Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Magical Mystery Tour de Farce

Alexis Denisof and Joss Whedon, presumably on the set for
"Spin the Bottle"

I noticed that Joss Whedon and Alexis Denisof seemed like two peas in a pod (in the nice sense) when I listened to their DVD commentary for Angel's Season 4's "Spin the Bottle". There were times that I felt I was actually eavesdropping on two close friends who were happily reminiscing about old times. Their commentary would often veer off into silliness, and I even cringed once in a while at some of their nuttier jokes. However, their occasional lack of polish made the commentary that much more realistic and enjoyable to listen to.

As a matter of fact, their excellent commentary is what made this post so problematic for me to write. I don't want this to devolve into another 3-part series all covering the same episode because, believe it or not, I actually want to stop blogging about Angel after I've finished up all of my DVD's. Fortunately for me, the Slayage Online site features a very informative write-up of their commentary, which lets me off the hook quite a bit. As much as I'd loved to blog about everything Joss and Alexis talked about, as usual, I'll focus on the parts that had special meaning for me, answered some of the questions I had, etc.

Finally, there are problems with the Buffyverse Dialogue Database which I rely on for my dialogue links. If the site gets back to normal in the near future I may redo this post and add the appropriate links. In the meantime, here's a link to the transcript for "Spin the Bottle" at BuffyWorld.

Similarities to Season 3's "Waiting in the Wings". It's uncanny how many similarities there are between "Spin the Bottle" and "Waiting in the Wings" that go far beyond the simple magic involved. In both instances, Joss Whedon wrote his scripts as excuses to showcase certain aspects about his actors that he wanted to highlight. In "Waiting in the Wings", Joss wanted to feature actress Amy Acker's dancing abilities, and he came up with the idea of producing a hilarious balletic pas de deux for Acker and Alexis Denisof to perform as part of Wesley's daydream sequence. In "Spin the Bottle", Joss wrote the episode because he missed old poncey Wesley from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and he wanted an excuse to write some scenes where he could make Alexis Denisof fall down again.

The dancing sequence for Wesley and Fred in "Waiting in the Wings" was actually shot, but Whedon felt compelled to cut the scene when he realized that the story was really about the growing attraction between Angel and Cordelia. Of course, their romance ended even before it actually started when her old Pylean flame, The Groosalugg, arrived on the scene. I wouldn't say that Wesley's marvelous role in "Spin the Bottle" as the teenage "head boy" at the Watchers' Academy was diminished in any way. But yet again, the main story seemed to really be about Angel and Cordelia almost coming together one more time, only to be torn apart by tragic circumstances at the end of the episode, which ultimately turned out to be Jasmine's takeover of Cordelia's body. In both episodes, old pros David Boreanaz and Charisma Carpenter stole the show. (I also have to give special praise to David and Charisma in the scene where Angel marveled at the "tiny minstrels" inside the radio, and where he first discovered that he was a vampire.)

Another similarity was how Whedon and the cast members mentioned there was a special magical glow that they experienced during the filming of both episodes. In the commentary, Alexis mentioned a "profound sadness" everyone felt as they wrapped up filming "Spin the Bottle", which was reflected on-screen as we could see the magic slowly seeping away from their bodies.

Previous Posts and Different Overall Impressions. I've written about "Spin the Bottle" several times before in the context of how much I loved the plot device of Andy Hallett's Lorne framing the entire episode with his nightclub act. Quite frankly, for the most part I thought Andy Hallett was the best part of the show. It took me quite a while before I could really appreciate the special magic that everyone else created, particularly David Boreanaz and Charisma Carpenter.

I also understood how the actors had a wonderful time filming the episode, and how they had to go through an extraordinary number of takes because they kept cracking up all of the time. Unfortunately, I didn't really think that the good times they had while filming the show translated that well into the finished product. This is in contrast to how Whedon and the actors said filming "Waiting in the Wings" was truly a magical experience, and it turned out to be one of the best episodes of the entire series. I thought the timing of the actors delivering their lines in "Spin the Bottle" was a bit off, which I now realize may have been a result of special post-production challenges in the editing room. Now, "Spin the Bottle" joins other shows in a long line of episodes that I'm enjoying a lot more now that I've heard the DVD commentary.

Cordelia. About a week ago, I developed a theory that Cordelia had in fact already been taken over by rogue Power That Be Jasmine when she was returned back to the Hyperion Hotel at the end of "The House Always Wins" (as opposed to Jasmine lying low deep inside Cordy, waiting to be activated). All Jasmine needed was the spell in "Spin the Bottle" to make her more functional. After I published that post I almost immediately started backpedaling towards the more conventional explanation that Cordelia was still Cordelia until her inner-Jasmine was released by the spell. I was hoping that Joss Whedon would give the definitive answer in the commentary, but he didn't. I've also written that it doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things, so I'll reluctantly stick with the "Cordelia - before 'Spin the Bottle'; Jasmine - after 'Spin the Bottle' " explanation while simultaneously looking for clues in upcoming commentaries.

Joss did address how they quickly had to rewrite the storyline to show that Cordelia had sex with Connor just so they could incorporate actress Charisma Carpenter's pregnancy into the script. Cordelia was always going to be the Big Bad in Season 4, but the creators had to move the timeline of her events up a bit into the middle of the season. I also read recently somewhere that Jasmine was not originally supposed to appear in Season 4, and that the final showdown at the end of the season was supposed to be between Angel and Cordelia instead of between Angel and Jasmine.

If Charisma Carpenter had not become pregnant for Season 4, I'm assuming that when Cordelia was elevated into the higher plane in the Season 3 finale, it would have ultimately been revealed that she was actually hijacked by malevolent forces for their own nefarious schemes. I'd be curious to find out, when Cordelia returned to Angel, was she still supposed to be Cordelia, albeit brainwashed by the malevolent forces? Or was she supposed to retain Cordelia's appearance while simultaneously being possessed by a Jasmine-like creature, similar to what actually happened to her character in Season 4? I'd also be curious to find out if perhaps the malevolent forces would have turned out to have been the actual Powers That Be!

I still don't understand the significance of Cordelia smashing the bottle that held the magic potion in "Spin the Bottle". All I know is that, pre-bottle smashing, in Whedon's own words, everyone was acting as if they were tripping out on mushrooms. Lorne also mentioned in his voiceover narration that something seemed to be going wrong with the spell. Post-bottle smash, everyone was acting as if they 17 years old, and things really started to go downhill. Whedon's only clue in the commentary was that he joked that there's always at least one person in the group who ruins the mushroom trip for everyone else. Other than that, I feel like I'm missing something quite significant about Cordelia's action. I guess what I'm trying to say is, if Cordy hadn't have smashed the bottle, would the final outcome of the episode have been any different?

Finally, I can't omit the fact that Joss admitted that he missed the old Cordy, since she had been pretty saintly for quite a while by the time "Spin the Bottle" came along. Whedon used this opportunity to bring her Bitch Queen persona back, which Charisma Carpenter played up perfectly as usual.

Age 17. I personally think that high school was invented so that teenagers would be forced to parade all of their weaknesses and insecurities in such a way that the whole world would be able to laugh at them. I hated high school, and I've always hated movies and TV shows about high school. I therefore can't stress enough how much of a miracle it is that Joss Whedon not only wrote a show about high school that I could actually enjoy (Buffy), he also developed a highly entertaining Bitch Queen (Cordelia) who became one of my favorite characters!

Some killjoy wrote up some convincing arguments in the "Continuity" section of the "Spin the Bottle" Wikipedia entry that the characters were not necessarily all supposed to be 17 years old. The main source we can draw from is Fred's comment that "Not one of y'all looks exactly seventeen." I don't recall that Joss Whedon addressed this point specifically, but suffice it to say that various metaphors were used for various teenage issues, and vice versa. I think the characters were only supposed to represent reasonable facsimiles of their teenage alter egos rather than their literal selves. Regardless, I think it's pretty universally understood that all of the characters were supposed to be 17 years old.

Fred. I was startled to find out that 17-year old Fred turned out to be a pothead, since I figured she was a good little Texas Bible Belt girl when she was growing up. I really thought that Whedon turned her into a stoner as somewhat of a practical joke and also as a way to shock the audience a bit. In the commentary, Whedon didn't mention anything in the way of a surprising juxtaposition between the sweet and innocent Fred we knew and loved and her perhaps somewhat wilder-than-expected past. On the contrary, both Whedon and Denisof seemed to imply that teenage Fred was simply a normal, laid-back West Texas high school girl.

The reveal that she was a conspiracy-theorist was almost more startling to me than the fact that she was a pothead. It took quite a bit of time for me to digest both reveals (as a pothead and a conspiracy theorist), and I finally just recently got around to incorporating those aspects into her overall character. Looking back, it seems quite logical that a conspiracy theorist would get involved in physics (after a brief layover in "history"), only to then fall into a rabbit hole after she started looking in a few places she probably should have left well-enough alone. All of that is worth another post that will probably never be written.

Wesley and Fred and Charles. I continue on with my lukewarm study of Wesley and Fred's growing relationship. Let's see. Wesley came across Fred in the lobby of the Hyperion Hotel hours after he dropped her off to deal with Professor Seidel in "Supersymmetry". Fred and Wesley stopped and stared at each other, with the tension all ripe and thick between them. Wesley, stoned in love with Fred, was concerned about her well-being. Fred was possibly looking at Wesley in a new light, since her affection for the now-cold-blooded-murderer Charles Gunn was starting to wane. Unbeknownst to them, as entertainingly described by Lorne the Narrator, Charles was witnessing their encounter and putting two and two together. Charles and Wesley had their little encounter in the office where Charles gave voice to his frustration about being the "muscle", while Wesley informed Charles that he (Wesley) had done what Charles was unwilling to do. This led to an almost-scuffle between the two of them which was halted when Wesley's knife or wooden stake (I forget which) dramatically burst out of his sleeve towards Charles' throat.

Alexis Denisof said that he and J. August Richards were both anxious as actors to have their two characters really have it out with each other. However, Joss held them back. As wonderfully dramatic as that scene was, and as important as it was to the overall storyline, I never cared for that Gunn versus Wesley aspect of the series. I have to grit my teeth while I'm waiting for scenes like these to get finished.

Joss Whedon mentioned in his commentary that writers' struggles will usually end up being reflected on the screen. The Mutant Enemy writers themselves had always wrestled with the question of what exactly was Gunn's place within the group. Whedon addressed this dilemma quite beautifully in the scene between Gunn and Wesley.

Sven Holmberg. (IMBD bio here). This actor was billed as the "Delivery Guy" in Wesley's apartment in both "The House Always Wins" and "Spin the Bottle". More specifically, he was the middleman in the dealings between Wesley and Emil for that ultra-cool multi-bladed weapon contraption that Wesley liked to have strapped to his arm. The Delivery Guy's greatest moment occurred when he got an earful while Wesley was having phone sex with Lilah just before Wesley kicked him out of his apartment!

According to the IMDB link above, Holmberg also played "Ty" in Season 1's "War Zone". I honestly don't remember him in "War Zone", and I'll have to scan through the episode one more time to find him. Regardless, he's another one of a long line of character actors on Angel who stand out in my mind. It's amazing how much of an impression these people can make even in the smallest of bit parts. Holmberg's Delivery Guy seemed so easy-going and down-to-earth. I loved how he just seemed to shrug it off when Wesley started treating him like dirt! Holmberg's character was refreshingly ordinary and he seemed to offer up a much-needed dose of reality to the series. I had always wanted to see his character a little more in Angel, but nope, it wasn't to be.

Don't Harsh My Melon. I'm not a good enough person to ignore Alexis Denisof's wonderful Freudian slip when "don't harsh my mellow" turned into "don't harsh my melon" after he viewed Charisma Carpenter smashing the magic potion bottle with her heel. I'm not sure if Alexis planned to say it or not, but it was still quite cute.


Lisa said...

"Don't harsh my melon" is hands down my favorite line from any Whedon commentary, ever.

Deborah said...

Some have speculated that Cordy (the real Cordy) smashed the bottle in a attempt to keep Jasmine from rising. She appears to be freaking and coming to some realization just before she smashes it, so it could be that she senses the evil awakening. Unfortunately, she knows she's too late when she sees The Beast in her "vision" and that's why she bolts to leave.

Miriam said...

It can't possibly get any better than that, can it Lisa? :-)

Deborah, I apologize about your excellent comment. It shows up when it's accessed from my home page, but for some reason it isn't showing up on the archived page. I'll look into it and possibly put in a holler to the Blogger Help desk. I'll address your points when I'm satisfied your comment is showing up everywhere it should be - otherwise I'd just look like I'm talking to myself.

Miriam said...

Wow - that was easy - the comments just popped up on the archived page.

I agree that Cordy seems to be sensing that something is going terribly wrong when she smashes the bottle. She'd be the obvious person to do it since she's the one who's most directly affected by the spell.

I wasn't sure if that was Cordy or Jasmine who bolted away at the end. I like your interpretation of it being Cordy, because it makes the most sense. Whedon said he made the final vision of her blurry on purpose to show that she's not only fading away from Angel but from the audience as well. I'd like to think that there's one moment where we're saying goodbye to the real Cordy in Season 4, and her walking away at the end of "Spin the Bottle" would be that perfect moment.

What's really throwing me at this time was that one of the commentators for the very next episode, "Apocalypse Nowish", made it very clear that Jasmine was in control of Cordelia in that show. I had originally thought that Cordy was still in a transition phase between Cordy and Jasmine at that time. The thought crossed my mind that, at the time of the commentary, the creators were still feeling the sting of all of the harsh criticism for having Cordelia sleep with Connor, and perhaps were being guilty of rewriting past events a little bit to make it more certain that Jasmine was sleeping with Connor and not Cordelia (or a Cordelia/Jasmine hybird). I don't have any proof of that. I'm actually going to re-watch the commentary today, and keep an eye out for clues in upcoming episodes.