Title Sequences, Outlander, and Framing Nostalgia

In which Emily talks about desserts, paratexts, and a TV show about the Jacobite Rebellion.

Title sequences are like candy wrappers.

Some are more elegant. Some are more recognizable. Some just make you happy.

But no matter how sophisticated or silly they are, title sequences tell you something about what you’re going to find inside. Like footnotes, they’re paratexts.

(And yes, if you clicked on that link, you might well wonder why I keep comparing paratextual apparatuses to desserts. But wouldn’t you write about dobos tortes and Mozartkuglen if given the choice? A group of delightful medievalists on twitter persist on tweeting about #medievaldonut, and it’s got me associating awesome textual history things with sugar. I can’t help myself.)

Anyway, paratexts deliver text to an audience. For theorist Gerard Genette, the paratext is the threshold. Just like your front step isn’t your house, but you still put out a wreath and a welcome mat to make it look nice, the paratext isn’t the text but it invites you into the text. In books, paratexts are things like title pages, cover illustrations, footnotes, author attributions, copyright pages, introductions, and indexes. They’re everything that’s not the author’s primary content. In television shows, they’re things like closing credits, producer cards, and — yep — title sequences.

I’m fascinated by paratexts. Because they so define one’s experience of a text. I don’t know about you, but for me the pale green of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince emphasizes just how much edgier and creepier that book is than its angsty blue sibling.

And just from looking at the covers, you know that The Royal We is a much more adorably rom-com sort of book than is Never Let Me Go.

Through its paratexts — especially book covers and title sequences — a story first instructs you, as a reader or viewer, how to interpret it. Paratexts give you clues as to texts’ themes, preoccupations, intended audience, and genre. They might even give you approximations of their thesis statements — distanced and coded in visual emblematics, of course. Just about a year ago, Leah made this very point when she wrote about Orphan Black for us.

Of course, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a title sequence isn’t much more than a title. There are certainly enough stylish shows out there that present simply a short title card, with little framing, score, or imagery. (I’m looking at you, Agent Carter.) But a good old-fashioned title sequence is still a true work of art.

So this week I want to start a series of blog posts that take seriously the title sequence as both work of art and paratext. I’m going to turn my attention to a few awesome title sequences, and talk a little about why they work and what they say about the shows they preface. I’ll talk about allusion, about editing, about score, and about imagery. And I want to start, today, with the title sequence that’s had me wandering around my apartment all week humming “Wha’ll Be King But Charlie?

Outlander (a show that’s about to start its second season in a week or so) is an interesting and complicated show about time-travel, romance, and eighteenth-century politics. Claire, our hero, is a WWII combat nurse who falls backwards in time to the Highlands of Scotland in 1743, just before the failed Jacobite Rebellion that attempted to put Bonny Prince Charlie on the throne of England (but in fact led to the Highlands being firmly quashed by the British). Frank is her twentieth-century husband both mourning her loss and trying to figure out how and why she disappeared. Jamie is her eighteenth-century Scottish Highlander love interest, who’s very tied up in inheritance concerns surrounding the lands of the different Scottish clans. It’s a show that I have somewhat complicated feelings about, in parts, but it’s also a gorgeous epic adventure story that privileges the experience of a lady protagonist (who has both gorgeous knitwear and a very attractive love interest) that has been kind of fascinating me in the last week or so.

Because of the rugged terrain of the Highlands, the traditions surrounding history fiction in the wake of Sir Walter Scott’s foundational and hugely popular Waverly, and the capital-R-Romantic notion of the Jacobite cause, it’s pretty common to position the Scottish Highlands as a nostalgic landscape mired in the past. The Highlands, in popular culture, get figured as a rural landscape lost to the mists of time: a landscape still associated with Robert Burns, tartan, and heather on the hill. (For Heaven’s sake, the Highlands of Scotland are the setting of Brigadoon, the weirdest, most nostalgic musical ever to have been written about a time-travelling town stuck a few centuries in the past.) Outlander takes advantage of that nostalgia to great avail — although it does take trauma and hardship really seriously, to complicate any hopes that we or the post-war Claire might have had that the world used to be easier or more simple than it is now.

Fundamentally, for me at least, Outlander is a story about nostalgia. About love, grief, loss, memory, trauma, and our romanticization of both the past. It’s about romantic love, and nationalist spirit, and wistful longing for things past. Centrally, in all of this, it’s about the female experience. And all that comes through, for me, in the show’s GORGEOUS title sequence.

In this title sequence, we’ve got a slow motion montage of the magic and mystery of female-centric semi-pagan traditions, the flora, fauna, and sunsets of Scotland, intimations of violence and of sex, men in kilts, women in forests, and Redcoats firing arms. Take out the Samhain dancing and the 1940s imagery, and it could be something written by Sir Walter Scott. And this imagery sets up the romantic possibility of the show: you know you’re entering into a misty adventure story about bonny lasses and lads with swords and plaids.

What makes this title sequence work so well — and really captures the essence of the show — is the sequence’s FANTASTIC rendition of the “Skye Boat Song.” It’s gorgeous and slow and a bit melancholic: to that end it fits the tone of Outlander. Also, the lyrics beautifully fit the story of Outlander: Claire is a “lass that is gone” who finds herself in-between two times and haunted by the reality of having to choose one over the other.

But what makes the song choice SO SMART is that the “Skye Boat Song” wasn’t written for Outlander. It’s a song that emerges out of the Failed ‘45 — the doomed Jacobite Rebellion. It’s actually a song about Bonny Prince Charlie escaping from the Highlands in the face of Scottish defeat. It’s a song about nostalgia and hope and memory and melancholy: the wistfulness of the Highlanders themselves. The title sequence follows, almost word-for-word, the Robert Louis Stevenson lyrics to the “Skye Boat Song.”

And that idea of being ALMOST word-for-word is what makes this title sequence even MORE awesome. Outlander is a historical fiction that focuses on women’s experiences of the past: complementing that, McCreary presents a rewritten historical text that foregrounds the female subject. Charles Stuart, here, doesn’t “sail on a day.” “She” does.

In its title sequence, Outlander sets out its thesis for a lady-centric consideration of grief, memory, and romance in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a delightful minute-and-a-half of awesomeness.

So give Outlander a shot — or at least don’t skip past the title sequence next time you’re marathoning something!

Happy watching!


10 Reasons to Celebrate Spring by (Re) Watching The Great British Baking Show

In which Emily encourages you to check out / revisit The Great British Baking Show to celebrate the beginning of spring.

It’s starting to feel like spring. Chicago’s dyed the river green, the weather forecast up here in the upper Midwest is showing rain instead of snow, and every time I go shopping I end up having a lengthy internal debate about whether or not I need to buy more jelly beans. (Answer: yes, jelly beans are a delicious but scarce commodity and thus need to be bought whenever they’re available.) Flowers are starting to pop up along my daily walk, and people have begun to deal with their Hamilton fandom by making peep-based dioramas of the show. (No seriously: it’s kind of the best.) What with the warmer weather, the flowers, and March-based cultural festivities, I’ve been in the mood for some spring-y pop culture.

And nothing, recently, has said springtime to me like The Great British Baking Show / Bake-Off (for those of us in the US, the show’s called the Baking Show, because, it seems, Pillsbury owns the term Bake-Off). So this week, we at TTLP want to encourage you to spend some time with the most adorably positive, happy, and spring-y reality competition show in existence. Even if you can’t yourself skip work to go make cakes in a field surrounded by sheep and flowers, you can at least watch nice British people do so.

1. It’s a cooking show that’s entirely about breads, and cakes, and pastries, and pies, and delicious things. This food is intensely aspirational.

2. And all of the bakers have to be amateurs. So it’s also aspirational in that you leave a binge-watch of GBBS completely convinced that if you had five hours free you could totally make your own croissants from scratch.

3. And they make gloriously gorgeous chocolatey breads and weird pancake cakes and fancy Swedish Princess Cakes, all of which look unbelievably delicious.

4. The contestants are the nicest people. They clap for each other when they do well and hug each other when they do poorly. And the talking-head interviews are all like “well, I’ll have to try harder next week.” Everyone seems kind and balanced and humble and friendly. It’s such a nurturing space!

5. Even the judges are kind. Paul and Mary will absolutely point out when your “bake” is off, but they’ll do it while also praising what you did well and acknowledging the difficulty of the task.

6The contestants take criticism extremely well and provide models for how to take critique with grace and confidence. Charming older Scottish man Norman has difficulty making pies and cakes that are adventurous enough for the judges, but he’ll just keep trying.



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7. Also, they’re all cooking in a huge pastel kitchen in a field surrounded by sheep and horses and flowers. The aesthetics of this show are so delightfully twee and just so happy-making. It’s totally pastoral, in that it presents a very romanticized vision of the English countryside that’s heavily predicated on nostalgia and a manufactured vision of the land, but it’s also so comforting.

8. And the hosts are just a delight. Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc are quite the double-act of smart, funny, nice ladies who wander around punning, using funny accents, amusing themselves, and tasting icing.

9. Also, did I mention just how aspirational and delicious all of the bakes look?? Also, awesome. Someone made a three-dimensional cookie dragon.

10. It’s a silly show, with its fair share of nostalgia, pastoral conceits, and weird editing (did we really need to watch a sheep roam around in the middle of a cooking show?). But it’s a kind-hearted, pretty, and happy-making show about good food, nice people, and — implicitly — the idea that Anyone Can Cook!

Happy (re)watching!

Why You Should Really Spend Your Leap Day Watching The 100

In which Emily encourages you to celebrate calendrical oddities by watching a smart, morally complex, awesomely intertextual story about human society in a post-nuclear age.

Holy Kara Thrace.

The 100 is a compelling television show. Yeah, the beginning was a bit heavy-handed. (Although honestly, most pilots are a bit sketchy, aren’t they?) By the end of the first season, though, this CW dystopia had built itself into a complicated, ambitious, and wildly fast-paced story about what it means to be human in the wake of nuclear apocalypse. This Monday, we’ve got an extra twenty-four hours to enjoy. And sure, we’re all looking forward to using that extra day to check things off to-do lists so we can start March with fewer deadlines and responsibilities hanging over our heads. But you can’t spend all of Leap Day being productive. Breaks are important — especially when you have an extra day in your year!

So this year, we at TTLP would like to encourage you to check out The 100 (which is currently — super conveniently! — streaming on Netflix). The show’s airing its third season right now. And to be honest I’ve only seen the first so far. But in that first season, The 100 becomes a self-reflexive, morally complex show about environmental destruction, moral leadership, and the nature of humanity. Moreover, with a fantastic cast of iconic sci fi actors as well as the prerequisite attractive CW folk, The 100 is an (occasionally stressful, yet) awesome and intertextual show that ends up helping unpack we mean when we talk about genre television.

Here then, in honor of weird random holidays and awesome sci fi television, are eleven reasons to spend part of your Leap Day watching The 100.

1. In many ways, The 100 is a classic dystopian story. Ninety-seven years after nuclear apocalypse, a few thousand humans survive on a space station called “The Ark”. Their space-station-centered existence is really reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica — Lt. Gaeta’s even there!

But resources on the Ark are limited and life-support is failing. So a bunch of juvenile criminals (our eponymous 100) are sent down to Earth to see if it is liveable. Even as the Ark navigates political coups, resource shortages, and all of the troubles of an established society, the 100 engage in a much more Lord-of-the-Flies-type struggle to create a stable, just, and moral society in the first place. Drawing upon a tradition of dystopian storytelling, The 100 uses each half of its split cast (the ship and the ground) to explore big issues in a high-stakes environment.

2. Dystopias catch our attention because they become thought-experiments and limit cases. Because a dystopian world has super high stakes, dystopian fiction allows writers to consider philosophical issues in a real-world context. In its first season, The 100 explores utilitarianism, state-sanctioned killing, Marxist economic policies, libertarianism, environmental catastrophe, and religion. Characters argue about guilt and culpability, trust, revenge, redemption, grief, and hope. Ultimately, The 100 becomes a consideration of leadership, of the nature of civilization, and of the value of hope in desperate times.

3. In this dystopian context, The 100 finds a way to explore both the survivors-in-space trope and the rag-tag-group-attempts-to-create-a-civilization trope. With the teenagers, we get Lord of the Flies — or, perhaps more accurately, Lost without the mysticism and weirdness. With the adults back on the space-station, we get Battlestar Galactica — again without the mysticism. The 100 gets to explore the best of both tropes and to revel in the twinned inhospitable environments of post-nuclear, post-human Earth and of space itself.

4. In these parallel dystopias, The 100 is able to stage its own dialogue about leadership, hope, and the goodness of mankind. In the first episode, self-appointed leader of the 100 Bellamy Blake proclaims independence from the Ark, leading a chant of “Whatever the hell we want!” Over the course of the first season then, Bellamy and our other main characters must come to terms with what it means to be a leader and to enforce justice. And to not just do whatever the hell you want.



5. Moreover, The 100 is able to explore the idea of environmental devastation in a way that resonates powerfully with our own era and contemporary concerns about humanity’s impact upon the earth. The inciting incident of The 100 is, in a way, a nuclear apocalypse that devastated earth and its lifeforms. In the first few episodes, we see organisms poisoned or mutated by nuclear radiation. Even more powerfully, there’s a moment where it looked like The 100 was going to straight-out copy the Smoke Monster from Lost. But in the post-anthropocene world of The 100, the Smoke Monster isn’t a mystical island force: it’s acid fog. It’s a show that looks like it’s setting up the mystical weirdness of Lost, but instead imagines what the world will look like after the anthropocene.

6. On that note, The 100 is ridiculously intertextual and — through its casting and its references — becomes a show about genre tv itself. I refuse to believe that acid fog isn’t intended to evoke the Smoke Monster. And this is a show that casts Alessandro Juliani (Lt. Gaeta from Battlestar Galactica), Dichen Lachman (Sierra from Dollhouse), and Henry Ian Cusick (everyone’s favorite Scotsman, Desmond Hume from Lost). With its pedigree of classic sci fi actors and its deep attachment to the tropes of dystopian fiction, The 100 becomes a self-aware consideration of genre television and what we turn to genre television for.



7. While we’re on the subject of Dichen Lachman, the show has a lot of awesome ladies — and is relatively good at diverse representations in general. I have complicated feelings about representation in The 100, but it does enough interesting things that I’m looking forward to seeing more of the show and seeing how the racial politics of the show evolve. The main cast has many people of color and many awesome women. Moreover, I’ve only finished the first season, but I’ve heard tell that the show is currently also working through a queer relationship between two ladies. (Which is always awesome, of course.) To be honest, I think I need to see more of the show to be sure how I feel about its racial politics: although the main cast has a lot of interesting and complicated characters of color, the first season also involves a conflict with a group of threatening indigenous Others who are almost entirely played by people of color. Which is, you know, not exactly great. But with interesting women, diverse main characters, and the potential for queer relationships, I’m hoping that future seasons make good on this potential and show sophistication in their treatment of the racial politics of post-apocalyptic earth. There’s enough good happening here that I remain cautiously optimistic about representation in the world of The 100.

8. Post-apocalyptic earth itself is beautiful and the show itself is beautifully shot. In the ninety-seven years since nuclear apocalypse, the eastern United States has returned to woodland and swampland. Except now there are a lot of bioluminescent butterflies.



9. The aesthetics of the show in general are really engaging. In the final moments of the season one finale (no plot spoilers I promise), we hear Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a Film)” play over the action. This is a show that delights in jamming along to Imagine Dragons’s “Radioactive” but also sits in the discomfort and alienation of Radiohead. And in that combination of abandon and introspection, The 100 becomes a story about what it means to be a teenager — or just a person — in the modern world.

10. Also, while I’m talking about aesthetics, the narrative development is pretty great. The CW has figured out how to plot genre shows. The speed of plot developments in this first season of The 100 reminded me of nothing so much than the second season of The Vampire Diaries or the first season of Jane the Virgin. Like both of those shows, plot ricochets by and character alliances shift, but everything remains highly motivated. It’s super captivating tv.

11. Ultimately, the situation is pretty ridiculously bleak at times, but The 100 isn’t nihilist and despairing. Instead, there’s always room for hope, goodness, love, and courage. The 100 finds space for a belief about the strength and morality of humanity. Yeah, in this show, humanity did stage a nuclear war. But we are not just our baser instincts. Instead, we are also people who manage to re-form civilization out of the wreckage of apocalypse. We are people who love, and protect, and fight for what is right.

So I’m really looking forward to starting the second season soon — as soon as I catch up on episodes of Agent Carter (because Holy Katharine Hepburn, that show is FANTASTIC and TTLP will certainly cover it at some point). And as you’re enjoying your extra day on Monday, why not take some time to check out The 100?

Happy watching!

Happy Galentine’s Day!

In which Emily celebrates finishing the end of Parks & Rec — as well as the impending arrival of the Feast of St. Valentine — by taking a moment to enjoy Galentine’s Day. In doing so, she has some feelings about the awesome lady spies and fabulous lady pilots in Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity.

By the middle of its second season, Parks & Rec had begun to find its feet. First, in “Greg Pikitis,” the show figured out how to mellow Leslie Knope into a likable human being while still giving her space to be the over-enthused, somewhat obsessive, manic government hummingbird that she is.

(Sidenote: The call-back to Greg Pikitis in the last season of Parks & Rec was one of the absolute best moments of the entire show.)

Then in “Hunting Trip,” Parks & Rec threw Andy and April at each other and watched the weirdest, silliest, most unlikely romantic relationship develop between an unspeakably cynical intern and a goofy, shoe-shining man-child.

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But then, in episode 16 of season 2, Parks & Rec presented us with “Galentine’s Day” and, in so doing, completely confirmed its eternal place in my internal queue of comfort-food tv.

In the episode “Galentine’s Day” — Leslie Knope preempts Valentine’s Day to gather together her group of lady friends for an absolutely amazingly wonderful holiday.

“Every February 13, my lady friends and I leave our husbands and boyfriends at home, and we just come and kick it, breakfast-style. Ladies celebrating ladies. It’s like Lilith Fair. Minus the angst. Plus frittatas.”

A non-angsty Lilith Fair with breakfast food? Who could possibly want anything else?

As an episode, “Galentine’s Day” works because the aforementioned breakfast date motivates some weird hijinx around a Valentine’s Dance. But as a thesis statement of the preoccupations of Parks & Rec, “Galentine’s Day” works because it’s about optimism, multigenerational female friendship, and the fact that ladies liking ladies (whether romantically or not) is one of the coolest things ever. In a society that all too often wants us to decide which lady we like best in some made-up competition — do we like JLaw or TSwift? is Poehler better or is Fey? is Anne Hathaway cool or is Emily Blunt? — it feels fantastic to just revel in the waffles, affirmation, and friendship of Leslie’s annual Galentine’s Day celebration.

“Galentine’s Day” gets at what I love best about Parks and Rec: it’s about community and about female friendship. Both of these, the show posits, can be super weird and can steer our protagonists down some truly bizarre side-plots. But they are, fundamentally, powerful, positive forces that we should all seek to cultivate.



With the relationships between Leslie, Ann, Donna, and April — as well as the brilliance of Galentine’s Day as a concept, Parks & Rec joins — for me at least — the pantheon of awesome pop culture about fabulous female friendship. And this year, in advance of Valentine’s Day and in honor of finding something delightful to celebrate when February days get slushy and cold and grumbly, I encourage you to take some time and celebrate Galentine’s Day.

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That’s not to say, of course, that you need to throw your own Galentine’s Day party or brunch. (Although that would be awesome.) But if you’ve got some spare time in the next week or so, why not wander over to that aforementioned pantheon of fabulous female friendships?

There’s something there for everyone. You could go canonical with Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It, whimsical with Anne and Diana in Anne of Green Gables, or mildly passive aggressive with Paris and Rory in Gilmore Girls. Perhaps you love Emma and Maggie in Playing House, or Abbi and Ilana in Broad City, or Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. (Yes, I know that Elinor and Marianne are sisters. It still totally counts.)

Some of these pieces of media allow for queered readings between the ladies (Mallory Ortberg, for example, famously and only somewhat facetiously argued that Paris and Rory and the one true pairing of Gilmore Girls). Other are strictly platonic.


But awesome media affirming female friendship is kind of the best. Especially when it’s cold and slushy outside and you need a metaphorical hug, cup of hot chocolate, and long girl talk. And that’s why this week I’m recommending that you take a break from your busy February life and dive into Elizabeth Wein’s FABULOUS Code Name Verity, in celebration of Galentine’s Day, female friendship, and WONDERFUL narrative storytelling.

Code Name Verity is partly a Scheherazade story, partly a Peter Pan story, and partly a WWII spy story. It’s about unreliable narrators, and about how we tell stories about our own lives, and about heroism. It’s also about kickass lady pilots who fight Nazis. (I am absolutely certain that the two ladies at the center of this book would be total BFFs with Peggy Carter.)

And with these two ladies, Elizabeth Wein tells a gorgeous, sad, and deeply felt story about female friendship.

“It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.”

The friendship at the heart of Code Name Verity is TOTALLY one that you could read as queered. There’s totally lesbian subtext. But there’s also just a fantastic relationship between clever, brave ladies in WWII Britain. Regardless of whether or not you want to ship these ladies, Wein tells a stunning and ridiculously happy-making (but also heartbreakingly sad) story about the power of female friendship even in the darkest of situations. It’s a book about companionship, and about why we tell stories, and about hope. And in that, it might be the perfect companion to your Galentine’s Day celebration.

So take some time, this week, to think about the awesomeness of your favorite lady-friends. Even if you’re not a lady yourself, Galentine’s Day seems like a meaningfully bubbly sort of holiday. And if you need some new reading, I highly recommend that you check out Wein’s fabulous young adult novel about the British resistance in WWII. Happy Galentine’s Day, all!

And happy reading!

A Cornucopia of Thanksgiving Television

This week, Emily gives you some pointers for enjoying Thanksgiving television over a lazy and food-filled weekend with family and friends.

It’s almost Thanksgiving (huzzah!). It’s almost time for watching Charlie Brown holiday specials, and getting third helpings of pie, and becoming way too invested in the aesthetic merits of hand-turkeys. This Thursday we (here in the States, at least) can all get to arguing about whether we’d rather watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or football. We’ll join together with family and friends and enjoy togetherness and camaraderie — whether we decide to be serious, giving thanks for our blessings, or silly, arguing about who was more embarrassingly bad at Pictionary at the LAST get-together.

Thanksgiving is a particularly comfortable holiday. It’s tinged with nostalgia, but not with all of the heightened expectations of Christmas. It’s tinged with Americana, but not with the fireworky patriotism of Independence Day. It’s a day about gathering together with those you love and taking a moment to eat well and to ignore the seemingly thousands of things on your to-do list. It’s a cozy and warm — and not particularly edgy.

Perhaps that’s why, when I think about Thanksgiving television, it mostly fits in the realm of feel-good tv. Of course, that’s not to say that only optimistic shows have Thanksgiving specials. Mad Men had a bunch of Thanksgiving episodes — and I can’t say that I find the existential ennui of Mad Men very Thanksgiving-y. But when I think about Thanksgiving television, I think about that television that you go back to every year. Sometimes, maybe, you rewatch it with family and friends; other times, you quote it back and forth with your dad while your grandmother watches her Eagles game on tv. Truly iconic Thanksgiving episodes are the ones that you go back to time and time again, quoting, riffing on, and alluding to, until you and your loved ones have developed your own allusive language around the fictional dinners of favorite characters.

So this year, in honor of Thanksgiving, I’ve assembled a cornucopia of Thanksgiving episodes. Like any good cornucopia, there’s no “best” or “worst” — but there’s hopefully something to everyone’s taste. So whether you’re trying to compile your Thanksgiving tv marathon, or just to brush up on your pop culture allusions before you see your Netflix-obsessed cousins again, please enjoy TTLP’s favorite Thanksgiving episodes. And happy holidays!

“A Deep Fried Korean Thanksgiving” — Gilmore Girls (Season 3, Episode 9)

Lorelai and Rory eat their way through four Thanksgiving dinners; chaos, romance, and drama ensue, and Lorelai gets to use her Visigoth material, for once.

“The One with All the Thanksgivings” — Friends (Season 5, Episode 8)

In the same vein of the plurality of Thanksgivings that the Gilmores experience, Monica, Chandler, and the rest of the gang recount their worst Thanksgivings. Joey once got his head stuck in a turkey, Chandler once had a flock-of-seagulls haircut, and Phoebe was once a Civil War battlefield nurse. Also Monica and Chandler say that they love each other (!!).

“The One Where Underdog Gets Away” — Friends (Season 1, Episode 9)

Monica, Chandler, Rachel, Ross, Phoebe, and Joey celebrate their first friendsgiving together, after none of them end up able to go home to their families for the holiday. After an escaped balloon, a missed flight, and a burned turkey, they have a lovely night dining on a lavish meal of grilled cheese. “So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m very thankful that all of your Thanksgivings sucked.”

“Pangs” — Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season 4, Episode 8)

When a building project accidentally disturbs an ancient Native American site, a vengeful spirit comes after the Scooby Gang. Buffy fights supernatural foes, negotiates the complicated politics of Thanksgiving’s relationship to the genocide of Native Americans, and triumphs against the chaos of planning a *proper* Thanksgiving dinner.

“Wasn’t exactly a perfect Thanksgiving.”

“I don’t know, seemed kind of right to me. A bunch of anticipation, a big fight, and now we’re all sleepy.”

“Indians in the Lobby” — The West Wing (Season 3, Episode 7)

Sam and Toby deal with the possible political ramifications of a new way of calculating the poverty line, and C.J. tries to get her head around the systematic oppression of Native Americans. But really, this is the episode where President Bartlet calls the Butterball Hotline.

“The One with Chandler in a Box” — Friends (Season 4, Episode 8)

Monica invites her ex’s hunky son to Thanksgiving (“It’s like inviting a Greek tragedy over for dinner!”), while Chandler spends Thanksgiving in a box to atone for kissing Joey’s then-girlfriend (Joey had reasons. They were three-fold). Paget Brewster (of Thrilling Adventure Hour and five hundred other things) and Michael Vartan (of Alias) guest star.

“Shibboleth” — The West Wing (Season 2, Episode 8)

In which President Bartlet talks about faith, the boys put turkeys in C.J.’s office, and everyone learns what “shibboleth” means.

“Turkeys Away” — WKRP In Cincinnati (Season 1, Episode 7)

“As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

An (Appropriately) Fast-Paced Recommendation of The Flash

This week, Emily takes a break from running around town at a disappointingly average speed to recommend that you start watching The Flash.

I love a show that embraces its own silliness — and the utter nerdiness of its fanbase — and runs with it. And it’s been a super busy week. But nothing’s been delighting me in the last week or so as much as the incredibly earnest, silly, enthusiastic, and charming The Flash. So this week, I give you nine (quick) reasons why you should catch up on The Flash.

1. Our protagonist, Barry Allen is adorably nerdy — actually, make that adorable and nerdy.

2. The show’s super self-aware about its tone and its genre.

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3. It also delights in the nerdiness of both its writers and its fanbase.

4. They even use pop culture properties to explain their own time-travel paradoxes — it’s recursive, nerdy, self-referential, and awesome.




5. Victor Garber is being delightful as ever delivering techno-babble with gravitas.

6. The actors are ridiculously talented and recorded an acapella cover of the “Ballad of Serenity.”

7. On that note, Jesse L. Martin is just the best. I forgot how many feelings I used to have about Tom Collins.

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8. The show has tons of heart. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I got teary at a season finale.

9. It’s not perfect — the lady characters need a bit of work, and I’m not sure if the fact that one woman was talking about her completed dissertation in one episode and trying to get a job at a newspaper in the next was a continuity error or a subtle critique of the current job market in academia — but it’s pretty freaking awesome.

Happy Watching!

Ten Reasons to Watch The Lizzie Bennet Diaries Right Now

This week, Emily realizes that its a bit silly that we havent already talked about the awesomeness that is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and she works to rectify that oversight.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a grad student in possession of a busy schedule must be in want of procrastination fodder. However much motivated the feelings or agenda-writing of such a student may be on her first starting off a Monday morning, sometimes you’ve just gotta take a break and go watch silly things on the internet.

…Well anyway, you get the idea. Everyone needs a break from being productive all the time. But you can only watch 30 Rock for so long before you start expecting all of your co-workers to become absurdist caricatures of themselves. So this week — in honor of the start of the school semester and the many many syllabi that will ask students to wrap their heads around the witty gloriousness of Elizabeth Bennet, the perfidious dastardliness of Mr. Wickham, and the complexities of property inheritance among the gentry and nouveau-riche in the English entail system — I’m going to recommend that you enjoy some of your upcoming hard-won free time by watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

Of course, that’s not to say that you should abandon your delightful autumnal afternoon plans of caramelizing apples and mulling cider and making your apartment smell gorgeous. But let’s take for granted that you’re going to take the time to get settled with your snack on a cozy fall day. What I’m suggesting is that, after you make said wonderful snack, you click over to Youtube and start watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

So why should you watch The Lizzie Bennet Diaries instead of re-watching Miss Fishers Murder Mysteries or North and South or any of the other wonderful things that we’ve recommended to you in the last year or so?

1. It’s a really long adaptation that takes advantage of its serialization to really get deep into the story. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is, as you probably guessed, an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. But this is a modern-day adaptation in which Lizzie Bennet, a 24-year-old grad student, vlogs about her life twice a week and posts her videos on the internet. (The in-story justification is that she’s doing some sort of project about web-based communication for a grad class.) In 100 two- to ten-minute episodes, Lizzie updates us about her life — as the events of Pride and Prejudice just happen to weave themselves around her. Because the story unfolds in approximately real time, we get to spend time with these characters, and we have time to explore their personalities, motivations, and flaws. (And, you know, their weird penchants for silly hats.)

2. The relationships between the Bennet sisters take center stage. When Lizzie tells the internet about her life week after week, we get to spend a lot of time with her and her sisters. The relationships between these women are absolutely the center of the show, and I’ve got to say that I love a story that recognizes that romance is awesome but that sister relationships are also fantastic, and interesting, and complex.

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3. Really, the series becomes a show about relationships between women. Austen’s novel is certainly preoccupied by the networks of female friendships in nineteenth-century England, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has a ball placing its female leads front and center. Honestly, it takes 25 episodes for a male actor to show up on screen: this is very much a story about young women growing up, figuring out their friendships, and (eventually maybe) falling in love.

4. There’s Costume Theater! So, the premise of the show is that Lizzie’s making web video blogs in her bedroom that loosely chronicle her life. Her best friend and sisters show up, because they’d be hanging out with her — or barging in on her — anyway. But the creators of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries had to figure out how to actually tell an interesting story while preserving the premise of the series. And this is where Costume Theater comes in: Lizzie co-opts Charlotte and her sisters to reenact events that she wants to complain, giggle, or otherwise inform the internet about. So we see her reenactments of the infamously awkward first encounter between Darcy and Lizzie and of her also infamously awkward run-ins with Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

5. Costume Theater is hysterical. Because is there anything better than watching Charlotte and Jane playing exaggerated versions of Caroline Bingley and Mr. Darcy?

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6. But it also ties in gorgeously with the themes of both Pride and Prejudice and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. As Lizzie reenacts scenes — and dresses herself and her “costars” up in stereotypical “costumes” to code who they’re playing — we become very aware of just how much we’re seeing events through Lizzie’s point of view. The conceit of the entire plot revolves around first impressions and prejudices and the way that mistaken judgements can cloud your attitude towards others. And in Costume Theater, we get to see Lizzie’s attitudes about people dramatized. It highlights Austen’s fascination with how easy it is to narrativize other people into easy roles in your story instead of recognizing their complexities.

7. Characters get space to be more complex — even more so than in the source material. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries does FANTASTIC things with the character of Lydia. In the book, Lydia is a silly, boy-crazy, 16-year-old who runs off with a guy and never seems to gain any awareness of consequences for herself or others. That’s not exactly the Lydia of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. And to that extent, this marks one of the series’s most notable departures from the source material. It’s a gorgeously well-considered departure, and I think that it’s an absolutely fascinating read on Lydia in a modern context. I don’t want to spoil exactly how her arc falls out but, suffice to say, it awesomely parallels Lizzie’s own developing maturation. And it’s a beautifully sad and wonderful story.


8. On that note, Mary Kate Wiles is stunningly good as Lydia.

9. Actually, for that matter, I adore a great number of the core cast. Ashley Clements as Lizzie definitely has the most to do, and she carries it off fabulously with just the right amount of silliness.

10. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a really smart update of Pride and Prejudice. It works through the power dynamics and relationships at the heart of Austen’s novel and thinks through updating them. But it’s also silly and funny and enjoyable.

This has got to be one of the smartest adaptations of a classic novel that I’ve seen in a long time. Also, it’s super long and binge-able, thus making it perfect procrastination fodder.

So please — give yourself a well-earned break and start watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. The bite-sized episode lengths make it a perfect way to reward yourself for checking things off your to-do list. (Or justifying binge-ing lots at once.)

Or, if you’ve already watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries more times than you can count, please enjoy the fabulousness that is honorary-patron-saint-of-TTLP Mallory Ortberg helping you figure out whether or not you are in a Jane Austen novel:

“A woman you hate is playing the pianoforte”

Happy Watching!

On “A Hole in the World” and Death in the Angel-verse

Spoilers, Sweetie! In our new spoiler-ific subset of blog posts, well consider interesting units of our favorite media tv episodes, comics issues, single podcasts, songs, etc. Well dive into these pop culture favorites and, in doing so you have been warned well be spoiling them. This week, Emily looks at the Angel episode A Hole in the World,in a sequel to her earlier post about Buffy the Vampire Slayers The Body. This post, then, spoils heavily episode 15 of season 5 of Angel, makes some comments about episode 16 of season 5 of Buffy, and alludes to the end of Angel. Caveat lector!

About two weeks ago, I wrote about the iconically sad and beautiful Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body,” an hour of television which embraces the incomprehensibility of mortality and the intense feelings of powerlessness that may accompany the death of a loved one. “The Body,” I said, is gorgeously crafted in its very refusal to find a narrative forward motion or to follow the general Monster-of-the-Week formula that defined Buffy as a show. When Joss Whedon returned both to the extended Buffy/Angel-verse and to the central conceit of human mortality, in the Angel episode “A Hole in the World,” he gave himself a completely different — and in some ways, more conventional — narrative project. But in this markedly more action-packed, frenetic story about mortality, Whedon crafts an episode which elegantly reframes some of the thematic concerns of “The Body” within the more adult world of Angel’s L.A.

I honestly love both of these episodes of television — and I’m fascinated by just how different their narrative structures are. So, in this second part of my ramblings on mortality in the Whedon-verse, I want to (1) pull apart what “A Hole in the World” is doing and how it’s structured as an episode of television and (2) talk about how it works as a sequel/companion/response to “The Body.”

I know, I know — these are particularly heart-wrenching episodes, and probably not ones you were planning to revisit, as you bask in central air conditioning or sit around fashioning makeshift fans during these oh so August-y dog days of summer. But if you’ve also hit the point of your summer where you’re looking for some media to really sink your teeth into, I think that these two episodes absolutely hold up to re-watches, semi-academic scrutiny, and lots and lots of fangirling.

In its opening moments, “A Hole in the World” already presents itself as a Fred-centric episode. We get an ADORABLE flashback to the summer day when Winifred “Fred” Burkle left her charmingly quaint Texan parents to go off to grad school at UCLA. They’re adorable. And she’s wonderful. And we cut — fantastically — from Fred promising her mother that she’ll learn a lot and stay safe to see her battling weird bug demons with the rest of the Angel Investigations gang.

Im gonna study, Mom. Im going to learn every damn thing they know up there and then figure out some stuff they dont. And Ill be careful. Ill even be dull. Boring. Cross my heart.

She’s the best. Then Fred and Wes kiss (!!!), Angel and Spike grump at each other, and our status quo is wonderfully, comfortably, established. After the bug demon things are appropriately vanquished, Whedon lets us cavort around with our main cast as they amuse themselves and pester each other through a regular day at the office. It’s mundane and silly and TOO charming. (I DESPERATELY want to see the Michael Schur sitcom version of Angel season five.) The pièce de résistance of this act is the epic fight between Spike and Angel about who would win in a fight: cavemen or astronauts. (No, the astronauts don’t have weapons.)

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So everything is as happy-go-lucky as it possibly can be for our cast of broody vampires and physicists and whomever. And we watch the whole core cast get invested in the cavemen vs. astronauts debate. But then — cue creepy music — a sarcophagus is delivered into the science lab. And Fred inhales something from it. And then falls dramatically down a flight of stairs coughing blood. It’s horribly stressful. (It’s also, for what it’s worth, beautifully shot. This is a surprisingly cinematic episode of television).

We open Act Two with Fred in a hospital bed, surrounded by the rest of our main cast. While death in “The Body” was distinctly natural and mundane, Fred’s ailment is obviously supernatural, so everyone gets to work trying to save her. The episode almost seems to decide that it’s a thriller, and we get lots of suspenseful music and action and wonky camera angles. This is not the helpless passivity that plagued the Scoobies a few years earlier. Wesley researches, while Lorne, Spike, Angel, and Gunn all go out searching for answers. Fred herself even gets up from her hospital bed to help, in a wonderful moment that both shows the awesomeness at the core of Fred and tips a hat to Whedon’s awareness of the potentially problematic gender politics of killing off the show’s main female lead.

I am not the damsel in distress. I am not some case. I have to work this.

Sidebar on that: By season five, Angel had picked up the unfortunate tic of sidelining interesting lady characters with comas, deaths, etc. and using said events to motivate character development in the male leads. Honestly, I do have issues with how this trope was handled with regards to some of the lady characters on the show, and I wish that the show had a few more female main characters so that killing off Fred didn’t effectively make all of our good guys male. (Harmony’s not quite a main character or a good guy, right?) But I like what Whedon’s story allows Amy Acker to do, both in this episode and in the rest of the season, so this one doesn’t bug me as much as it would otherwise.

Anyway, there’s a clear sense of purpose in these scenes as the team works to save Fred: the music is insistent, and there’s a ticking time bomb that keeps everyone on track. Eventually, we figure out that a truly ancient demon called Illyria is working as a parasitic agent within Fred, killing her in order to turn her into the host of the now disembodied demon power. But things are still looking okay: this team’s been fighting demons for years, so what makes this one any different? Angel and Spike head over to the Cotswolds then, because apparently, in addition to having lots of sheep and cream teas, the Cotswolds is home to the Deeper Well that serves as the resting place for all of the ancient demons.

From my understanding, the Cotswolds  just have lots and lots of sheep:

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So please, make up your head canons about Spike and Angel squabbling with each other about sheep as they make their way to the Deeper Well.

Because Illyria is looking like an eminently defeat-able bad guy, we’re still reveling in Whedonian silliness and the friendly rivalry between Spike and Angel. (Neither of the vampires are comfortable with flying, but they are looking forward to being back in the home country.)

Hey. After we save Fred, we should hit the West End. Take in a show.

Ive never seen Les Mis

Trust me. Halfway through the first act, youll be drinking humans again.

But here’s where the episode really turns. Yes, Spike and Angel could exorcise Illyria from Fred and save Fred’s life. But, they find out, doing so would turn Illyria “into the mystical equivalent of airborne,” infecting the tens or hundreds of thousands of people between Fred (in L.A.) and the Deeper Well (in the Cotswolds). In a devastating anti-climax, Angel and Spike recognize that Fred would never want that. And that they cannot justify that to themselves anyway. They will not exorcise the Ancient One, Illyria, from her host. Because while Fred’s death has a clearly supernatural cause — one they can fight against — the cast of Angel needs to recognize that their actions have consequences. They cannot operate solely based on their own, selfish, microcosmic points of view. Spike and Angel are left passively contemplating this Deeper Well of demons that cuts through the center of the planet. It is, of course, horribly representative of the corrupted world in which they live, in which they cannot be the big damn heroes (if you will) who save Fred’s life.

Theres a hole in the world. Feels like we ought to have known.

Throughout, we’ve been cutting between Angel and Spike in the Cotswolds, and Fred and Wes in her home. And now, as Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof both give stunning performances, Fred dies in Wes’s arms — and makes one last, sad volley in the argument of cavemen vs. astronauts.

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Then Fred’s eyes frost over and her body spasms, throwing Wes across the room. And as the episode ends, Illyria rises.

Okay. Illyria is amazing. And her awesomeness is the reason that I’m surprisingly okay with Fred’s death. Illyria is an unbelievably kick-ass (and very amoral) demon monarch and warrior, and, for the rest of the series, she’ll end up kind of stuck with the Angel Investigations gang. In fact, Illyria ends up taking on a role that’s very much parallel to Star Trek’s Data or Five-of-Nine or (perhaps more so) Battlestar Galactica’s Number Six: inhuman characters who, assimilating into human society either by choice or by chance, become the lenses for f/sf considerations of humanity, society, relationships, community, and — ultimately — redemption. Amy Acker is stunningly good in this role, and the introduction of Illyria is spot on.

So what do we do with this episode? Well, perhaps most obviously, it fits into the canon of Whedon episodes in which no one gets to have a happy ending. Whedon’s become known for his habit of puncturing happy endings, and this episode, in which Fred and Wes get together and almost immediately get ripped apart, is a textbook case of Whedon’s tic. But honestly, I think there’s a lot more happening in this episode, and what’s happening is arguably a lot more complicated and interesting than Whedon (perhaps) thumbing his nose at his fans.

Instead, what we get in “A Hole in the World,” in direct counterpoint to “The Body,” is a bad guy that we can fight, but must choose not to. Death has a supernatural cause here, specifically because Angel and Spike must choose to not fight it. The Angel crew has to take a long view of time and to understand that saving Fred is not ultimately a moral decision. So the anticlimax of Spike and Angel’s journey to the Cotswolds ends up echoing the passivity of “The Body,” but for a very different reason.

Whereas “The Body” is Buffy’s consideration of the helplessness of human mortality, “A Hole in the World” is less interested in the literal reality of death: instead, the episode uses mortality to create a situation in which the consequences of characters’ actions are undeniably real. And massive. In fact, we find out that Fred’s imperiling and subsequent death was not a freak accident — in the corrupt world that Angel Investigations inhabits, characters’ actions had consequences that set off chains of events that led to Fred’s death.

…Did anyone else just get Into the Woods stuck in their heads?

So when Spike and Angel have to deal with the potential consequences of saving Fred, “A Hole in the World” becomes an episode about taking responsibility and making hard choices. (And yes, I do wish that we had another lady character, so that it wasn’t just un-dead white guys having this moral conundrum, but what are you going to do?)

As has undoubtedly been said by many people in the past decade or so, but perhaps most recently by Lani and Alastair on last week’s Dusted, Buffy is a story about BECOMING an adult, whereas Angel is a story about BEING one. That reading holds very true when you consider these shows’ separate treatments of death: death in the Angel-verse is not as immutable as death in Buffy. Instead, death has to be beatable so that our protagonists can choose to not beat it. “A Hole in the World” has a more conventional narrative structure than “The Body,” because we — like Spike and Angel — have to be sure that Fred’s death can be averted right until the moment when we understand that it won’t be. While Buffy desperately tries to reestablish her heroic role by finding action in the face of incomprehensible mortality in “The Body,” “A Hole in the World” establishes the heroism of inaction.

In “The Body” and “A Hole in the World,” Whedon writes two episodes with remarkably similar premises. But their differences reflect what is at the core of each of these two shows: Angel exists in a darker world, one in which sometimes the good guys can’t win the fight. But Fred’s death doesn’t mean that evil actually wins.

Fred dies saying that the cavemen win, but I don’t think that the episode agrees with her. After all, our airplane-flying vampires (a conglomeration of the astronaut and the caveman if there ever was one) are able to avert the apocalyptic threat of Illyria conquering all of humanity. When Angel first makes his argument in favor of astronautic victory back in Act One, he says that the astronauts have teamwork and rationality on their side. And he’s right: our metaphorical astronauts were able to make the decision that prevents the prehistoric power of Illyria from taking over humanity itself, and — by the end of the season —  the power of their teamwork will even bring Illyria to join the good guys. Fred has died, but the war against evil has not ended in defeat. Rather, our protagonists saved most of the United States from demonic possession, good still exists, Fred and Wes loved each other, and we’re about to meet a fascinating demon character who will open the possibility of even the most amoral and cruel creatures fighting the good fight — and having fantastically blue-streaked hair.

Okay. So while I think that “A Hole in the World” isn’t as bleak as Fred would make it out to be, it’s certainly sad. So please enjoy the trailer to Whedon’s (fantastic) Much Ado About Nothing and that time that meta-casting allowed Fred and Wes to end up together:

On Death in the Buffyverse and Objects in Space

Spoilers, Sweetie! In our new spoiler-ific subset of blog posts, well consider interesting units of our favorite media tv episodes, comics issues, single podcasts, songs, etc. Well dive into these pop culture favorites and, in doing so you have been warned well be spoiling them. This week, Emily looks at the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode The Body to be followed shortly by a post in which she considers the Angel episode A Hole in the World.This post, then, spoils heavily episode 16 of season 5 of Buffy and makes some comments about episode 15 of season 5 of Angel.

In the fifth season of each Buffy and Angel, Joss Whedon himself wrote and directed an episode which focused on the death of a major series character.

(Seriously. This is the point of no return. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of watching these series and don’t know who I’m talking about, this is probably where you should stop reading. Go watch all twelve combined seasons of Buffy and Angel — or at least the two fantastic episodes that I’m talking about — and then come back. You have been warned. Caveat lector.)

When I got around to reading Noel Murray’s wonderful rundown of Angel last week on The AV Club, I finally noticed just how fascinatingly similar these two Whedon episodes are. First off, “The Body” is the sixteenth episode of the fifth season of Buffy; “A Hole in the World” is the fifteenth episode of the fifth season of Angel. So we start out with two episodes that take place in virtually the same place in the overarching runs of their respective shows. In each, Whedon comes into his flagship show, which is in the midst of a pretty awesome season. He then kills off a beloved female character and uses the occasion of her death to craft an elegant study of mortality, community, and humanity as rest of the main cast attempts to come to terms with this monumental event. Both episodes are beautiful — they each rank high on my internal list of Every Whedonverse Episode Ever — with series high points in writing, acting, and general fantabulousness.

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But they’re also surprisingly different when you put them next to each other, and this past week I’ve gotten really preoccupied by how “The Body” and “A Hole in the World” work in conversation with each other. They’ve got different priorities, different narrative structures, and different ways of going about realizing their thematic concerns. Yet when you put them next to each other, there is a great deal of continuity with regards to how Whedon addresses death and how he uses narrative to articulate our emotional reactions to it.

So this week, I want to walk through “The Body” and talk about how it’s an amazing episode and, specifically, how it comes to terms with mortality through its use of narrative structure. Then, in about two weeks, I’ll return with a Part Two in which I’ll talk about “A Hole in the World” as a sequel/companion/response to “The Body.” Because honestly, they’re two of my most memorable episodes from one of my favorite tv creators.

About halfway through “The Body,” we see a high school classroom. An art teacher instructs her students to paint canvases based on a nude female statue placed in the front of the room. But, she says, “We’re not drawing the object. We’re drawing the negative space around the object. Give me a sense of the spaces around — the space in between.”

That’s really the raison detre of this episode: to see a central inanimate body — in this case, the body of Joyce Summers — but to come to understand it through the spaces and movements around it. To understand death — and the difference between an animate, human self and a suddenly inanimate, self-less body — by focusing on everything that frames it and everything that happens around it. The episode tries to understand the sudden object-ness of the eponymous body by tracing the people who circulate around it. And also, to invert that structure, the episode works to understand the relationships between the core cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer by focusing on how those people and interactions are outlined by the human mortality at the center of this story. Perhaps it’s a bit neat to have the art teacher actually give us these directions which sound so much like instructions for how to read the episode. But I find that it doesn’t bother me: sometimes it’s helpful to get a nudge in the right direction by a thematically helpful high school teacher!

Anyway, “The Body” isn’t a particularly plot-heavy episode. In brief, Buffy comes into her house, and sees that a bouquet has been delivered to her mother from an admirer. In a wonderfully mundane moment, she begins to tease her mother about this guy, but then sees Joyce Summers lying motionless on the couch. Terrified and helpless, Buffy calls 911. EMTs pronounce Joyce dead from a brain aneurysm, and Buffy is horrified and upset in a way that even the threat of impending apocalypse has never made her. Buffy tells Dawn about Joyce, while the grief-stricken Scoobies gather at the morgue. In the last moments of the episode, Buffy battles a vampire.

Honestly, not a lot happens. It’s a really quick episode to recap — we don’t have ancient prophecies and Watchers’ Councils and demon assassins and Billy-Idol-wannabe vampires and all of the other Hellmouth-adjacent accoutrements that have come to define Buffy as a show. Given just how much this show is based around Monsters of the Week and all that jazz, it’s really striking just how much DOESN’T happen in this episode.

Instead, this is an episode defined by stasis. We spend much of the first act just watching Buffy cradle a phone as she moves slowly and aimlessly through her house, trying to do something but utterly unable to find something helpful or meaningful to do. Buffy’s good at battling demons. But when faced with human mortality, she’s paralyzed and helpless. Joyce didn’t die because of the demon goddess who serves as this season’s Big Bad, but rather because sometimes death just happens.

This paralyzed helplessness — this need of a good, beatable Monster of the Week to fight — follows the Scoobies through the episode. When Xander and Anya meet up with Tara and Willow to go over to the morgue, Xander’s trying so desperately to find a scapegoat that he ends up punching his fist through a wall.

“Things don’t happen. I mean, they don’t just happen. Somebody’s… I mean, somebody’s got…”

But although Xander’s speechless in the face of this horribly unexpected tragedy, there’s nobody to fight. Nobody’s to blame: sometimes, people die and it’s no one’s fault and there’s no one to slay. Xander especially is trying to deal with death by reacting against it, as he and the Scoobies would do against any normal Monster of the Week antagonist. But death isn’t a Monster of the Week. Instead, this episode almost reads as a more YA variant on Linda Holmes’s excellent article about Pixar’s Inside Out: it’s a conflict without a true antagonist. Mortality is horribly confusing — and characters move very slowly through story beats as they attempt to understand it. But mortality isn’t a Great Evil that our protagonists can fight against. It just happens.

That’s the genius of the episode for me: very little happens because our characters are having difficulty finding their way in a conflict with a “foe” against whom they don’t have an active moral high-ground. This slowness and lack of narrative forward motion is exacerbated by the lack of a soundtrack: the only noise in this episode is diegetic. Just as the characters are slowly, almost aimlessly, trying to get through the episode, unable to find a Big Bad who might give them narrative traction, we don’t get a soundtrack that might pull us through the story beats.

The only times we escape this slow meander through the day is when we go into Buffy’s POV for fantasy flash-forwards, when we see her day-dreaming about hypothetical futures: one in which she saves Joyce, and another in which the Scoobies and the Summers family have a riotous Christmas dinner together. But the silliness and verve of these fantasy sequences (there’s even a moment where the Giles/Joyce relationship from “Band Candy” gets mentioned) only underscores the passivity and sadness of the main chronology of the episode.

Joyce’s death is unsettling and confusing for us, as well as for our main cast of vampire-fighting young adults. Indeed, it’s probably no surprise that one of my favorite moments in all of Buffy comes in the midst of this confusion, when ex-demon Anya can’t get her head around the ineluctability of death. Anya became a big character on Buffy in season four, when Cordelia had moved to LA and taken up with Angel Investigations (more on that next post), and Buffy needed a character who could wink at the fourth wall and undermine the seriousness of the show.

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But in this episode, even Anya’s occasionally tactless directness can’t get enough of a handle on death to be able to make light of anything. Rather, she becomes the voice of the confusion that both the audience and the characters feel in the face of Joyce’s death.

“But I don’t understand. I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her and then she’s — there’s just a body. And I don’t understand why she can’t just get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. And mortal. And stupid. And Xander’s crying and not talking, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever. And she’ll never have eggs or yawn or brush her hair. Not ever. And no one will explain to me why.”

Death in “The Body” is horribly confusing and powerful and unpredictable, but characters just have to accept it — they have to move through it and, through community and agency, to come out the other side intact. When the vampire shows up at the end of the episode, it seems to be signaling this possibility of returning to normalcy: Buffy has finally found something that she actually can fight. She can’t reverse her mother’s death — she can’t really understand what happened and why — but as long as there’s a vampire in the morgue, she can keep being the Slayer with her Scooby Gang. Slaying the undead won’t reverse her mother’s death, but it does give her agency, meaning, and purpose even in the face of existential angst.

Finally, “The Body,” fundamentally, is an episode that’s really light on the narrative thrust but really heavy on moments of community. When Willow and Tara share their first onscreen kiss, when Anya and Willow help Xander bandage his hand, when Giles stands near Buffy as a paternal presence, we are reminded that we can’t fight death but we also cannot be defined by our helplessness in the face of it. Buffy is always fascinated by the strength that comes from community, and that — plus vampires — is what finally ushers us out of the grieving process in “The Body.”

“The Body” is an expertly crafted — and beautifully acted — episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s horribly sad, but it’s also hopeful: life goes on after a death, but it’s also okay if you’re aimless and confused and not entirely okay when you’re grieving.

Also, there’s a very important moral that if you double park your car on a college campus, you absolutely will get a parking ticket. Take note, friends.

It’s really, if you ask me (or one of the many sites on the internet that rank Buffy episodes), one of the all-time great episodes of Buffy. It’s not a typical episode of Buffy — it’s not even a typical episode of tv. As much as it moves toward a sense of comfort, it doesn’t follow a traditional storytelling structure. But that’s important. The passivity, and anticlimax, and lack of an antagonist of “The Body” is crucial to the story that Whedon is telling about mortality: because life itself doesn’t follow a neat Three-Act structure with clear act breaks and bad guys.

That’s why it’s so fascinating that almost EXACTLY three years later, Whedon wrote another episode of television centered around a major female character death. An episode that did a whole lot of things very differently — and delightfully, unlike this episode, did not decide to remove the Billy-Idol-wannabe vampire from the equation.

So, in about two weeks, I’ll be back to write about “A Hole in the World” and Whedon’s return to both traditional narrative structure and supernatural bad guys. (And all of my emotions about Fred and Wes. And A Little Princess. And cavemen vs. astronauts.)

In the meantime, though, an eternally amusing video to help you deal with the trauma of Joyce Summers’s death:


Is There Really Anything Better than Watching Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell?

This week, we continue a series of posts devoted to summertime entertainment, including delightful beach-reads, road-trip-friendly podcasts, splashy summer movies, and oh-so-binge-able tv, as Emily recommends the miniseries Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

You know what would make Georgian/Regency-era British history even more awesome? Magicians. And also ghost ships and prophecies. Oh, and courtly dances held in fearsome faerie otherworlds. Basically, just all the fantasy/history mash-ups you can imagine.

I finally sat down this week and binged the first half of the BBC America miniseries of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and I am so excited about how good this show is. Seriously. I’m not sure that there’s anything more wonderful than a well-written, well-directed television show in which gentlemanly magicians fight in the Napoleonic Wars while fascinating ladies have run-ins with faeries of the genuinely disquieting, old-style-folklore sort. It’s moody, artistic, and awesome, and — capping off at only seven episodes — is the perfect sort of show to get invested in on a slow summer evening.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the story of the return of magic to England. Taking place in an alternate-history version of the first decades of the nineteenth century, the show introduces us to a world in which magic has been gone from England for three hundred years. In the meantime, magicians have become stuffy Enlightenment folk who sit in salons and smoky bars and write papers discussing magic — rather than doing it. It’s all very complacent and a bit boring.

But then we meet two practical magicians: the fusty, bookish Mr Norrell, and his younger foil, the intuitive, ambitious, and perhaps rather arrogant, Jonathan Strange. When Mr Norrell comes to London and raises a woman from the dead — and Jonathan Strange comes to London and shows a remarkable connection to the power of English magic — magic is poised to return to England, alter the course of the Napoleonic Wars, and herald the return of the Raven King.

We wish to know why magic has fallen from its once great state. We wish to know: Why is there no more magic done in England?

So that’s all very serious and high-and-mighty and political. But among these clashes of kings and lords and emperors, is interwoven a story about the old faerie folk of England and their particular interest in (relatively) disenfranchised peoples on the outskirts of the political story. So there we get the stories of two wonderful ladies (one a variant on the nineteenth-century invalid type) and a person of color — thereby making this show a whole lot more diverse than one might expect a story of English politics in the Napoleonic Wars to be. The characters are intriguing and well-developed, and the story is just fab. Because faerie abductions make for good stories. And there is a character whose actual name is the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair. And the plot moves from a story about Lord Wellington at Waterloo to a good old fashioned ghost story about necromancy and faeries and madness and star-crossed love.

If you vaguely recognize the title of this show, chances are great that that’s because the book (by the wonderful Susanna Clarke) made a big splash when it was published just over a decade ago. (We’ve actually mentioned the book in a previous blog post.) I just adore the book, but the book has a particularly distinctive tone. It kind of sounds like what would happen if David Foster Wallace revised an unpublished Jane Austen manuscript detailing an after-dinner brandy shared by Charles Dickens, Neil Gaiman, and J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s charming, witty, erudite, satirical, and elegantly crafted, with strange asides and a fondness for footnotes. And while the narrative arc of the book is excellent, my affection for the book is tied inextricably to this removed, charming-but-occasionally-spooky, narrative voice. I was genuinely skeptical when the miniseries adaptation was first announced, because Clarke’s narrative voice is so distinctly literary — and not particularly televisual.

“It was an old fashioned house — the sort of house in fact, as Strange expressed it, which a lady in a novel might like to be persecuted in.”

But what’s been such a delight about watching the miniseries of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the way that the show has managed to adapt the feel of the book, without attempting to mimic the actual stylistic choices made by the book. Episodes are self-consciously labeled as chapters, and the first episode does have an impersonal narrative voice adding some commentary. But for the most part, the show doesn’t betray any huge anxiety about needing to ape Clarke’s novel. Instead, it makes use of the specific resources it has to hand — music, camera angles, editing, lighting, special effects, wonderful actors — to replicate that feeling of a nice period drama that has fallen into a cobwebby corner of an alternate reality.

Honestly, the reason that this tv show is so arresting is that it’s just extremely well-written. It condenses great swaths of a LONG novel into seven tidy hour-long episodes and — although I haven’t seen them all yet — it churns through plot without racing along or dropping any major threads for too long. It’s cleverly written, characterization is well done, and really: who doesn’t want to spend a slow evening in the fantasy version of the Napoleonic Wars??

So really. If you’re looking for more fantasy in your life — or more Napoleon — or more gentlemen with fantastic Georgian hairstyles and ladies in fantastic capital-R-“Romantic” gowns — please do check out my new favorite mini-series adaptation of the summer.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is currently airing on BBC America, and episodes are available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes. (Full disclosure: only the first four episodes are out yet in the US, so if you get hooked now, know that you’ll be crossing off the days in your calendar until each of the subsequent episodes are released.)

Happy Watching!