Thursday, 14 November 2013

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 4.22 – 'Restless' & ANGEL, 1.22 - 'To Shanshu in LA'

Thursday, 14 November 2013
Principal Snyder: I walked by your guidance counsellor's office one time. A bunch of you were sitting there, waiting to be shepherded. I remember it smelled like dead flowers, like decay. Then it hit me. The hope of our nation's future is a bunch of mulch.
Xander: You know, I never got the chance to tell you how glad I was you were eaten by a snake.

The penultimate "Primeval" was the apodictic series 4 finale, so "RESTLESS" was more an offbeat denouement with loose connections to its climactic events—as the spirit of the First Slayer, angered her power was evoked to help modern Slayer Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) defeat Adam, targeted the Scooby Gang in their dreams as a punishment. Jeez, you'd think a Slayer would be happy to have helped defeat a metal megalomaniac (from beyond the grave, no less), but whatever. She really wasn't happy.

Cursory research reveals this episode's very highly regarded in Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan circles, and has garnered a great deal of critical acclaim. I can understand why. It's utterly bonkers and very funny in long bursts, with some career-best direction from Joss Whedon (sometimes channelling Michel Gondry before anyone knew Michel Gondry) and an entertaining script that gave each character their own dream vignette. Xander (Nicholas Brendon) actually got his best storyline of this whole season, in a year that's mostly wasted him—struggling to establish an effective place in Buffy's clique, and the dichotomy of being both basement-dwelling loser and Anya's (Emma Caulfield) paramour.

It feels natural to discuss each vignette briefly, so here goes. Victorious after defeating Adam and with Riley (Marc Blucas) leaving The Initiative a hero, the group fell asleep while about to watch Apocalypse Now, and their ensuing dreams revealed a great deal about their personal fears (something the show has done before). Willow (Alyson Hannigan) found herself appearing in Death of a Salesman sans rehearsals, to push home her struggle with self-confidence. Xander found himself unable to escape his basement (i.e. progress in life), and his sexuality was under scrutiny. Giles (Anthony Head) was trapped between his duty as a Watcher and his ambition to live his own life, unable to help Buffy deal with the situation he realises they're in before the First Slayer scalps him. And, finally, Buffy's dreamed of isolation and loneliness before conquering it to confront her "cavewoman" ancestor in a weird desert--with Tara (Amber Benson) as interpreter for the primeval Slayer.

The vignettes were each put together very well; embroidered with clever editing, good production design, slick cinematography, and fun visual trickery. I particularly liked Xander's ice cream truck leading into his basement, Joyce getting to play a lingerie-clad temptress, Giles suddenly talking French, Joyce living in the walls with mice, the return of Principal Snyder (Armin Shimmerman) as Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, and the left-field appearances of a nonsensical cheese slice purveyor.

It feels increasingly true that Joss Whedon keeps the best ideas for himself to explore as writer-director, so this episode was yet another unusual hour that made me wish BtVS was experimental on a more regular basis. Or maybe episodes like "Restless" wouldn't shine if they were ten-a-penny? Regardless, this was a definite highlight of the season, nay the series, even if the fundamental idea behind it didn't hold much water. Why does the First Slayer have the ability to enter people's dreams? Why was the against her "power" being used to defeat evil anyway? Still, I can forgive whatever issues I have with the concept, because it's rare for any TV show to be this imaginative and confident in its crazy ambitions. It wasn't a finale in the usual sense of the world, but it was a definite statement that millennial Buffy the Vampire Slayer could operate above any of its contemporaries. If only it was like this more often, when its creator wasn't basically writing himself treats.

written & directed by Joss Whedon | 23 May 2000

Wesley: What connects us to life is a simple truth that we're a part of it. We live, we grow, we change. But Angel...
Cordelia: Can't do any of those things.

Angel's first season finale isn't anywhere near as creative and magical as its mother show's fourth, but that's to be expected because it's still in its infancy. But what was disappointing is seeing Angel round off a tumultuous, awkward year in such a generic way, as there wasn't much about "TO SHANSHU IN L.A" that felt like a finale in the best sense of the word. The entire storyline was built around an ancient scroll Angel (David Boreanaz) only stole in the preceding episode, on a whim, and the Wolfram & Hart lawyer had very little to do beyond facilitate the arrival of a demon called Vocah (The Riches' Todd Stashwick in an early role).

"To Shanshu in L.A" certainly threw a few complications Angel's way, which just about staved off boredom: Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) being given a never-ending stream of painful visions that hospitalised her, and Wesley (Alexis Denisof) being involved in a bombing of Angel's office. There were a few occasions where the horror and desperation of Angel's situation as his friends were victimised, but ultimately this finale didn't really go anywhere very interesting. Vocah's acolytes were another of those tedious, cliched villains that walk around in robes performing silly rituals. Detective Lockley (Elisabeth Röhm) was trotted out for what felt like a token scene with Angel, which was tolerable because he finally gave her some home truths. What a wasted character she's been, not helped by casting Röhm. Gunn (J. August Richards) was likewise shoved infront of the camera, but at least his character oozes a suburban cool this show so desperately needs. And let's just forget the stupid Oracles, who should have been polluting Charmed in 2000.

In fact, this wasn't so much a finale as last-minute groundwork for a hopefully improved second season. The titular Shanshu prophecy has revealed the series-long arc (that Angel will go through various trials and tribulations but be rewarded with the restoration of his humanity); Lindsey (Christian Kane) has lost a hand, Luke Skywalker-style, which makes things personal with Angel; and there was a decent final surprise when it became clear Darla (Julie Benz), Angel's maker, has been resurrected. So there were certainly lots of hooks to try and keep the audience around over the summer, but as a concluding part of a season it wasn't much above a mediocre episode with a few memorable sequences (like a rather cool fight between Angel and Vocah).

written & directed by David Greenwalt | 23 May 2000
This brings my fourth season reviews of Buffy and first season reviews of Angel to a close. I'm alarmed to realise I'm just 78 episodes into the 144 hours Buffy produced, which means I'm only 54% of the way through the entire series! And I've barely scratched the surface of Angel's 110 episodes, of course. In fact, I'm a mere 20% of the way through! These Buffyverse reviews will definitely return next year, in the same 'twin pack' format. I'm just not sure exactly when. Maybe after some of the mid-season shows have started. I need a break after double-billing two shows in this way. But I hope you've enjoyed hearing my 'off the cuff' remarks about them every Thursday!