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Cultural Catchup Project: “Once More, With Feeling” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“Once More, With Feeling”

August 5th, 2011

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

My memory is generally pretty good when it comes to small details about my life, but I truly have no idea what possessed me to watch “Once More, With Feeling” in my dorm room about four or five years ago.

I wasn’t watching it with someone else, and I hadn’t borrowed someone’s DVDs. As far as I can remember, no one suggested that I watch it, and this was well before Dr. Horrible was a thing (although I think my memory wants to tell me that there was some relationship between the two things, if only to make sense of the abstract nature of the experience). Looking back, timeline wise, it’s possible that the Scrubs musical was what pushed me in its direction, but that’s at best an educated guess.

As I’ve discussed throughout this project, there are moments from pivotal episodes that have been floating around in my head from occasional experiences with the series. One was Riley crawling through a tight space in the climax of “Hush,” gleamed from a Buffy marathon my brother was recording, and the other was this random late night viewing of an episode for which I had almost zero context. Given that I was watching the episode exclusively as a musical, my memory is hazy: when I started watching the show in earnest last summer, I remember being convinced that Xander and Cordelia were going to get together because I had seen them in “Once More, With Feeling,” at which point you were quick to point out that my memory was even hazier than I realized.

Watching it this week really did feel like watching it for the first time, even if there were those brief moments of déjà vu. I remembered more about the episode than I thought, but the nature of those memories varied, reflecting the multi-faceted nature of the episode’s success. You can’t remember what you’ve never known, and returning to the episode in the context of the sixth season gave me a much greater understanding for why “Once More, With Feeling” holds such an important place in the history of this show.

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Cultural Catchup Project: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Bargaining”

“Bargaining”

May 18th, 2011

“Is this hell?”

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

While I may have remained mostly spoiler-free for the major events in the final two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s hard not to feel that my experience with them will nonetheless be very much influenced by the conversations I’ve heard about these seasons over the past number of years.

While my Twitter friends have been kind enough to walk on tiptoes around me when it comes to specific spoilers, the general topic of whether or not the final two seasons of Buffy are a crippling disappointment, a misunderstood masterpiece, or somewhere in between was sort of unavoidable. While these conversations started in the comments going back to the fourth season, and certainly lingered through the fifth, we are entering the period where the fans are decidedly divided, and where my opinion (rather than simply my analysis) will be more closely watched to see which camp I fall in.

Although my six-month delay in the Cultural Catchup Project was certainly not ideal, I will say that I think it helps clear the slate for the season that follows. This is not to say that I have forgotten so much that fundamental differences (or problematic similarities) are going to go unnoticed, but it means I am recreating something closer to the experience of those who were watching in October 2001 than if I had picked up the first disc of Season 6 back in the fall. While my seven months are slightly more than the four months between the fifth and sixth seasons, returning to “Bargaining” felt like a return in ways that highlight its function as an episode, and offered a clear framework through which we can understand its successes and failures.

At the end of the day, “Bargaining” is more successful in theory than in practice, never quite stringing together its most successful scenes into a cohesive whole. While the value of its in medias res opening is clear by the conclusion of the episode, there is an artificiality in the way the episode is presented that it could never quite shake. Instead of the Scoobies feeling lost and aimless without Buffy, the episode felt as though it was always choreographing its next step, dropping in at the very moment where the more thematically interesting material was replaced with a rush of plot to get us to the point where Buffy Summers can rise from the dead.

While the resonance is not entirely lost, captured in brief moments of grief that are nicely drawn, there’s an inevitability to “Bargaining” which renders its poetry less effective than might be ideal.

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Season Finale: Sons of Anarchy – “NS”

“NS”

November 30th, 2010

Look, let’s get it out of the way: Sons of Anarchy was very far from the best show on television this fall. It was a season with a story to tell which seemed completely unwilling to tell that story, and when it finally got down to business it seemed as if everything was expedited and choppy. For a series that once delivered what I would describe as sick, twisted poetry, the third season lacked both rhyme and reason. While I perhaps understood what Kurt Sutter was going for by the time we reached the season’s penultimate episode, nothing about “June Wedding” made those previous episodes any more satisfying. In fact, the show sort of felt like it was following Stahl’s example: when you think a situation is going south, or you’re tired of playing a certain angle, you just shoot someone and call it a day.

I have some fundamental issues with the idea that Stahl could even come close to getting away with what she did in “June Wedding,” and the degree to which Stahl’s sociopathic behavior is being used to fuel the march towards the season’s conclusion, to the point where I’ve officially written off this season of television. Last week’s episode indicated to me that whatever Sutter was selling this year, it simply was not the show I want Sons of Anarchy to be, or the show that it had the potential to be coming out of its incredibly strong (and cohesive) second season.

In advance of watching “NS,” I had heard the buzz: this was a “return to form.” However, as Cory Barker wrote about earlier, the degree to which a solid finale (which “NS” arguably is) can overwrite previous struggles is fairly limited. And yet, I had no expectations that a legitimately enjoyable 90 minutes of television would actually make the season’s problems more apparent. “NS” is a smart episode of television which only confirms that the show’s third season was a wild miscalculation, an absolute failure of “Serial Narrative 101″ that traveled halfway around the world and only got a lousy t-shirt with a bundle of letters hidden in it which only confirmed presumed details from the distant past.

I’m a bit busy now, though, to delve into all of the reasons why the season fell apart. I plan to come back to it at a later date, perhaps early next week, but for now I want to take “NS” as what it truly is: a launching pad to the future, and an opportunity for the series to move on with something resembling momentum.

Because on that level, “NS” is more or less a success.

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Cultural Catchup Project: “The Gift” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“The Gift”

October 12th, 2010

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

As you may well have noticed, the conclusion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fifth season within the Cultural Catchup Project has been a bit of an anti-climax, if only because of the long delays as we moved towards the finale. In fact, it was a good thing that the Netflix episodes had the “Previously On” segments intact, because I think there would have been some details (like, for example, the “Knights that say Key”) which would have been initially befuddling.

I think, though, that it’s also partially the fact that the fifth season doesn’t exactly follow a logical narrative pattern. I want to talk about both “Spiral” and “The Weight of the World,” but I will likely spend more time on “The Gift” due to its climactic qualities, or its somewhat sudden climactic qualities. I like Glory just fine, and think the season as a whole was quite effective, but we cannot deny that the overarching plot of the season sort of sat still for the back nine or so. Mind you, that was the period where Buffy was preoccupied with her mother’s death, so it’s not as if the show was boring or uninteresting during that period, but it sort of made the conclusion seem a bit sudden (although it does develop over the course of the last few episodes).

In other words, the challenge of “The Gift” (and the episodes before it) was bringing the seasonal arc to its conclusion in a way which ties it to the characters’ personal journeys over the course of that season, overcoming the sense that Glory’s story arc did not necessarily follow a traditional rising action pattern. And while I think that it lacks the sense of climax prevalent in “Becoming” or “Graduation Day,” I think the fifth season finale lives up to this task: it may not be the perfect conclusion to the season, or the perfect note for these characters, but it delivers a meaningful hour of television which demonstrates the complexity (or, depending on your point of view, the flaws) of the series’post-high school structure.

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Sons of Anarchy – “Oiled”

“Oiled”

September 14th, 2010

“I’m afraid the 21st Century has come to Charming”

Nothing has really changed within SAMCRO as Sons of Anarchy enters its third season: there’s little discord amongst the group, and even though Gemma’s on the run and Abel’s a hostage of sorts in Ireland there is still the sense that the club itself is as solid as it’s ever been in the wake of last season’s tragedies.

However, the problem is that the world around them is no longer bowing down to their power: as Hale’s elder brother Jacob, trying to leverage his brother’s death into a successul mayoral run, notes in “Oiled,” the sort of old-school notion of law which the Sons held over Charming is no longer effective. We saw the wheels starting to come off the train last season, but there was a sense that it was SAMCRO’s lack of cohesion that led to their struggles. And yet, even when Gemma’s rape united Jax and Clay, and Opie got over his wife’s passing, things still unraveled in the finale, and things continued to unravel last week when mysterious gunmen killed Hale and threatened the safety of Charming.

“Oiled” is certainly a more methodical hour of television compared to last week’s premiere, as the sense of urgency which we expected to take hold during last week’s hour is replaced by a more functional effort to properly interpret the situation at hand. And yet, as the club tries to piece things together, their enemies are either committed to a more dangerous course of action or are already at work obfuscating reality in an effort to throw SAMCRO off the trail.

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Season Premiere: Sons of Anarchy – “So”

“So”

September 7th, 2010

In a post about the third season premiere of Sons of Anarchy, Kurt Sutter wrote the following:

“It would be very easy for me to repeat what worked in season two — create some internal beef that provided intensity and tension within the club, bring in another big nemesis, throw those two conflicts at each other and watch the blood flow. Yes, I’m sure it would be okay and people would like it. But ultimately, I would be cheating my own creative process and your dedication as well. I’ve learned that devoted fans are very sophisticated viewers. They know when they are being fed leftovers. Yeah, they may eat them for awhile, but eventually, they’ll get bored and leave to feed on something more tasty.”

This explains a great deal about “So,” an episode which lulls you into a false sense of security only to up the ante that much more after last season’s dark and twisted finale. Sons of Anarchy became one of television’s top dramas last year because Sutter is fearless, willing to go to particularly dark places and also willing to allow the story to escalate without concern over running out of story ideas in the future. There was actually enough story in the wake of that finale to sustain the season through the first few episodes: it wouldn’t even be leftovers so much as the rest of dinner, magically still warm despite having been sitting on the plate since last December.

What “So” establishes most clearly is that Sons’ action-packed narrative does not indicate a lack of nuance in its storytelling: as crafty as he is outspoken, Sutter creates the illusion of “moving on” while delivering a knockout blow which moves in an entirely different, yet perfectly complimentary, direction.

And, not surprisingly, I feel neither cheated nor bored: instead, I’m downright exhilarated.

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Cultural Catchup Project – “The Body” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“The Body”

August 5th, 2010

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

One of the qualities about the Cultural Catchup Project which many of you seem to enjoy is the ability to witness someone experience the show for the first time. However, you’ve likely all noticed to this point that, in my case, the emotional side of that is largely obscured by critical analysis: in fact, you need to read between the lines to find a true “personal reflection” in the majority of my reviews.

This isn’t a purposeful attempt to keep myself out of these reviews, nor is it a sign that I am a soulless automaton. Rather, it’s simply the way I approach television: Cultural Learnings tends to operate in a solely critical capacity, and the Cultural Catchup Project has been no exception.

However, I could tell from the response to my tweets about watching “The Body” that separating myself emotionally from the episode would be impossible, both because of how affecting the episode was and because of the admonishing I’d rightfully receive from the regular readers. I do intend to offer a few critical insights, and it is quite likely that those critical insights will end up being quite elaborate, but I also want to make sure that my experience watching “The Body” is collected as part of this project. While I think that this is a truly fantastic piece of work from Joss Whedon, even more important than the text itself is the text’s influence on its audience, and I hope to try to do both justice.

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Cultural Catchup Project: One Past, Two Perspectives (Buffy and Angel)

One Past, Two Perspectives

July 26th, 2010

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter has said that he has no intention of ever using flashbacks for the FX series, which some might find odd considering how much of the series is based on an earlier generation of conflict regarding SAMCRO’s founder, John Teller. However, each season of the series has a tightly constructed arc, and so much of its drama depends on capturing the intensity of the Sons’ daily lives that flashing back would likely disrupt any sense of momentum.

And yet, for network series with similarly complex backstories, flashback episodes are almost a necessity: with 22 episodes to deliver each year, as opposed to the 13 offered on cable, flashbacks are a good way to kill some time between major story arcs, or fill in some necessary exposition heading into a new story arc, or to simply have some fun by featuring a character who everyone seems to enjoy. “Fool to Love” and “Darla” are both flashback episodes, and even flash back to the same scenes in two instances, but they represent two distinct types of flashback episodes, which becomes clear when watched together (as they would have originally aired).

I want to talk a bit about how each series uses its respective flashback episode as a standalone piece, but I also want to look at how they work as parts of their respective seasons: while “Darla” is very clearly part of the series’ narrative arc, “Fool for Love” has a unique relationship with the momentum built by “No Place Like Home” and “Family” which offers a different take on the potential function of flashbacks.

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Cultural Catchup Project: The Functionality of Ms. Dawn Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

The Functionality of Ms. Dawn Summers

July 19th, 2010

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

The conclusion to “Buffy vs. Dracula” is one of those moments where I wish I could go back in time and experience it without any future knowledge: the somewhat divisive introduction of Dawn Summers into the series’ narrative was something which I have known about since I started the series, but I had no idea that it was first introduced like this.

I had the benefit of being able to watch “Real Me” before writing about “Buffy vs. Dracula,” but if I had been a critic at the time, and if I had been following the usual episodic review strategy, I don’t know how I would have managed to really analyze the premiere without diverting the discussion towards “WTF”-like exclamations in regards to the conclusion. Every season begins with an uncertainty about what is about to follow, but the way Dawn is dropped into the narrative is the sort of risk which seems brazen to the point of self-destruction.

Through the first Disc of the season, the details surrounding Dawn’s arrival remain shrouded in mystery beyond a few clues, but her function within the story is much more apparent. She is an excuse to step outside of the comforts of the Scoobies, rethinking what it means to be a part of the group and seeing the existing dynamics in a new light.

And in a way, she’s sort of like Lost’s Flash Sideways.

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Cultural Catchup Project: “Buffy vs. Dracula” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“Buffy vs. Dracula”

July 16th, 2010

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

“Buffy vs. Dracula” is both a thematic companion for and a definite departure from the series’ past. The last two premieres have featured Buffy facing questions about her identity (in “Anne” and “The Freshman”), and her altercation with Dracula is built around similar questions; however, whereas it seemed as if Buffy was struggling to stay afloat amidst the world changing around her at the start of the third and fourth seasons, here she seems to be struggling within, gaining new perspectives on her power and its control over her actions and desires. In that sense, the episode represents a clear continuation, and evolution of numerous elements at play within the fourth season, especially within the First Slayer’s appearance in “Restless.”

However, at the same time, “Buffy vs. Dracula” is also a tad bit silly. I won’t go so gar as to say that it is cheesy, but there’s a clear disconnect between the Dracula who takes part in Buffy’s story and that character’s influence on the rest of the episode. While the core idea of Dracula’s involvement is well executed by Marti Noxon (the first writer to take on a premiere other than Whedon), the rest of the episode relies on comic scenarios which are not so much unwelcome as they are incongruous with the episode’s central function. While it isn’t a departure for the series to engage with comedy, the way it is deployed in the episode rather lazily fills in the gaps between the dramatic scenes, failing to integrate the two parts of the episode successfully and truly live up to its potential, potential which nonetheless remains clear based on the strength of the eponymous comparison.

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