Tag Archives: Sarah Michelle Gellar

Cultural Catchup Project: Bewitched, Bothered but Familiar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Bewitched, Bothered but Familiar

May 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.

As viewers of television, we value the element of surprise: we like to be shocked, to see things we didn’t expect and get that surge of adrenaline that comes with the best kind of storytelling. However, at the same time, we want to feel as if things are familiar: we may not want to be able to predict precisely what will happen, but we do want to have some sense of how things would play out should something unexpected unfold. In short, the best television delivers familiarity within the unfamiliar, going beyond our expectations without shattering our understanding of these characters or this universe.

With a show like Buffy, the greatest challenge is separating the intense fan responses to the series from the characters themselves. When Angel suddenly returned from the realms of Hell and struggled to reconnect with his past life, I was pleased: he’s an interesting character who complicates the protagonist’s life in fascinating ways, so why wouldn’t I want him to return and bring with him the baggage from “Becoming?” However, I realized in “Revelations” that the rest of the show’s characters wouldn’t be quite so pleased to see him, their own reactions to Angel as a character separate from their enjoyment of complex serialized narratives.

Angel’s return was unpredictable (except for the decision to keep him in the opening credits, of course), but the way in which characters respond feels familiar, continuous with what we’ve seen in the past two seasons. And when the show turns over the spotlight onto the character’s past in “Amends,” as he becomes weighed down by the intense guilt pervasive within his soul, it manages to capture the unique qualities which make the character so difficult to relate to and thus so easy to empathize with – this is not a show with one-dimensional struggles, and Angel’s return manages to be both dramatic and intriguing without turning any of the show’s characters into single-minded archetypes in the chaos surrounding his mysterious return.

Continue reading

36 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

Cultural Catchup Project: The Challenge of Clarity Amidst Chaos (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

The Challenge of Clarity Amidst Chaos

May 7th, 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.

When I say that Buffy the Vampire’s third season gets off to a rocky start, your immediate response should be “of course it gets off to a rocky start.” The show completely threw a wrench into things by having Buffy leave Sunnydale behind for the bright lights of a rundown neighbourhood in an unnamed urban centre we presume is Los Angeles, and the consequences from that event are going to be significantly more damaging than the more subtle psychological impact felt at the start of the second season. You can’t expect “Anne” to feel like just another episode of the show, just as you can’t expect for “Dead Man’s Party” to quickly bring things back to normal now that Buffy has returned to Sunnydale.

However, I do think that there are elements of both episodes which feel just a smidge too convenient; while the situations may be messy and complicated, the metaphors and themes are all clean and concise. They represent necessary parts of Buffy’s journey, and the emotional conclusions to both stories (first Buffy rediscovering part of her identity and then the gang coming to terms with what has changed over the summer) are well played by all involved, but the linearity of this particular course correction feels odd when watched directly after the depth of the second season’s final stretch of episodes.

This doesn’t mean that the show is off to a bad start, but rather that “Anne” and “Dead Man’s Party” wear their purpose in their sleeve a bit too plainly for my tastes.

Continue reading

33 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

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

“Becoming”

May 4th, 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.

Every good drama series boils down to character development, and I started my analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s second season talking about how Joss Whedon was willing to create clear consequences from the end of the first season within Buffy as a character. This wasn’t a show that was going to forget where it came from, where the events of the past were going to simple fade away. As we’ve discussed, there are occasionally episodes which offer a palette cleanser, a way to sort of wind down from particularly important episodes, but the show neither forgets nor forgives.

“Becoming,” the show’s two-part second season finale, is ultimately evidence of the importance of character to the show, but it’s an episode which feels like it’s doing a lot more heavy lifting than we’re used to. This is not to say that the show isn’t building on what has been done in the past, or that any of the character development in the episode feels unearned in any way, but the introduction of flashbacks and the ability for magic to undo substantial character development are nonetheless kinks in the series’ structure. It doesn’t revolutionize the show, but it very clearly reminds us that the rules can change at any moment, and that characters are sometimes slaves to fate or magical intervention in ways which threaten their happiness, their health, and their proper development as human beings.

It’s a non-linear, unpredictable sort of character development which offers a nice conclusion to a non-linear, unpredictable sort of season.

Continue reading

50 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

Cultural Catchup Project: Post-“Innocence,” It’s Personal (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Post-“Innocence,” It’s Personal

May 2nd, 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.

When I wrote about “Surprise” and “Innocence,” I entered into the posture I tend to take at certain points along this journey: when you know that things eventually get very dark and complicated, you tend to cry wolf at any sign that things are becoming very dark and complicated. It was clear from fan response that these two episodes represented a turning point of sorts, and watching them you see a dramatic character transformation that does in fact “change” the series in a way that seems pretty substantial.

However, the interesting thing about the episodes which follow “Innocence” is that the changes are for the most part subtle rather than substantial. While people tended to agree with my statement that Angel’s transformation represents a true “game-changer,” I have a feeling that the impact has more to do with the series’ long term changes than with any sort of immediate shift in the series’ narratives. While you could argue there is now more darkness in Buffy’s world, that doesn’t really change the tone of the series, nor does it dramatically alter the kinds of stories the show decides to tell.

Rather, the changes during this period come in the form of the supernatural becoming personal, with supernatural phenomenon presenting itself (primarily) in ways that tap into something inherent to these characters rather than inherent to the Hellmouth or some sort of demonic power. It’s a subtle shift in the series’ dynamics, but it is nonetheless a fairly important development which reinforces the events of “Innocence” within, rather than against, the series’ typical narrative structures.

Continue reading

39 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

Cultural Catchup Project: “Surprise,” “Innocence,” and the Art of the Game-Changer (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“Surprise,” “Innocence,” and the Art of the Game-Changer

April 29th, 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 interesting buzz words to emerge over the past few years within the television industry has been “game-changer.” Used to describe episodes which fundamentally alter our perspective on a particular series, or which send a series in a completely different direction, it’s become a common term which producers or networks will use if they want to drum up interest in a struggling series, or try to regain lost glory with a series beginning to lose its luster.

However, I hate that “game-changer” has taken on an almost wholly promotional context, because episodes which actually “change the game” are a really fascinating part of the television landscape. There is great benefit in a reinvention of sorts, as the producers of Lost learned when the Flash Forward structure brought new life to a series at its halfway point, but it is just as easy to fall off the rails: J.J. Abrams learned this lesson the hard way when his game-changing second season finale of Alias was a stunning hour of television but sent the show in directions it wasn’t capable of supporting.

What makes a good game-changer is something which lives on potential rather than mystery, which not only changes the game as we know it but also gives us a glimpse of how the new game is going to benefit the series moving forward. The change needs to feel like something which springs from the story rather than from a network note, and the consequences need to be something the show won’t live down but that it can also live with.

In other words, a good game-changer needs to be everything that “Surprise” and “Innocence,” the thirteenth and fourteenth episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s second season, embody: by merging romance with tragedy, and by turning its central character into an unwitting agent of terrifying change, Buffy moves beyond the limitations of teenage drama to something that strikes deeper into the limitations of the human condition.

Or, put more simply, Buffy the Vampire Slayer just got real.

Continue reading

28 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

The Cultural Catchup Project: Promise and “Prophecy Girl” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Promise and “Prophecy Girl”

April 21st, 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.

Going into “Prophecy Girl,” I was expecting something big – everyone had indicated that this episode, as Whedon returns to writing and takes over directing duties, is when the show finally finds itself. Because I know that the series is going to eventually become heavily serialized, and that the first season finale is supposed to be the start of that push towards more complex stories, I expected to have all sorts of new potential to be writing about.

Instead, I’ve discovered that “Prophecy Girl” is ultimately a subtle rather than substantial shift in the series’ trajectory, a question of execution rather than some sort of creative shift. With Whedon behind the camera, the emotional resonance of the episode and its stories is the strongest its been thus far, and there are a couple of pretty key bits of character development which sort of clears the slate heading into the second season. However, produced like many first season finales, you can tell that this was either a beginning or an end depending on if the series was picked up, and so it spends as much time resolving as it does complicating.

The result is that all of my prophecizing and pontificating about earlier episodes is probably more substantial than what I have to offer about “Prophecy Girl”: it was entertaining and emotional, and signals the show is coming into itself quite nicely, but it’s only made me anxious to move on already. However, I made a promise to write about it, so some thoughts on the finale and the first season overall are necessary at this stage in the Cultural Catchup Project.

Continue reading

53 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

The Cultural Catchup Project: Love is a Battlefield (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“Love is a Battlefield”

April 17th, 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.

“When I said you could slay vampires and have a social life, I didn’t mean at the same time.”

Early in a first season, the goal of any television series is to get viewers interested in the stories unfolding. This sounds really simple at first, but there’s a lot of different ways this goal is achieved: some shows simply keep retelling the same basic story in an effort to draw in new viewers as the season moves forward, while other shows try to tell as many different types of stories as possible in order to convince viewers that unpredictable and expansive are two very important adjectives in judging a new series.

However, what I’m finding really interesting about Buffy is that it seems to be both patient and impatient, willing to spend time on what one would consider “throwaway” episodes in “Witch” and “Teacher’s Pet” but then shifting gears entirely by diving head first into the complexities of the Angel mythos with two of the following episodes (“Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” and “Angel”). Rather than these two episodes each feeling like an individual component of the series’ premise being revealed, “Never Kill a Boy…” and “Angel” are really like a two-parter (divided by “The Pack,” which was pretty nondescript and “standalone”): the first establishes the challenges of living a double life, while the second extends that particular theme to a more interesting and thematically complex place.

It’s a place that I know is the starting point for a fairly major component in the rest of the series, but I admit to being a little bit distracted by how its meaning has been altered by new points of reference that have emerged in the thirteen years since the episodes aired.

Continue reading

18 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

The Cultural Catchup Project: Story and Scale in Hellmouth and Harvest (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“Story and Scale in Hellmouth and Harvest”

April 10th, 2010

[This is the first in a series of posts over the next few months as I catch up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel for the first time. For more information about the project, click here. You can follow along with the 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 hosting a link to each installment.]

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).

Continue reading

71 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project