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.
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.
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.
I went into Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s two-part series opener, “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “Harvest,” expecting an origin story. When it comes to mythology-heavy shows – or what I presume to be mythology-heavy shows – like Buffy, there is an expectation that they should start with an episode that tells the origins of (in this case) our eponymous heroine. Considering that I knew the show was at least marketed based on the novelty of a teenage girl slaying vampires, it seemed like those first moments of discovery and revelation would be a logical place to start.
However, as I’m sure fans are very aware, “Welcome to Hellmouth” does not start with an innocent teenager learning that it is her destiny to fight vampires. Instead, it starts with a teenager fully aware of her destiny and fairly adept at handling her superhuman skill set, skipping over the “bumbling rookie” phase and moving right onto the phase where Buffy is confident, jaded, and just wanting to move on with her life.
Perhaps this is because Joss Whedon decided that the 1992 film, despite the liberties taken with his script, had already dealt with the origin story, or perhaps it was a decision designed to help explain how Sarah Michelle Gellar (20 at the time) could pass as a 16-year old. Or, perhaps, Whedon was just very keenly aware of what kind of story would best serve as an introduction to these characters and this world: it may not be a traditional origin story, but the precision with which Whedon plots out his vision makes up an occasional lack of tension, and results in a strong introduction to just what this series means to accomplish (and what I hope it accomplishes in the coming months).
Into each generation a television show is introduced.
One show in all of television, a chosen one.
One created with the strength and skill to spawn fandom, to spread their gospel and increase their numbers.
This show, of course, is Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the winner (along with Angel, which I plan to watch “chronologically” along with Buffy when the time comes) of the Reader’s Choice poll to decide which show would be featured first in Cultural Learnings’ Cultural Catchup Project (which will start in earnest tomorrow).
This is not a surprising result, of course: as Alan Sepinwall pointed out to me, placing a sci-fi/fantasy show in an internet poll against shows from other genres isn’t exactly a fair fight, so I knew going in that Buffy (along with Angel) was probably going to take this one. And if I’m being honest with you, this result is both tremendously exciting and sort of terrifying as we set out on this journey together.
There is just over 24 hours left to go in the Cultural Catchup Project’s Reader’s Choice poll to decide which show I will be watching first, and it’s not quite coming down to the wire. As it stands, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel have a commanding lead with 42% of the votes, doubling the nearest competitor (The Shield) which is down to 21%. The Sopranos and Newsradio (at 19% and 18% respectively) are in a close battle for 2nd, but have very little chance at catching up to the leader at this stage in the game.
Now, however, is your chance to vote or try to change the course of history (or, more accurately, to potentially sway this meaningless poll in your favour). While I considered a run-off vote to give those the 3rd/4th place shows’ voters a chance to recast for one of the other series, I don’t have the time to pull that off properly, so I’ll leave it up to those who aren’t having the poll go your way: if you want to change the result, tell your Twitter followers or reach out to someone who has a lot of Twitter followers and try to pull the poll in your favour.
I am at the mercy of your democratic choice, and look forward to the results, whatever they may be. So, vote away, and I’ll be posting the results early Friday morning – the poll closes at 11:59pm ET tomorrow, April 8th.
The 2010 Cultural Catchup Project: Reader’s Choice
April 3rd, 2010
Over the past twelve months, I have been collecting various TV on DVD sets. This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon: I tend to impulse purchase a lot of television series on DVD due to various sales, and doing so has led me to discover shows like How I Met Your Mother, which I picked up for $22 one summer and led to the show becoming one of my personal favourites.
However, the sets I’ve been collecting as of late have been for a different purpose: rather than purchasing them to discover something new, the sets were purchased to “catch up” on something old. As I’ve written about in the past, I really only started watching television regularly in 2004, which meant that there were quite a large number of shows which started before that date which I never got around to watching.
This means that I have what I would call television blind spots, popular or critically-acclaimed series that I simply haven’t seen enough of in order to reference them. Now, it’s impossible to avoid having some blind spots, especially from a historical perspective; I know that I’m not going to be able to catch up on all of the sitcoms and police dramas from the 70s and 80s, so I will leave that to those more interested in those eras. However, as someone really interested in the more recent rise of the serial drama series and who feels like they missed out on some great television in the 1990s, there are certain blind spots that have proven problematic. I had to avoid reading Decade in Review pieces in order to evade spoilers, I’ve missed out on the true impact of certain guest acting gigs for former cast members, and I’ve had to deal with being a television critic and a television scholar who hasn’t watched these iconic (or at least “important”) television series. While I’m thankful that neither scholars or critics have ostracized me as a result of these unfortunate grievances – often because they too have embarrassing blind spots – I think it’s time I did something about it.
So in the next four months, as I transition from the end of my Master’s Degree at Acadia University to the beginning of my PhD at the University of Wisconsin Madison, I’m going to eliminate these blind spots. I’ve got five series on hand that I want to try to get through before August rolls around, and my plan is as follows:
Focus on a single show at a time (with one exception).
Watch the show(s) at whatever pace works with my schedule
Write about the show(s) each weekend
Now, in terms of #3, I don’t intend on reviewing every episode – while I might review a single season if I’ve got enough to say about it, and I might even focus on a particular episode if it’s considered especially noteworthy, my goal is to make observations about the shows as a whole. Sometimes these could be analysis of how effective certain stories are or my opinion regarding certain characters, and other times they could focus on narrative form and structure or more “academic” subjects of analysis. Sometimes they might be observations about the show itself, and sometimes they might be observations about watching the show, or observations about watching the show after having evaded spoilers for so long. I want to keep things pretty open because there is some interesting diversity amongst and within these series, and I want to be able to respond to them contextually if at all possible. I’m even open to writing two pieces on a single weekend if it better reflects my viewing experience.
However, while my most recent catchup projects (Big Love, Breaking Bad, Fringe) were chosen due to their pending returns, I don’t particularly have an opinion on which show I watch first in this instance: all of the shows have already ended their seasons, and if I’ve managed to avoid substantial spoilers for this long I don’t think that a few more months is going to kill me. As a result, rather than picking one at random, I’ve decided to let my readers (and those who get to this piece through my attempts to widen the voting pool) choose what they want me to watch first.
Newsradio (1995-1999) Why I Haven’t Watched It: I know almost nothing about the show, if we’re being honest: I knew it had Phil Hartman in it, but it was “before my time” television wise – picked up the Complete Series for $30 sometime last year, been collecting dust ever since.
The Shield (2002-2008) Why I Haven’t Watched It: The show wasn’t airing in Canada when it began, and FX’s low profile kept it from my radar up until a few years ago. I’ve been slowly collecting DVD sets on the cheap, and just finished off the collection this past fall.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) Why I Haven’t Watched It: Firefly was my first real experience with Whedon, and I don’t really know why – I’ve seen “Once More With Feeling,” and I’ve seen bits and pieces of other episodes, but I was always too cheap to buy the DVDs and catch up…until this Winter.
Angel (1999-2004) Why I Haven’t Watched It: Considering that I haven’t watched Buffy, I always felt that watching Angel would probably be a bad move.
Note: I am under the impression from previous discussions that it is best to watch Buffy and Angel chronologically, so I’m including them as a single poll option. However, otherwise, things are pretty straightforward: tell me what you think I should watch, and you might have the pleasure of reading analysis of that show every weekend for the foreseeable future. If you want to expand on your vote, I think PollDaddy has a comment option, but also feel free to expand on your choice (and try to influence others in the same direction, if you so choose) in the comments section on this post. Do make sure to vote in the poll as well, though, as I will not be taking comments into account when I make my decision – democracy rules.
The poll will be open until Thursday, April 8th, at 11:59pm Eastern Time – this will give me time to watch and write about the show’s Pilot for Saturday in order to kickstart the 2010 CCP (Cultural Catchup Project).