Archie and the Gang Get CWed

So, the new Riverdale.

The CW has taken the classic Archie comics, and brought them into the real world. Well, not the real world, exactly. More like a CW show. They’ve brought them into a CW show. So it’s a darker, more nuanced, grittier Riverdale. (Although not nearly as gritty as the fantastic Afterlife With Archie comics, which place Archie and his nifty pals in the midst of a zombie apocalypse.)

In Riverdale, sufficed to say, there’s murder, illicit affairs, closeted jocks, and a serious lack of lighting.

When the story starts, Jason Blossom, twin brother of Cheryl, Queen Bee of the school, has apparently drowned. No body was found. But was it muuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurder?

Of course it was.

Right off I’ll say, I enjoyed the pilot enough to continue watching. However, it’s very much like Gossip Girl, or Pretty Little Liars, and I gave up on both of those shows a couple of seasons in. Eventually you’ve paired up everyone with everyone else, you’ve had every single character betray every other character multiple times, everyone has secrets that come out, and then more secrets that come out again.  It all becomes a bit of a yawner, frankly.

I hope the creators of Riverdale don’t just plop the Archie characters down in the CW universe, and forget their provenance – both to honor it, and to turn it on its ear.  There were flashes here and there in the pilot, but I’d like more winks to the original.  (Kevin calling Archie “swell.” Jughead’s hat. A hint as to where Moose might have gotten his nickname.) The show is, after all, written by Archie Comic’s chief creative officer.

Some general atmospheric stuff: I get that they’re going for a Twin Peaksian vibe here. That small town/soap opera noir, somewhat dreamlike, and very, very dark. Too dark. I mean, the-band-room-is-candlelit dark. I wish they would take a page from Buffy, a show that knew how to work the contrast between a sunny, seemingly perfect burb and its nasty underbelly. Give us some sun, and some bright shiny teens. Every scene at Riverdale High shouldn’t look like they’re about to be blasted with the tornado siren.

The characters in the original Archie comics never change (at least not when I read them back in the 80s.) They act out the same patterns again and again, they take the same girl to the dance (or at least the same two girls, in rotation) – they laugh at the same old bit of wackiness from Jughead, and at some point, Moose sees Reggie flirting with Midge, and we just know Reggie’s gonna get a pasting.

In Riverdale, they slap big fat labels on everyone’s foreheads right in the pilot. Many of the characters declare out loud just who exactly they are, or if they don’t, their friends do it for them. The Perfect Girl. The Fiery Bitch. The Big Jock. The Gay Best Friend. The Ice Queen. But of course, unlike in the Archie comics, these boxes are meant to be broken.

The only person who remains undefined is Archie, because at the start of the show, he’s mired in an identity crisis. He has no idea who he is, and it’s paralyzing him.

Which brings us to the character rundowns. Spoilers ahoy!

ARCHIE

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First off, Archie’s dad is played by Luke Perry, which is an inspired bit of casting. (Although, speaking of a rehash, Archie’s working-class dad and Veronica’s rich mom having a thing in the past – and now they’re both single (!) is so very Gossip Girl.) Let’s be clear: Archie in the comics is a little shit. He’s a wishy-washy, lying, misogynistic pipsqueak, who plays women against each other. Why two gorgeous, together girls like Betty and Veronica would even talk to him, let alone fawn all over him, is beyond comprehension. But I guess that’s part of the joke.

So Riverdale, smartly, gives Archie a makeover. First of all, he’s hot. And, one of those aforementioned winks, we learn he wasn’t hot the last time any of the characters saw him. He got ripped working for Dad Perry’s construction company all summer. He’s not a freckly ginger, either. Don’t get me wrong, freckly gingers can be uber-hot, but they’re not traditionally as hot as, say, oh, I don’t know, dark auburn broody boys. Just sayin’. So, Archie’s hot AF, so hot, in fact, that he loses his V card (I’m assuming) to the smokin’ music teacher over the summer. He’s still a little obsessed with her, I think (?) which is one of the reasons he can’t commit to his best friend, but never-girlfriend Betty, I think (?) but also because Betty is too good for him (yawn), I think (?). Honestly, we were left hanging as far as Archie’s feelings go. Which would be fine, except I think the writers were trying to be clear. He tells Veronica that he doesn’t think of Betty that way, but then, with the final Jughead-as-Walter-Neff voiceover, we hear that Archie’s heart is broken too, I think (?)

What we do know is: Archie love music. Archie love football. Archie torn. Archie gets to do both. Whee! I’m sure they’re going to create more conflict where this is concerned, but right now, it seems like Archie is broody for no reason, as he tends to get what he wants.

That’s the other thing, his Big Dark Secret with the teacher (aside from the naughty naughty), is that, while they were canoodling in the woods early one morning, they heard a gunshot – right around the time of Jason’s disappearance. Except, at the end of the episode, this problem too goes away for Archie, as they find Jason’s body with a gunshot wound. So he no longer needs to fret about telling the police. Although, hopefully the police will get the time of death wrong, and an alibi will be at stake or something, and that crisis can return. Otherwise, this Archie, like his predecessor, will just be a little shit who gets whatever he wants.

BETTY

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I’m liking Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper so far. She’s a decent actress, and, like Betty in the comics, can go from sweet and perky to hella hot armed only with some hot rollers and a pink dress. Her mother is played by Mädchen Amick, a deliberate nod to Twin Peaks. I’m already fascinated with the mom, as she’s a pretty horrible person, but in a somewhat unique way. I think we’re going to find out that she’s fixated on slights she incurred in high school, and those feed every current grudge.

I’m digging the relationship with Veronica. In the comics, it was always so strange, tricky, and unbelievable. They were sort of best friends, sort of arch nemeses, both fighting over Archie, but each other’s confidants too? In Riverdale, Veronica works hard to become Betty’s friend, because she sees that Betty is a good person, and wants to be like her. In turn, Veronica forces Betty to be bold, and not just eat whatever shit is shoveled her way. It has an immediate effect, especially in regards to her mother. A friendship to root for, which is great, because we know that Archie will come between them. He already has.

VERONICA

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Those eyes though. Camila Mendes has some gorgeous, camera-loving, huge brown peepers. Also, they cast a Brazilian-American woman as Veronica, which not only is cool, but necessary, because the world of (original, early) Archie is whitey-white-whitesville. She’s a skilled actor, impressive because she has zero experience on TV before Riverdale.  I love what a wit the character is. Her references leap from literary to pop culture, several of them are deep track, all of them are on point. Because it’s been established that Veronica used to be a big ol’ bitch, we can assume that she used to use that sharp tongue for evil. Now it’s used to delight those around her. And occasionally to take down the local nasties (I’m looking at you, Cheryl.)  Also, that reformed beyotch thing is interesting. After she kisses Archie, she goes to her mom and puts her head in her lap – the camera pulls in. Although she doesn’t say it, we know she’s thinking, “Can I change? Am I just an awful person by nature?” That’s some good directing and acting. Excited to see more of her struggles with her shoulder devil.

Okay, but here’s my problem though – and it’s not her fault.

When I was 13, and staying at a friend’s aunt’s place for a week, I discovered a huge stash of Archie comics in the back of a closet. I read them all. And let me tell you, I was obsessed with Veronica. Her clothes, her face, her hair, her attitude, the whole shebang. This Veronica… is not quite there. She’s too sweet looking, her hair is too plain, her clothes are meh. This can all be fixed – step up, ye mavens of hair, makeup and wardrobe! Give her extensions- a fantastic head of glossy thick waves. Zhoosh up her makeup: play up those goddess–given eyes. And please, please, get her some fabulous duds. We should be drooling every week over What Veronica Wore. That’s who she was in the comics, that who she should be on the show.

Also, it has to be said, she needs to work on her Ice Queen game. I didn’t quite buy her takedown of Cheryl. I think she has it in her, though.

KEVIN

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When we first meet Kevin, in Betty’s bedroom, we know he’s gay. When she calls him ‘Kevin,” I thought, “Really, they couldn’t have made a canon character gay? They had to invent a new one?” BUT, I looked it up, and Kevin is a character, albeit a newish one, in Archie. He’s also gay, in Archie (Yay Archie!) BUT ALSO, bite my tongue about canon characters. Freakin’ MOOSE. Big closeted jock Moose. I love it. I wonder if there’s going to be a Midge. Will she be his beard? So curious.

The actor playing Kevin, Casey Cott, is nailing it well enough – he’s especially strong, as is the character, when he gets salty. I like that he doesn’t hold his tongue, even when he probably should.

I’m putting faith in Riverdale. Since they deliberately labeled Kevin the Fabulous Gay Best Friend, I’m assuming they’re planning on breaking him out of his box as well. Because that depiction is tiiiired, and more than a little insulting. The gay man who only lives to support his female friend with sassy little asides? Yeah, no. Granted, that character template, like all character templates, can turn out exceptionally well with good writing: as long as the character is given a unique personality, agency, and their own desires. (See: Felix from Orphan Black.)

Already we’ve gotten a bit of Kevin’s life outside singing backup for the gals, what with that Moosetacular assignation. Sadly, it ended with a corpus coitus interruptus, but I’m sure they’ll hook up in the future – and since Kev Kev (can I call him Kev Kev?) is playing a dangerous game – one that could damage his heart and/or his person- it’s bound to be interesting.

CHERYL

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A pretty stereotypical Queen Bitch of The School, except for the twist that her twin brother and “soul mate” just died, and she was apparently lying about how it happened. Also, there was definitely a creepy sexual element to their relationship in the flashback. And also, also… she seems to have bounced back to being a cheerleading bully and school dance princess pretty darn quickly.

And what’s with all the redheads in Riverdale? Hmmmm….. (Yes, I know it’s in the comics, but they could really play with that.)

JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS

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No token minority for the Pussycats – all three of them are black, and brava. Again with the smart diversity. More of this everywhere, please. Also, Josie, at least in re Archie, is really, really mean. A snotty kind of mean. I’m not sure how I feel about this, only, I hope we learn a lot more about her, and Sweet Merciful Zeus, please don’t make her yet another love interest for Archie. He has quite enough on his plate already, thank you very much.

JUGHEAD

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One of the main four characters in Archie, he narrates small bits of the show. We don’t meet him until the very end of the episode, when we learn that he had a falling out with Archie some time ago. He seems to be a bit of an artsy loner, and might end up being a favorite character for that fact alone. Looking forward to more Jughead, including how he got, not to mention held onto that nickname.

To sum up: I’m going to give Riverdale a chance to do some magic. So far, it’s fairly thin on the ground. There are some nice twists to the original characters, but many of the bits fall flat. Cheryl lording over her party, manipulating the game of Seven Minutes in Heaven? It feels like a ‘first idea’ sort of writing choice. Not terrible, but not at all original or surprising. Veronica and Betty kissing at the end of their cheerleading tryout? I get what the joke was supposed to be… we’re supposed to think that’s going to get them on the squad, and then *record scratch* Cheryl points out that that particular device is tres passe… Except, here’s the rub:  Riverdale used it in the show for the very same reason that Veronica and Betty used it in their tryout. Cheap titillation.  They try to get away with it by bending the fourth wall, but it doesn’t quite fly. Archie’s father’s lecture near the end of the show… about construction, and football, and music, and how Archie lied, doesn’t quite track with what happened earlier in the episode. And so far, Archie is an amorphous blob of a character – but I’ll give that a chance, because I know the point is that he doesn’t know what he wants.

All I can say is, remember the provenance, creators. Keep on winking at us, and you’ll be just fine.

Veronica Mars and the Case of the Kickstarter Kerfluffle

So then. Veronica Mars. I just wrote about the virtues of that very show in my last blog, Small Screen Gems – and lo and behold, a short time later, it’s become the Show that Made History – that is, creator Rob Thomas gathered, on Kickstarter, as of March 16 at 3:12 PM Central Time, $3,517,129 toward making a Veronica Mars movie. With 27 days to go.  Sure, there are some big money donors in there, but for the most part, we’re looking at a lot of folks donating smaller amounts… last I heard, the average donation was $61.

There’s been some backlash. Let’s take off the table the idea that maybe this money could be better spent on more humanitarian causes, and stick to the subject of artistic projects, specifically.

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Plus – cute as a bug in a Snuggie.

The argument, from one section of the virtual roundtable, is that fans’ enthusiastic response to the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign sets a terrible precedent for the way movies are funded, the future of independent cinema, etc. I’m not going to get into that. For a good article on the subject, check out Sam Adams’ piece in Slate.

What I will get into is this: There are two sentiments I’ve heard repeated most often… 1) “What’s next.. a movie version of ____?” <–fill in your choice of marginal TV fare. Clever, albeit snarky folks are hating on the VM. I honestly believe that most of them have developed a perception of the show, and have never actually given it a fair chance. Because it’s decidedly not marginal fare.  And 2) “Why can’t people just let go? How about funding something NEW?”

Manimal

Hmm. It’s true. We geeks don’t like to let go. This is, essentially, why the film Serenity got made. And certainly, Hollywood is not the best purveyor of Things New – and this often goes very badly. Look at every movie version of a 70’s TV show designed to pander to Gen X viewers, every ill-begotten ‘re-imagining’ or sequel (Bruce Willis Dying Hard yet again), and the poster child for Not-Knowing-When-Enough-Is-Enough-Already, George Lucas. I’m often frustrated by these trends as well – and I love the rare book or film that is truly original, truly Something New.

Next up, Manimal the movie!   

Also, sometimes an author or auteur needs to understand that the story is, in fact, done, and trust the imagination of their readers and viewers. For instance, the final chapter of the Harry Potter books. I freaking adore that series, but I’m not a big fan of the way we’re handed a neat little package of an ending, a peek into the future of our favorite surviving characters – instead of being allowed to imagine all the possibilities. The crux (or horcrux, amirite?) of the story was complete one chapter earlier, after all.

But what about those artists and authors who can’t let go… of a world, a character, a story, and the result is something great? I defeat the haters’ argument with 3 examples: Evil Dead 2, Lord of the Rings (books), and The Jeffersons. BOOM! Not to mention Cape FearFrasier, Updike’s Rabbit books, Godfather 2, The Colbert Report, several terrific Jane Austen movies and miniseries, Legend of Korra, many mystery series, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Clueless, Moulin Rogue, Angel, Nosferatu, the occasional Batman show or movie, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and let us not forget Gremlins 2. And here’s the deal… sometimes we viewers are not ready to say goodbye to beloved characters or worlds, and we relish in the idea of closure, or a peek into their future.

Veronica Mars is such a show. Due to network manipulation, and some floundering on the part of the writers, season 3 wasn’t all it should have been, and we were left with a bit of a cliffhanger, not to mention a lot of question marks where characters’ lives were headed. It’s a show that deserves more, and Veronica is unquestionably someone whom I want to meet at age 28. Rob Thomas created an interesting world packed full of complex characters, some beloved, some nasty as hell, many deliciously in the middle- and I, for one, am looking forward to seeing them all again.

I plan on donating at the $25 amount, so I can get the t-shirt.

Cheers,

Q

PS. If you haven’t seen Kristen Bell’s sloth meltdown, you need to watch it. It might just make you want to fund her movie.

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You’re Welcome.

Small Screen Gems

Remember the days when movie stars would never soil themselves by downgrading to the little screen? It wasn’t all that long ago. Now they are all clambering to star in their own series. Likewise, for an actor to make a successful leap from the TV to the cinema used to be a singular event. I remember being surprised when Neve Campbell scored the lead in Scream. And when David Caruso so famously left television because he wanted a film career… well, we all know how that turned out.  Now it’s only natural for your favorite actors to flit back and forth between mediums. Look at your Kevin Baconses and your Dennis Quaidses and your Claire Daneses.

I attribute this A) to the desirability of consistent employment that television provides, and B) a noticeable increase in the quality of television over the past decade, decade-and-a-half. “Chickens and eggs,”  you could say. Did TV improve because of the quality of actors they started employing, or vice versa? I say the latter. The Sopranos just may have been the vanguard of the new, improved TV experience, and no one on that show was very famous when they were cast. Now TV shows are pulling in Bill Paxton, Kerry Washington, Alec Baldwin, Steve Buschemi and Sean Bean. Granted, we’re not talking Angelina Jolie or Will Smith here, but these are established movie actors with impressive resumes.

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Mmm… Sean Bean…

So, TV has improved, but also, there’s just a lot more of it. So, naturally, some worthy shows get less attention than they should. Here are a few you might want to check out – all of them have crossover stars. I’m skipping Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because I already harped on about it in a previous post, and no doubt will go on and on about it in the future.

Veronica Mars

If there’s one show you take away from this list, let it be this one. There are three seasons in total, and season one, I can say without hyperbole, is some of the most engaging TV I’ve ever seen. The second season is not as good as the first, but it’s still pretty great TV. The third season is the weakest of the three, but by that point you’ll be hooked, and you’ll watch it anyway. Veronica Mars lives in the town of Neptune, and she is the daughter of disgraced ex-sheriff Keith Mars (the absolutely wonderful, you’ll-want-him-to-be-your-dad Enrico Colantoni), who is now a private eye. Veronica occasionally does sleuthing work for him, and often investigates mysteries of her own. Don’t be fooled, she is no Harriet the Spy, no Nancy Drew. She is, if anything, the cold hand of justice – ruthless in tearing down those who do her, or the underdog, wrong. She’s so smart and capable, in fact, that she’s almost like a super hero – her cleverness is just a little bit beyond believable – thus, much like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, she’s a joy to watch in action.  Season one’s big mystery is the murder of Veronica’s best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried {Cosette, No!}). Veronica’s also investigating the whereabouts of her deadbeat, alcoholic mother, and her own rape, which happened at a party where she was dosed with Rohypnol. So, yeah. Definitely not Nancy Drew. All of these mysteries are introduced in the first episode. There are also shifting alliances, lots of romance, a nasty sheriff, a software billionaire, a movie star, and a biker gang. Plus, two Buffy alumni, and a cameo by Joss Whedon (a fan) himself.

Crossover Stars: Kristen Bell, Amanda Seyfried

Pair With: A cafe latte with a shot of cinnamon. 

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Supersleuth!

Firefly

And speaking of Joss Whedon. The cancelation of Firefly still causes the geeks of the world to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, drenched in cold sweat, hearts thumping. Hell, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory brings it up every chance he gets. The thing is this… it’s really, really good. Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it all before – so I’m not going to get into details. In fact, let me try a fresh angle… the cast is crazy attractive. Seriously.

Crossover Stars: Nathan Fillion, Morena Baccarin

Pair With:  A shot of Moonshine Clear Corn Whiskey

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Hi! We’re in space and we’re good looking!

Pushing Daisies

Pushing Daisies is charming, storybook, bonbon of a show. About death. Lee Pace (The Hobbit, Lincoln) plays Ned, The Pie Maker, a man who can touch a dead thing and bring it back to life. Touch it again, and that thing dies again, forever. Fail to touch it a second time, and something of equal size (and intelligence, I think, although that’s never exactly clear) dies in its place. Whew! So what does Ned do? He pairs up with a private detective, Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), to bring murder victims back to life, ask them who killed them, and then touch them again, leaving them forever dead. (They never really get a straight answer from the victim, just a clue or two.) But then Ned comes across his childhood sweetheart, the love of his life, dead in a coffin. You can probably extrapolate what happens next. The candy-colored, unreal settings and the storybook narration give Pushing Daisies a fairy tale feel. At times, the relationship between Ned and Charlotte, his sweeetie, can get a bit twee, but that is nicely tempered by the cartoonishly grotesque talking dead people they encounter, the sharp and hilarious Kristin Chenoweth as Olive Snook, a waitress in Ned’s cafe, Swoozie Kurtz and Ellen Greene as Charlotte’s recluse aunts, and especially McBride, who is gut-bustingly funny as the droll Cod. Sketch comedians Key and Peele joke that every black best friend in a show has to utter the line “Oh helllll no!” – and McBride does just that, many times, but I swear he makes an art of it.

Crossover Star: Lee Pace

Pair With: Pie! (Duh) – If you can get your hands on it, the banana cream pie from Norske Nook in Osseo, WI.

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Key and Peele

And speaking of Key and Peele… This is a newish, cable sketch comedy show, starring comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. It’s not for everyone – it’s definitely R rated. What I love is the unique point of view that Key and Peele bring to the comedy stage. They are each children of one black and one white parent, and much of their comedy is about what it’s like to belong, and not belong in both worlds. That tack could’ve resulted in a very narrow viewpoint, but instead, their comedy speaks to anyone who has ever put on poses in order to fit in. Which is… pretty much everyone. Oh, and also? They’re just really funny.

Click here for a short, PG13-rated sketch from them.

Okay, no crossover stars… as of yet.

Pair With: Whatever Liam Neesons or Bruce Willeys would drink.

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Leverage

I admit: this is kind of a dorky show. When my friends Julie and Claire were trying to convince a bunch of us to watch it, the conversation went something like this:

J&C: Okay, so, Timothy Hutton plays this guy who used to have a job catching criminals, but then he was screwed over by the insurance company that he worked for, so he changed to the other side of the law.

The Rest of Us: That sounds kinda like The A-Team.

J&C: But wait. So he hires one guy who’s the muscle, one guy who’s a computer hacker, a woman who’s a catburglar (she’s kind of crazy), and a woman who’s a grifter, and they steal stuff and pull off cons…

The Rest of Us: That still sounds kinda like The A-Team.

J&C: But wait. Get this. They only do jobs for altruistic reasons. They take down the man!

The Rest of Us: That definitely sounds like The A-Team.

Well, it turns out, in the DVD extras, the creators and the stars say that everyone tries to compare them to Oceans 11, but what they really are like is… yes, The A-Team. The hacker character, in fact, played by Aldis Hodge (the real standout in the cast), owns a van with which he is obsessed, ala B.A. Baracus. Leverage is as light as air — a nice little floofy bit of fluff-tastickness. In fact, there are only two problems with this show. One: When they try to get too serious, which, fortunately isn’t very often, it doesn’t work. Two: There’s some terrible male hair going on. Terrible. But mostly, it succeeds, because it’s super fun. Watch it as a sorbet for Breaking Bad or Homeland, when you just can’t take the stress anymore.

Crossover Star: Timothy Hutton

Pair With: Irish Whisky, but stop long before Nathan does.

the-a-team Who doesn’t love it when a plan comes together?

Fringe

For many years, folks have been crowning this show and that show “The Next X-Files.” (Alias, Lost.) In my mind, Fringe is the true heir. It, like many shows before it, took to heart the most important lesson X-Files had to teach us, which was “Don’t let your mythology get out of control.” As groundbreaking as the X-Files was, it got incredible frustrating after a while. Not so Fringe. That is not to say that the show’s mythology is simplistic. It’s very complicated – but it’s also clever and consistent. Season one is eminently watchable, but it’s not until season two that Fringe really finds its footing. I don’t want to give anything away, sufficed to say that it’s great science fiction, and you’ll have a hard time not clicking on that next episode, and the one after that.

Crossover Stars: John Noble and Leonard Nimoy

Pair With:  Johnny Walker Black (Olivia’s drink of choice), with a shot of Cortexiphan.

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The Mentalist

I like detective shows that have a sense of humor. I like Castle, The Closer, and before it jumped the shark (which time, amiright?), Bones. I’ll pretty much watch any show of this ilk if it’s at all good – it doesn’t have to be singular or even great. All I ask for is some decent acting, interesting mysteries, a good, quirky main character, and the satisfaction of catching the bad guy at the end of the episode. The Mentalist is all those things in seasons one and two – but in season three, I’m not even sure why, exactly, I got seriously hooked. I think it has something to do with the fact that Simon Baker is so stellar as the enormously clever and severely damaged Patrick Jane – and in season three we started to get more and more flashes of his dark underbelly. I like his back story.  I like that he’s unpredictable. I like that he’s always smiling and it’s almost never genuine. Plus – easy on the eyes. Oh! And Cho. You’ve gotta love Agent Cho. (He’s totally the real-life Cornfed from Duckman.)

Crossover Stars: Simon Baker, Robin Tunney (The Craft!)

Pair With: Lapsang Souchong tea, preferable pilfered from someone else’s cupboard.

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Handsome McVesty

Avatar, the Last Airbender/ The Legend of Korra 

The first of the two series, Avatar, the Last Airbender, very, very unfortunately did cross over onto the big screen. It was put in the dubious hands of M. Knight Shamalan (a sort of anti-Midas. Everything he touches turns to ca-ca), a move guaranteed to ensure that anyone who hadn’t yet seen the animated original would never, ever seek it out. Which is too bad, because it’s great fun. Forget the horror show that is the movie. Pretend it never happened, and go stream Avatar, and then Korra after.

In a fantasy world akin to mid-19th century Asia, there are four nations, one for each element. There are special folks called ‘Benders,’ who can manipulate either air, water, earth or fire. Into every generation is born The Avatar, the one person who can control all four elements. The Avatar is entrusted to bring/maintain peace between the nations. Ang is our Avatar, and he is woefully underprepared to take on the despotic Fire Nation. With the help of a couple of Water Nation siblings, Ang travels throughout the land to gain the knowledge and skill he needs to lead. There are many obstacles in his way, of course – and he encounters a great number of enemies and allies. There’s terrific humor, adventure and surprising complexity in the story.

Even better, in my opinion, is The Legend of Korra – the titular Korra is the next Avatar after Ang – and, since it’s 70 years later, now we’re in a world more akin to the roaring 20s. The animation is superior to the original, and the action is nail-biting. Very pretty to look at, very fun to watch. Plus, Pabu, the fire ferret. FIRE FERRET. I want a fire ferret. A second season is in the works.

Crossover Stars: J.K. Simmons, Mako  Iwamatsu.

Pair With: Japanese tofu noodle bowl, and a perfectly brewed cup of genmaicha tea. 

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Want. One.

Cheers!

Q

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Best Episodes

So, this blog is all about, as the title would suggest, finding, and appreciating all things exquisitely savory in this world. This is not by any means limited to food and drink – there is also music, film, language, art – and of course, television. What greater joy than discovering a truly well-written series to sink one’s teeth into. Hours – years of entertainment, even.

Speaking of language – I was musing over the structure of the word ‘yummy.’ LETTER-U-DOUBLE CONSONANT-Y. So many yummy things fit this pattern – Curry! Sunny! Puppy! Funny! Of course, there’s also fussy, muggy and bully… but never mind that. The word I’m pondering at the moment, you guessed it (probably less so because you have psychic powers, and more because you read the title of this post) – is Buffy.

Ah, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you haven’t watched the show, it’s probably for one of the following reasons: A) You’re not into the fantasy/horror genre. B) You believe it’s a cheesy schlockfest made for kids (although, admittedly, a couple of early episodes may have solidified that idea in your mind), or C) You are sick to death of every single geek in the universe, or at least on the interwebs, going on and on and on about how friggin’ great Buffy is. Enough already. You’re not going to watch it out of principle. I really did know 4 people who fit into category C – although 3 of them have since caved, and are now fervent Buffy acolytes. (One of them, side note, was the owner of the video store where I used to work. He used to make fun of my fellow employee, Jon and me for loving Buffy so much. When he finally sat down and watched the series – devoured, I should say, he promptly moved it from the ‘Television’ section of the store to ‘Classics.’)

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Well, if you haven’t seen it, you’re only hurting yourself, I say. Heh, but I jest. I’m really not going to tell anyone that they have to watch anything. Not even… what’s a good broccoli* film? Shoah, say. I’m not going to tell you you have to watch Shoah. If you think Buffy (or Shoah) is not for you, it’s not for you. My friend Ann – as big a sci-fi/fantasy afficianado as anyone I know, was fairly ‘meh’ about Buffy – but she loved the spinoff, Angel, so we still talk and stuff.

So then, if you haven’t yet seen the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I suggest you go out and rent it (or stream it, or whatever you kids are doing these days), and come back to this post after you’ve finished season 7 – because SPOILER ALERT! applies to everything after this paragraph.

Okay…here goes, The Best Episodes of Buffy, one per season. (I’m excluding season finales, as they are almost always the best episodes.)

Season 1

“Puppet Show”

Season 1 is a half-season, and unquestionably the weakest of the 7 – but there is still some great fun to be had. I’m torn between  “Angel,” and “Puppet Show” for best episode. “Nightmares” is also a contender, but logic of the premise starts to fray at the edges if you think about it too hard. “Angel” is pivotal, but I’m going to go with “Puppet Show.” What? Okay, hear me out. Joss Whedon pulls off something extraordinary here, and it sets the stage for many of his future endeavors. Mr. Whedon thinks big. He comes up with  plot twists and set pieces that should never work, ideas that other auteurs would dismiss out of hand, and he pulls them off. His ability to take something absurd and hilarious and ground it with emotional truth, and some genuinely scary moments, is unparalleled. So, in “Puppet Show,” you not only have a sentient ventriloquist dummy – Buffy’s right – it’s super creepy (anyone who’s seen Magic can attest to that) – but he turns out to be a good guy. Plus, there’s that moment when Giles almost gets his brain sliced open, which makes me squeak every time.

Pair With: A glass of water, gargled. 

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Season 2

“Surprise/Innocence”

Okay, one season in, and this just got really hard. This is where the show officially stepped up, and became what it was meant to be – horror as analogy for teenage life – with great characters, and more than a little dash of humor. It starts out with a bang -with quite possibly the best Buffy premiere episode of any season (“When She Was Bad”), and just gets better from there. The introduction of Spike and Drusilla – vast improvements over the previous season’s villain, Willow stepping out of her Xander-obsessed shell into Oz’s waiting arms, Cordelia becoming a little more human and falling for Xander, and, of course, the relationship between Angel and Buffy, getting steamier and steamier. Really, did any of us see where that was going? Suprise/Innocence” (I’m cheating – but I consider them a 2-part episode) – the best of the season, left me almost as devastated as Buffy when Angel lost his soul. And oh, what a villain he became. He easily terrorized Buffy more than any other enemy on the show, at any point. Heartbreaking. Epic.

Pair With: Birthday cake (but don’t blow out the candles).

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Season 3

“Doppelgangland”

It’s tempting, again, to pick the mid-season, two part, deal-changing episodes as the best of the season. Faith goes over to the dark side! – Well-done, shocking. Similarly, we only get one taste of Spike this whole season, in “Lover’s Walk,” and it sure is good to see him again. Plus, that’s the episode that exposes Willow and Xander’s affair, and leaves Cordelia wounded in more ways than one. But I’m going with “Doppelgangland,”  because sometimes Buffy’s at its best when it’s just a blast. The setup for this episode happens in “The Wish,” in which an alternate universe is created, one where Xander and Willow are vampires. That episode is uber-dark, and savvy Mr. Whedon sensed that we all wanted to see more of Vamp Willow, in a less dire setting. So she comes to our universe (well, Buffy’s), and confusion, terror, and quite a lot of humor ensues. Buffy was unique at the time, as a show that actually harkened back to things said and done in seasons past, and foreshadowed things to come – seasons in advance. I know that seems like common sense these days, but really, it was a rarity at the time. So our Willow observes about Vamp Willow:

Willow: It’s horrible! That’s me as a vampire? I’m so evil and… skanky. And I think I’m kinda gay.
Buffy: Willow, just remember, a vampire’s personality has nothing to do with the person it was.
Angel: Well, actually…

Boy did they follow up on that one.

Pair With: A banana and/or a glass of Cline Ancient Vines Mourvedre (depending on which Willow you’re toasting).

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Season 4

“Hush”

There are almost no clunkers in this season – so again, it seemed like a difficult choice, but in the end it was a no-brainer. Here’s Whedon and company thinking outside of the box once more – an episode where no one can speak? Gutsy. This works so well for two reasons. Wait. Three. A) The terrific music.  B) The episode is, on a deeper level, about the way we communicate, or the way we don’t. Friends talking over one another, potential lovers not knowing what to say, etc. and C) The villains are really, really scary. The fantastic mime and character actor Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy), plays the leader of the ‘Gentlemen’ – creatures from the most nightmarish fairy tale imaginable, who cut out the hearts of their victims with a tiny little scalpel and grinning aplomb. Contenders for the creepiest Buffy baddies ever.

Pair With: A scotch, in solidarity with terrified Olivia.

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Season 5

“The Body”

For some folks, Season 5 is where Buffy starts to get great. For me (and for a majority of fans, I think), it marks the end of an era. Sure, it still was better than most TV… But seasons 2, 3 and 4 were so strong – and I look at 5, and am not at all conflicted about which episode is the best. It’s got to be “The Body.” Ugh. I know, right? Easily the saddest episode of any season. Also the only episode that is straight drama, with nothing supernatural in it until the very end. Buffy and her friends are dealing with Joyce’s unexpected death – and the fact that she’s killed by an aneurism, and not a vampire or demon, make it somehow worse. This episode is a punch to the gut – and also a beautifully-shot, very honest portrayal of what it’s like to lose someone. Oh, those heart-wrenching silences.

Pair With: A soothing cup of tea and a lot of Kleenex.

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Season 6

“Once More With Feeling”

I know, I know… predictable. But it is really one of my all time favorite episodes, period. In a season with so much darkness, the musical, and the ensuing episode, “Tabula Rasa,” give us a little respite from all the angst. Buffy wasn’t the first TV show to do a musical episode, but I still think it stands as the best of its kind. The songs are clever, a prelude to Whedon’s crazy-popular “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” but the surprise here is how pivotal the plot is… and all the major emotional revelations that occur within the lines of the songs. We get a hint that Xander and Anya just might not be meant for one another, in the number “I’ll Never Tell.” Tara discovers that Willow is messing with her memory, and Willow’s inability to see just how wrong that is warns us of much darker times to come. And, of course, Buffy reveals the ultimate truth, the one she never would have disclosed had it not been for a powerful spell – that in bringing her back to life, her friends had not saved her from untold torment, but instead had rent her from heaven. Oh. And that kiss. That kiss was a long time coming.

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Pair With: (So many choices!) A cruller, couscous, waffles, stinky cheeses, hossenfeffer, and lots and lots of mustard.

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Season 7

“Selfless”

Despite the mostly annoying Potentials mucking up the works, there are some strong episodes this season. “Lies My Parents Told to Me” is terrific, but I didn’t choose it, because Giles’s betrayal of Buffy (along with Willow’s and Xander’s later in the season) really grates my cheese. (I’ll no doubt get into that in some future blog.) I also really love “Help,” and the actress playing Cassie is pretty phenomenal. (Although can we call for moratorium on precognitive characters being named ‘Cassandra?’)  I can’t imagine many actors pulling off that combination of sadness, resignation, wry humor, and forgiveness.  It’s difficult to choose between “Storyteller,” Andrew’s video log episode, and “Selfless.” But, call it a coin flip, I’m going with “Selfless.”  It’s really strong – a tough episode, and Emma Caulfield as Anya does some of her best dramatic work of the series. The only sour note is the song.  I love the idea of flashing back to the day the dancing demon came to town, and showing us another musical number, but this one isn’t all that good, frankly. However, we get to see Anya’s history (including a cheeky, Bergman-esque medieval sequence, featuring the always fun Abraham Benrubi), and the conversation Buffy, Willow and Xander have about having to kill Anya is pretty incredible. Buffy gets the final word with ” I killed Angel. Do you even remember that? I would’ve given up everything I had to be with him – I loved him more than I will ever love anything in this life and I put a sword through his heart because I had to.” Ohhhhhh…SNAP.

Pair With: MEAD!

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What are your favorite episodes, one per season, of Buffy (excluding finales)?  Do share!

Cheers!

Q

* Not to be confused with a Broccoli film, e.g. From Russia With Love.