Periscope Depth

and all the vampires walking through the valley

I’ve been watching the final season of The Shield in concert with the third season of Buffy. This makes for an interesting mix of tastes, like brushing your teeth, then sipping a glass of orange juice. For one thing, almost everyone on The Shield acts more naturally. I prefer naturalism over melodrama, unless the actors crank the melodrama really high (think Mystic River high). For another, as much as Whedon plays at dark, creepy settings, Sunnydale ain’t got shit on Farmington. I know it’s not a fair comparison – FX can get away with a lot more than the WB.

But most jarringly, every given episode of The Shield packs in so much more plot than Buffy does. Whedon struggles to fill 44 minutes with an A and a B plot; Ryan crams A, B, C and sometimes D plots into 48. The cast of major characters tops a dozen – the four-man Strike Team, Wagenbach and Wyms, Sofer and Lowe, Aceveda, Billings, Vic’s family, Shane’s family, the villain of the season, etc.

It just makes Buffy seem … slow.*

My reviews of episodes 306 through 310.

BAND CANDY
The most fun episode yet. Whedon introduces the evil subtly at first – we see Giles and Joyce compulsively eating chocolate but don’t call much attention to it – culminating in some giggly slapstick at Bronze. The adult actors get to stretch their legs a little, freed from the one-dimensional constraints of their usual roles. And the action and mystery move along at a good clip.

The episode’s fun enough, in fact, that the worn patches only show up on closer inspection. Did Mr. Trick and the Mayor need to turn every adult in town into a carefree teenager just to steal four babies? Mr. Trick makes an awful lot of his final confrontation with Buffy (“I like other people to do my fighting for me, but I just gotta see what you got”), then flees almost immediately. And once again, the powerful demon whose presence would mean terrible things for Sunnydale gets dispatched in about thirty seconds. Oh, well.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “Were you at the Bronze? What was happening there that was so important?” “Bronze things. Things of Bronze.” Ugh. Why not just have Gellar say, “Insert retort here; rewrite later”?
  • “Giles at sixteen? Less Together Guy, more Bad-Magic-Hates-The-World-Ticking-Time-Bomb Guy.” Look, you clearly wanted the word delinquent but didn’t have a thesaurus within arm’s reach, and deadline was in twenty minutes. But don’t try hyphenating eight words into one if what you need is a complete sentence.
  • We check in with Angel but don’t advance the romantic storyline in any meaningful way. Yawn.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • Once again, The Mayor. He pulls off little bits of absurdity (“Now where did I put that Scotch?”) that I would have a hard time with from the good guys. It could be because he’s the villain; it could be because he’s a better actor.
  • “I do well on standardized tests … what? I can’t have layers?”
  • Giles as a rocker. We really got to see his range here; Head pulls off the disaffected teenager (“you’ve got good albums” / “yeah, they’re okay”) with beautiful poise. Plus, you know the cigarettes he and Joyce were smoking were a primetime television stand-in for a different kind of ritual herb. Watch the way he holds his to see what I mean.
  • Setting the demon on fire. It was clearly CGI, but it wasn’t clearly CGI, if that distinction makes any sense.

Overall Grade: Lots of fun. More like that, please.

REVELATIONS
Decent. The Buffy/Angel tryst finally comes to a head, with Xander catching the two of them making out (only took, what, four episodes?). The crew freaks out that Buffy kept his return secret, since apparently Angel did a lot of despicable things last season. In what becomes a recurring theme this season, Buffy’s sorry for keeping a secret from her friends as soon as they find out about it, but not one second before.

Gwendolyn, the Watcher sent to check up on Giles, bitches a little harder than she needs to, but not too hard for a sci-fi/fantasy TV show. And Whedon scripts her heel turn very well; I didn’t see it coming until about five seconds before it happened (“Destroyed?” she asks, when Giles mentions they’ve found an evil artifact, and then I thought hmm).

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Willow backing down from her confession: “I opened my SAT booklet five minutes early.” That’s not drawing out the tension, Whedon – that’s stalling the obvious.
  • “Faith! A word of advice: you’re an idiot.” Really? I think Faith reasoned pretty accurately from the limited data available to her. And “you’re an idiot” isn’t advice.
  • So this terrible artifact’s power is to shoot lightning? This ancient relic, which we certainly can’t let fall into the hands of a demon, is like a less convenient assault rifle?

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • The Buffy vs Faith fight.

  • Giles lecturing Buffy. Buffy does expect an awful lot of slack for a guy who murdered a bunch of people, including Giles’ girlfriend.

Overall Grade: Serviceable.

LOVERS WALK
Up and down. Spike shows up, getting both the episode’s best and worst dialogue, and kicking the plot in motion. He kidnaps Willow so that she can cast a love charm on his ex-lover Drusilla. This sets Buffy and Angel on a hunt to find her – a fun little jaunt through downtown Sunnydale that puts them in the middle of a huge vampire brawl.

We also get some closure, finally, on the Xander/Willow thing. Again, the two of them become sorry for all the heartbreak they’ve caused as soon as they get caught – which leads me to doubt the sincerity of their apology, but whatever.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Spike’s speech about what love does to people goes on exactly two sentences too long to be cool. I respect the effort, though.

  • Angel can’t enter a home unless invited, but that doesn’t seem to bother Spike when he shows up in Joyce’s kitchen.
  • Speaking of “the rules of vampires,” how much sunlight does a vampire need to be exposed to in order to start crisping? Is it direct sunlight or nothing? Spike spends a lot of time in ambient, reflected sunlight in this episode with no obvious downside.
  • I get that Buffy lives in a universe where magic and demons are real, etc, but the contented little shopkeeper at the Magicke Shoppe struck me as, well, a Hollywood caricature of paganism. “Blessed be,” and all that.
  • The whole “soft like baby food” confrontation between Lenny (vampire scumbag) and Spike seemed a bit tacked on. Spike’s reversal from sad sack to proper villain comes on too quick to be believed.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • Spike’s initial confession of his heartbreak to Willow went on a few minutes too long. But repeating that same confession to Joyce made it funny.

  • Hell, Joyce was on fire for that whole kitchen scene. “Willow’s a witch? Wait, Xander’s a witch?”
  • “Oh, sod the spell. Your friends are at the factory.”
  • The fight scene in the street, and in the magic shop, was a lot of fun.
  • I was worried the episode was going to end on a string of close-ups of our heroes staring sadly into the distance. But the splash-cut to Spike balling down the highway, screaming along to Sid Vicious, made me laugh out loud.

Overall Grade: Not bad. Fun in places, a drag in others.

THE WISH
Very impressive. Whedon takes too long to get to the crux of the episode – Cordelia’s wish creating an alternate reality in which Buffy never came to Sunnydale – but things ramp up and stay interesting from then on out. We get a quick but encompassing view of the city without Buffy: dark, deserted, and terrified of its own shadows. Cordelia tries to warn alternate-universe Giles and crew about the danger they’re in, but gets ganked by Evil Willow (“bored now”) and Evil Xander before she can spell things out. Buffy shows up and a massive brawl breaks out at the ubiquitous factory. Good times.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Vampires are attracted to bright colors? What?

  • So this wish-granting demon’s “center of power” – its secret vulnerability – is the necklace hanging over its heart. Given that, why would it ever stand within arm’s length of someone? It has the power of wishes. Let other people cause trouble for you.
  • Buffy gets from Cleveland to California awful fast.
  • “If anyone saw me hanging with Xander Harris’ castoff on top of that …” I’m not going to suggest that high schoolers don’t talk like that. But they don’t talk like that to each other. At least not if they’re not trying to be deliberately cruel.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • I like Evil Willow and Evil Xander much more than normal versions of same. They seem to be real people inhabiting the situations they’re in, as opposed to poorly constructed punch lines waiting to stumble into a scene.

  • “Look,” Oz tells Willow. “I’m sorry this is hard for you. But I told you what I need. So I can’t help feeling like the reason you want to talk is so you can feel better about yourself. That’s not my problem.” What? Characters on Buffy calling each other out on their self-centeredness? How can this be?
  • The fight in the factory was epic.
  • And that girl being drained of her blood, by a machine, while still alive, creeped me the fuck out.
  • Whedon plot twist that pays off: Cordelia, the only person who knows what the “real world” is supposed to be, getting killed at the end of the second act. Holy shit! Now we’re stuck, right?
  • Loner Buffy, straight outta Cleveland, seemed distinctly different from Sunnydale Buffy. I respect the effort put into that acting distinction.

Overall Grade: Just one coat of wax shy of perfect.

AMENDS
Oh, fuck, a Christmas episode. I can’t think of the last Christmas episode in any TV series that I enjoyed. This one’s no exception, with Angel struggling in unconvincing torment over his past monstrosities. It’s not that I don’t buy his agony when the ghosts of his former victims get in his face – that makes sense. It’s that I don’t buy his borderline turn into a “beast.” He seems scared and annoyed by the memories of the people he’s tortured, but not particularly aroused.

Regardless, Buffy tracks down the cultists griefing him – creepy priests with tattoos where their eyes should be who serve “The First.” Again, for such a primal vessel of Evil, the First’s minions go down like a stack of china. Buffy then goes to track down Angel, reversing the decision she made two episodes ago (but which we all saw coming) to fall for him again. Happy ending. Blech.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • The sun doesn’t come out? That’s the “Christmas miracle” this episode ends on – cloud cover so heavy that it plunges the city into supernatural darkness? Never mind that this is the lamest Christmas miracle in the history of Christmas miracles (which it is). But doesn’t another twelve hours of darkness in a city on the edge of the Hellmouth mean that the Slayer has to work overtime?

  • I know sarcasm’s part of Buffy’s repertoire, but it doesn’t help impress me about how dangerous The First is supposed to be. Could at least one person in this episode act scared of it?
  • This is me being new to the franchise, but – Angel tortured Giles and murdered his girlfriend? As well as a bunch of other people? How are we supposed to like him now?

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • Remember how I sneered that the dress that Willow changes into in “Homecoming” isn’t that flattering of a dress? Okay, the little red number she’s wearing when Oz shows up at her place? That’s a flattering dress.

  • Angel showing up at Giles’ place. Angel plays his desperation at having to turn to Giles really well. Giles is equally cool in turn, producing that crossbow almost out of nowhere.
  • Whedon didn’t run the “Hanukah spirit” joke into the ground! Three times, and done.

Overall Verdict: No worse than any other Christmas episode in any other TV series.

* I bring this up so people don’t accuse me of judging Buffy too harshly for failing to live up to the greatest thing which the medium of television has yet to produce. The Shield is really good but, to my jaded eye, it’s not as good as The Wire. I’ll explain why if you’re really curious.

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