Resurrection, Regret, and the Pressures of Being (Fats) Portnoy

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September 6, 2012 by NowhereButPop

by Steve Secular

*Major Buffy The Vampire Slayer spoilers to follow*

The purported “villains” of Buffy Season 6

It was this past summer when I finally completed watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It’s an absolute masterpiece, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because of a lone season hovering leisurely near the show’s conclusion: The oft-hated, occasionally-loved, and much-discussed Season 6.

To orient those who haven’t watched in a while or any of you who have decided to dive headfirst into spoiler territory, here’s a quick rundown of everything important that happens in the season:

  1. Buffy comes back from the dead.
  2. Unbeknownst to her friends, she was actually in a form of paradise, and so in the shock of being resurrected, believes Earth to be a place of hell and torment.
  3. Naturally, she begins to hate herself, and gives into Spike’s suddenly creepy advances, including have sex with him on the balcony of the Bronze while she stares at her friends dancing below.[1]
  4. Willow and Tara break up because of Willow’s weird addiction to magic that becomes a heavy-handed metaphor for drugs.
  5. Xander breaks off his engagement with Anya, fearing he’ll become like his abusive, alcoholic father.
  6. In the aftermath, Anya returns to her vengeance demon ways.
  7. She has sex with Spike.
  8. Spike tries to rape Buffy.
  9. In that same episode, and the first to finally include Amber Benson (Tara) in the main credits, Jonathan arrives at the Summers home with a gun, shooting Buffy and fatally hitting Tara.
  10. Oh, and Willow goes insane with grief and rage and tries to destroy the world.

As you can imagine, the season became almost impossible to sit through, with each successive episode seemingly becoming darker and more somber. Which is a major problem when one of the most central factors of what makes the show so entertaining is its wit and charm.

My initial reaction was hatred. Joss Whedon, in stepping down as showrunner for the season, had finally but the nail in the coffin. Without him, the show was ruined. It tried to retain the charm by utilizing “The Trio” both as its villains and comic relief, but having the main “Big Bad” of a season also function as the hub of humor is a flawed idea from birth. For a show like this to work, the viewer has to laugh alongside the heroes and struggle with them against their villains. It falls apart when the heroes wake up weeping and you’re laughing at the ineptitude of its bad guys.

For all of this, I felt it was a failure. An utter trainwreck. But then something weird happened. I started to reflect on the show over the subsequent weeks, even reading about other people’s opinions on various websites (mostly how much they shared my disappointment). And then, all of the sudden, I started to smile. I thought back on how ridiculous the season was, and how far it went down the path of depression and destruction for its once joyful main characters, and I just started to smile. It just felt beautiful, in a disconcerting kinda way. A show built on happiness, having brought the characters to the peak of peacefulness in Season 4[2], would decide in the show’s sixth season to bring them down to rock bottom, and then blow up the bottom itself.

There was a big picture in play. Mainly how absurdly far the writers decided to take the horrible things happening to everyone. As if they wanted to see how dark they could make the show, purely for the sake of exploring what would happen if they did. If you had everyone going through heartbreak after heartbreak on a show that always had some light. You hate them for doing it, yet still appreciate how long they kept it going.

It’s exactly like Joe Pesci’s “Do I amuse you speech” in Goodfellas. Like, “Really, I’m a funny show? How? I’m here to fucking amuse you??” and then they get really dark and intimidating and meanwhile, as the viewer, you’re sitting across from Joe Pesci scared shitless. You don’t know what this lunatic is gonna do next. And then, after he stops and tells you he was just kidding, you still kind of hate him for even doing it, but you also smile and kind of appreciate how far he took it.[3]

But it’s a strange sight to behold when it’s a television show using an entire season as a giant experiment in pushing viewers buttons. And for all of these reasons, I have a strange love/hate relationship with the season.

I feel kinda like Giles, when he returned in the season’s penultimate episode. After coming back to the magic shop, he hears about everything that’s happened. The break-ups and the tears. And then, after taking it all in, he simply laughs. In a (dare I say) “meta” kind of way, it’s the exact position we’re in as the viewer. Everyone gets dragged to such a shitty place that you’re just forced to laugh at the absurdity.

When I look back, I hate the way it made me feel. But then once I look back on how much I hate it, I just laugh how Giles laughed. And that kinda makes me love it. There’s no other show I’ve ever experienced that with. That could make me feel so many simultaneous yet opposite emotions, and not about a particular character’s decisions, but on the actual creative decisions of the writers. I’ve felt conflicted plenty of times about the violent and deceptive acts of Walter White on Breaking Bad, but I’ve never felt complicated emotions towards the direction going on behind the scenes.

Which is something the writers have to be given credit for achieving. Because I know I can’t be the only one that felt this way. And based on all the Buffy websites, I’d say I’m right. They made the viewers smarter. They made them think about what it means to craft a show about characters that live and breathe over time. I’ve never felt that way before, and I doubt many others have either.

It inevitably got me thinking about what else I had a similar love/hate relationship with. And then it struck me: Jack Black, but for entirely different reasons. Unlike Buffy, which I began to love/hate for abandoning everything that had come to exist as its backbone, Jack Black has stood unflinching in the face of change. He is always uniquely “Jack Black-y”, even if that becomes frustratingly “Jack Black-y as usual.”

And yet, just as Buffy deserves credit for changing aggressively in spite of the fan’s desires, Jack Black deserves his due for his refusal to change in an increasingly frenetic comedic world, one based on the latest joke of the week.

Jack Black has always been Jack Black. From the steady rise of Tenacious D, to the assorted bit parts, the failed pilots about an astronaut and his talking motorcycle, his breakout in High Fidelity, and the recent fodder for angry critics, Year One and Gulliver’s Travels. Those last two aren’t good movies by any stretch. But they never try to be anything but what they are: stupid movies starring Jack Black acting stupidly.

Which somehow feels different than Adam Sandler, another notable culprit of the comedy refusal-to-change-itis. Sandler promises more. He’s taken on the dramatic, and he’s succeeded. His made more mature comedies, and he’s succeeded there too. And yet he still feels the need to make Jack and Jill. Which would be plenty fine by me. But it feels like he wants to change, only he’s too afraid to follow through with it.

On the surface at least, it doesn’t appear vastly different for Jack Black. Year in and year out he makes a Kung Fu Panda or an Ice Age, or the oft-forgotten Nacho Libre. And it can all be frustrating to see, knowing that he’s been funnier and much more astute elsewhere.[4]Yet Black seems to enjoy what he does, because he always appears to be acting like himself. There’s consistency in every role, and therein lies the key.

Comedy often changes with the week, and right now we’re living in the heart of a comedy outpouring centered around the absurd, by way of Andy Samberg and his now world-famous SNL Digital Shorts.

But once I exit out of those Lonely Island youtube clips and turn on my TV, there’s Jack Black dancing around to “War” by Edwin Starr surrounded by the tiny people from the island of Lilliput. And then a few channels over, he’s being nominated for a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award for Favorite Male Movie Star, all while he shakes his hair and makes enthusiastic instrument noises.

There’s something to be said for someone who knows exactly who is and who he wants to be in the face of an industry that constantly demands change. Just like there’s something to be said for a television show that forces change in a medium where the most prevalent fanbases desire consistency.

They make us love them and hate them for all the same reasons. But they make us feel something. And after all, that’s why we’re watching.

[1] Surprisingly, this isn’t the description of a scene from a David Lynch movie.

[2] Argue against it all you want, but Buffy’s fourth season is the happiest, most complete package of all of them. The quirky satire of the shows early days, only this time about college instead of high school, the boundary-breaking of Willow and Tara’s relationship, plus Xander and Buffy both get happy relationships. Though they’re not without conflict, so there’s the usual melodrama too. And Adam is still a great idea, even if they did jump the gun and revealed him too soon into the season.

[3] I’d also like to imagine when the writers were making Season 6 they locked a couple of Buffy fans in a room with a two-way mirror, and then kept showing them moment after depressing moment, like Willow and Tara breaking up, Xander breaking off the marriage, and Spike trying to rape Buffy. And then by this point, the fans start crying and banging on the glass and yelling “WHY!! WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?!!?!” And then Marti Noxon and the writers start laughing maniacally. “Oh you want moorreeee? Let’s put Amber Benson in the main credits for the first time and then kill her off in the same episode. MWAHAHAHA”

[4] Specifically, High Fidelity or School of Rock, his two finest performances.


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