Periscope Depth

the victims have been bled

I’ve struggled for a while on what exactly bothers me about Joss Whedon’s writing style. Realizing that Whedon cut his teeth as a writer for Roseanne clinched it for me: every scene he writes feels like either a sitcom or a soap opera.

His characters take awkward pauses between each sentence – pauses which make no sense in the context of dramatic television, but would make perfect sense if someone were waiting for a laugh track to be dubbed in. The camerawork makes each scene take half again as long as it ought to, lingering on non-speaking characters for reaction shots … which would be fine, if the actors were any better. And most episodes peak with cheap moralizing of the Lassie variety (“y’see, Timmy …”). Ick.

Whedon’s a man of immense creativity but without the stylistic chops to back his vision up. And style matters. Friends had no real concept (they’re these single people who live in Manhattan!) but really clever writing; that carried it for more than a decade. Buffy had a barn-burner of a concept (hot teenagers kill monsters) and mediocre writing, and it struggled to get seven seasons.

That being said: when he gets out of his own way, his stuff can be fun.

Notes on the first five episodes of S3:

ANNE
Awful. This episode introduces a new season, meaning it should ramp up the conflict early to hook viewers in. Instead, the episode’s nearly half over before Whedon introduces the central conflict (Ricky goes missing; Lily asks for Buffy’s help). The scene where Buffy and Lily ask after Ricky at the clinic – presumably before he got a tattoo of Lily’s name – has some awfully weird cinematography. The camera sticks on the nurse like her face contains Ominous Import, instead of just Ominous Amounts of Cellulite. Buffy quickly finds where Ricky, as well as several other teenagers, have vanished to – a hidden portal to a demonic dimension that manufactures … what exactly? I dunno. Buffy spends all of four minutes here before staging a revolt and escaping; you’d think it wouldn’t be so easy to overpower, slay and evade demons on their home ground, but what do I know?

The A-plot climaxes with a pointless fight scene: Buffy clambers up onto an elevated platform and kicks 20 demons in the head. If those demons were chasing the escaping slaves, why would they climb up after her? Why wouldn’t they just run around this platform – it hardly obstructs the path – and keep after their quarry? And if for some bizarre reason they’re compelled to fight her, wouldn’t the consecutive head-kickings of demons #11, 12 and 13 suggest a need for better tactics? “Hey, let’s throw something at her from one of these dimly-lit railings, maybe.” But the entire scene exists just to make Sarah Michelle Gellar look like a competent fighter, which running with her hands flailing* does not.

Anyhow, Whedon pads out the 44-minute running time with some profoundly dumb B-plots. Xander worries that Cordelia might not like him any more. Willow worries about how they’re going to hunt vampires without Buffy around. So they set a trap for a vampire (“act bait-y”), only they completely screw it up, haw haw. Cordelia and Xander end up on top of each other and start making out – which, in sitcom logic (see above), means they’re together. And I guess the fact that a vampire got disintegrated means the gang can pull off a staking without Buffy. Only we never see anyone acknowledge either of these things; the episode ends with these threads untied.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?:

  • “This is no place for a kid to be. You get old fast here” (OH HAI SYMBOLIZM)
  • “I just want to be alone in a room with a chair and a fireplace and a tea cozy. I don’t even know what a tea cozy is, but I want one.”; and
  • “Humans don’t fight back. Humans don’t fight back! That’s how this works!” (DID I TELL U BOUT DA SYMBOLIZM?)
  • “Want to see my impression of Gandhi?”
  • When Buffy finds Lily being “baptized” (when did this go from non-judgmental place for troubled teens to cult, and why is no one else startled by that shift?), she kicks in the door and confronts the cult leader. Or rather, the door swings open and she walks in rather casually; the sound of splintering wood is Foleyed in. I know Gellar can’t actually kick in a door, but could it have least looked like she tried?

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool:

  • Buffy ripping the telephone off the wall. It’s done casually, the comic timing is perfect, and it’s a subtle (!) reminder of the superhuman strength that Buffy totes around.
  • “If we can focus, keep discipline, and not have quite as many mysterious deaths, Sunnydale is gonna rule!” This was the first character whom I believed was a real person feeling real feelings.

Overall Grade: Second worst episode of the first five.

DEAD MAN’S PARTY
Wretched. The scene where Buffy’s mom Joyce hangs the Nigerian death mask in her bedroom stands as an example of everything that’s wrong with Buffy when it goes wrong. The acting’s no better than community theater (“leave plenty of pauses between each line, and for God’s sake don’t react when someone else speaks”). Every conversation takes twelve sentences to communicate something normal humans could manage in two. And it would take a psychotic – I mean literally, someone who does not process reality the same way everyone else does – to think that that Nigerian death mask “cheers up the room.” But Joyce has to leave that mask hanging, or else the episode cannot proceed.

Also, Joyce invites Buffy’s closest friends over for a welcome back dinner. Talking it over in the library, they decide to turn this dinner – at which they are guests, not hosts – into a party. A party with a live rock band, two dozen strangers, and liquor (“do a shot! You have to do a shot now!”). Which Buffy’s mom and her weird neighbor Pam are cheerfully attending. Who said this was okay? Who thought this would be okay? Biker gangs behave like this, not teenagers who go to good schools and like each other.

So the entire episode hinges on two instances of stupid behavior that everyone has to pretend are normal. It climaxes with Buffy’s friends yelling at her for running away (right, because nothing keeps your friends around like anger). The confrontation between Willow, Xander and Buffy plays out like bad improv, with characters repeating the same ideas but never advancing the conversation. Thankfully, zombies crash through the window to get things moving again.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “We should figure out what kinda deal this is. I mean, is it a gathering, a shindig or a hootenanny?” I couldn’t hear the rest, as I was vomiting, but Seth Green goes on for another thirty seconds in this vein.
  • The Principal describing the “tingly feelings” he gets when he fantasizes about punishing Buffy. And I don’t think Whedon was trying to make him come across as a pervert – that was his notion of clever, villainous dialogue.
  • “The Watcher’s back on the clock. And just when you’re thinking career change, maybe becoming a … a looker or a … a seer …”
  • “You can’t just bury stuff, Buffy. It’ll come right back up to get you.” (MAI SYMBOLIZM LET ME SHOW U IT)

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • ” ‘Do you like my mask? Isn’t it pretty? It raises the dead!’ Americans.”

Overall Grade: I very nearly bailed on my promise to watch all of Season 3 after this episode. Worst of the first five.

FAITH, HOPE AND TRICK
And then suddenly it gets better!

Buffy meets Faith, who got promoted to slayer in the five minutes that Buffy was dead. Whedon ladles Faith’s salacious spunkiness on a little thick – the first anecdote she shares with the gang is about a time she killed a bunch of vampires “without a stitch on … stark nude.” Does he not think that Xander, or the rest of the male audience, would find Eliza Dushku hot unless she talked about being naked? Regardless, Faith is free in all the ways Buffy isn’t, which leads to some tension between the slayers … until Kakistos, the vampire that killed her Watcher, shows up. I don’t buy Faith running from Boston all the way to California – everything about her screams overconfidence, not underconfidence, and nothing about Kakistos makes him look like a threat. But the two team up, stake him, and seem to end up as friends.

B-plot: Buffy acting all confused and coy around Scott Hope, the cute boy who wants to ask her out. Scott has all the backbone of the zombie cat from the last episode: struggling for the courage to ask Buffy to dance, buying her a ring before they’ve even gone on their first date, hoping that they can be “friends,” etc. Then again, maybe a loser like Buffy – a juvenile delinquent with shit grades, no life outside school and no friends except three weird kids and the school librarian – is the best he can do. Ha ha, just kidding: Buffy’s clearly a desirable match, and Scott’s clearly a winner (see sitcom logic, above).

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “They should film that story and show it to children every Christmas.” Upon further reflection, 95% of what I dislike about Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes out of Nicholas Brendan’s mouth.
  • I’m torn between whether or not I like or dislike Giles’ inventing this “binding spell” out of nothing to get Buffy to talk about Angel’s death. Ultimately, I dislike it, simply because Buffy could have legitimately brought up Angel’s death without it (she is dating again, after all) and because I can’t stand the notion of lying to someone for their own good.
  • A pre-emptive AYFKM for Angel reappearing when Buffy leaves her ring at the spot where they fought. We haven’t learned yet how exactly Angel escaped from whatever hell he got sent to, but if it’s “… your love brought me back” or some variation thereof I will spit fire.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • Mr. Trick lunging out of the car window to snag the drive-thru attendant (“… now I’m hungry.”). It was a well-timed shock and a well-delivered line.
  • Mr. Trick casually donning a thick rubber glove to yank the pizza delivery guy in through the front door.
  • Hell, I just love everything Mr. Trick does. You can thank him for turning me around on Season 3.

Overall Grade: Apparently, the A.V. Club’s Noel Murray is also watching Season 3 of Buffy for the first time (note to self: he apparently likes it; discount any future reviews of his). He says that Angel’s reappearance in this episode “seemed like Whedon’s way of announcing that all the season’s main introductory stuff is over. The story starts now.” Though he seems to mean it as a compliment, I’d say that’s one of the places Whedon consistently goes wrong: he thinks that he can waste three episodes on character development and arranging the deck chairs. He can’t. That’s what turned people off of Dollhouse.**

“Faith, Hope and Trick” works because it has three decent fight scenes (Faith taking the vampire outside; Faith and Buffy on patrol; Faith and Buffy vs. Kakistos) in addition to introducing three new recurring characters as well as advancing Buffy’s personality (she’s getting over Angel’s death) on top of a dramatic cliffhanger to cap the episode (Angel’s return). It’s full of action, tension and development. It’s the first episode of Buffy that I would not have minded going longer (compared to “Anne,” which could not end soon enough).

BEAUTY AND THE BEASTS
I really liked this episode. It treats the typology of relationship abuse pretty seriously – Pete alternating between a monster, tormenting Debbie both physically and mentally, and then regressing completely to a withdrawn, weeping boy. Abusers keep hold of their victims by becoming so warm and defenseless when they’re “good” that one wants to forgive them for being bad.

Pete’s been slaughtering kids with his bare hands, but Oz takes the blame. Even though he’s been locked in a cage on each night in question (also, which nights does Oz turn into a werewolf?). At first Buffy fears that Oz might be responsible. Then she gets even more concerned that Angel might be responsible, since he’s still a weird, snarling mess.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “Every guy – from Manimal right down to Mr. I-Loved-The-English-Patient has beast in him. And I don’t care how sensitive they act – they’re all still just in it for the chase.” (KIN I INTEREST U IN SUM FINE SYMBOLIZMS?)
  • Angel saving Buffy from super-strong Pete. For an episode that dwells so much on abused and vulnerable women, watching Buffy kick Pete through the air and onto, say, an upright shard of glass would have capped things nicely. But I guess even the prophesied defender of humanity needs to be SAVED BY HER BOYFRIEND once in a while.
  • The episode ends with an exposition dump on what exactly happened. This is a staple of TV drama – breaking down a mysterious plot with a real-world explanation (“so the landlord was simulating those ghost noises with radio static”). The problem: nobody actually explains anything. Willow’s explanation, word for word: “Mr. Science was doing a Jekyll/Hyde deal. He was afraid Debbie was gonna leave him, so he mixed this potion to become super mas macho.” That’s not an explanation – that’s what we, the audience, saw happen. At least invent some Star Trek pseudoscience (“… created a serum out of the genetic material of bulls that accelerated his adrenal and pineal glands …”) to make it look like you did something worthwhile.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • The Oz / Pete brawl in the library. Bodies go flying, furniture gets smashed, people lunge across the room. Honest fun.
  • Giles getting hit by a tranquilizer dart. Giles really is the Professor X of this crew. Since the most common obstacle between the heroes and resolving the crisis is knowledge – what ritual do we use, what item do we obtain, what demon are we supposed to slay – knocking out the most knowledgeable character heightens the stakes. Plus, his reaction made me chuckle.
  • Bookending the episode with quotes from The Call of the Wild. Very literary touch.

Overall Grade: Rather good.

HOMECOMING
A rollicking treat. Buffy’s abrupt desire to become Homecoming Queen looks a bit forced at first blush – a cheap “idiot ball” ploy (see sitcom logic, above) to get her and Cordelia at odds. But later we realize it is forced. Buffy doesn’t want to be Homecoming Queen so much as she wants to have left an impression on her classmates. Of course, this revelation only comes when Buffy and Cordelia hide in an abandoned cabin, pursued by Mr. Trick’s posse of demonic mercenaries (“Slayerfest … 98!”).

The B-plot, Xander and Willow’s sudden tryst, wouldn’t work if Xander and Willow weren’t teenagers. But we expect teenagers to do stupid, hormonal things, and the addictive intoxication of a crush makes perfect sense. Of course, nothing comes of their “affair” in this episode – it neither gets any hotter nor blows out into the open. Nor does anything happen with it in the next episode. Or the next one. Nice going, Whedon.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • The Xander/Willow affair hinges on the two of them noticing each other in a new light – changing into fabulous clothes for the Homecoming dance. Willow models three dresses for Xander. Xander’s jaw drops at the least flattering of the three – a jaw-to-ankles black number that makes her look like a clove cigarette.
  • Buffy takes out the two Germans with AR-15s by sticking one of them with the device they’ve been using to track her. The two of them, receiving remote instructions, fire on each other through a classroom wall, killing each other. Okay, come on. No one who’s ever handled a gun in their life – much less professional mercenaries – would fire blindly through a wall if there was a halfway decent chance their colleague was on the other side.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • “We all have the desire to win, whether we’re human … vampire … and whatever the hell you are, my brother. You got spiny looking head things. I ain’t never seen that before.”
  • We first meet The Mayor when an aide lays a WANTED poster on his desk. The camera zooms tight to the aide setting the poster on the blotter, capturing just the poster, his hands, and a letter opener. A musical sting suggests that the Mayor’s going to do something with that letter opener … but no. Never even picks it up. Not even when he asks to see the aide’s hands. Cleverly done, Whedon.
  • “Whatever. The point is, I haven’t even broken a sweat. See, in the end Buffy’s just the runner up. I’m the queen. You get me mad, what do you think I’m gonna do to you?”
  • The tie for Homecoming Queen. Though it often backfires, Whedon loves to reverse expectations for an easy laugh.

Overall Grade: I laughed a lot, I cheered a little.

__________
* Athletes pump their arms when they run. Actresses keep their elbows pinned to their sides and flail their arms. Watch this episode again, when she’s dashing around corners to get the demons to chase her, and see what I mean. Or hell, watch any episode where she has to run.

** In fairness, you could also make the case that that’s why the single greatest thing that the medium of television has yet to produce never caught the critical acclaim it deserved: the language, backstory and rich cast of characters take three to four episodes to even get straight, much less get moving. Scott Tobias raises this point in reviewing Generation Kill; I repeat it in the interests of full disclosure.