Sunday, April 25, 2010

Angel: Season Two

The second season of Angel is a bit of a mixed bag, but in it, the show begins to find its form outside of its origins as a Buffy spinoff. In the first season, Angel was still indebted to its parent enough that its most memorable episodes and most of its characters came from Buffy. In Season Two, the crossovers are rarer, and Buffy herself doesn't appear at all. Angel has its own story now, for better or worse.

The season also marks a departure from the Buffy form of "Big Bad," single-season based storytelling. Several different stories weave in and out of the season, with varying degrees of resolution. At times, it's almost a straight-up serial with very little of the Monster-of-the-Week storylines which drove the first season.

The first few episodes are marked by Angel's lethargy, as the newly resurrected Darla and Wolfram & Hart begin fiddling with his sleep schedule. He's able to go through the motions, but his mind, and often body, and elsewhere. When Darla finally makes her physical appearance, Angel becomes obsessed. It is somewhat frustrating in that the audience knows who's behind Angel's dreams of Darla and why, but he doesn't know for several episodes. The frustration, of course, is thanks to the inherent drama of the reappearance of Angel's sire and the knowledge of their inevitable confrontation, delayed until the fifth episode.

The confrontation is somewhat cathartic, but leads to Angel's Darla-obsession coming to the fore, further alienating his co-workers. The rest of the Angel cast is increasing in both complexity and charm through the second season. The addition of the vampire-fighting gang leader Gunn to the crew is an especially good touch, as he adds a good mix of comedy and drama. Wesley's character continues his improvement, particularly in the episode "Guise Will Be Guise" in which he impersonates Angel. Later developments cement him as a leader as well as simply an expert in demonology.

However, it is Cordelia who steadily becomes the show's strongest character. By the end of the season I was about ready to declare her the best character of the Buffyverse. Her transition from Homecoming Queen Bitch to a powerful character in her own right has been almost seamless, especially once she switched from Buffy to Angel. I've always liked the dynamic that Cordelia brings to the shows, but now she's becoming likable as well, without sacrificing the humor she began with.

Angel's confrontation with Darla and the law firm lead to some of the season's strongest moments. He fights Darla, as well as attempting to turn her to good, as Wolfram & Hart continue hoping to push him to evil through her. Angel's quest comes to a peak in the ninth episode, "The Trial," in which he finally through stubbornness and heroism manages to convince Darla to accept her mortality. Naturally, this is almost immediately followed by the shocking re-emergence of Drusilla, who turns Darla to a vampire again as Angel is forced to watch, helpless.

The entire season so far built to that point, and the remainder seemed to stumble, unsure of where it was going. Angel becomes obsessed with revenge against Drusilla and Darla, turning dark - if not evil - and firing Gunn, Cordelia, and Wesley. In theory, this is a brilliant twist. In practice, it's awkward, forcing Angel to go all dark and the rest to turn almost entirely comic. Occasionally it works, like when Angel smokes a cigarette and then uses it to torch Darla and Drusilla, or when Wesley solves a crime a la Cluedo. But generally it's awkward (especially when Angel resorts to clumsy narration in lieu of talking to people), and a relief when Angel gets out of his funk and the gang gets back together.

Like its sibling, Buffy's Season Five, Angel improves in quality in its last third. In its best episode, "Dead End," the primary antagonist at Wolfram & Hard, Lindsay, receives a replacement hand for the one he lost in the first season finale. Lindsay quickly comes to realize the hand is evil and has a will of its own. This tips him over the edge, finally causing a break with Wolfram & Hart, but not before leaving in a blaze of glory - slapping Lilah's ass, shooting a security guard in the foot, threatening a board room, and explaining it all away with a gleeful declaration of "Evil hand!"

Towards the end of the season, the show breaks from formula and veers into a completely different direction, offering a four-part serialized string of episodes in a demonic dimension, more akin to a fantasy movie than the L.A. setting of the show. It's a quality run of episodes, with each character's development being highlighted: Cordelia's vanity is tempered by responsibility; Angel's heroism always threatened by the monster within; Wesley's leadership role forces him to make hard decisions with clarity; and Gunn tries to do the right thing while being pulled in multiple directions. Lorne, an empathic demon with a musical soul, who had been in and out of the series all season finally starts being treated like one of the main group, and the crew also rescues Fred, a mentally damaged supergenius played by the gorgeous Amy Acker, who officially joins the cast soon after.

It's a solid, if unspectacular, finish to a season with plenty of ups and downs. The second season of Angel doesn't quite put it on a level with Buffy the Vampire Slayer just yet, but much more than the first season, it says that it's possible.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Five

The premiere of the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire serves as something of a microcosm for the entire season. "Buffy vs. Dracula" is, for the vast majority of the episode, is an occasionally weird, occasionally funny episode with a few character quirks. Then, at the end, the show pulls the rug out from under the viewer's feet:

Joyce Summers: "Buffy, if you're going out, can you take your sister with you?"
Buffy & Dawn, in unison: "MOM!?!"

This is one of the most audacious plot twists in television history. Prior to this moment, Buffy was an only child. Suddenly, she has fully formed younger sister, and a properly improper familial relationship with the sister. The show seems entirely comfortable with this new state of affairs, leaving the viewers completely confused.

Unfortunately, the ambition of the plot twist isn't matched by its implementation. The biggest problem is the younger sister, Dawn. She's, well, annoying. Part of it is that, as a little sister, she should be annoying. Sadly, Dawn succeed mightily at being a bother, and doesn't add anything else to the show at all for most of the season. It takes until much later in the season, the episode "The Body," for Dawn to become at all sympathetic.

Dawn's presence often has potential, as she shares the history of the show without actually having been in it (akin to Jonathan's presence from season four's "Superstar.") For example, during an episode with a robot, the season two episode "Ted," which also with a robot is mentioned. This opens a an interesting door: if Dawn had been around during "Ted," would she have sided with Buffy in seeing him as evil? How can the new Dawn-based continuity not affect the "real" continuity we've seen? This could be played for laughs, or played for drama, or both, yet it's virtually never brought up.

The other major issue dragging down the first 2/3s of the season is Buffy's love life. Following the fourth season, Buffy's relationship with soldier boy Riley seems fairly secure and straightforward. That may be nice for Buffy, but it's bad for storytelling. Riley, never the strongest character on the show (although perhaps not deserving of the vitriol he receives from Angel fans), is suddenly saddled with massive insecurities leading him to take more and more self-destructive actions. At the same time, the formerly bad-ass vampire Spike realizes that his obsession with the Slayer isn't hatred, but rather love. Spike's new-found crush leads him to show Buffy Riley's self-destructive behavior, then try to take her for himself.

This string of episodes are almost uniformly weak, thanks both to the speed with which Riley and Spike change their behavior, as well as them generally being weak episodes. A major exception is the superb episode "Fool for Love," in which Buffy speaks to Spike about the Slayers he's killed. This episode works well for two reasons. First, its flashbacks pair well with the Angel episode which followed. Both show the vampire gang of Angel, Spike, Darla and Drusilla all together for the first time, adding depth to the characters and the universe. More directly, Spike's depiction of the Slayers he kills superbly foreshadows the chief emotional arc of the season. Spike describes how the Slayers just seemed to give up. A part of them was disconnected from the rest of the world, and realized it would be easier to let him win. This, he tells Buffy, is unlikely with her, because she is directly connected to the world thanks to her friends, her mother, and her boyfriend.

In that sense, and in many others, the first fifteen episodes of the season lead up to the sixteenth and most famous, "The Body." Buffy's mother, diagnosed with, and apparently cured of, a tumor earlier in the season, suddenly dies, and Buffy must deal with the body in both a metaphorical and literal sense. Everything that the show had meandered incompetently around in the first 2/3s of the season suddenly work, no doubt in large part because show creator Joss Whedon wrote and directed it.

"The Body" succeeds on its own due to its superb direction, an experimental style which intentionally disorients the viewer from normal television perspective in order to simulate the viewpoint of the suddenly shattered main character. All the major characters are at their strongest, weakest, or both. Giles steps in superbly as a father figure. Xander and Willow panic, not knowing how to help. Dawn acts as the child a Slayer's little sister would be expected to be, alternately disbelieving, scared, disobedient, helpful, and finally, likeable. Tara and Anya, who rarely had a role other than girlfriend or comic relief, respectively, put in perhaps their greatest moments. Tara acts as the voice of sanity and reason, situating her as the show's emotional center. Anya, on the other hand, panics, completely unable to understand her emotions and how she's supposed to behave. Her social awkwardness, usually played for laughs, suddenly becomes the heartbreaking. "The Body" somehow takes a mediocre season of Buffy and turns it into something bigger, better, and amazing.

Virtually every episode after "The Body" is stronger than those which preceded it, and the season proceeds to finish its main plot with reckless abandon after two episodes which consolidate what went before. In "Forever," the emotional death of Joyce Summers causes Angel's first return since the end of Season Four, and Dawn attempts to resurrect her mother, further humanizing her. Then, in "Intervention," the Spike crush storyline suddenly moves from annoying to emotionally involving, no doubt thanks to the writing of Jane Espenson, traditionally Buffy's best non-Whedon writer.

The main plot of the season involves a hell-Goddess named Glory, who seeks a mysterious "Key" to return to her home dimension. A group of monks opposing this transmogrify the Key into a form guaranteed to be protected by Earth's champion, the Slayer, thus Dawn is created. Dawn is both fully human and the mystical object sought by the invincible Glory. Glory is a fairly effective Big Bad, but compared to the wholesome evil of Season Three's Mayor, or the emotional connection to the Angel-Spike-Dru combination of Season Two, she's sorely lacking. She does, however, provide an excellent sense of threat. She could, and does, drive characters mad or simply kill them.

Glory's storyline suffers, like most of the others, during the lull in the middle of the season. Once Dawn's nature is revealed in the fifth episode, the main storyline simply spins its wheels while the Riley and Spike arcs are dealt with. Her storyline also suffers from the presence of her human host on Earth, a fairly normal fellow named Ben, whom Buffy encounters interning at the hospital. Ben's relationship to Glory slowly becomes clear - he is her human form, which she can occasionally take control of. Anyone who witnesses this, however, forgets it soon after. The story suffers, however, with its inconsistent characterization of Ben. One episode he's a perfectly nice guy, then he's a mass murderer working with Glory, then he's nice again, then he'll do anything to defend Dawn even at his expense, then he'll do anything to save his skin. It's the weakest part of an otherwise strong set of episodes at the end of the season.

The strongest part is Buffy's resolution. Early in the season, Spike gave her a list of reasons she would maintain her resolve. But first she loses her boyfriend. Then her mother. Her sister is revealed to be a construct. When her friends are attacked and Glory learns Dawn's nature, Buffy's only response is to run. And when Glory finds them and takes Dawn, Buffy simply stops. She finally has found something which makes her simply surrender. Of course, Buffy has one more thing attaching her to the world - her friends - who drag her out of her funk. A newly accepting Buffy finally confronts Glory, defeating her, but not before Dawn's sacrifice threatens to destroy the world. Buffy refuses to stop the ritual by killing Dawn, and instead sacrifices herself to save the world.

This was initially supposed to be the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was certainly effective and touching, although not quite at the level of Babylon 5's tearjerker, but certainly not at the laughable level of Battlestar Galactica. The final shot, of Buffy's tombstone with a line at the bottom saying "SHE SAVED THE WORLD. A LOT" is an almost perfect summation of the series, being funny, precious, and sad, all at once. It also caps Buffy as a character, who was often overlooked based on the sheer charm of her sidekicks, but really was the greatest character on the show.

However, a great ending does not a fantastic season make. Compared with the emotional punch of Season Two, the wall-to-wall quality of Season Three, or even the excellent standalone episodes of Season Four, the fifth season falls a little bit flat. Yet it's only just behind, and "The Body" is probably the best Buffy episode ever, and one of the best ever on television.

TOP 5:

1. "The Body" - What more can I say? This hour of television is the reason people think Joss Whedon is King Of All Nerds.

2. "Fool for Love" - Spike walks Buffy through the real perils of being a Slayer. The "Spikeification" hasn't pulled his teeth totally. It might be the last time we see Spike as a bad ass, as unable to compete with Buffy physically, he gets to her mentally by telling her the truth.

3. "The Gift" - The finale may be most notable for its ending and Buffy's death, but its opening, a throwback in which a single vampire chases a scared young man into an alley, calls back to the first episodes of the series. Buffy's workmanlike quipping and dispatching of the vampire, followed by her world-weary response to the kid she saves, are pitch-perfect. It's the same show, but so very different.

4. "Intervention" - Buffy becomes the last of the big three characters to get a doppelganger, after Willow's vampire and Xander's clone. Hers is a robot, or more accurately, a sex-bot for Spike's pleasure. Hilarity begins to ensue, but is quickly ruined by Buffy being told that "Death is her gift" by the First Slayer and Glory attacking and capturing Spike, who knows Dawn is the Key. Writer Jane Espenson seems to know how to make Spike, even lovelorn Spike, work as a character, and it shows in this episode, as he's likeable for the first time since his crush was revealed.

5. "Triangle" - With Riley gone, Buffy is an emotional wreck, and dedicates herself to saving Xander and Anya's relationship. Anya's tension with Willow leads to the summoning of a pissed off troll-god. What sounds like a soap opera with monsters in the ways that Buffy can occasionally grate, but it's turned into gold by the deft touch of Espenson.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Fallout 3

Fallout 3 is a game with history. It has antecedents like Fallout 1 & 2 or Morrowind and Oblivion; it has a fully fleshed out game world; it has a full role-playing system. These are all valid, if entirely obvious, points to discuss for comparison. However, playing the game itself evokes a different kind of feeling. The slow uncovering of a game world filled with interesting nooks and crannies evokes the best aspects of the exploration-based Castlevania and Metroid games, while the role-playing system successfully melds Fallout with a first-person shooter.

Fallout 3 is built around exploration and character development more than previous games in the series, thanks primarily to its switch to a 3D engine. In previous Fallout games, each important part of the game was segmented off from the next. The player traveled to a town over a world map. This is gone in Fallout 3, replaced by a contiguous world where the player can walk from one side of the map to the other. In addition to that, it rewards the player who chooses to walk by showing interesting things to walk towards, in addition to having a compass with a marker showing where unexplored areas are. The scope is smaller - it's simply the D.C. area (now the "Capital Wasteland") instead of half of California - which is somewhat disappointing only because the game makes the player want more.

This makes Fallout 3 feel like it is unfolding naturally in front of the player – Where you are feels exactly where you're supposed to be. Certainly, some parts of the game are harder than others, but ideally, the player soon realizes this and wanders in a different direction. This is why it is such a shock when, upon finishing the main quest, the game simply ends. Sure, this happens in most every other RPG, but in Fallout 3, this sudden, arbitrary imposition of boundaries was a betrayal. Likewise, the official downloadable content released by Bethesda disappoints largely because it takes the player away from the Capital Wasteland instead of providing more to explore.

That Fallout 3 was even released, given the distance between it and its predecessors, was a pleasant surprise. That it's a great game, and a worthy continuation of the name is even better. That it takes the franchise in new directions, with new perspectives, while maintaining much of original games' charm makes it a modern classic.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A New Project

I am writing a book. I've been working on it for about six weeks, and I've got over ten thousand words. This is significantly more than any other book project I've started, which includes a few novels in the past, and a brief poke at trying to write on the Antioch situation. This time, more successfully, I'm choosing to write about something I've already done much of the research on - the history of video games.

It began when The Escapist put out their publication schedule, including an issue on how games were better in the old days (followed by one on how games' best days are ahead.) This gave me the impetus to write a short piece on how the games we play these days were pretty well defined in the 1990's. All of the major genres were either created or refined in the 1990's, with very little new being done in the 2000's. The article was rejected, ironically, but it helped me to get started on that process. This has helped me realize that:

  • The history of video games can be told in an interesting fashion using genre as a lens. It's how gamers perceive games, and it keeps the focus on the games, instead of on the designers, corporations, or technology.
  • I've probably played enough games to be able to do this well. Whenever lists of "The All-Time Greatest" or "The Most Influential Games" come out, I've played most all of them.
  • I think at this point, I have the writing ability and longevity to do it.
I've already written around 10,000 words, mostly on Japanese/console RPGs in the 1990's, at the suggestion of FF7 fan Renaissance Poet. The relative ease with which I've managed to do this may cause problems later on, as JRPGs have had maybe the most thought and argument poured into them of any genre, and likewise, I can make the claim that I've played many of the most important of them, so don't really need much research.

On the other hand, the research is going to be fun. Although I've played most of the great games, there are still several which I missed (intentionally or not), don't really remember, or perhaps quirky outliers that I never got around to. So next on list, while I still have access to a Wii, is Super Mario Galaxy.

After that? I'm looking forward to spending some time with M.U.L.E., The Ocarina of Time, Metroid, and Silent Hill. I'm more wary of Tomb Raider, FarmVille, Myst, and Resident Evil, but you know - the things we do for art.