Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Perfect episodes: "Once More with Feeling" from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Go on! Click on the picture! It will make for read-timey goodness!


It's the bane of the TV producer. Indeed, it's the bane of the TV fan -- the gimmick episode.

But when sweeps month rolls around, you can just about guarantee that various shows will be testing their respective casts' abilities to sing and dance or perform Shakespeare or reenact classic episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Sometimes, these episodes work, both as gimmicks and as episodes. But those are exceptions. Because most of the time, gimmick episodes are kind of fun while you're watching them but fall apart under further scrutiny, working as gimmicks, but not as episodes. And then there's the 7th Heaven musical, which is just ninth-ring-of-Hell bad.

Actually, though, the television musical has a long and noble history (and that article actually forgets the Chicago Hope musical, which wasn't all that bad, all things considered -- then again, I saw it when I was a teenager trying vainly to repress my love of Andrew Lloyd Webber -- it was a dark time all around). As stunts go, doing a musical episode isn't such a bad idea, since so many TV casts are filled with musical theater veterans who can shoulder the burden for the rest of the cast. And even if the episode is a complete flop, it's nice to hear some of your favorite tunes, so you're likely to forget that the whole thing didn't work on a story level or advance season arcs or anything.

But that all changed with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical, arguably the finest filmed American musical of the last quarter century or so (away from me Newsies fans -- just because you saw it when you were a kid doesn't mean it's good!).

But let's examine just what the Buffy musical had to live up to.

If you must do a gimmick episode, Joss Whedon is the man to do it. He took the many forms of gimmick episode as originally defined by TV writers in the 60s and encoded by the staff of Moonlighting in the 80s and breathed life into them. Since Buffy was a show that operated on a grand, metaphorical scale, Whedon could find ulterior motives to do a gimmick episode. Season four's Hush, for example, found Whedon examining issues of lack of communication by filming an episode that was nearly a silent movie (demons stole everyone's voices -- on second thought, you don't want to know). When Angel (the vampire of his self-titled show) was feeling like a corporate puppet for his bosses at evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, he LITERALLY BECAME A PUPPET (Whedon didn't write and direct that one, but his hand is all over it).

This could have gotten nauseating and overly obvious, but Buffy always glided along with such an effervescent air that it got away with a lot (its rather casual attitude also meant the show could suckerpunch you with a devastating plot twist like no other show in television history). That silent episode is equal parts stylistic triumph, frightening horror film and bawdy comedy. At its best (and even at its worst), Buffy worked on levels within levels, mainly dancing through its playful use of the English language.

All right. Enough fanboyishness.

When it came time for season six, the musical episode Whedon had been promising since at least season four (when he said it would make an interesting companion to Hush) finally came around. He took his summer hiatus to actually write an entire libretto (which, after numerous listens, sounds as influenced by Neil Young as it is by Stephen Sondheim), complete with break-out pop hit (Under Your Spell -- performed at weddings everywhere!), patter songs (I'll Never Tell) and songs that bring every character into a musical tableau (Walk through the Fire). Hell, there's even a classic "I wish" song (Going through the Motions) to open the whole enterprise up. The only song that doesn't work is the rather tepid rocker, Rest in Peace, given to vampire/love interest/villain Spike.

But even if you don't like the songs, even if you can't sing the whole thing bar to bar, you have to admire what Whedon did. By writing all of his own songs in his own style, he freed the television musical from what has held it back in the past -- comparisons to other versions of the same songs.

Invariably, no one on the writing staff has the time to write a complete musical score. So older songs that the production company can get the rights to are used instead. This is all well and good, but it's hard to hear, say, Adam Arkin sing Luck Be a Lady and not compare it to all of the other versions of Luck Be a Lady you've heard before. It rips you out of the moment and sends your attention down a rabbit trail. Plus, the lyrics, barring heavy rewriting, only apply to the situation at hand obliquely. They can't be used to advance the plot or reveal character or express emotions (the typical use of a song in a classic Hollywood musical is to stand in for where there would be a sex scene or a scene of violence in a "straight" drama -- we're all so emotional that we've just gotta' sing about it and such). When Arkin sings Luck Be a Lady, he's singing it because he hopes he's lucky enough to pull out of brain surgery (Chicago Hope, if you hadn't guessed). But that's a painfully flat reading of the song, and it makes the whole sequence nothing more than a curiosity.

By writing his own songs, Whedon was able to avoid this. When Tara sings Under Your Spell, she's revealing her love for her girlfriend AND setting up a plot point (her implicit trust in said girlfriend) that will pay off later AND letting us listen to the purty music AND indulging in a deliciously great double entendre for oral sex. We don't need to see these two kids are happy. We don't need to see they're in love. We can hear it in the music. The song works on any or all of these levels, and you can take from it what you want, just like in the best stage and film musicals.

(Here I bring everything to a screeching halt by pointing out that some of the finest film musicals -- Singin' in the Rain among them -- completely ignore what I just said above and use songs from other sources to dazzling effect. Well, honestly, if you're Singin' in the Rain, you can get away with a whole lot. Gotta Dance indeed.)

But -- what's more -- Whedon again finds a way to make the gimmick work as a storytelling device. At this point in the season's arc, all of the characters are stewing in the juices of secrets they're keeping from each other. But the central idea of the musical is that emotions are so heightened that you've just gotta sing and open up those floodgates. And so, Buffy reveals to her friends where they yanked her from when they resurrected her, Tara and Willow's lovers' spat comes to a head and Giles reveals just how useless he feels now that his surrogate kids are all growed up. Hush, Whedon explained when it first aired, was about having too little communication, but the musical (as he had conceived of it at that point) was about people having TOO MUCH communication. While, of course, secrets are acid-filled things that rot relationships from the inside out, they often won't come out without that extra little shove. In real life, it might be a lover finding an incriminating e-mail or pushing you to the brink in an argument, but in a musical, the song itself is enough to spill. And that's something Once More with Feeling exploits beautifully.

One last note: Most of the cast of Buffy was NOT made up of musical theater veterans. Anthony Stewart Head (Giles) and Amber Benson (Tara) were clearly singers before the show, and Emma Caulfield (Anya) had some theater work in her background, but the core cast of the show featured a lot of people who had very little singing experience. Whedon wrote that into the show, explaining that everyone was singing because of a demon's curse. It was a humorous way to explain the postmodern complaint of "Why are they all singing?" away as quickly as possible, and it also explained some of the rather flat singing.

Okay. You've been good. You've read all of my prattle. Here are some SONGS.

First. I've Got a Theory (special bonus: They Got the Mustard Out).

Next. I'm Under Your Spell (complete with one of Whedon's absolute worst, most on-the-nose lines ever -- see if you can spot it!).

Finally, the show's two best singers sing together.

Want more? Go rent the DVD.

And have a safe and happy Fourth. Enjoy the barbecue!


Todd VanDerWerff said...

For those curious, my other favorite American musicals of the last 25 years include "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Moulin Rouge!" (though that one may be my inner theatre geek trying to get out). I also have a soft spot for "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" for some reason, ridiculous reworking of Hugo's plot and all.

Libby said...

I never love you more than when you geek out on Buffy ...