Monday, August 9, 2010

Getting the Band Back Together

(J. August Richards and Alexis Denisof as Charles Gunn and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce)

I enjoyed Season 4 of Angel's "The Magic Bullet" more than "Happy Shiny People" simply because the main characters were one-by-one reverting back to their usual selves after they awakened from Jasmine's spell. In the previous episode "Shiny Happy People", the Angel Investigations team was spiraling downward, first as they came under the influence of the ancient deity Jasmine, then as they attempted to track down Fred, who faced certain death upon her return to Jasmine.

I never know ahead of time how easy or difficult a post will be until I sit down to actually type it. This semi-review for "The Magic Bullet" was somewhat challenging because the episode really didn't provide me with any additional insight (note to readers: I've seen all of the Angel episodes roughly 2-4 times each) or touch on any of my favorite pet themes. I didn't want this to devolve into a "I liked this" and "I didn't like that" type of my post, but, oh well.

Jeffrey Bell's DVD Commentary. "The Magic Bullet" felt more like a "normal" Angel episode in spirit, probably because {relatively) old pro Jeffrey Bell wrote the script. I was therefore surprised to hear in his excellent DVD commentary that "The Magic Bullet" was the first episode he ever directed!

Bell was in fine form as he was both informative and very entertaining to listen to. As usual, I reluctantly leave out a lot of the good parts, but the highlights for me were his descriptions of how his actors behaved (good and bad) while they were filming certain scenes. I was a little surprised at some of the good-natured criticism he meted out to a few of the extras, but I of course enjoyed hearing about it. My favorite story was how Bell claimed it was not all that easy to get get five grown men to hold hands with each other while they were filming their magic circle with Jasmine. I even think David Boreanaz was cracking up as he grabbed hold of Alexis Denisof's hand, while Alexis himself provided us with a little smirk.

Bell has an appealing, self-deprecating sense of humor, and he explained that he directed a 360 degree camera sweep in the magic circle scene referenced above because he was a brand new directer and was eager to do really cool things. Ironically, I thought this particular 360 sweep was one of the best ones I'd seen in the entire series and was highly appropriate for the situation. The scene would have been a lot less effective if he had used more traditional camera angles.

I also appreciated Jeffrey Bell's nod to his Indiana childhood when he described how he was trying to recreate the atmosphere of a church supper in this scene, right down to the announcements being presented just before the meal. Although I doubt that this concept of church suppers is limited to the Midwest region of the US, I always appreciate seeing something on TV that I can relate to here in Michigan.

General presentation of the episode. Joss Whedon's shows always seem to strike the perfect balance between drama and humor, without resorting to campiness or mocking the subject matters.

Jeffrey Bell described this perfectly when he explained,
"And one of the things we always try to do on the show is balance humor and emotion, and be genuine and not campy, and try to get someone to really play the emotion of falling for the Higher Being.....making Lorne light [in this scene].....[and] make it funny without ruining the tone of hopefully someone who is emotionally genuine in their feelings."
There are so many examples of this perfect balance in the Buffyverse that it's hard to pick out a definitive example. However, I thought Mutant Enemy did a particularly good job with handling Cordelia's pregnancy in Season 1's "Expecting". The Wikipedia link for the episode even mentions that "Originally, it was written in a more comedic style, but Joss Whedon insisted the writers 'should play [it] straight'." The key to this balance is allowing some humor to seep through while making sure the character is not being ridiculed.

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. I had mentioned in my last post that the Jasmine arc had a different look and feel to it, almost as if it had been filmed as its own separate season. One example is how actor Alexis Denisof wore a very un-Wesley like shirt (see photo above). I don't think the photo really conveys what I'm trying to describe, but to me it looked like a shirt that Wesley would wear on a lazy Sunday morning when he had no where to go and didn't expect any visitors. (Perfect for a nice cuddle on the couch while watching the morning news shows. Sigh!) He looked laid-back and comfortable, and had that natural confident look about him that some people have when they don't feel the need to impress anyone. In other words, a lot of people look better when they're not trying to impress anyone.

Jeffrey Bell praised Denisof for his perfect timing in this scene where he was warning Jasmine's followers about the extremely dangerous Fred Burkle. Coincidentally, this is yet one more example of a perfect balance between humor and playing it straight.

Fred Burkle. "The Magic Bullet" marked a huge advancement in Fred's character, not only through her heroic actions, but in the maturity she seemed to gain through her experiences. She no longer seemed like the lovable neurotic klutz we had grown used to. I'm assuming that the departure of Charisma Carpenter from the series had a lot to do with Fred's character growth. With Charisma playing Cordelia and Amy Acker playing Fred, we saw two stock characters who had been designed to be the perfect opposites of each other. Cordelia was sexy, Fred was nerdy. Cordelia was voluptuous, Fred was skinny. Cordelia was ascerbic yet down-to-earth, whereas Fred was sweet yet flaky. With Cordelia safely out of the way, Fred could safely evolve into a more mature, fully-integrated young woman.

It's too bad Amy Acker wasn't allowed to play Fred this way from the very beginning. I disliked Fred the moment I set eyes on her in Pylea, and her character didn't change quickly enough to satisfy me. Although I liked Fred a lot better in later episodes, the damage had already been done. I doubt if the creators could have been able to do anything that would have convinced me to like Fred. Fortunately, when Illyria took over Fred's "shell" in late Season 5, I could finally start appreciating Amy Acker's acting performances.

Jasmine. I enjoyed watching the rapid transformation of Jasmine, where she quickly evolved from the loving warm Supreme Being in "Shiny Happy People" to someone who was much more grimly determined in "The Magic Bullet". Although she was ostensibly tired and trying to recover from her wounds here, you could tell that she was actually pissed off and starting to reveal her true evil self. Jasmine didn't even try to charm her followers anymore since they were already thoroughly brainwashed. She could simply order them to take off their clothes and eat them without any bother or fuss.

Cordelia. I've already posted a lot of quotes from other people that described how the storylines had changed from Cordelia being the Big Bad to her being the mother of the Big Bad. Jeffrey Bell gave us one of the more thorough descriptions of the thought processes behind this decision.
"When we originally came up with the idea of Charisma/Cordelia being evil, she was going to be the Big Bad through the whole season, we'd have the reveal at the end of Episode 12 [which ultimately turned out to be "Calvary"], and then hide it from the gang for a while......But when Charisma showed up at the beginning of the year and she was pregnant, we had to reconsider things, and it was tricky because we had done a pregnancy arc last year [Season 3], so we really wanted to try and not make it about that, but we had to figure out a way to extend the life of the character beyond what Charisma could do with her pregnancy. She was due right about now [during the filming of "The Magic Bullet"], and so that's why we ultimately brought her and Connor together, to justify the pregnancy and for her to give birth to the Higher Being."
Bell continued on that they didn't know what Cordelia would give birth to until late in the season.Which begs the question: if the decision to have Cordelia sleep with Connor was a late development, then why was Connor originally introduced into the series in the first place? Did the creators have any special destiny for Connor, or was he just intended to be a pain in the ass for Angel?

Idle Thoughts. Thanks to Steve McQueen's 1968 classic movie, Bullitt, I can never figure out how to spell "bullet".

It's too bad that Denver the Bookstore Owner got killed by Darla in Season 2's "Reprise". He was a favorite character of mine and I would have loved to have seen Fred visit him in this episode. The scenes would have certainly played out a lot differently! Jeffrey Bell made the correct decision to cast Patrick Fischler as the conspiracy-theorist bookstore clerk.

Bell also spoke of the challenges of writing interesting and dramatic scenes when all of the members of Angel Investigations were getting along so well while they were under Jasmine's spell. Actually, I loved seeing Angel and Connor getting along together, and was sad when Connor reverted back to his crazy psycho-teen persona.

I've heard and read of many instances where actors are not told ahead of time how the story arcs will eventually play out. I wonder if actor Vincent Kartheiser knew during the filming of "Magic Bullet" that the reason why Connor wasn't affected by Cordelia's blood (which would have made him aware of Jasmine's true identity) was because he already knew her true identity?

Alexis Densiof's scene where he portrayed Wesley giving the presentation about the dangerous Winifred Burkle reminded me of some of his Senator Daniel Perrin press conferences in Dollhouse.

Andy Hallett was excellent during this stretch of Season 4. It was nice to see that the producers gave his Lorne character more chances to shine. I know I'm talking about this subject matter way too much, but Hallett did a particularly good job of balancing humor with dignity while he was acting as though he was under Jasmine's spell.

No comments: