Tag Archives: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Classic TV: “Dragnet: The Christmas Story’

dragnet the christmas story tree

Every TV series – well. most of them, anyway – does a Christmas episode. Sometimes they’re “very special” episodes. It’s too much for TV writers and producers to resist, really: Do a heartwarming episode for the holiday, usually adapting Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” As they said, in reference to another subject, on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” It is an opportunity to “hug and cry and learn and grow.”

But not Jack Webb, no ma’am. When the creator of “Dragnet” does a Christmas story, he does one that’s to the point and – even though it has some sentimental moments – full of sharp edges.

I just rewatched “The Christmas Story” episode of “Dragnet,” which also proved that when Webb had a story he liked, he stuck with it. Webb wrote the script originally for his “Dragnet” radio series and the version of TV’s “Dragnet” that aired in the 1950s.

I watched the version – called “The Big Little Jesus” originally but retitled “The Christmas Story” by this time –  that aired on NBC in December 1967. This was the color version of “Dragnet” and the one that co-starred Harry Morgan as Bill Gannon, the partner to Webb’s LAPD Detective Joe Friday.

“Dragnet” reveled in the everyday police cases that Webb believed made the Los Angeles Police Department the best law enforcement agency in the world. “The Christmas Story” was a perfect example of that.

A San Fernando Valley church reports  on Christmas Eve that its Baby Jesus statute is missing from its Nativity display. Friday and Gannon question the priest about who might have been able to get into the church to steal it. Friday seems surprised when the priest says the church is open 24 hours a day. “So any thief could get in?” Friday asks the priest, who replies that the church especially wanted thieves to make their way to the altar.

Friday and Gannon promise the priest they will try to have the Baby Jesus statue back before 6 a.m. Mass on Christmas morning.

The detectives pursue a couple of leads, including a visit to an offbeat seller and, apparently, re-buyer, of religious statues. They also talk to a couple of altar boys, including Barry Williams, who would within two years be playing Greg Brady on “The Brady Bunch.”

Ultimately the cops are pointed toward a down-on-his-luck parishioner who, it’s assumed, stole the statue. But it’s obvious he did not, and Webb makes Friday’s frustration at the dead end briefly palpable.

The mystery, such as it was, is solved without any participation, other than as observers, by the cops. As Friday and Gannon go back to the church to tell the priest they failed, a little boy comes in, pulling a red wagon. In it, of course, is the Baby Jesus statue. The boy, whose family attends the church, had told the infant that if he got a red wagon for Christmas he would give it the first ride. The boy got the wagon from local firemen, who fix up broken toys for poor children in the neighborhood, which explains why he had the wagon early enough to pinch Baby Jesus from the manger.

“The Christmas Story” was, after all, a very special episode of “Dragnet.”

Random observations:

The conversation between Friday and Gannon that opens the episode acknowledges, for the first time I remember really, that Friday has a girlfriend. I’m sure this was touched on at other times in the series, and it’s well-established that Gannon is married, But it’s a nice touch, and the ensuing conversation about proper presents for a wife or girlfriend adds a bit of personality to the characters.

I also love that the Christmas tree that Gannon brings to the office and plops down on the work table he shares with Friday looks like an even more pathetic version of Charlie Brown’s tree, as seen in the animated special two years earlier.

It’s a nice bit of business for Friday and Gannon to get more time to work on the theft by asking their captain – who had wanted them on another case – to call the priest himself and tell him they wouldn’t be returning the stolen Baby Jesus in time for Christmas.

And this, the choir from the hotel for down-on-their-luck men:

dragnet the christmas story choir

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Today in Halloween: The ‘Buffy’ dummy

ventriloquist dummy mask

Is it just me, or does this Today in Halloween look like something from one of the best ever episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”

Maybe it’s just me, but I swear this ventriloquist dummy mask I spotted tonight in a Halloween store is very suggestive of the ventriloquist dummy masks worn by the henchman of the dancin’ demon in “Once More with Feeling,” the musical episode of “Buffy.”

buffy once more with feeling dummy

Okay, maybe it is just me.

Anyway, looking up details of this very special “Buffy” episode reminded me of things I’d forgotten.

Did you remember that it aired Nov. 6, 2001, less than two months after the Sept. 11 attacks? I didn’t.

Classic ‘Buffy’ – ‘The Wish’

buffy the vampire slayer the wish

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” had already long established itself as a groundbreaking TV classic before “The Wish” aired as the ninth episode of the third season, debuting in December 1998.

But “The Wish” was among the episodes of the series that helped distinguish “Buffy” as more than that show with an unlikely name.

During the first season, viewers of Joss Whedon’s series about a teenage girl who reluctantly becomes the foe of vampires, demons and other monsters were treated to imaginative and funny but somewhat conventional “monster of the week” episodes. “Prophecy Girl,” the final episode of the first season, elevated the show as Buffy put an end to the Master with the help of her friends.

In “The Wish,” written by Marti Noxon, “Buffy” returns to elements from that first season but gives them an alternate reality twist.

The unlikely couple of Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) and Xander (Nicholas Brendon) has just ended when Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Xander kissed in a moment of crisis. Cordelia, who often transcended her petty attitudes with heroism, gives into those baser instincts here and unknowingly falls in with new student Anya (Emma Caulfield), a vengeance demon who entices her into making a wish. That wish happens to be that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale.

The result? Sunnydale is controlled by vampires. Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) and a small group of non-super-powered demon fighters try to take on the vampires, but they’re outgunned by the Master and his minions, including vampiric versions of Xander and Willow.

The plot is nicely twisty – we think Cordelia will be key to reversing the alternate reality but, surprise, she gets killed – and full of foreshadowing, intentional or otherwise, of what’s to come: Vampire Willow returns in a later episode, of course, and Willow herself makes some momentous moves of her own as the series continues.

Random observations:

The Master (Mark Metcalf of “Animal House” fame) is lip-smackingly fun here.

It’s fun to spot the connections between “Buffy” and the cheerleading movie “Bring it On.” Here, Nicole Bilderback, one of the snooty cheerleaders in the movie, is a Cordelia/Harmony hanger-on.

Larry Bagby III, who’s made appearances as classmate Larry, gets to be one of the good guys in GIles’ Buffy-less Scooby Gang.

Caulfield returns as Anya, of course, later in the series. And we loved her.

Today in Halloween: ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

Considering what a clever show Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was, it shouldn’t be surprising that its treatment of Halloween would be exceptional.

More than a few series use “Halloween” as an easy holiday to hang an episode on. “Community” and “Roseanne” got some good laughs out of putting their characters into freaky costumes and situations.

But part of what made “Buffy” Halloween episodes special was the premise that Halloween was indeed different for the Scooby Gang and the rest of the people living on the Hellmouth.

Halloween, the characters note, is something of a night off for real-life creatures of the night and the people who battle them. Self-respecting vampires like Spike consider Halloween “amateur night,” kind of the way big drinkers feel about New Year’s Eve.

The series’ second-season episode, “Halloween,” finds Buffy, Willow and Xander going out in costume to trick-or-treat. What they don’t know is that the costumes are cursed and make the wearer adopt the traits of the outfits. Buffy’s old-timey lady costume turns her into a shrinking violet. Willow’s ghost costume turns her into … a ghost.

It’s a great episode, the first of three set on Halloween that the series featured.

Random observations:

Xander’s guise as a soldier – and his instant depth of knowledge about the ways of a warrior – are retained, in a way, after the episode ends. His skills come in handy in later episodes.

The episode introduces not only costume shop/chaos worshipper Ethan Rayne, an old frenemy of Giles, but gives an early indication of Giles’ past as much more than a stuffy old watcher.

We once again see Oz, Willow’s future significant other, as the series continues to tease us with important characters still to come.

Classic TV: ‘Community’ ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’

I’m not sure there’s anything on TV like “Community,” and that’s probably worked against the viewership of the show.

The NBC sitcom is about as atypical a situation comedy as anything airing now. The premise – a diverse group of misfits forms a family while attending a community college – isn’t novel.

But during its first three seasons, under the guidance of creator Dan Harmon, “Community” became something more.

There were inklings of the show’s inherent “different-ness” in the first season, certainly. But the first-season finale, in which the regulars and the large supporting cast wage war in an on-campus paintball match to win “priority status” for class registration, established the show as surely as “Prophecy Girl,” the first-season finale of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” established that series as one for the ages.

The paintball episode played, with furious and hilarious seriousness, like an action movie, “Terminator” by way of John Woo, with standoffs and ambushes and devilish double-crosses. All played against expectations.

My favorite moment is when off-kilter geek Abed (Danny Pudi) rushes up to snarky lawyer Jeff (Joel McHale) and intones, “Come with me if you don’t want paint on your clothes.” Fans of the “Terminator” movies recognized that line.

Throughout the second and third seasons, “Community” deepened its characters – a group that is frequently at each others’ throats but can’t live without each other – and raised the freak flag higher. An episode revolving around a game of Dungeons and Dragons was funny and touching.

By the time “Remedial Chaos Theory” aired early in the third season, Harmon and the cast and crew knew they could get away with a lot. And they did. As the characters gathered at a housewarming party for roommates Abed and Troy (Donald Glover), they rolled dice to see who would go downstairs to meet the pizza delivery guy.

With each roll of the dice, another reality unfolded. Friendships ended, relationships began and lives were lost, for god’s sake. It was all funny and incredibly clever and mind-bending in a way precisely unlike any show on TV right now.

The show has mixed in a tremendous amount of geekery in a manner that’s less showy but more genuine than the amusing “Big Bang Theory.” After “Remedial Chaos Theory,” the series explored the other, “darkest timeline” and, with a nod to the “Star Trek” mirror universe, Troy and Abed donned Evil Spock-like goatees.

When “Community” returns on Oct. 19, it will be without Harmon, a creative man bounced from his own show, if we’re to believe his own account and those of others, over huge differences in temperament and people skills.

So I’m not sure what “Community” will be like when it returns. Will it be just a silly sitcom? Will it continue to defy expectations and conventions? We’ll know soon.

‘Buffy,’ ‘Angel’ and modern-day cable

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” ran seven seasons and its spin-off show, “Angel,” ran a too-short five. Both aired on what were considered “mini” networks, The WB and The CW, but networks nonetheless with obligations to meet the standards of broadcast networks and bring in some semblance of traditional over-the-air ratings.

But we can only dream about how those Joss Whedon series as well as his “Firefly” and “Dollhouse” series might have faired if they had aired on channels that were decidedly off-network.

I’m thinking of TNT, FX, USA, AMC and A&E, channels – not networks, since networks are networks of stations, while cable channels have no physical presence out in the real world – that schedule, carry and nurture high-quality episodic drama.

Can you imagine “The Shield” or “Mad Men” or even “Falling Skies” on network TV?

I can’t. I can’t imagine those niche shows pulling enough viewers to stay on the air. “Firefly” sure didn’t.

I can’t imagine the networks allowing the creators of those shows to produce as few as 10 or 12 or 16 episodes per season, something that’s become routine with shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad.”

There seems to be less pressure without a 22-episode, big network season. Less expectation of Super Bowl-sized ratings. Less expectation of quickly meeting the 100-episode threshold for syndication.

With those shorter seasons, you can weed out the deadwood episodes. Okay, some of us were a little impatient with how long last season’s “The Walking Dead” spent on the farm. But it didn’t have to be that way. Look at last season’s “Mad Men” as an example. While the season had its critics, I thought almost every episode was riveting. Would that have been the case if the creators had been compelled to turn out twice as many episodes to fill out a network season?

Who doesn’t think “Smallville,” for example, would have been better with about a half-dozen fewer episodes per season and a little less filler? How about “Lost?”

There are some drawbacks. Out of sight, out of mind. “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men” took their time and sometimes a year or even more passed between seasons. It was torture but it made us look forward to their return even more. That trick wouldn’t work for every show, however.

And admittedly, there’s still less visibility on cable, at least for some audiences. We live in a world where the biggest ratings are still garnered by standard network fare like cops-and-robbers procedurals. We can take solace in knowing that we’re cooler because we know all about “Justified.”

So in my alternate reality TV word, “Buffy” and “Angel” and “Firefly” are still chugging along, well  into the double-digits in years on the air. They’re just airing fewer episodes and every episode is greeted with a sense of anticipation and celebration.

Classic TV: ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ episode ‘Restless’

“Restless” was the season finale of the fourth season of “Buffy,” airing in May 2000. The season had been an unusual one since it was the first that deviated from the high school setting of the show. Following the “Graduation Day” episodes of the previous season, Buffy and Willow went on to attend classes at U.C. Sunnydale, Giles was at loose ends before, in the following season, opening an occult shop and Xander kind of hung out, trying to find himself.

The season also featured a dramatic departure from past seasons by opening up the world of the Slayer to include “real world” supernatural elements, including what was in many ways the show’s most complex addition to its mythology, the Initiative, an underground (literally) government organization that captured and experimented on demons. It was the first absolute confirmation of Buffy’s “underground” status as the Slayer in a world in which the authorities – all the way to Washington D.C. – knew about vampires and demons.

The Initiative storyline had actually wrapped up in the previous episode, as the Scooby Gang defeated Adam, a Frankenstein-like monster created as an unauthorized offshoot of the program.

“Restless” took the form of a series of dreams sequences for Willow, Xander, Giles and Buffy in which each was stalked by the First  Slayer, a savage female proto-Buffy.

The dream sequences were perfect and spot-on, teasing viewers with suggestions of events that might come in the series. Who wasn’t intrigued by Spike’s declaration that Giles was teaching him to become a Watcher?

The episode also featured some faces from the past, including Seth Green as Oz, Phina Oruche as Giles’ girlfriend Olivia, Mercedes McNab as Harmony and Armin Shimerman as Principal Snyder.

Ultimately, “Restless” marked something of a departure for “Buffy” and for Buffy. Especially when the Slayer declared herself different from the slayers of old, demonstrating that the First Slayer and the conventions of the Watchers Council and past Slayers didn’t mean anything to her.

Random observations:

“Restless” was written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon a dozen years before he became a Hollywood sensation with “The Avengers.” Whedon imbued the episode with his trademark mix of thrills and humor.

The First Slayer isn’t the only thing primordial about this episode: Just before they fall asleep, the gang settles in to watch a movie on VHS!

Throughout the episode, a guy shows up and says something about cheese. Of all the odd moments in the episode that fans took as clues to the future, this one we felt we could laugh off.

The episode featured references to ongoing series developments, including Willow’s coming out. During her dream, Willow’s anxiety reached its peak when former flame Oz and current flame Tara snickered and smirked at her even as she succumbed to the First Slayer.

I love all the dream sequences, but Xander’s journey into an “Apocalypse Now”-style heart of darkness is hilarious.

The episode is peppered with references to characters and episodes past and future, including Faith the vampire slayer and Dawn, Buffy’s “little sister” introduced in the next season. You could even argue that Joyce’s appearance in a wall during Buffy’s dream sequence was a reference to her eventual death.

“Restless” is one of the great episodes of a great series.