This Great Evil

Category: Television

Whedon revisited

I found myself watching some Dollhouse and Much Ado About Nothing recently. Though I’ve never been a fan of Joss Whedon, I always leave open the possibility that I’m wrong. After all, much like Star Wars, that many otherwise intelligent fans can’t all be wrong, can they? Plus, my housemates were watching Dollhouse. Enthusiasm can be infectious.

Sure enough, after bits from two episodes of Dollhouse and all 110 minutes of Much Ado About Nothing, my opinion has changed.

I still don’t like Joss Whedon; the exact reason why I dislike his work, however, has evolved. I used to think that I disliked his shows and movies because of the way he writes dialogue. Now I get the impression that it’s the performances he coaxes out of his actors that rub me the wrong way.

It became apparent to me while watching Much Ado About Nothing that there still was a Whedon-ness to the dialogue, even though his actors read straight Shakespearean prose. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was noticing or reacting to a certain aspect of the line deliveries, instead of the lines themselves. The smarmy tone, the neurotic cadence and the comedic timing – this wasn’t Whedon the writer, but Whedon the director’s greasy handprints. 

It was this way of speaking rather than the particular speech that turned me off of Whedon’s oeuvre; the way that almost all of his characters talk as if they’re permanently on Reddit. Going back to Dollhouse, it was Olivia Williams’ character that I most connected with, and she gave the most naturalistic, low-key performance of the ensemble.

The trouble with talking about comedy is how intensely subjective it really is. A lot of people – I say this with no disrespect – like the aggressively stylized quips coming out of Whedon’s characters. To me, the comedic elements are so offputting that I cannot connect or invest in the dramatic.

I can respect Whedon’s chops as a storyteller, and his instinct to use humor as a way of making his characters more likable is certainly valid, but nothing he’s ever made appealed to me. Watching Dollhouse and Much Ado About Nothing hasn’t changed this belief; it has just refined it. I did, however, come away from the show and the movie with more respect for Whedon as a director. What I found disagreeable was almost certainly intentional, and the persistence and consistency of Whedon’s style in even a 200-million dollar blockbuster demonstrates some real directorial control. 

Little fish

While I do love my mom, she’s not the best person with which to watch movies. She has this habit of asking both really obvious and rather insistent questions throughout the film which gets less endearing and significantly more aggravating as the movie goes on. Here’s a sampling of the crap she said while the family was watching The Shawshank Redemption for my dad’s birthday:

when Andy ends up in his cell

Mom: Ah, so do they each have their own rooms?

Me: Yeah.

Mom: That’s nice

[After another ten minutes, my parents got bored and switched off The Shawshank Redemption. We then spent the next two hours watching a Chinese dating game show. It was surprisingly engrossing.]

Pouring one out for Community

In the somewhat likely event that NBC doesn’t renew Community, Dan Harmon’s gloriously off-kilter baby will have aired its last episode tonight. To honor/mourn that occasion, here are my tops/bottoms of the series.

Best episode: “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”

It was funny, sweet and immensely moving; the rare Christmas special that will stand the test of time. The claymation gimmick was executed with impressive panache, right down to the kind of heartbreaking final shot.

Rest of the best: “Mixology Certification,” “Regional Holiday Music,” “Modern Warfare,” and “Remedial Chaos Theory”

Worst episode: “Conventions of Space and Time”

“Intro to Knots” was vaguely improved by the finale, so this (dis)honor goes to “Conventions of Space and Time,” one of the most egregious and miscalculated applications of fan service ever.

Rest of the worst: “Competitive Wine Tasting,” “History 101,” “Intro to Knots,” and “Studies in Modern Movement”

Community season 4 so far

I don’t have much to say about it as a whole. It started off shaky, but has the potential to be something worthwhile, if not quite the same as it used to be.

In my other job as a writer, I recap episodes the day after they air. As part of that ongoing series, I’ve been keeping a running tally of the quality of each episode. Here’s what it is so far:

History 101: C, Tried so very, very hard only to accomplish very, very little.

Paranormal Parentage: C+, Intermittently good, poor sense of timing and pacing.

Conventions of Space and Time: D+, Abysmal, redeemed only slightly by some game performances.

Alternative History of German Invasion: B-, Awful direction, but a decent core idea for an episode.

Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations: B-, Tying the Shirley B story and the Jeff’s dad main story diminished both.

Advanced Documentary Filmmaking: C, Varying shades of good to decent until the stinger, which is like a jab to the eye.

Economics of Marine Biology: C+, Unassuming is the best thing I can say about it. It’s not trying to be much, so its insubstantiality doesn’t really hurt too much. Didn’t care for the Dean’s writing, though.

Herstory of Dance: A-, Best yet of the season. Good mix of the funny, the sweet and the genuine. You could see the ending from a mile away, but that doesn’t lessen its power.

Intro to Felt Surrogacy: B-, Confused episode. Terrible music numbers, surprisingly good production values.

Intro to Knots: C, Weird decision to parody Rope never quite pays off.

Basic Human Anatomy: A, Very intelligent handling of a terrible high-concept cliche.

Heroic Origins: B, Mostly fine, could have been better.

Advanced Introduction to Finality: B-, Mostly fine doesn’t quite cut it for a season/series finale.

Season as a whole, so far (not an average): =61 (B-)

I went into the abyss

The horror, the horror, the horror…

mlpI don’t like to condemn from a position of ignorance.

So, for my sins of antagonizing bronies, I gave myself a mission: sit through at least one episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. If it turned out that I do, in fact, enjoy this show, I said to myself that I would, without another word, simply walk into the nearest lake and drown myself.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

Watched: 1.01 episodes

You know what? After watching a little more than one episode of My Little Pony, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make fun of My Little Pony again. That’s not to say that it’s any good – God, no – but…well…I pretty much had the same reaction to this as I had to the Twilight novels.

The show isn’t that bad. All of the criticisms lobbed against the show are kind of just…unimportant, I guess. I was kept mildly entertained for 20 minutes by a gang of hideous animated…things, so I can’t really hate.

I realize now that projecting all my disdain for the brony movement onto the show was wrong. What I should have figured out was that I needed to ascertain why people, men in particular, formed such a close bond with the show. Then I can finally make peace with myself and the universe, and evolve into a higher form.

The issue is that after “Friendship is Magic: Part 1,” I still have no idea why bronies exist. Admittedly, a little over one episode might not be sufficient material, but the level of quality attained in this one episode does not suggest greatness. Let’s break it down:

The narrative: Something about someone trying to do something with some people. I imagine that actually sinking more time into the show and understanding its characters would make things more involving. But what if I don’t want to blow that much time? What if I’m an incredibly successful, handsome, rich, charismatic stallion of a man (shut up, just bear with me for a moment) who wants a good quality half hour of television without any other prior knowledge necessary because I’m too busy receiving fellatio from supermodels whilst driving my Ferrari whilst saving the free world from radical North Korean Whedonites? After all, Gravity Falls and Nichijou managed to get across their appeal in one measly episode.

On the strength of this single episode, My Little Pony left me rather cold. A bunch of weird shit happened involved prophecies, a purple dragon (Barney?) and a huge pony brigade, but everything was too disconnected and scattershot to elicit any significant response. I got bored. My cursor hovered over the timeline several times throughout.

Characterization: I gathered from my limited discussions with bronies that character work is a big strength of the show. I can kind of see that, from this one episode. The show does a good job of introducing large casts of almost instantly identifiable characters and giving each of them a personality. Some of it just goes with the terrain – giving each pony a different color and different tattoo was smart – but a lot of the credit goes to some tight writing and conceptualization.

The first episode’s vague plot proved to be a good way to introduce Twilight Sparkle (and, by extension, us) to a decent number of Ponyville’s inhabitants. Oh my God. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence. I’m going to need a drink.

Calmed down now. So, even though I don’t remember almost anyone’s name, I think I’ve gotten a decent sense of who these ponies are, a remarkable achievement for a single episode.

Adorableness: The characterization is good, maybe even impressive, but the actual story hasn’t been anything close to compelling. Guess what? That’s fine! Because the target audience is of an impressionable mindset, so anything involving cute little ponies will be enthralling as all hell. Right? Right?

Right?

WRONG (and, again, shut up).

The issue here is that I could not find anything in Ponyville to be even remotely visually appealing, let alone adorable. The show’s sense of cuteness and aesthetic merit is like that of a gonzo porn star. Everything’s lathered in such dense makeup, pageantry and excess that the end product isn’t sexy at all. I mean cute. At all. Fuck. Forget that just happened.

Wrapping this crap up: After all that, I’m still no closer to figuring out this show’s crazy appeal. I can see how the characters might become compelling enough that even mediocre plots will be somewhat entertaining. However, nothing in the show’s appalling art and weak storytelling could sell the show. It’s one thing to have a set of interesting characters, it’s quite another to do something worthwhile with them. You can limp through a weak season on the strength of your ensemble (see season 4 of Community), but you can’t hide that gaping hole forever.

It’s easier, I suppose, for children’s television, but why, then, have so many grown men, many of whom have good taste elsewhere, becoming so enraptured by this particular show?

I had a pet theory. I hypothesized that maybe My Little Pony was not so different from 50 Shades of Grey. Much like how the latter novel enabled overly modest women to think about and talk about S&M, My Little Pony liberated the feminine within the minds of men. Suddenly, this show and this fandom burst on the scene, telling guys that it’s okay to temporarily shun masculinity and indulge in liking something expressly made for little girls. Do you know how fast a boy would get beaten up at elementary school if he copped to liking pretty ponies and such? Here was this movement that said it was okay to cast away those fears. Come, set your weary self down. It’s safe here. Warm. Inviting.

But, as I put these thoughts to words, I realized something: I am such a massively pretentious prick. Why the fuck do I have a right to understand something people clearly take great joy and solace in? Why do I have to make sense of and render mundane and unmagical the pretty ponies?

Fuck that shit. I do not want to be the kind of crank who shits all over other people’s likes to feel smugly superior, as if my taste was objectively better or  nobler.

If you like My Little Pony, then great. I will never, ever in a million years understand you, but, please, shine on you crazy diamonds.

If you don’t like My Little Pony, then take a seat at the bar. We can toast to our mutual befuddlement, crack a joke about /r/clopclop and maybe find a little bit of happiness for ourselves out of all these glittery weirdness.