Thursday 4 July 2013

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 4.4 – 'Fear, Itself' & ANGEL, 1.4 – 'I Fall to Pieces'

Thursday 4 July 2013
Xander: I wasn't scared, I was in the spirit.
Oz: And we back you up on that. Even if they question us separately.

I wish I liked "FEAR, ITSELF" more than I do, because it had a cool concept and funny scenes dotted about. It just didn't come together as strongly as I'd have liked, although I continue to be impressed by the production values of Buffy the Vampire Slayer this year. I'm just not sure if it's down to an increase in budget (now BtVS was a pop-culture icon), or just that TV was improving in the late-'90s.

A Halloween special is ideal stomping ground for a show like BtVS, but this one wasn't as impressive as season 2's "Halloween", where the gang were transformed into the characters they'd dressed as—referenced here by Xander (Nicholas Brendan) attending a party dressed in a smart tuxedo as a precaution against the same shit happening twice. The conceit behind "Fear, Itself" was actually really cool: a fraternity house becoming the location for the accidental summoning of a fear-demon called Grachnar, who can't achieve corporeal form without soaking up the fear of party-goers. Cue a haunted house episode where Halloween paraphernalia came to life and campus kids were scared senseless, before Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her friends arrived to exorcise the place.

Writer David Fury even came up with a nice idea of using this episode to highlight every character's greatest fear: Buffy's loneliness, Willow's (Alyson Hannigan) lack of self-assurance with Wicca, Xander being ignored (somehow I'd missed the fact he doesn't attend university), and Oz (Seth Green) becoming a werewolf around his girlfriend. Unfortunately, it wasn't hugely interesting to see the characters deal with their fears being made flesh—perhaps because most didn't feel particularly scary. This may have been a rare occasion when trying to be "deep" worked against the entertainment-value of the story... but then, the alternative would have been a lazy rehash of season 1's "Nightmares". Oh dear, is this a sign BtVS is already in danger of repeating itself... and avoiding that pitfall takes us down weaker avenues? Perhaps.

Still, this episode was entertaining to watch even if it wasn't particularly memorable and interesting from a character perspective. The end joke with the mighty Grachnar finally appearing, only for everyone to discover he's about six inches tall and easily squished, also made me giggle. I just wish Fury had done something scarier with such a good premise.

written by David Fury | directed by Tucker Gates | 26 October 1999

Angel: Am I intimidating? I mean, do I put people off?
Cordelia: Well, as vampires go, you're pretty cuddly. Maybe you might wanna think about mixing up the black-on-black look.

It amuses me how self-aware Joss Whedon shows are, because I was going to point out how most episodes of Angel have so far revolved around the 'damsel in distress' trope, with Angel (David Boreanaz) coming to the rescue, but "I Fall to Pieces" had Doyle (Glenn Quinn) make the same observation. That doesn't mean the show's in the clear, because it still needs to start giving us a better variety of storyline, but at least there's some assurance the writers aren't blissfully unaware of some issues.

"I FALL TO PIECES" concerned a career-minded woman called Melissa (Tushka Bergen) being harassed and stalked by neurosurgeon Dr Ronald Meltzer (Andy Umberger), whom she dated once and is now unable to brush off. This being a supernatural drama, it's later revealed that Dr Meltzer has the bizarre ability to detach himself from parts of his body, which comes in handy when spying on Melissa with a floating eyeball or attacking people with disconnected Addams Family-style hands.

This episode was one of those instalments you feel would have been better handled on BtVS, with a student perhaps being stalked by a teacher, but I probably only feel that way because Angel as a TV series hasn't really bewitched me yet. I don't hate anything about it, but it's oddly stuck between wanting to be darker and gritter than BtVS, and yet retaining the exact same sense of humour—which is typified by tension-releasing quips and wordplay. So it's never quite chilling enough to work as "Buffy for grown-ups", and doesn't have enough funny characters to be a worthy Buffy replacement. I find Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) a little too whiny in this new context, and Doyle just strikes me as a variation on Xander, but with that plot-hastening psychic trick of seeing visions of their next client.

Still, sometimes a really fun villain goes a long way towards keeping things interesting, and I squeezed a lot of enjoyment from Dr Meltzer as this show's twist on classic X Files villain Eugene Victor Tooms. He was creepy and the special effects were surprisingly good. I especially loved a shot where he steps into his own floating eyeball, letting it sink back into the eye-hole it left behind. There was also some business here about Angel growing some balls and asking clients for money, because so far his business has been operating out of sheer goodwill to all humanity... and that doesn't pay the bills, or allow Cordy to buy some designer dresses. An average episode with an above-average bad guy to keep things interesting, but Angel really needs to deliver something that feels unique and something BtVS couldn't pull off better.

written by David Greenwalt (story by Joss Whedon & David Greewalt) | directed by Vern Gillum | 26 October 1999