Whenever he's shown or even just mentioned on the news, I'm possessed by the nearly uncontrollable urge to shout, "Hey hey hey... It's Thaaaaaaad Allen!" Google says I am not alone there.
I watched the premiere of The Gates last Sunday, and caught up with the off-season repeats of The Vampire Diaires as well.
Images TM & © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Photo: Steve Dietl.
The Gates, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC after the similarly hyped summer series Scoundrels, barely kept me locked in. As a guilty pleasure to screen on a hot, lazy night, well, it's more guilty than pleasure — not quite the melodramatic mash-up of Desperate Housewives and Twilight those making it might have hoped for, but probably engaging enough to keep anyone who enjoyed Eastwick coming back for its limited run.
The pilot has a former Chicago police detective, Nick Monohan, relocating his family to a planned community called The Gates. He's the new police chief of this private, protected, picturesque exurbia, naturally trying to rebuild his career and family bonds but stirring up controversy on Day One by getting suspicious about a missing person last seen at his new neighbors' house. Those neighbors, Claire and Dylan Radcliff, are vampires trying to assimilate for the sake of their daughter, and they're not the only ones in town with secrets: The popular herbalists, rivals who respectively run a day spa and medical practice, appear to be witches; the Monohans' son Charlie rubs football star Brett Crezski, a closet werewolf, the wrong way when he starts spending time with Brett's girlfriend Andie Bates, whose charisma (says ABC's promo material) may not be entirely ordinary.
While I didn't remember a single one of those characters' names, in fairness to The Gates my head for such things isn't what it used to be — and I did run a mini-marathon of The Vampire Diaries for myself right after the Gates premiere. The best-known cast member is probably Rhona Mitra, whose TV work includes stints on Boston Legal and Nip/Tuck; the rest of the ensemble is peppered with folks you've seen around the tube, like NYPD Blue's Chandra West, 24's Marisol Nichols, or utility player Frank Grillo (trust me, you know his face – and not just because he looks like Bones star David Boreanaz morphing into CSI supporting player Alex Carter). And it does seem to be an ensemble, despite the marketing push featuring Mitra, but the split focus on home life and high school felt as hodgepodge as the half-hearted injection of supernaturalism into soap opera. Mixing adolescent angst with parental and professional problems can absolutely work, as evidenced by the likes of Gilmore Girls or Once and Again; similarly, black-magic brooding has served as an apt background for serial sudsiness since the days of Dark Shadows if not the hot-blooded (for Victorian England) original, epistolary Dracula. Yet such tension on not one but two axes (indeed the plural of "axis" — thanks, wherever you are, Mr. Wolk) made The Gates feel faintly all over the place, particularly since the Monohan family, our entry into its occult environs, are apparently the unwitting Cousin Marilyn on the block.
So I guess what I'm saying is that The Gates, while making me mildly curious about where some of its storylines might lead, mostly reminded me of other shows. The Vampire Diaries did the same, but with more focus and more style.
Images TM & © 2009 The CW Network LLC. Photo: Quantrell Colbert.
I gave up on Vampire Diaries after its premiere last fall, which some friends and trusted reviewers have since indicated was a mistake. The CW has blessedly kept its elders' largely lapsed tradition of straight-through summer repeats alive, however, so I've been taping it Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET (along with Life Unexpected at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays; meanwhile, if you've taken my advice and begun treating yourself to Supernatural on DVD, you should be recording the latest season 9 p.m. Fridays so you don't have to wait for it to hit stores in September). Given that I'd recently devoured the enthralling first season of True Blood via Netflix when Diaries premiered and I couldn't help but compare it to the fangtastic Buffy the Vampire Slayer (lauded here less than a fortnight ago), I decided not to set myself up for disappointment.
The good news is that, four episodes in, The Vampire Diaries has turned out to be at bare minimum the kind of frothy diversion that The Gates wishes it were — although, to be fair, I've only seen as much of The Gates as I did of Diaries when I decided my plate was full enough without it last fall. Developed with Julie Plec by Kevin Williamson of Dawson's Creek fame from a series of prose novels (not previously on my radar, unlike the source material for the Twilight films and HBO's True Blood), it appears to borrow as much from Creek as from Buffy, with lots of Smallville in the mix as well. Since I've never actually seen Creek or read the Diaries books, I can't say how much of what we see on the screen is original to the novels as opposed to coming from Williamson's creative staff or an impetus to follow the general WB/CW template.
What Diaries definitely shares with Buffy is the creep factor of centuries-old men in youthful, hunky, paranormally powered bodies mooning over minors. The premise sparks from vampire brothers Stefan and Damon Salvatore's return to their hometown of Mystic Falls, Virginia, posing as their own descendants. Stefan arrives first, enrolling in high school and beguiled by Elena Gilbert, the spitting image of a woman from his past named Katherine; Damon has followed Stefan to toy with him, disgusted at Stefan's rejection of human blood and the indulgent life he could be living if he embraced the fullness of his abilities. Elena's parents recently died in a car crash that she survived, bringing her young aunt, Jenna, back to Mystic to serve as guardian for Elena and her brother Jeremy. Stefan and Elena bond in the graveyard one night over their respective losses, withdrawn natures, and soulful diary-writing, but Damon's manipulation and Stefan's own reticence to share his past with Elena keep their burgeoning relationship rocky. Jeremy is involved in a love triangle without any unearthly dimensions revealed to date, while Elena's attraction to Stefan worries her best friend Bonnie Bennett, who appears to have turned psychic, then pyrokinetic, and is disturbed after feeling death when touching Stefan's hand.
Much of the cast of The Vampire Diaries looked familiar to me, but that's mostly to do with my heavy visual association (one fine day to be the topic of its own post) — these actors resemble other actors I've actually seen, from Matt Czuchry clone Zach Roerig to Kayla Ewell, an Elizabeth Berkley doppelgänger with some Scarlett Johansson in the jaw, to Steve McQueen's grandson Steven R. McQueen, distracting in his resemblance to some mythical love child of Kyle Gallner, seen on Smallville as Bart Allen, and Marc Blucas, who played Riley Finn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Lost's Ian Somerhalder, who as Damon chews his lines with only slightly more restraint than his character chews his victims' necks, had the only face I recognized as his own. That old truism of the villain being more fun to play seems to hold here; Somerhalder gets to act the louche hedonist while Paul Wesley is stuck trying to smolder as self-disciplined Stefan and viewers try not to be distracted by how much he looks like Twilight's Robert Pattinson crossed with David Boreanaz in his heavy-browed Angel days (something that must have been entirely incidental to his casting) or, depending on the angle, Glee's Matthew Morrison. Nina Dobrev looks and sounds like a hot, teenage Rachael Ray (not that there's anything wrong with Rachael Ray the way she is right now, so don't pounce on me, Whatever They Call Rachael Ray Fans — direct your energy towards getting more appropriate pictures of her on the Internets); Dobrev's smoky voice, deep eyes, and genuine acting talent help her bring zest and believability to what could be a too-familiar role as the feisty yet vulnerable Elena.
The Vampire Diaires doesn't tread much new ground, but that may be part of its appeal. Damon Salvatore tweaks the Twilight franchise when he responds dismissively to a conquest asking him why he doesn't sparkle; he and Stefan would burn in the sun, but are protected by magic rings — more elegantly excusing their daytime excursions than the magic SPF-500,000 moisturizer that Claire Radcliff is shown using in The Gates (which must take hours to fully apply, since we never see so much as a spot inside her left ear sizzling). Diaries also decrees that a plant called vervain can thwart vampires' hypnotic powers and, in sufficient strength, physically weaken them, although it's bloodlust that makes their veins darken visibly through their skin in an echo of Clark Kent's exposure to kryptonite on Smallville.
Set amongst misty graveyards, forestry, and Southern architecture on the Eastern seaboard, the show has a gothic look in more than one sense, and in the handful of episodes I've seen the focus has already drawn away from school-oriented shenanigans to the complicated, connected past of the Salvatore family and Mystic Grove. The fourth installment ended with a promising turn that, capping as it did scenes set during the annual Founder's Day celebration, pleasantly echoed the intrigue of True Blood's Bon Temps, Louisiana. The acting isn't uniformly strong, and the soundtrack is usually either marketing predictable, generic pop rock or killing the mood with a bargain-brand Andrew Lloyd Webber synthesizer score, but the plotlines are drawing me in. While not straying far from what one expects out of a CW series titled The Vampire Diaries, it's at least giving the concept some bite.
Among the many bookmarks that've been piling up awaiting a link-blogging post are the following, which my father should appreciate.
I was discussing some grammatical questions with him the other day, which led to a conversation on how hard it can be to look up stuff like that online.
Do you feel bad for isolated thunderstorms?
Photo taken by Sean Waugh for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's National Severe Storms Laboratory.
I couldn't help but think of Glee when that line popped into my head, thanks to my favorite character on the show: Heather Morris's Brittany.
Morris was brought in to teach the cast the choreography for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" and ended up being offered the part of one of the cheerleaders who joined the glee club; at first she had no real character hook, but then the producers realized her pitch-perfect dim-bulb delivery of lines like the following.
"Did you know that dolphins are just gay sharks?"
"Sometimes I forget my middle name."
"I'm pretty sure my cat has been reading my diary."
Brittany doesn't have the only funny lines on the show by a long shot, just the best, and serves them up in the most brilliantly nonchalant way. The cold, hard virtual print above doesn't do her justice.
My Season One review of Glee is one of many posts in the pipeline, but the short take is that the show is a total hoot with genuine emotion and generally great music that has mostly used the disparate tones I noted in my review of the pilot to its advantage. While the early episodes are uneven, I wanted to alert folks who might've missed this improbable delight during its first run that Fox is repeating the season at 8 p.m. Thursdays; the pilot aired two days after the season finale and appears to already be gone from the show's website (even though newer episodes that aired longer ago are still there), but the second episode is up for another month and the third episode will probably be online after it airs tonight.
A few weeks ago, Nikki Stafford proclaimed June to be Vampire Month on her blog, Nik at Nite. The primary topic of conversation — which I am observing a moratorium on naming — was beginning to eat itself, and she had fangdom on the brain for at least two good reasons: (1) ECW Press, where Nikki serves as an editor and which publishes her Finding [Ooh-La-La!] books (thanks, Craig Ferguson), has a True Blood companion coming out. (2) She was preparing to attend Slayage — an academic conference devoted to the work of Joss Whedon in general and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in particular. I think there was also something about The Vampire Diaries in there.
Package art to the DVD release of BTVS Season One TM and © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
I was late to the game on Buffy, against all odds.
While I didn't see the movie when it came out in 1992, a dear friend of mine and her roommate were devoted to it as a cult-classic guilty pleasure, so one night they rented the videotape (a reference that is now the purview of the cultural anthropologist) and made me watch it. I got a kick out of it, especially Paul Reubens during his exile from Pee-Wee Herman; Rutger Hauer could probably menace in his sleep, Kristy Swanson played good borderline-bimbo-with-breakout-potential, and I might even have appreciated the irony of Donald Sutherland as Buffy's mentor — his son Kiefer, see, had starred in The Lost Boys, perhaps the best teen-vampire flick of all time.
BTVS movie poster TM and © 1992 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
I had no idea how far the film had strayed from Whedon's original intent, however. The movie is basically a well done but camped-up take on the title's ridiculous high concept: Valley Girl vs. the Undead. But, at least as reflected in the WB/UPN television series that followed, Joss was going for more than a spoiled-girl-grows-into-obligations romp akin to Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead (with "secretly running the household" replaced by "secretly fighting creatures of the night because it's, like, totally my destiny"); the papers presented at Slayage have no doubt shown — and millions of fans (TV critics, scholars, and fellow filmmakers among them) can attest — that the world of Buffy Summers had a much richer vein to tap than the movie suggests.
On TV Buffy went through camp and came back out the other side. There's no getting past that title or the premise of a teenager chosen to be a once-in-a-generation protector of humanity against all things that go bump in the night — nor should there be; Whedon obviously knew the value of the high concept even as he was interested in going much deeper. And one of the richest things about the TV series was its characters' steeped-in-pop-culture dialogue, the self-proclaimed "Scooby Gang" flirting with self-awareness as characters even as they worked through growing self-awareness as people. Like so many science-fiction, fantasy, and superhero sagas with not just valid but often startlingly dramatic or touching commentary on the human condition, Buffy is dismissed by wider audiences due to its genre trappings when (as with the best Star Trek or Superman stories) it's those very trappings that allow serious issues to be examined in a different, insightful light.
When Buffy the Vampire Slayer made its leap to television in the spring of 1997, I sampled the first episode and caught another one a few weeks later. Not that I couldn't relate to the show's high-school setting (nobody ever forgets those days), but I was a newlywed struggling with the transition to full-time freelancing after a move that stripped away pretty much all of my regular income, so I decided to launch a magazine, and my TV viewing was limited to the handful of shows to which I was already obsessively attached; what's more, my wife was hooked on La Femme Nikita and Xena: Warrior Princess, and I wasn't sure that I could take another low-budget semi-serious series in my diet — which is all Buffy appeared to me to be at the time.
Soon enough friends who couldn't believe I wasn't watching the show urged me to do so, and we even started recording both Buffy and its new spinoff Angel in 1999 with the aim of getting caught up. There was a lot more television going on by that time, though, as I'd gotten sick, and once my perennial dizziness quieted down enough for me to stomach moving pictures I seriously bonded with the TV — poor concentration having made reading difficult and left me hungry for narrative or (since I rarely got out) just some form of companionship.
Promotional art from Season One, Season Eight, and Season Five of BTVS, clockwise from top, TM and © 1997, 2003, 2000 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
I finally did catch up with Buffy in a big way a couple of years later, no longer married, still not very mobile, eating too much ice cream, and watching even more television. After seeing the landmark episode "The Body" and being floored by its power, even without having been a regular viewer of the series, I dug out my tape of the two-part series premiere, "Welcome to the Hellmouth / The Harvest" (kindly provided by friend and former co-worker Stefan Blitz, now editor-in-chief of Forces of Geek, who had sent me a care package complete with episode guides) and lucked out by jumping aboard the series' run on the cable channel FX with the very next episode. Not only was FX airing Buffy from the beginning in double-episode blocks Monday through Friday, later episodes were running in syndication and the WB network was repeating the past season weekly throughout the summer, so I got to gorge on the entire series, in order, via judicious juggling of videotapes before the new season began on UPN; it instantly became one of my favorite shows ever.
Early this year I remarked on a comments page here that when a certain series concluded we should keep the Nik at Nite community that grew around it together for a Buffy rewatch — not that we'd otherwise abandon our beloved blogmistress, of course, but she wrote guides to Ms. Summers' Scooby Gang long before anyone had ever imagined Finding [Tutti Frutti!]. I have so much current TV to get up to date with if I'm to retain my credentials among the pop-culture cognoscenti that I now dread the time commitment of such a rewatch, but the thought is still inviting. Although it can't help but suffer in comparison to Buffy, I've heard enough recommendations for The Vampire Diaries (whose pilot left me largely uninspired last year) that I'll be catching up with it this summer as it repeats on WB and UPN successor CW, but I'm really looking forward to celebrating Vampire Month by finally indulging in the second season of True Blood and hoping that I can watch the just-launched third season soon thereafter with the help of HBO-enabled friends; a review of the first season has been sitting around half-written forever, and I'll try to post it soon.
Have you sunk your teeth into Buffy?
You may notice the "Lost" is missing.
It's an inside joke of sorts, since I still haven't posted the rest of my Lost series-finale analysis. Nobody may care to read it at this point — that's not false modesty; I'm certainly over thinking about Lost for now — but I'm nothing if not stubborn, especially when it comes to surmounting the obstacles thrown in my path by, in no particular order, my hinky laptop, hinky Blogger, my hinky Internet connection, my illness, and of course the brother-clucking grassmoles who compounded the previous problems for sport. Most items on that list have conspired to keep me from posting anything for a couple of weeks, chief among them my increasingly unreliable Wi-Fi, so I've been devoting the energy that I have to other projects. I've resumed writing posts for this blog recently, though, some of them timely, and I'll probably start seizing opportunities to publish them; they may be short or serialized and lack much in the way of graphics until circumstances change.
The exact title of this post was also the title of a Lost episode, but that's coincidental to my purposes. Last night on The Late Show with David Letterman, Harry Connick Jr. discussed a recent trip to Istanbul (not Constantinople) and showed off a No Smoking ashtray — even more immediately funny than the one in that link because the base was white instead of clear glass. As I laughed I was reminded of the title of the David Sedaris book When You Are Engulfed in Flames, an essay collection in which Sedaris discusses trying to quit smoking in Japan; it was named for a chapter in an amusingly translated instruction booklet from his hotel room on what to do in case of fire.
That reminded me in turn of the list of similar malapropisms posted in the language lab the summer I studied Japanese. They weren't even really malapropisms, just translations for English-speaking guests in non-English-speaking countries that were a little too literal or otherwise poorly worded, the way the title of the Sedaris book was not so much wrong as perhaps lacking the necessary directness. One favorite, hung on an out-of-service elevator, read "We regret to inform you that you will be unbearable today." Most of them were of a more adult nature, like "Please take advantage of our maids!" and "You may not have children in the bar."
What really makes no sense to me is why the hotel in Istanbul, which had already established that the room if not the entire hotel was no-smoking, had an ashtray at all, let alone a mind-screwing self-contradictory ashtray, but I guess it's nobody's business but the Turks'.