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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Hanging with the new flesh

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“Your reality is already half video hallucination. If you’re not careful, it will become total hallucination. You’ll have to learn to live in a very strange new world.” – Media philosopher Brian O’Blivion in David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” (1983)

So far, the bulk of gifted documentarian Ondi Timoner’s work has dealt with the forces that persuade human beings to give up some part of themselves, whether it be in pursuit of creative growth, God, or fame. Her latest film, takes that as far as it can possibly go. Unlike her remarkable “DiG!,” about the cultish neo-psychedelic rock band, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, or “Join Us,” about an actual religious cult, this time the cult is not just a few fanatics, it’s you and me.

I first praised the Sundance Grand Jury prize-winning “We Live in Public,” opening Friday at L.A.’s Nuart Theater (with special Q&As Friday and Saturday nights), back in June when I saw it at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The screening was capped off with the then somewhat surprising appearance by the documentary’s antihero, Internet entrepreneur and self-styled conceptual artist Josh Harris. Having returned from an idyll in Ethiopia, he said that his next project was something he called “the Wired City” and that, in his view, a typical human’s life in the future is going to be something like the present day existence of “a Purdue chicken.” He also said he hadn’t seen the movie and wasn’t sure when he would.

Back in the 1990’s, Harris made a large fortune largely by being one of the first to see the full communications potential of the web and was a dot-com era sensation via his groundbreaking web entertainment company, Pseudo. Leaving that when his eccentric and creative side grew to be too artsy and weird for the corporate room, he then spent a good chunk of that fortune on two highly provocative experiments/art projects.

We Live in PublicFirst came “Quiet” – basically a month-long party/community in an underground compound on the west side of New York with overt fascistic overtones. Harris recruited roughly 100 artists and creative types to live there 24/7 for an indefinite period (it turned out to be a month). He would provide all the food, (legal) party favors, a firing range and plenty of weaponry (blanks only, I’m told), as well as a fake church and real interrogation tactics borrowed from the Cold War-era East German secret police.

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TCA Tour: “Dollhouse” set visit

Last year, I had a chance to visit the “Dollhouse” set, and it was absolutely breathtaking. This year, I went to visit it again, and the effect was the same. I just wish I liked the show as much as I like the Dollhouse itself. But, hey, maybe that’ll change when I finally get a chance to sit down and watch the Season 1 set in its entirety…particularly the bonus 13th episode, “Epitaph One,” which the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, describes as “an incredibly strange sort of bookend to the show.”

When we first arrived on the set, the actors were still shooting elsewhere on the Fox lot, so Whedon held court before the assembled throng of critics (some of whom may or may not have actually been bowing before him) and spoke to the second season of “Dollhouse” all by his lonesome, which he described as “the biggest surprise of my career.”

“What can I say?” asked Whedon. “I really didn’t expect to be sitting here again for a while. This has been like skiing in a cartoon where you go up the mountain and down the mountain and up and down. Right now, we are pretty high up on it because we realized that we were actually going to have to work for a living this summer.”

Okay, I’m sure the Whedon-ites will want to know every last word that Joss had to say, but for the sake of those who – like myself – still have good intentions of playing catch-up before Season 2 begins, I’ll do you the favor of waiting ’til post-jump to offer up his comments.

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Nobel Son

Writer/director Randall Miller must be a great guy to work with. That’s the only possible explanation for how he managed to snag such an amazing cast for “Nobel Son,” a headache-inducing thriller every bit deserving of its direct-to-DVD sentence. Though Miller isn’t exactly new to the business (he directed his share of bad comedies in the 90s), it’s still quite a feat to go from the land of made-for-TV movies to working with the likes of Alan Rickman in back-to-back projects. Their 2008 film, “Bottle Shock,” was one of the best reviewed entries at Sundance last year, but just because “Nobel Son” is about an award doesn’t mean it’s on the same level.

Rickman plays Dr. Eli Michaelson, a narcissitic college chemistry professor who is delighted to discover that he’s won the Nobel Prize. While away in Stockholm to accept his award, his disappointment of a son, Barkley (Bryan Greenberg), is kidnapped and ransomed for $2 million. The kidnapper (Sean Hatosy) claims that Eli stole the award-winning idea from his own father, and he’ll do whatever it takes to make him pay. Of course, it’s what happens after the initial kidnapping that really matters, but to say any more would be to spoil the film’s only redeeming quality: the web of twists that begins to unravel around the midway point. Unfortunately, the movie is so damn irritating during the first hour – from the shaky camera movements and blazing fast edits to the Paul Oakenfold techno club soundtrack – that it never has the chance to win back the audience. Miller should stick to more low-key projects like “Bottle Shock,” because his embarrassment of a Guy Ritchie impersonation just isn’t going to cut it.

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“Dollhouse” finally flicks the Awesome switch

I completely understand why my colleague John Paulsen bailed on “Dollhouse” earlier in the season. The show was running in place, a series of self-contained episodes with nothing hanging in the balance. The only takeaway from a couple of the shows was that the dolls were still remembering things after they had been wiped, and were keeping this a secret from their handlers and Topher. The subplot involving FBI Agent Paul Ballard seemed stuck as well. He knows the Dollhouse exists, but has neither the proof nor the support of the agency to pursue it. Yawn.

Then came last Friday’s episode, where “Dollhouse” creator Joss Whedon launched the show into space.

He first played with the idea that Echo, Victor and Sierra were engaged in a secret alliance with the news that Sierra had been having sex and was suddenly terrified of Victor. It doesn’t take long for Boyd, the Dixon to Echo’s Sydney Bristow, to realize that the perp is a fellow handler, and DeWitt gives the handler a choice: take out Mellie, the nosy neighbor of Agent Ballard who Knows Too Much, or get sent to the Attic. (Man, I can’t wait until they finally show us what that place looks like.) Ballard, who’s out getting takeout and realizes that Mellie is in danger, races back while making a call. We see Mellie’s phone ringing as the handler is slowly choking the life out of her. Then the answering machine picks up, and we hear…DeWitt. “There are three flowers in a vase. The third one is green.” Ta-da, instant can of whoopass. Mellie beats the snot out of the handler, killing him in seconds. Then DeWitt says, “There are three flowers in a vase. The third one is yellow.” Poof, she’s back to being “normal” Mellie.

Holy crap.

“Don’t arrest me yet. She hasn’t heard my bit about the KFC bowls, it kills ’em every time.”

This was awesome on a number of levels. For starters, I never suspected that Mellie was a doll. She doesn’t quite have the body type that the other dolls have, though that actually makes her a perfect choice for a role like this. Second of all, the dolls can be activated and deactivated by remote voice command? Again, holy crap. I’m assuming that the third flower in that metaphorical vase is red. What happens to a doll when she uses that line? Does it make them catatonic?

Whedon also pulled another neat trick in doing a story where someone uses the Dollhouse for harmless, and rather sweet, purposes. Patton Oswalt guest starred as an Internet millionaire who planned on surprising his wife with a brand new house, but she was killed in a car accident on her way to see it. So every year on the day of her death, he hires a doll to relive that moment that he never had with his wife. Awwwww, isn’t that cute? Gee, maybe the Dollhouse isn’t so bad after all, right? Mmmmm, wouldn’t go that far, but it does make the ethical aspects of programmable people slightly grayer than it would appear on the surface.

The episode’s Big Reveal, though, was the fact that there is a mole in the Dollhouse, and they used Echo to send a message to Agent Ballard that he has an ally on the inside. On the surface, it would appear that the only person with the ability to slip that kind of thing under Topher’s nose would be his underutilized assistant Ivy, but does she have access to enough information to bring the Dollhouse down, and would she have known that there are over 20 Dollhouses around the world? Doubtful, which is why my money is on Dr. Claire Saunders (my beloved Amy Acker) as the mole. She was horribly disfigured by Alpha, which gives her motive, and as their medical chief of staff, she would have access to lots of data. Plus, you have to know that Whedon isn’t going to recruit Acker for the show and then have her spend most of the time on the bench.

The problem with all this, of course, is that it’s possible Whedon waited too long to get the show rolling. The show isn’t cheap, and Fox certainly has it in its sights when time comes to trim the budget. It needs a huge spike in ratings — it actually needs a better time slot, but that’s another story — but will they get one? If Whedon delivers another episode as great as this one, that should be enough to rally the Browncoats into action. Stay tuned.

  

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