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!

You can’t take a picture of this – it’s already gone

For all of those who thought that after weeks and months of me going on about Six Feet Under you were finally rid of wafflings about the Fisher family, I’m afraid you were popping the champagne corks too early.

So, what brings on this bout of raising the dead? Frankly, I’m not quite sure. I’ve been in a strange mood all day, and the last few minutes of “Everyone Waits”, the final episode of Six Feet Under, kept coming to my mind. Mostly in fragments: a bit of Late Nate Jr. singing “I Just Wanna Celebrate (Another Day of Life)” against a blinding white background, a bit of Sia’s “Breathe Me”. But mostly one short scene: as Claire says farewell to her family, she takes out her camera to take a picture. As she looks at them through the viewfinder, Nate stands behind her, telling her “You can’t take a picture of this; it’s already gone.”

You can’t take a picture of this - it’s already gone.

And it’s this line that’s been running around in my head. Taken out of context – by which I mean the whole scene, the episode and indeed the entire series – it’s nothingy. It even seems trite at first, like a slightly reformulated Seize the Day-type motto. But there’s more to it. The context adds layers. Is it about Claire’s constant attempts, as an artist, to capture something; call it the truth, the spirit of the moment, or just pretentious twaddle? Is he telling her not to hold on to moments, because those moments become the past immediately, and while you’re busy trying to hold on to it, you miss out on life? Is he telling her that life is fleeting? We all could drop dead from a brain aneurysm, be shot, die in a car accident, or have our heads crushed by blue ice falling from a plane passing overhead?

Probably there’s something of all of these in Nate’s cryptic sentence, but what kept coming back to me isn’t just what he says or how he says it. It’s the fact that Claire, after Nate has said his bit, takes the photo anyway.

What is it about this moment that keeps coming back to me? On the one hand it’s the sentence itself, and if I try to reformulate what it means to me, it just becomes trite. On the other hand, it’s Claire’s defiance: yes, the moment is fleeting, yes, tomorrow we shall die, yes, sooner or later we will lose everything we have to time (there I go, getting all trite, even though I said I wouldn’t…) – but she takes the photo anyway. Against hope, against reality, against her better knowledge, she tries to hold on to the moment. A lesser series would have had her take the photo, and only then Nate tells her that what she just did was futile. So much of Six Feet Under was about defying that futility – to hold on to what we have already lost, and to honour it in everything we do in the present. It’s already gone – and personally I dread the moment we accept that and move on without looking back. I hope with all my heart to know fully well that I can’t hold on to the present moment, and nevertheless to do so.

P.S.: Next time, more HBO – and Peter Pan, by way of overrated Swiss directors. At least that’s what I’ve got planned. Yes, I actually plan these things in advance. Sad, isn’t it?

Fangs for all the memories

Eugh. Okay, I admit, that one was quite atrocious. Still, it fits, I’m afraid. 

So, how does one replace Six Feet Under as the weekly Sunday morning programme? Does one go for something equally HBO – The Sopranos or Carnivàle? Or indeed The Wire? Well, the last one wasn’t an option, since a friend of mine has the DVDs at the moment.

For reasons that I won’t go into in great detail, we chose Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Perhaps it’s the whole death/funeral/cemetery thing. In any case, I’ve been watching Buffy for a while, usually while working out, and I’ve just started season 7. My love hasn’t seen any of the series, so we just watched the pilot. Here are some of my thoughts on revisiting Buffy:

  • My god, they’re all so young! And not just the usual suspects, like Buffy, Willow or Xander. Giles looks younger than I am! And they definitely played up the “British pansy” bit much, much more at the beginning. Can’t wait for him to become his later snarky self.
  • Cordelia? Nope, still don’t particularly like her. At least not in this series. She works better in Angel. (Yes, I watch Angel too. I never said I wasn’t a geek.)
  • Eric Balfour is dangerous to hang out with, at least if you’re a highschool student. Either he’ll turn into a crazed druggie juvenile delinquent (only to turn up a year later, blissfully dead) or he’ll become a vampire and much cooler than you, at least until you drive a stake through his heart.
  • I don’t think David Boreanaz is a particularly good actor. He works okay in his Angel role, mainly because he’s grown into the character. But in his first few scenes in Buffy? Ow. Ow, ow, ow.
  • And: they’re all so young!

 So, for all of those who hate Sarah Michelle Gellar’s guts or who couldn’t care less about teen/twen angst dressed up in vamp metaphor, combined with some of the coolest character work Joss Whedon did before the much-mourned Firefly, you may want to give future Sunday blog entries a miss. In which case I may just have to hunt you down and drive a stake through your heart. And then make a witty quip about it. While looking good in miniskirts. You’ve been warned.

… so young…

Her name is Bambi?

Nope, but it might as well be… Okay, what on earth am I talking about? Grey’s Anatomy season 4, which just started over here.

I’ll get it out of the way first and foremost. I basically like Grey’s Anatomy. I like watching many of the characters, and usually, when it gets too soppy, I just bite my tongue until the next time Christina or Bailey are back on screen and then I’m okay. However, I got very tired of the non-medical soap opera in season 3. And the season 4 starter didn’t much convince me that change was inevitable, however much Meredith rambled on about it in her voice-over.

And what I really mind, not specifically about this series but about so many soap operas in general: I don’t want to be told who to like and who to dislike. I want to figure that out for myself. And I especially dislike being told (implicitly, of course, but not very subtly) that I’m supposed to like character A when I’ve just come to the conclusion that character A is an idiot and is wasting my time. And no, just because a character is made out to be all cute and adorable doesn’t mean that I can’t dislike her.

Yes, I’m looking at you, Lexie Grey.

Yes. She’s cute as a button. I hate her.

(Warning: If you’re tired of my “I love HBO” sermons, this is where you go and read that other blog. You know, the one by that guy who writes about these things. And there are pictures and stuff.)

That’s one of the things I love about Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Deadwood, or even Battlestar Galactica (okay, that one isn’t HBO). No one tells me that I have to like Tony Soprano or Alma Garret or Nate Fisher. In fact, it’s absolutely okay for me to dislike Starbuck (which I don’t – but I could!) or Claire or Carmela. And, what is more important, the characters are deeper, more real – they can’t be reduced to Good Guys and Bad Guys. You may feel understanding for them, but that doesn’t stop you from shouting at them in the next scene, telling them to stop being so fucking stupid, goddamnit, cocksuckers!

Okay… perhaps I should try to reduce the weekly dose of Deadwood.

No more House calls for a while

On Monday, Swiss television showed the season 3 finales of both House, M.D. and Lost. We haven’t seen the latter yet, but it probably says it all that the best moment of House, at least for me, was the Chase/Cameron kiss. That scene was sweet, but the actual medical case was too vague and the character interaction not very interesting. The House vs. God angle had also been done previously. All in all it felt like the series could do with a couple of months off. Seeing as season 4, cut short by striking writers, is just about over in the States, we might get it fairly soon…

Gregory House, looking dark and depressed in between snarky quips

… but first, we’ve got the grand return of Grey’s Anatomy (at a point where I sometimes feel that if I have to watch McDreamy be a self-righteous, self-infatuated git for another minute, I’ll find the actor and put his face through a meat grinder), doubled up with Private Practice, the Grey spin-off that got started in an atrociously written and at best adequately acted two-parter on its mother series.

How’s a man to cope – especially when this man knows that there are only six more episodes of Deadwood? Like, ever? Come to think of it, I’d like to see a cross-over where some select characters from Grey’s Anatomy and perhaps Desperate Housewives stop by the picturesque little town of Deadwood. Derek Shepherd could open a practice with Dan Doherty as opthalmologist. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, click here, unless you’re still hoping to watch season 3 of Deadwood.)

Six Feet Under is also almost over – two more episodes. What next? We’ve got a fair choice of series: Rome, The Wire, Carnivàle, season 6 of The Sopranos. Then there’s more escapist or pulpy fare: Heroes, Veronica Mars, Joan of Arcadia, Dexter. I’ve heard very good things about the latter series, especially season 2 – which came as a bit of a surprise, as the second Dexter novel was quite a bit weaker than the first. I guess that sometimes film and TV can improve on books…

And to end this very meandering blog entry, here’s a YouTube clip – the very effective opening credits for Dexter, a show whose ‘hero’ is a serial killer… who is intent on only killing ‘bad guys’:

This is the one with pictures!

And what pretty pictures they are! Oh! Oh!

Okay, enough of that… it’s getting silly. What is there to talk about? Blood Simple, perhaps, which we watched tonight. A fascinating film to watch if you like les frères Coen, because it combines the “Ohshitohshitohshit…” tension of a James M. Cain novel with traces of the subversive humour that would come to full bloom in later Coen movies. Then again, I don’t particularly feel like talking about that movie. Go and watch it yourself, if you can keep yourself from constantly muttering, “Oh. My. God. Frances McDormand is so young!”

What else then? Nate Fisher’s funeral perhaps. It’s strange – when I first watched this episode about 1 1/2 years ago, I mostly felt numb throughout it. The tears only started to come halfway through the penultimate episode “Static”. (When the car pickup guy kicks in the crashed hearse’s window, that does me in completely.) This time, though, the aptly names “All Alone” really got to me. The way all the remaining Fishers, as well as Brenda and Maggie, were locked into themselves by their grief, rage and frustration. The way putting shrouded Nate in that hole in the ground seemed so final – even though this is Six Feet Under, where the dead appear to the living to cajole, taunt and sometimes, very rarely, if you’re lucky, offer much needed sympathy. Even Claire’s flashback to the day Kurt Cobain died (“Too pure for this world”?! Whatever it is you’re smoking, buddy boy, gimme some of that!) didn’t just feel embarrassing. Perhaps I’m just getting soppy and old.

Ruth alone

Or should I write about Deadwood? I’ve already said a lot about the tension that’s been building up since George Hearst’s arrival and immediate claim. It definitely feels like more blood will be spilled before the end of the season – and quite some blood has already been spilled. Not to mention other body parts ending up where they don’t really belong.

So, just one brief note about Deadwood: in addition to the dialogues, the world that is evoked, the storylines, the series’ feel for what the Germans call Spannungsbogen (there’s really no exact English equivalent, which I consider a much greater inadequacy than the lack of Zeitgeist or Blitzkrieg), I simply love the faces. They all tell stories, and they feel so eminently right.

George Hearst, looking for a new captain (preferably with two eyes)

A death in the family

Phew. He’s dead. And even though I knew it was going to happen – heck, I’d seen it before – it’s still amazing how much it got to me.

Rest in peace, Nathaniel Fisher Jr. You were often frightened, stupid, self-righteous, passive-aggressive (and lately just plain aggressive) and self-centred… but I’ll miss you.

Before Nate died, you did WHAT to him?!

We also watched another episode of Lost yesterday, namely “The Man Behind the Curtain”. It seems that the series makers have realised that you can’t just keep heaping mysteries onto the viewer without also revealing a thing or two, and the series definitely benefits from it. Also, I definitely like John Locke, Zealot more than the dithering Locke in the latter half of season 2. Hey, sometimes you just need to knock out a one-eyed Russian to make your point!

Also, note to all fathers reading this: Never, ever forget your son’s birthday every year – because otherwise he might just end up gassing you to death on some mysterious Hawaiian island. And some con-man from down South may just end up popping the skull off your dessicated remains to make the audience laugh.

Narm!

I guess I now know better than to have an extramarital fling with a deeply kind Quaker while my wife’s pregnant with a child that may or may not be born with serious health problems.

For all those of you who just went “Huh?”or “What the…?”, I’m talking about Six Feet Under, and especially the episode we watched yesterday, called “Singing for our lives” (admittedly, a more evocative title than “The World According to Narm”, which would have been my suggestion).

It’s Narm out there, man…

I’ve always been puzzled with the people on the web who watched Six Feet Under until the final episode but hated Nate Fisher. There seem to be quite a few of them, the series’ reviewer for Television without Pity being a case in point. Yes, Nate is in many ways a self-pitying, egocentric loser – but for one thing, so are many of us a lot of the time… but even more, I always thought that one of the points of Six Feet Under was that it had sympathy and understanding for all its characters, whether they were self-important art school students, neurotics (and boy, were there many of those in the series!), biker dudes, gang leaders, sexually confused young men, druggie sisters, Russian flower shop keepers or dweeby hairdressers. Yes, the series has a strong, at times vicious satiric streak, but I felt that inherently it didn’t really distinguish between good guys and bad guys. It showed you were people were coming from. And it expected at least a willingness to empathise from you.

There are still four episodes for us to watch. And like the first time I watched the series, I will probably want to go back to the beginning and start again. After “Everybody’s Waiting” I felt… bereaved, for want of a better word. I missed the Fishers. In some ways, watching the series again has felt like going through old photo albums and reminding myself of the people who are no longer there.

So, on that happy note: Narm!