Monday, December 10, 2001

You Know the Song in My Heart

There's something seriously wrong with me (and hush to all of you who reflexively sighed, "duh"). It isn't that I took it as a personal attack when I received the latest invoice from my Columbia House video club threatening that if I didn't return their notice by December 7, they would ship me Pearl Harbor. I surrender already. Nor is it the voices I've always heard in my head have started singing a group of songs that just won't leave me alone and for whatever reason I don't exactly mind. Or maybe it is.

A couple of weekends back the Minneapolis attorney who pays fairly cheap parking and the divine mother of little baby Henry Louis served me English tea and cookies. There were a lot of lessons to be learned that day. I learned that you always pour the milk in first so the hot tea can cook it. I also learned what a long elusive tea cozy looks like. Finally I learned it's OK to borrow an egg from a neighbor. I left the mansion on the hill with a tape of two Sopranos episodes checked out from the Roseville branch of the Ramsey County Library. I was asked to return the tape to the library after I was finished watching it. "Do you know where the library is?" I was asked. Well I may look like I'm perpetually lost and confused and I also may look like I've never read a book, but the building is a mere mile from my house so I do have some memory of driving by it now and then.

I was glad to finally get to see the Sopranos having heard and read so many rave reviews of the show. Indeed it was entertaining and very well done. I love the premise of Tony the ultimate bad-ass gangster being in therapy for depression. I can see why the show has won so many awards and so much critical acclaim. Like the similarly lauded West Wing, the Sopranos features sharp, witty writing and complex characters.

But I remain firmly convinced neither show comes close to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in terms of emotional depth, artistry, creativity and insight. While the West Wing admirably deals with politics and power and the Sopranos looks at dysfunctional families and power, Buffy unblinkingly takes on slightly more meaty theological subjects like what the meaning of life is. There's a thoughtful running thread about what a soul is, whether someone without a soul is capable of love, and what love itself is through its many incarnations. By its very nature does it have to be about either ecstasy or melancholy? Is there a stable middle ground to be found? Though I know all of you are tired of reading about the show in these pages week after week, it's on my mind more than ever now that I haven't been able to stop watching the musical episode. I also haven't been able to stop listening to the clever songs (downloaded from the Internet) that capture the rich humor and intelligence of the best Buffy episodes.

Before the musical ("Once More with Feeling") I was convinced Buffy the Vampire Slayer was among the all time great network TV shows. After the superlative episode I am now convinced it is THE greatest series of all time. I think the episode represents a clear line in the entertainment continuum. From this point on we will be forever identified with those that saw the episode (and thus were duly enlightened) and those who did not see it (and thus have to wonder why the rest of us are walking around with a knowing grin on our mugs).

Now that we've come to that line in the sand I think the only way I'll die a happy gray hatted man is if I live to see the day when high schools across the land will be staging their own versions of Buffy the Musical in place of standard fare like Oklahoma! and the Sound of Music.

Like the best art "Once More with Feeling" was able to spoof and pay tribute to its art form all at the same time. It cheerfully acknowledged musicals that preceded it while setting the bar a little higher for any that are to come. While none of the songs are instantly memorable like say "Climb Every Mountain" or "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" once heard they cannot quite be forgotten (or ignored). Upon repeated listening the songs reveal more and more, the level of reflection truly unmatched by anything I've ever seen on TV.

I've always been a fan of the musical genre. Ever since I was a kid I remember thinking how cool it would be if we could spontaneously burst out in song every now and then. Some of my all time favorite songs come from musicals, and some of my all time favorite memories come from participating in the orchestra of some of my high school's productions. Of course I've also understood the point of view of those who can't stand musicals because it seems absurd to them that the gangs of West Side Story, or the brooding king in the King and I would interrupt their lives with a song and dance. That's where "Once More with Feeling" has an advantage- the premise is that a demon comes to town that makes people reveal their hearts through songs. Thus the gang can't help but sing at the most inopportune times.

Of course like most demons on Buffy this one is evil as it turns out that once someone gets too involved in their number they will spin out of control and eventually burst into flames. Pure emotion ends up burning you after all. The show begins with the wonderful cliche of Buffy's alarm clock clanging opening the overture that establishes the musical themes of the show. Buffy's first number "Going Through the Motions" is about going through life, work and relationships without any passion. And it's not as if the passion wasn't at one time there, it's a passion lost that is the most difficult loss of all just like our most famous romantic F. Scott Fitzgerald losing his life's romanticism and having to endure the aftermath. Writer Joss Whedon's wicked humor is immediately on display with the dancing demons supporting Buffy's ambivalence. As she stabs a goat guy he bellows, "She's not half the girl she (looks down at his chest) OW!"

The song plays off the major theme of the series season thus far, that Buffy died last year saving the world and jumping into an abyss of energy only to be brought back by her friends through a witch's spell. They thought they were saving her, but it turns out they ripped her from a warm place where she felt unequivocal, unending love; a place where she felt peace at last only to be ripped and returned to a world that is "cold and hard."

The next song is perhaps my favorite amongst the bunch. "I've Got a Theory" has the group trying to figure out what is going on. Willow guesses it's all somebody dreaming and they're all "stuck inside some wacky Broadway nightmare." Xander guesses it might be the mischief of witches, and then quickly recants as he realizes he has offended Willow and Tara (practicing members of the craft). Anya, the one time demon, not quite figuring out the human experience thing and soon to be married to Xander bellows out it must be hares. "They've got them hoppy legs and twitchy little noses! And what's with all the carrots? What do they need such good eyesight for anyway?" The group looks at her as if she is daft and she meekly retracts her outburst "or maybe midgets..."

Every little detail of the show has been carefully thought out and when Buffy wonders if it is just the group that has been affected she opens the door and sees a mob of people out side a dry cleaning establishing dancing in unison with a guy proudly belting out, "They got the mustard out!" A wonderful touch indeed.

Tara's love song to Willow, "I'm Under Your Spell" is one of the most erotic scenes that will be on network TV this year and certainly the most effective prime time lesbian love scene imaginable. "Spread beneath my willow tree... you make me com-plete..." And likewise Anya and Xander's "I'll Never Tell" about the fear of commitment and the absolute terror of marriage is not only a wonderful tribute to all those sappy sunny duets of 50's musicals but also is wickedly funny with its frank lyrics playing off the dippy melody. "She eats these skeezy cheeses that I can't describe/I talk, he breezes/She doesn't know what please is/His penis got diseases from a Chumash tribe..."

Spike the used to be poet now evil vampire who can't act evil because of a government chip implanted in his brain (see season 5), has his moment in the sun (so to speak) in a dark love song to Buffy. He's the only one Buffy has revealed her secret too (that she was in heaven not hell) even though his expressions of love have fallen not only on deaf ears but with disgust filled eyes. "Whisper in a dead man's ear, it doesn't make it real..." One of the most interesting things that the musical touches on (and the rest of the season's episodes have dealt with) is Buffy's willing decision to sacrifice her life and not being able to feel the same since her return. Once you decide that it doesn't matter whether your live or die you cross a line and you can't quite come back all the way again. That it takes a soulless living dead being to understand this speaks volumes about the depth of insight the show consistently wallows in.

The finale "Life's a Show" is where "Once More with Feeling" departs from the traditional musical genre. Most musicals start with the conflict quickly stated and end on a happy note; this show starts sunny and ends on a decidedly ambivalent gloomy tone. Once a heart is revealed it can't be hidden and it is thus weakened. Buffy's revelation stuns her friends "All the joys life sends, family and friends. All the twists and bends, knowing that it ends. Well that depends on if they let you go. On if they know enough to know."

Leave it to Spike, the only one without a soul to save Buffy from spinning out of control and burning. "Life's not a song. Life isn't bliss. Life is just this. It's living. You'll get along. The pain that you feel. You only can heal by living." It's a perplexing revelation. The old thought that it is better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all is seriously called into question. Is the best way forward not to let yourself feel or is it to accept that not feeling is part of the process of letting yourself feel once more?

This episode was absolutely as breathtaking as it was heartbreaking as it was thought provoking as it was spellbinding. Being an alum from a school that was recently named number one for having students who most often ignore God, maybe I'm not supposed to think (or feel) about things like this that deeply. A friend recently returned from New Orleans told me how there are parts of the city you don't dare roam at night because the locals are afraid of vampires. Misguided reality? It was a revelation that was life affirming rivaling the brilliant production Nimrod High's must have been great rendition of the "Butler Did It" featuring a decidedly anti-Meryl Streep like lovely Ms. Haversham.

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