Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Birthday Blogging Buffy

The Birthday blogging extravaganza continues with guest poster, Cheryl, commenting on what is probably the most universally loved show here at the blog: Buffy.

Sadly, very few of my favorite shows ever make it to the four year mark. I like to think it’s because I’m so edgy and ahead of my time, but, if I’m honest, it’s probably just because I’m weird. The flip side of my weirdness, though, is the shows I do like that make it that long are usually really, really good so choosing just one took some thought. I considered Ed Stevens and Carol Vessey’s “perfect” wedding finale on Ed (long live the ten dollar bet), as well as the brilliantly deranged musical episode, “The Nightman Cometh,” from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but in the end, there was no choice. No show could ever beat Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Joss Whedon completes me.

From the beginning, Buffy changed the landscape of television so thoroughly, blew the hinges off of so many closed doors, that it’s hard to remember what things were like before it hit. Back when the strong, female lead was virtually non-existent. Sydney Bristow, Veronica Mars, even new kid on the block Annie Walker all owe a direct debt to Buffy Summers. As do Lorelai and Rory Gilmore and their pop culture-rich vocabulary. And long before Jack Bauer realized he came to the rescue a little too late to save his wife from terrorists, Joss was already an old hand at killing off regulars – the more tragically, the better. I could list the examples of its legacy all day, but if you don’t already know them yourself, you either don’t care to or can easily find hundreds of more articulate summaries with a Google search. No pitiful analysis I could come up with would ever do justice to just how revolutionary and empowering that silly, little vampire show was for those of us who felt we had no power.

Unfortunately, groundbreaking or not, it wasn’t immune to the bane of all high school dramas – what do we do after graduation? To borrow the show’s tendency to write life as a metaphor, it seemed as though just as Buffy the girl was trying to discover who she was after high school, meeting new friends, saying goodbye to some old ones, Buffy the show was having growing pains of its own, struggling to find its place in the much larger world it was creating. But throughout that difficult process, the one thing the fans could rely on was the writers’ unfailing ability to write clever and believable dialogue. Even the episodes that failed to click dramatically were still better than most of what was on television at the time simply because of the witty exchanges of the Scooby Gang. This is part of what made the episode I chose, “Hush,” so remarkable.

In Hush a group of fairy tale monsters known as The Gentlemen come to town and steal everyone's voices, leaving their victims unable to scream as they go about cutting seven people’s hearts out of their chests. The upshot of this is that nearly 30 minutes of the episode’s 44 minute total pass with almost no dialogue spoken. A bold choice, but it paid off. “Hush” was not only well-received when it aired, earning Whedon the show’s lone Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing – a travesty only surpassed by the fact that he didn’t win – but it is also always included in any discussion of the best episodes of the series. One of the largest reasons why it was so successful is the top-notch acting. Particularly from the always great Alyson Hannigan and Emma Caulfield who played my personal favorite, Anya. The way she casually continued eating her popcorn after Giles put up his images of a Gentleman ripping out the heart of an innocent person – so perfectly Anya. Like all silent film, it was necessary for the acting to be over-the-top to register, but the deftness of the cast keeps the pantomime from ever crossing the line into silliness.

It was also our first introduction to Tara. Tentative and shy, Tara along with Giles’ girlfriend, Olivia, serve as a juxtaposition to the cynical Scoobies. Their totally justifiable fear serves to make the scenes with The Gentlemen much more frightening. Not that The Gentlemen need any help in that department. They are easily the scariest TV villains I have ever seen. Looking like James Carville and floating down the streets of Sunnydale with straight-jacket clad minions sprung from the local insane asylum, it’s not just their intent to collect people’s hearts that makes them terrifying (although that would certainly be enough) it’s the polite detachment they exude as they go about their task that’s truly disturbing. Couple that with a seeming lack of motive, and it’s really no wonder I still can’t watch the episode with the lights out. Nicholas Brendon has called “Hush” the most frightening episode they ever did. I’m inclined to agree with him.

(Editor's note: eek!)

Tara’s appearance is also noteworthy, of course, because of what she would eventually become. The relationship between her and Willow that would start later in the season would be the first long-term lesbian relationship in U.S. television. According to the DVD commentary, the writers were uncertain at this point that the relationship would become romantic but still wanted to make the scene in which Tara and Willow move the vending machine by working together, “sensual and powerful,” and “a very empowering statement about love. That two people together can accomplish more than when they're alone.” In fact, Whedon called it “the most romantic image we've put on film.”

The fact that they were able to create that image without saying anything speaks to the heart of the episode. Sometimes words just get in the way. Whether it’s Tara mustering up the nerve to connect with Willow, or Riley and Buffy’s first kiss, or Xander showing Anya he is in fact interested in her for more than “just orgasms,” actions speak louder. At the same time, words are shown to have an incredible power of their own. Riley almost being killed by the Initiative elevator and Spike being unable to tell Xander why he had a bloody mouth, could both have been avoided if only those involved could speak.

We rely so much on voicing our thoughts and feelings that being confronted with the inability to do so makes us feel vulnerable and is another big reason why The Gentlemen are so powerful as villains. However, their theft of that capability was what allowed the characters to solve many of their conflicts. By balancing those two ideas, Whedon effectively questions the role of speech in our lives. Do we lean on it too much or is it an indispensible gift? The answer is left for the viewers to decide while Joss leaves us speechless yet again.

Friday, August 27, 2010

An Ounce of Prevention...

My Mom is full of little nuggets of wisdom. Two of her most famous saying pertain to the need to be organized and take steps to ensure that you are prepared for whatever life throws your way. These saying are, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" and "proper preparation prevents poor performance." Basically, if you get your shit together from the onset, you can spare yourself a lot of trouble later.

That's the modern interpretation, if you were wondering.

I don't see any reason why you can't apply these sayings to your television watching. Especially going into the new Fall season when new shows and old returning favorites abound. If you don't take the time to get prepared, how would you ever figure out what you needed to watch/record? So break out the Excel spreadsheet, because it's time to get this thing going.

And to help you out, the folks over at Entertainment Weekly have provided a handy premiere calendar breaking down by day and time when shows are airing. And if you're struggling with deciding what to watch/give a chance, at TWOP you can find recommendations on what to watch...and what to miss.

From the few previews and bit of buzz I've heard, I'm looking forward to Nikita, Undercovers, and Hawaii 5-0. Especially since I just learned that a friend of mine's Dad will be appearing in Hawaii 5-0 as a regular extra. But really, I don't have a burning desire for any of the new shows, I'm too wrapped up in waiting for the returning shows to come back. Vampire Diaries, Glee, House, etc. Bring it on, Fall!

And when it comes to the new shows, remember. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Summer homework FAIL.

Ah, the beginning of summer. It seemed to stretch forward in a long three month period full of endless possibilities. Remember when I wrote that post about all the television I was going to catch up on this summer? Sons of Anarchy, Fringe, etc.

What the hell happened?

How is it almost Labor Day? Do you know what I've managed to get through? The first season of Deadwood. THAT'S IT. I've watched a couple episodes from the second season of Leverage, but that wasn't even on the list.

I feel like a failure. I am a failure!

But I'm still going to plow ahead. I'm sure I'll have no time once the networks start up with new and returning shows, but I'm not giving up. Maybe I can get through all these shows by the end of the year? Hope spring eternal.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Worst. Mom. EVER.

One of the secret reasons I watch Mad Men is to see how the characters spectacularly fall apart. It's like sneaking a peek at a car accident, you can't help but look. But sometimes the collapse becomes almost too painful and you want to look away. And yet...I can't.

This was how I felt watching the most recent Mad Men episode, The Crysanthemum and the Sword. There is no doubt: Betty Draper is the worst mother on television. In the past, she's barely been able to summon disdain when deeming to notice her children, but this episode she crossed the line to cruelty. After divorcing Don, she shacked up with Harry immediately, and neither she nor Don has really made an effort to protect Sally (their daughter) from their oversexed lives. So is it any wonder that Sally is a supremely messed up little girl?

First, she cuts her hair. Now I can speak from personal experience, because I did this exact thing when I was around Sally's age. I didn't like the place where my Mom took me to get my hair cut (I think I was scared of the large boisterous gay man who cut my hair--my, how things have changed), so I decided I would take control and do it myself. Of course it was a disaster as these things always are. But my Mom just contented herself with some yelling and a trip to the salon. But Betty Draper--oh, no. Sally got the full slap across the face treatment. This punishment of her daughter was so sudden and so shocking, that I literally gasped out loud. Even Harry knew Betty had gone too far. And when Don called her on it, all Betty could use to defend herself was that Sally had spoiled her looks and when she was a girl all she wanted was long hair. It seems the one lesson Sally can learn from her Mom is that the only thing that matters is appearances.

Of course, that was just the tip of the iceberg, as Sally then gets sent home after touching herself at a sleepover when she thought the other girl was asleep. Betty's humiliation by the other mother is probably some of the worst she has experienced, but it still isn't cause to threaten to cut her daughter's fingers off, as she did. The whole thing made me so mad; here is Sally, with two parents who live open sex lives, but nobody has bothered to explain anything about it to her, and when she naturally starts to want to learn about her own body...threats. Sigh. It's sad how little some people have progressed in terms of sexual education in 50 some years.

Finally, Betty listens to sense (i.e. Harry) and gets Sally's ass into therapy. THANK GOD. Maybe someone can help that poor kid out, because lord knows her Mom doesn't give a crap other than thinking about how badly it makes her look when Sally acts out.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Birthday Blogging: 20 Hours in America

Guest-blogger Jason has decided to get in on the fun of our blog's fourth anniversary celebration. Here's his favorite Season 4 episode of one of my favorite series, The West Wing.

For my contribution to the blog’s fourth birthday, I decided to jump the sci-fi shark for a second and talk about another kind of show. Specifically, political dramas, of which there is no finer example than The West Wing. And for my money, the show’s fourth season opener “20 Hours in America” is one of the best hours (er…okay, technically more since it was a two-parter) of television that show ever produced.

The episode opened with President Bartlet on the campaign trail in the last summer of his first term. Wackiness ensues as the motorcade drives away from a rally in Republican-leaning Indiana accidentally leaving Josh, Toby and Donna behind. The episode tracks between the members of the administration arrived safely back home in Washington, DC, and the three staffers who struggle, Odyssey-like, across the Midwest trying to get back.

Upon being informed of the many trials the three are engaged in to return to DC, Bartlet himself even recognizes how myopic Josh and Toby tend to get, despite their brilliance. “300 IQ points between the two of them and they can’t find their way home,” Bartlet muses. “I swear to God, if Donna wasn’t there they’d have to buy a house.”

Seriously. She’s the smart one.

The episode plays up the comedy of the show well. The trio trying to get back to DC is obviously given the most face time, but other plots make an impressive showing as well. Lily Tomlin, for instance, makes the first of many appearances as a brassy former alpaca farmer interviewing to be Bartlet’s personal secretary who’s already botched an interview because she mistakenly took too many pills before her first one. But as any scholar of the classics knows, comedy is often most effectively used as a foil to tragedy, so it’s no surprise when the episode takes on a different tone when more than halfway through the administration must contend with a bombing at a college swim meet that’s killed a number of students.

A major theme of the episode is how “elitism” gets played off in an election and how the term has seen better days. Bartlet’s challenger, the Republican governor of Florida, has been mocking him all summer with folksy bon mots and boiled-down, ten-word sound bites that the electorate is eating up, especially compared with Bartlet’s penchant for always coming off like an economics professor. Josh and Toby argue politics throughout the episode, placing them strongly at odds against the locals whose goodwill they must rely on even though they come off as arrogant jerks. The First Lady is likewise accused by a collection of conservative women’s groups when she makes an off-handed comment about being “just” a wife and mother, rather than continuing her medical practice. The aides even make the point specifically:

C.J.: [quoting a talk radio host] “This is another sign that Abbey Bartlet is a liberal elitist feminist.”

BRUNO: “Elitist feminist?” You can’t do that to the English language.

The thing is it’s awfully hard to have a television show that caters to an upper middle-class viewing audience wax political about elitism and not come off sounding, well, elitist. The West Wing always skirted dangerously close to the line between high drama and just being all-out preachy. Even if you were someone who agreed with the left-leaning politics behind the show, there were always times when you just kind of wanted to tie Aaron Sorkin’s hands so he would stop patting himself on the back. But “20 Hours in America” actually managed to pull of the lofty politics and moralizing precisely because it drew attention to it all.

As Toby and Josh bicker more and more relentlessly about the political race ahead of them, it falls to Donna to put them in their place and remind them that most Americans are far more concerned about what happens when someone sets off a bomb at a school than the insider politics of a presidential race.

But of course, the reason the episode, and the show, worked so well is because there really is no better setting to debate life and death situations and politics than the White House. The focus on elitism as a good thing, given the gravity and complexity of the world’s problems, is what ironically grounds all these Smarter Than You Are staffers and political titans. We may not have always felt like these characters were maintaining their modesty, but we continually wanted to watch them.

Also, doubt you that Aaron Sorkin can put together a moving political speech? Just try to watch the clip at the end of the episode where Bartlett describes how the school bombing is emblematic of what the country can achieve:

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

DC Cupcake

Warning: this blog post contains ridiculous amounts of cupcake porn. It's probably best not to read it on an empty stomach.

DC residents have long lamented their regions' lack of a specialty food. Philadelphia has cheese steak, New York and Chicago have pizza, Baltimore has crabs (pun intended), and I guess LA has whatever hippy dippy vegan food is popular right now. But DC? We got nothing. Until now.

Because DC has become the city of cupcakes. I could probably rattle off the name of 5 different cupcake providers (including Curbside Cupcakes...who come by my office once a week in their pink van selling cupcakes from the curb), but the place that started the trend is Georgetown Cupcakes in, obviously, Georgetown. It seems word is getting out about DC and our cupcakes, and TLC has been airing a reality show centered around Georgetown Cupcakes, titled DC Cupcake.

The show just got picked up for a second season right when it's abbreviated first season is finishing up its six episode run. Being a cupcake fan, I of course had to give it a try and here's my review in brief: it's hit or miss.

The show is fun to look at; it features lots of filler shots of cupcakes being baked, cupcakes being iced, cupcakes being bought, just cupcakes in general. Which, hello, I am definitely a fan. Georgetown Cupcake is run by two sisters, and each episode features some kind of cupcake creation that is being made by the gals (think ala Ace of Cakes). The problem is that some of the episodes are just kind of boring. Many "scenes" are clearly deliberately staged and it's painfully obvious that the "dialogue" is not coming naturally, but is instead for the sole benefit of the audience. The most recent episode, following the sisters as they make wedding cupcakes and detailing an employee's first day in the shop, was the most egregious example of this.

But when the show flows naturally, it's actually really fun and even kind of interesting. Who doesn't want to see who cupcake creations are made? Communists, that's who. The second episode, which had the ladies making a huge creation for their church's Greek Festival, was a good example of how cute and fun the show is when things just happen. Hopefully, the "cast" will get more comfortable in front of the camera and the next season will feel more natural and less staged. But in any event, I'll keep watching if just for the cupcakes.

And just for funsies, here's a pic of me and my friends getting our first cupcakes from the Curbside Cupcakes van at work this past winter: