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.
- 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.”