American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
It was early 2004, and I was sitting with some fellow graduate students at an outdoor table at the Market Street Pub in Gainesville, Florida (one of the glories of Gainesville was that you could sit at an outdoor table in January or February). Somehow, the subject of comics came up. We talked about the characters, creators and titles that we'd loved as kids, and my friend Roger asked me if I still read superhero comics, as he did. "Not really," I replied. "I guess Joss Whedon's work fills whatever need in me those comics used to fulfill."
At the time, Whedon's "Angel" was in its fifth (and, fans would soon discover, final) season on the WB, and its parent show, "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," had ended the previous May. I was a huge fan of both (as well as a more subdued fan of Whedon's "Firefly," the Fox cult sci-fi show that had run for a single season in 2002-2003, in a disjointed fashion mandated by the network). I had been a latecomer to the Joss Whedon television party—I didn't start watching "Buffy" until its fourth season, turned off by the title, the original movie version, and what I thought were the silly billboards for the show that dotted the streets around my workplace in Chicago when "Buffy" debuted in March 1997. We watched a fourth-season episode (the Spike-centric "Harsh Light of Day") for a graduate class in the fall of 1999, and I was hooked right away, drawn to its sharp writing and witty wordplay, tongue-in-cheek acting, sensuous colors, and melodramatic scoring (cinematographer Michael Gershman and composer Christophe Beck, both of whom would be nominated for Emmys for their work on the show, were always its secret weapons). But there was something else to it—I immediately recognized, from the look and tone of the thing, that Joss Whedon was a fellow Marvel nerd.
It seems obvious—both "Buffy" and "Angel" are, at heart, superhero tales (and Whedon's later work, like "Dollhouse" and "Dr. Horrible," would also explicitly draw on the narrative tropes and iconography of the genre). But it wasn't just the generic trappings, or even the expertly arced seasons (with skillful weaving of character and action that showed that someone had really absorbed the lessons of Claremont and Byrne's "Uncanny X-Men"): It was a certain sensibility, a worldview that was part geek investment and part distanced meta-commentary, where the artist is offering a knowing intertextuality for those who want it, without ever breaking the spell cast by the romance, color and action. This was the trick Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko perfected in the mid-sixties with the original "Marvel Age of Comics," and it's been carried on by generations of skillful writers, artists, and editors in the fifty years since: by deconstructing the clichés of comic book storytelling, they let the reader into the creative process in a manner that actually enhances the investment. Once those clichés are cast aside, and replaced with something more contradictory and deeply human, the reader's attachment to an interconnected fictional universe can become far more intense. It was this quality—to make the fantastic real, the serious funny, and the tragic addictive—that Whedon carried with him into TV, and subsequently into his film work at Marvel.
As the saying goes, there's no believer like a convert, and I quickly caught up with Whedon's past "Buffy" and "Angel" work via DVD and borrowed videotapes (another reminder of my comics-reading days: the thrill of the hunt, the insatiable desire to read or see everything). When I pitched this piece to the editors of RogerEbert.com, I thought, "Oh, ten episodes that show the superheroic influence on Whedon's work, no problem". As I sat down to make a list, I quickly started to weep at the impossibility of the task. I've managed to narrow it down to six, with eight more short recommendations, and the caveat to the reader that he or she should really watch all of Whedon's TV work—it's easily accessible on a variety of disc and streaming formats, and its greatest impact comes from seeing how it all flows together into one great, humanist saga about the need for community. And portable missile launchers.
1) "Becoming, Pt. 2" ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer")
As the superhero movie has become the dominant genre of American summertime moviegoing over the last decade, there have been occasional attempts to both canonize and defrock the form via critical comparisons to other storytelling modes: the science fiction epic, the Western, the gangster picture. Like any good mutant, "superhero movies" (actually a genre as disparate in styles as any other) draw on all of these, but I've always felt like the comparisons missed the mark. For me, the clearest comparison is with the musical, which has an emphasis on color, light, physical movement, iconic costuming, and gloriously excessive spectacle-for-its-own sake that makes it the superhero's natural forebear.
"Musicals were my absolute bread-and-butter," Joss Whedon mentioned in a 2007 interview with The Onion AV Club. "A lot of people didn't know that, because I love horror movies, and I love other things." That influence is there even when the singing is not, as in the climactic scene of this "Buffy" season finale, as the titular heroine battles one-time paramour Angel (now reverted, due to a loss of his soul, to his original, evil form of Angelus), attempting to stop him from sucking the world into hell via the dark god Acathla. Bear with me here, because anything worth watching can't have its impact summed up in a simple, vaguely ridiculous plot summary: that's another thing that "Buffy" has in common with everything from Sondheim's "Follies" to the "Fantastic Four." As Buffy and Angel carry on a sword-fight duel in a garden, Buffy sidekick Xander stages a rescue of their mentor Giles, best friend Willow attempts a tricky magic spell from her hospital bed, and free agent vampire Spike plays all sides against one another (tossing off quips all the while), I'm taken with how much it feels like a musical.
From the cross-cutting between spaces, cut in expert counterpoint to Christophe Beck's scoring; to the flashes of color and light off the swords and the greenery of the garden; to the combination of dolly shots on Willow’s face with pans and overhead crane shots that evoke “West Side Story” and the most feverish products of the Freed Unit; to the fight scenes that feel like Errol Flynn, filtered through the 1948 musical "The Pirate" (and filtered again through the canted panel spaces of "Spider-Man comics"); to the mise-en-scene of greenery/drapery/greenery/drapery, as if Vincente Minnelli dropped by to dress the set—all of it weaves together to create a dizzying sublimity that's like something out of Jeffrey Cordova's wildest dreams (asked once for his favorite film musical, Whedon wisely said, " 'The Band Wagon' kicks ass"). All it lacks, of course, is a song, but it's this kind of non-singing musicality that Whedon will deploy in the climax of "The Avengers," as a long take carries the viewer across the city, following the tail of a gigantic space monster, and the superheroes attempting to destroy it, moving together in perfect time.
2) "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog"
“I have so many superhero puns, and no use for them! You can’t leave me behind!,” writer and director Ben Edlund yelled at Joss Whedon while the two were on picket lines during the Hollywood writers’ strike in 2007, after Whedon had told the creator of "The Tick" about his idea of doing a web-based TV series that would musically parody superheroes. It had begun when Whedon and his brothers found themselves recording commentaries, on a lark, for the old home movie parodies Whedon made in film school. He had thought about doing a weekly podcast, which would tell an inverted superhero story from the point-of-view of an incompetent and madly romantic super-villain, and which would feature a song each week. When the writers’ strike hit, Whedon found himself talking to the writing staff of "The Office," who were developing webisodes, and thinking about "New Voyages," a web-only fan series about the original Star Trek crew that debuted in 2003, and whose streaming capabilities Whedon was very impressed by.
Edlund, also a former staff writer for "Firefly" and "Angel" (where he directed the brilliant Muppets parody episode, “Smile Time”), pitched the villain Bad Horse and his sidekick Moist, and then disappeared. Whedon, along with his brothers Zack and Jed, and writer/actress/producer Maurissa Tancharoen, would write the script and produce the songs for "Dr. Horrible," a three-act, free Internet program that ran online from July 15, 2008-July 20, 2008. Written in a month and shot in six days for $200,000 (which Whedon himself provided), the show crashed its server due to demand, spun off a soundtrack album, was made available on iTunes and eventually released on DVD before finally finding a home on Whedon's old network, the CW.
Of all the shows under discussion, it’s "Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog" that most reflects the ethos of the show musical, both on-screen and behind the scenes. Its DIY ethos—the speed of its production, the homemade iron-on costumes, the images shot on iPhones, the songs written and recorded in a home studio, and above all the idea that it was mostly family, friends and former staffers at Whedon’s Mutant Enemy company that were involved—is very much the “fix up the barn and put on a show!” aesthetic in action. But its on-screen story is also very much that of a show musical, and extends the show musical as a communal form back out to its audience.
Dr. Horrible’s problem (given poignancy by Neil Patrick Harris's pitch perfect performance) is that he fails to understand the various mechanisms within which he’s trapped himself, and thus can never create the mystique of “stardom” that a good villain needs. He uses his blog as a performative, promotional tool and personal diary while forgetting it is a public space (almost like a theater with no backstage), thus allowing his enemy Captain Hammer (a super-hammy Nathan Fillion) to know his every move. He can build technology, but doesn’t use it well, preventing his acceptance into the League of Evil. And he can sing to himself of his love of Penny (Felicia Day), the girl at the laundry, but can’t speak it (an ironic reversal of the problem musicals often present). Hammer, on the other hand, does nothing that doesn’t seem calculated, and yet has tremendous success—in musical terms, he’s Lena Lamont. As Whedon says of Hammer, “There’s no Clark Kent”—no “real” identity that the traditional superhero might hide behind, no underdog with whom to identify. Dr. Horrible wants the courtly love that's a characteristic of the musical, but can’t achieve it, and Penny remains frozen as an ideal in his mind, rather than a person—she's an object of voyeurism (“with my freeze ray I will stop the world,” he sings, not realizing that’s the whole problem); meanwhile, the intertwined love triangles end tragically rather than happily, reversing the trajectory of a typical backstage show.
"Dr. Horrible's" ultimate impact wasn't just aesthetic—although it's delightful—but systemic: during a writer's strike with a major sticking point being residuals from the growing internet and DVD market, "Horrible" showed that creators with strong fan-bases could use these new spaces to successfully pitch original product (a foreshadowing of Netflix, Amazon and Yahoo! original programming). And more importantly, it was a reminder that the act of creation doesn't stop with the show—just as comic conventions and comic fan culture arose in the sixties and seventies as their own creative (and eventually commercial) spaces for enthused consumers, so too did "Dr. Horrible" inspire intense fan devotion—almost immediately, viewers began designing costumes, holding conventions, writing fan-fics, and organizing sing-alongs. Perhaps one way to kick off the larger conversation about the relationship between musicals and superheroes is to acknowledge that—beyond the costumes, the campiness, the body images, the choreography, color and movement—one thing they share is the potential for constant renewal and re-telling by a passionate fan culture. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether there is actual singing on the screen to accompany our brightly colored heroes, because the song is what we bring to it—the song is you.
3) "Our Mrs. Reynolds" ("Firefly")
Fillion had previously made two other appearances in Whedon projects—as the villainous Caleb in Season Seven of "Buffy," and as Mal Reynolds, the (at least occasionally) heroic lead of Whedon's "Firefly." Set in 2517, in a post-civil war environment dominated by a U.S./Chinese fused superpower called "The Alliance," "Firefly" tells the story of a group of ex-soldiers (from the losing side of the war), mercenaries, and other misfits aboard the spaceship Serenity (later the title of the post-series feature film), on the run from the Alliance and making their living as traders, salvagers, escorts, and thieves. Loosely inspired by Whedon's reading of Michael Shaara's Civil War novel "The Killer Angels," it was his attempt to blend the science fiction movies and TV shows he'd grown up loving with, in his words, "a 'Stagecoach' kind of drama, with a lot of people trying to figure out their lives." Its bizarre treatment by Fox—who chose to begin the show by airing "The Train Job" (an episode designed for the middle of the run) as the "pilot," while not airing the actual two-hour pilot until mid-way through the run—culminated in a mid-season cancellation, and the show found its real audience on DVD, where it became a large cult hit. This martyred existence gives "Firefly" a special glow for certain parts of Whedon's fan-based, and it also feels kind of poetic, given the ways in which the show's characters so clearly embody the central tenet of all of Whedon's TV work—"Nothing we do matters, so all that matters is what we do."
In "Our Mrs. Reynolds," Mal finds, in best Marvel superhero style, that a single act of kindness can lead to all kinds of headaches. He and crewmates Jayne (Adam Baldwin) and Zoe (Gina Torres) rescue a covered wagon from bandits, and after he dances with Saffron (Christina Hendricks) that evening, he finds that he's now "engaged" to her, at least according to Saffron. But what begins as screwball comedy, with Saffron playing "housewife" aboard the ship, quickly turns into something darker and more action-driven, without losing a touch of humor. Imagine Spider-Man and the Black Cat in space, and you have some sense of the unfolding narrative, played with sharp chemistry and exquisite timing by Fillion and the eternally-underrated Hendricks.
4) "Ghost" ("Dollhouse")
The titular setting of "Dollhouse" sports a layout that feels both modern and traditional—it's a sleek set of concentric circles, polished wood and gleaming metal that's enveloped in shadow, and lit from above and the side by halogen-like panels that glow like Japanese lanterns (this Asian influence can also be seen in the neon-lit night-club that our heroine, Echo, dances in during this episode's pre-credits sequence: its lovely pink pillars and lampposts look like something out of manga). As Echo walks in front of them in the screen shot to the left, they almost look like out-of-order Tetris pieces, fragments that can be re-ordered depending on the specific game one is playing. In that sense, they offer a clue to the overall design of the show (whose constantly shifting narrative parts and tones ask the viewer to take a more interactive stance) and the generally mixed critical response “Dollhouse” received.
Questions of memory and identity are built into "Dollhouse"'s narrative concept. Echo (Eliza Dushku) first appears in the pre-credits sequence as a scared and hopped-up young woman. Echo is promised a mysterious "clean slate" by Olivia Williams' wonderfully oily Ms. DeWitt, and we flash-forward into her new life as a "doll," a marketable commodity rented out for various fantasies (or what DeWitt euphemistically refers to as "appointments"), and here seen seducing a man in a night-club. She flirts with the man and then skips out into the daylight (her transition from the dark club to the sunshine mediated by those neon pillars I mentioned earlier), where a van picks her up and returns her to the corporation. Her mind is wiped, and she becomes the blank vehicle for her next assignment, which turns out to be a hostage crisis.
All of this happens in the first ten minutes of the show, and I've only described about half the action. That's a lot to absorb, particularly given Whedon's almost New Wavish editing patterns, which are full of sharp breaks and ellipses. "Dollhouse" had a famously difficult gestation and this episode was actually the show's second pilot. Reports suggested that Fox wanted something that more clearly outlined the show's direction and offered viewers clearer introduction and exposition.
They got that—by the end of the first hour, we've been introduced to many of the major players and the overall concept—but this is still a much denser visual and narrative weave than earlier shows like "Buffy" or "Angel." There's a fascinating rhythm between long shot (often used as eerie punctuation, as when we see the doll beds from overhead) and tight close-up or medium shot: the wider view offers quick views of dense and fascinating spaces, while the close-up takes away our ability to see the space around the characters, enhances the sense of disorientation and claustrophobia that Echo feels.
"Dollhouse" didn't last long, and is generally the least-loved of Whedon's TV shows, but I find its more complex take on style and character heartening, not least because it seemed to force Whedon out of his usual love affair with the Nerd Paradigm, in a manner that lead to the more interesting, dark heroism of Black Widow and Hawkeye in Whedon's "Avengers" films. An example of this Nerd Paradigm appears in every Whedon show, most famously the character of Willow Rosenberg on "Buffy." It's functioned as wish fulfillment for both Whedon's writing staff and a wide swath of his audience; but what initially feels like a fun break with stereotypes just ends up creating a new set of them along different prejudicial lines, as what once felt like a broadly textured set of characters has sometimes ended up boilING down to more singular definitions of "heroism," which end up pandering to their audience in depressingly familiar ways.
Examples of the Nerd Paradigm pop up in "Dollhouse," too, but the geeks here feel menacing, imbricated into the corruption of the Dollhouse with everyone else (Fran Kranz is quite wonderful as the house's resident genius—he can seem by turns charming and arrogant, just a few steps away from complete psychosis). The scars on Amy Acker's face in "Ghost" speak to something more textured, mysterious and damaging at the heart of the paradigm, at once sympathetic and a bit alienating.
5) "City Of" ("Angel")
Two images dominate the first season of "Angel": The first, from the pre-credits scene of this episode (the show's pilot, an image later captured for the show's credits) shows our titular hero—a vampire with a soul who fights for good in order to atone for past sins—staking two vampires and stalking off into the night, his long leather duster swirling behind him. Framed by a dirty, shadow-strewn alley, Angel seems the embodiment of Raymond Chandler's noir detective: "down these streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is not himself tarnished nor afraid....He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry that you ever saw him."
The second, quite different image is distinctively unproud, as Angel (David Boreanaz) imagines himself dancing at a friend's party. Cut to Boreanaz doing...well, the dorkiest dance ever, full of arrhythmic arm movements, regrettable hip sways, and a positively Marmaduke-like tongue flapping through his lips. Flashing back to reality, Angel says, completely deadpan, "I don't dance."
Somewhere between those two images—the first full of epic darkness and danger, the second oozing humorous satire—lies the tone of this "Buffy" spinoff. Initially far more "stand-alone" in its episodic structure than "Buffy" (which would quickly change in the coming years), there's clearly a lot of feeling around going on in its initial year, as co-creators Whedon and David Greenwalt try to figure out to dance to the beat of this new song they're playing, desperate to look more like the cool avenger than the dancing fool. It takes about half-a-season, but they eventually find their rhythm, and the end result is arguably the most underrated thing Joss Whedon ever did.
After reaching a perfect closure to its first, high-school based half, "Buffy" saw the departure of three seemingly minor figures at the end of season three—Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), the sarcastic school princess, forced to work as a secretary after her parents were indicted on tax fraud; Wesley (Alexis Denisof), the oafish Watcher who generally caused as much trouble as he prevented; and Angel, Buffy's paramour/arch enemy. All three wind up in LA, where Angel opens a supernatural detective agency and, aided by Cordelia, Wesley, and the mysterious, vision-prone Doyle (Glenn Quinn), fights the demons and lawyers Raymond Chandler never could have dreamed of.
In Angel, Whedon created his own Tony Stark—an arrogant rich boy brought low by circumstance, and attempting to redeem himself for past sins while keeping his ego and addiction in check. And even moreso than in the more corporately constricted confines of the Marvel movies, Whedon here has crafted the perfectly balanced, Marvelesque super-team. Anyone who picked up an Avengers comic in the 70s and 80s (when Whedon's sensibility was forming) would recognize the archetypes. Cordelia is Whedon's Janet Van Dyne, a heroine whose fashion sense and surface ditziness conceal a fierce toughness and striking intelligence; Wesley is Henry Pym, the brilliant-but-tragic hero whose attempts to do good are so often thwarted by his own insecurities. Later seasons will see the team enhanced by the additions of Gunn (August Richards, who also turns up in the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." TV show), the sensitive muscle of the group, and Fred (Amy Acker), a sweet-but-psychically scarred physics genius. Even more than "Buffy," "Angel" is about the absolute pains and absolute necessity of family, in all senses, and its willingness to go dark and deep gives it an epic feel that's actually more cinematic than any of Whedon's films.
Much of that is in the show's future, though—in this pilot, Whedon and Greenwalt are still having fun playing with and parodying the Batman model they clearly adore. From Angel's stoic brooding, to his underground lair, to the plethora of gadgets he brings on his first big mission (all of which, pointedly, fail him), "Angel" suggests how easily the superheroic paradigm could translate to network TV. Just don't ask him to dance.
6) "Innocence" ("Buffy")
So, now we come to the missile launchers. We also come to the absolute, single best episode of any of Whedon's TV shows. I started watching "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" during its fourth season, and became truly a convert during its sixth (a brilliant piece of darkness and longing that's still mistreated by fandom). But it was while catching up with this episode via DVD, in the summer of 2002, that I stared at the screen and said out loud, "This is the coolest thing I have ever seen."
Okay, that's something of an exaggeration, but the episode that inspired it remains the high-water mark for the show, and a landmark in terms of its relationship to its then-network, the WB. The WB was made possible through FCC deregulation of what were known as “financial interest and syndication rules” (or fin-syn), which prevented the sorts of media conglomeration that would allow networks to own the products they aired. Steadily weakened throughout the 70s and 80s, they were abolished in 1993, an abolishment enhanced and codified by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, an act of corporate integration that was occurring just as the television audience was fracturing to a remarkable degree. When the WB launched in 1995 (owned by Time-Warner, with the Tribune company providing a minority stake, and the independent stations that would air the WB’s programming), its public face was Michigan J. Frog, its receptionists were forced to answer the phone with a cheery “Dubba-dubba-dubya B!,” and its best-known stars were Marlon Wayans and Kirk Cameron. As the WB and its rival “netlet” UPN followed the earlier Fox model of program gentrification (shifting from a schedule that more heavily featured African-American stars to something much whiter), these early mis-starts were replaced with "7th Heaven" and "Dawson’s Creek", but it was Buffy The Vampire Slayer who became the new symbol of the network—young, smart, and female. But unlike Mary Camden or Joey Potter, Buffy—both character and TV show—offered something more complex and contradictory, which reflected the complexities of its audience, and it was this set of contradictions that made it a critical hit, and eventually a commercial one.
"Innocence" was "Buffy"'s best, early response to this fandom, and to the more dynamic and occasionally contentious relationship that the shifting technologies of TV and fan culture could generate. The show's producers knew they were moving from their regular Monday night timeslot to Tuesday, and that, in fact, the episodes would air on back-to-back nights in the same week, with heavy promotion from the WB about the switch. So, they decided to pull a switch of their own. "Innocence" is the fourteenth episode of the second season, already new territory for the show (the previous, mid-season replacement season had aired only 12 episodes), and was the second part of a two-part cliffhanger. Buffy—ex-cheerleader, current Slayer, herself caught between her popular past and her outcast present—has fallen in love with Angel, the vampire with a soul. Over the course of last season-and-a-half, the lovers had overcome age difference, their Slayer/vampire conflict, and the disapproval of their friends, in order to affirm their love. On the night of Buffy's 17th birthday, knowing that Angel must leave their town of Sunnydale for several months on a dangerous mission, they have sex for the first time (and for Buffy's first time ever). And in what "Buffy" character Oz might call the show's most powerful "single entendre," everything goes to hell afterwards.
(Okay, spoiler alert, because I know how fans can be. It aired SEVENTEEN years ago, but still…)
Unbeknownst to either Buffy or Angel, the latter's soul is predicated on the way it tortures him—constantly reminded of the evil he did as a soulless vampire, Angel leads a wracked emotional existence, but it is this pain that keeps him in check, and makes him want to do good. If he experiences "one moment of true happiness," the soul disappears into the ether, and he is once again, as one character puts it, "the most evil and vicious vampire that ever lived." It is their lovemaking that releases his soul, a devastating, extreme metaphor for the guy who tosses his girl aside after sex. Fans were outraged, but they watched—the show got a record 8.2 million viewers on its first airing, a huge leap for a show that normally averaged around 2 or 3 million. It also set up the remainder of the season's arc, as Buffy dealt with her guilt over "unleashing" Angelus, and her pain at the loss of their love.
David Boreanaz, who can occasionally be stiff in "Buffy"'s early episodes (this was his first major TV role), seems unleashed as Angelus—from the moment he sucks the blood from a prostitute in the pre-credits sequence (and then blows the smoke from her cigarette-infused lungs out), he's having a ball playing evil, and this energy extends to the rest of the cast. As strong as the central narrative of Buffy and Angel is, Whedon never forgets what a brilliant ensemble he has, and how many different forms of "innocence" can play out across their shifting relationships. From the interplay of Angelus with vampiric proteges Spike (James Marsters) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau); to the doomed romantic dynamic of Buffy's Watcher/surrogate father Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) and high school teacher Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) to the love rectangle between Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Oz (Seth Green), and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter)—captured in one of the show's best uses of foreground and background—to the pains of Buffy's parental relationships with Giles and her mother (Kristine Sutherland), this is an episode that sends emotional ripples out everywhere, and no one is really, truly innocent.
That doesn't mean there isn't heroism, though, and family, and community—as another character will say in narration towards the end of the second (and best) season, "The big moments are gonna come. You can't help that. It's what you do afterwards that counts." After the pain of the first half of the episode, it's hard not to give a cathartic cheer as Buffy whips out a stolen missile launcher and fires it at Angelus in the middle of a multiplex (I choose to read the blowing up of this space as Whedon's general response to the way his original "Buffy" movie script was mangled by its producers); it's wonderful how Whedon deploys Cordelia's priceless sarcasm as comic relief throughout, but never moreso than when she complains about "Pieces! Our job is to pick up the pieces!"; and it's striking how he moves from this epic action back to the two quieter moments that end the episode, and truly offer its mission statement: Giles affirming his fatherly love for Buffy as he drops her off at home, and Buffy and her mother staring at her birthday cupcake, as the 1938 Shirley Temple movie "Stowaway" plays on TV in the background (the song playing in the movie is, perfectly, "Goodnight, My Love"). It's a cinematic icon of youth passing the torch to a televisual one, even as Buffy mumbles sadly about her cupcake candle, "I'll just let it burn."
Eight More Quick-Pick Must-Sees!
1) "Prophecy Girl" ("Buffy"): This season one finale offers the kind of epic showdown that climaxed many a superhero comic, complete with quips, epiphanies, and the kind of comic closer that Whedon would perfect in his post-credits "Avengers" scene.
2) "Graduation Day, Pt. 2" ("Buffy"): The brilliant, generally unspoken joke of "Buffy" is that the central characters see themselves as marginalized outcasts, and work hard to keep their slaying and world-saving a secret—but by the end of the third season, it's revealed that everyone knows their town is on a Hellmouth—"We just don't talk about it much." In expanding the notion of heroism to include the entire high school, "Graduation Day" is the program's single most generous affirmation of community, and uses its wonderfully staged action to remind us, in great Marvel style, that everyone really is a hero in their own way.
3) "The Body" ("Buffy"): Whenever anyone asks me what the scariest episode of "Buffy" is, I always say it's this one. There are no big action scenes, no giant monsters—the only nod to the show's horror tropes is a deliberately clumsy fight between Buffy and vampire in a morgue that only lasts a minute or two. But the fear and pain and real-life monstrousness explored in this episode—enhanced by the eerie ambient noise that replaces the normal score, and offers no melodramatic escape—creates a claustrophobia that's unbearable. This episode is here because it's about what superheroes can't save or change.
4) "Two To Go/Grave" ("Buffy"): Whedon's most explicit nod to the "X-Men" influence he often cites, as the "Dark Willow" storyline that slowly builds through the sixth season comes to full, terrifying, two-part fruition. Bonus points for the way it signals the return of Rupert Giles to Sunnydale.
5) "Sleep Tight" ("Angel"): Superhero tale as operatic tragedy, complete with threats of patricide, filial betrayal, a crescendo of cross-cutting, and a final, cliff-hanging scene whose blend of over-the-top visuals and utter hopelessness might make Wagner weep. This aired on March 4, 2002, and the show then went on a month-long hiatus, which is nearly as cruel as anything Whedon and David Greenwalt do to their characters.
6) "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been" ("Angel"): One of Whedon's most meta TV episodes, carrying the show back to the early 1950s, here captured in a series of visual and narrative references to "Rebel Without A Cause," "Vertigo," "The Ox-Bow Incident," and "Barton Fink," among many others. In using this intertextuality to tell a story of blacklisting and racial passing, Whedon again offers a hero with clay feet—this episode is as much about what Angel chooses not to do, in a moment of crisis, as it is about his redemption.
7) "Smile Time" ("Angel"): "Self-esteem/Is for everyone…": "Angel"'s fifth and final season is kind of a mess, but this episode—where Angel gets turned into a Muppet—is absolutely perfect, and a loving tribute from Whedon to the work of his father Tom (a producer on both "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company," thus suggesting that the Whedon family has been colonizing my imagination for my entire life). While very, very funny, the show never loses sight of its heart, or its message—that heroes come in all sizes and fabrics.
8) "Once More, With Feeling" ("Buffy"): How many college film classes did I teach this episode in? How many times have my wife and I listened to its soundtrack on road trips? How many times have I thought that "I'll Never Tell," the acidic duet between Xander and fiance Anya, is the great, lost song from Stephen Sondheim's "Company"? The genius of "Once More…" isn't just in its fabulous pop songs, its ace staging, its little musical jokes (like the Mustard Stain Guy) or its full expression of Whedon's Broadway nerviness. It's that the stylistic conceit isn't a one-shot or a throwaway, but—like nearly all of the stylistically tricky episodes of the show—something that's fully integrated into the ongoing seasonal arc, and an absolute necessity for revealing character. All that, and jazz hands!
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A review of Netflix's new series, Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events," which premieres January 13.