The Rear-View Mirror: Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

I must have mentioned it before: I’m not a fan of film musicals. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t like the genre, but I don’t like something just because it’s a musical. At the same time, there are a lot of musicals that I do like a lot, and they generally find ways of elevating the material, of making it more effective, because the characters in them have this odd habit of breaking into song every now and then.

Fiddler on the Roof
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Girl power

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an odd beast. It is perhaps the wittiest series with what would seem to be the dumbest premise: HIgh school chick fights vampire. It was cheesy, it had bad fight scenes much of the time, and many of the actors weren’t terribly good.

Yet what Buffy got right, it got right. In every season, there were episodes that are up there with my favourite television fare ever – and yes, that includes Six Feet Under and Deadwood. Over the course of seven seasons, I’ve come to care about all the characters. That never happened with any of the Star Trek series that I watched as a teenager. Nor did I grow tired of Buffy in the way that I lost patience with The X-Files.

Much of that has to do with Joss Whedon’s characters. They quickly come to feel like people you want to spend time with. Yes, even Angel… and yes, even season 6/7 Buffy, although to a lesser extent. (There were moments – flashes – when I even liked Dawn. I’m sorry.) They come to feel real, which is an amazing feat, considering that these people tend to spend their time fighting rubber-mask baddies and being American teenagers.

Yes, the series lost some steam after season 5 ended. There’s a lot going on in seasons 6 and 7 where I thought, “Yes, I see what they’re doing there… I see where they’re going with this”, but it was less enjoyable than what had come earlier. But I do not get the hate those later seasons get from some of the fans. I do not get the vitriol or the sense of betrayal that you find on the internet. (But then, there’s so much on the internet I do not get…)

It’s interesting re-watching season 2 now (our Sunday morning fare), since this is pretty much when the series came into its own. In the sophomore year, the actors had found their feet and really got their characters, to the point where it didn’t matter that much whether they were great actors or not. The writing had got more comfortable, yet at the same time more daring. In season 1, a later episode such as “The Body” or “Once More, With Feeling” wouldn’t have been imaginable; after season 2, pretty much anything was possible. (Well, not quite. I was only prepared for Whedon’s sadistic glee in doing horrible things to his characters because I’d previously seen Serenity. Yes, Joss, I know what you were doing there, I know what you were going for, and if I ever meet you I’ll be sure to applaud you for your audacity while I repeatedly kick you in the privates.)
So, re-watching Buffy while cuddling up to my loved one keeps me from missing Giles and Willow, and Xander and Cordelia, Oz and Joyce… and Buffy. As Willow said so memorably, “Sweet girl. Not that bright.”

Good thing that Joss Whedon and Brian K. Vaughn (of Y: Last Man and Runaways fame) are doing season 8 in comic book form. Shiny.

They see dead people! (Ouija board optional)

As I mentioned recently, I’m currently watching both the first and the last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – season 1 has replaced our previous Sunday morning show, Six Feet Under (there seems to be a distinct funereal vibe to our Sunday mornings…), but since I was watching Buffy before, I didn’t want to wait for two or three years until we caught up with where I’d previously been.

Season 1 is fun, but damn, is it cheesy… It’s goofy to an extreme and somewhat difficult to go back to after the last few seasons of the series. It also allows me to see how much the series has grown up with its main character – it has changed a lot in terms of tone and depth. Lots of fans would say that it turned into rubbish in seasons 6 and 7 – but I must say, I don’t see it. Yes, there’s less of the careless fun of dusting vamps, partying at the Bronze and pining after tall, dark, mysterious Angel. But the development the characters have gone through makes sense.

Yes, some episodes of seasons 6 and 7 are rather meandering, but that happens with most US series that run for 22 episodes each season. Practically any of those series would have benefitted from tightening to, say, 16 episodes per season. (Yes, Lost, this is a not-so-subtle jab in your direction. Don’t screw up now!) But then again, there are some episodes there that a) are among the handful of best episodes and b) wouldn’t have been possible in earlier episodes. The development that Buffy, Willow, Xander & Co have gone through is what makes an episode like “Conversations with Dead People” possible.

I was surprised when I read that four writers worked on “Conversations with Dead People”, because it’s one of the tightest episodes of the entire run of Buffy in terms of its writing. Everything fits together. It was in “Conversations” that I felt most strongly: this series was made by the people who created Firefly. It has the same astute mix of humour, drama and action as the best episodes of that sadly-missed sci-fi series. The episode manages to tell five stories in its 42 minutes: Buffy fights, and is psychoanalysed, by a vampire she went to school with (much funner and less corny than it sounds), Dawn is visited by what may or may not be the ghost of her mother, Willow gets a message from her dead girlfriend (or does she? – you get the gist), the nerdtastic duo Andrew and Jonathan return to their erstwhile stomping grounds, Sunnydale High, and Spike goes in for a little non-verbal Blonde-on-Blonde action.

What this shortest of summaries doesn’t reveal is the subtletly with which “Conversations” shifts its tone from witty to scary (for a horror-themed series, Buffy rarely had genuinely frightening moments, but this episode more than manages) to poignant. Like so often, the Big Bad in the series is at its most effective when what it says is largely true, but the kind of truth that the characters don’t like to face up to.

Okay, anyone who sat through all of this stuff on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer must be desperately bored or a fan of the series. In either case, here’s a little reward for you sitting this out. Enjoy!