Friday, March 16, 2007

Buffy the Vampire Slayer #1: 'The Long Way Home: Part 1'

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about how The Invisibles caused major changes in my life, and set me on the path I am now, but no journey is static, and shortly after starting down that path, I experienced another work that caused major changes in the way I view fiction. That work was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I began watching in August 2003. I’d heard a lot about the series, and wanted to pick up the first season on DVD when it came out, but just never got around to it. Seeing the rabid online fanbase, I figured this was something I’d enjoy, but it wasn’t until then that I actually got the first season and began to watch.

I wasn’t a huge fan initially. Coming from The X-Files, I was really happy to see a show that prided itself on strong continuity, but the first season left me wondering what all the fuss was about. It took me a while to go through things, and by the time of season two, I was starting to get into it. Everything changed when I watched ‘Surprise’/’Innocence,’ I was totally hooked and continued on from there. The next major turning point was ‘Restless,’ which was the first time I realized this show was a fantastic work of art, as well as being enormously entertaining. From there, it just kept getting better, with season six being the culmination of my love of the series. Never before or since had I been so addicted to a show, to the point that even when I wasn’t going to watch another episode, I’d have to see the first five minutes, just to resolve any cliffhangers.

What made the show so special was the characters. Never before had I cared so much about the exploits of a fictional bunch, I was so engaged in their relationships and their journeys, by the end, it really did feel like seven years of change and growth, compressed into four months or so of viewing. I’ve seen a lot of great shows since, but nothing as good as Buffy.

But, I’ve never been a big fan of season seven. The potential slayers drew focus away from the character conflict, sapping the show’s major strength. For me, the slaying was always secondary to the personal tumult, and that balance was upset in year seven. But, I was still hooked, and after the show ended, I would have given almost anything for just one more episode to wrap things up for Willow, Buffy and Xander. The ending was so abrupt, we really needed a denouement. Little did I know that some years later, I’d get that and more, with the new Buffy comic book series.

Just picking up this book and experiencing new Buffy was fantastic. It had been a long time since I’d spent time with these characters, and the same attachment that drove Joss to write the book drove me to read it. It is great to see Buffy and Xander again, to think that there could be new developments in their story after four years of stasis. It’s great to see.

Unfortunately, the end of season seven left us in not exactly the best place to continue the story. Buffy’s arc in the show was dealing with her role as the slayer, one girl chosen to combat evil. She could never reconcile that with having a meaningful personal life, however, in the end, she created many new slayers, thus granting herself freedom from the burden of being the one.

The elegance of this ending is undone by having her continuing to burden herself with the work of being a slayer, even more so now that she’s running a massive supernatural combat organization. The worst part of season seven was the idea of Buffy as a general, and unfortunately we get a lot of that here. Her work with Xander’s mission control is more reminiscent of Alias than the Buffy we once knew. A lot of the show’s charm was in the fact that they were making world shaping decisions in a library or a magic shop. A high tech headquarters was never what they were about. The question also arises, where is the money for this stuff coming from? Old Watcher’s Council funds perhaps? That’s not a huge issue, but to go from not being able to repair a pipe in season six to having a helicopter in year eight is a big jump.

At the end of the issue, Buffy reflects on the fact that she misses home, she misses just being a person, not the leader of this group of slayers. By giving her this new conflict, Joss is able to preserve the central issue of the series. Her concerns are my basic concerns, but it’s a risky storytelling move to try and use the inherent flaws of your premise as character issues. It worked well when the boringness of Riley turned into an exploration of why Buffy could never love an ordinary man. But, denying your reader the central pleasure of the series and trying to use that as a plot point is a bit riskier.

The joy of Buffy was always that it was relatable. That was most emphasized in the high school years, and I found their troubles in years five and six even more understandable. Feeling disconnected from the world is relatable even for people who haven’t come back from the dead, struggling to run a multinational paramilitary organization, not so much. I fear the direction Joss has chosen to take the story will prevent us from being able to just spend time with the characters, always the greatest joy of the series.

Now, I don’t want to knock the whole issue. While there are flaws, it’s still an absolute joy to be back in this universe. Some of the dialogue is a bit over done with the Buffyspeak, but it mostly works, I particularly like Xander’s Nick Fury reference. It’s great to hear what’s going on with Willow and Andrew, to understand that they have lives that are still moving forward, despite the series ending. That said, I do think the comic will be hurt by the fact that a lot of the best characters are off limits. Spike is on Angel season five at this time, so he can’t meet Buffy, and Anya’s dead. The core four are still there, and Dawn, but that’s pretty much it.

Bringing the military back as villains is tricky. Season four’s The Initiative didn’t work out so well, but perhaps with the unlimited visual budget of a comic, this will work better. The revelation of Amy at the end of the issue was a great surprise, and indicates that the series will be tightly tied to continuity. I’m not sure who she’s working with, but I’m sure it will be another great surprise for the fans.

After a whole series of objectivity, it feels a bit odd to be given access to Buffy’s thoughts. I’m glad Whedon chose to use those captions, as it is the issue feels a bit light compared to a TV episode, and this at least gives us an efficient recap of her mental state. Still, it hurts to pay three dollars for something that gives us only a third or so of what an episode would.

Ultimately, I’ll forgive all the flaws because we’re back in the Buffyverse, and it’s been way too long since we got new stuff with these characters. It baffles me that Joss couldn’t get his direct to DVD movies set up somewhere. I feel like there must be something going on behind the scenes we didn’t hear about because the studios are all about creating sustainable franchises they can keep going back to. If nothing else, Serenity shows that Whedon’s got a devoted fanbase, and anything he puts out is guaranteed to make some money. If Babylon 5, a ten year old series that had never had the media heat or fanbase of Buffy, can come back with new DVD movies, shouldn’t Joss have been able to get some money together for his own movies?

There are a couple of potential answers I’ve considered. One is that it was simply a question of money. In a recent article, he said that the studio thought the actors would do it for virtually nothing because they were his friends, and I’m guessing Joss himself also wanted a bigger budget than they thought appropriate. JMS seems like the kind of guy who prides himself on doing stuff cheap, so he’ll take whatever they’ll give him for the Babylon 5 movies. Joss likely tried to push the budget, leading to a stalemate.

My guess is the studio wanted to do things on the cheap because they weren’t sure how successful these movies would be without Buffy herself. They might not understand the fanbase’s devotion to pretty much all the characters in the series. You could put out an Andrew movie and still get sales. And, there’s likely some lingering tension from the cancellation of Angel. This confluence of events lead to the canceling of that project, a real shame because I would have loved so much to see just a little more Illyria or Spike. It’s absolutely ridiculous that they couldn’t get things together, and we probably won’t know the whole story for a while.

But, this comic is more than I would have expected to get, and it’s a nice addition to the ‘verse. In the long term though, I think Joss needs to get another movie or show out there quick. He’s lost a lot of heat in Hollywood since Buffy ended, and particularly after leaving the Wonder Woman film, he needs to get a new project going quick. Otherwise he could slip into Chris Carter territory, once the hottest thing around, then forgotten a few years later. An original film is a good idea, but I’d really like to see Joss back on TV. His storytelling talent lies there, and Serenity shows that his writing just isn’t as special when compressed into the constraints of a three act feature film. But, really, get something going or else he’s going to be writing a lot more comics in the future.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Invisibles #22: 'House of Fun'

The three parter that closes out Volume I is a big story that finally unites all our characters and cements the cell, paving the way for a new status quo in Volume II. One of the consequences of such scope is that it takes a while to get things moving, this issue is mostly setup, though there are some really interesting concepts. It's mainly of interest for the development it foretells....

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Battlestar Galactica: 'The Son Also Rises' (3x18)

I wasn't feeling this episode as it started, the nebulous status of Starbuck made it odd to watch the characters grieve over her death. Sometimes, as on 'The Gift,' grief can really work, even though we know the character will come back. I can think of few things sadder than Spike crying over Buffy's body. The primary difference is that Buffy's 'death' felt final and conclusive. It was the climax of an epic story and would have worked as a legitimate end for the character. Starbuck just flew into a storm due to her personal psychosis, and the totally underwhelming nature of that makes it hard to buy the characters' reactions. If she really is dead, it's an even bigger mistake because then they're going for the true emotion, but the shoddy execution obscures the emotion of the scene.

But, once we get past that, things improve. The doofily named Romo Lampkin brings some much needed charisma and opposition to the show. He's a guy who can manipulate people, and it's fun to watch him take Lee under his wing, and gradually turn him against his father, or at least make him question the frequently authoritarian behavior of the government under Adama and Roslin. The scene with Caprica Six is great, and it's always good to see more Baltar. However, I do feel like Baltar loses some of his agency by being subservient to this guy's machinations.

The whole point of the episode seems to be to mvoe Lee into opposition with his father, and set up a major confrontation at the trial at the end of the season. So, there's not too much to say about this on an individual level. I think Lee is more interesting here than he has been in a long time, perhaps ever, and I'm hoping the trial works dramatically for the season finale. People talking in a courtroom isn't inherently exciting. But, this hour was strong, and I'm hopeful that they'll go out on a strong note. If nothing else, that scene with Caprica Six and Tigh in the trailer was better than anything in this entire episode.

The Invisibles #21: 'Liverpool'

This issue follows up on 'London,' continuing the story of Dane's lonely times on the run from both sides. Unlike the other members of the cell, Dane never quite buys into The Invisibles' mission. He's too evolved for that, too aware of the false nature of their war. But, as this issue shows us, it's lonely in the middle, and, as he says later, he's on whichever side has the bread, he is. So, for this reason, and his fancying of Boy, he rejoins the team by the end....

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

Amy Winehouse/The Pipettes @ Bowery Ballroom

After seeing The Pipettes a couple of nights ago, I headed down to Bowery Ballroom to see them and Amy Winehouse on a “Live From London” double bill. It was a sold out gig, a hard ticket to come by, and the people who made it in were clearly happy to be there, at least for Amy Winehouse. She deservedly got an ecstatic reception, this was a fantastic show.

But, before the two of them we had Jamie Woon. Yes, he was from London so I suppose he qualifies, but his music did not fit at all with the excess and attitude of the acts he was supporting. Woon seemed like this was his first gig ever, very nervous and constantly making self deprecating jokes. He was up there with just a guitar and a looping device, so it’s understandable that he’d be nervous. I didn’t think he was bad, more that his very minimal rock belonged more as the opener for a Jack Johnson show, or perhaps the entertainment at a coffee house, than as the opener for these two. The crowd was on the border of encouragement and mockery, but they generally gave him approval. I was pretty much waiting for him to end, but I did enjoy the vocal loops he did.

I had a great spot, one person back, right at center stage. There were no heads in front of me, just the band, looming above, imposing. It was a great spot, though I did feel a bit disconnected from the rest of the audience. During Amy Winehouse, I looked back and saw a bunch of people dancing, but the people around me were pretty much just taking pictures, not making with the movement. I’m always curious about why people invest so much effort taking pictures at a show, the visuals don’t change that much, so if you really need a record, just grab it quickly and then put the camera away. I find it distracting, the whole point of the show is to get lost in the music and if you can’t do that if you’re messing around with a camera. Just exist in the moment, don’t worry about having a permanent record.

The Pipettes:
Setlist: Sex//Your Kisses are Wasted on Me//Why Did You Stay?//Because It’s not Love//Hurts to See You Dance So Well//Tell Me What You Want//Guess Who Ran Off With the Milkman//One Night Stand//Judy//Dirty Mind//Pull Shapes//We Are the Pipettes

Anyway, The Pipettes roared out with the same high level of energy they had at Luna Lounge on Sunday. The major variations were a slight change in the setlist and a different outfit for Gwenno. The band is one of the most charismatic, just plain fun live acts I’ve seen. They look like they’re enjoying what they’re doing so much, the only other act that has that same joy in every moment of playing is The Polyphonic Spree. It must be something about wearing uniforms, takes you out of the everyday and makes it possible to just get lost in the music.

I think it was a mistake to open with one of their slower songs, “Sex,” rather than the high energy “Your Kisses are Wasted on Me.” Becki apologized again for switching to a slower song, but their slower songs are so layered and engulfing the set doesn’t lose the energy. If they pulled a Jamie Woon and went just one person on guitar, that would kill the momentum. But playing a song like “Tell Me What” midset doesn’t lose me at all, but I felt like the show hadn’t really started during “Sex” and it was only with “Your Kisses are Wasted on Me” that the band came alive. Unlike Luna, this show drew almost exclusively from We Are the Pipettes. Considering they had less time, that’s for the best and I enjoyed every song they played.

I was right in front of Rose and was struck by how beautiful she was. I loved the way her dancing had a fervent energy, committing to the motions with almost robotic intensity. Becki had a looser, “I’m making this up” feel to her movements and Gwenno emphasized her sexiness with all her motion. They’re a good bunch and fun to watch them play off each other during the set. If anything, the dancing this time was even more coordinated and intense. I suppose they’ve got the moves for the album songs down, but are still working on stuff for the new songs.

The ending run from “Judy” to “We are the Pipettes” was the high point of the show, one great song after the other. The crowd wasn’t as into their set as people were the other night, fitting since they’re the opening act. I prefer The Pipettes’ album to Amy Winehouse’s, but I enjoyed Amy Winehouse’s set more because of both the crowd reaction and the confidence she had as a headliner. The Pipettes did a great job, the musicianship was just as strong as at Luna Lounge, but they weren’t able to make the crowd their own the way they did two nights ago.

But, I still loved seeing them and am looking forward to seeing them again if they tour for the US release of their album. They’re a uniquely entertaining live act, and the more people get into the album, the more fun the show will be. Plus, I loved the fact that I was just as engaged with the opening act as with the headliner, it made for a much more satisfying show experience.

Amy Winehouse
Setlist: Addicted//Just Friends//Cherry//Back to Black//Wake Up Alone//Tears Dry on Their Own//He Can Only Hold Her//Fuck Me Pumps//You Know I’m No Good//Me and Mr. Jones//Rehab
Encore: Love is a Losing Game//Valerie

I reviewed Amy Winehouse’s new album, Back to Black, last week, and after listening to it, I was eager to see her live. The past week, there’s been a lot of stories about Amy in the British tabloids, that she needs to go to rehab, that she’s been canceling shows, etc. But, she didn’t cancel this one, and I’m glad of that. She’s got an image as a hard partying bad girl and she played that up throughout her set.

After The Pipettes finished, it took a while to set up for Amy, and when her crew came out, I could see why. She had ten backing musicians: three guitars, one drums, one keyboard, one trumpet, two sax and two male backup singers. But, all this never took the attention away from Amy herself, who owned the stage for the hour she played. She came out dressed in a poka dot dress, hair piled up on top her head, heavy black, 60s style eye makeup cutting across her face. She looked like a Russ Meyer character, Vixen in particular. I don’t know how tall she is, but she seemed towering, standing on the stage.

Being so close to the stage, I could see the setlist in advance, something I don’t usually like. It’s better to be surprised when a great song drops, but I was happy to see that nearly the whole set was drawn for Back to Black. She opened with “Addicted,” the last track of the album, and that was a bit jarring. I like that she saved her big single, “Rehab” for the closure, but I associated “Addicted” with the fade out, and it didn’t get the energy up for me.

Things picked up shortly though, the early highlight was “Back to Black,” the highlight of the album, an apocalyptic piece of 60s girl group soul. Throughout her set, Amy moved in a very self conscious way, like there was no audience, it was just her hearing the music in her head. Her dancing reminded me of Audrey in the second episode of Twin Peaks, just swaying to this music that’s wafting out of the ether, lost in the moment. Her dancing wasn’t the coordinated routines of The Pipettes, it was whatever she felt at that time.

“Tears Dry on Their Own” was another highlight, a bit more up tempo, making good use of the horn section. “He Can Only Hold Her” worked well, segueing into an excerpt from Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” which gave the background singers their moment in the spotlight. They did some vocals, but mainly seemed to be there to do really snappy synchronized dancing.

I wasn’t a huge fan of “I’m No Good” on the album, but it worked really well live, one of the highlights of the night. “Me and Mr. Jones” worked really well too, and saw some of Amy’s most impassioned dancing. The set closed out with “Rehab,” one of her best songs, that moment when the horns come in still gives me chills every time.

She left to huge applause, which seemed to surprise even her. The crowd loved her and made that very vocal. Coming out for the encore, she seemed a bit overwhelmed. Throughout she joked with the crowd about her love of alcohol, bringing back some vintage drinking jokes, like “I have a drinking problem, I can’t seem to get it in my mouth.” I’m not sure how much of that is an act, playing up to her image, but it got pops from the crowd, so it worked. Sometimes, she would kneel down to drink and singing from that position, I was right on level with her, her mind seemingly receding into the music.

Things wrapped up with the low key, but still strong “Love is a Losing Game,” and the raucous “Valerie.” The crowd wanted more, and I would have liked a bit extra, but I’d seen the setlist and knew this was it. She put on a fantastic show, with great vocals and musicianship. The only issue I had was that they stuck a bit too faithfully to the recorded version of the songs, not letting the instrumentalists do their own thing for a bit. But, Amy is the center of things, and even if we did get guitar or horn solos, the attention would still be on her.

It’s always nice to go to a show where you like more than just the headliner. This was a lot of fun, a journey back into 60s sounds, but with contemporary attitude. These two acts are both big in Britain, and I hope they find major success here. If you get the chance to see either, don’t pass them up.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Invisibles #20: 'How I Became Invisible'

As the series moves forward, you'll be hearing "This is one of my favorite issues" a lot. But, not here! This is a decent issue, but it's held back by the limited page count and general lack of charisma for Boy. She works fine as one of the group, but on her own, not so much. As the series moved forward, certain characters captivated Grant, infected his mind and demanded centerstage. That's what we got with King Mob and Robin in Volume II, but it never happened for Boy. Her journey actually took her out of the book, with the realization that her story was over before the overall story was. I think it was a fine arc, and she gets some good moments in Volume II, the foundation of which is laid here....

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

The Invisibles #19: 'Entropy in the UK: Part 3: Assassin'

After a lengthy delay for the end of Babylon 5 and various other things, it's time to return to The Invisibles and wrap up the Entropy in the UK arc. As I've already said, this is the series' best work so far, a major leap forward in style and a major shift in narrative focus. This issue gives us our most in depth look at King Mob's background to date.

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

The Pipettes @ Luna Lounge

Setlist (Actually Accurate)
Intro/Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me//Baby Don't Leave//Why Did You Stay//Because It's Not Love//It Hurts to See You Dance So Well//Your Love For Me...//Guess Who//Really That Bad//Tell Me What//I Love You//True Love//One Night Stand//Judy//Dirty Mind//Pull Shapes

Encore: ABC//We Are the Pipettes

For the second night in a row, it was time for a retro-inspired rock show, and as I walked into the venue tonight, what was playing but The Raveonettes' 'Little Animal,' shortly followed by 'Do You Believe Her,' bridging me from one night to the next. But, that's pretty much where the similarities end. After the major letdown that was The Raveonettes, The Pipettes absolutely owned this venue and put on one of the best shows I've seen in a long time.

This was my first time at Luna Lounge and I was very impressed. The design actually made sense, with the stage in the back, bar in the front. So, people who just want to drink don't wind up lingering around the front, distracting you from the show. It was a very open space, with plenty of room around the stage. I got a great spot, a couple of rows back from the stage, despite arriving at 9:50, shortly before the show was supposed to start. And, in a groundbreaking bit of concert planning, the show actually started at 10, literally 10:00:05 according to my watch. It's so much more fun to go to a show and not stand around for an hour waiting for them to get things together. And, that was only the beginning of the greatness.

The Pipettes were heralded by the emergence of their backing band, pretty much the only acknowledgement that there were seven people on the stage, not three. They announced The Pipettes, who then rushed the stage and launched right into 'Your Kisses are Wasted On Me.' The first couple of tracks were hurt a bit by the sound levels, with drums overwhelming everything else. But, after some harsh words from Gwen, everything leveled out and the show moved towards greatness.

What makes The Pipettes' album so amazing is the fact that they manage to make fourteen songs that are good enough to be singles. There's not a bad track on there, all reach that great pop song place of sounding like something that's always been there, like you know it before you've even heard it. They joked about the fact that the songs are very derivative in terms of subject matter, focusing on two things, love and dancing, but there's enough tempo shifts that it stays fresh. The slower songs are quite beautiful, particularly 'Underneath a Winter Sky,' which was unfortunately the only song from the album that they didn't play.

When approaching music, I'm always more interested in sound than lyrical subject matter. I'd never seen a band that is as much about vocal interplay as this one, and it was a lot of fun to see their voices work together and seperately, creating really smooth harmonies that balanced each other and drew you into the songs. As I mentioned before, the band stayed in the background, there, but never the focus. They provided texture to underlie the vocal performances. Gwen and Rose each did a stint on keyboard, but the focus was the vocals.

My only major issue with this show was the fact that they played a lot of songs I hadn't heard, particularly early on. I still liked them, but not in the same way that I responded to the stuff I already knew. The new material sounds like it's going in a similar direction, but with some slightly different influences, doing more variety with the vocals. It's more of the same, but different, which is a good place to be on the second album.

I usually go to rock shows, which are just a bunch of people with instruments. They did something a bit different, doing a lot of choreographed dancing and miming for each song, adding to the charm of their music. The founding principle behind boy and girl groups is to give each member a distinctive personality, and play that up within the show. Here, you've got Gwen, the siren pin-up girl, Becki, the goofy hipster/librarian, and Rose, a Rory Gilmore type. Their on stage presentation reinforces these personas, but also allows them all to just dance around and have goofy fun. Their choreographed motions are very human and endearing. I feel like everyone in the audience fell in love with at least one of them, on the way out I heard a lot of debates about who your favorite Pipette was.

It was refreshing to go to a show that was meant to entertain you, where the performers were having fun, and the audience was too. This was their first US show, and I'd imagine it's still a surprise to play somewhere and get a response like this one. The crowd was really into the show, giving one of the most enthusiastic calls for an encore I've seen. Particularly on the closing run of songs, there was a lot of movement and enthusiasm.

For me, every song from the album was bordering on highlight, but the absolute best was the closing three song run of 'Judy,' 'Dirty Mind,' and particularly 'Pull Shapes.' That song's the pinnacle of their work so far and it was great live, from the ecstatic buildup, with all of them out, building up the crowd, to the great "Disco/Rock 'n Roll/Hip-Hop" call out. The last song of the encore, 'We Are the Pipettes' was pretty much an affirmation of all we'd seen. At that point, they certainly seemed like the prettiest girls I'd ever seen and I was all set to the take them to my planet.

One thing that surprised me was how strong all of them were vocally. Typically in a group like this you have one great singer and then a couple of backers. Here, they all swapped lead vocal duties, and each brought their own skills. Gwen had the strongest stage personality, but I think Rose had the strongest voice, and seemed to get more and more into things as the show progressed.

This show was really fantastic, just a whole lot of fun. They sounded great and put on a really endearing stage show. I'm really glad I caught them the first time through the States, in a small venue, as their career is on the rise. And, I did get tickets for the Amy Winehouse show on Tuesday, so I'll see them there again, but I'm actually contemplating making it a three in a row, and going to Luna again tomorrow. It was just that good.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Babylon 5: The Lists

Here's another Babylon 5 post, wrapping up the fifth season and the series, with some lists. First, the top five episodes of year five:

1. The Fall of Centauri Prime
2. Movements of Light and Shadow
3. Objects at Rest
4. Sleeping in Light
5. Day of the Dead

I think the season as a whole was a lot better than its reputation suggests. It was way beyond season one, and averaged out equivalent to season two. None of the episodes soared to the heights of the best of those years, but the characters were so much more complex, your average episode had a lot more layers. I really enjoyed the Byron story, even if the ending went awry, and the final Centauri arc was absolutely fantastic.

And, I found the ending totally satisfying. Yes, there were some loose ends, but I felt like the story had been told and it was time to move on. I'm sure there's people who wish the fifth season was never made, but I think it brought us a lot of great moments, and is a much more satisfying place to end the show than the chaos of 'Rising Star' would have been.

Now comes the larger issue of determining Babylon 5's place within the overall world of television. It's a very important series for showing that a very complex, unified story can be told in a TV show. People can stick with the exposition necessary for a five year story, and that buildup makes for a much more satisfying development. And, I can't think of any show where the universe is so well developed, such that we can leap seventeen years, five hundred years or even a million years into the future, and keep it coherent. I wish more shows would be created with this level of planning and foreknowledge. Of course, that is dangerous because, as in the case of Carnivale, you can wind up with just a bunch of buildup and no payoff. If Babylon 5 was cancelled after season two, I don't think it would have been worth watching, it is the way the threads develop and finally pay off that is most interesting.

But, what holds Babylon 5 back is that I sometimes got the sense that JMS was just trying to get to the end of the five years, and wasn't always paying attention to the moment. If you're aware of how much cool stuff will come, it might be easy to make some sacrifices in the present, and particularly in the early years, the acting just wasn't good. The pilot is almost embarrassingly bad, and even after that, it takes a while for the actors to adjust to their characters. I wish that they would have put as much effort into the performance as the writing, and worked to get the performances to a deeper level.

Reading interviews with JMS, he clearly prides himself on bringing things in on time and under budget, but that's not always the best way to do art. He said something like, I know what I want so I'll do one or two takes of a scene then move on. Now, that's valid, but there's a reason guys like Kubrick were able to get phenomenal performances out of their actors, the longer you work with a scene, the more you can develop it and find new layers. You can't approach it with the goal of just shooting and moving on, sometimes you have to just work in a moment. Now, after a while this can get tedious, but there's a lot of scenes in season one that could do with another take, and even in the later years, bad acting from the guest characters hurts the show. I wish JMS had his own Tommy Schalmme or Michael Rymer, someone to dictate a strong visual style and work with the actors to get the best performance possible. At the end of 'Deconstruction of Falling Stars,' he's not celebrating that he made great shows, he's celebrating that he made it to year five. There were great shows in there, but I can't help but wish he would live more in the moment.

But, is foreknowledge and planning incompatible with appreciating the moment? I think Joss Whedon founds the best balance, keeping overall character arcs in mind, but modifying the show to emphasize what was working and phase out what wasn't. Both Buffy and Babylon 5 had shaky first years, but comparing those years tells you what's best about each show. In the case of Buffy, even during the awful standalones, you had strong character moments and acting from the leads. In B5, it was hints about the larger picture of the universe that sustained me. And, ultimately both series emphasized those strengths as the show went on.

And, even as I fault some of the acting, I need to praise Peter Jurasik and Andreas Kulsatas again. They nailed every episode, right from the pilot, and without them, I'm not sure I would have made it through the early going. As the series went on, they became more nuanced and continued to do fantastic work. No one else on the show even touched them in terms of screen presence.

Ultimately, it's best to appreciate the show for what it is, not damn it for what it's not. There were moments in the show that affected me on not a personal level, but on some kind of universal human level. I've never seen a show that showed the devestation of war as powerfully as the Narn-Centauri War in season two. They managed to make these massive effects sequences incredibly powerful on an emotional level, and that's not easy to do. Effects are so often criticized as eye candy, these weren't superfluous, they were the story. The show made me think in a way few others have, and that's why I loved watching it. The reason 'War Without End II' is the series' best is because it's simultaneously mind blowing on an intellectual level, and extremely affecting on an emotional one. Plus, it's such a bold narrative experiment, you have to take notice. Not many people can reveal the end of the story in the middle of the show and still make it work.

In recent years, we've gotten a lot of shows with the illusion of continuity and development. Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck always carry over plot threads from episode to episode, but they don't accumulate in the characters' lives. They go through awful, awful shit and come out the other side basically the same. On Babylon 5, change always mattered, actions had consequences and nothing was forgotten. That is why I loved the show, and, in spite of its flaws, it stands as perhaps the best example yet of the television show as more than a bunch of episodes, it is the television show as single, unified story.

And now, the top ten episodes of the series:

1. War Without End II - The boldness of doing a three part episode where the latter two air two years after the first deserves notice alone, with this millenium spanning story. Not only do we get great resolution for the past, with Jeffery Sinclair's emergence as Valen, we also get resolution for the future, with the phenomenal Centauri Prime storyline. Only in a show as meticulously as planned as B5 could an episode like this work, not only is it mind bending, it's also extremely fun as it unfolds. Easily the best episode of the show, and unlike anything else I've ever seen.

2. The Long Twilight Struggle - This was the most emotional episode of the series for me. Londo finally recognizes what he's done in the devestating bombing of Narn sequence. This is the first episode that uses massive events, the space battles, in a truly emotional way. Watching G'Kar's pain next to Londo's gradual revelations is heartbreaking, there's a reason this one is revisited so much later in the series, it's one of the greatest depictions of the horrors of war in TV history. Most war stories can't help making war look cool, witness the love of Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket by fratboy types. One of JMS's greatest triumphs is to show war for what it really is, destruction and loss, the worst thing humanity is capable of.

3. Deconstruction of Falling Stars - No episode made me think as much about this one, and no episode is as relevant to reality. This is a story about humanity's journey, and it applies just as much to us as it does to Sheridan and his gang. The opening two segments are interesting comments on the show, the last three are about humanity in general, depicting our capacity for greatest evil and greatest good in equal measure. And, no matter what we do, we will continue to move forward, move to the stars. On the commentary, JMS talked about a potential series about the monks rebuilding Earth and that sounds like as good a spinoff as any from the series. In one episode, he created four fully realized universes.

4. Z'Ha'Dum - There's a reason the image of Sheridan on the precipice, preparing to jump, popped up in so many credits sequences. It's epic, never was the show bigger than at the end, with Anna advancing on Sheridan, and the white star descending, carrying bombs on Z'Ha'Dum. This episode pays off a lot of threads, and completely changes the nature of the Shadow War, it's the turning point of the series, and one of the most emotional hours.

5. The Coming of Shadows - This was the episode that changed everything, before this I enjoyed the show, but this made me reevaluate what it could be. Londo's oblivious betrayal of G'Kar is devestating, and casts a shadow over the rest of the series. The scene where he buys Londo a drink is one of the best examples of dramatic irony in TV history. Plus, we get that intriuging glimpse of Londo's future, a dream which will guide us through the rest of the series. I'd ever seen a previously likable character to as dark a place as Londo went in the second season, his arc alone makes the series worth watching.

6. Rising Star - Ivanova's speech is her character's greatest moment, and the personally emotional of the entire series. Most of the emotion comes from huge events, as the characters watch wars spiral out of control around them. This was just one person's sacrifice, and it was still profoundly sad. It was a great farewell moment for the character. A lot of other cool stuff happens here too, including the set up of the universe's new status quo. If the show had ended with this plus 'Sleeping in Light,' I'd have been satisfied.

7. The Fall of Centauri Prime - So many previous plot points fell into place here, and Londo's arc comes to a sad end. After his rehibiliation in year four and five, it's so hard to watch him give up his identity to save his people. All his hopes and dreams are shattered, unable to escape the legacy of his deal with the Shadows. Everyone gets good stuff in this episode, it's the last moment of forward progress in the series, everything else is denouement.

8. Into the Fire - The Shadow War comes to a close as its essential falseness is revealed. This was an ideological war, and Sheridan and Delenn win by choosing a third path, creating the third age. In some respects, I would have liked a bigger conclusion to the story, but it still works well, and is a perfect summation of the themes that have been present since the pilot.

9. Introspections and Examinations - Another everything changed moment happened here, with the death of Kosh. It may be the most shocking moment of the show. On top of that, we've got Londo's return to the darkness, and Sheridan's tense confrontation with Kosh. It is in that moment that Sheridan begins the series of events that will begin the Third Age.

10. Movement in Light and Shadow - Perhaps the best cliffhanger in the whole run is the end of this episode, with everything falling apart, the entire Alliance in jeopardy, and Centauri Prime falling into the chaos we know will last for seventeen years. There's a bunch of episodes similar to this, but few had the stakes of this one.

Now, a couple of point I've been thinking about. One is, whatever happened to Draal and Epsilon 3? A bunch of effort wasput into setting them up, and I figured they'd play some role in the Shadow War. He pretty much disappeared from the show after a while, was he ever meant to do something more, or was it always a misdirection? I suppose the planet was a part of War Without End, but I figured it would play a bigger role.

And, after finishing the show, I have to say that Garibaldi's season four arc was a copout and one of the rare violations of the actions having consequences rule. All of Garibaldi's development over the course of the season is wiped away when Bester meets him. Now, there are some lingering consequences, from the act of being controlled, but not from what he actually did. It's an attempt to have things both ways, do the dark Garibaldi arc, and then have him back on the team easily. I think it would have been more effective to have him spend the fifth season trying to find redemption for betraying Sheridan, and coming to terms with what he'd done.

Also, what are the major changes from the five year plan? I know the original one, with Sinclair, isn't out yet, but from what's out there, where did things change? I know the Ivanova and Byron one, but there are any other major things like that?

And, to close things out, a few months ago, I made a list of my twenty favorite TV shows of all time, but I was midway through B5. Now that I'm through it, here's my current ranking:

1. Twin Peaks
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
3. Six Feet Under
4. The Sopranos
5. Cowboy Bebop
6. The Office (UK)
7. Angel
8. The X-Files
9. Freaks and Geeks
10. Babylon 5
11. Arrested Development
12. Battlestar Galactica
13. Gilmore Girls
14. Seinfeld
15. Friday Night Lights
16. 24
17. Samurai Champloo
18. The Prisoner
19. Spaced
20. Trigun

Battlestar vs. B5 was a challenging question for me, and a really good end of season from BSG could change the rank, but ultimately, B5 had a clear direction, and constant forward motion. That's what makes it a more satisfying overall experience for me. But, on a random episode basis, BSG is far beyond. It's interesting because the shows are exact opposites in terms of strengths. Babylon 5 has great overall direction, far reaching character arcs and great consistency and internal story logic. Battelstar suffers on the big picture, with a lot of wheel spinning and obfuscating, but it's so well shot and acted you don't really care. If the production team of BSG worked with a writer like Stracyzinski, we could have an absolute masterpiece. What he really needed was someone to focus on the moments, the acting, the shooting, and leave the big picture to him. In that respect, he reminds me of George Lucas, a guy who can make a whole universe, craft epic, sweeping character arcs, but falls down when it comes to getting a decent performance or writing believable dialogue. Maybe it's just not his concern, I can forgive Grant Morrison for writing stories that frequently feel like they were much better in his own head, why not give JMS the same room? He wanted to realize his dream on film, and in the end, I think he succeeded.

The Raveonettes @ Southpaw

I first listened to The Raveonettes because they were going to be playing at Across the Narrows in 2005, and since I was going anyway, I figured I might as well familiarize myself with their work. I heard 'Pretty in Black' and fell in love with its 50s style and David Lynch vibe. Seeing them live, they absolutely tore up the stage, right from the driving rock of their opening song, 'You Say, You Lie.' I've wanted to see them again live ever since, so I was excited when they announced a series of shows for this week. However, things did not work out quite as well as I'd have liked.

But first, let me commend their opening band, The Pity Party. They were two people, a guy on guitar and a girl on drums, keyboard and vocals. She was giving it her all, and even broke a drum stick playing. They played really driving rock that fluctuated between punk and electrodance rhythms. I really enjoyed their set, though it was a bit exhausting and after the halfway point, there were diminishing returns.

Part of this was that I was waiting a long time for The Raveonettes to go on. There was a lot of standing around waiting for their set to start, I got there at 10 and they didn't play until 11:30. Not to sound like an old person, but can't you get started a bit earlier, particularly on daylight savings night. I didn't get home until 3:30.

Anyway, after The Pity Party, I was waiting, listening to the house music. A driving 50s guitar sound, backed by a low cello came on, and I was thinking "Is this from Mulholland Dr?" After a moment I realized that it wasn't from MD, it was the Pink Room song from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. What a great track, and it was followed by two songs from Mulholland Dr. I'd always felt The Raveonettes had a very Lynch sound, and this music selection confirmed their inspiration. That brings us to the show itself. Here's the rough setlist:

Twilight//Let's Rave On//Dirty Eyes (Sex Don't Sell)//Heartbreak Stroll//Bowels of the Beat//Chain Gang of Love//Sex Beat//My Tornado//Love in a Trashcan//100 %//Love Can Destroy//I Want Your Candy//Seductress of Bums//Dead Sound//The Love Gang//Attack of the Ghost Riders//Experiment in Black

Unlike the last time I saw them, this wasn't a full band show, it was just Sharin and Sune on guitars most of the time, sometimes one of them on a drum. A couple of songs in, Sune said something like "Don't wait for it to kick in, because this is it," and that pretty much sums up how I felt about the show, I was always waiting, it never quite clicked. Listening to 'Twilight,' I was liking it, but it felt like the build up to the real start of the show, after the part where the record kicks in, I was still waiting and then the song ended. That song in particular felt lethargic next to its album counterpart, and that's not where you want to be live.

Looking at the setlist, you can see that they stuck mostly to the first two albums, songs that were built around the two of them, rather than the more orchestrated Pretty in Black. That was probably a smart choice, I don't know that you could do justice to 'Ode to L.A' with just two people, but it also meant most of my favorite songs weren't played. I like their first two albums, but love Pretty in Black, and they played only three tracks from it, some of the weaker ones as well. It was frustrating for me since I was waiting for 'Sleepwalking' or 'Uncertain Times,' and never got it. 'Uncertain Times' is my favorite of their songs and I think they could have done a beautiful arrangement with just the two of them.

But, they seemed more interested in doing edgier, feedbacky songs, not the lilting beauty of something like 'Uncertain Times.' I think there's a reason their first two albums were very short, it's tough to take the staticky guitar after a while, this show did a number on my ears, and after a while, the tracks started to blend together. With only the two of them, there were only so many sounds they could do, and it reached the point where just a rudimentary drum beat felt so satisfying.

I'm the kind of person who always wants more when it comes to music, particularly live. The best live act I've ever seen is The Polyphonic Spree, and this is the total opposite of that. I would have loved some keyboards, another guitar or even just a guy on drums all the time. This felt like a jam session with the two of them, not something that was made to entertain an audience. I particularly missed their other guitarist, I believe his name was Manoj. He was so into the songs, just going crazy over the top, and that helped sell the show. Sune and Sharin have a rather shy stage presence, and he kept emphasizing how happy he was that people stayed for the whole show. I get the feeling he recognized that people were having some trouble with the minimalism of the performance, I admire the experimentation, but not every experiment works.

That's not to say it was all bad. They created some wonderful atmosphere, particularly on the less rocky tracks, like 'Bowels of the Beast,' and 'Sex Don't Sell' and 'Love in a Trash Can' were both pretty tight. But, I always wanted a bit more, I was considering going to the Monday show, but I don't think it's worth it. If it was full band, I'd be all over it, but the two of them just wasn't enough.

But, it was cool to see how much the two of them could do. They're both great musicians, and were able to create entire worlds through the two guitars. In the more dreamy, atmospheric moments, the two guitars worked fine, but it's best to have minimalism as a contrast, not as the entire thing.