Sunday, May 2, 2010

Where Diamonds Meet Polyester

(The Rat Pack outside the Sands Hotel & Casino circa 1960).

I have a certain fondness for Las Vegas going back to my childhood days when I thought it was about the classiest place in the world. It wasn't until I was quite a bit older that I found out that "class" and "elegance" are not really the first words that come to mind when describing the city. And I didn't even know that there were two Vegases: the Downtown area and the Strip. Despite that, I still feel quite a bit of nostalgia when I think of Sammy, Frank, Dean, Joey et al as well as other Las Vegas stalwarts like Marlene Dietrich, Bobby Darin, Ann-Margret and Elvis Presley performing at some of those old time casinos like the Flamingo, the Tropicana, the Riviera, the Sands, the Sahara and the Dunes.

So with this nostalgia in mind, I knew that I would absolutely adore Season 4 of Angel's "The House Always Wins" which featured the character of Lorne (Andy Hallett) performing at the Tropicana. I always enjoy watching scenes that feature the Las Vegas nightlife, and this episode is particularly visually stunning.

My biggest overall impression of this episode is that it should have been outstanding, and I'm disappointed that it fell just a little bit short, mostly because of a few plot points that I didn't quite care for. That said, I still always think of "The House Always Wins" as one of my favorite episodes.

As what usually happens, I like the show a lot more now that I've heard the excellent DVD commentary from writer David Fury and actor Andy Hallett. They both sounded like they had a great time shooting the episode. Much as I'd like to tell you all about the good parts, I'll instead stick with highlights from the commentary that have extra meaning for me.

Production. I always wonder if it's cheating a little bit to like an episode better after I've heard the commentary, rather than just judging a show strictly on its own merit. Regardless, what I got the most out of the commentary was the extraordinary attention to detail that director (and former script supervisor) Marita Grabiak insisted on while filming "The House Always Wins". I realized at that point that all of those visually stunning shots were what grabbed my attention and really made the show worthwhile for me.

One instance of what it took to get perfect shots was where Angel was driving Fred and Gunn down the Strip in his convertible. I understand they drove for several hours up and down the Strip to get the visual imagery just right, right down to how the lights reflected on the windshield. (Though Fury claims that the iconic shot of Wayne Newton's billboard looming over their convertible turned out to be strictly a happy accident.)

There are also several instances where the characters are in one spot, then, presumably, have moved only a few feet away a few seconds later. It turns out that in reality, the "few feet away" was actually a completely different location altogether. This scene is one example, where Angel was escorted outside of the Tropicana and ended up being roughed up outside a side entrance of another casino several blocks away (I forget which casino - it might have been opposite The Mirage). Although Lorne was supposedly performing at the Tropicana, the stage itself Hallett was performing on was at the Riviera. (I understand the casino shots themselves took place at the Tropicana). The most famous instance of displacement occurred when Fred, Lorne and Gunn escaped from the Tropicana and ran out onto Fremont Street, which is several miles away in the Downtown area. The dialogue even reflects that disconnect, as Gunn asked "Where the hell are we?", while Lorne answered, "Oh, wrong exit. This is Glitter Gulch."

As David Fury noted, Marita Grabiak went through all of those location changes for the integrity of the shot. I've often wondered if all of those scene displacements were kind of wasted on me and most of the rest of the audience. However, I then realized that since I'm showing the episode to my husband and scanning forward to show him all of the great shots, then obviously Grabiak was making the right calls.

Stand-Alone Episode. David Fury also called "The House Always Wins" the only stand-alone episode in Season 4. I always considered "Supersymmetry" and "Spin the Bottle" and, to a lesser extent, "Ground State" as being stand-alone episodes as well, but it's probably because they all offered strong plot lines separate from the unceasing "what the hell's happening to Cordelia?" theme. Fury is correct in his assessment that stand-alone episodes can be enjoyed by casual viewers who have not seen prior episodes. Regular readers know that I hold stand-alone episodes in high regard and I don't mind taking a break from a story arc once in a while.

I do have to admit that when I first saw "The House Always Wins", it seemed like a shining oasis within the continuous doom and gloom that had descended onto the series ever since Wesley kidnapped Connor. To be honest, I liked the episode a lot the first time I saw it, then it fell into a little bit of disfavor the next few times I saw it. Now that I've seen the DVD commentary, it's come full circle and I'm enjoying it quite a bit more again.

Vampires of Las Vegas. Within the tradition of Mutant Enemy always casting strong minor characters, I really enjoyed the character of Las Vegas vampire Jay-Don (Michael Nagy) in Season 2's "The Shroud of Rahmon", and I was sad that Angel killed him off so quickly so he could impersonate him. What I liked even more than Jay-Don was the idea that vampires might have been a little more visible and more part of the establishment in Vegas than in Los Angeles. (Though the notion of vampire thugs hanging out with Mafia bosses who ruled the city was already quite outdated even when the show was originally broadcast.)

When I first saw "The House Always Wins" I interpreted this piece of dialogue of Angel's name-dropping of The Rat Pack as proof that he actually hung out with these guys for a substantial period of time. Angel the Vampire would have fit right in with the underworld elements of that era. Now, I'm not quite so sure how to interpret Angel's admission that he had met them "...once. Twice. For drinks. Maybe it was three times." Regardless, the idea of vampires rubbing elbows with the upper echelons of Vegas is worth a TV series in its own right.

Clayton Rohner. Speaking of outstanding guest stars, David Fury had high praise for actor Clayton Rohner, who played the bad guy casino owner Lee DeMarco. Fury said he originally was looking for someone who was more physically imposing, but Rohner apparently wowed everyone when he read for the part. I personally think Rohner playing a weaselly bad guy was the better call, since we needed a good contrast between him and his brutish thugs. He kind of reminded me of the creepy type of guy (and, ladies, you all know this type) who sidles up next to you at the hotel bar as soon as your husband takes off for the powder room. It's always fun to see oily characters like DeMarco get their just rewards.

Conflict For The Sake Of Conflict. David Fury also mentioned that shows are boring if everyone gets along with one another, and conflict needs to be added to make the shows more interesting. I can understand his point in theory, but I don't like conflict being thrown into the mix just for the sake of conflict. "The House Always Wins" contained one of the clunkier examples of conflict being introduced unnecessarily when Lorne and Gunn had it out with each other as to why Lorne was working with the bad guys.
GUNN: I don't know, Lorne. I don't know why you did any of it. What, you were living so large, blaring Tony Bennett so loud in that sweet suite of yours, you couldn't hear your conscience screaming at you!

FRED: Charles, it doesn't matter.

GUNN: It does to me. I wanna know, Lorne. Why didn't you just say no to that piece of—

LORNE: I did! The first time he asked me to, of course I refused. (beat) So he blew a girl's brains out right in front of me. And he said that's what I could expect every time I said no.

GUNN: Sorry.

LORNE: No more than I am, slick.
This scene made absolutely no sense to me the first few times I saw it because, from the way Fred had to finesse her way into Lorne's dressing room, and how Gunn had to beat up his bodyguards to spring him loose, wasn't it totally obvious to Gunn that Lorne was being held prisoner? Isn't there some sort of implied understanding that when people are being held prisoner, they are forced to do things against their will? An analogy is when civilians or military personnel are being held hostage or prisoner by enemy combatants and they read obviously prepared statements denouncing their home countries. Everyone in the TV audience can see that their faces are swollen and covered with cuts and bruises. Then you ALWAYS have some idiots who claim that these poor unfortunates are traitors! If Gunn was so dense that he couldn't figure out the obvious regarding Lorne, then maybe he did deserve to be just the "muscle" for the group.

Except, I'm just now starting to understand something that seems so obvious in retrospect. When Gunn and Fred were hatching their plan to get past Lorne's bodyguards, they didn't necessarily think Lorne was in any sort of danger. They noted that things seemed kind of strange, but they might have just thought it was standard operating procedure for a big Vegas star to forget his friends and hire bodyguards to keep him separated from his adoring fans. Fred heard a lot of the story when she was in the dressing room with Lorne, but they didn't have time to fill Gunn in on the details until Gunn confronted Lorne on Fremont Street. However, even then Gunn wasn't really buying the idea of Lorne being the harmed party until Lorne informed him that one of DeMarco's men killed a girl right in front of him when he refused to participate in the scam of reading people's "futures".

We did find out the rest of the story when Gunn and Lorne had their little "conflict", but the writers could have easily had Gunn ask "What's happening? How'd this all start?" This scene is just one more example of a distressingly common plot device within the series where members of Angel Investigations would routinely become absolutely clueless just so the creators could stretch the story out a little bit further.

Zombie Angel to the Rescue. One scene that confused me in the episode was when Angel went all righteous fury in the backroom and started attacking DeMarco's thugs when they started roughing up Gunn and Fred. I was positive it would be revealed that Angel was just pretending to be a futureless zombie, particularly with how hilariously actor David Boreanaz played the scene. (When asked how his character Angel won the jackpot, Angel responded, "I put a quarter in the slot, and I pulled that little lever.") A few moments later, when Lorne destroyed the glowing orb that held everyone's future, it became obvious that Angel didn't become "himself" again until his future was restored courtesy of the flashing lights from the orb. David Fury solved my mystery by stating that Angel was a true champion, and he started fighting on pure instinct alone when he saw his friends being attacked.

I admit that the whole idea of Angel pulling a con job kind of falls apart when you review the events leading up to the showdown in the backroom. However, with a little bit of tweaking, I still think my idea of Angel just pretending to play along with DeMarco would have been the better idea.

Phone Sex. I've already written way too much about this scene, but I'll just repeat the story of how Joss Whedon wrote this piece of dialogue himself when it became apparent "The House Always Wins" was coming in short. A remarkable amount of information is packed into this few minutes, including the fact that Wesley was a lot more cool and self-assured, he was wearing more stylish casual clothes, he was less of a dork, Wes and Lilah's relationship seemed to be going quite well at that point, Wes was fully immersing himself in bad-ass underworld culture, he was going head-to-head with Angel Investigations, and he seemed to be pulling in quite a bit of business.

I don't think all of these details were written in by accident. I'm thinking Joss had a complete picture in his mind of how things should have been playing out in this part of Season 4, but perhaps his ideas weren't being fully realized. For example, it must have been quite important for Whedon to convey that Wes and Lilah had a definite high point in their relationship where things were starting to look surprisingly normal for them. Without this "high point", their falling out would have lost quite a bit of punch. I think it's safe to say that without this phone sex scene, we'd have had a quite different understanding of how Wesley's life was playing out.

Two for the Price of One. David Fury mentioned that the idea of futures trading, where people's futures are literally traded away, was originally a completely separate idea from the "Lorne in Vegas" plot. He conceived the futures trading plot to be kind of an Angel meets Wall Street type of episode. Fury was initially opposed to this, but the decision was made to combine the two plots, since the consensus was that it was better to use the futures trading idea right away than to let it sit on the shelf for too long. I mentioned in one of my last posts that David Greenwalt had left Angel at the beginning of Season 4. As an aside, if you look at the messages on the futures board in this episode, you'll find a reference to him working on a new deal for Disney/ABC (The short-lived but highly-acclaimed drama "Miracles").

David Simkins. Fury mentioned that it was executive producer David Simkins' idea to combine the futures trading plot into "The House Always Wins". I had never heard of Simkins before until I heard David Fury's commentary. As referenced above, Fury was initially opposed to Simkins' idea, and I'm not sure if it was ever revealed if Fury ever ultimately agreed it was the right decision. Regardless, it's intriguing to see that, according to IMDB, Simkins was named "head writer" and "executive producer" of Angel for early Season 4, while this Wikipedia entry refers to him as the "show runner" and executive producer. Both sources state that he left the show after a short period of time due to "creative differences", and was not credited in any of the episodes. Beyond that, there are a lot of other web sites reporting virtually the same thing, but with enough little discrepancies to make me feel uncomfortable about linking to any of these sites or passing on much else as being "fact".

In Simkins' little bios I see that he had done some previous work on another favorite show of mine, Charmed. I'm under the impression that to purists, you're either a Buffyverse fan or a Charmed fan, with never the twain shall meet. By extension, it appears that rabid Whedonites consider anyone associated with Charmed, including fans of the show, to be intellectual lightweights. I'm guessing that Simkins came into Mutant Enemy with some new ideas, and the rest of the Mutant Enemy staff closed ranks against the new kid. We have no idea how much creative input Simkins had in early Season 4, though the fact that he had a lot of say in how "The House Always Wins" was plotted may or may not be indicative of how much of a mark he left on other shows. In one of these "I'm just saying" instances, Simkins came in, worked just a tiny bit on early Season 4 on Angel, left the show, and the rest of the Mutant Enemy staff pulled together to make Season 4 happen, with the end result being that the first several episodes of Season 4 were quite outstanding.

Closing Thoughts. In a way I consider "The House Always Wins" to be Season 4's equivalent to Season 3's "Couplet", where things were actually starting to look pretty good for the Angel Investigations crew until the bottom fell out. In "Couplet", the Big Bad was Wesley's translation of "The Father Will Kill The Son" at the end of the episode, whereas in "The House Always Wins", Cordelia's return to the Hyperion marked the end of the good times.


David Lee said...

You pretty much nailed it.

Miriam said...

Thanks for your vote, David. :)