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July 30, 2012

Midnight Top Five - The "What I've Been Learning From Buffy and Angel" Edition

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Buffy The Vampire Slayer the movie because a) I love it, and b) I was watching a bunch of it.  And that's pretty much where I'm still at.  I think I'm in "I'm late to the party so I better hurry up and get as much partying in as I can before some drunk person makes everything awkward and things crash to an uncomfortable halt" mode.  I was about halfway through Season Three when I did that, and I had things to say that were kind of like this...
After powerhousing through the vastly improved season two (and now about half of season three) in recent weeks, I've certainly changed my position on television's Buffy.  I still struggle with some of the characters and it seems like there are more episodes where Buffy slays non-vampires than vampires, but it's got the same balance between goofy fun and serious drama (that refuses to be affected by an outlandish premise) that I've come to expect from the other things I've seen from Whedon. Sometimes I think that the way to tell if a TV show is great is to see whether or not you will continue to be addicted to the show when you wish the writers would change the characters' decisions or relationships.  For example, when you have to deal with Casey and Dana never working out on Sports Night or when Veronica Mars continues to choose the stupidest boyfriends ever (and manages to get roofied approximately 27 times) - but you stick with them anyway.  The Buffy Show passes that test with flying colors, because there are so many moments - particularly so far in season three - where I find myself thinking "Oh Buffy! What you doin' girl?!" or "Man, Xander just needs to never open his mouth again!". I think these things, but I'm still desperate to see where the show goes next and am already ready to forgive the characters as soon as they do something to totally redeem themselves.
Seriously, I wrote all of that in a review of something that wasn't what I was talking about...and now I have more to say. I'm almost done with Season Five of Buffy and Season Two of Angel - and boy, do I have things to say about Angel - so here's the first Midnight Top Five I've put together in a long while.  It might even end up with a Part 2 some day.
Top Five Things I've Learned From Buffy and Angel
It's OK for the Hero to NOT be Super Perfect
When Kristy Swanson was Buffy (which I will henceforth refer to as "Buffy 1.0"), the character was a flawed hero.  But she wasn't a serious flawed hero, she was comically flawed.  It was all "Oh ha! She cares too much about her hair and says what if!" imperfections, and the movie worked as a comedy because of it.  But the question I had as I dove into more Buffy - I still have next to no memory of Season 1, which might say something about Season 1 - I kept asking myself how a "serious" take on the teenage girl turned slayer could work while keeping Buffy acting like a "Buffy".  (Is there an Urban Dictionary definition for a Buffy? I probably don't want to know if there is, but to me the name - pre-Slayer - equates to aloofness.)

Sarah Michelle Gellar's "Buffy 2.0" definitely lacks the "Valley Girl" tendencies of her predecessor.  Sure, there are passing references to her shopping days and that weird moment when she wants to be Homecoming Queen, but this version of the Buffster is much smarter, darker, and more emotional than her precursor.  And yet, she remains decidedly imperfect.
The catch is that this Buffy, like I alluded to in the quoted article, makes some really dumb decisions. I don't mean this in the "horror movie character running up the stairs or dropping the knife" sense of dumb, I mean this in an interpersonal sense of dumb.  The thing is, this show is almost entirely about the interactions between the characters, and almost all of them are allowed to make plenty of mistakes by the writers.  We've got couples who cheat on each other, secrets being kept, and hidden powers, and no one on the show seems to be less-than-truthful more often Than Buffy.

When I commented that I sometimes wished the characters would change their decisions or relationships, I was thinking particularly of Buffy.  There are so many moments when I find myself looking at the screen and thinking 'Dammit Buffy, you're messing everything up again and being totally selfish" - like that time when she spent half a season obsessed with sexing a doofus or that time when she completely ignored Giles forever - and yet I recognize that her errors are incredibly human ones.  When I made an off-hand comment about Buffy's selfishness one time, I was immediately redirected that "she's earned" the chance to make some mistakes.  I'm not sure I entirely agree with that - there are times when she still lacks decency - but the show goes a long way to allow her flaws to be a part of the character arc. It's really fantastic to see a show give a heroic character so many inadequacies.
You Don't Have To Follow Monster Stereotypes
As a horror addict, it's easy to become a purist.  One of the things we struggle with the most is when someone changes the mythology or look or actions of one of our precious monsters.  Buffy and Angel balance on a fine line in this regard, using the "Chinese buffet" strategy with horror mythology- they take what they want and leave the rest.

For example, vampire staples are present throughout the Buffyverse.  Vamps can't enter homes without permission (and MAN, they use this as often as they can), wooden stakes through the heart kill them, and - obviously - they drink blood and can turn others into vampires.  But these vamps take on a lot of new forms, most notably the crinkled brow form as shown above, and the shows rarely feel like they're borrowing from things we've seen before. 

The "other" creatures - ranging from demons to ghosts to werewolves and more - that we encounter in the land of Buffy and Angel also seem to have new twists on old formulas.  There are still moments that make me cringe - the first werewolf transformation we see had me muttering 'Well, we all can't be Rick Baker" sarcastically - but both shows manage to keep things fresh by peppering in different takes on common monsters as they need to. One fantastic example is "Adam", who takes on a lead role in Season 4, a sort of Frankenstein with a deep, yet reasonable voice, and a very unique look and skill set.  Despite the floppy disk drive - one of the rare things that really shows the series' age - he's a neat twist on horror standards.
That Spike Character is Really Quite Something
Considering the fact that Buffy the Vampire Slayer seemed to exist as one of those teenage girl shows when it came out - one could argue that it had the exact same intentions as Twilight with none of the terrible incompetence - and I was a teenage boy when the show came out, a character who looked like Spike was part of the reason I didn't watch the show at time. There was football to be played and nacho cheese to be eaten, and I was just not going to go out of my way to watch a show about a teenage girl (even if it is a teenage girl I had a MAJOR teenage crush on) be wooed by vampires with bleached hair in leather jackets.  Yes, that's more the fault of the other guy I'm getting ready to talk about, but Spike's image seemed to sell the fact that Buffy was not for me to that younger and more "we must beat our chests and watch large men fight while being manly" than I am now.

But now that I'm an adult, it's come to my attention that Spike is the best thing about whichever show he's on 97% of the time.  James Marsters brings so much to the show every time he shows up, and I actually find myself rooting for more Spike every time I turn on Buffy.  The chip - an incredibly contrived idea that the writers continue to run with - was seriously the best thing to happen to Spike, because the writers suddenly have the ability to put the character into a crossover role that exists somewhere between being in the "Scooby Gang" and being the "Big Bad".  Spike is one of the more fluid television characters I know of, and the comedic stylings of Marsters - which start with the disconnect between his British accent and his stupid blonde hair - help make Spike completely entertaining in his role.
Now About That Angel Character...
I find Spike entertaining because of the freedom that his character is allowed.  Angel, on the other hand, is a character that I find completely fascinating because of his character's arc.  I started watching Angel - the show - as an afterthought, because I really didn't care that much about Angel - the character - while he was a love interest for Buffy.  There were moments when I was really in to the character (most of which seemed to occur while he was in vampire mode) during his Buffy run, but the whole dynamic between Buffy and him seriously derailed the show sometimes.  I think that was probably intentional and probably what I was supposed to care about, but I often found myself in "stop with the Romeo and Juliet and get back to fighting demons and showing off Eliza Dushku's hotness" mode instead.

When the switch to Angel the show happened, however, I was surprised to find myself completely trapped in his spin-off show.  David Boreanaz, like Marsters, shows the most range of anyone in the cast. He plays both sides of the equation well: his uncomfortable good guy is humorous and relatable, while his vampiric bad side is imposing and effective.  The good guy side is part of what really drew me in to season one of Angel - basically, Boreanaz is allowed to be an introvert superhero, something introverts like me can definitely smile at - and the twists with his character so far in season two - including a fantastic moment where he is thought to be "something different" by his opponents - do a lot for the show.  Buffy still seems like the more complete show so far - the "family" relationships between the characters elevate it to a special place - but I've found myself incredibly interested in most episodes of Angel thus far.
(Not one of the Five things, but I'd be a fool to not mention how much Charisma Carpenter's Cordelia brings to each show as well.  She has gone from vain gal to comic relief to soul-of-the-show thus far, and I've really enjoyed what I thought was first a throwaway high school stereotype character.  It's safe to say that the three characters that really draw me in to these shows - Spike, Angel, and Cordelia - are the three who have kept me most interested in their changing paths through their journey.)
By The Way...You Don't Need a R Rating to do Horror
I already knew this, but it bears repeating.  You simply do not need to be a gory, nudity-filled, and foul-mouthed thing to be an effective piece of horror.  Both Buffy and Angel are simply TV-14 - the television equivalent of PG-13 that's one louder - but they manage to be decidedly adult with their themes at times.  Buffy has lots of sexual scenes (many of which feed into that title character's flaws) that push the boundaries of what can be shown on TV, while the writing of Joss Whedon and pals always seems to find inventive ways to hurl insults and exclaim curses without actually using curse words.

And then there's the violence.  Sure, the shows both needed to cut a few corners to stay on network television, but they manage to show the things they need to show.  Blood flows from wounds often and dismemberments are a common theme.  There are some subtle and fantastic effects - one character in season two of Angel shows off an awesomely floppy neck wound that reminds me of Griffin Dunne in An American Werewolf in London.  And - most impressive to me - there's a kill near the end of season two of Buffy that is one of the coolest and most memorable I've ever seen.  The camera actually cuts back from the brisk moment of vampire violence (if you've seen the show, you might have guessed I'm talking about the moment pictured above - especially since I posted the picture), but the moment is presented beautifully.  The movement of the actors, the lighting, the sound effects and music - all of it just comes together brilliantly.  This is a completely perfect horror kill -  it's abrupt and shocking, even though we can see it coming - and it doesn't bother with blood or a close up of the damage.  It doesn't have to show us these things directly, because we're emotionally invested in the moment and don't even need the details.  More horror tales should follow its lead.
Obligatory image of evil Willow.
I could probably go on and on about things I've dug in these shows so far.  But I'll let you add to the discussion instead.  In case you're a vampire, I'll make it clear - I invite you to hit up the comments below and talk to me about your Buffy/Angel experiences.  

While you do that....I'm gonna go finish up season five of Buffy.  See you next time Midnight Warriors!
Oh, and I for some reason seriously love the Angel theme. Am I emo now? Does this make me emo?


Liam Underwood said...

I recently watched all of Buffy, and I've got the Angel boxset sat disappointingly unopened. I'll get to it soon.

Such a fantastic show though! Season 2 is an obvious highlight, particular the transition of Angel. Although I found Season 5 to start slow, it really ends with a bang. From episode 16 (one of my faves) onwards Season 5 really comes into its own.

deadlydolls said...

I've been a Buffy fan since the early 2000s, but I've been rewatching it (for about the 4th time now) with my boyfriend, who's a newbie. We're halfway through Season 2 and there's a lot I'm noticing this time around from watching it with someone who knew noting about it. David Boreanz is REALLY funny, something that would slowly get utilized in Angel. Xander, to me, saves Season 1. Anytime it seems to be getting a tad too girly or '90s, he swoops in with the perfect delivery of a one-liner. And regarding Buffy's 'imperfection,' it really was so much the heart of the show. I think back to When She Was Bad (season premiere of season 2) and remember how I used to never rewatch it because it was so uncomfortable, but watching it recently showed me how GOOD a choice it was. Yes, being 16 and having the weight of the world on your shoulders is not easy, and you're going to make mistakes. I love that Buffy wasn't afraid to show that.

Malte said...

I love the Angel theme too, so if that's emo I'm right there with you.

Michele (TheGirlWhoLovesHorror) said...

I totally agree with everything you're saying here, Mike, most especially when you point out that the three best characters on both shows are Spike, Angel and Cordelia. Angel himself just gets better and better and more interesting on his own show. Cordelia's arc gets a little screwed with in Angel season 4 but she makes the best comeback ever in season 5. Spike just rules all the way through both shows, no one can deny that, I think! His and Angel's relationship in Angel season 5 is pretty much the best thing ever, I hope you enjoy that!

Denee said...

My love for the Angel Theme by Darling Violetta stems from the fact that it is so cello driven. I played in high school and college, and my favorite instrumental pieces utilize the cello. I don't think that makes me emo, just decidedly appreciative of good music. And the character growth that Buffy and Angel both go through is something everyone should strive towards, as it shows maturity and selflessness that the world needs.

Fred [The Wolf] said...

We've already discussed this on Twitter, but I needed to post because this is a great article. HUGE fan of Buffy and Angel here. Own the box sets - I really need to rewatch both shows sometime. I may be one of the few people who actually watched Buffy right from the moment it actually premiered on the then-new WB Network back in 1997. Only reason was out of curiosity to see why anyone would make that movie into a TV show. And from the first segment, I was hooked and watched every episode in order until it ended on UPN back in 2003. Personally, my favorite seasons are 2,3,5, and 7. Would love to read your thoughts on 6 - a very polarizing season amongst the fans.

As for Angel, I thought that spinoff was better than it had any right to be. 3 is the best season, 4 is probably the weakest [but still good]. The final season was great as well and I wish it had gone to another one, but unfortunately it was cancelled due to the show being too expensive.

I agree with a lot of your points there. Spike, in particular. I always loved that character. He and Angel played off of each other so damn well, it was entertaining each time. Nice to see a lot of the actors still doing stuff after these two shows ended. I guess as long as Joss Whedon is still around [thankfully], they'll never go away.