/Lilah story arc. Did he really enjoyed performing pratfalls in Season 1 more than getting between the sheets with Stephanie Romanov?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

In Their Own Words: Stephanie Romanov

(Stephanie Romanov, Wikipedia,
taken from RavenU page at Flickr.

If I have any questions about character motivations on Angel, when all else fails, I check out old interviews to see what the actors had to say.

My biggest (intertwined) questions about Angel: The Series have always been, did Wesley and Lilah really love each other, and did they have a real relationship? Oddly enough, I'm still obsessed with these ideas even though I've been answering with a resounding YES to both questions ever since I started watching their scenes together.

I wrote way back in April in my "What's Love Got To Do With It?" post that:
Let's say you have two people who call each other up to arrange times to meet, seem to miss each other when they're apart, can relax in each other's company, and experience a deep soulful connection while having sex. What part of this description doesn't imply a loving relationship?
Stephanie Romanov and Alexis Denisof both strike me as having put a lot of thought into their roles, so I'm happy to post some of their interview excerpts. Today I'll concentrate on Stephanie, and I'll feature Alexis in my next post. (Update: Here's the post I did featuring Alexis' thoughts about the Wesley/Lilah relationship.)

Stephanie Romanov. One source of information is a Sci-Fi Talk podcast she recorded in the form of a phone interview several years ago, around the time Season 5 production was finishing up for Angel. (2004?) Stephanie had already left the series at that point, but you could tell from her conversation with host Tony Tellado that the show was still very much a part of her.

I've blogged about this particular podcast before, and I highly recommend you listen to it if you're a Stephanie Romanov/Lilah Morgan fan. Stephanie liberally sprinkled her interview with infectious laughter, while also coming across as being warm, intelligent, and funny. I wish I could find more podcasts of her online. (Update 2/10/10: Sadly, the podcast is no longer online.)

Stephanie talked about various projects she was involved with, but at one point during the podcast she gave a wonderfully detailed description of the mental process she goes through when she prepares for a movie role. Here are the usual disclaimers: I apologize in advance for any transcription errors; I took the liberty of doing mild rewrites in order to make her answers look better in written form; any minor cuts I made are indicated with ".....", etc.

Stephanie: "When you have to step into the shoes of these dark characters, what I find is that for a few weeks beforehand you start slowly slipping into the skin of that person until....actually you're filming, and then it's always with you. It's such a weird thing to describe but it's so cool when you're able to do it because it's so ingrained in there. I'm able to step out of it even when I'm in between shots. Like I know very well where that place is in me and then who I am outside of it. But there certainly is a darkness that stays with you all times even though.......I can be filming or whatever in between doing it. And then once you've finished...it's almost like you've been fighting the flu for a while and you just have to rest. So you just kind of rest your body and let it seep back out of you. It's an interesting process, it's kind of cool."

(Tony Tellado pointed out she must learn a little bit about herself during the process. She replied:)

"You have to go ahead and ask yourself these same questions....what is it that you most want to hide. What is it that was most disturbing in your [life] and try to make the parallels so that it's as true as possible."
Stephanie might not prepare for extended TV roles quite the same way, simply because it must be difficult to stay in character during the filming of an entire series. However, presumably, she goes through a similar process. What I took out of this part of the interview is that Stephanie is quite serious about preparing for her roles and puts a lot of thought into her characters. She's not simply showing up to read a few lines and forgetting about things until she's required to show up for the next film shoot.

(After giving us some of her general thoughts about Angel, Tellado mentioned that the series took a strange turn that no one expected when she started hooking up with Wesley.)

Stephanie: "I know. Where did that come from? ....... I don't think we'd even been on-screen together. So it was an odd direction to go in for sure."

(Tellado then mentioned that Alexis took Wesley into an unusual direction in which he showed a darker side that almost seemed to relate to Lilah).

Stephanie:"It totally took his character on a 180 degree turn, as far as who he was and what his moral code was and what he believed he was fighting for.....It's like growing up. You believe everybody's good and if you work hard everything will be fine, then you have all these discoveries that you never thought of, and I think that's kind of the backdrop for Wesley. He kind of grew up."

(A little later, Tellado mentioned that he loved the "burning of the contract" scene, where Wesley tried to release her from her "in perpetuity" contract with Wolfram & Hart.)

Stephanie: It was surprising to me when they threw us together, then I thought, OK, Lilah is using him.....And then I found through our filming and going there she actually was falling for him a bit.....It happened really organically, since..... certainly hadn't scored it that way and then it just started happening as I go "Wow, she really cares about him". And it's weird when you're the she you're talking about, but it's not you, but it's this thing, but she really had such a huge presence in me that those things would just happen kind of magically. It made even that scene of burning the contract, or him trying to release her that much more kind of effective.........I think that was the first time someone put themself out for her. So I felt it was really kind of a nice dramatic moment."
Stephanie talked quite a bit more about Angel than what I'm posting here. So again, make sure you listen to her podcast.

Wesley's character may have made a 180-degree turn, but I don't think for a minute that his moral code took a 180-degree turn. He may have had to re-examine his beliefs and lifetime assumptions about what constituted right and wrong, but any "turns" he took in his beliefs were more like necessary adjustments he needed to make after he recalibrated his moral compass.

I don't believe either the interviewer or Stephanie were trying to infer that Wesley was becoming Evil, but it does bring out a point I've been thinking about for a while regarding the differences between watching an original series on a weekly basis, with long pauses in between episodes and seasons, and watching a series on a daily basis, where the suspense is relieved quite quickly. I can imagine during the original airdates, it might have been up in the air for viewers as to what direction Wesley was headed into. Wesley took a good long look at (Lilah's gift of) Dante's Inferno quite late in Season 3, which indicated that he could have possibly been thinking "I'm a worthless sinner who's been cast out by my friends. Screw them all. I'm going to Wolfram & Hart." Although Wesley insulted Lilah in the very last episode of the season, he did say those mean things to her after they had just finished having sex.

The scene gave no clear indication that Wesley was turning Evil, but I'm sure a lot of people were guessing that was the direction he was turning during the long summer break. It wasn't until the beginning of Season 4 the following October that people could breathe a sigh of relief that Wesley was still one of the Good Guys when "Deep Down" was aired.

This is a roundabout way of saying that if you had been trying to guess for several months whether Wesley was still Good or if he was turning Evil, it would be easy for many to believe that that he actually became Evil, or at least came really close. If you are watching the series on a daily basis, particularly when I was watching two episodes a day last spring, in certain ways it's a lot easier to see the overall picture much more clearly when the situations resolve themselves almost as soon as they are introduced. Although, for the sake of convenience, (or if you had to live through that period of doubt for several months), it would be easy to say that Wesley "flirted with Evil", I don't think that really happened at all.

Moving on to other things, I really liked Stephanie Romanov's description of Wesley's character development as "growing up". I kind of scoffed at the analogy at first, but it made a lot more sense to me after I let it rattle around in my brain for a little while. It was easy to see that before the Connor kidnapping, even though Wesley was hunting demons and was otherwise on the battlefield participating in the fight between Good and Evil, he still had a lot to learn. His Watcher Academy training infused him with a great deal of youthful enthusiasm, but little in the way of providing him guidance with how to operate in the real world. Wesley had a clear vision of the Mission and the Good Fight, yet even his [implied] thoughts about "shades of gray" bordered on the naive.

After Wesley "grew up", practically overnight, that appealing youthful idealism was gone forever, to be eventually replaced by a more mature pragmatic outlook on life.

Here are excerpts from another phone interview with Stephanie Romanov that was conducted in 2004 at probably roughly the same time that the Sci-Fi Talk podcast was recorded. (Original source: horror-web.com).

HW: Do you think, given more time, Wesley was close to bringing you over to the 'brighter' side?

Stephanie: No, because it wasn't really a possibility. There was no way to escape it, even when he tried to burn my contract and it comes back. I think she always knew there was no escape from it, but there was maybe a part of her heart that wished there was. And so it didn't just play on Wesley, it played on her and brought her a lot closer to her human side than she'd been to in a long time. It was surprising to me. When I read it and saw the arc with Wesley I thought she was just playing him, but when we started filming she started falling for him. It wasn't something that was planned but it was interesting, I think he touched her somewhere.

HW: One particular scene that I always loved is you dressed up as Fred...

Stephanie: [laughs] that was my favorite! [lots of laughing from both]

HW: But from the character's point of view, was it being a smart aleck or was it jealousy?

Stephanie: I think it was jealously, [sic] absolutely. Feeling threatened, so you make a joke out of that which hurts you. And if she can present it right in his face, she can get a better clue as to how much of a threat it is. It was also trying to get the inside scoop.
HW: How do you feel about the difference between acting and producing?

Stephanie: I love the creative process and I love team work, and when you're producing and developing you get to work with different people at different levels, and I enjoy that very much. Especially since the things I'm working on, a lot of them were my ideas, and then trying to [do] the research. I love that. I love human psychology, so this just brings be [sic] to all sorts of different people and the way they're wired and that's always something that I've always loved. And which also serves in the acting, that's what helped me play so many different types of characters. I've known and lived all over the world, and known all kinds of different kinds of people. Always asking them what they're about. It's very interesting to me 'what makes people tick' and what motivates them. What motivates them to good choices, bad choices, weakness, the way the mind works, a victim's mentality, a survivor's mentality, the works. So I think producing and creating ideas of things that I'm interested in, it draws me to different types of people that I get to learn about.

I love psychology, the inner workings of the human mind. It's so complex and beautiful. That's why I got into acting, because I wanted to play all these different types of people that I've met. From the time I was a little girl, my mother said I knew everyone within a mile radius of our house from the time I was five. I was just 'hi, what's your name? what do you do? Blah blah blah.' [laughs] And I'm still kind of like that. I spend most of my time alone, and I build up my own inner stuff and then go out and ask about others. You have to do a lot of introspection to understand the human psyche because you have to start with you. [laughs] If you want to know the truth - in a nutshell."
First, I loved her explanation of Lilah's reasoning for dressing like Fred. Maybe she couldn't admit to being "in love" with Wesley, but she couldn't deny her sense of entitlement of ownership rights over him.

In both of the above interviews, Stephanie emphasized that at the beginning of the story arc, she thought Lilah was simply sleeping with Wesley for information. It gradually dawned on Stephanie that her character was falling for Wesley. (Notice how she carefully avoided saying "falling in love" with Wesley.) I'm curious to find out if the writers knew all along Lilah would start "falling" for Wesley, or if it was just as much an organic process for them as well.

I've read someplace else that Stephanie doesn't consider herself to be a method actress, yet she puts in a great deal of effort to try to put herself as close as possible in the same places as her characters. She's obviously an enthusiastic student of the human condition. I can't help but compare the process she goes through to transform herself to moments within the Angelverse where bodies were being hijacked by other entities, e.g., Cordelia being taken over by Jasmine, and Angel being taken over by Angelus (and vice versa). The person being hijacked is fully aware of being taken over, and can feel every thought and emotion being experienced by the hijacker. As Illyria found out after taking over Fred's body (this is an exception since, as far as we know, Fred had no awareness of the process after the takeover), feeling another person's emotions is still a profoundly moving experience no matter how much of a feeling of self you still manage to maintain.

Interestingly enough, I have not been able to find any interviews where either Stephanie Romanov or Alexis Denisof talked directly about how they related to each other as actors during the filming (except for some delightful anecdotes involving Stephanie's breast-covering pasties that she wore while performing her semi-nude scenes.) One assumes there was a certain degree of awkwardness (tension?) between the recently-married Stephanie and the soon-to-be-married Alexis that was relieved by performing practical jokes. One also assumes they maintained a "the less we talk about it the better" attitude during the filming. Stephanie as Lilah has talked a great deal about the emotional process, although Stephanie as Stephanie hasn't been nearly as forthcoming.

Regardless of how it came about, the final product was sensational! I have never been so taken in by the smoldering sexual chemistry between two characters/actors before. I really wish I could win some sort of contest where I could talk to a director, writer, one of the actors or Joss Whedon himself to find out how they were able to pull off this feat.

I also wonder if the editing process itself, in addition to their flawless acting, was a key to their remarkable on-screen chemistry. According to an audio commentary by Jane Espenson from Season 1's "Rm w/a Vu", drama series like Angel are filmed at a very slow pace, with a lot of the action and excitement produced via the editing process. I also recently re-watched an excellent, fast-paced YouTube video that was put together by a Wesley/Lilah fan. The finished product showed a chemistry that was even more intense than what appeared in the actual series, further revealing the magic and miracles of the editing process. (Note: I could see the details of the video a lot better after I downloaded it to my MP3 player.)

It's widely reported (and Stephanie herself talks about it in the podcast) that she almost didn't return in Season 4 of Angel because of a salary dispute. Here's excerpts from an undated City of Angel post regarding a Flashback Weekend event that took place in Chicago.

In her role as Lilah Morgan, Stephanie had one of the most captivating storylines which started in the Season 3 finale Tomorrow and continued throughout Season 4 until her unfortunate and untimely death at the hands of Cordelia in the mid-season episode Calvary. The storyline referred to is of course the surprising yet fascinating 'relationship' Lilah developed with Angel Investigation's own Judas Iscariot, Wesley Wyndham-Price (Alexis Denisof). As an audience, the fans were shocked at the pairing and so it was only natural that a large proportion of the questions asked of Stephanie related to the unusual liaison but did the storyline have the same impact on Stephanie as it seemed to have on everybody else? "I was completely surprised," she admitted when asked, "I remember negotiating a contract because it was close to getting a new season. I wasn't going to come back because they weren't paying me enough, it was ridiculous and I said, 'You guys have got to up the ante,' and they kept saying this is our last offer, take it or leave it and I said, 'Ok fine.' They didn't tell me about the storyline and I had no idea about the arc and Alexis called me at home and he said, 'Do you not want to work with me?' I was like what are you talking about, nobody's called, nobody's talked to me and then he told me about the storyline. Finally one of the producers who hadn't called, called me and realized I wasn't asking for an exorbitant amount of money and they give the OK but I first heard about it through Alexis. It was very intriguing I thought."
It's always a little disheartening when the cold realities of business intrude on the creative process. I can just imagine the mindset of the executives who decided to withhold vital information from Stephanie as a negotiating tactic.

With Stephanie back on board and the storyline now in place, the most intriguing thing to watch was the chemistry between Lilah and Wesley mature from an untrusting and reluctant partnership based on sex, manipulation and exploitation to a 'relationship' where actual feelings were involved. Considering how cold and calculating Lilah could be, was it a shock that Lilah began to have feelings for Wesley? "It was because I originally scored the arc as she wanted something from him, she wanted information, she likes power. She was just trying to gain power and in the process of filming and actually doing the scenes, Lilah started to care for him which was weird, it was beyond my control, it wasn't anything I had planned and there were actually very tender moments between the characters and that was kind of a happy surprise." Yet Lilah is still evil at the core and will do anything for personal gain. If push came to shove, could Lilah have killed or hurt Wesley if the Wolfram & Hart Senior Partners had asked her to? "That's a very good question," Stephanie ponders yet the 'Lilah' look on her face gives away the answer without the need for words, it is obviously a resounding yes. Innocently she mocks how she may break the news to her lover, "Wesley, I'm sorry," she says sweetly before menacingly making the motion of death."
Again, the reference to Stephanie's surprise that her character was was actually falling for Wesley, and how the process appeared to occur outside of her control.

Despite his better judgment and momentarily casting aside his true feelings for a certain Texan scientist, Wesley too became emotionally attached to Lilah leading to one of the highlights from Season 4 in the episode Salvage where Wesley had the grisly task of dispatching Lilah's corpse. "That was a really unexpectedly moving scene," Stephanie comments, "I mean Wesley is actually talking about his feelings in a way that I don't think has been exposed before and the chemistry of the moment was very cool and also the special effects thing on the table, I have to say was pretty cool." So does she think secretly Wesley still carries the signed $1 bill as proof of their relationship in his wallet? Stephanie smiles and says, "Absolutely!" Lilah Morgan is a beautifully complex character yet at the same time a relatively straightforward one. She's evil plain and simple but if Lilah sang for Lorne, what does Stephanie think he'd see? "I don't know what he'd see," she replied honestly, "Probably I would say her childhood and what has brought her to where she is now, kind of lonely and isolated. I have a picture that she was very isolated and had to become a survivor, she had to take care of herself and maybe he would have seen the hard part of her life that made her make the choices that she made, that's my guess." If she were to allow Lorne to read her future, what song would Lilah sing? Stephanie grins, bowing her head, she looks coyly through her eyelashes and sings into the microphone, "Bad to the Bone."
This interview excerpt is much more lighthearted than the others, seeing as how Stephanie Romanov was also simultaneously putting on a performance for an audience at the same time. However, I'm reasonably certain that even though Lilah had strong feelings for Wesley, she softened up a bit, and perhaps even hoped that some day she could allow herself to daydream about a future together, at the end of the day, they would always be on opposite sides.

Oddly enough, I'm not sure that they even started out as mutual enemies. Wesley might have had strong feelings against Lilah, perhaps even hatred for her, because of all of the truly Evil deeds she performed on behalf of Wolfram & Hart. Lilah probably did not feel any personal enmity toward Wesley, and may have simply regarded him as she would any other person who sat across the table from her in tough contract negotiations. I'm still convinced that Lilah truly did fall in love with Wesley and considered what they had to be a "relationship", as evidenced by her jealousy, the anger she felt during their breakup, and the hurt she was feeling at the way Wesley was treating her after she returned from the dead, first at the Hyperion Hotel, and then at the Wolfram & Hart offices. The wonderful "burning the contract" scene must have given her character considerable closure and validation that whatever they had going on with each other (love? a relationship? a connection?), had been very real.

Closing Thoughts. Do I have a right to declare that two people love each other even when they both maintain it isn't true? Even if it's clearly obvious to everyone that the two people involved are totally denying their feelings and doing everything within their powers to keep all of their emotions in check? Are buried feelings the same as genuine feelings brought up to the surface? Think of how Angel and Cordelia totally denied they meant anything to each other even though their love was as plain as day, particularly as seen by Lorne, Fred and Groo.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Only Good Demon is a Dead Demon

Scriptwriter Jane Espenson explained in an audio commentary of Angel's Season 1's "Rm w/a Vu" that in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, demons tended to pop up for very specific purposes, usually to fill in as metaphors for human concerns and conditions. At least at the time she did the Season 1 commentary, she stated that, with all things being equal, you could safely assume demons in Buffy were evil. In Angel, demons had complex societies in their underworld and often lived very human lives. More importantly, not all demons in Angel were evil. Some were true neutrals, and some, like Lorne and Doyle, were even good. Who can forget the first episode in Season 2, "Judgment", where Angel killed the presumably evil Prio Motu demon without realizing it was acting as a heroic champion for a pregnant woman? Espenson pointed out that in Angel, you really had to know what you were up against before you started killing demons.

Which brings up the obvious point: since humans took over earth, did demons, even good ones, have a right to live in the Angelverse?

It would be easy to ascribe a "the only good demon is a dead demon" mentality to these creatures, much as how Native Americans were treated in the 19th century. Although demons could be reformed and assimilated into the Angelverse, perhaps they could never be trusted, since their innate savagery threatened to erupt at any moment. Good demons might not even be counted on to side with humans if a war between the species ever broke out. It becomes not so much a matter of whether a demon can become truly assimilated, but more like, since humans can't know for sure which demons can be trusted, we could waste a lot of time and energy having to keep a suspicious eye on them. Think of how Japanese-Americans were rounded up into internment camps during World War II.

The arguments surrounding demon extermination have quite a parallel with the issues surrounding the introduction and comeback of wolves in various parts of the U.S. Wolves are magnificent animals, and I think even a lot of their most ardent human enemies would prefer to see them living in somebody else's back 40 acres. However, there is an unmistakable element of the population that would prefer to see them completely eliminated. In Season 3's "That Old Gang of Mine", Charles Gunn made it clear that he didn't have any theoretical problem with people going around indiscriminately killing demons, before he realized his old gang members were the culprits.

Angel, Wesley and Cordelia saw things differently. Needless to say, Angel himself could have been a legitimate target for the "let's kill all the demons" crowd. In fact, one could even make an argument that they were a little too lenient with demons, but that may have been due more to time constraints than anything else. The Powers That Be, Wolfram & Hart, and their paying clients kept them busy enough as it was. There was no use going around looking for trouble when they could be resting up for their next assignments.

The Angelverse is a little ambivalent about mainstream acceptance of the existence of monsters and demons. In my "Through the Looking Glass; or, Welcome To My Nightmare" post, I guessed that the general population was still unaware of this alternate reality. For the most part, demons tried to hide themselves from the general public, although they did mix with humans in bars and other venues from time to time. The humans who accepted the demon presence for the most part were probably young night-loving sophisticates who knew a lot more about the ways of the world than the sheeple who tucked themselves safely into their houses at 7:00 pm every night. I can only guess at the motivations of both sides hiding the demon world away from ordinary people. Angel and his allies probably feared our society would make a paranoid change for the worse if people felt they needed to check for monsters under their beds every night. The demons themselves probably feared a bloody massacre if word of their existence leaked out. It probably served everyone's interest if most of the human population continued to live happy, secure lives in blissful ignorance.

We also can't discount the notion that anyone who tried to educate the masses about vampires and demons would be quickly dismissed as crackpots.

Wesley objected to the demon killers in "That Old Gang of Mine" for their indiscriminate attacks, whereas Angel himself objected to the sadistic thrill they seemed to be taking from their actions. Wesley even admitted that at least two of the (at that time) six dead demons were irredeemably evil, while others were fully assimilated into society. The implication was clear: although the members of Angel Investigations were bona fide demon hunters, they only stepped in when they had clear proof of wrongdoing. Anything else would be vigilantism, which is never a good thing because of the potential for humans to be turned into unstoppable killing machines. (Think of Daniel Holtz and his minions.)

I thought it was quite clever for the writers to introduce two nasty-looking yet sympathetic demons into the deadly crossfire at Caritas. Intriguingly, one demon desperately chanted "oh god, oh god, oh god", while the other countered "Shut up. He ain't listening."

The "unbelieving" demon turned out to be an unabashed baby-killer who devoured his victims. Despite his horrible actions, and despite the fact we knew Angel would never hesitate to kill it while on the job, our (or at least my) sympathies were directed to the fact that he was simply acting out of his species-specific natural behavior. Charles eventually killed the demon in a moment of frustration, but it just seemed wrong to kill it during a time that it was trying to mind its own business. Presumably the demon ate human babies (as its ramblings about "living in playgrounds" seemed to imply), but it raises another question. Again, presumably, many species of demons are 100% pure evil. Should humans hesitate to kill them on sight simply because an unknown tiny percentage might be neutral or even good?

I was also intrigued by that big white blobby demon who was happily sipping on his Slurpy in the underground sewers. He looked like a giant version of one of those grubs that I kill in my flower beds once in a while. However, he seemed kind of cute, and we were sad to see it murdered. Angel and Wesley identified it as a Yarbnie demon, which Wesley described as being a "...balancing entity. They tend to nest in urban areas under roadways - utterly non-violent." I've written a prior post about my affinity for balancing forces, and I would have liked additional information on A) what exactly constitutes a balancing entity and B) how does it manage to perform its balancing duties if it's mostly hidden from view.

Lorne gave us some vital information in the wonderful Season 2 episode, "Happy Anniversary" when he told Angel that the Lubber demons belonged to a "Fanatical sect, awaiting a messiah who will usher in the end of all human life. A lot of your demons don't yak about it in mixed company, but it is a pretty popular theology in the underworld." Besides the obvious parallels with certain well-known religious groups, Lorne also informed Angel that, although demons seemed to be satisfied with their status as second-class citizens, they really wouldn't mind booting out all of the humans and taking over the world again for themselves.

Was there a reason why demons still existed in the Angelverse? Was there some little-known metaphysical ecological process at work where if demons disappeared, humans would negatively be affected according to some sort of Law of Unintended Consequences? Like, if you kill off the wrong species of fish all of the whales could disappear? I personally like a "maintaining the balance between good and evil" theory since I'm a Libran at heart. However, what I consider to be perfect balance could be quite intolerable for demons who would prefer us humans to be living in tunnels.

Of course, the Senior Partners at Wolfram & Hart could have been behind the maintenance of the demon population, as part of their ongoing Apocalypse being waged as revealed by Lindsey in Season 5. Regardless, taking on the entire demon world would mean an enormous bloodbath. Although Angel's fight in the closing scene of the series finale was technically against Wolfram & Hart, an outside observer could be forgiven for thinking it was the opening salvo in a "humans versus demons" war.

Idle Thoughts. Season 2's "Happy Anniversary" was a wonderful showcase for Andy Hallett. Did the man ever turn in a weak performance? The show also proved what a wonderful team Angel and Lorne made. Angel needed at least a ten-year run to bring out everything that needed to be highlighted, including additional Lindsey/Lilah scenes, more shows focusing on just Angel and Lorne, a lot more scenes with Cordelia and Lilah being paired together, etc.

"Happy Anniversary" also acted as an interesting precursor to some of the upcoming time-shifting physics that was showcased after Fred joined the cast in Season 3.

I saw Season 3's "Fredless" on TNT again earlier this week, which featured a lot of interesting moments about Fred's "normal" parents becoming baptised into the world of vampires and demons. I was thrilled that the Burkles became such enthusiastic converts, since conflict just for the sake of conflict kind of bores me.

I had mentioned in a previous post that I thought Wesley started falling in love with Fred in "That Old Gang of Mine". After seeing the episode again, I was reminded that both Wesley and Charles were clearly in love with her in "Fredless". Wesley positively melted whenever he looked at her! It was also quite telling how when Fred thought she was saying her final goodbyes, her hug from Charles was spontaneous and friendly, while her hug from Wesley was extremely awkward, as they did the "where do we put are arms" dance back and forth. Poor Wes was awfully nervous around the woman of his dreams, which led him to eventually lose her before he even had a chance to ask her out.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Future Alexis Appearances on Dollhouse

If I'm interpreting this FOX network news release correctly, Alexis Denisof will be appearing in the following Dollhouse Episodes [MINOR SPOILERS]:
Friday, October 30, 2009 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) "The Public Eye (Part 1 of 2)" When Senator Perrin (guest star Alexis Denisof) makes his stand against the Rossum Corporation, Echo (Eliza Dushku) attempts to stop his expos [sic]. Adelle (Olivia Williams) and Topher (Fran Kranz) travel to the Washington, DC, Dollhouse where they meet its genius programmer, Bennett Halverson (Summer Glau), a woman with a mysterious past connection to Echo.

Friday, November 6, 2009 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) - "The Left Hand (Part 2 of 2)" Echo and Bennett have a shocking reunion as Adelle goes head-to-head with the ruthless leader of the Washington, DC, Dollhouse (guest star Ray Wise). Topher sees double when he must involve Victor (Enver Gjokaj) in his espionage. Perrin finds a surprising witness to testify against the Rossum Corporation, but find he may be living in a house of cards.

I'm not sure if Alexis will appear in this episode:
Friday, November 13, 2009 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) - “Meet Jane Doe". After attempting to stop Perrin from exposing the Dollhouse, Echo finds herself in the world-at-large as she struggles to control her multiple memory downloads. Topher discovers the dangers of science that will have devastating effects on the future, while Adelle engages in a power struggle with Harding (guest star Keith Carradine).
Otherwise, I'm assuming that if his character isn't mentioned in an episode description, then Alexis probably won't be appearing.

Of course a lot of people are wondering what the "house of cards" means in the November 6 description. Is Cindy Perrin a doll? Is Senator Perrin a doll? Will his accountant inform him he has majority shareholder interest in Rossum Corporation? Will his chief of staff tell him that Rossum Corporation is the largest contributor to his political campaign? Does someone have a whole bunch of incriminating photos of Senator Perrin? I hope we'll see more appearances from Alexis, but it's hard to predict since FOX only seems to be committed to airing 13 episodes. Even if more episodes are ordered, I'm not sure what the producers have planned for his character.

In the meantime, we'll share the love with Alexis while we can.

(h/t to Whedonesque)

Update October 22, 2009: Not so fast. Dollhouse will be shelved for network sweeps until December. See my update here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Under Watchful Eyes

Angel's Season 3's "That Old Gang of Mine" aired on TNT yesterday morning. I don't think it shows up on any of my top favorites lists, but it really should since it's such an outstanding episode. One of the reasons why I love Angel is that it's easy to watch the same episode several times over and zero in on different aspects each time.

Angel seemed to have strong suspicions that Charles Gunn knew more about the "random" demon slayings than he was letting on. To back up a bit, when Merl the Demon Informant was slain, and Angel and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce were looking for clues in his home, Gunn let it be known that investigating his death was a complete waste of time. "Is this really the kind of thing we should be spending our time on? I mean he was what he was, right?"

Coincidentally, in this episode we were also able to witness the differences in Angel's and Wesley's leadership styles as I described in one of my last posts, "Wesley's Path to Betrayal". Angel very obviously took exception to Gunn's attitude toward demon-killing, and directly accused Gunn of purposefully being slow to answer his page. Gunn countered with "Excuse me, but did somebody put you back in charge? Because if they did they forgot to tell me about it."

Wesley, somewhat being the Good Cop to Angel's Bad Cop, skillfully stepped in to diffuse the situation by saying in extremely measured tones, "All right. Gunn, if this isn't something you can get behind, we'll understand. For now why don't you just go on home." Gunn didn't quite buy Wesley's Mr. Nice Guy routine and stood his ground until Wesley put his hand on his shoulder and repeated, again in that fake understanding voice, "Go home".

To be honest, I'm not sure if Angel had any suspicions about who the real perpetrators were at Merl's apartment. If he did, then it makes the scene at the next deceased demon's apartment all that more believable when Gunn put one of the evidence bags in his pocket. Although Angel didn't witness the actual act, he did notice that Gunn had his hand in his pocket, and took one long suspicious look at Gunn as he left the scene. We also gazed though Angel's eyes as he looked at Wesley crouched on the floor. The whole unspoken sequence appeared as though Angel was looking to see if Wesley had seen anything, or if Wes was showing any signs of figuring out that there may have been something suspicious about Gunn's behavior.

There are a couple of ways of looking at this little scene. We could accuse Angel of withholding information because he wasn't sharing his suspicions with Wesley. Just as Gunn wanted to gather more evidence on his own that his old gang was behind the killings before (presumably) reporting his findings to Wesley, Angel could have been waiting until he had proof that Gunn knew more than he was letting on.

I choose not to get high and mighty and indignant with Angel because I prefer my second explanation. Angel was using this opportunity to observe the strengths and weaknesses of both Charles and Wesley, and see how they reacted to this situation. Rather than stepping in and possibly being accused of interference, Angel was learning more about Wesley's newly-found leadership capabilities and Gunn's loyalty to the group. It becomes crucial for leaders to know as much as possible about their followers so they'll have an idea of how these same people will react in times of crises. When the next Big Bad happened, Angel would need to know if Wesley had the ability to lead the group, and he would need to know exactly where Gunn's loyalties lay.

A side benefit was that as Gunn and Wesley worked through their difficulties, they would have the ability to learn from their mistakes. If Angel took charge too soon, Gunn and Wes would have been cheated out of an opportunity for further character development. I compare this to allowing my kids to make mistakes so they'll be able to develop problem-solving skills on their own. I also carefully monitor their situations and step in when necessary.

Although there were vicious demon-killers on the loose, it still appeared to be a controlled situation for Angel Investigations. It was obvious that when Angel and Gunn had this conversation at the Hyperion Hotel, Angel was somewhat playing dumb, and must have felt pretty good when he noticed Gunn squirming and asking where the boss (Wesley) was at. If Angel had known that everyone was walking into a demon massacre, he would have stepped in a lot sooner.

When Angel finally did arrive at Caritas, he found out pretty quickly that Gunn had to go through some difficult thought processes to decide exactly where his loyalties lay. Although I don't believe Gunn really wanted to kill Angel, he definitely might have if it would have meant saving additional lives.

Gunn's feelings toward Angel desperately deserves its own blog posts. When all was said and done, Gunn was still loyal to Angel, but still couldn't get over the idea that Angel was a vampire. Here's this chilling piece of dialogue:
Gunn: Hey! No matter what else, I think I proved that you can trust me when I could have killed you and I didn't.

Angel: No. - You'll prove that I can trust you when the day comes that you have to kill me - and you do.
There are all sorts of ambiguities in Angel's statement, but basically, Gunn and Angel would continue to work with each other and cover each other's back. When the time came for another standoff between Angel and Gunn, the process would have to be repeated. Whose side would Gunn take the next time around? It would take the re-emergence of Angelus in Season 4 to find out.

Unfortunately, my pretty little theory about Angel observing people in action falls down where Wesley is concerned. Although Wesley was very brave in standing up to Rondell, Gio and all of the other gang members, the best we can say is that he helped calm tensions just a bit, protected Fred and Cordy, and didn't make matters worse. He also acquitted himself quite nicely in the final hand-to-hand combat sequence. Although Wesley did a fine job at Caritas, circumstances did not allow him to stand out and be the hero. Angel might have been observing Wesley as well as Gunn in action, but I'm not aware that it was indicated on-screen anywhere. If anything, the whole incident at Caritas may have reinforced Angel's awareness that he was still needed to swoop in and save the day on a regular basis.

In my next post I'll talk about the rights of demons who inhabit the world of Angel. I'm also cooking up at least one more Wes and Lilah post as well.