Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Underneath It All

Spike Joins the Team
[James Marsters (Spike) and David Boreanaz (Angel)

The only reason "Underneath" from Season 5 of Angel didn't make it into any of my Top Favorites lists is that I'm not clever enough to come up with a category to put this episode into. That's truly a pity since "Underneath", with its crackling dialogue and great action sequences, is absolutely outstanding from beginning to end. It was quite a relief for me to watch this episode at this point in time since I was inexplicably starting to get quite bored with what should have been my favorite string of episodes of the entire series.

DVD Commentary. Skip Schoolnik, Elizabeth Craft, Sarah Fain and Adam Baldwin all contributed fine commentary for this episode. Unfortunately, unlike the quartet that provided the commentary for Season 5's "Destiny", there was an element of too many cooks in the kitchen for "Underneath". The group desperately needed someone like David Fury to take the lead and keep the commentary on track. My biggest overall gripe was that although I usually enjoy hearing about technical details, in "Underneath" I felt that there was just too much Film School 101 talk going on and not enough commentary about the story lines.

The main problem seemed to be with Adam Baldwin, since a lot of attention was shifted towards his Hamilton character and Baldwin's overall acting career. Also, I don't know how much is scripted ahead of time, but there were times when Adam (and, really, a lot of other actors who've appeared in other commentaries) seemed to be asking some rather facile questions just so that the production staff would have an excuse to explain some of the more technical details. I wish the commentators would just plunge ahead and give their explanations without using the awkward device of having someone else pose the question. That being said, I don't totally feel justified in pointing the finger of blame at Baldwin. (To his credit, he mentioned towards the beginning of the commentary that he wasn't even sure why he had been included.) You can't invite someone to contribute and expect him to be quiet.

Overall, all four speakers gave us a lot of fascinating insights into the series. Once I got over the fact that they wouldn't be spending a whole lot of time talking about the plot, I settled in and found the commentary to be quite entertaining.

Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain. I'm not going to sit here and analyze all of the scripts this duo has written for Angel. However, it seems that if you're enjoying a Season 4 or 5 episode that's a little bit out of the ordinary, chances are Craft and Fain wrote the script. Some of my favorite "outside the box" episodes that they've written include "Supersymmetry" (which tackled the subject of vigilante justice head-on), "Release" (with those marvelous erotically-charged scenes featuring Wesley and Faith), "Harm's Way" (which I consider to be the best depiction of the petty indignities administrative assistants are forced to put up with on a daily basis), and of course "Underneath", which I consider to be their masterpiece. I should point out that Craft & Fain seemed to have had an equal number of relative misses throughout their run at Angel (see this post about Season 4's "Soulless" for an example) , but it's hard for me to blame the writers when I have no idea how much direct control they have in plotting out the script.

Team Angel. I've also noticed throughout Angel that whenever there's a particularly striking scene, there's usually a pretty good real-life story behind it. The very beginning of "Underneath", with Angel and Spike in the boardroom, provided an excellent case in point. As Sarah Fain explained, executive producer David Fury hated this scene and almost cut it from the script! Fain continued that she and Fury went round and round on this for two hours, but she ultimately won out after the big guy himself, Joss Whedon, gave his stamp of approval.

I thought this scene was absolutely crucial on so many levels. It drove home Angel's isolation and the fact that his pre-Wolfram & Hart group seemed to have completely evaporated away, as evidenced by the fact that Angel found himself in the awkward position of seemingly throwing a meeting that nobody else was attending. It also reinforced the fact that Spike had stepped up to the plate and had become a full-fledged member of the team despite his differences with Angel. We could arguably claim that without Spike, there wouldn't have been a team for anyone else to return to. Also, although Harmony was never fully accepted into the group, no one could ignore the fact that she was still there and putting in a considerable amount of face time.

Later on in the scene, Spike shrewdly pointed out: "My first official parley as a very loosely affiliated member of the... what are we? Tell me we're not Scoobies." I loved how the dialogue directly addressed a maddening problem that existed throughout the entire series; what do we call these people? In earlier seasons I called Angel and his pals "Angel Investigations" (or AI for short), then called them "Team Angel" from time to time just to mix things up in order to avoid repetition. (This Buffy Wikia page gives credence to both of these nicknames.) However, "Angel Investigations" didn't work out too well since it was strictly the agency name, and the agency was never the main focus of the series. Most of the time I tried to get around this dilemma by calling these people the "Angel Investigations team", which is even more unwieldy. Sometimes I would call them "Angel and his pals", or "Angel et al", or "Angel and his buddies", but NEVER the "Fang Gang". As the group moved over to Wolfram & Hart, the Angel Investigations moniker became obsolete. I then started sticking more with Team Angel.

I'm not aware that the writers ever came up with an official name for the group within the series. If they did, it probably only lasted for the duration of the episode before disappearing for good. Fang Gang is just too silly, whereas Team Angel screams of us bloggers grasping at straws while we try to think of something better. Spike finally pointed out the futility of even trying to come up with a name when the best he could come up with was "Angel's Avengers".

For his part, director Skip Schoolnik told us that, despite initial reservations, this turned into a great scene. He particularly enjoyed seeing actors David Boreanaz and James Marsters take charge of the script and run with it. Per Schoolnik, ".....these guys, David and James, really played well off of each other, and I think they just raised the level of the show so much, especially when they were together, because neither one could slack off".

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention another interesting dynamic on the set, which had to do with Christian Kane and J. August Richards acting in their identical Leave It to Beaver Meets Hell Dimension scenes here and here. According to Schoolnik, Richards (Gunn) observed Kane (Lindsey) as he performed the scene earlier in the shoot. Richards had a special challenge in that he didn't want to perform the scene exactly the same as Kane, but he didn't want to do worse either. Schoolnik stated that this led to a friendly competition between the two actors.

Lorne. Another scene that miraculously appeared was this sequence where the extremely morose Lorne was chatting with the hapless demon bartender. According to Elizabeth Craft, this scene was added when the episode came in short. Per Craft, this "......set up Lorne for the rest of the episode, and sort of for the rest of the season".

I've been continuously amazed throughout the course of Buffy and Angel with how hastily written scenes that were thrown in at the last minute were often crucial to the story lines. I've often thought that Joss and the writers took advantage of these opportunities to emphasize some points that might not have been previously fully explored to their satisfaction. Again, it's hard to imagine that the audience could have fully appreciated Lorne's disillusionment and sense of isolation from the group without viewing this scene.

Fred/Illyria/Wesley. I was disappointed that the commentators did not talk about the significance of this Fred and Wesley "Tell me a joke" scene. I speculated about some of the hidden meanings in this post, and I was looking forward to finding out if I was even remotely close to the target.

As it turns out, per Elizabeth Craft, Joss Whedon himself wrote all of the Fred/Illyria/Wesley scenes, which might explain why the commentators couldn't add any words of wisdom about the "joke". This seems pretty obvious to me only in retrospect, since these scenes represented a real sense of "otherness" from the rest of the series. I'm guessing that Whedon was off in his own little world while he wrote the dialogue, which carried over to the finished product. Far from being jarringly out of place, the beautiful Fred/Illyria/Wesley scenes brilliantly conveyed how Wesley was off in his own world while he struggled with his grief of losing Fred.

General Observations About Angel: the Series. One thing that delighted me about the commentary for "Underneath" was how the speakers touched on a few topics of interest that are quite near and dear to my heart. I've written in the past at how difficult it was for me to watch the series during daylight hours (I was working at night when I first saw the series), and how I felt I was missing some significant plot points simply because I couldn't see what was going on in the darkly lit scenes.

Bless Elizabeth Craft for telling us that "Angel's gotta be one of the most darkly lit shows, I would think, ever...I remember when we [Craft and Fain] came on in Season 4 and we wanted to re-watch all of the episodes and I watched 66 episodes back-to-back....my TV, which at the time was not a good TV, and it was so dark half of the time I couldn't see what was going on, and I would constantly be amazed when I saw the episode again I'd go, 'oh, that's how that monster died'."

Later on Adam Baldwin admitted that he had not seen a lot of Angel before he joined the cast, although he claimed his kids had been watching the series. He went on to say that the series was difficult to follow if you hadn't been keeping up. Craft agreed with Baldwin and added that it had been a constant topic of conversation in the writers' room.

I personally think the writers did a very good job with the exposition dialogue, which at least gave new viewers a fighting chance of understanding a little bit of the ongoing story lines. However, I also think that the chance of someone getting hooked on the show depended heavily on which episode or story arc he or she stumbled into. I imagine people would be more likely to stick with a show if they start off with relatively light-weight standalone episodes rather than jumping in halfway through a dramatically dreary story arc.

One of the Cheaper Baldwins. Both Adam Baldwin and Skip Schoolnik agreed in their commentary that actor David Boreanaz appeared to be intimidated when the extremely tall Baldwin first came onto the set. Schoolnik then said that this actually worked quite well in their first scene together where Angel, although obviously rattled by Hamilton's sudden appearance, didn't give up any ground either.

Baldwin and Elizabeth Craft also had an interesting exchange about what it's like to be the new kid on the set. Baldwin explained that he'd found out through experience that it's better to be bold and have to be told to hold back rather than to come in with low energy and appear to be fearful. Baldwin certainly seemed to own the character of Hamilton from the very beginning, which leads me to the subject of guest stars or actors who have a very limited number of appearances in a series.

To back up a bit, some actors seem to really make a strong impression from the very beginning when they step into new character roles, whereas others seem to need a few episodes before they can really settle in. I hesitate to label the former as being "better" actors than others, since a lot of elements would need to coalesce before a character could start making a real impact. Nonetheless, it must be a genuine relief to the production staff when a actor can step in and really nail a performance from the start. It must be tougher for actors in single guest appearances since, in essence, they only have one chance to get things right. It can't be too much of a stretch to guess that an actor's "bold" attitude can make a real difference as far as being able to get a character off to a strong start.

I also liked hearing about Adam Baldwin's ideas about work ethics, specifically his thoughts about actors who get attacks of the giggles. Baldwin stated that "I hate it when other actors get the giggles...It really makes me angry because it's unprofessional, and it steals time from what you're doing...I'm an old hat(?). When I was younger and less experienced, sure...but some people are truly funny. There's some people on shows that are just profoundly hysterical, like Nathan Filion, for instance, and it's really hard not to laugh when he's doing that, but then you look at the schedule and you go 'Man, I want this closeup of mine. I want this in the show."

Baldwin stated the above after there was talk on the commentary about David Boreanaz having problems getting through a scene because he had an attack of the giggles. I'm not sure if Baldwin was obliquely referring to Boreanaz' work ethic, but David's frequent breakups have been kind of a running theme throughout the five seasons of commentary for Angel. I say good for Baldwin for speaking up about this. Actors work incredibly long hours, but I can imagine that the production staff and crew might have to put in even longer hours. It can certainly seem quite selfish to be goofing off when other people are trying to get their work done so they can get home for a few well-deserved hours of sleep.

There was also a general discussion about the importance of actors knowing their lines when they show up on the set. As Schoolnik and Baldwin explained, losing five minutes here and five minutes there while actors bring themselves up to speed (or, for that matter, fight off the giggles) can quickly add up to a significant amount of lost time.

Idle Thoughts. Although I thought Adam Baldwin put in excellent performances on Angel, for whatever reason I could never really get excited about his Hamilton character. I'm not willing to spend a lot of time analyzing my feelings, but I can't help but think that both Eve and Hamilton might have been more exciting if they had become truly integrated into the team as opposed to popping in and out of the show at unpredictable intervals.

Director Skip Schoolnik said he was initially concerned that Craft and Fain's script had too much talk and not enough action. He continued on that he was so wrong about his earlier misgivings and now feels it was a real privilege to have been able to direct the episode. Craft informed us that it was her and Sarah Fain's favorite episode that they had written, (at least until the date they recorded the commentary).

Craft stated that Angel probably had one of the tallest casts in television. I find that statement helpful, since I've often wondered if the male cast members were uniformly roughly the same height, or if at least a few of them benefited from standing on specially raised platforms during filming.

Sarah Fain told us that it was Joss Whedon's idea to cast Firefly alumnus Adam Baldwin into the role of Hamilton. Prior to that, Craft and Fain had pictured a hot, kick-ass female playing the part. I think that was the correct decision since it was getting to be time to break up the female Senior Partners liaison mold.

The cast and crew were informed of the WB Network's decision to cancel the series roughly at the time they were shooting the Fight the Wrath scene in the basement of the hell dimension house. The audio quality is dreadful, but actor Christian Kane poignantly described what it was like to hear the news in this 2009 TV Series Finale podcast.

Baldwin gave us another reason why actors shouldn't get an attack of the giggles during filming: think of how uncomfortable it can get for the poor actors who are wearing those latex monster suits!

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