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Character-building December 3, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, television.
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As most of you know, I’m a shameless Joss Whedon fangirl. As far as I’m concerned, Whedon can do no wrong, and his name being attached to a particular project confirms for me that said project will be amazing. So far, I’ve never been disappointed.

There are three main reasons why I love Whedon’s work so much: the amazing stories he tells (and themes he conveys through these stories), the brilliant way with words he has, and the fantastic characters he creates. It’s this third thing I’d like to talk about here.

At this point I should probably note that ‘Whedon’s’ brilliance is not all down to Whedon: his own talents are supported and supplemented by the writing skills of an ever-growing group of collaborators, all of whom do so much to bring Whedon’s creations to life. When I say ‘Whedon’ in this post, I mean, by extension, ‘Whedon and his co-writers’.

Whedon is the only TV writer so far who creates real characters. I’ll say that again, so that you have time to let my words sink in: there is no other writer on television (except perhaps Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls, and in her case only some of the characters fulfil this criterion) whose characters seem like real people. That is to say, you could take any one of Whedon’s characters, from Buffy Summers to Zoe Washburne, from Winifred ‘Fred’ Burkle to Topher Brink, plonk him or her in our world and imagine how he or she would act in any given situation. This is not limited to the main characters: I can imagine pre-Season 6 Jonathan as a real person, just as I can imagine Anne Steele (‘Chanterelle’ from Buffy, later on Angel) wandering around real-world LA.

Of course, this characterisation works better on Whedon’s longer-running shows, Buffy and Angel, where Whedon had longer to develop characters and show them reacting and interacting in a wider range of situations, and it’s one of the reasons why Firefly‘s cancellation still hurts. It’s also one reason why Dollhouse was so much less welcoming and so much more ambitious than Whedon’s other shows: when half your characters change personality every episode, how are we to get to know them as people?

In any case, Whedon’s characters spoiled me for regular TV. Since Firefly ended (with a brief respite during which Dollhouse screened), I have found no television show that ever approached anything Whedon created in terms of characterisation. This is not for want of trying. I’ve tried Heroes (never again), Supernatural, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the BBC’s Robin Hood, Being Human, Battlestar Galactica (which I gave up for reasons other than characterisation, but which still suffered this problem), Merlin, and, more recently, Glee. Of these, only Supernatural comes close to approaching Whedon’s talents of characterisation, and only in relation to Sam and Dean. No matter how many new characters are added, the show remains the Sam-and-Dean show, and while it is wonderful at developing the complex relationship of the brothers, it fails to demonstrate how the brothers relate to the outside world.

The other shows I’ve listed are even worse. They fail on so many ways. Some of them (Terminator, Merlin, Robin Hood and Being Human in particular – I wonder if it’s a failing of BBC shows in general?) lack any kind of character development. In Buffy, not one character begins a season in the same place that he or she ends up, and not one character in Season 1 is the same person they are in Season 7. After two seasons, Merlin is still resentful about hiding his magic, Arthur (and all the other main characters save Gaius) are still unaware of Merlin’s abilities and Uther is still bigoted and opposed to magic. Real people change. They change subtly or they change dramatically, but change they do. No person could experience the things that any character on any of these shows experiences and remain the same. (Robin Hood is a particularly egregious example of this: SPOILER ALERT at the end of Season 2, Marion, the love of Robin’s life, is killed. Season 3 sees Robin rageful and grieving for about half-an-hour, and then reverting back to his cheerful, anarchic ways. END SPOILER)

Many of the other shows fail because their writers do not realise that giving characters ‘quirks’ or ‘flaws’ does not make them real people. Heroes and, in particular, Glee are the worst culprits in this regard. Many critics and fans seem to think that Glee is edgy or groundbreaking because it features minority characters in major roles. But after watching the show, you realise that all of these ‘minorities’ have been reduced to their ‘minority-ness’: Mercedes is The Sassy Black Girl, Artie is The Saintly Disabled Boy, Kurt is The Camp Gay Guy (happiest singing show tunes and giving makeover advice) and Tina is The Shy Asian Girl. There is absolutely nothing else that defines or drives them. It’s insulting to think that these characters somehow put an end to whitewashing in popular culture. Take any one of them out of the Glee-verse and you’d be scratching your head to figure out how they’d behave. They’re about as complex and three-dimensional as pieces of cardboard.

A character’s believability lies in how long it would take to describe him or her. What I’ve said about the characters in Glee is all I’d be able to say to a person who asked ‘Who is Mercedes? What drives her? What kind of person is she?’ If someone asked me the same question about Willow Rosenberg, or Mayor Richard Wilkins III, or Mal Reynolds, or Shepherd Book, or Angel, or Rupert Giles, or Adele DeWitt, or even Victor (the Doll), you’d be here until the end of the week.

What most TV writers fail to grasp is that people are more than the sum of their parts (whether these parts be flaws, positive qualities, neuroses or cultural influences). A truly great television character is someone whose life you can imagine in scenes where he or she does not appear, or after the screen goes black. I might’ve been spoiled by Joss, and I might be castigating the writers of the shows I’ve discussed for not writing the shows that I want to see, but I refuse to believe that Joss Whedon and the small coterie of writers he’s gathered around him are the only ones capable of creating characters who are completely and utterly human.

The limits of my world are the limits of my language February 19, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews.
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Last week, I was rather exasperated with Joss Whedon’s latest show, Dollhouse. The absence of Whedon’s trademark snappy dialogue worried me.

It’s the dialogue that sets Joss shows apart from their more mundane cousins. It’s Joss’s way with language that makes his shows the thing that other TV series can only aspire to be: shows with a heart.

I fall in love with Joss’s characters for their humanity, and it is through their words that this humanity shines through. Without memorable language, they’re nothing more than the mechanisms that drive a plot.

Almost as soon as I posted this, however, I realised I was fundamentally missing the point. This was because I had misinterpreted the central theme of the show. I had viewed the concept of the Dollhouse (where people with wiped personalities had new personalities implanted in order to fulfill the fantasies of wealthy clients) as a metaphor for the actor-director/writer relationship. But it’s not. It’s more ambitious, and chilling, than that. I got one half of the equation right: the Dolls (or Actives) stand in for actors. But it’s not about actors and writers/directors. It’s about actors and their viewers.

Joss has never been one to shy away from confrontational subject matter. And he’s always handled it incredibly responsibly. However, in the past, he has used various mechanisms to make things easier for us, mechanisms with which to soften the blunt and sometimes disturbing matters he explores. (Joss himself has recognised this. This was why, The Body, one of the most emotionally difficult Buffy episodes to watch, has no musical score. Joss felt that music would soften the blow of that episode’s subject matter.) His characters’ witty dialogue is another such crutch. Just as his characters use language as a weapon to fight the often ghastly situations in which they find themselves, we use their clever dialogue as a way to enjoy their suffering. This language is not distracting – we still know exactly what is going on – but it does help to stop the shows from being unremittingly grim. (We see this in its most perfect conception in ‘Once More With Feeling’, Season 6’s well-known musical episode. The silliness of the sight of Buffy dancing around, punctuating her song with demon-stakings, makes us forget, for a moment, that the words she is singing are heart-wrenchingly bleak.)

But in Dollhouse, Joss has done away with such props and crutches. He is not making things easy for us any more.

A thought struck me: much as he appreciates his passionate, rabid fans, Joss is uncomfortable with fandom. He is uneasy with exactly what it is that makes us appreciate his work, which is, for the most part, bleak. Although his shows are ultimately hopeful, they are packed with pain and suffering. By the time she is 22, Buffy has been fighting demons for eight years. She went to school on the mouth of Hell. Her boyfriend turned evil when she slept with him. She killed him. She died twice. Family members, friends and countless innocent bystanders were killed, by the forces of evil, or just by the sheer bad luck of ordinary life. Angel comes to realise that doing the right thing is not a grand quest for redemption (with a shiny reward at the end), but just a daily, unglamorous, ultimately futile struggle. In Firefly, Mal Reynolds sees the utter destruction of everything he believes in, and copes with this by becoming emotionally deadened.

And yet, pain, suffering and all, fans adore these characters’ stories. Joss is using the metaphor of the Dollhouse to explore his viewers’ voyeurism.

He’s always attempted to hold a mirror up to society, and this time he’s doing so without the flattering lighting. As Buffy would say, ‘everything here is hard, and bright, and violent’. He’s creating a story about the darker side of fandom, the unwelcome truths we’d rather not confront. What he’s trying to do is explore the unhealthy nexus between the fantasies of fans, and their conflation of actors with the people they play.

I’m reminded, at this point, of a panel interview of the cast of Heroes at a convention. They were answering questions from the fans. I noticed that almost every person who asked questions of Zachary Quinto addressed him as ‘Sylar’ (the name of his character on Heroes), and that this was making Quinto incredibly uncomfortable.

And that, in essence, is what Dollhouse is about: Whedon’s unease with Quinto’s unease at being equated with the character he played. The Dolls have no personality but that which they are given for the enjoyment (or purposes) of those who hire them. For the fans asking questions at that convention, Zachary Quinto had no personality but that of the psychopathic serial killer he plays, for their enjoyment, on Heroes.

Our reactions are so ambivalent because we are being confronted with an ugly truth about fandom we’d rather not face: if watching the exploitation of others gives our lives meaning, what kind of lives are these?

I want the fire back February 15, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews.
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So, unless you were hiding around an internet-variety rock, you’ll know that Joss Whedon’s latest show, Dollhouse, aired for the first time on Friday night. I think it must have been the most eagerly anticipated show in the history of television; no other TV writer seems to generate as much slavish adoration as Joss Whedon. As a fellow Whedonista once commented on Whedonesque, ‘you realise if Joss were to tell us to take to the streets and riot, our only question would be ‘torch or pitchfork?'”Whedon’s fans are not only devoted, but also incredibly skeptical of the networks, in particular Fox. We worry, with good reason, that the mercenary Network Executives In Suits will fail, yet again, to recognise Joss’s genius and mess his latest show up, making it impossible for it to succeed. When we heard about the rewrites, about Dollhouse airing in the ‘dead zone’ of Friday night, we knew we were in trouble. ‘Save Dollhouse‘ campaigns sprang up even before the show went to air.

Now that you have all that background, I hope you’ll understand the near-insane levels of excitement among Whedonistas on Friday night. As one we (or at least those in the US and those watching online) sat down to watch the latest creator of our beloved Joss.

Is it possible, from this perspective, to view the show objectively? I’d say no. Our mindset is already ‘In Joss we trust’. Joss can do no wrong.

This is why it’s so painful for me to say that I was completely underwhelmed. The premise of Dollhouse had sounded amazing: people with their personalities removed have new personalities implanted so that they can fulfill assignments for clients. The whole thing’s meant to be a metaphor for being an actor, how to be a successful actor one must be an empty vessel into which a writer and director can pour whatever personality is required. The show also stars Eliza Dushku, who has worked with Joss before, bringing the character of Faith to life with great pathos and poignancy. It should have been a winning formula.

But something is missing. Where is the snappy dialogue? That’s what I look for in a Joss show: the witty one-liners, the trademark slang, the mixing of pop culture references and literary allusions, the slightly different lexicons that distinguish one character from another. It’s the dialogue that sets Joss shows apart from their more mundane cousins. It’s Joss’s way with language that makes his shows the thing that other TV series can only aspire to be: shows with a heart.

I fall in love with Joss’s characters for their humanity, and it is through their words that this humanity shines through. Without memorable language, they’re nothing more than the mechanisms that drive a plot. It’s language that distinguishes River Tam from Cameron Phillips, Angel and Spike from Mick St. John and Cordelia Chase from every other queen bee to be found on the TV screen.

It’s not enough to have a cool idea, even if your previous cool ideas included:

  • being sick of horror movies where the little blonde girl got killed by the bad guy (usually in ‘punishment’ for being promiscuous), and created a series where the blonde girl chased the bad guys into the dark alleys and beat the s*** out of them.  Oh, and having the bad guys represent the horrors of highschool;
  • a vampire with a soul seeking redemption by acting as a supernatural private detective in the anonymous, uncaring streets of LA;
  • what the Star Wars prequels should have been: a band of lost souls looking out into the blackness of space, all seeing very different things; and
  • an aspiring supervillain charting his quest for a place in the Evil League of Evil in a vlog.
  • oh, and releasing the story of said supervillain in three acts, streamed free online and later available for download, made on the smell of an oily rag and bypassing the grasping networks altogether.

These brilliant ideas have earned Joss a crazed, hopelessly devoted gang of fans, who will love him no matter what. Whether we love Dollhouse, will, unfortunately, be another matter.

I’m reserving judgment until I’ve seen more episodes. And if I do end up being disappointed, I’ll likely blame it on the meddling of the Fox network. But I’d really like to have another group of characters whom I can care about as much as I care about Buffy and the Scoobies, Angel and his gang, Mal and his crew and Billy/Dr Horrible, Penny and Captain Hammer the Corporate Tool (whose fists are not the hammer). Here’s hoping.