Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Pirates of Penance

Thanks in no small part to the pod-evangelism of Jenny, FF and me are hooked on podcasts! Our fave is the Buffy the Vampire Slayer podcast (buffycast, for short) hosted by one Revello, whose mellifluous tones and wry humor are indeed very entertaining. This podcast straddles the worlds of pure fandom and the more rarified discourse of pop culture theorists, and as such is a really fascinating glimpse into how some fans watch and think about the shows they love.

Since my brother and sister-in-law are in the pop culture scholarhsip biz, I have had the good fortune to discuss with them some of the problems of fan discourse. For them, it seems , the most limiting aspect of fans' relationships with shows is the tendency to evaluate the quality of a given episode or season based on the behavior (or perceived misbehavior) or treatment (or perceived mistreatment) of cherished characters. So, Poncho and John becoming meth addicts or Mr. Belvedere strangling Wesley with a table runner should not, in theory, bother us so long as the narrative remains compelling and the writing and production values strong.

If television fans typically object to seeing their favorite characters behave badly or treated poorly, Buffy enthusiasts have more beefs with Joss Whedon and company than a Jack in the Box triple jack and cheese has, er, beefs. Whedon and friends love making good characters turn evil, crafting romantic couplings that make no sense, killing off beloved minor players, and introducing annoying new personalities for no reason. (NB: This may make me a rube, but when these sorts of things happen, I get totally irked. Super-irked. I hate you, Marti Noxon!)

Now, Revello's podcast fits firmly within this fan conversation-- most installments center on a single character, and evaluate whether or not they act honorably... And for what it's worth, I find this very entertaining, especially because the whole enterprise of dissecting characters in this way is simultaneously engaging and pointless, my all-time favorite combo. But where I find myself losing patience is with Revello's discussion of morality and ethics. One podcast installment, concerning the theme of "penance" in Buffy, reveals the mismatch of the kind of legalistic, neo-Kantian liberal ethics favored by Revello and other Buffy students (the one "Buffy and philosophy"reader I picked up at Border's was nauseatingly stupid as a result of the preference for this kind of interpretation on the part of the jokers who submitted chapters) and the real questions raised by Buffy.

This "penance" podcast centered mainly on the character of Angel, played by David Boreanaz. Even those who haven't watched Buffy are probably familiar with the character of Angel, the demon with a soul, who is Buffy's true love, but who is cursed to turn evil if his and Buffy's love is consummated physically. Part of the Buffy backstory is that when Angel is given a soul as part of the same curse that puts the kibosh on hanky panky, he wanders for 100 years, wallowing in guilt. Revello asks whether Angel's guilt and penance trip are necessary-- since he was a vampire when he committed the heinous deeds he attempts to atone for, these deeds are not, strictly speaking, his to answer for. For me, the real point is this-- not that Angel should be left off the hook, but rather that we should put ourselves on the hook-- his story serves as an allegory for the rest of us, who, collectively must confront our burden of guilt, for actions that seem to have been committed by some demonic other, and that yet haunt us. Angel's story in fact brings us much closer to a proper ethics for a globalized, adavanced capitalist, post-genocide world.

Coincidentally, there is another "penitent" TV "Angel" who has been occupying our thoughts lately-- the heinous Ashley Parker Angel, star of the emetic disasterpiece "There & Back" on MTV. This show was promoted as a look into the efforts of a former made-for-TV boy-bander (APA, of O-Town) trying to recover from having sold his soul to the soulless corporate music machine and actually launch a legitimate music career. The ads featured APA busking for spare change on the street. I thought: finally... one of these fascist moppets acknowledging that their miserable sell-out prefab music past was traumatic and evil, and trying to engage in some hardcore "penance" in order to overcome this stigma. But once the shows started to air, it became obvious that APA: 1) is proud of O-Town and has his feelings hurt when his wife mocks them; 2) has no more musical vision than, say, Talan Torriero, but is simply looking for the next Svengali to use and abuse him; and 3) sincerely believes that the world owes him infinite attention, wealth, sailboats, and hit singles.

Repent, asswipe!


Donny B said...

Ashley Parker Angel is a girl. Seriously. He wears more foundation on any given day than most girls I know wear in a year. and the hair does not help. and hearing conversations about his mother-in-law walking in on him with "morning wood" does not contradict my theory (could that conversation have been more creepy?).

zp said...

i'm hesitant to draw fire from the sharp minds of your expert TV watching family members . . . whom i know only virtually. but i think that the question of what kind of TV is important . . .

i watch (as recently revealed) mostly dated half hour sitcoms, namely MASH and the Golden Girls. if i watched them for "compelling narrative and strong production values" i'd be screwed. like going to Jack in the Box for pho . . . i watch them for slapstick and puns and the familiarity of the characters and the little ways they surprise me now and then. actually, last spring i watched golden girls season 1 so many times i was tracking the decorating changes on the extremely limited set. production values, pah!

if i want narrative and production values i watch a film.

for me TV is about, for lack of a better theoretical justification for watching, "repetition and difference" . . . that's why (certain kinds of) TV characters have catch phrases (doh, get out!) and sometimes they don't age and they don't have, you know, realistic psychologies and its always more of and variations on the same old same old . . .

supernatural soap operas (or teen soaps) may be a different kind of tv than sitcoms (maybe they are more narrative and have higher production values) and one might have different expectations . . . but if there are different kinds of tv (and i think there are) then we might be using one kind of tv watching pleasure to watch another kind of tv and write fan lit and i think that's ok . . .

dawson's, which i used to watch, isn't a sitcom and has a lot in common with the other evening teen soaps and i watched that for difference and repetition, not narrative and production values . . .

i love my TV friends.

the sad billionaire said...

Thanx for the comments, peeps!

Donny B: indeed, "There and Back" should be screened at Freudian-psychoanalysis training schools during the dreaded "Castration Anxiety" week. (It's even worse when the Castration Anxiety teacher is on sick leave, and the PE teacher has to sub in).

ZP: great point, comerade! I forgot to distinguish between the pleasures of sit-commery from the (more filmic?)virtues of "quality adult one-hour prime-time dramedies" (or what is the preferred nomenclature MZN or E?)

Therefore my Mr. Belvedere example may have been less than apposite. But can the rotund butler ever really be non-apposite? No, I answer myself!

Love the Deleuze-ian reading of the aesthetics of the sitcom, which I had never thought of but which is indeed exactly why I like those old ensemble shows. And why I would immediately change the channel if I happ'ed upon a "very special episode" or the "Cheers" where Sam and Diane are on the boat.I just wanna see the bar, the drunks, the wisecracks. D&R, true dat... double true!