Cultural Catchup Project: A Return, An Adjustment, and the Perils of a Catchup Hiatus

The Perils of a Catchup Hiatus

August 1st, 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.

I didn’t exactly intend on a near-two-month hiatus in the middle of summer for the Cultural Catchup Project, but here we sit at the beginning of August with very little progress made.

There are a number of reasons the CCP ended up falling off this summer. Last summer was a rare circumstance in which I had no academic commitments, and really no commitments at all, which made it easy to spend time watching/reviewing Buffy and Angel. This summer, meanwhile, was filled with commitments: Only a few were academic, but then you have social commitments, as well as my assignments for The A.V. Club (ranging from reviewing weekly series to dropping in on premieres or filling in for other writers). I could also blame the weather, in that the oppressive Midwestern heat has made drained me of the energy that would be necessary to churn out writing the way I did last summer.

While these might register as excuses, on some level I couldn’t work up the motivation to tackle something, which is how I began to view the CCP as the hiatus wore on. As soon as the project started to feel like work, I became far less likely to dive back in, which is why I had to make one particular adjustment.

Starting now, I’m shifting away from Angel to focus on Buffy’s sixth season. The idea of doing the two shows at the same time was great, but it was only really feasible when I was considerably less busy. While I do intend on getting to Angel eventually, as the project will eventually be completed, the month of August will be spent polishing off the remainder of what seems to be a divisive season.

Now, given where I left off, I expect that the CCP will relaunch in earnest later this week with a certain notable installment of the series. However, to get back into the groove, I wanted to share a few thoughts about “Life Serial” and “All the Way,” in particular how the season’s main themes resonate when you return to the show after a lengthy hiatus.

The sixth season, taking a different approach than some seasons that came before, is basically the story of Buffy re-acclimating to being alive. Her resurrection was the point at which the series began, and both “Life Serial” and “All the Way” build stories around Buffy getting used to being an adult and being a guardian.

However, this is a very loose theme, one that doesn’t offer the same kinds of serialized potential as previous seasonal arcs. It is perhaps most reminiscent of the college opening of the fourth season, but even there college offered a clear structure that fit comfortably within the show’s previous high school setting as well as the opening stages of the Initiative arc. Here, “life as an adult” is much more broad, and you can see the show still sort of trying to wrap its head around dealing with a season where arcs are less prescriptive in terms of episodic storylines.

Or, rather, they are less naturally prescriptive in terms of episodic storylines. “Life Serial” is built around The Trio (the season’s “big bad” of sorts) while “All the Way” spends a lot of time focusing on Willow’s overuse of magic, but neither storyline naturally lends itself to episodic storylines. Neither episode is absolutely terrible, but both show the fingerprints of the show somewhat forcibly introducing these elements into its universe, constructing episodes of television instead of showing us the next parts in a larger story.

“Life Serial” is a lot of fun, don’t get me wrong, but the way it is structured calls attention to the way the looseness of the season’s arcs actually makes episodes like this one seem more contrived. Instead of exploring Buffy’s identity crisis following her resurrection through subtle character moments, the episode constructs different scenarios where she shadows her friends like a girl going to “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day,” scenarios that are then intersected by The Trio’s nefarious scheme to test their mettle against Buffy.

On the one hand, just to reiterate, I laughed a lot at this episode. The never-ending loop of mummy hand-related tomfoolery was a brilliant bit, and the notion of gambling for kittens would have made Alf proud. You could see Espenson and Fury having a ball with this concept, and I think the indulgence was worthwhile. There was even some nice Buffy/Spike interaction in here, and a good chance to see more of The Trio in action.

However, on some level the episode ended up feeling cheap. At a certain point The Trio reminded me of Power Rangers villains scheming against our heroine; as funny as they are, the way they’ve been employed has been very broad, and crossed over into “too silly” a few times here (at least for me). Also, the solution with Giles giving Buffy some money felt too obvious, too easily solving the problem so that Buffy could just go on being Buffy.

Of course, I think most of this stems from the delay between episodes. While people watching the episode immediately after “Flooded” might have been excited to see what was next for The Trio and were perhaps more directly connected to Buffy’s plight, I had two months for their storylines to become essentialized in my brain. I had actually seen some of the Trio’s scenes in this episode as part of a class as well, which made it more likely for their shtick (as fun as it can be) to get a bit stale a bit more quickly. The longer you sit and wait between episodes, the more the themes and characters take on a certain short-hand, and my issue with “Life Serial” was that it seemed to confirm that short hand rather than building on it in any real way. It was fun, sure, but the lack of any subtlety in the plot department made it a bad point of re-entry in regards to the season as a whole.

This was all the more evident in “All the Way,” which struggles both in its over-estimation of Dawn’s ability to carry an A-Story and in its over-emphasis on Willow’s addiction to magic (if that’s what we’re calling it). In truth, maybe the “addicted to magic” stuff wasn’t so blatant if you were to watch the episode right after “Flooded,” but since I’ve spent two months thinking that this was the season where Willow became addicted to magic it felt like the show beating a dead horse. The episode felt designed around opportunities for Willow to overuse her magic, with the “I’ll use magic to transport everyone who’s not a 15-year-old to an alternate universe for a split second” being a particularly obnoxious example. You could see the show straining to establish her overuse of magic, but the mundane nature of the quest made it seem too exaggerated. The episode would have been much better off having Willow and Tara fight about something else entirely and then having Willow alter her memory; it would have placed a larger emphasis on the most effective example of her growing problem, and it would have been a lot less distracting within the episode itself.

I don’t have any sort of connection between my hiatus and Dawn’s storyline, which was just sort of dull. Unless these rebel vampires who hunt on Halloween are going to recur, it just seemed like they wanted to do an episode featuring Dawn, which inevitably turns into an episode about Buffy saving Dawn. The little twist with the old man turning out to be perfectly genial was nice, but once it was clear that we were dealing with vampires the episode was too predicated on Dawn being a typical teenager for me to be particularly excited about it. There’s honesty there: she is a typical teenager, so she’s liable to sort of fall for a vampire given that her sister did the same thing before her. However, “Rebel Dawn” who steals from the magic shop and hangs out with boys isn’t much to hang an episode on, and the lack of any sort of broader arc for it to connect to made it that much less meaningful at the end of the day.

Given that I’m still getting back into the groove, I don’t consider any of this some sort of warning sign for the rest of the season. The show is still introducing The Trio, they’re still playing out Buffy’s adjustment period, they’re not yet at the payoff of Willow’s recklessness, and they still need to figure out what they want to do with Dawn now that she is no longer a major component of a seasonal storyline about her spontaneous existence. I think the show can work without an arc, even if I think these episodes feel a bit haphazard because the season lacks that singular focus. It’s possible that I will eventually be dissatisfied with any number of these storylines in the long term, but for now I’m keeping an open mind as we get back into the swing of things.

Or, consider where the Cultural Catchup Project is heading next, I’m keeping an open mind as I pick up the harmonies.

Cultural Observations

  • I thought it kind of strange that we spent so little time with Anya and Xander in an episode where their engagement becomes final – I liked that he chose to tell everyone in what seemed like a random moment, as opposed to a broader gesture, but for the two characters to never share a private moment in the rest of the episode ended up feeling a bit off. Liked Xander getting some private moments with Buffy/Giles, but Anya ended up seeming too essentialized as a comic figure, and this should have felt more emotional for her (even if I love her as a comic figure, especially in that outfit. Rawr.)
  • Don’t answer this, but I’m curious how many episodes Anthony Stewart Head will be doing. That Special Guest Star credit, and knowledge from previous comment sections that he wanted to spend more time in England, makes me wonder how he’ll transition back out of Sunnydale in future episodes. Again, don’t answer this. I’m just spitballin’ here.
  • Sarah Michelle Gellar started the season in such a dark place with this character, so I applaud her for picking up the comedy again so quickly. That whole run against the mummy hand was extremely dependent on her performance, and she solid it brilliantly.
  • As though my hints weren’t enough, let’s confirm it: Friday. Cultural Catchup Project. “Once More, With Feeling.”
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22 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

22 responses to “Cultural Catchup Project: A Return, An Adjustment, and the Perils of a Catchup Hiatus

  1. Jason

    You know, they did a “Dawn” episode because everyone was VERY busy working on “Once More wIth Feeling.” It was done out of necessity and not because they felt Dawn had to/could carry an episode. I think you nailed the issues with the episode, just offering some background if you weren’t aware.

  2. The Willow storyline is one of the most annoying parts of this season for me. It annoys me because it could have been great, but spends much of the time being far too obvious. Where it could have been a subtle character story about how power can corrupt anyone, instead it is just “drugs are bad” for a lot of the season. However, I shouldn’t be too hard on it as it ends up leading to some brilliant stuff down the road.

    As for your decision to focus on Buffy more than Angel: I think that might be a wise decision. For one thing, Season 3 of Angel is when it starts to get really serialized, and I think it would probably be a more enjoyable viewing experience to see that season as a whole if possible.

    • greg

      I’m kind of okay with the whole “drugs are bad” over-obviousness, if only because, in my mind, this works great as misdirection. Seeing as how we never actually see Willow getting high from casting a spell, only from abusing power, it plays perfectly in to the character that she would avoid responsibility by taking the “it wasn’t my fault – I’m addicted to magick” line to get herself off the hook rather than accepting the REAL issue of her abuse of power.

      And also, of course, the recklessness and lack of awareness of just how often her spells have gone wrong in the past. She doesn’t get high from wanting to transport the people in the Bronze, but she does get to feel like a contributing member of the group and, of course, show off to Tara what a great witch she is. And then gets pissed off when Tara’s not so much impressed as annoyed at her childishness.

      And, of course, the Scoobies totally give her a pass by buying into the far more convenient “it’s not my fault – I’m addicted to magick” excuse instead of dealing with her personality flaws because avoiding confrontation until it blows up in their faces is also totally in character. (compare ‘When She Was Bad’ with ‘Dead Man’s Party’, for example)

      IWillow’s whole story arc is a great example of masterly character misdirection. If only because, as TV viewers, we’re all trained form birth to expect the anti-drug rants as part and parcel of network shows.

      • Aeryl

        +1000
        I totally agree with this, about the addiction metaphor being a total misdirect.

        SPOILERS

        Since treating it like an addiction didn’t solve the problem, and this is alluded to later, I think that eventually becomes obvious.

        END SPOILERS

        I liked All The Way, and how it gave Dawn a moment to shine. It also brought back the return of quippy Buffy “Anybody else actually here to just make out? That’s nice. You run.”

        And while Willlow’s plan was supremely extreme, it’s also the kind of spastic plan she’s known for, and would then meekly back away from when the ridiculousness and improbability of it sunk in. Unfortunately, now for Willow, nothing is ridiculously impossible or improbable.

      • Actually, greg, that is a very interesting analysis and I can honestly say I’ve never thought about it that way before.

        It doesn’t mean I don’t find the “magick is drugz” scenes any less annoying and after-school special-y, but I appreciate what you just said and will have to keep it in mind when I rewatch S6.

        (By the way, just thought I should make it clear that I am firmly in the pro-season-6 camp. It’s a rough season, but it’s brutal and gutsy. I respect it for that.)

      • djsosonut

        greg, I really liked that. It takes something that I hated “drugs are bad” and gives me what i wanted, “power corrupts.” Season 6 has always been one of my favorite seasons, but I’m not blind to its flaws, but i respect it for being so willing to alienate its fanbase. More than any other season, the characters’ Big Bads were themselves.

  3. tjbw

    Nice to see you again!

  4. greg

    The sad thing is that it’s not just Buffy having to deal with the depression. No one is really getting what they need here.

    Xander desperately wants to have a normal relationship and, hopefully a normal marriage, if only so that he doesn’t turn into his parents. And it’s not unreasonable to be afraid that Anya might not be the perfect thousand year old ex-demon to which he should hitch his wagon.

    Dawn desperately wants to have a normal family, to be needed and part of a group. Honestly, I can’t imagine why the writers didn’t spend MORE time on her wanting/needing to get a boyfriend. Now that Buffy’s back and she’s still being neglected, is this girl ever gonna get a Scrappy Doo gang of her own to run with?

    Willow went from getting gold stars and straight A’s from authority figures from excelling in school to getting scolded by Giles and Tara for mastering magick skills. Is it any wonder she’s confused and hurt? What, exactly, is she supposed to to to get the praise and good grades she’s been brought up to crave so badly?

    Poor Giles has managed to do his job so well that he’s made himself obsolete. And sacrificed everything so well that he no longer has any adult relationships – no friends, no wife or kids; not even co-workers. Did he even have a chance at making friends with the other watchers before he was sent to Sunnydale?

    The only one who seems to be having ANY of his emotional needs met lately is Jonathan, who only ever wanted to rise to the social level of success that the Scoobies enjoyed. At least, after years of trying, he’s managed to make a couple of friends. Here’s hoping that lasts.

    Say, does Spike want or need anything? I might have forgotten.

    • I think this is exactly what the show-runners were attempting to show with this season. It just didn’t really come together for some reason and gets lost under the “overt” storylines. And I’m not sure if you were being sarcastic, but BOY does Spike want something!

      A few somethings, actually. He wants to be part of the group. He spent the summer helping the Scoobies with slaying, keeping Dawn company, basically being trusted and accepted. But once Buffy’s back, it’s back to the crypt and snarky comments. He also has a yen for a certain blond slayer…

      A lot of what you were describing comes to the surface in Once More With Feeling, but I’m not sure how well the rest of the season supports all of it. I feel like it does a respectable job, but I’m probably forgetting some clunky episodes in the middle (I seem to have selective memory for crappy episodes).

  5. Karen

    Glad to see progress on the CCP.

    Based on your observations about Life Serial, especially, I think you are going to find yourself torn by the S6 divisiveness. From a purely ‘intellectual’ POV I can discuss the season’s flaws, but for me and I think others who love the season, the sum is somehow greater than the parts. The heart loves despite the flaws. For others, the flaws cannot be overlooked.

    I would be interested in hearing if or when a critic would find him/herself in a position such as this, where he can recognize objectively the flaws, yet be captivated by some emotional or subjective experience that overrides the critical faculty. Or can a critic only approach the material objectively?

    Because I think S6 can generate that kind of quandary in a lot of people.

    • First – good name.

      Second, completely and totally agree. I love S6 despite its flaws, and that is because it had such a personal impact for me (like a lot of people I think). I think it’s a very personal season.

  6. greg

    *Not so much a spoiler as a warning*

    And, of course, there is no greater flaw in season six than that ‘Once More, With Feeling’ is presented on the (US) DVDs in NON-ANAMORPHIC form. Grr Argh indeed. Why on Earth was Fox issuing ANYTHING non-anamorphic widescreen as late as 2004? Utterly inexcusable. At the time, everyone was sure that corrected discs would surely come out soon – never happened.

    I’m curious if Myles will choose to watch it sharp with black borders all around or if he’ll zoom it and watch it blurry and indistinct.

    Hopefully soon the complete Buffy and Angel will get issued in Blu-Ray. It’s kinda depressing that all of Joss’s other major projects (Firefly/Serenity, Dr Horrible, Dollhouse) are available in hi-def and Buffy and Angel never seem to get the Blu-Ray love. (Even more depressing is that Kuzui’s ‘Buffy’ film is coming out on Blu-Ray)

  7. Karen

    Aside: I can only reach this essay and its comments on the Home page. It’s not listed in the CCP page I’ve bookmarked under S6 for me.

  8. morda898

    I’m on board with you here Myles. Life Serial is a genuinely entertaining episode but All the Way has a number of flaws which I think are indicative of the season. It’s as if the writers chose the absolute lowest common denominator story suitable for a fifteen year old girl; girl goes on date with older guy, he turns out to be too much for her, she realises she’s not ready to grow up, the end. Poor Dawn, although I think her psychological story is interesting, her actual episodic narratives are usually weak, coupled with her whiny attitude and late entry into the series it’s no wonder so many fans despise her (not me). This season as a whole has many weak episodes, perhaps more than any other season, and it’s lack of a structured serial narrative makes it all seem less…cohesive, I suppose. There’s just something about this season that doesn’t sit quite right for me. Although I think it’s emotional and psychological resolve is perhaps worth the rollercoaster of quality it takes to get there. The switch to UPN and hence fewer boundries, the loss of Giles as a main character, no serial villain, the darker setting and Joss’ stepping down as showrunner…No wonder the show took a subjective dip.

    Also, I take serious issue with that scene where Willow says she’s going to transport everyone to another dimension for a second. It’s so entirely unbelievable, you just can’t take it seriously.

    • Aeryl

      See, I disagree. That’s the sort of silly geeky improbable plan Willow always came up with.

      I can’t count the number of scenes, where she, Xander, Giles and Buffy would be in the library/war room, and she’d say something, everyone would turn and stare, and she’d back off mumbling something about it.

      I thought it was totally in character, only as I stated above, it’s way more dangerous, because it’s not silly and improbable anymore.

      Of course nothing tops Oz’s plan vs. The Mayor.

  9. diane

    Nice to see you again, Myles.

    While I’m a big fan of S6, I’m not blind to its flaws, and your certainly picking up on those issues. However, it’s fair to say that some major season arcs haven’t kicked in yet. As a whole, there’s a lot about the season that really is scatter-shot, but I do think that a fair amount of that is by plan and design, not just the circumstances of Joss running three shows at once, Marti Noxon taking over day-to-day on Buffy, etc.

    Keep in mind that the “big bad” has gotten bigger and badder through each of the first five seasons. By now, she’s beaten a god, and been brought back from the dead. What can she do for an encore? As she said herself in After Life, she felt complete and finished when she was in heaven. Aside from other depression issues, there’s nothing to challenge her at this point. Certainly not the Trio.

    That leads to Greg’s point, upstream. To a large extent, the issues in S6 are “negative space.” Everyone is defined by what’s missing. High school is over. College was a bust. Joyce is dead. Giles isn’t connecting in any real way.So…. nature abhors a vaccuum. What’s going to fill this one?

  10. AO

    The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

    So is S6.

    I’m definitely much more interested in the review of Angel as it gets better and better, but BtVS threads seem to get more comments, and there are only about 1.5 Seasons remaining. And of course this is Myles’ Project, so that’s all that really matters. Hope that you enjoy it more than I did.

  11. DaddyCatALSO

    Thing is, magick abuse isn’t really *at this point* being depicted as a drug metaphor, but simply as power tripping. But, to do that *right* it would’ve required making this into The Willow Show which was cotnractually impossible..

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