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TV in the 2000s: The Decade in Whedonism – 10 Small Screen Masterpieces from Joss Whedon

Like an awful lot of film and TV geeks, and just plain geeks, I’m a pretty big Joss Whedon fan. In fact, my devotion to his unique blend of fantasy and science fiction melodrama, sometimes arch old-school movie-style witty dialogue blended with Marvel comics repartee, strong characterization, and often somewhat silly plots has at times gotten almost embarrassing. A few years back some of my very adult friends were suggesting in concerned tones that I should really marry the man if I love him so much.

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More recently, I thought my fandom was under relative control. But now, I’ve been asked my opinion on the ten best examples of small-screen work in this decade from the creator and guiding force of “Angel,” “Firefly,” the already canceled “Dollhouse,” and, of course, “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” I only have to be thankful for the fact that first four seasons of “Buffy,” which contain most of that show’s greatest episodes, are disqualified because they appeared on TV sets before 2000. We take our mercies where we find them. (And, yes, if you’re about to catch up with these on DVD, there are a fair number of spoilers below for the various series, though I’ve tried to keep a few secrets.) One word of warning: my relative ranking of these shows is a matter of mood and borders on the random. In other words — don’t hold me to these choices!

Out of competition:

BTVS, “The Body” (“Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”) – This episode usually ranks extremely high when people make these kind of lists. Entertainment Weekly named it as pretty much the best thing Joss Whedon has ever done and maybe the best TV thing ever. The truth of the matter is that, yes, the episode where Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller) discovers the already cold body of her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland, a wonderful asset to the show for the five previous years), dead from an entirely natural brain tumor, was probably one of the most remarkable episodes of television ever shown, and probably the only thing I’ve seen that comes close to capturing the essence of what it feels like when someone dies unexpectedly. The problem was, I didn’t find it depressing; I found it real. I didn’t feel any more like repeating the experience than I would the death of an actual loved one.

Whedon – who wrote and directed the episode himself – deserves all the credit in the world for the brave choices he made, including shooting the episode in close to “real time” and not using any music. If I have one complaint with Whedon, it’s his tendency to close emotional episodes with, dare I say it, somewhat drippy montages. His choice to eliminate music from the kind of “very special” show where other creators would lay in with three or four montages of Joyce frolicking in the woods or what have you, shows Whedon is, at heart, an outstanding filmmaker. I’ve never had a problem with his much-noted tendency to kill off sympathetic and/or popular characters. It might anger some fans, but especially if you’re dealing with inherently violent material, there’s something morally wrong about not dealing with the fact that good people are just as mortal as bad people. Still, I don’t enjoy watching this episode. If this were a movie, maybe I’d be more in awe or eager for profundity. However, if I’m going to be honest, I can’t call “The Body” a favorite and I can’t be sure it’s one of the “best.”

#10, Shiny Happy People (“Angel”) – Fans of the spin-off about Buffy’s ex, the vampire-with-a-soul detective (David Boreanaz), and various assembled demon-hunters and occasionally friendly demons, will be scratching their heads at this choice. It’s an unpopular episode from a widely and justly derided storyline involving a very weird affair between Angel’s unbalanced super-powered teenage son from another dimension, Connor (Vincent Kartheiser, now of “Mad Men“), and a suddenly evil Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), a former high school mean girl turned lovably complex grown-up foil for her vampire boss. And, yeah, it was a little freaky for Cordy to give birth to a fully grown creature called Jasmine.

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However, as played by the wondrous Gina Torres of the then recently-canceled “Firefly,” Jasmine was freaky in a good way. A being whose god-like ability to create an instant sense of peace, happiness, and complete obedience, is somewhat set off by the fact that she’s actually a deformed and decaying, if not entirely evil, monster who must consume people to live, she was every charismatic leader and every great screen beauty rolled into one monstrous ball. More than anything else, “Shiny Happy People” reminded me of Don Siegel’s 1956 film verson of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It was another believable demonstration of how we humans are only too willing to surrender our our humanity to the first apparently completely beauteous and 100% wise being who comes along. You know, like Oprah, only less powerful.

#9. “Epitaph One”/“The Left Hand” (“Dollhouse”) – A tie for the two best episodes so far of Whedon’s most recent, most highly problematic, and most freshly canceled, series. Without going into what I think went awry with the show, about an immoral corporation providing semi-slave designer human beings for a very high price, these two very different episodes take creative risks that pay off in big ways. The DVD-only, lower-budget, “Epitaph One” is set ten years after the events of the series and makes use of its somewhat low-fi  aesthetic to create an exciting post-apocalyptic science-fiction drama that plays like a more thoughtful version of certain aspects of “The Terminator” (which Whedon is famously trying to buy). The episode features some especially good acting, both from guest stars like Felicia Day and series regulars like the always superb Olivia Williams and Harry Lennix.

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The more glossy “The Left Hand,” which aired just before I started writing this, benefits from a breakneck pace, lots of prime Whedon tragicomic humor, as well as a scene-stealing guest appearance by “Firefly” and “Terminator”-alum Summer Glau as a truly messed-up techie on a soul-crushing vendetta against Eliza Dushku‘s self-aware “doll,” Echo, but with a definite crush on her enemy’s  programmer. Most of that humor I was talking comes from strong work by Fran Kranz, whose really grown into his role as seemingly 100% amoral nerdy brain-designer-genius Topher Brink, and the amazing Enver Gkojaj as, yes, seemingly 100% amoral nerdy brain-designer-genius Topher Brink. (He’s duplicated himself so he can literally be in two places at once.) The previously unknown Gjokaj may be one reason why – canceled or not, mixed reviews and controversy or not – “Dollhouse” may go down in TV history. Over the years, Whedon has shown an increasing flair for picking out shockingly good actors to populate his work in supporting roles, and Gjokaj may be one of the very best. His chameleon-like ability to inhabit a number of highly disparate characters with complete believability and – as seen on this episode – his Alec Baldwin-like gift of mimicry, pretty much guarantees that we’ll be hearing from this extremely accomplished young actor again very soon.
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#8. “Serenity” (“Firefly”) — High on the list of reasons why Whedon’s combination of horse opera and space opera never really had a chance to hit with audiences, the choice to air its original pilot — not to be confused with the later movie of the same name — as the final episode, and only after the show had already been canceled, is certainly among them. Just a hair darker in its outlook than the rest of the show, this “Serenity” is very much in the tradition of classic movie westerns and does a marvelous job of introducing a rich cast of characters. In particular, Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is a combination of the swaggering Han Solo and the tragic, embittered Ethan Edwards of “The Searchers” but with a far sharper sense of humor than either and one of the best lead characters on any show, ever. Deemed too slow and not funny enough by the network and even some fans, the episode that introduced the mostly well-intentioned thieves-for-hire of the Firefly class ship named Serenity, is perfectly calibrated, comedy-laced, action film-making of the very best kind.

#7. “War Stories”  (“Firefly”) – A brutally funny combination of violence and character-driven comedy, this episode focuses on a kind of triangle we don’t often see in movies and TV. Space-freighter pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk, “Dodgeball,” “3:10 to Yuma“) is happily married to beautiful, ex-military, bad-ass Zoe (Gina Torres), but he finds himself jealous of her old combat buddy and current companion in danger, Captain Mal. Even if he can be convinced that there was never anything romantic between the two of them, he is desperate to somehow become a part of their unique relationship when it comes to dealing with life or death matters. Maneuvering himself into a situation where a real danger ensues, he not surprisingly gets more than he asked for.

This episode is notable for easily the funniest believably painful torture sequence ever filmed – a bit of inspired ultra-black comedy that Whedon might not dare to have tried in the post-Dick Cheney/post “24” world. The brilliance of the scene is accounted for not only by a great script credited to Cheryl Cain, but the top grade chemistry between Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion. To this day, they are darn funny appearing together as themselves in public, but they’ve never been better than when they were allowed to work out their issues while being electrocuted by an interplanetary criminal mastermind.

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#6. “Chosen”  (“Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”) – Longtime fans know that Joss Whedon has a spotty record when it comes to season openers and pilots. However, he always seems to pull things out at the other end and delivers solid finales that leave you both satisfied and wanting more. Happily, so far, this seems to go double for series finales. The conclusion to Whedon’s most popular and long-lived show is pretty much everything fans could have wanted, providing a certain amount of closure to long-standing conflicts in thrilling and kind of beautiful ways.

As Buffy and her long-time friends, who are getting a bit old to be called “Scoobies,” face one more battle against the original evil and witness the destruction of their hometown, not everything goes so well. In typical Whedon fashion, a couple of beloved characters die (though one recovered from his nasty case of being burned to a crisp quickly enough to return as a regular on the next season of “Angel”), but the overall tone is wistfully hopeful, and fully in line with the show’s emphasis on friendship, female empowerment, and the need to tough out this thing we call human life.

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#5 – “Not Fade Away” (“Angel”) – “Angel” was always the darker, meaner cousin of “Buffy.” So, naturally its conclusion is suitably more down-and-dirty and, remarkably, even better than the acclaimed wrap-up of its sister show the year prior. Largely a fantasy-noir variation on one of Whedon’s favorite movies, “The Wild Bunch,” this episode is about what happens when battle-hardened folks face an unbeatable enemy. Sure, the staff of Angel Investigations are more morally upright than Sam Peckinpah’s mangy hardcases, but this is still a tale about settling old scores in blood and a final battle that may be as ultimately pointless as it is noble. Again, not everyone survives…I think. The show’s ending is, rather brilliantly, far from completely resolved, though the tone is much more “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” than “The Sopranos” finale. In any case, Whedon’s theme of life as perpetual struggle couldn’t be more strongly underlined than by this exchange from that vampire Hope and Crosby, Angel and Spike (James Marsters), as they ponder how to take on a (mostly unseen) horde comprised of all manner of demonic beast and humanoid.

Spike: And in terms of a plan?
Angel: We fight.
Spike: Bit more specific?
Angel: Well, personally, I kinda wanna slay the dragon. Let’s go to work.

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#4 “Once More With Feeling”  (“Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”) — I really love good musicals, but I really kind of hate bad ones and I can’t stand bad music. So, when I heard that Whedon was using his vacation time to write songs for a musical episode of “Buffy,” I could see that it would be easy enough to make logical in the Buffyverse, where there’s a demon available for any and all plotting needs. I nevertheless had visions of “Cop Rock” dancing very badly in my head. Directing and writing a musical is hard enough, I theorized, without the additional burden of composing all the songs yourself. Little did I know that, while Joss Whedon may not quite be Stephen Sondheim and Elvis Costello rolled into one, he’s a solid tunesmith whose music ranges from the silly but tuneful to the downright enchanting and delightful, with the occasional bit of modern-day schmaltz thrown in.

Still, it’s the stunning level of humorous and dramatic invention that makes this episode such a massively enjoyable piece of work. The plot involves a song-and-dance demon (the great theatrical tap-dancer Hinton Battle) infecting Sunnydale with a dangerously incendiary plague of musical-comedy. Unusually among musical episodes, the show is very much a part of the regular series continuity. That might have limited its appeal to curious newcomers, but the integrity it shows in respecting the internal logic of the show’s fantasy universe while commenting good-humoredly on the musical comedy tradition, makes the show all that much weightier for regular viewers. Whedon knows what all creators of great musicals know: all the singing and dancing in the world should never get in the way of a good story.

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#3 “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog.” Sometime before the 2005 release of “Serenity,” I found myself at an early screening for fans, signing a birthday card to Joss Whedon. Just above the compulsory, “Happy Birthday” I wrote “Another musical?” Well, it took a writer’s strike and the burgeoning power of Web 2.0, but my timid request was answered in high style last year with the blissfully silly and often hilarious, yet ultimately rather tragic and haunting, web-movie musical about an earnest aspiring supervillain with anti-corporate leanings (the multi-talented Neil Patrick Harris). As he strives to enter the Evil League of Evil by pleasing its rarely seen leader, Bad Horse (“the Thoroughbred of Sin”), defeat his obnoxious superhero nemesis, Captain Hammer (a never-funnier Nathan Fillion), and win the heart of an adorable activist do-gooder he chats with at the laundromat (‘net star/creator Felicia Day of “The Guild“), we learn how becoming a full-fledged supervillain may create serious problems if you also want people to love you.

A true family project co-created with brothers Zack and Jed (a musician as well as a TV writer), and Jed’s then fiancee/now wife, Maurissa Tancharoen, “Dr. Horrible” has a low-budget comic book aesthetic that actually underlines its tale of aspiring artists of crime. Crisply directed by Whedon, it’s songs are some of the funniest and most haunting from a new musical you’re likely to hear these days, if a bit less tuneful than the slicker, more Broadway-inspired music of “Once More With Feeling.”

A third act plot point, however, takes a chance by daring us to take the premises of the plot to their logical, poignant conclusion that some may not appreciate. While it could be argued that the whimsical conceit might have allowed this to be one instance where Whedon didn’t actually need to keep things fictionally real by giving a cruel fate to a sympathetic character, the choice provides this brilliant mini-musical with a stronger ending and a far better set-up for the upcoming sequel than a more straightforwardly comic conclusion would have. All in all, “Dr. Horrible” proves that, even if driven off the airwaves entirely, the Whedon brand at this point has a far better prognosis for a long life than most of his characters.

#2. “Our Mrs. Reynolds” (“Firefly”) — By now, you may be noticing a bit of a trend. Yes, I love “Firefly” and I definitely would marry it, if only the courts would legalize man-on-TV show-marriage. It’s easily my favorite Whedon show and one of my favorite television shows of all time. Sure, some of that has to do with the fact that I just love a good western, but the show truly is special even among Whedon shows. It features the most consistently strong cast of any of any of his shows, and this episode introduces a very special, if then completely unknown, guest star with the appearance of Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”). We first meet the future Joan Holloway as Saffron, an apparently shy, possibly completely submissive, member of a colony whom Mal, unaware of local customs, accidentally marries. Written by Whedon, this fan-favorite starts out as a feminist-friendly variation on a somewhat disturbing plot thread from “The Searchers,” but eventually becomes something like the perfect TV-length screwball farce, only with more violence. What more could you want?

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#1. “Objects in Space” (“Firefly”) – Unlike every single other season finale he’s written, the de facto conclusion to “Firefly” resolves very little in the way of ongoing plot elements. Indeed, it appears that fact so frustrated Whedon that it probably largely led to his determination to wrap up the story arc in more suitable fashion with the movie, “Serenity.” Nevertheless, viewed on its own, this episode is my personal selection for Whedon’s all time best work ever. It features guest-star Richard Brooks (“Law & Order”), who is letter perfect as Jubal Early, a coolly brutal and mentally unbalanced bounty hunter — Whedon’s off-kilter homage to Boba Fett, in fact — sent to recover River Tam (Summer Glau), a psychotic young fugitive who has taken refuge on board Serenity. The episode gradually boils down to a highly charged and very strange battle of wits between Early and the schizophrenic-like-a-fox Tam. It’s a blend of suspense, psychology, action, and odd pathos that, if you care to look, has some existential undercurrents. (Whedon discusses those in some detail in the somewhat unusual DVD commentary he recorded for the episode.) Still, this tale of outer space cat-and-mouse between two individuals whose life experiences has rendered them both less than whole, but more than merely human, is simply great science fiction entertainment for people who enjoy thinking a little. If there’s one thing I’m bummed about from the cancellation of the show and the box office disappointment of the ensuing movie is that we may never get to see Jubal Early face off again against the Serenity crew, though a guy can always hope. (Note to dubious viewers in light of the ending: yes, Early lives!)

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