SD/TV 22/08/2008 – Vagina Kill House, and Buffy’s So Called Life

We watch a lot of TV. Okay, so it’s mostly boxsets and such, but I figure, there’s plenty of note to make for a weekly post, so here we go!

Buffy Season 3: 01-06

Prior to meeting me, Girl One had never watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and in an atypical show of geek righteousness, I took it upon myself to correct this problem.

I had always remembered this as a show that hit the ground running; that got it right from the first episode on. I was fairly certain that I had re-watched the whole lot often enough to confirm this opinion.

So it was with a mixture of shock and embarrassment that I pushed her on through the first season. Because, finally, after years of standing up to scrutiny, we found that the ravages of time were starting to show, and the first season was just kinda clunky.

To be fair to Whedon and the cast, they catch up to themselves pretty quickly, and the characters had started to win her over by around the final third of that first season, so that by the end, she was eager to move onto Season 2. I think this was also in part down to the demise of the Master, who, despite being excellently played, remained too much of a throwback to horror tradition that didn’t sit well with the wise-cracking and high-school awkwardness that made the show great.

Also, the music. I choose to think that the dreadful melodramatic incidental organ music that swamped most of the actual incidents in the first season was never part of Whedon’s plan.

The other problem, of course, was that everything that Whedon did with this show was pretty much being done for the first time, in such a prominent, mainstream-leaning arena. By now, it’s been aped so many times, what was once ground-breaking has become somewhat meh.

But still, Season 2 was excellent, and had Girl One riveted, and Season 3 so far has been just as good.

And it’s not surprising, really, when you look at what happens in just these first few episodes. We get the introduction of Faith, who was a lot less annoying in these first appearances than I remember her being. We get the introduction of the Mayor, and with it the higher prominence of Principal Snyder, who is wickedly played by Armin Shimmerman. Seth Green joins the cast properly, just in time for Willow and Xander’s friendship to turn a little weird. And there are some heartbreaking scenes between Buffy and her friends and Joyce, who has found out some stuff that she might have been better off not knowing.

These episodes in full:

0301 – Anne: I remember this episode being frustrating when it first aired, presenting as it does what feels like a filler episode when ’98 Nick wanted a return to his beloved series. However, watching it with the benefit of DVD-provided instant gratification, it’s actually a pretty important installment, and in some ways the storyteller in me would have liked to see Buffy and her friends seperated for a little longer.

0302 – Dead Man’s Party: This is the episode with all the awkwardness and confrontation that comes out of Buffy’s return, after disappearing for so long, and some of it is played so well, and with so much heart by the cast, that it really is awkward and sad for the viewer. There are also some great gags, some cool monster moments – in this episode, ZOMBIES! – and the first appearance of Jonathan this season so far!

(Watching season 2 again, I was surprised to find that Jonathan is in a lot more episodes than I had remembered.)

0303 – Faith, Hope and Trick: The first appearance of Faith, which as I’ve mentioned was surprisingly less irritating than I remembered it. I suspect that actually, she isn’t a bad character at all, but her popularity probably made me react quite badly to her. I might even have felt the same way about Spike for a while. Also, I had completely forgotten about Buffy’s beau, Scott Hope, who is in this and the next few episodes. Which when you consider how few romances she gets, is a little odd.
Buffy’s unwillingness to talk about what happened with Angel at the close of the last season is well done, as is Giles’ paternal irritation at Willow, and empathic behaviour towards Buffy.

0304 – Beauty and the Beasts: An Oz episode! The subplot that drives the main plot in this episode is a fairly standard Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde story with a high-school twist, but I love any episode that brings Oz front and center, and of course, that also means added Willow cuteness! It’s just a shame werewolves are so hard to do without them looking dumb, but the show does it’s best, and we liked this episode a lot.

0305 – Homecoming: Another episode that brings Buffy and Cordelia head to head with each other, but ends with them gaining a fresh understanding of yadda yadda… There are flaws in this one, but only really finicky ones. Through a few slightly skewed motivational tricks, and a bit of odd writing, Cordelia is back to being a bitch, and Buffy is in the mood to take her on. This particular turn of events might have made more sense if Cordy hadn’t been softened up so much in the last dozen episodes, but as it turns out it doesn’t matter all that much – there’s some great fun with Slayerfest ’98, and a really very cool Cordelia scene near the end. And this is the first time we meet the Mayor of Sunnydale, after numerous mentions last season, and he’s just ginchy.

0306 – Band Candy: One of those utterly stupid high-concept episodes that Buffy throws at you every now and then. As often happens, though, it gives the opportunity for some really interesting character scenes, as well as some excellent funny moments. I can’t help but love Anthony Stewart Head’s Ripper persona, even though as an Englishman I should be horrified by how much he hams it up.

Generation Kill: 01 – Get Some

I am such a huge fan of The Wire it is untrue, so I jumped at the chance to watch the first episode of David Simon’s new series, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Based on a book of the same name, Generation Kill follows a Rolling Stone reporter embedded with the 1st Recon Marines during the first-wave of 2003’s assault on Baghdad.

And based on this episode, the series is going to take the same unvarnished, realistically-paced approach to the story that The Wire did. Nothing about the show is easy – dialogue is delivered as informally and as lingo-heavy as you’d expect, and it’s testament to the excellent writing that Girl One and I still found ourselves utterly absorbed, and never lost in what was happening, despite this.

The difference here, of course, is the subject matter. Although it probably shouldn’t be the case, inner-city crime and decay, and political and police corruption and incompetence, are just not going to be the draw that soldiers and war are, and also aren’t going to cause the same controversy. I’d be interested to hear how well received this series is in the US, because the portrayal of the Marines is not as wholesome as they might be used to seeing portrayed.

However, they aren’t vilified, either – in fact, the script and actors here give a great portrayal of a young and eager squad driven by a heady mix of testosterone and boredom, and there isn’t anything shown that isn’t reasonably easy to imagine, from a similarly aged group of men thrown in to their situation from anywhere in the world.

The one thing that we do see, though, is how badly prepared they are for the conflict that they are entering – not as individuals, but by their government. Throughout this first episode, the simple problem of not being provided batteries for their night-vision goggles recurs. However, we see, in a frankly hilarious and unflinching scene, that they do still get the regular deliveries of apparently unwelcome greetings and heartfelt letters from schoolkids across the US.

As mentioned before, two of the recurring themes here are frustration and boredom, but to Simon’s credit, the narrative never gets boring or frustrating itself. Interesting moments are picked out among the daily drudge, as the Marines wait to be sent into action, and while the cinematography in The Wire always made the best of Baltimore’s run-down city-scapes and the mannerisms of it’s cast, here the framing and choice of shots is just beautiful. You forget that you’re watching a TV series, and the production values are reminiscent of Band Of Brothers.

We are looking forward to more, fo’ sho’.

The Perfect Vagina

Not a lot to say about this, beyond that it was train-wreck TV that happened to be on when we’d finished watching something else, and we stuck at it.

To sum it up, it was an edumentary… a piece of docutainment? What are we supposed to call those programmes that pretend to be documentary but carry no objectivity whatsoever, and seem to solely exist to rope audiences in with a sensationalistic premise, so that they can watch the host either lose their temper or cry, or in some cases, both?

It’s one of those.

However, I still kind of fancy Lisa Rogers – and even though she really struggles with the documentary aspect of the programme, she gives good empathy, so that I, at least, still think that the issues of body-image and taboo that were brought up here were important, if not well-serviced here.

Actually, that’s not all that fair. Despite the poppy nature of the programme, there were still situations and issues brought to light in it that we hadn’t really thought about before, and that are really important, so from that point of view it was almost worthwhile viewing. And I’m a huge fan of vaginas; I like talking about them, I like looking at them. So there’s that.

The only real issue I did have with it was that the final segment took a bizarre segue away from the subject of body image and cosmetic surgery, and into that of the practice by some Muslim girls of getting their hymens fixed, to avoid shame and in some cases violence from their families on the event of them getting married, and past experiences discovered.

I’m not saying that this isn’t a really important issue – in fact, I’d argue that it makes some of the other problems raised in the show seem a bit trivial. But it really is a subject deserving of a broader and deeper view, centered as it is in a set of social and cultural problems more than in cosmetic or aesthetic ones, and attached as it is to the end of this show it comes off as at best irrelevant, and at worst deliberate and misplaced controversy seeking.

House Season 1: 01 – Pilot

Yes, yes, we hadn’t seen House yet. But after reading Rol’s love-letter to the show recently, I had to give it a try.

This was no big hardship. Girl One and I both really like Hugh Laurie, and we’re always happy to sit in front of some well-made (and sometimes not all that well-made) American drama.

I already knew that House himself was a bit of a misanthrope, from hearing about the series, but I didn’t really know quite how funny it was going to be.

Add to that a bit of genuine medical mystery and investigation, a little philosophy from the titular character that I am sympathetic to, because it follows my own pragmatic beliefs, and an honest-to-god acting job from Robin Tunney as the series’ first patient – I know, who knew she could even manage it, after her performances in Prison Break (which this actually predates) and “End Of Days”?

Some of the supporting characters do an adequate job in this first episode, but are clearly still finding their feet, and look a little faint next to Laurie’s star, but I think they’ll start coming into their own before long. Already doing fine is Lisa Edelstein, who hits the ground running with a great performance as House’s boss, and is the only member of the cast who really seems to be able to hold her own with Laurie at this point.

I’m already really fond of Edelstein, after she did such a good job as Sam Seaborn’s prostitute friend in The West Wing, and I always felt a little sad that the only other thing I’d seen her in was as the recurring character Cindy in Ally Mcbeal, who had changed from a man to a woman. The rather unfair statement that seemed to be being made was that her prominent jaw made her a fit for the part, and while the whole storyline was very well done, I never really bought her as a sex-change.

My So Called Life Season 1: 01 – Pilot

Girl One mentioned this recently, and I remembered loving it. We both have an ongoing lust for Claire Danes that probably began when this show aired, so when I saw the complete series box-set cheap at Amazon, I had to get it.

After watching the Pilot, I’m a little shell-shocked.

It’s a superbly made show, considering the target audience, and the vast amount of other teen shows that aren’t. Though many of the teen characters are, if not irritating, at least fairly self-important and self-absorbed in this first episode, you start to get the feeling that it is deliberate, rather than a tragic lack of judgement by the cast and crew. Even by the end of this first episode we see Danes’ character Angela begin to take a more mature view of the way that she has been treating the people around her, as she tries to find her own place, and I get the feeling that this will be a recurring theme throughout.

It’s also interesting to see how different expected behaviour and social/parental behaviour was in 1994 when this was made – A big fuss is made of Angela’s dyed hair, where now, in England at least, girls her age are tattooed and pierced in excess. It’s not the watered down reality of the suburban US show, though – I recall similar problems faced by my sister when she did the same years back.

Claire Danes does a quite impressive job of bringing depth to Angela, so that when she does begin to show weakness in the third act of the episode, the viewer feels genuine sympathy for her, despite her bratty behaviour throughout the first two thirds.

And I remember an affinity with her dorky next-door neighbour which bordered on primal – I hadn’t recalled him at all until his first appearance in the background of a scene, and suddenly memories flooded back.

But it isn’t any of that that has left me surprised. What I find really bewildering is how well realised the adults, their relationships, and their reactions to the teens are in the show. This is something that entirely passed me by, watching it as a lad of 21 – which, yes, now that I think about it was probably still too old to have a thing about Claire Danes at the time.

Angela’s parents have an utterly real relationship, full of conflicted love and weird little passive-aggressive power-plays – as a viewer, you find yourself sucker-punched by the reversal of their positions in the story, although it is utterly believable. And one of the most telling moments occurs in the change of expression on a policeman’s face when he hears something in Angela’s words that she is too young to really hear herself.

All in all, I’m impressed that we still enjoyed the show – there is some cringe-worthy writing on Angela’s behalf, but somehow you accept it as just being part of the experience of being a teen, and being oh-so-sensitive.

I’m not sorry I bought it. But, you know, it was cheap, wasn’t it? I’m not a complete ingrate.