SD/TV 14/09/2008 – Buffy Ends, Prison Break Starts, And Dara O’Briain Rocks

Left it a little late this week, so that we could put Buffy Season 3 to bed.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the shows I’ve talked about, or what I’ve said in the comments.

Buffy Season 3: 19-22

So we finished watching Season 3 of Buffy yesterday… that last episode was pretty much what delayed me posting this, in fact – the last three episodes are so closely tied into each other that carrying over one of them into next week seemed silly.

As I’m sure I’ve said a few times over the last few weeks, Season 3 really was a great season, and I think probably a little better then I remembered. A friend of mine said yesterday that in fact, a lot of what people remember so fondly about the show comes from this season, and a little of Season 2, and I have to agree – this is where Whedon’s tactic of mixing a longer arc with one-part stories, and of subtly weaving themes through a season, really paid off for the first time, and arguably it never got this good again.

That wasn’t the only thing that made this an important season, though. The groundwork for much of what is good about future seasons is laid right here, as well as – and I’d never quite got this before – most of what works in Angel, at least in the first season. I had always thought that Angel got a lot cooler and more interesting in his own show, but almost every behaviour and motivation he has in it is established and accounted for in this season.

I can’t say too much more along that particular line – Girl One still hasn’t seen the future Buffy seasons, and I don’t want to spoiler it for her – except to say that every effort that goes into establishing Buffy as an independent party, with her reliance on Giles as a Watcher being chipped away and then formally removed completely in this season, plays into the next season perfectly. Because of course, with the High School setting and all that that symbolises graduated from, literally and metaphorically at the climax of this season, Giles’ role has to fundamentally change.

His, and Xander’s too – and it’s interesting to note the phases that Xander goes through in Season 3, with him and us questioning his role in the team – because it’s the last chance Whedon had to explore this as an emotional theme; Xander isn’t just distanced by his position in the team next season, but also by his lack of proximity to the main action.

The show never quite has another villain as successful as the Mayor again, either – which isn’t to say that there aren’t worse threats – just none of them are delivered with quite such style and subtle menace as Harry Groener brings to proceedings. It’s really been a joy to watch his wholesome monster dominate every scene he’s been in again.

0319 – Choices: This is the point at which this season really becomes all about the major arc, as Faith secures a box for the Mayor that will be important to his ascension, and Buffy and friends try to retrieve it. From this point in, every episode furthers that Ascension plot a little more.

This is where later seasons fall down a little, actually – this is possibly the most a season arc can be allowed to dominate, and it’s heavily loaded toward the back part of the season. Although at this point the Faith’s arrival and Angel’s return storylines seem inextricably tied in to the broader plot, the fact is that they were very distinct arcs that feed into the main story, but can be viewed seperately. The season as a whole has been very varied, though at this point it’s hard to remember that this is the season that featured “The Wish”, “The Zeppo” and “Band Candy”. Later seasons tend towards relying too much on the major arcs, and while this makes them fun for anyone already into the show by this point, it does make it a little difficult for potential new viewers to get involved, or even casual viewing of future episodes for committed fans!

Anyway, about this episode: Although everyone gets involved in the plot to retrieve the box – and in fact, there is a notable scene in which everyone who hasn’t already come face to face with Mayor Wilkins encounters him, and he is gloriously polite and cruel – this really feels more like a Willow episode.

It happens quietly, but this is the point where Willow’s role in the show from here on in solidifies – it begins with her being offerend University places by prestigious institutions all over the world, and soon finds her in deeper danger than we’ve seen before, captured by Wilkins and Faith. She handles herself heroically in that situation, and the episode ends with her and Buffy discussing the future, and Willow stating her position to want to stay in Sunnydale, where she can do some good.

Whedon spends a lot of time over the course of “Angel” exploring the meaning of heroism, and in fact the idea of the hero as an archetype – in some ways this episode is an early exploration of that theme, as what Willow is really doing here is formalising her part in the show’s pantheon of heroes.

In a lot of ways, this is one of the central themes of this particular season – Willow has been playing the part of neophyte Wiccan since the first episode, and “The Zeppo” went some way to establish Xander’s role in the team, as unseen but vital. The characters have always done their best, and have always been “heroes” with a small “h”, but there’s always been a tacit understanding that this is just what they do, alongside being high school kids. What Willow decides in this episode is that this is a role that she wants to take as a grown up.

0320 – The Prom: With the show’s main focal point being the high-school experience for seasons 1 through 3, it’s understandable that prom night would be an important event for it’s characters. This episode’s central threat is a small and daft one – a bit of a show trope, actually, as they often include a ‘monster of the week’ threat as little more than a mcguffin to get the characters where they need to be, either physically or emotionally, for the actual developments that need to happen at that point.

In this case, a disillusioned student decided to destroy the prom using monsters that he has summoned. This character’s motivation is never really deeply explored, and actually, watching through them again may prove me wrong, but I wonder if this wasn’t a shift in the way that the show dealt with it’s villains – It feels like earlier episodes spent more time empathising with any of it’s student-turned-monster/lunatic characters, but post “Earshot”, I don’t recall that happening so much. It’s possible that giving Jonathan a motive for suicide in that episode, and the continuing arc that Faith goes along throughout this season, caps off most of what Whedon felt he had to say about why normal people do bad things…

Anyway, alongside this low-risk threat, lots of information gets crammed into this episode. Either this was when the writers realised that they hadn’t set everything up for season’s end, and what would happen next season, yet, or they made the decision to keep these developments back as late as possible, to keep them from complicating the main plotlines.

Whatever the case, major developments are in line for Xander, Anya – who at this point was still only a supporting character, but was clearly being positioned for something more – and Cordelia – setting up Cordy for the part she will play the following year, and at the same time giving some closure to her troubles with Xander. It’s also the point at which Joyce Summers convinces Angel that the right thing for him to do is leave Buffy and Sunnydale behind – a thread that has been building all season, but hasn’t been spoken out-loud until this point.

It’s also the point at which Buffy comes to terms with her often difficult time at high-school, in a final scene on Prom night which should be shmaltzy, but is actually quite affecting. As part of the prize-giving, a new award is given to her by all of her classmates, who despite the discomfort that has often been visited upon her by them, have quietly noticed what she does for them. Given the prize of “class protector”, this is probably the only time that Buffy ever gets to bask in the traditional role of a society’s hero, held aloft by her peers. And of course, it happens practically at the end of her high-school life. There’s that feeling again, that this is the end of an era, which is clearly how Whedon feels about high-school.

Admittedly, it’s kind of how everyone else feels about it too.

0321 – Graduation Day Part 1: All of which positions Buffy in an odd place for the final ascension of the Mayor. Mingling with the feeling of finishing their high-school lives – perhaps for the first time on a level with their peers in a way that is defined by an early scene in this episode concerning yearbooks – the Scooby gang are faced with the certain knowledge that their graduation is also going to spell doom for them, and their entire graduating class.

By means of distraction, the Mayor commissions Faith to poison Angel, which she does, and at odds with the impending threat, Buffy and co spend most of this episode trying to find a cure for him. This puts her first at odds with Wesley and the Council of Watchers, and then with Faith. Both of these confrontations are pivotal in Buffy’s life.

The first sees her formally seperating from the Council, and very much becoming her own Slayer, and at the same time sowing the seeds of her newly defined relationship with Giles, who to be honest hasn’t done very much these last few episodes except scowl at Wesley, when he backs her up in the argument.

Then, there’s her showdown with Faith. The plot motivation is that to save Angel required the blood of a slayer, but frankly, once Buffy realises that Faith is responsible for her lover’s condition, very little would have stopped her going after her anyway. We’ve seen these two fight before, but the difference this time is the stakes – Buffy intends to kill Faith this time out, and not only does this make for some great fight-coreography (although to be honest, the show’s coreographers always do a great job on Buffy/Faith scraps), it also represents the first time that Buffy uses lethal force against another human. Thematically, this is Buffy crossing the line that seperates her and Faith, and Gellar plays this particularly well, as does Dushku, who has done a pretty impressive job of making her character seem like something more than paper-thin all season.

A solid episode, that carries the perfect amount of dread, anticipation and peril into the season finale.

0322 – Graduation Day Part 2: Which is explosive. For a start, Buffy fails to get Faith, which means that she has to force Angel to save himself using her own blood. As well as making for impressively sexy TV, this leads quickly into a rush to hospital, where a weak Buffy is coincidentally placed in an adjoining room to a comatose Faith.

Boreanaz plays the part incredibly well of a concerned and shameful lover. And when a furious Mayor, played with true and convincing menace for one of only a handful of times by Groener, assaults the unconscious Buffy, Angel faces him down in a heavily dramatic and quite violent scene.

Bleeding Buffy sets Angel back at odds with a Scooby Gang only just starting to come round to trusting him again, and realistically enough, he feels so ashamed himself that he doesn’t feel capable of explaining that she forced the decision on him.

And after one of Whedon’s signature meaningful dream sequences, a recovering Buffy is back in the game, with IDEAS!

How Whedon deals with the tying up of all of the season threads is typically ingenious and thrilling, and it really is exciting to watch. As well as this, the episode ends on a reflective note, fittingly lead by Seth Green’s Oz, the quietly poetic brain of the group, summing it all up – they have survived – not the ascension, but high school. Everything is different from here on in, and I guess Whedon knew it already.

Prison Break Season 3: 13/Season 4: 01-02
For some reason we took our sweet time watching the final part of season 3 of Prison Break, thinking it was just another episode leading into a short hiatus. This meant that when the new series aired, we had to catch up on that last episode before watching the first two new ones.

This was a peculiar experience. The last series was cut drastically short by the writers’ strike – from 22 episodes to 13 – and this has in some ways broken the beginning of the new season. Everything about the first episode of the new season kind of makes sense, if you go on the assumption that it was meant to happen over those missing nine episodes, but instead the showrunners have opted to just have a whole bunch of pertinent stuff happen off-camera.

What this means, in a series that really is all about the journey more than the destination, and that occupies itself with the complex minutae of planning, cause and effect, is that we’re left with a peculiar and jarring gap in the story. It’s already been an established fact of the show that if you don’t see it happening, then it probably didn’t – no matter what the characters think – so this narrative gap that you’re given the impression will never be filled causes more dissonance then you’d expect.

There’s what ends up being a convoluted but ultimately necessary shift of focus in the fourth season, but that first step is such an awkward one, in a show that relies so much on buy-in by the audience, I hope the suspension of disbelief isn’t permanently dislodged.

0313 – The Art Of The Deal: Certainly, this episode is classic Prison Break. It’s difficult to review one episode of the show individually, because at least at this point it was still so consistent, and each part of the story fit so well with every other, that it was like reviewing a chapter of a book rather than the whole book.

Every character is well presented, and this episode features the culmination of a plan that had been well established throughout the rest of the season, so that’s all present and correct. Also, the beginnings of what was obviously supposed to be a quite dramatic and intense second half of the season are all there – Michael released from Sona, and now with only one mission – the death of Gretchen Morgan. This mission, of course, almost certain to put him at odds with his brother Lincoln, who would probably have just wanted to fade away into a quiet life with his son and new lover. And the trials of the ever loyal Sucre, now stranded inside a Sona run by the always unpredictable and chaotic T Bag, his only potential ally the never quite redeemed, always pathetic Bellick.

As well as this there was the enigmatic thread of Whistler, who allies himself with the increasingly sympathetic Mahone – as always brilliantly realised by William Fichtner – in this episode, ready to work for Gretchen.

This was a decent half-season closer. It was never supposed to be a finale, but it does an alright job of stepping up to the plate on that score – there’s plenty resolved, but plenty more left to achieve, and it’s all so beautifully shot and solidly acted that it’s a joy to watch.

0401 – Scylla: … And this season opener is just as beautifully filmed, and well acted, albeit in a more traditional urban US landscape.

The problem is that it has too much to achieve, and as such kind of ends up as a bit of a non-episode. A brief voice-over tries to establish where the main character is and what he’s up to, and by extension explain what some of the others have been up to, but it feels like just that – all exposition, no actual action.

Which is bizarre, because loads happens in this episode, and loads more is supposed to have happened between the last episode and this one. But in a show so used to letting the broader story breathe, focusing on the details and building up with appropriate pomp to the big events, this rapid-fire running through of major plot points feels bizarrely like the stuff happening in front of your eyes are actually being told in flashback.

The catch-up session slows down just long enough to introduce two new characters who may pan out to be interesting – Michael Rapaport as Donald Self, a Department of Homeland Security agent who may just turn out to be the first authority figure to genuinely take the key protagonists’ side, and Cress Williams plays Wyatt, a vicious agent of the company who may just take on Season 1′s agent Kellerman in the ruthlessness stakes.

Certainly, Wyatt thus far is allowed more successes than Gretchen ever has been, despite not being nearly as engaging a character. In fact, it’s possible that this is where the story will help a character’s perception by the audience. Gretchen was easily dangerous enough and ruthless enough as a show villain, but season 3 didn’t give a person in that role all that much to do – she had one basic task to perform, and that task relied almost entirely on Michael doing what he’d been told.

So far, Wyatt has had lots of little tasks that he has needed to complete to try and achieve his big one, and this has meant many small successes, where Gretchen basically found herself on the bad side of failure in the one repeated big one.

The other thing about this episode that doesn’t really work – quite aside from the very sudden dissolution of all of the Sona storylines – is the big revelation that someone we might have thought was dead actually wasn’t. As much as this was kind of always a possibility, the way this big reveal is handled, in the jumble of all the other plot points, is a little bit contemptuous of the work that the showrunners put in to build the plotline in the first place. Either create a big mystery and have it play out over a few episodes, or just have the character suddenly appear without any clues to the audience, but don’t misfire the whole thing in the space of twenty minutes… that’s just dumb.

And on the same line – as I’ve said, it’s an established rule that if they’re going to kill someone off in this show, we’re going t see it happen – a quick cut away from a death means that the death didn’t happen. Showing the audience the most blunt and definitive evidence of this and then having a similar kind of non-death happen to Gretchen within the same span of minutes isn’t going to misdirect anyone…

0402 – Breaking And Entering: … Because of course, in this episode, it turns out she’s still alive, and being tortured – another mainstay of the show.

Still, this episode isn’t a bad shot at returning to form. For a start, T-Bag is back on hard-luck, fucked up form, having been worked over and left in the desert. There’s a laugh-out-loud horrible chain of events happening to the man, that almost make you feel sorry for him, as if you weren’t already all sorried out after the misery the world has already visited on the man after three seasons, and the fact that, you know, he’s about the most degenerate scumbag TV has ever seen.

As it stands, I’m kind of hoping that we’ll get to see T-Bag on form – he hasn’t really been on the top of the pile since midway through Season 2, and for someone who can normally read people so well – he I believe correctly suggests that he and Michael have more in common than the latter thinks, because T-Bag himself is pretty good at reading a situation and planning for eventualities – I feel both the other characters and the writers underestimate him regularly.

The central plot of the episode is fairly solid, too, and the introduction of Self as a catalyst for Michael to plan elaborate jobs in the outside world is a fair one, although I gather it is putting a few noses out of joint among the show’s audience.

Wyatt continues to give a fair account of himself as a truly horrible bastard – we’re given a scene that reflects the death of LJ’s parents in season 1, when he visits Mahone’s wife and son. And of course, as is becoming obvious, my favourite actor in this show is William Fichtner, who plays his scenes perfectly, building a perfectly realised character out of someone who was once a key monster in the show.

Dara O’Briain – Live At The Theatre Royal

Just a quick note about this show – we watched it last night, and it was easily the funniest stand-up show I’ve seen in a few years.

Dara O’Briain has, thanks to his role as host on “Mock The Week”, become one of my favourite TV personalities in the last few months, but I’ve primarily known him as a genial and often sharply intelligent quizmaster. I knew he’d done stand-up, but what I didn’t realise was quite how good he was.

O’Briain starts the show over the tannoy, by announcing himself. Both he and the BBC link-man mention this as unusual, and I wonder what the purpose to it is – at first, you suspect that it might be a quirk, a bit of a handover from the days when he was working much smaller venues, but then you consider that it might be the only way he can be sure that his surname will be pronounced properly.

The first thing that strikes you about his show is how generous he is with his audience. The first half of the act is dominated by interaction with the audience, but unlike other comedians, O’Briain doesn’t simply use the audience members’ discomfort as fuel for his own onstage ego – he builds his act almost seamlessly on the fly around what the responses are to his questions, and stops long enough on each respondee to make you feel that he is considering what they’ve said, rather than trying to work out the quickest route back to his material.

Having said that, he is never sycophantic, and the sense you get is of a very keen and independent thinker, who happens to be really, really bloody funny.

It’s been a while since I’ve laughed in such a sustained fashion that I’ve felt myself struggling to breathe. In fact, there was a point there were Girl One could have found that Dara O’Briain might have been responsible for the premature demise of her beloved old man of a boyfriend. It didn’t escape my notice that at the time when O’Briain filmed the show in 2006, he was actually younger than I am now – in fact, there’s under a year and a half between the two of us.

But of course, he’s performing audience-smashing shows at the Theatre Royal, and I’m just staying up till half past midnight talking about him doing it.