Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ciao, Baby

La Dolce Vita
Drusilla and Spike circa 1960 Rome

(Actors Juliet Landau and James Marsters)
(Image courtesy of Screencap Paradise)

I was pleasantly surprised to find that "The Girl in Question" from Season 5 of Angel was not as horrible as I remembered. As soon as I told myself that I'd be keying in on a few recent pet themes of mine, my attitude adjusted quite beautifully.

Production Values: I had written in an earlier post from July 2009 that:
The first time I saw the episode, I really tried to get into the Angel v. Spike rivalry over Buffy, but I just couldn't do it. I thought every joke and sight gag absolutely fell flat on their faces. Plus, those Italian accents were horrible. I've seen my share of Fellini movies, so it's not like I'm just not getting it. I finally had to give up and start scanning through to the Wesley/Illyria "good parts". The second time around, a few days ago, I didn't even try to sit through the Angel/Spike scenes, and, again, I just scanned to the "good parts".

I'm keeping this episode around for posterity, and I'll try to wade through it at a later date. I'm consistently finding that the episodes I didn't care for the first time around get better on subsequent viewings.
(I focused mostly on the Wesley/Illyria scenes in the above-referenced link, so I encourage you to click on it if that's what you're interested in.)

What bothered me the most on this viewing was the overall substandard production values, from the fake Roman bar, to the even fakier Italian accents, and the Italian nighttime streetscapes that were so painfully obviously filmed in a studio. Even the Wolfram & Hart offices (both the LA and Rome locations...wink, wink) looked distressingly cheap, and I used to really like that set design! I was always willing to cut Mutant Enemy some slack, particularly since I knew they were working with tight Season 5 budget constraints, but even I have my limits.

On the positive side, there were two minor characters who I liked considerably: Vikki Gurdas as the bartender, and Carole Raphaelle Davis as the CEO of the Roman branch of Wolfram & Hart. You can tell from the link above that Carole spent a considerable amount of time in Europe during her childhood. I wouldn't exactly say that made her Italian character all that convincing, but that's not really the point. Both Gurdas and Davis were bright and funny, and were able to transcend their performances beyond being stock caricatures. Also, both women seemed to have had considerable live performance singing careers, which probably helps explain how they were able to successfully project their bubbly personalities onto the screen.

Finally, that brief Spike and Drusilla circa 1960 black-and-white Fellini scene left me cold at first, but this time around I thought it was way too brief! I've become a big Drusilla fan after first viewing this episode, and I'd love to have seen more of that European beatnik vampire culture.

Buffy Closure. I'd written in this April 2011 post that:
More than anything else, I felt that both "Damage" and "The Girl in Question" were sops that were thrown to please Buffy fans who had crossed over to Angel after Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off the air. Although I haven't read any of the Buffy comics, I suppose these two episodes could have potentially acted as bridges between the TV show and the comic continuation series. (Again, I'll ignore the part about how it was revealed in the comics that Buffy was not actually the girl who was seen dancing with The Immortal in "The Girl in Question".) Unfortunately, the Buffy crossovers in Season 5 of Angel weren't nearly as strong as the Buffy crossovers in Season 1 of Angel (with Buffy and Faith) and Season 4 (with Faith).
I can certainly understand how the final season of Angel doubled as an opportunity for a final farewell to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. From little hints scattered here, here, and here, I'm under the impression that Joss Whedon was hoping that Season 5 of Angel would have been considerably more Buffy-centric. (And this was even before he received the news that Angel had been cancelled.) Long story short, he was hoping that he would be able to bring in both Sarah Michelle Gellar and Anthony Stewart Head at some point in the season. Instead, he was only able to snare Tom Lenk as Andrew.

I also understand that some fans might have needed some closure to the Buffy/Angel/Spike triangle. I was actually quite satisfied with this dialogue sequence in "Harm's Way" when Spike told Harmony that he almost set off to see Buffy:
SPIKE: I was on my way. Had a boat ticket and all. Then I put a little thinking into it. A man can't go out in a bloody blaze of glory, savin' the world, and then show up 3 months later, tumbling off a cruise ship in the south of France. I mean, I'd love to, don't get me wrong, but, uh, it's hard to top an exit like that.


SPIKE: .....
Oh. I expect Buffy would be happy enough to see me. It's just, I gave up my life for her, the world, and if I show up now, flesh and bone, my grand finale won't hold much weight. All of it... won't matter. "
I don't remember if there were any off-camera phone calls between Angel and Buffy during Season 5. However, a few deft lines of dialogue from Angel could have cued us in that he spoke with Buffy, she was happy, and both of them were ready to move on.

Joss Whedon himself might have been the one that was having a hard time moving on. I can't help but notice that there were quite a few similarities between "The Girl in Question" and the earlier Season 5 episode "Destiny". Both Angel and Spike turned into driveling morons when their personal rivalries came to the forefront, and they came to blows during particularly heated exchanges (albeit the fight scene in "The Girl in Question" was a lot less climactic than the fight scene in "Destiny".)

In the DVD commentary for "Destiny", David Fury made it quite clear that Joss Whedon wanted Angel and Spike to fight about Buffy. Indeed, the subject of Buffy did come up during the fight conversation. However, other staff members (and presumably David Fury himself) convinced Joss that the fight really needed to be about which Vampire With a Soul was the better vampire. That way all aspects of their troubled relationship and rivalry throughout the years could bubble up to the forefront.

About all I can say is that Joss finally got his Angel/Spike/Buffy triangle episode with "The Girl in Question", and bully for him. However, to back up a bit, some reviewers have labelled this episode as being a bonding experience for Angel and Spike, where the two vampires worked through their differences and became closer as a result of their shared hardships. Thematically, I think it would have made a lot more sense for Angel and Spike to have bonded after they had been duped into the Mountain Dew-in- the-Cup of Perpetual Torment disaster that occurred in "Destiny". Obviously, they would have known that someone was messing with both of them, and they should have been able to join forces and act against after their common foe. Instead, Spike pulled away from Wolfram & Hart and started his own separate, albeit short-lived, career as a champion demon-fighter.

Another problem with the "Angel and Spike got closer" theory is that any bonding that occurred between the two of them was squandered pretty quickly when Angel apparently turned evil at the end of "Timebomb" and remained seemingly evil throughout the penultimate episode of the series, "Power Play". One can argue that Joss Whedon always liked to pull the rug out from beneath his characters when things started to look good, but I don't think the series had enough time to establish that Angel and Spike were Best Buds before the producers pulled them apart again when Angel turned rogue.

Retcon. It's pretty well established by now that the Buffy comic continuation series retconned "The Girl in Question" by informing us that Buffy Summers was not in fact dancing with The Immortal in the Roman bar. It would be dangerous for me to summarize the newer version of events since I haven't read any of the Buffy comics, so I'll just give a few links and quotes:
Wikipedia - The Girl in Question. "The canonical eighth season comic retcons the identity of the Immortal's blonde consort; Buffy (as narrator) says: 'The guys figured I was a target. Set up two other Slayers to be me. ... One's in Rome, partying very publicly – and supposedly dating some guy called "The Immortal." That part was Andrew's idea. He did research on the guy, said it would be hilarious for some reason' — apparently the reason being a prank aimed at Spike and Angel."


Wikipedia - Buffy Summers. "In Season Eight (2007–11), it establishes Buffy is not living with the Immortal in Rome which is simply a cover story to ensure her safety as she is now the leader of a global organization which recruits and trains Slayers to deal with demonic threats worldwide."
I actually think the retcon version makes a lot more sense than the version that was presented to us in "The Girl in Question". Although this Wikipedia entry makes it quite clear that Sarah Michelle Gellar was never scheduled to appear in "The Girl in Question", the final product (minus the retcon) made it look an awful lot like the producers were left scrambling after they failed to secure Gellar for the episode.

It's too bad that the complete story did not come out in Season 5 of Angel, since it would have been wonderful if the writers had emphasized how Buffy didn't like being followed around by Angel's proxy in Italy any more than she liked being followed by Angel himself in Season 1's "I Will Remember You". She was happily living her own life, and the guys desperately needed to get over the fact that her plans no longer included Angel or Spike.

Idle Thoughts. Despite the fact that I'm looking at "The Girl in Question" a lot more favorably this time around, I still have to chalk it up as a solid miss. This is surprising since episode writers Drew Goddard and Steven S. DeKnight are hardly a couple of hacks. "The Girl in Question" had a lot of potential, but I think the main problem was that the timing was all wrong, since the episode had all of the hallmarks of being crammed in around the time the series was being cancelled.

I found Andrew's dialogue in this scene to be terribly simplistic, when he was telling Angel and Spike that Buffy was off living her own life. Oddly enough, the printed word in the link above doesn't look as bad as it should. On-screen it seemed a lot more like Andrew was pretending to muse to himself while also pretending to be blissfully unaware that his words were having impact on Angel and Spike. In other words, he was trying to lecture to Angel and Spike without making it look like he was lecturing them. Most two-year-olds aren't stupid enough to fall for this. The fact that Angel and Spike did fall for Andrew's little ploy may have been the whole point.

"The Immortal" sounds like a fascinating character, NOT for the reason you might think. I'd like to hear a lot more about the "centuries-old guy with a dark past who may or may not be evil".

Past and present and reality and fantasy can warp and shift in so many interesting ways. I know this makes no sense whatsoever, but when I see actresses Julie Benz (Darla) and Juliet Landau (Drusilla) in Season 5 on Angel, I have a hard time thinking of them in terms of making return appearances to the series simply because their characters appeared in flashbacks sequences. That's ridiculous because I know damned well that the producers didn't film these scenes in Season 2 and wait three years to insert them into Season 5 episodes.

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