Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dollhouse 2.05, "Belonging"

Oh my dear sweet goodness gracious, it is such a shame that hardly anybody is watching this show anymore, because last week’s episode totally killed!!!. It was intense, the acting was amazing, the dialogue was sickeningly provocative, and (best of all) it was coherent! I feel like “Belonging” finally succeeded in what this show has been trying to do all along, and has only been dancing around achieving. As a sci-fi allegory, Dollhouse has set itself up as a show that explores issues of exploitation and consent. Yet on multiple occasions the show has fallen on just the wrong side of the fence, with its treatment of these ideas coming off as gimmicky rather than serious. This episode, however, hit the nail dead on the center of the head; I’m still reeling from how awesome it was.

This episode explores the details of how Sierra came to be in the Dollhouse, and it is not a pretty story. Unlike the other dolls, she did not volunteer for this "service." She was originally a free-spirited artist named Priya who became the obsession of a Rossum bigwig named Nolan. Nolan tries everything he could to win her over: money, luxury, gallery showings for her paintings, the works. When she makes it very clear she’s having none of it, the guy shows his true colors. We don’t actually see this next part, but we later learn that he kidnapped her and drugged into a state of paranoid schizophrenia, then used his Rossum connections to get her admitted into the Dollhouse. Once she’s become a doll not only can he have her, but he can have her in any way he wants. He can make her say she loves him and mean it. It’s the ultimate form of abusive fantasy-fullfilment, and it’s sick, sick, sick.

When the situation is finally brought to the attention of the DH staff (by an increasingly cognizant Echo, no less), Nolan and the other higher-ups exert pressure on Adelle to imprint Sierra and hand her over to him permanently. She caves, and tells Topher to do it. Feeling repulsed and guilt-ridden at the role he played in turning Sierra into a doll in the first place, Topher rebels and imprints Sierra with Priya, the original, and sicks her on an unsuspecting Nolan. What follows is a harrowing chain of events that has irrevocable consequences and far-reaching implications for Topher, Sierra, Adelle, and everyone in the Dollhouse.

This episode marked somewhat of a turning point for Adelle. Up till now she’s always staunchly defended the “purity” of the engagements, and of the Dollhouse’s mission, to the moral dissenters like Paul and Caroline. (Remember her words to Caroline in the pilot? “What we do here helps people.”) She’s always been able to rationalize and justify the work she does, to herself and to everyone else, but in this episode she just can’t, and it’s a real blow to her. This was satisfying for me because I’ve been bothered for a while by Adelle’s pseudo-morality. She’s shown an increasing level of genuine concern for her actives' welfare, and has come to see herself as their guardian and protector. Yet this conflicts with the very nature of what she’s doing with them. When she first learns what Nolan did to Sierra, she’s livid (I would no sooner allow you near one of our other Actives than I would a mad dog near a child… Given that you're a raping scumbag one tick shy of a murderer.) And yet, as her sinister, amoral boss points out to her, Nolan isn’t really behaving differently from their other clients. Boss-man’s words to her are chilling in their ugly truthfulness:

Adelle: If we do this, what does that make us?
Boss-man: [raising his eyebrows] What are we already? … If the feeling that you’re somehow decent and moral helps you get through your day, [shrugs] that’s your business. This house, however, is our business.

She can’t keep hedging any longer; confronted with the true implications of her work and feeling the pressure from above, Adelle makes the despicable choice... Which leads to another intense scene in which she tells Topher to carry out the order to imprint Sierra permanently for Nolan.

Topher: [dazed, unbelieving] How can you expect me to do this?
Adelle: [Quietly] You’ll do it because you must. The cold reality is that everyone here was chosen because their morals had been compromised in some way. Everyone [walking towards him] except you. You, Topher, were chosen [putting her hand to his face, gently] because you have no morals. You have always thought of people as your playthings. This is not a judgment. You always take good care of your toys. But you’re simply going to have to let this one go.
Ouch! Man, that hurts. Adelle’s recent disillusionment with her own identity has left her cold and brutal and bitter. But do you see what I mean about this episode’s dialogue? During both of these exchanges, as well as the rest of the episode, I was glued to the screen: fascinated, horrified, almost unbelieving.

In addition to Adelle and Topher, both Sierra and Victor really got to shine in this episode. I’ve already gushed enough about the incredible acting (and adorableness!) of Enver Gjokaj, but Dichen Lachman is also very good. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s got a beautiful, unique look. I love that no matter what situation these characters are in, no matter what personalities they’re imprinted with, these two people always find themselves inevitably drawn to one another. It may sound cheesy and trite, but it really isn’t. Their innocence and sweetness actually provides a brilliant contrast to the darker, grittier, more cynical and sinister elements of the Dollhouse world. With the odds so hopelessly stacked against them, and with so many forces constantly driving them apart (mentally as well as physically), they still manage to find tiny, yet momentous ways to connect with each other. It really is very touching.

In other news, Dollhouse is going on hiatus until December 4th, at which time Fox will air the next six episodes in three weeks. Although the network has officially committed to airing all thirteen produced episodes of season two, the future for the show beyond that point is looking grim indeed. Yet if the show can maintain the intensity, focus, and all-around awesomeness of “Belonging” for the rest of its run, however long that may be, I guess I can’t really ask for more.

Valley of the Dolls: anti-feminist romp, precursor of modern chick lit?

You've got to climb to the top of Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls

So begins the novel about fortune, fame, and substance abuse in the 1960s. And yes, the writing is just as heavy-handed as the very bad opening poem. But when has this campy classic ever arrogated the status of “great writing”?

A friend of mine lent me her copy of Valley of the Dolls last month, saying that I absolutely MUST read it, and that it was one of her favorite books of all time. Seeing as how the book (and the 1967 film) has become such an enduring cult classic I figured I’d give it a shot, even though it didn’t really seem like me cup of tea.

After reading it, if I had to describe the novel in two words I would say “fascinating” and “sickening”. It was like watching one of those exposes on the Discovery Channel that are so bizarre and grotesque you just can’t look away. You cover your eyes, but can’t resist peering through a gap in your fingers. Similarly, although my gut reaction to the novel’s content was dismay and disgust, whenever I picked up the book and started reading, I just couldn’t put it down. During the week it took me to read it in its entirety, the book was as strangely addictive as the prescription drugs for which it was named, and probably just about as good for me.

As I was thinking about this novel, I actually remembered something David Carradine said on the special features of Kill Bill: that the film wasn’t really about the action or the violence in and of itself, but rather about providing an “inside look at the mind and heart of violent people.” In a similar way, Valley of the Dolls can be said to provide a compelling look into the minds and hearts of pill-popping female celebrities of the 50s and 60s, while neither glorifying nor vilifying their self-destructive lifestyles.

The novel features three friends who each manage to rise to varying degrees of fame and success in the entertainment and beauty industries, and who subsequently sink to the depths of depression and substance abuse. The book’s author, Jacqueline Susann, was an actress and writer who supposedly modeled many of her characters on contemporary celebrities. Anne is a conservative girl with a beautiful face who moves to New York to escape the restriction of her stifling New England hometown. Elegant and classy, Anne can also come off as uptight and cold, yet she harbors a life-long passion for a single man (who is completely unworthy of her irrational idolization, by the way). Neely O’Hara is an uneducated, impetuous girl who makes it big first on Broadway and then in Hollywood. Yet as her success grows, so does her ego and her increasingly uncontrollable behavior. Jennifer is a quiet, mild-mannered girl who suffers no delusions about her “acting career.” (An international sex symbol, her body has been her ticket to success). Deep down she yearns for genuine love, but is finds herself constantly objectified at every turn.

Most of the book’s characters, especially Neely, Anne, and Lyon (the object of Anne’s obsession), are pretty unpalatable in their own ways (Jennifer was the only one I really liked.) Yet I did sympathize with the fact that in a society of which blatant sexism is an integral part, independent women had very few options and were subjected to an endless supply of unnatural pressures. Yet when you get right down to it, The Valley of the Dolls is just a book about how these trashy people got to be so trashy. I got through it pretty quickly, but the overall, lasting impression was not favorable.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dollhouse: season two opens with inauspicious ratings

But, hey, what else is new for this show, huh? It’s still hanging on, if only just by a thread; after its seemingly miraculous renewal in the face of dismal ratings last spring, Dollhouse has returned to the Friday-night-graveyard of primetime where its return has been heralded once again by down-right depressing numbers. This post will cover the first three episodes of season two in one go, partly because I’ve been backlogged and haven’t gotten around to them until now, and partly because episode three rocked just a little bit more than the first two. So, yeah, I’m still enjoying this show because it’s grappling with some very heavy, far-out material (albeit often in an awkward, rough and ready kind of way.)

2.01 “Vows” In this episode, former agent Ballard (I think I’ll just call him Paul from now on) tests out his new, shaky alliance with Adelle & co. by arranging for Echo to be imprinted as an undercover agent programmed to help solve a case he himself never resolved with the FBI. So she goes undercover and actually marries this international arms dealer. Things start out well but soon go south, of course, and Paul is forced to improvise, actually using Echo’s rather unique “personality disorder” to solve the case in a rather unorthodox way. At the end of the day, when the bad guy’s all arrested and everything, Paul gets to be made Echo’s official handler, at which point the un-imprinted Echo asks him if he’ll help her find Caroline. Meanwhile, Dr Saunders struggles with the recent discovery that she herself was once an active, and that her entire personality and life as Saunders are just a construction of Topher’s, the guy she already hates (by design, it would seem.) She responds at first by finding cruel and petty ways to torment and freak him out, which culminates in this great confrontational scene between the two of them. I found it really interesting that she doesn’t seem to want to reclaim her original identity; she’s too afraid of relinquishing the reality she knows isn’t really real. To her, that would be like dying, and it scares her. Perhaps even more interesting is what Topher finally tells her: that he programmed her to question him, yes, because he thought it was necessary and prudent, but he never programmed her to hate him. She chose to. As much as I like the usual, smarmy Topher, it was really great to see this unnerved, vulnerable side of him.

2.02 “Instinct” Echo gets imprinted as the mother of a baby whose real mother died giving birth. (The father, too grief-stricken to love the baby himself, had turned to the Dollhouse to provide the infant with someone who could give it everything he needed.) When the father gets cold feet and tries to call off the engagement, we everybody learns the hard way that maternal instinct isn’t so easy for Topher to wipe away. Side note: a lot of people think that Eliza Dushku’s the weak link in the cast, and that she doesn’t have the versatility to play Echo. Well, I don’t know about that, but I must admit that she did a great job portraying the panic and terror of a mother losing her child. It was really quite affecting, I thought. Meanwhile, Madeline (the former active known as November) pays a visit to the Dollhouse for her post-release check-up, which is really just a way for Adelle to keep tabs on her. In the process, she runs into Paul, whom she of course doesn’t recognize, and also witnesses one of Echo’s more, er, colorful treatments. She remains blissfully unaware of the painful history she once shared with both of them, a seeming testament to the success of Dollhouse technology. Overall, this wasn’t a particularly strong episode, but it definitely had its moments. Even in her new incarnation of Madeline, Miracle Laurie is still a joy to watch.

2.03 “Belle Chose” Now, I really liked this episode a lot. It featured two separate, seemingly unrelated engagements that ended up converging in a hideous and hilarious way. The first is your basic fantasy fulfillment engagement, with Echo being turned into a bimb-tastic sorority girl named Kiki at the request of a creepy old lit professor. The second one involves a Rossum bigwig calling in a favor with Adelle, and she imprints Victor with the guy’s serial-killer nephew in an effort to locate his victims. When Boyd pulls Paul off of Echo’s engagement to use his FBI profiling on serial-killer-Victor, his reaction is hilarious; completely unnerved by “Kiki”, he says in a dazed kind of voice, “A serial killer? Thank god!” Unfortunately, the real killer’s uncle springs the killer-imprinted Victor from the DH and inadvertently lets him loose on society. Desperate to control the situation, Adelle forces Topher to attempt a tricky remote wipe of Victor that ends up short-circuiting the entire active grid. In all the confusion, Echo’s and Victor’s imprints get crossed: she becomes the insane killer hell-bent on finishing what he started and poor Victor becomes the flighty party-girl, shaking his thang all over an LA club. The results are both frightening (in Echo’s case) and hilarious (in Victor’s). This episode really showcased Enver Gjokaj’s many talents as an actor. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but I really like this guy. I think he’s the best of all the dolls at really embodying each new character he’s given in a totally believable way, even when it’s something as ridiculous as Kiki, or intense as the serial killer. Plus, he’s totally adorable! I hope we get to see much more of him in the future.

Overall, I think this show’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: it’s complex to the point of being unwieldy. It’ll never be mainstream or popular, because it’s really not for the casual viewer. Its greatest hope for survival is to garner enough of a fringe, cult following to buoy it up. Well, here’s hoping!
Oh, and I also thought I'd post the link to this video recap of season one, which is a little long but does an excellent job of bringing together the most compelling elements of the first season and setting us up for furutre developments.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Austen's Persuasion is passable

Back in February I made the somewhat belated new year’s resolution that by the time 2010 rolls around I will have finished reading all six of Austen’s novels. To be perfectly frank, this decision was prompted in large part by a delightfully adorable film called The Jane Austen Book Club, which convinced me, among other things, that having read all six of them was either an essential part of my female education or, at the very least, a worthwhile endeavor. It actually wasn’t that daunting of an undertaking, as I’d already read half of them and only had three more to go. Unfortunately the first of the remaining three that I read rather put me off the whole idea. Let’s just say that Mansfield Park won’t be making my top ten list. The arrival of fall, however, has reminded me of my resolution, and that I have only a few months in which to read the final two. And so I cranked through Persuasion last month, and was quite pleased to find it much more enjoyable than MP. If I had to describe the novel in as many words as its title is long, that one word would be “pleasant”. Definitely not as brilliant or hilarious as Emma, nor as dramatic or sweeping as Pride and Prejudice, but overall a very enjoyable story expressed with all the piercing clarity and wit that generally characterize Austen’s novels.

Persuasion features Anne Elliot, the daughter of a noble family who, despite her rank and wealth, has never married despite reaching the lofty age of twenty-seven. Her immediate family are a rather proud and foolish lot who don’t really know how to value Anne’s modesty and good sense. In fact, the only person who really estimates Anne’s true worth is her good friend Lady Russell, an acquaintance of her late mother. The story begins when Anne’s father, who has exceeded his rather generous income, deigns to rent out their estate to another family while her removes himself to Bath. Anne is quite shocked to learn that their new tenants are the relations of a certain individual with whom she was once very intimately acquainted. They were engaged to be married many years ago, but she had broken it off at the disapproval of her family and the advice of Lady Russell, who strongly disapproved. The man, a naval officer named Wentworth, felt wronged and betrayed and cut off all contact with Anne, seemingly forever. Now that circumstances have brought them together again after ten years’ separation, Anne must go through the painful exercise of facing a man who has risen to success and made his fortune while she herself has shrunk to the relative social obscurity of an unhappily unmarried woman, and of enduring the cold politeness of the resentful man she once rejected but never truly stopped loving.

A large part of my enjoyment of this novel stemmed the fact that Austen does an excellent job of building
the emotional suspense leading up to the reunion of Anne and Captain Wentworth, and of maintaining it all throughout their painfully awkward subsequent encounters. It’s all the more agonizing to think of them both suffering such strong feelings while maintaining the front (to themselves and to the general company, ignorant of their history) of indifference and disinterest. That two people who were once so silly-in-love should now be reunited only to be perpetually estranged! It’s all very dramatic and heart wrenching, of course. And of course there’s also a happy ending, as with all Austen’s novels, and Anne and Wentworth do finally come to understand one another once again, having both grown into somewhat wiser and more mature individuals than they were when they first knew each other. Yet stories like these usually hinge less on the destination of marital bliss than on the course of the journey that leades there, and Persuasion is no different.

What I liked about this book was that both of the main characters have healthy flaws to grapple with before they can achieve their happily-ever-after. Perhaps Anne is a little bit on the long-suffering side, but to nowhere near the ridiculous degree of the frustratingly saintly Fanny Price, for example. I like that by the end of the book both Anne and Wentworth come to realize that if they’d been a little less foolish (she more discerning and he more forgiving and understanding) then would probably have spared themselves years of unhappiness. My one complaint about the novel is that I think it was hampered by the lack of any real communication between the two main characters for almost the entire duration of the story. I guess I felt that their estrangement was drawn out too long and then resolved a tad too quickly. Still, I enjoyed this book. I rooted for its characters. I had fun reading it. It definitely wasn’t my favorite Austen novel (so far), but it was still pretty good. Serviceable.

Oh, and since I forgot to work a quote in there somewhere, I’ll just awkwardly tack one on to the end of this review, kay? So here’s Anne pondering the potential pitfalls of poetry (alliteration totally not intended):
It was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.
Whatever Austen may be writing, the gal certainly has a way with words, doesn’t she?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sand Chronicles, vol. 6: the emotional roller coaster continues

And so, four months after the release of
volume five, Viz finally publishes the sixth volume of this award-wining series, which is so dense and poignant for a shoujo title. And don’t let the cover image (which depicts a laughing, carefree, happy-go-lucky Ann and Fuji having the time of their life) fool you; as always, Hinako Ashihara manages to draw readers through the emotional wringer with all the angsty turmoil in volume six. Yet the conflict rarely feels overly manufactured or contrived for the sake of cheating readers into the emotions. The characters are genuine and complex, and while the overall feel of the story is very subdued and melancholic, it has some very thoughtful, sensitive, and truly touching moments.

Summer, Age 18: This volume is divided into two chapters that focus on the summer and winter of Ann’s eighteenth year, respectively. In the first part, Ann and Fuji take a trip to Izu with their Tokyo friends to get away from the city and do some studying (they’re preparing for their college entrance exams). Ann has finally decided to start dating Fuji, but they’re taking it very slowly. After everything that happened with Daigo she’s not quite ready to dive into another intense relationship, but she does want to move on and continue living her life. Unfortunately, when she hears the rumor from Shimane about Daigo dating Ayumu (remember that pushy trouble-maker from volume one?), all the pain comes rushing back to her and we see that despite her cheerful front, she hasn’t moved on at all. Meanwhile, her Tokyo friends are all convinced things are moving way too slowly with her and Fuji and decide to take matters into their own hands. And so, feeling hurt and raw and finding herself constantly thrown together with Fuji in Izu, she ends up sleeping with him for the first time. Afterwords, she realizes that as much as she likes Fuji, a part of her has just been using him to ease the pain of her separation from Daigo. For a girl who already has self-esteem issues, this is a pretty heavy realization. (I used the person it would hurt the most… But, I needed someone to rescue me so badly… When it comes to causing people pain, I’m the expert.)

I have to say, I was pretty disappointed in Ann at this point. I mean, the whole reason she broke up with Daigo was because she felt guilty about the emotional strain she was putting on him by needing to be “rescued” from her personal demons, and by depending on him to save her when she couldn’t really be saved. And now she’s doing the same thing with Fuji, whom she doesn’t even love in the same way. On the other hand, she does seem to recognize her own failings (indeed, nobody’s harder than her than she is on herself), and she genuinely wants to become a stronger person. Yet with the powerful negative example of her own mother’s suicide, and in light of her recent struggles, she’s finding it difficult to maintain hope that she will ever be able to change.

Winter, Age 18: This chapter takes place half a year later and focuses on more of the peripheral characters. Fuji convinces Shika to come clean with their mother about the secret that has driven the three of them apart for so long. This is a huge deal for Shika, and will probably go a long way towards her getting her life back in order, and yet she still hasn’t forgiven herself for the way she took her resentment out on Ann and Daigo the previous year. So she decides to escape her sheltered life in Shimane and spend some time studying abroad. She writes to Ann from Canada, and the two start to rekindle their erstwhile friendship. I think this is a good example of a certain strength and resilience of Shika’s that Ann lacks. They both have these really emotionally scarring experiences in their pasts, and they’ve both hurt people they care about in different ways as a result. They both want to mature into stronger individuals, but Shika’s the one with the chutzpah to actually do something about it. It must have taken a lot of courage for a sheltered girl like her to venture alone into a foreign country, but ultimately I think it will strengthen her.

Of course, Ann’s got a lot on her plate right now, and can’t exactly drop everything and move to Canada. In addition to her college entrance exams, she also discovers that her father and his “friend” Kaede are really more than just friends – and Kaede’s pregnant! I really liked this side story because we got a deeper look at Kaede’s character (she’s been around since volume two), and even a glimpse into her relationship with Miwako (Ann’s mother) and Ann’s father when they were younger. That’s what I like about this series: all the character’s are three-dimensional, not just the main ones. Ann’s relationship with Kaede is pretty good, so this is generally happy news for her, if a little surprising. She’s been so wrapped up in her own problems she hasn’t really noticed what’s been going on right in front of her. I also liked the part when Ann’s grandparents came to the city from Shimane to greet Kaede formally. The grandmother especially is great; if Ann’s looking for a strong female role model, she need look no further.

As for Daigo, we don’t really see much of him this volume. He’s been studying like crazy to try to bring his grades up and get into college, and Ayumu’s been helping him out nonstop. She’s really not as bad a person as we’d been lead to believe in volume one, and she’s grown up a lot since then. She still has a thing for Daigo, but of course he’s still hung up on Ann. Fuji, meanwhile, has come to understand that no matter how hard he tries he will never mean as much to Ann as Daigo did, and the two finally come clean to each other about their feelings in the last scene of the volume. She thanks him and apologizes for everything. He reminds her of how she helped him when nobody else could (by which I assume he means that time he ran away a few years previously). He hugs her and tells her that somewhere out there is a person who will make her happier than he or Daigo ever could. Ann thinks about how even among the millions of people in the world, nobody could possibly be as kind as Fuji or make her feel as special as Daigo. And I tear up just a little bit.

Ah, Sand Chronicles, you always get to me. In a world of manga where many series are hard to read because they’re contrived and shallow and gratuitous, this one is hard to read because it’s intense and painful and real.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

TV pairings: an evolutionary study

I realize that the title of this post might seem a little heavy-worded, but I really couldn’t really think of a good way to summarize this topic. Hopefully my meaning will become clear once I explain it a bit more. I got the idea to write this post last month, when some of the fall primetime premiers prompted me to reflect on one of the things I love most about the open-ended, multi-season format of US television: the evolution of TV relationships. By that I mean the inherent possibility of the medium to slow development of relationships over long periods of time, allowing viewers to watch them change drastically from what they originally were and grow slowly towards what they will become. This cannot be achieved in the same way in other media such as movies, dramas, or miniseries, which are more limited in scope. Of course these kinds of developments are a long time in the making, and aren’t usually the main focus of a given show on an episode-to-episode basis, but sometimes the emotional payoff is just that much greater in the end. Yet whenever shows alter the relationships between main characters they the risk of changing the characters themselves too drastically, which is never a good thing. You don’t want to see a beloved character going against the grain for no good reason. And yet it can be such fun to watch them cope with the awkward, uncomfortable realization that they’re seeing things (and people) in a new and different light. It’s a high-stakes game that sometimes backfires on writers, and sometimes makes for the most interesting and enjoyable television out there. If this isn’t making any sense yet, please bear with me, and hopefully it will.

You may have noticed that the title of this post reads “TV pairings” and not “TV relationships in general” and that’s because I’m going to focus on the romantic ones. More specifically, I’d really like to talk about something I refer to as "evolved pairings", which I define as TV pairings that occur some time relatively late in a series between two central characters who were not previously romantically linked. That might sound kind of specific, but it’s actually a relatively common trend. Yet I’m not just talking about couples with lots of romantic vibes who somehow manage to keep delaying the inevitable (à la Luke and Lorelai); I'm talking about the ones that somehow come together after having a decidedly un-romantic relationship for a long time. So if we were to take Friends as an as an example, Monica and Chandler would be an evolved pairing whereas Ross and Rachel would not. While Ross and Rachel were highly anticipated right from the series' pilot, Monica and Chandler would have been impossible for season one viewers to predict. When relationships start changing in a series, as Monica's and Chandler's did in season 5 of Friends, it can be a lot of fun for long-time viewers who know all their history. And so this was a really long intro for my topic, but today I'd like to talk about some "evolved pairings" that I've really gotten on board with in the past.

Buffy & Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer): The first example on my list of awesome evolved pairings is a little on the old side, relatively speaking (the show’s been off air for over six years), but it’s a classic example and one of my favorites. Spike was introduced as a major villain to Buffy’s hero in season 2, but he would eventually become something much less easily defined; he was extremely popular with fans and became first a recurring character in seasons 3-4 and then a leading role in seasons 5-7. Over the years, Spike was slowly given tons of backstory and meaty development, and I still consider him to be the most complex and compelling character in Buffyverse. He’s in turns hilarious, sympathetic, and downright pathetic. In one of the most famously quotable shows of all time, Spike often had the best lines. One of his most well-known utterances is this: “Love isn’t brains, children. It’s blood… I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.” (Ha! He’s not even talking about Buffy in this one, but it’s still great, no?) Of the two, Spike is definitely the first to develop romantic feelings for Buffy, slowly (and painfully) falling for her over the course of season 5, and it’s quite a long time before she sees him as anything but a monster. When I say that the Buffy/Spike pairing works, I don’t mean that they have a happy ending, because they don’t. I just mean that they had great chemistry, and that for a couple that started out on opposite sides of nearly everything they had a relationship that people really cared about and wanted to see happen. Yes, it was painful at times, and yes it went some really weird places (season 6, anyone?), but ultimately it was one of the things that made the show so popular. It’s amazing to think about where they started out in season 2, and where they ended up five years later in the series finale, and the epic journey that happend in between.

Barney & Robin (How I Met Your Mother): This example is a bit more contemporary than the first, as the show is still airing, and one of it’s hottest topics right now is the couple in question. Robin is first introduced to the show as the primary love interest for main character Ted in seasons 1 and 2 (although it’s revealed in the pilot that she is not the titular “Mother” of Ted’s future children, to whom future Ted narrates the entire series). Barney, meanwhile, is Ted’s eccentric and totally hilarious friend, who also happens to be a shameless womanizer. Although Barney is primarily played for laughs (Neil Patrick Harris is a hoot), what really makes him interesting are his rare flashes of real sensitivity. This includes the way he deeply and very genuinely cares about his friends, for example, and of course his feelings for Robin. After their spontaneous, "one-time-only" hookup in season 3, it was tremendous fun to watch the skirt-chasing Barney struggle to accept that there’s a girl 1) whom he actually wants to sleep with a second time, 2) whom he doesn’t like to see with other guys, 3) who is also one of his closest friends, and 4) not to mention, their mutual friend’s ex. Poor guy! For her part, Robin's also kind of a one-in-a million character: a "sophisticated, scotch-swilling, cigar-smoking, red-meat-eating, gun-toting New Yorker” who's also very loveable, and Canadian. We're supposed to believe that in a bizarre way, they're actually kind of perfect for each other. Does it work? I actually think this one's a bit of a stretch, but I'm willing to go along with it becase it's just so much fun and I adore this show. (Btw, this recap clip does a much better job of summing up their relationship than I did.)

Logan & Veronica (Veronica Mars): Man, this was such a great show. And one of the great things about it (but certainly not the only great thing) was all the Logan/Veronica LoVe that happened. She's the petite, blonde, tough-as-nails, hardboiled teen detective with all the quippy one-liners. He's the spoiled, rich bully with an abusive past and deep-rooted insecurities. Their relationship - is complicated. You can read a 5,000-word summary of it on wikipedia. All I'm going to say here is that in spite of Veronica introducing him to us as her school's "obligatory psychotic jackass" in the pilot voice-over, they actually turned out to share a very intense, and often quite sad, but totally awesome relationship. Now that's what I call relationship evolution.

Blair & Chuck (Gossip Girl): I actually almost didn't include this one since they first hooked up kind of early on (half-way through season one). Yet if you just look at the show within the context of that first season, it works. They didn’t officially get together until much later, and, more importantly, their pairing caught me completely off guard, and then really swept me up in its intensity and general epic-ness. Considering these two weren’t even on each other’s radar at first, I’d say they’ve earned their spot on this list. Blair is the quintessential Upper East Side princess (rich, controlling, self-centered), but with her own share of insecurities and a fighting spirit it’s hard not to admire. It’s not until her perfect little world starts to crumble that she first turns to Chuck for comfort. She and Chuck have always known each other (the UES set is an small and exclusive one), but he was definitely not part of her plan. He’s kind of a wonanizer, and just about the only person on earth who’s as manipulative as she is. Unsurprisingly, their first fling ends rather messily, but that doesn’t mean the feelings weren’t real. Quite the contrary, especially on his part. I really liked their storyline back in those days. They’re both interesting characters, and it was really fun to watch them together; they had this great rapport, and even when they were being truly horrible to each other you knew that deep down they really cared. Unfortunately, I think that their storyline, like the show itself, has gotten a lot less exciting over the past season. These days, I’m mainly watching for the fashions.

Lois & Clark (Smallville): Okay, so Lois Lane and Clark Kent are one of the most iconic couples in the cannon. So what, you might ask, are they doing on a list of romantic relationships that develop from strictly unromantic ones? Because on Smallville, that’s exactly what happens. The show, as people generally know, tells the story of Superman’s youth, and is based very loosely on the Superboy Adventure Comics. When the character of Lois Lane was first introduced in season 4, her relationship with Clark was quite different from the one we all know and love from the Superman cannon. They shared a sort of grudging respect, but for the most part they just annoyed each other. It was almost like a brother-sister kind of vibe. And yet over the past five years they’ve been slowly but steadily growing closer in a way that’s been really great to watch. Smallville’s definitely a story with an endgame, but that certainly doesn’t mean there’s no dramatic suspense. The whole premise of Smallville is to show how things were before they got to be the way we know, and the show often does so in unexpected ways, especially with Lois and Clark. The development of their relationship has been, in my opinion, THE highlight of the series, especially recently. When I remember how little I cared for this show in its earlier seasons, it’s amazing how much I now anticipate each week’s episode. And I think the Lois/Clark relationship has a lot to do with that.

There are probably lots of other TV pairings that fall into this category, but these are the ones I thought of first and the ones to which I’ve paid the most attention recently. Besides, this post has gotten kind of long and I’m kind of burnt out.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

One quick note before I jump right into the review: I just want to say right up front that I’m going to do a horrible job of summarizing this book. Although it’s not very long, it is very plot-driven, and full of twists and turns and revelations. Additionally, many of the story’s essential elements hinge on the complex practices of Collins’ futuristic world and require too many explanations for a short review of this nature. Okay, disclaimer over.

Just because I am no longer a teenager (hey, it hasn’t even been two months, back off already!) doesn’t mean I’m too old to read YA fiction. Which is a darned good thing because Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins’ sequel to last year’s The Hunger Games and the second book in a planned trilogy, just came out a few weeks ago, and it’d be a shame to have outgrown fast, fun reads like this one.

Catching Fire
picks up shortly after the conclusion of The Hunger Games with Katniss and Peeta, now Victors, struggling to readjust to life in District Twelve, and finding that things will never be the same again, for them or for anyone else. Their dual victory in the Games was pretty much a miracle, but now they have to figure out how to live their new lives, and Katniss is only just beginning to learn the full ramifications of her actions. Her elaborate deception (which ensured her and Peeta’s survival in the last book) has seriously compromised her relationships with both Peeta and Gale, and she now finds herself more alone than ever. Yet as a Victor, the consequences of her actions extend far beyond her personal life, and she begins to hear rumors and whispers of desperation and rebellion in some of the other districts. All of this plays out in the first third of the novel, at which point the next year’s Games roll around and the plot suddenly takes off like a bat out of hell, and doesn’t let up right until the very cliff-hangery ending.

On Katniss, the protagonist: Ok, this girl can be really dense sometimes, and she’s got about the emotional comprehension of a toothpick. I know she doesn’t mean to be insensitive to Gale or Peeta’s feelings; she just doesn’t know how to deal with them like a normal person. She’s spent so much of her life focused solely on survival that she hasn’t had a lot of time for emotional development. Still, it gets kind of frustrating when she’s got these too guys who are clearly nuts about her and she persists in blindly ignoring the complications of the situation.

On the action factor: I’m not sure if this book falls more into the fantasy or sci-fi genre, but it certainly has a lot of action. The Games are quite violent, but they’re not just a mindless bloodbath. It’s as much of a mind game as anything else. Collins really does an excellent job with the action sequences, and they’re always imaginative, entertaining, and well orchestrated.

On the funky names: While some fantasy authors are really good at creating made-up proper nouns that are also believable, this is not exactly Collins’ strong point. Katniss, Peeta, Panem – they’re all kind of awkward and just a bit lame. At the same time, some of the names are quite ordinary – Gale, Johanna, President Snow. I guess, since this world is supposed to be a futuristic version of North America, some of the old names survived and some new ones emerged.

In general: Both THG and CF are the kind of books that I can enjoy thoroughly (albeit briefly), but which I do not necessarily admire completely. They careen along at a break-neck, plot-driven pace that leaves in the dust any possibility for depth of characterization or sophistication of language. With a noticeable amount of grammatical errors (mostly of the who/whom variety), and a present-tense narrative voice (a pet peeve of mine), Collins writing strikes me as particularly unexciting, even for a YA novel. That being said, Collins has some serious story-telling chops, and her books are sky-high on the entertainment factor. The fact that I plunked down $18 for each book, in spite of their many eye-roll-inducing moments, is testament enough to the magnetic pull of the story. These books are a movie franchise just waiting to happen.

Final word: I try to incorporate at least one quote each book into my reviews, just to give a tiny taste of the text, but I found it difficult to choose a good one from this book (see above on Collins' unexciting prose). However, I did managed to find one that I thought worth highlighting: "As the alcohol overcomes my mind, I hear the glass bottle shatter to the floor. This seems appropriate, since I have obviously lost my grip on everything." - from Chapter 13 of Catching Fire.