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.

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“Basterds” Redux

As John F. Kennedy used to say, “success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan.” One thing’s for sure, both generate a ton of ink.

* I’m still of two minds on this whole Twitter business in terms of whether or not it really speeds up what we used to call “word-of-mouth” on movies. It seems to me we’ve had texting for awhile now, though the proliferation of iPhone and other communication devices is a new factor and must be having an impact. Unlike texting, you don’t pay on a per-Tweet basis, so maybe. Steven Zeitchik, however, is more certain and guess which movie he thinks is the first to officially benefit. (If you haven’t already been spoiled at all on the not-ripped-from-the-history-books ending of “Inglourious Basterds, you might want to skip this one.)

* Tom O’Neil at “The Envelope” speculates on awards strategy for releasing “Basterds” now rather than closer to award season. To me, Weinstein’s decision to highlight the musical “Nine” over this seems more than self-evident. Assuming the film is not a complete turkey, that film’s Oscar chances should be better.

Quentin Tarantino‘s films are not Oscar-friendly. The older members of the Academy have traditionally leaned strongly towards a very traditional, essentially literary and middle-class, view of quality which is pretty much the antithesis of the Tarantino aesthetic. It’s only been through his widespread acclaim and a subtle loosening of old prejudices that his films have gotten the definitely limited Oscar recognition they have and, considering what some regard as a too lighthearted view of World War II horrors, I wouldn’t expect this one to be much different. Of course, with ten nomination slots for Best Picture, and the universal groundswell of acclaim for heretofore internationally unknown German actor Christoph Waltz, two or three nominations (including the semi-inevitable “Best Original Screenplay” nod) are almost a certainty.

If you want an example of the kind of old-school middle-brow snobbery that’s always stood in the way of Tarantino — and Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Don Siegel, Sergio Leone, etc. before him —  Peter Bart provides it for you. Some commenters respond aptly.

* Paul Laster at Flavorwire has a revealing interview with production design husband-and-wife team David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco about “Inglourious Basterds,” the Jack Rabbit Slim’s set from “Pulp Fiction,” and other films. Considering that they also work with Wes Anderson, these two are crucial collaborators with our most talented masters of movie stylization working, and the current heirs to people like the great Ken Adam, the production design genius of “Dr. Strangelove” and “Goldfinger,” among many others. (H/t David Hudson@Twitter…okay, so maybe there is a Twitter effect on filmgeeks.)

Now is the time at Premium Hollywood vin ve dance.

  

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Alien Nation Movie Moment #3

Whether Don Siegel’s great 1956 film version of Jack Finney’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was really intended as a metaphor about communist infiltration or bourgeois conformity is almost beside the point, it’s about the near impossibility of fighting dehumanizing forces, which can come from anywhere. And so it was with the equally terrific, or maybe even better, 1978 version directed by Phillip Kaufman. The latter film is one of my favorite remakes of a film classic, in that you could watch back to back with the original and have a great night at the movies. The plots might be similar, but they are in no way the same movie at all.

Below are trailers for both. Remember — you’re next!

  

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