Thursday, July 26, 2007

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: 'The Chain' (8x05)

One of the most overused PR phrases to describe a new film or album is that the artist is "going back to the core concept," or "back to their roots." That's why the prerelease buzz for every new Radiohead album is that it's the new OK Computer, and most Scorsese films are hailed as the next Taxi Driver or Goodfellas. This issue, and the comic series as a whole are all about going back to the core concept, the original spark that ignited Buffy. However, as season seven showed, that is far from a good idea, the core concept is nowhere near as interesting as the incredibly complex characters who sprung up as the show went on. This issue isn't bad, it's just not particularly noteworthy.

Writing comics may seem pretty easy, and the vast numbers of people from other media who do vanity projects in comics would back this up. However, most of these books don't turn out so well. Writing a comic, particularly one like this, which is based on a TV show, is tough. We're used to getting 45 minutes of Buffy a week for free, to get the equivalent of one episode every couple of months for $3 an issue is tough to get used to. The best comics writers tell stories that can only work in comics, Morrison and Moore are so incredibly good, it takes weeks to unpack what they put in 22 pages. That kind of analytical analysis isn't applicable here, we've got the twenty-two pages and that's it. Ultimately, comics have to be better than other mediums because that stuff is free and comics cost.

So, this is all a roundabout way of getting to the essential underwhelmingness of the issue. It's solid, but doesn't do anything to surprise or draw you in. Ultimately, the stories in this comic aren't good enough to draw me in on their own, it's primarily my affection for the show that has me reading, and this doesn't give me any moments on the characters from the series. So, it's just a decent standalone, much like the material in the Tales of the Slayers collection, nothing to write home about.

Conceptually, the story should work better. The basic idea is interesting, but I feel like it's all told in the first three pages. This is a Buffy decoy, she dies for Buffy, Buffy is a symbol who's bigger than any individual. The rest of it is just messing around this moment, filling in information that we pretty much already know.

The structure is reminiscent of Morrison's "Best Man Fall" from The Invisibles, and comparing the two works reveals a lot about why Morrison is a much better comics writer. Morrison has an uncanny ability to capture huge emotional moments in a single image or a couple of panels. He writes dense comics that usually take a longtime to read. Whedon's work is more open, with a lot of splash pages and repeat panels. Compare what we learn about Bobby Murray in 'Best Man Fall' with what we learn about the Buffy decoy here. Bobby has an entire life, she just has a couple of moments that are repeated over. And, even with the huge amount of information in 'Best Man Fall,' it's still more emotionally involving.

Comics bring out most of Whedon's worst tendencies. Even though I'm a big genre fan, I don't like the random monsters and demon realms. Buffy and Angel were almost always at their best when they focused on real characters, not random monsters. If he had access to more resources on Buffy, I feel like we would have gotten more of this gimmicky stuff, like the fairy or slime demon, but that doesn't do much for me. The supernatural stuff was merely a way to cast the characters' emotions onto a grander plane. The demons here, or Ord from the Breakworld in X-Men both take focus away from Whedon's greatest strength, creating memorable characters. The goofy comedy of the TV ad is also a mistake, I assumed it was an authorial conceit, but the captions imply it's an actual ad on TV, and that makes no sense.

Again, it's not that this issue is bad, it's more that it doesn't touch even the worst episodes of the series. What made the show work was the characters, and we can't get that in the comics. For one, we don't have the actors playing them. There's also the issue of time, we barely got to see where Buffy was at, let alone the others. And, at this point the most interesting characters from the show are all gone. Anya's dead, Spike is MIA, Tara's dead already. The core group is good, but what I really want to see is some followup with Buffy and Spike, or an issue showing how Xander feels about Anya's death. Ultimately, it's not the decompression of the story that bothers me, it's that comics have to have some kind of deeper subtext to power them beyond just twenty-two pages. Morrison and Moore can do it, this book doesn't quite make it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Summer TV: Mad Men and The Bronx is Burning

People talking about a year round TV schedule were not messing around. This summer I'm watching six series on a weekly basis, more than I ever watched in the Fall, and four of them are shows that debuted this year. Mad Men was created by Sopranos producer and Wesleyan album Matthew Weiner. It's got a fantastic critical response, though I'm not quite as enthusiastic as they were. However, the first episode did a great job of putting you in the moment of the series, a bustling ad agency in the late 50s. Doing a period setting on TV isn't easy because it's tougher to relate to the characters. In Six Feet Under, you can jump right in, here we have to get some context for the world. It's almost like a sci-fi show in that respect.

This show does a good job of setting things up pretty quickly, and getting us into the action. There's some obvious TV plot devices, like having Don come up with the perfect ad idea at the last minute, but generally speaking it's smart and fresh. Vincent Kartheiser, who played Connor on Angel, is totally transformed into a really sleazy younger partner. Ultimately, every modern day work about the 50s seems devoted to undermining the myth about the period, first presenting the serene surface then delving beneath to show how there wasn't the strict order we believed in. I'm assuming that's the direction the series will take, and I'm eager to see it develop. It's a smart show with great production values, and if the critics are to be believed, it'll only get better.

I've also been watching the ESPN miniseries The Bronx is Burning, which chronicles the tumultuous 1977 Yankees season. As someone who's in the city everyday, it's interesting to go back to a much gritter, dirtier time. The subway cars today are a far cry from the dirty, graffiti covered cars we see here. The series makes innovative use of documentary footage to situate us in the time and place that the games exist in. To some extent this works well, clips from the mayoral race synch nicely, but the central plot thread outside the Yankees suffers. It's probably because I watched Spike Lee's Summer of Sam movie last year, but all those scenes feel like they were snipped out of another movie and placed here. I admire the attempt to fold in outside events, but it might have been better to keep it in the documentary stuff. If this wasn't based on history, I'd assume the two plot threads would collide somehow, but I don't think that's going to happen.

But, the center of the series is the Yankees season and most of that stuff works well. Characters like Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson are archetypal figures, so this is almost like watching a new Batman movie. What aspects of the myth are folded into this presentation? So far, I think they've done a good job of creating believable characters and a team environment. The ancillary players aren't particularly developed, but the basic tension is there and it's kept me engaged with each episode. Even though I'd say Mad Men is a better show, The Bronx is Burning was more entertaining.

Ultimately, it's encouraging to see both these shows on the air. For one, they're both wildly ambitious period dramas that do a good job of capturing their era. In years past, you wouldn't have seen basic cable networks trying stuff like this, but the success of HBO and FX has made it essential for networks to carve out a brand identity. I'd rather see a channel like AMC devote its resources to one great show than make ten mediocre ones like the networks do. This sort of specialized programming is a big part of what's brought us to this current golden age of television. I doubt either of these shows will become all time classics, but they're both original, entertaining and smart, and that's more than you'll get at the movies this summer.

Watchmen Casting

If you've been wondering why there's been a significant decline in posts here, it's primarily because I've been working a full time job at a postproduction house in New York. It's fun, but takes up a lot of time, meaning that I neither have time to watch the stuff to write up, or to write up the stuff I watch. Hopefully I'll get my schedule set better, and have more time to write stuff, but it's been pretty busy so far. Anyway, on to a variety of topics.

Watchmen Casting

Well, it looks like it's finally happening, with the casting announcement hitting today, and for the most part, I'm unimpressed. I won't go into a lengthy fanboy rant, but my major issue is the casting of Malin Akerman, a pretty generic pretty blonde, for the role of Laurie. For one, she's ten years too young, and this is a character for whom age is a central issue. She and Dan shouldn't look like models, they're a bit past their prime, and the casting should have reflected this. I heard Virginia Madsen's name being thrown around for Sally, which is pretty ridiculous. Someone closer to her age should be playing Laurie.

But, ultimately I don't really care about the film. This is a work that belongs so singularly to the medium of comics, the reason it's the "Citizen Kane of comics" isn't because of the story, it's because it's a masterclass in what can only be done with the combination of words and pictures. This movie is like a novelization of Citizen Kane, the story might be the same, but the impact is vastly diluted, and that's even assuming that they manage to convey all the complexities of the story in a two hour film. I thought 300 was pretty bad, so I'm not expecting much from Zach Snyder on this one. I'll probably see the film, just out of curiosity, but like V For Vendetta, the film will quickly be forgotten, but the book will linger on.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

John From Cincinnati: 'His Visit: Day Six' (1x07)

This week’s episode continues the show’s evolution into something totally different from what’s come before on television. Most shows like to keep a fairly fixed cast and have the characters interact within that set social pool. On shows like Buffy and Six Feet Under, the people generally had one or two friends outside the main circle, if any, and interacted with them every week. But, here we’ve got the continuing evolution of a community, new characters being organically added to the world every week as the story demands. And, I use that word story loosely, this episode isn’t really about narrative at all, stuff happens, but it’s more about the mood, just spending time with the characters, and that’s a joy to do.

It’s hard to single out what the major plot threads of this episode were. Probably the central thing was Butchie trying to stop Shaun from turning into a next generation version of himself. At the beginning of the series, Butchie was very much still a child, looking out solely for his own interests. He took John in only so that he could use him, his only concern was getting enough money to get high. However, over the course of the series, he’s become more aware of the world beyond himself, and this episode is the culmination of that. When he walks back and sees Shaun smoking, he sees the kid that he was. Even though Butchie himself was cracking on Dwayne moments earlier, he’s mad at Shaun for not giving the man any respect.

In both this and the last episode, we’ve seen Butchie pushed into the role of diplomat. He jokes that he’s not the U.N., but lately all he’s been doing is negotiating meetings, trying to make things better for the people around him. Tina’s arrival, his mother’s subsequent crisis and his father’s absence have forced Butchie to step up and become the man of the family. In the end, he and Shaun come to an agreement and enter the water together. Butchie says he’s going to surf like he used to, on the board that Kai retrieves for him from storage. He is trying to reclaim the potential that he sacrificed so many years ago.

Throughout the series, I’ve posited that John’s purpose on the show is to help the Yosts get things together and reclaim the glory they’ve lost. John set that in motion for Butchie, and now Butchie is doing things for himself, returning to the right path. With one student a success, John’s main focus now seems to be Cissy.

He’s much more direct with Cissy, attacking her negative characteristics in a more cogent way. With the other characters, John is merely a parrot, repeating what they say. With Cissy, he channels the things she knows, but doesn’t want to hear. At this stage of the series, he seems to have become a more mystical figure. Early on, he was an idiot savant, but still most definitely an idiot. Now, he’s more of a sage, helping the characters recognize things about themselves, and all the while remaining on a higher mental plane.

Once again, John appears in a variety of places at the end of the episode, participating in moments of great importance. My favorite scene in the episode was Cass looking at the footage, the drum circle and just crying. For the past two episodes, she’s been looking for something, locking herself in this room and trying to find the secret John referred to. I love the way these scenes were constructed, with the intentionally jarring jump cuts putting us in Cass’s uncertain mental space. Last week, her mental instability was proven by the fact that she ate all those overpriced minibar items; here it’s simply her continued stare at the computer monitor.

Last week John talked about how Cass’s camera held some kind of secret, it’s a major piece of John’s mission here. There, she also talked about a drum circle, and hit a pan repeatedly, seeking a beat. Here, she watches the drum circle on video, and just begins to cry. She’s touched something of primal significance, and turns to John, seeking comfort. This moment reminded me of similar moments in Grant Morrison comics, where characters cry not because of some emotional trauma, rather because they came in touch with something of such profound cosmological significance, it’s overwhelming. I love that kind of emotion, and had never seen it in anything outside Morrison’s work, but it was there on Cass’s face in that scene. This is the kind of storytelling that has significance for humanity as a whole, and I love the fact that we’re getting it from a TV show every week.

And what of John’s cryptic comment that Shaun will soon be gone? That raises a lot of questions. In the second episode, Shaun was pulled back from death, and it was this resurrection that set in motion the building of the new community that has formed at the motel, around the Yosts. John’s appearance set that building in motion, but it was Shaun’s ‘miracle’ that crystallized their association, and brought Dr. Smith and Tina into the circle. Has Shaun only returned for a time, to play some role in the overall plan, then disappear again, as he was meant to after the accident? It’s possible that Shaun is a sacrificial character, who must die so that Butchie can be healed. There’s been a lot of talk about the religious symbolism of the show, with John as John the Baptist to Shaun’s Christ. So, it would make sense that the son would die to save the father. But, that seems a bit negative, Shaun’s death would likely destroy everything that has been built during the series. But, it’s interesting to watch Shaun, John and Butchie all walk out to surf together at the end of the episode.

Elsewhere, we’ve got a lot of drama at the motel. Palaka’s infection forces Dr. Smith to evaluate what his role is now. Does the loss of his job mean he can’t be a doctor now? That’s the issue he faces during the scene where Freddie tries to take Palaka away. Smith sees this treatment as a way to prove that he still has a purpose and the hospital lawyer can’t take that away. Even though the hospital is setting him up for a fall, Cissy is looking out for him.

Beyond the Yosts, the central focus of the series is the formation of this new community, where a whole bunch of societal rejects can gather and find togetherness. At the end of Babylon 5, there’s a voiceover that says that station “gave us hope that there can be new beginnings, even for people like us.” People like them were nowhere near as far from redemption as people like the guys on this show, but the sentiment is the same. The motel has become a place where everyone can leave behind the baggage of who they were and coalesce into a new communal entity. Much like with Deadwood, this isn’t always easy, people rarely say what the others around them mean to each other, with the exception of Barry, who is always ridiculed for it.

But, with Palaka sick, the community draws together to care for him, and ultimately that’s what society is about, providing a safety net to ensure that those who can’t help themselves will still be protected. The characters who have willingly engaged with this community are helped, those who resist remain troubled. The two main resistors are Vietnam Joe and Bill.

Bill remains uncertain about his role in the community. A couple of episodes ago, Zippy told him to go out and sit with Freddie, he did this and was happy for a bit. But, now he’s retreated back into his cave, talking only to Zippy. It’s notable that he says he has no friends, and nowhere else to go besides his house. He doesn’t recognize the fact that there is a community that cares for him, instead he cowers below the second floor of his house, unable to leave the stairs. I’m guessing that one of John’s tasks in the last three episodes of the season will be helping Bill finally resolve the issues with his wife’s death.

The other major strand is Linc’s departure from Stinkweed. Right now, he’s the major outsider, a threat to the burgeoning community. Will his departure from the company make him stop being a threat and let him embrace the pure joy of surfing and the community surrounding it? I’m thinking that’s unlikely, he seems to have some kind of scheme going on with Tina, and they will likely be the central threat of the end of the season. But, considering the laid back feel of this episode, I’m not expecting a major climax for the close of the season.

Other notable stuff is the return of Paula Malcolmson, who’s apparently become a regular, another character on this Polyphonic Spree of TV casts. It’s good to see her working with Milch again. While I can certainly sympathize with people who were angry at Deadwood’s early demise, I think this show is much stronger and more unique.

So, once again this show surprises and challenges with another great episode. It’s not as singularly mindblowing as last week, but it’s still got a unique feel and atmosphere that’s unlike anything else on TV. It’s depressing to think that there’s only three episodes left, I really hope that HBO gives this another season. Next to The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, this is the best show they’ve ever done. And if things keep up the way they are, it could one day eclipse those masterworks.