Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hissy Fit of the Day

I sat down last night to watch two Season 6 episodes of Supernatural that I had recorded off of TNT and was dismayed to find out that a favorite episode of mine, "Frontierland", had apparently been dropped from the rotation this time around. I was curious to see if TNT had skipped any other episodes from Season 6, and I was even more to dismayed to discover that they had also cut out "The French Mistake", and "My Heart Will Go On".

(Here's a listing of Supernatural Season 6 episodes.)

What's worse is I that I found out from the Zap2it listings that TNT abruptly stopped showing Season 6 episodes after "Mommy Dearest" and opted to jump directly to the beginning of Season 1. That's not the end of the world for me since I've only seen a few episodes from Season 1. However, it unfortunately means I'm missing the outstanding Castiel-centric episode, "The Man Who Would Be King", along with "Let It Bleed" and the season-ending "The Man Who Knew Too Much". Since I started watching the series on a regular basis several weeks ago, I'm not aware that TNT has skipped any other episodes. (Note: The CW site is currently showing "The Man Who Knew Too Much", I think until the end of this week.)

When I was still watching Angel on TNT a few years ago I remember how the network would skip an episode on extremely rare occasions. A bigger problem I had was how TNT sometimes took liberties with their scheduling and I would miss episodes if they were aired in atypical time slots. Regardless, there never seemed to be any logical explanation for the missing shows, so I just chalked it all up to human error. However, with so many episodes missing from Season 6, I figure there had to be some reason for why this is happening.

After spending less than a minute on Google, I found that TNT had skipped Supernatural episodes before in the past. In this particular forum that I linked to above, fans speculated it had to do with how certain shows had previously been shown on a Supernatural marathon that had aired a short time earlier. This time around I'm wondering if TNT is skipping episodes because Supernatural Season 6 has only recently been released on DVD? It makes perfect sense for TNT to agree to hold off airing all of the Season 6 episodes for a while so that they wouldn't be interfering with DVD sales.

Also, I haven't been keeping track of this, but I'm wondering if TNT is also skipping Bones episodes as well? Though, with all of the weird times that TNT airs the series, I don't think anyone could possibly be able to tell if any of the episodes went missing.

I hate to actually go so far as to criticize TNT since they provide a wonderful service in airing all sorts of wonderful TV show, like Angel, Charmed, Supernatural, Bones etc. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was actually enjoying Season 6 of Supernatural , particularly since the entire cosmology of the series was really starting to gel. It's just a pain in the butt to be faithfully following a storyline, only to be thrown a curve when a network starts skipping episodes. I was particularly looking forward to seeing Season 6 of Supernatural in its entirety since I'd only previously seen a few episodes in the latter part of the season.

I know, I know. I should stick a crowbar into my purse and buy the Season 6 DVD's.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Pleasant Interlude

James Marsters and Charisma Carpenter

The only criticism I have about last night's episode of Supernatural (7.05, "Shut Up, Dr. Phil") is that, with Buffyverse veterans Charisma Carpenter and James Marsters appearing as the husband-and-wife team of witches Maggie and Don Stark, it would have been impossible for the producers to have delivered a product that would have met my unreasonable expectations. (See TV Guide recap and review with spoilers here).

I wanted more character development and more of a range between the highs and the lows and more Charisma Carpenter and more James Marsters and more scenes with Carpenter and Marsters together and more scenes with Carpenter, Marsters and leads Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles together. Instead we received a perfectly acceptable frothy piece of confection that kept me reasonably entertained for an hour.

Charisma Carpenter. I have yet to see Charisma's recent Burn Notice appearance but I must say she looked sensational in the still shots! She continued to look absolutely stunning in Supernatural, though I can't help but note that whenever a few wrinkles appeared on her face, her close-up would abruptly come to an end. (Shame on me for even mentioning it.)

Charisma's talents were criminally underutilized during her acting career (Buffy and Angel notwithstanding), and we should have been able to enjoy seeing her in a lot more roles this past decade. Fortunately, I think she can still have a wonderful career ahead of her as a highly attractive mature woman. It's up to us to let producers know that we're perfectly happy to see actresses on TV who are in their 40's and beyond.

As far as Carpenter's acting, I was pleased to see just the right element of Cordelia in her performance, without her pushing things too far. Let's face it; we would have been awfully disappointed if Charisma had played a mousy wife and mother. Again, any real criticism I have has to do with the lack of character development. We know that Maggie was a witch who was always in an extremely bad mood; it would have been nice if we could have seen more of her vulnerabilities and been given a chance to fall in love with her good qualities.

James Marsters. Although I usually appreciate understatement, if anything, Marsters could have pushed his performance a little bit more over the edge. However, I was a bit surprised that I found more promising potential with his character than with Charisma's. In particular, I was intrigued with how his character showed up at the very end and swiped the Romanian hex coins that his wife Maggie had planted in Sam and Dean's motel room, and generously saved the brothers from being killed by the mysterious monster/man for good measure. Could that have been a potential bonding moment for the three guys? In keeping with the Supernatural tradition of never being able to create a totally convincing female character, I found myself hoping to see more of Marsters' character in upcoming episodes rather than Carpenter's.

I came into this fully expecting Charisma to steal the show while James played more of a supporting character. The fact that they ended up as equals was a nice added bonus.

Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. What can I say? These guys once again did a great job portraying brothers Sam and Dean Winchester. Unfortunately, there seemed to be an element that everyone was doing little more than marching through the episode from Points A to B. It was obvious that the mere presence of Spike and Cordy was the main plot point, with the rest of the action thrown in as filler material. The script outline seemed to be: investigate a mystery, tell a few jokes, try to duck out of the way of the angry witches, save the day with a few soothing words, cheat death yet once again, tidy up a few loose threads, mix in a little Sam getting all touchy-feely (figuratively) with Dean, The End.

Ensemble, or Lack Thereof. I agree with just about everything Sandra Gonzalez wrote in her excellent review of the episode over at PopWatch. She particularly nailed it when she wrote:
But if you’d tuned in especially excited for the Buffy cameos, as I’m sure many did, I can see how some would think the payoff was minimal. That’s of no fault to anyone specifically — it’s just that as someone who was excited about the event, I would have loved to see more interaction between the guest stars and the main characters.


The best part of the episode — minus the awesome nightmare sequence and the whole bit about Sam running — was watching Sam and Dean interact with the couple. During what can only be defined as the “Dr. Phil” part of the episode, I loved watching Sam and Dean try to help navigate Maggie and Don’s problems and it was a nice parallel to what was going on with the brothers as well. Sadly, this part was only a sliver of the larger episode. More, I say! More!

Okay, maybe I’m being greedy. But in this case, we’re talking about the union of two of the greatest fandoms in the (short) history of genre television — I don’t feel bad about having sky-high expectations. Had we trimmed the subplot about the Forgettable Best Friend, I feel like we could have had a little more time to spend on the main event. In sum, I wouldn’t argue against seeing more Don and Maggie.

My only quibble is that I did not really enjoy the scene with Don and Maggie and Sam and Dean. (Based on early reviews, I seem to be in the minority.) It was a clever set-up, where Sam and Dean were trying to dispense helpful advice while finding out the hard way that it's not a great idea to intervene during the middle of a marital squabble. Unfortunately the scene dissolved pretty quickly into slapstick, where the action went back and forth like a tennis match, with Sam and Dean trying to soothe the married couple, and Don and Maggie taking turns casting mildly debilitating spells on the brothers. I thought the low point occurred when Don (I think) cast a spell that let loose a swarm of bees around Dean's head. Although the brothers achieved their goal of having Don and Maggie patch up their differences, I would have enjoyed the scene a lot more if Sam and Dean hadn't been acting solely out of a sense of self-preservation. Instead of establishing a true rapport with the couple, Sam and Dean were just trying avoid getting killed by Don and Maggie.

James and Charisma in the Future? I mentioned above that I was more intrigued with James' character than with Charisma's character. Having said that, I'm more than willing to sign any petition that comes my way that would ask the producers to bring both of them back for future appearances, particularly since I believe Charisma is capable of delivering a lot more. However, from a coldly clinical perspective, I didn't see anything particularly promising for the future. If the producers want to make the commitment to flesh out the characters and allow James and Charisma to perform to the best of their abilities, I'd be all for it. However, if Don and Maggie would only be brought back as comic relief, then I think I'd have to pass.

Idle Thoughts. I found more of Cordelia in Charisma Carpenter's performance than Spike in James Marsters' performance.

The episode effectively showed that Dean was in a dark place as he grieved over the loss of his friend Castiel and felt remorse for killing Jewel Staite's mostly good brain-eating demon character. I've read in a few places that by not killing Maggie the Witch, Dean had reached a turning point in his character development. If that's what was being presented, then I sure didn't see it that way. If anything, I thought Sam and Dean had decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and that they were lucky to escape with their lives.

Under the "doth protest too much" category, I found a few similarities between what I wrote and what Sandra Gonzalez wrote in PopWatch. Since I honestly didn't see her article until I got towards the end of this post, I opted not to do a massive rewrite.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Spike and Cordelia on U.S. TV Tonight

In what I hope is a passing resemblance to Buffy Speak, I've been getting all #Occupation Wall Street-y over at my Wolfram & Hart Hall of Fame blog. This obviously takes time away from I Heart Wesley W-P, which I apologize profusely for.

I'm also toying with the idea of setting up a Twitter account for my blogs.

In the meantime, I'm mourning the hopefully temporary loss of Misha Collins as Castiel in Season 7 of Supernatural, but I'm wildly excited about Charisma Carpenter and James Marsters appearing on tonight's episode in a few hours! Charisma seems absolutely smitten with stars Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles according to this lovely interview at Zap2It. Writer Carina Adly MacKenzie wistfully notes that this episode provides us viewers with a "what could have been" scenario if Carpenter and Marsters had worked together more at Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Holding the Center

Keeping the Core Together.
David Boreanaz and James Marsters
as Battle-Hardened Angel and Spike.
(Courtesy of Screencap Paradise.)

I was interrupted about three-quarters of the way through "Shells" from Season 5 of Angel last weekend when the rest of my family commandeered the TV set for the Michigan-Notre Dame football game. Unfortunately, I decided not to watch the ending. Again, just like with the previous episode "A Hole in the World" (my post here), I was pretty bored with what is actually a very fine episode. I've simply seen it too many times to be able to whip up much enthusiasm. (Note to new readers: I'm working my way through the DVD's for the first time.) What sets "Shells" apart from others is that, similar to "Inside Out" in Season 4, "Shells" is an episode that I find myself referring to over and over again when I'm looking for information regarding some very key elements, mostly in reference to all of the "soul" talk.

I've written about "Shells" quite extensively in the past. For talk about the concepts of souls in general and what might have happened to Fred's soul, I recommend "The Soul of the Matter" and its follow-up post, "After the Fall Interrupted: Now, Where Did We Leave Fred's Soul?". For a more specific post regarding "Shells" (which mostly focused on Wesley's relationship with Illyria) you can read "Best Teacher in the World", In this post, "After the Fall Volumes 3 & 4: Wesley and Illyria/Fred" I only briefed touched on "Shells" but I expanded on the topic of Fred's soul quite a bit more.

About the only thing that's left for me to is to focus on some specific key concepts I've been following and take it from there.

Wesley and Spike. If you look at my Wesley and Spike tag you'll notice that I've been interested in how their relationship moved from mutual disgust toward something approaching mutual respect. "Lineage" seemed to be somewhat of a breakthrough episode in that, although Spike's methods were a bit crude in how he tried to cheer up Wesley after Wesley's unfortunate incident with the cyber version of his father, Spike's heart was obviously in the right place. There were never any dramatic moments where the two of them hugged each other and sobbed "I love you, man". However, by the time "Shells" came around, both of them were working competently together as professional colleagues.

Angel, the Senior Partners, and Some (almost) Buffy Crossovers. I'm specifically interested in how Angel went full circle starting off with when he tried to take the fight to the Senior Partners in early to mid-Season 2, how he repudiated his methods in late Season 2 ("....if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world...."), back to how he decided to take on the Senior Partners again by the end of Season 5. I usually couch this in terms of Angel veering back and forth between idealism and pragmatism, with all of the pitfalls associated with the accompanying moral ambiguity. Seeing as how it was clearly stated in the After the Fall comic continuation series that the Senior Partners were actively manipulating Angel into fighting them head-on, (thereby bringing on the Apocalypse), I certainly don't see how Angel could have chosen the alternative of just sitting at his desk and watching his loved ones get picked off one by one.

Another thing I've been trying to figure out is: were the Senior Partners actively involved in bringing on the unfortunate events of Season 5?, Or did they simply create fertile grounds that allowed these events to occur? Specifically, did they talk to Knox and the mad doctor and order them to bring Illyria's sarcophagus into the lab? Long story short, I still haven't found a lot of signs of direct hands-on involvement by the Senior Partners. However, this plays into an interesting parallel with a lot of corporate scandals (think of the recent Murdoch media empire phone-hacking scandals) in how executives can be just as culpable as their underlings simply by creating an environment that allows malfeasance to take place. This also ties in with the nature of Higher Beings in general, in that they don't spend a lot of time with details but are more concerned with keeping the underlying machinery up and functioning.

I've been writing quite a bit lately about how Joss Whedon seemed to have his heart set on bringing more characters into the show from the newly-ended Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was able to bring over James Marsters' Spike as a main character and Tom Lenk's Andrew Wells for a few substantial guest performances. However he struck out with Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy and Anthony Stewart Head as Giles. The best that Whedon could manage with "Shells" was to include a one-sided phone conversation between Angel and Giles where Giles informed Angel that Willow was unavailable and that he was unwilling to help out Angel now that he was associated with Wolfram & Hart.

Far from simply pandering to Buffy fans, this little scene was quite crucial for showing us that Angel was starting to understand that it was all between him and the Senior Partners. Although Angel still had somewhat of a ragtag team underneath him (Spike, Wesley, Gunn, Lorne and Harmony), he understood that it was ultimately up to him to deal with the situation the best he could. When he was outside of Wolfram & Hart it was possible to find ways to avoid direct confrontations. Now that Angel was firmly attached to Wolfram & Hart it was impossible for him to disentangle himself for their clutches.

Angel and Spike/Heroism and Leadership. Sometimes I get a little tired of inexperienced demon hunters (i.e., Buffy, Sam and Dean Winchester) getting all angsty as they flounder around trying to figure out what they're supposed to do. I'm always looking for role models who can exhibit calm leadership in the face of adversity. In "Shells" I really appreciated how the two wise-not-quite-beyond-their-years vampires Angel and Spike were able to take over and keep the center core intact while Wesley and Gunn self-destructed and Lorne went AWOL. I specifically appreciated how Angel did everything right by shocking Wesley out of his murderous impulses while simultaneously reassuring Wes that he was still an integral part of the team.

Although Angel was just as much in the know, Spike was allowed to shine a little bit brighter when they explained why they were best suited for the job of trying to retrieve Fred's soul. I particularly liked this sequence:
SPIKE: The thing only took over her body. Just a tip of the theological.

ANGEL: It's the soul that matters.

SPIKE: Trust us. We're kind of experts.

GUNN: What about her— If her organs have been liquefied?

SPIKE: Flash fried in a pillar of fire saving the world. I got better.
With all of these previous scenes of Angel and Spike joining forces to fight for a common cause, I still found this scene to be rather startling, where Angel was surprised that Spike was staying to continue the fight rather than striking off on his own.
SPIKE: (sighs) Long day. That offer still good? Send me abroad, roving agent and all?

ANGEL: Yeah, it's still good.

SPIKE: Great. (sighs) Maybe we should send Gunn... before Wes has another poke.

ANGEL: (surprised) You're not leaving?

SPIKE: This is what she would have wanted. (thinks about it) It's what *I* want. I don't really like you. Suppose I never will. But this is important, what's happening here. Fred gave her life for it. The least I can do is give what's left of mine. The fight's comin', Angel. We both feel it... and it's gonna be a hell of a lot bigger than Illyria. Things are gonna get ugly. (shrugs and smiles) That's where I live.
If you've already seen the entire series it's easy to forget that this scene was really quite pivotal. Upon first viewing, the audience still wasn't sure if Spike could be trusted to stick around and help out his old nemesis Angel. If you're viewing this episode for the second time or more, it seems a bit jarring to see the writers emphasize something that you think has already been well-established. Regardless, it was another great piece of dialogue that reinforced the fact that Spike could be every bit the champion that Angel was.

Although Angel and Spike failed to bring Fred back, they were at least able to stabilize the situation and bring a much-needed sense of finality to her death. It was important for Angel and Spike to present a united front, which they succeeded in doing so quite magnificently.

Wesley and Illyria. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I've already written quite a bit about Wesley and Illyria. I'm always fascinated with how Wesley was able to work as Illyria's guide and mentor despite his grief over the loss of Fred. I've always attributed this to his natural Watcher tendencies where he had an innate (possibly erotic) need to nurture women as they started off on their life's journeys.

I wrote at length about their interactions in "Shells" here. I don't have too much more to add except that After the Fall pretty well established that Fred was no longer presiding inside of Illyria, and that Illyria herself was falling for Wesley, albeit courtesy of the vestiges of Fred's memories that still remained inside her body.

Harmony. I can't overlook how well the character of still-evil vampire Harmony stepped up to the plate during this stretch of Season 5. Although Harmony was totally unpredictable, she proved yet again, particularly in this scene, that she was fully capable of making important contributions to the team. She also acted as another steadying influence while others (like Wesley and Gunn) were falling apart. Harmony provided much-needed moments of comic relief that broke up the otherwise pervasive dreariness. Actress Mercedes McNab, as usual, did an excellent job of providing this comic relief without going too far over into zaniness.

Idle Thoughts. I'm betting that my remaining blog posts regarding Season 5 of Angel will be very much the same as this one, where I overlook a lot of key plot points and focus in a few of my pet themes. (Presumably my posts will have a little more substance if the episode I'm reviewing has extra DVD commentary.) If you're looking for anything specific, I invite you to explore my subject tags in the lower right and use the search functions on this blog.

I fully realize I'm repeating things over and over again. For example, I'm working through my Angel DVD's, I've already seen most of the episodes several times already etc. This can be excruciating for regular readers, but I feel like I need to provide these explanations for the sake of one-time readers who land here courtesy of search engines.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Out With the New, In With the Old

(Above: Amy Acker's screen test for Angel.)

As I work through my Angel DVD collection, I can never predict in advance how I'm going to react to a particular episode. Regular readers know that I've previously recorded all of the episodes from TNT, and I've obviously viewed my favorite shows a lot more often than the others.

I seem to be enjoying my "least" favorite episodes a lot more than my "favorites" this time around since I'm viewing them with a fresher set of eyes. As a result I'm picking up on things that I missed the first time(s) through. I'm keying in on a few of my pet themes, and I'm finding that some of the so-called lesser episodes (like "Why We Fight") are actually full of valuable information.

"A Hole in the World" started off as one of those favorite episodes that I've unfortunately seen one too many times. That surprised me since I found that I had not lost any enthusiasm for the previous episode, "Smile Time", which is also one of my all-time favorites. What worried me is that "A Hole in the World" is meatier and much more substantial than "Smile Time". I had particularly been looking forward to this stretch of Season 5 since I thought this was arguably the best string of episodes of the entire series. I was also interested in seeing how the end of the Angel TV series may have possibly blended in with the After the Fall comic continuation series. I was therefore daring to hope that I'd be able to reverse the trend of not enjoying my "favorite" episodes quite so much.

Although the commentary for "A Hole in the World" with Joss Whedon, Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker was quite entertaining during my first run-through, I found that more than anything else it merely served to reinforce some of the things I'd already figured out (e.g., Fred and Wesley's romance was shoehorned into the series so that her death would be that much more tragic.) With this in mind, I thought it would be a bit unfair for me to review "A Hole in the World" under these circumstances. I felt that this post deserved to be written up by someone who is still genuinely in awe of the sheer tragedy and beauty of this episode. (Perhaps what I wrote back in 2009 here and here was more appropriate.)

Luckily for me, I decided to give the DVD commentary one more chance. Rather than watching as a passive viewer this time around, I found that through the process of jotting down notes and otherwise dissecting the information that was presented to me, this episode was just as rewarding for me to watch as it was two years ago.

DVD Commentary. It was wonderful to listen to Joss Whedon and Alexis Denisof as usual, but Amy Acker was a pleasant surprise. Although I found her natural speaking voice to be somewhat cloying (little girlish and wavery), Amy quickly won me over with her warmth, humor and charm. This was arguably her most important episode, and it was quite vital to have both Alexis and Amy (as well as Joss) give us their insights.

The trio joked throughout about how they were spending more time watching and listening to the episode than describing the action. Joss even made a quip about their "DVD pantomime" and how their commentary "sucked". I thought they did a fine job. I'd rather hear long stretches of dialogue once in a while so that I feel more in tune with what I'm watching.

Fred and Spike. Fred and Spike had a wonderful rapport with each other, which I've written about previously here, and to a lessor extent, here. I was actually looking forward to a lot more interplay between Fred and Spike in Season 5, but unfortunately everything seemed to come to a halt after "Hell-Bound". Amy Acker said in her commentary that actor James Marsters had told her that he thought the two of them (presumably the characters, wink-wink) would become "love interests". Although this was presented as a joke, from what we saw earlier in Season 5, it seemed somewhat inevitable that perhaps something would start brewing between Spike and Fred.

Putting aside the fact that the writers just didn't have time to fit everything in, perhaps Spike held off in pursuing Fred because he was still trying to get over that little thing he had going with Buffy. He might have also shrewdly sensed that the playing field was a little crowded, with Fred being surrounded by an ex-boyfriend (Gunn), a current somewhat-of-a-boyfriend (Knox), and a boyfriend-in-waiting (Wesley). However, it would have been fascinating to see the newly ensouled Spike, who probably would have welcomed the chance to get reacquainted with his poetic side, become involved with someone like the eternal optimist Fred, who desperately needed to get in touch with her darker side. For some reason I don't think the relationship would have been quite the disaster as it might have seemed at first glance.

As it was, although we were able to witness Spike's true depths of feeling for Fred both before and after her death, Fred's feelings for Spike were much less apparent. It's possible a few entertaining thoughts about Spike entered her head once in a while. She was certainly flirtier with Spike than she ever was with Wesley! However, deep down I feel that Fred was a natural- born charmer, so a warm smile toward Spike probably meant little more than Fred being Fred.

Spike and Angel. Joss said it best about this scene ("cavemen versus astronauts") when he joked, "I'd never seen a more intense or beautiful romance....We finally found....the right girl for Angel. I'm sort of kidding......." Spike and Angel bickering early on in the episode was a marvelous contrast to how we saw them working seamlessly together in this wonderful scene at the Deeper Well. It's always fun to speculate about the "true" nature of a relationship. Despite what seemed to be their insurmountable differences, Spike and Angel appeared to mean a lot more to each other than they cared to admit. Fred's death was the perfect catalyst for bringing this little-seen aspect of their relationship up to the surface.

David Boreanaz and James Marsters worked incredibly well together, to the point where Joss emphasized that they put the actors in the same camera views as much as possible. This brings to mind all of the minefields associated with the subject of male bonding, and all of the absurdities surrounding the whole "I don't want to look like I'm gay" mindset. Please forgive my venture into the land of stereotypes, but it appears that a lot of men are completely unable to accept that they have feelings for each other. There are many instances where men will willingly go off en masse and leave the womenfolk behind (off to war, fishing trips, jobs in remote outposts, sports training camps etc.), and will even openly admit that they like the "No Girls Allowed" club rules. However, they are quick to point out that they are mostly enjoying their little rebellions against female rule. They don't have to take showers, they can leave beer cans scattered all over the place, and they have the freedom to tell jokes and otherwise function in ways that would never have been allowed at their grandmothers' houses. These same semi-mythical man-creatures would never take it a step further and admit that perhaps the opportunity to spend quality time with male soul-mates might be the biggest attraction of all.

I've noticed that, unlike with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I have a hard time identifying with female characters in Angel. That's because females in Angel are presented as being exotic and inscrutable, like we're viewing them through the eyes of their completely mystified male admirers. There was only one stretch of Angel where we were finally getting something close to the woman's point of view, and that was when Cordelia and Fred were bonding in early Season 3. Then Cordelia turned into a higher being, and you know the rest. I haven't put too much thought into this, but it appears that within these constraints, the only way Mutant Enemy could really explore the depths of feelings within a male/female relationship in Angel was through the proxy of male/male relationships.

Jonathan Woodward as Knox. I had mentioned in a previous post that:
Whenever I see Knox, I get that same sinking feeling you get when the least attractive guy in your department asks you out on a date. Tim Minear mentioned in the DVD commentary for the Season 4 finale "Home" that everyone who mattered was impressed with actor Jonathan Woodward's work as Holden Webster in the Buffy Season 7 episode "Conversations with Dead People", and they were eager to bring him over to Angel. Woodward is a very good actor and successfully portrayed Knox as being almost endearingly shy and awkward with Fred, but with that touch of malice that Pollyanna Fred was completely unable to pick up on. I could never put my finger on why I disliked his character so much, yet the fact that I could never understand what Fred saw in Knox may have ultimately doomed their whole storyline. Regardless, if I was wired up with electrodes in a focus group, I wouldn't give off whatever vital signs the marketers were looking for that would indicate that Knox would be a popular character on a TV show.
It never ceases to amaze me how I can completely change my mind about how I feel about certain characters or situations. One thing I'm making an effort to do is challenge past notions and prejudices while I make my way through the Angel DVD's. It's not that I'm trying to make myself a better person. It's more like I'm able to watch an almost completely different series when I approach the show from a different direction.

Although Woodward made several substantial appearances as Knox throughout Season 5, his was another character that I would have liked to have seen a little more often. Based on Joss Whedon's DVD commentary and this Wikipedia entry, it appears that Mutant Enemy didn't have Knox's complete story arc mapped out ahead of time. It also appears that Woodward never knew exactly what his character was up to until he read the individual scripts. This leads me to a point that I can be making about just about every character in television: nobody wants to telegraph future story lines and spoil the surprise for fans. However, since the actors are forced to somewhat fumble around in the dark in each episode, it can quite often be a bit disconcerting to see how the actors' previous performances don't seem to jibe with the Big Reveal. We're then forced to go back and conjure up reasons why He Did This and She Did That in earlier episodes, and also rely heavily on the old saw "he did a really good job of fooling everyone" when all else fails.

I thought Woodward did an excellent job of portraying Knox as a seemingly mild-mannered guy who nonetheless had a hint of malevolence just below the surface. Was Knox basically Evil but did a good job covering it up? Or was he basically Good and had a touch of Evil that bubbled up once in a while? Kudos to Woodward and the production staff for shaping Knox's character in such a way that he could have gone either way.

Amy Acker's and Alexis Denisof's tour de force aside, the best little piece of acting in the entire episode probably occurred when Jonathan Woodward uttered that simple "Oops" after Gunn caught Knox calling Fred "it". Woodward's timing of his pause was impeccable (though he may have had some help from the editors.) Regardless, I loved how he played it, as someone who almost instantaneously sensed that it was useless to keep on lying. I truly think "Knoxy" would have been able to continue the charade for at least a little while longer. However, he might have very quickly decided it was pointless since, in an odd way, he was probably better off letting the truth come out sooner rather than later. With Knox, even though the inclusion of his character with the rest of the males in the earlier "let's save Fred" moments of the episode was a classic misdirect, it still added an interesting dynamic to those scenes. If Knox had not been one of the villains it would have been interesting to explore just how he was able to so quickly work his way into the circle of alpha male superheroes.

Gunn in the White Room. The scene where Gunn wrestled his alter-ego/conduit in the White Room is another one of those scenes where I always felt like I was missing something. To back up, I guess I never really understood the purpose of allowing Gunn to access the Senior Partners. Wasn't Gunn's role redundant, as the Senior Partners always seemed to have some other dedicated staff member who played the liaison part, with first Eve, then Hamilton? As an aside I was shocked to find out that, as far as I can tell, Mutant Enemy only filmed three actual scenes with Gunn in the White Room, here, here and here. I'd have to scour the dialogue to find out if Gunn made any off-camera visits there, but I definitely had the impression that Gunn was tighter with the Senior Partners than perhaps he actually was.

I could go on and on about this, but I think it all boils down to something pretty simple. The Senior Partners built up and massaged Gunn's ego long enough to get him hooked, then dropped him when he outlived his usefulness. In other words, there was no reason to be best buddies with Gunn once he passed the point of no return after he received his second legal brain upgrade behind Team Angel's back, and obviously when he unwittingly signed the paper that allowed Illyria's sarcophagus to pass through customs. The Senior Partners needed Gunn to experience a dramatic fall from grace, with raising his status to the highest level being an integral part of the plan. Ironically, this particular plotline in the TV series was that much more of an important element in the first four volumes of After the Fall.

Eve. I've mentioned before that I started to really like Eve after she'd been cut down to size. I actually found her vulnerability quite touching in this scene where Team Angel burst into her bedroom and started interrogating her. Eve seemed quite sincere when she told them that "I wanna help. I swear to you. I've got nothing against Fred", although her motivations may have been somewhat murky. Nonetheless, she provided the guys some spectacularly valuable information when she told them about the Old Ones and the Deeper Well. (As an aside, her revelations were equally as valuable for giving the viewers a much clearer picture of the cosmology of the Angelverse).

All of this leads me to wonder, was Eve acting purely out of self-preservation or was she acting out of at least some goodness of her heart? The cop-out answer is that it was probably a little bit of both, but it's the best conclusion I can come up with at this time. Putting aside how the Mutant Enemy writers were planting a bunch of false flags in front of us, I really do think that at least a small part of Eve actually wanted to be a true part of Team Angel, somewhat reminiscent of how Spike was attracted to the Scoobies in Season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although I never found her "sexual chemistry" with Angel to be all that convincing, it actually suits my purposes right here to think that perhaps she really was a little sweet on Angel. We have no idea what Eve's background might have been, but she may have felt more than a few regrets about not being able to fully integrate into Angel's loving, tight-knit little family.

Perhaps one of her biggest motivations could also tie in with one of my favorite themes, where the Bad Guys will instinctively throw their lots in with the Good Guys when opportunities arise. (Think of Lilah aligning herself with the crew at the Hyperion in Season 4's "Calvary"). Eve knew that she'd be treated fairly by Angel, and she understood that any rough handling she might have encountered in the process, although unfortunate, would have been well-deserved.

Wesley and Fred, Alexis and Amy. I always regretted not writing about Amy Acker's (and also Vincent Kartheiser's) screen tests that appeared as Season 3 DVD extras. In both cases I was just as impressed by the performances of the seasoned veterans (Denisof, Richards and Boreanaz) as I was by the newcomers. Both Alexis Denisof and J. August Richards seemed positively smitten with Amy Acker as the three of them clowned their way through a faux-Midsummer's Night Dream sequence that took place at the Hyperion Hotel. I've always been a little puzzled about why the doomed Wesley/Fred love affair struck such a chord with fans. After watching Amy and Alexis' scenes in "A Hole in the World" I'm leaning towards the idea that fans were actually reacting to the deep rapport felt between the actors themselves rather than what their characters were presenting to us on-screen.

Per the DVD commentary, the filming of Fred's death was as emotionally draining as it was rewarding for the cast and crew involved. I've unfortunately misplaced my notes, but I believe Joss Whedon humorously called that particular day of filming as one of the best days of Alexis and Amy's life! The two actors had spent roughly two years waiting to really delve into their roles, and Joss Whedon noted the irony in using Fred's death as the catalyst. Joss also told us that a lot more was filmed than what we saw on-screen, which allowed the actors to really jump into their characters and explore their emotional depths. This obviously gave Whedon a wealth of material to choose from for the final cut.

Fred's final death scene was the last sequence filmed on a very long day of shooting. Joss offered to wrap things up before Fred's death and allow everyone to start off fresh the next day. However, Alexis and Amy and (probably the rest of the crew) agreed that, as tired as they were, it would have been way too difficult to get back into the same emotional state on the next day. That turned out to be a wise decision since it was vital for the audience to see the total exhaustion in both Fred and Wesley as her death finally arrived.

From what I understand, the sequences were not filmed in the order that we saw in the finished product. However, Joss noted that he was amazed at how the movements seemed to flow seamlessly from one moment to the next as he worked on putting the final cuts together. If Joss had any sort of difficulty at all in editing this scene I certainly didn't notice it. Alexis said it best when he described the finished product as "There's a sort of tightening that happens in each scene, where you feel it just getting worse and worse".

Drogyn. Alec Newman was absolutely outstanding as the noble warrior Drogyn. He was another one of those characters who established himself so quickly you had to remind yourself that he was actually making his series debut. There was more than a few similarities between Alec Newman's Drogyn and Mark Lutz' Groosalugg, to the point where a person can't help but think that this might have been a good place to re-introduce Groo into the series. However, Drogyn was much more darker and introspective than The Groosalugg, and, plotwise, seemed to be better suited for the final fate that awaited him. As it turned out, Drogyn was simply another one of those Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-type characters who perform a few crucial deeds or introduce a few key concepts (e.g., Drogyn always told the truth so we would know that Fred could not be brought back), then goes off and dies.

Idle Thoughts. Joss mentioned in his commentary that Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker were his two star performers at his semi-regular Shakespeare readings that he held at his house. Whedon also described how it was through these Shakespeare readings that he got the germ of the idea to kill off Fred and have Amy start portraying someone who was "regal and scary" and quite different from anything she had done before. I'm not sure if it was as simple as Amy turning in powerhouse Lady Macbeth performances, or if Joss just saw the potential for Amy to expand her acting range when he witnessed her readings. Regardless, Whedon made a great call, and I still think Illyria's her best role to date.

Think of the similar fates that Eve and Lilah suffered after they put themselves under the protection of Team Angel.

I wasn't nearly as enchanted with the Wesley-shooting-the-soulless office hack scene this time around. Joss Whedon explained in his DVD commentary that, just like every other episode he wrote, "A Hole in the World" came in quite long. He acknowledged that if the scene had been deleted it would not have affected the story line at all. However, he said something to the effect that it was too cool to cut out. Although the scene lost it's punch for me after viewing it for about the fourth time, I will grant that it was valuable in that it reinforced the fact that there was a darkness that remained within Wesley even after the Connor mindwipe.

I usually watch the DVD commentaries of the episodes twice. Like I described above, I watch the first time as a passive viewer. Usually I'm so excited about what I've learned I can hardly wait to watch it a second time through and take copious notes. With "A Hole in the World" I was so bored with the commentary that I literally had to force myself to sit through it again. There was nothing wrong with the commentary per se. It's just that I think I've sat through too many commentaries by now, and even the new information I receive doesn't seem to be that much of a surprise.

As I typed this blog post I couldn't seem to do justice to the Deeper Well scene with Drogyn, Angel and Spike. What can I say about the interaction between the three seasoned warriors, the contrast between the "modern-day" iconoclastic Spike and the anachronistic Drogyn, how the bonds between Angel and Spike seemed to strengthen before our very eyes, and Spike's marvelous ".....There's a hole in the world. Feels like we ought to have known." I reluctantly moved this from the main body of the post down to "Idle Thoughts".

The reason it took me so long to finish this post is that I misplaced my notes when I was about two-thirds of the way through with writing this up. One casualty is that I only vaguely remembering Amy asking some very good questions in the commentary that led to a lot of good additional information from Joss. Anyways, predictably, I can attribute any shortcomings in this post to the loss of my notes.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Nerd Alert! - or, Save the U.S. Statistical Abstract

I just found out via Invictus' post at Barry Ritholtz' blog that the U.S. government will be defunding the Census Bureau's 133-year old Statistical Abstract. This is not only the first time that I've heard the news (here's the closest thing I could find to an official announcement, which was posted at the U.S. Government Printing Office site back in March 2011), this is the first time I've even heard of the Statistical Abstract!

If you follow the link to the Invictus post up above you can find ways to email U.S. Census Bureau director Robert Groves to ask that the Abstract be saved from the chopping block. Invictus also pointed out that some quick emails to your local congresspeople might be called for as well. In my brief trips across the internet there seems to be a consensus that the Abstract will be discontinued since the information is readily available at other online sites. That may be true, but I've never had much luck finding information like "Educational Attainment by Race, Hispanic Origin, and Sex" or "Total Electric Power Industry - Generation, Sales, Revenue, and Customers" without a lot of online hunting and pecking.

I've often remarked to my husband that someone needs to publish a book called "Everything You Should Know by Now" to eliminate all of these after-the-fact tidbits I keep coming across 10 years too late. I could have saved myself a lot of grief over these last few years if I'd had the Statistical Abstract bookmarked.

Now. if only I could come across some sort of already-compiled FRED Graph Statistical Abstracts at the St. Louis Federal Reserve!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Between Heaven and Earth: Supernatural Impressions

(Image at right. If I could die and go to Heaven. Misha Collins as Castiel.)

During my vacation I made a conscious decision to spend more time watching Supernatural on TNT. As I wrote in a review last year, it was very hard for me to get into the show because it's tough for an occasional viewer like me to figure out what's going on half the time. I'm not an expert of the series by any stretch since I've only seen some of Season 1, most of Season 2, some of Season 6, and who knows what else in between. However, I've at least been able to form a few more opinions about what I've seen so far.

Supernatural v. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. The creators of Supernatural should be applauded for developing a cosmology that is quite a bit different from what we saw in the Buffyverse. Whereas Buffy and Angel were able to dispatch a sizable number of demons with well-placed martial arts blows, Sam and Dean Winchester need to rely on a lot more mystical elements, e.g., salt, silver bullets and magic symbols. Another aspect I find quite appealing is how Supernatural Hunters don't have the absolute freedom to automatically blow away murderous demons, since a large percentage of the demons have taken over still very much alive human hosts. In these instances exorcisms are a lot more appropriate than beheadings. Buffy and Angel would have had a hard time lasting more than a week out in the field under these circumstances.

And let's not forget the obvious, where the creators of Supernatural are a lot more willing to tackle Christian theology than Joss Whedon and his pals ever could over at Mutant Enemy. I'm not saying that I like Supernatural cosmology any better than what we saw in the Buffyverse. I'm just saying that the Supernatural creators (Eric Kripke et al) have done a fine job of carving out their own territory.

In my post from last year I also touched on how Supernatural is all about blue collar grit and grime, whereas Buffy and Angel was more about California flair. Quite frankly, most of the Hunters in Supernatural come across as standing on roughly the same evolutionary ladder rung as circus carnies, while Buffyverse characters were much more sophisticated in comparison.

Although I wouldn't say that the Buffyverse exactly shied away from some of the more practical things in life, like, where does the money come from and gee, why aren't there any cops around, one gets a feeling that Mutant Enemy was forced to deal with those issues at semi-regular intervals whether they wanted to or not. Avoiding these matters altogether would have been way too awkward. Supernatural, on the other hand, dives right into how Sam and Dean are forced to get their funds from dubious means, and how at times they have to spend just as much time eluding law enforcement as they spend hunting demons. Although I give nods to Supernatural for its realism, I still have to give the edge to the Buffyverse for being able to (for the most part) sweep aside these concerns so they could concentrate on the more important elements of the story.

Finally, I've mentioned many times in the past how Mutant Enemy was consistently able to get astonishingly high-quality and memorable performances from actors in relatively minor roles. From Angel in particular we run the gamut of great performances in substantial guest appearances (like when Art LaFleur appeared as T'ish Magev in Season 2's "Guise Will Be Guise") all the way down to the most minor walk-on parts (like Scare Tactics' Sven Holmberg as the Delivery Guy in Season 4's "The House Always Wins" and "Spin the Bottle" ). Supernatural also has a lot of substantial guest performances, but from what I can tell the producers still distressingly cast a few too many Unemployed Hacks of the Week.

Sam and Dean Winchester (and a little bit of John). To say that stars Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are appealing is a bold understatement. These two guys are the show and keep Supernatural fresh and seemingly original even when the series settles a little too easily into cliches. Even the inevitable Odd Couple comparisons between College Boy Sam and rough-hewn Dean become much more palatable when Padalecki and Ackles are involved.

I really appreciate how actors Padalecki (born in 1982) and Ackles (born in 1978) are roughly the same ages as their characters, which seems to be a rarity in TV. I'm finding that when I'm watching the series I don't have to make conscious adjustments to what I can reasonably expect from the characters, which obviously allows me to sit back and get more involved with the storylines. One of the most extreme examples of the opposite occurred in the Buffyverse with the character of Cordelia Chase, where we were asked to believe that the voluptuous and mature Charisma Carpenter was either a teenager or in her very early 20's.

Of the two leads, I prefer Jensen Ackles' Dean over Jared Padalecki's Sam (although if my girlfriend and I met them in a bar and Dean chose my girlfriend, I'd be more than happy to settle for Sam.) That's saying a lot since I don't normally fall for the male model types. Padalecki's Sam is stuck with the somewhat unenviable position of being the straight man to Ackles' wise-cracking and more flamboyant Dean. Although I believe both actors have grown nicely into their roles over the years, I've been particularly impressed with how Padalecki's Sam refuses to be colorless and boring. He's been able to stay even with and perhaps even surpass Ackles' Dean even though the conventional wisdom states that Ackles should by now be the main attraction. Kudos to the actors, writers and the rest of the production staff for being able to keep Supernatural as a show with two equals.

As far as Jensen Ackles, at first I thought he was horribly miscast as Dean. Indeed, I've even read (but naturally can't find the link in three seconds or less) that he was originally trying out for the more serious role of Sam. However, any reservations I had about his portrayal of Dean disappeared within minutes. Although Ackles brings a certain caveman brutish mentality to his blue-collar Dean, (complete with a mild version of the ubiquitous low-class "duh" quality to his speech a la The Abominable Snow Rabbit), he also brings a certain wit to his role that hints at how perhaps there's a little bit more to your average blue collar guy than six-packs of beer and unemployment checks.

Another nice aspect of Supernatural is how the creators aren't afraid to delve into blood ties and familial relationships, whereas Buffy and Angel were more about creating de facto families out of communities of friends. In other words, Supernatural is a true family show in the best sense, in that it explores how brothers Sam and Dean (and for a while, father John) deal with their differences while also uncomfortably acknowledging that they perhaps share more similarities than they're willing to admit. It's not to say that there aren't other strong family-like elements to the series (think of Jim Beaver as Bobby Singer and Misha Collins as Castiel standing in as surrogate father and brother respectively). It's just that the blood ties always act as strong foundations for these extended families.

For the most part I really enjoyed Jeffrey Dean Morgan's portrayal of John Winchester. Although the actors who played the three Winchesters do not look at all alike, it's still easy to see where Dean inherited his rugged good looks! My only quibble is that I thought Morgan's blue-collar mannerisms were a little too pronounced, where it was just a little too painfully obvious that Dean was the one who took after his dad rather than Sam. Regardless, this is all minor and I feel bad for even bringing it up. In short, even though I wish we saw a lot more of John Winchester, it was probably best to kill him off because he was in danger of taking the main focus of the show away from Sam and Dean.

I can go on forever about the yin and yang of Sam and Dean's characters, with how Sam is upright (and perhaps uptight) and morally conscientious while Dean is more impetuous, and how Dean tends to be black and white while Sam savors the shades of gray, etc. However, I'm still having a hard time subtly weaving in the subject of Dean as a womanizer, as opposed to Sam being more interested in commitment. One of the things that fascinated me about the character of Faith in the Buffyverse was how she totally embraced her Slayer lifestyle, including all of the darker elements. It was distressing to me to see how (probably due to her youth) Faith was always presented as a reckless nihilist who was too dangerous to be let loose on her own. I feel that Supernatural satisfactorily further explores this character trait with Dean, in how we see that, far from being totally devil-may-care, there is actually a pretty solid method to his madness. For Dean, carousing and womanizing is a logical coping strategy that allows him to let off steam and take his mind off of the worst aspects of life. It's not to say that he doesn't cross over the line once in a while, but that's why he has Sam around to pull him back. Dean fully understands that since the benefits of hearth and home are completely out of reach, he should still be able to enjoy life on its own terms.

Sam doesn't avoid women and he's certainly capable of having a good time. However, he's much more introspective than Dean and his lifestyle appears a lot more monastic in comparison. I don't think Dean is incapable of entering into a long-term relationship, and I have no doubt that he could fully commit if the right girl came along. However, I also believe that (except for when he goes through his very own crises of faith at semi-regular intervals) he loves his work and feels that he shouldn't have to apologize for preferring his alternative lifestyle. On a sidenote, I haven't seen enough of the series to know for sure, but I don't think Dean has left a trail of broken hearts in his wake. Although he may have used a Hollywood producer-type line a little too often, I highly doubt that many of his conquests took him all that seriously. I'm willing to bet that most of these girls knew exactly what they were getting into and might have entered into their one-night stands with Dean as a mild form of role-playing. These women probably equally enjoyed their moments of fun just as much as Dean.

Bobby Singer. This paragraph is distressingly short because, how can one possibly give all of the praise that's due to actor Jim Beaver? He's absolutely perfect as father-figure Bobby Singer, and his is probably the best-cast character of the entire series! Wise creators are not afraid to introduce strong supporting characters, and lead actors fully appreciate how adding good characters can bring their own performances up to the next level. Whereas John Winchester probably had to be killed off because he threatened to completely overpower Sam and Dean, Bobby Singer fits in much better as a team player. As far as I know, Jim was never credited as being a lead actor, which is a true pity. He could have appeared in every single episode and his character would have never once threatened to hijack any of the main story lines.

Castiel. Let's see, what's there to love about a character who can be ruthlessly brutal and more powerful than we can possibly imagine while simultaneously being charmingly clueless and inept, has a sexy perpetual five o'clock shadow, suffers through a distressing existential crisis after discovering that the world he'd lived in during his entire existence is crumbling beneath his feet, and, while in the course of trying to do the right thing, he spins a series of lies and deceptions that results in him becoming completely alienated from all of his friends?

I just happened to spot Castiel for the first time when actor Misha Collins made his series debut in "Lazarus Rising" (Episode 4.1). (I know that's kind of a dumb-sounding statement. It's just that I usually see TV shows completely out of order.) I thought to myself, Holy Mother of Ambiguity! Here's a guy who hurts and kills innocents like he's swatting at flies, he's an angel from Heaven, and he's scarier and more dangerous than all of the other demons combined! Finally there's going to be a really good exploration of how Good is not necessarily benign, that life is not about choosing Good over Evil, but it's instead all about maintaining the balance between these two forces.

I then went through a long period of time where I watched very few episodes of Supernatural. Then, I swear to God, I didn't know until a few months ago that Castiel not only left a huge impression on me, he also made a strong impression on lots of other people, to the point where actor Misha Collins was added to the cast as a series regular! This was a big deal for me, since I'm the woman whose favorite characters get killed off, her favorite products get pulled off the shelves, the concerts she plans on attending get cancelled due to low ticket sales, can't spot a developing trend to save her life etc. It was one of the few moments in my life where I felt like I was planted firmly into the mainstream.

I still haven't seen very many episodes with Castiel, but he's by far my favorite character of the series. I'm amazed at how Misha Collins can take a genuinely terrifying character and make him so incredibly adorable as he struggle to adapt to human ways, and also take such an unprepossesing character and make him drop-dead gorgeous! Even my husband, who pays close to zero attention to the TV shows that I watch, took notice of Castiel and started asking me questions about him. For my husband to take an interest in one of my favorite characters is akin to him starting up a dues-paying fan club.

On the whole I think Misha Collins does a brilliant job portraying Castiel, though I do notice him struggling a wee bit from time to time with the raspy voice and some of the clunkier biblical dialogue. Again, it's so minor I feel bad for even bringing it up. I've read in interviews how Collins did a lot of research in preparing for the role, and by now I imagine he must be one of the world's top experts in Angelology. I always admire someone who can take what has the potential to be a campy character and elevate him into something that's genuine and sincere.

Unfortunately, I've seen Castiel's character come full circle before I've really had a chance to jump in. Just when I'm ready to cuddle up with a blanket and a sleepy kitten while I enjoy watching fluffy puppy Misha Collins on TV, he's, by several reports, being perhaps demoted from being a series regular while his character is potentially being turned into the Big Bad. (There are way too many articles for me to read, but here's a Zap2It link I've picked out at random.) This is another one of those Twilight Zone moments I've gotten myself into, where I'll get all mixed up in the past and present watching old and new episodes, with Castiel simultaneously being both a sympathetic character and a villain.

Again, since I haven't seen most of the series I'm probably not entitled to too many opinions. However, I wonder if the character of Castiel perhaps just got a little too unwieldy for Supernatural? Or rather, as long as Castiel was around, perhaps the writers felt compelled to keep up with those dreadful convoluted Heaven and Hell plotlines? Whereas someone like Jim Beaver's Bobby Singer can be weaved seamlessly into a show, Collins' Castiel probably acts more as a strong counterpoint who's best saved for several strong guest appearances.

Ratings. According to Wikipedia, the ratings for Supernatural (in total viewers) peaked in its first season, spiked a bit for Season 4, and have slowly but noticeably declined since then. I know next to nothing about networks and ratings, but it's probably a minor miracle that the series was picked up for a 7th season. I have no official information on why the numbers have been declining, but I have a few guesses. The series has been around for a long time and people will naturally start watching new shows after a while. Also, it was moved to a Friday night time slot, which is always a kiss of death for a series.

I also suspect that a lot of people are like me and get bored with all of the characters being locked in mortal combat for so much of the time. It seems that some cosmic engineer must have designed a series of pneumatic tubes that bring people back and forth on a regularly scheduled basis between Heaven and Earth and Hell and Purgatory. All of the leads have good strong comedic skills that need to be showcased a little more often. I suspect I'm not the only one who longs for the return of a more low-brow format where Sam and Dean wisecrack their way through their hunts for the Demon of the Week. I'd be very much surprised to see Supernatural return for Season 8, and I'm wondering if we need to start worrying about an early cancellation.

Closing Thoughts. I sometimes imagine that I can recognize writer and executive producer (and Mutant Enemy alumnus) Ben Edlund's hand print all over Supernatural. Then it occurs to me that I wouldn't recognize his hand print even if he slapped me in the face.

Even though I hinted above that I prefer strong standalone episodes that appear within overall story arcs, I'm still very intrigued with how Season 7 can potentially play out. In my mind it makes perfectly logical sense to start off with Sam, Dean and Castiel squaring off against each other, then allowing Castiel to fade away into the background while Sam and Dean adapt to the new ground rules.

Castiel gained a lot under Dean's guidance, but I suspect Dean benefited an equal amount from their friendship. I bet Dean's relationship with Castiel made for an interesting contrast with Dean's relationship with Sam.

I haven't missed the obvious parallels between Castiel and Columbo.

Misha Collins put in a wonderful performance in Episode 6.20, "The Man Who Would Be King". The entire episode was invaluable in bringing me up to date on the plot lines, and I suspect that even regular viewers benefited from all of the exposition.

I have yet to come across a truly outstanding female character in Supernatural. I hope events prove otherwise for me. However, I can hardly complain since I have such a rich cast of attractive male leads to choose from.

The Supernatural writers did a fine job separating their vampire lore from what we saw in Buffy and Angel.

I know I've taken too long of a break from Angel. I hope to return soon.

Update: Good grief! I almost forget to say that I'm absolutely thrilled that Buffy and Angel alumni Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia Chase) and James Marsters (Spike) will be appearing together on Supernatural this season. And let's not forget that Charisma will also be appearing on another series I'm just now starting to watch, Burn Notice. And finally, hooray to Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) for her new series, Ringers.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fun Fun Fun!

Brief update: I've just finished Season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and loved it! So I've now officially seen every episode of the series.

In other news, I've had a very busy summer, and pretty soon I'll be heading out for an extremely rare 3-week road trip vacation. I hope everyone is doing well, and I'll probably see you some time before Labor Day.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Crash! Bang! Pop?

(Right image - Mary Poppins - a childhood favorite of mine.)

Jonathan V. Last's post at The Weekly Standard, "The Crash of 1993" works for me since it ties together two of my current favorite subject matters: bubble economics and comic books. The subheading is also quite informative, as it tells us that "As the great comic-book bubble showed, sometimes there's no recovery from a speculative boom".

I highly recommend that you read the article if you're interested, but here's my version of what happened. Back in Olden Times, comic books were considered inconsequential, and mothers threw out comic book collections by the box-load during their annual rites of spring cleaning. However, as baby-boomers started growing up, some of them started to fondly remember their old comic books and started paying some real money for some of the more desirable older editions. During the 1980's, the interests of nostalgic baby boomers, entrepreneurial pre-teens and greedy speculators converged to the point where the resale costs of both old and new comic books spiraled upwards to dizzying heights, all until the Great Crash of 1993 brought the industry back to earth. (One example from the article, aside from collectibles selling for upwards of $80,000 at auctions, "A comic that sold initially for 60 cents could often fetch a 1,000 percent return on the investment just a few months later.")

Of course, there's a bit more to the story than what I wrote up above. I'm vastly oversimplifying things here, but according to Last, distributors had traditionally decided who and who could not sell comics, to the point that there were significant barriers to entry into the retail side of business. But in the early 1980's, according to Last, two distributors (Diamond and Capital City), as part of their expansion plans, ".....were happy to sign distribution agreements with just about anyone". I'll let Last take over from here:
With all of these comics shops sprouting across suburban America, the two remaining distributors took in record numbers of orders every month. Seeing these orders, the publishers thought they were presiding over a massive boom. So they upped their prices and began publishing more titles, adjusting the supply to meet what they thought was demand. In 1985 Marvel published 40 titles a month, and each book cost 60 cents. By 1988 they were putting out 50 titles for $1 apiece. By 1993, they were offering 140 books a month, selling for $1.25 and up.

All the while, the distributors kept standing up new retailers, who kept putting in orders, enticing the publishers to produce ever more books. It was an unsustainable loop, but what made the situation particularly perilous was that in the comic-book business, orders are placed months in advance and unsold inventory cannot be returned. Retailers eat unsold books as overstock. (Rozanski estimates that at the bubble’s peak, 30 percent of all comics being published wound up as overstock.) In other words, the loop was structured so the publishers would get negative feedback only after the industry had gone over the cliff and the retailers started going belly up.

Which is precisely what happened in 1993. By expanding their output to hundreds of titles, the publishers had diluted the quality of their product to embarrassing levels. That, combined with the higher retail prices, drove away customers.

(Besides comic books, I can remember similar boom/bust cycles with baseball cards, Beanie Babies, and practically every thing else that a person would normally throw away after it's been stored in the attic for 20 years. Imagine the shrieks of horror I heard when I took the tags off of Beanie Babies so my kids could play with them without getting scratched! It was actually kind of a relief to me when the whole craze seemed to end by about the year 2000 or so, since my kids had been bombarded with Happy Meal-type toys by relatives who warned them, "Now don't throw this away - it could be valuable some day!" I'm sure I've thrown out a lot of good money in the trash over the years, but I'm hoping I can assign some sort of intrinsic dollar value to being able to maintain a clear path inside my house to the front door.)

I've kind of left out how the traditional comic retail model seemed to favor newsstands and other general merchandise outlets. I can certainly remember that I used to be able to buy (or rather, talk my parents into buying) comic books just about everywhere back in the 1960's, from grocery stores, drug stores, discount stores like K-Mart, etc. I certainly wasn't a stereotypical kid who went through comic books like candy. However, I did savor comic books as though they were special treats, and I managed to amass a small collection which I kept until roughly the same time that I stopped sleeping with teddy bears. Probably because I'm a girl, I did not purchase Superman, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel or Batman comics. However, back during my childhood, a lot of the comics were tied to children's TV shows and movies, and I can specifically remember some Disney-themed comics, as well as old favorites like Peanuts, Dennis the Menace and (my dad's favorite) Beetle Bailey.

Fast forward roughly a dozen years. I entered a comic book store near my college campus, and walked out roughly five minutes later when I found out that all they had were a bunch of comics that were geared towards young male adults who'd forever be dateless on Saturday nights.

Fast forward roughly another 15 years. As a mother with three young boys, I was astonished to find out that it was next to impossible to find comics books for kids in traditional retail outlets. My entire family enjoyed Archie comics, but I was naturally on the lookout for more variety. I was therefore quite interested in a newspaper article that was written in either the late 1990's or early 2000's about a local comic book/collectibles store owner who had apparently been able to buck the trend and keep his business going. I was most interested in how the owner explained how the comic book industry had become more segmented and targeted narrower audiences, The owner also went on to state that it would do his business a world of good if some publishers went back to mass-marketing titles geared to children. Sadly, I never took the time to visit this particular comic book/collectibles store since I didn't think I'd find anything suitable for small children, and the shop went out of business about a year later.

So this is where I'm coming from when I talk about how I'm just now starting to overcome my prejudices against comic books. It's ironic that while I'm just starting to dip my toes into Angel comics, I have not set foot in a comic book shop since the last century. I've bought/been gifted After the Fall books from Amazon, but I'm still afraid to walk into a comic book store. Will people stop talking and stare at me? Do red lights and sirens go off when a middle-aged female customer walks through the door? Will I do something ignorant like inappropriately mix up the terms "comic books" and "graphic novels?" Will a sales clerk more than half my age scoff at me when I ask for a Spike or Illyria-themed title and sneer, "We don't carry those here!" I guess there's only one way to find out.

Closing Thought. Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I discovered a short follow up post from Jonathan Last, "The Crash of 1993, cont." As you can tell from his listing of previous entries, Last seems to have written a lot of comic-themed posts.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

All Hail Smile Time

Amy Acker as Fred, admiring Angel's new look (image courtesy of Screencap Paradise)

Hearing someone state that "Smile Time" from Season 5 of Angel is a favorite episode is kind of like watching someone curtsy in front of the Queen. After a while it has the potential to become an empty, obligatory ritual of obeisance that is almost totally devoid of meaning. Having said that, I was happily surprised that "Smile Time" is another one of those episodes that can arguably get better after each viewing.

Pointing out all of those "oh, that's so cute" moments would be an overwhelming task. If I limited myself to just a few favorites I'd feel like I was disrespecting the rest of the show. (However, I do have to point out that Spike's "wee little puppet man" is probably my most-viewed scene of the entire series.) Instead I'll just focus on some of my pet themes and a few other minor aspects.

(If you're interested in some of my early thoughts on "Smile Time", see here and here.)

Childhood Innocence. I"ll start off by going straight towards the two-ton elephant in the room. It's unfortunate that the opening scene in the episode prevents me from showing "Smile Time" to people who've never seen Angel before. Otherwise, "Smile Time" could act as its very own goodwill ambassador for the series, sort of how "Hush" assumed that role for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I can understand how the creators wanted to balance out the cutesy lightheartedness of the rest of the show with the darker undercurrents of the loss of childhood innocence. However, no matter how open-minded I try to be, I just can't accept a segment where, in the words of Nikki Stafford in her book Once Bitten: An Unofficial Guide to the World of Angel, (page 325 in Google Books), "...if you listen to the opening without actually watching it, it sounds completely perverse, like the puppets are pedophiles. A child is watching TV, and you hear a voice talking to him saying, 'Get over here and touch it.". The voice then makes loud, sexual groaning noises. Yikes!"

Actually, even if you are watching the action it looks a lot like a puppet pedophile at work. In my worst moments I suspect that Mutant Enemy was once more sanctimoniously trying to shake white bread, middle-class, Middle America viewers out of their complacency. About all I can say is that I lived through the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the 1960's drug counterculture movement, the 1967 Detroit race riots, an era when motorcycle gangs roamed the streets and countryside like we were in a Mad Max movie, an era of multiple airplane hijackings, the Tate-LaBianca murders (courtesy of Charles Manson & Co.), the Weatherman/Weather Underground bombings, the Michigan co-ed murders, Watergate, and the Oakland County child murders, all by the time I was fourteen years old. I don't have much more complacency left to shake.

Fred. If pressed to list all of my favorite moments in the episode, I'd honestly have to include every single scene Amy Acker appeared in. I can't help but mention this scene (and particularly the look on Amy's face) where Fred was trying to hit on an impossibly clueless Wesley, and this scene (as shown in the image above) where Fred gushed to Puppet Angel "'re CUTE!" . Similar to Amber Benson's portrayal of Tara just before her character's death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Amy Acker was positively luminous as Fred during her character's waning days.

Fred and Wesley. I've said in a previous post (which I couldn't find in the few seconds I spent looking for it) that Fred and Wesley were much more interesting as a couple when Fred was chasing a clueless Wesley rather than vice versa. I've also been going on at length lately how it was patently obvious that Fred and Wesley's romance had to be forced in at the last minute so that her death would be that much more tragic.

Stringing an audience along on the matter of "will they or won't they" seems to be as much of an art as it is a science. This is worth another blog post in its own right, but Mutant Enemy seemed to achieve mixed results. I thought they handled Buffy and Angel's burgeoning romance quite nicely, but it seemed like I had to wait forever for Buffy and Spike to get together, to the point where the otherwise fine Season 5 of Buffy was almost a complete waste for me. I seem to be in a distinct minority, but I always thought Mutant Enemy handled the Fred/Wesley relationship in somewhat of a slipshod manner throughout most of Angel's run until Season 5. By that time it was just too late to make that much of a difference for me.

It's no secret that Fred was not a favorite character of mine, though I've been tolerating her more lately, to the point where I'm actually finding some things that I like about her. It's therefore a bit of a disappointment that I'm not liking their famous kiss at the end of "Smile Time" that much more than the first time I saw it. The best I can come up with is, if they're happy, than I'm happy.

Charles Gunn and the Senior Partners. It's pretty obvious that Gunn had fallen pretty far when he opted to get a more permanent brain upgrade behind Team Angel's backs rather than admit that he was losing all of his legal knowledge. (With all of that knowledge in his brain, Gunn finally felt like he was operating on the same intellectual level as everyone else.) In his defense, Charles had no idea that his agreement to cut through the red tape which would allow the mad doctor to bring his "curio" through customs would lead directly to Fred's death. On a Sunday School morality level, Gunn should have known that cutting a deal with Evil would result in terrible consequences. However, he and Team Angel had been cutting deals with some pretty questionable characters all along, and had always been able to deal with the consequences. Why would this case be different?

What I really wonder about is, how involved were the Senior Partners in all of these events? It would be easy to assume that the Partners initially gave Charles a temporary brain boost, knowing full well that he'd come crawling back for more when he started losing his knowledge. However, Hamilton, Eve's successor liaison, mentioned on a few occasions that the Senior Partners weren't necessarily behind everything bad that happened. I could have sworn that either Hamilton or someone else clearly stated that the mad doctor and Knox had brought in Illyria's sarcophagus behind the Senior Partners' backs, but I'm unable to find it in the dialogue anywhere. (The best I can do is link to this piece where Hamilton claimed, in regards to the Senior Partners' feelings about Illyria, "They don't want her here. They don't want her all.")

I've been working under the assumption that the Senior Partners didn't necessarily micromanage all of the details in their attempts to bring about Angel's ruin. However, they did manage to work certain events to their advantage, and perhaps even fostered an atmosphere that allowed bad things to happen to Team Angel without the Partners' direct involvement. I just wish there was more in-your-face evidence to prove this point.

Spike. Although Spike had a memorable role in this episode, it's even more telling that he didn't join Wesley, Gunn, Fred and Puppet Angel when they went on the warpath with the evil puppets. It seemed crucial that the Old Gang fight one last battle on their own (sans both Lorne and Spike) before Fred passed away. It also seemed important that Spike be integrated into the group on Mutant Enemy's terms rather than allowing him to sidle in on his own. I noticed the same process with his attempts to join the Scoobies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where it appeared that every time Spike seemed to organically merge into the group, Mutant Enemy would come around and pull him away again. The producers had their story line in mind in how Spike would become a true ally of Angel, and he just had to wait his turn.

Nina Ash. To paraphrase something Lorne said in Season 2 of Angel, the most remarkable thing about Nina's burgeoning relationship with Angel was how un-remarkable it really was. I won't go into too much detail, but I've discussed before that it was sweet to see how the whole boy-meets-girl thing unfolded between the two of them. I don't know if I'm really up to discussing why Angel's relationship with Nina worked out so much better than his relationships with other women, but in my heart I think that the whole low-key aspect was, for lack of a better phrase, the key to their success. Angel's affairs with Darla and Buffy (and, to a lesser extent with Cordelia), were epic dramas of their own, whereas the beginning of his relationship with Nina was more down-to-earth.

The real turning point occurred when Puppet Angel came up with the courage to show himself to Nina, which allowed her to see him in the worst possible light. Instead of laughing at Angel, Nina gave words of encouragement, since she could identify with him in yet one more way as one freak to another. It helped Nina to be able to see Angel at his most vulnerable, since what he did (showing himself to Nina) took about as much bravery as facing some of the worst monsters in the world. For his part, Angel was probably secretly glad to be involved with someone who was a little more peaceful than the other uppity uber-femmes he'd been involved with. Sometimes a guy just needs someone who will mix his favorite drinks and murmur sympathetic noises.

Idle Thoughts. Almost every episode of Season 5 of Angel seemed to drearily bring home the point that you need to bend your morals to the breaking point in order to achieve success. I'm almost cynical enough to believe that myself. The fact that this idea was personified in the guise of Wolfram & Hart was one of the most absolutely brilliant aspects of the series.

I've always been surprised that Fred and Wesley still seemed to enjoy the Smile Time children's TV show on its own terms even though they knew evil forces were involved. Talk about separating art from the artist!

The fact that Wesley came in #2 on the list behind Knox didn't really say much for Fred's taste in men.

I'm not quite sure why I always laugh whenever I hear Lorne say "Oh, that's Gregor Framkin. Yeah, real rags to riches. Started out in a garage with a couple of used couches and a glue gun. He turned it into a puppet gold mine." It must be have been something in actor Andy Hallett's delivery. While I'm at it I might as well mention how much I adore his "Bad person!" and "Is there a Geppetto in the house?" lines.

I read an abbreviated version of Flowers of Algernon when I was in high school. The story was referenced in this scene with Charles Gunn and the evil doctor. Although I really liked the book, I didn't care for the movie version, "Charly", with Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom, mostly because it featured a lot of 1960's experimental film-type schlock that aged quite badly over the years.

I always enjoyed hearing bad guys acknowledge that ticking off Angel was a bad mistake.

I can't help but mention that the premise that the puppets were going to wipe out the life essences of all of the children in Los Angeles in one fell swoop is a lot like how all of the children's heads were going to explode when they watched a TV show while they were wearing specific Halloween masks in Halloween III.