TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 6

CONTINUED FROM PART 5 ABOVE.

The rest of the series can be found here: [12,34, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:

 

Season 7:

So at long last we meander to the final, and worst, season. Not that it’s awful, but it does suffer from a number of serious problems.

1. The big bad is diffuse. This season, in an effort to be even more apocalyptic, they decided on an incorporal season villain called “the first evil.” A vaguely couched badness that takes the form of dead people, often Buffy herself (she did, after all, die twice). Frankly, the first is kinda lame, and not very funny. It certainly doesn’t measure up to Glory or the Mayor (although it occasionally looks like the Mayor). It’s “first” appearance (haha) where it slowly winds back through all the villains in reverse order is however kinda cool.

2. The slayerettes – About 40% into the season Buffy is inundated by a collection of 17 year-old idiots known collectively as the slayerettes. They totally suck, are just anoying, gum up the relationships we really care about, and often get themselves killed (good riddance). Only Kennedy has any redeeming qualities — mostly in the form of implied girl-on-girl action with Willow.

3. Andrew – For some reason, this lamest and most annoying of the “Trio” is held captive in Buffy’s house, where he can serve to annoy us, the viewers. He does have his occasional moments and lines, like “Episode one boring?” But mostly he grates on the nerves of the cast and viewer alike. Oh Andrew, why at least couldn’t you have died in “Chosen?”

4. Mysterious documentary-style shooting – Certain episodes have a more documentary style that is not evidenced anywhere else in the series. Notably “Storyteller” (deliberate there for sure) and bits in “Touched” and “End of Days.” It felt amateurish and out of place.

5. No good creative episodes – Nothing like “The Body” or “Once More with Feeling.” Nothing. They may have tried with “Storyteller,” but it was lame lame lame.

At least the writers knew it would be the last season, and so in a neat and orderly manner arced the story toward a decent conclusion. And the first half of the season starts pretty decently. The new character, Principal Wood is good. “Help” is a great episode and the Anya episode, “Selfless” has some totally priceless 1,000 year flash back scenes between Anya and Olaf the troll — totally priceless, and made all the better for being in some Germanic/Scandinavian tongue and subtitled. “Conversations with Dead People” and “Sleeper” aren’t bad either.

Ug. Then enter the slayerettes. The only compensating bit being the sub-boss bad guy, the “ubervamp” who is pretty cool and kicks some ass, including Buffy’s.

The second half of the season is uneven, including my least favorite episode in a long time “Storyteller,” but the pretty good “Lies My Parents Told Me.” The new sub-boss Caleb is decent too. Then we have “Empty Places.”

I don’t know what they were thinking, but it’s obvious the writers decided they had to separate Buffy from her friends for dramatic effect, and so they stage a show down in which they all turn against her. In no other episode of the entire series is there a moment where so many characters just act completely out of character. I can buy a few of them turning on her like this, but the writers failed completely to give each and every one of them a valid personal reason visa-via their relationship with Buffy to do so. I could barely watch it.

The return of Faith however is good, and the last three episodes are pretty strong, particularly the series finale “Chosen.” Despite the lame cameo from Angel, it does all end up in a pretty good place, and reasonably satisfying — a difficult thing to do after such a long and emotional series. Overall, it’s certainly a must watch, but just not on par with the magnificent pair of seasons that preceded it.

As with the previous two times I’m depressed that it’s over. This time I’m going to make a serious effort at Jos Whedon’s season 8 in comic book form.

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 5

CONTINUED FROM PART 4 ABOVE. And the whole series [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:

 

Season 6:

The transition from season 5 into season 6 is the best of the entire series. After the season 5 finale, with its tear jerking “The Gift,” we slam right in with the two hour “Bargaining,” and it’s more or less continuation “After Life.” I’ve never managed to not watch all three of these together because until the end of the third hour things are so unsettled you just have to keep going.

Season 6 is dark, and in my opinion the seven seasons would be ranked 5,6,3,4,2,1,7. With all but 7 being fantastic, and five and six very close. Six is a bit darker, but I’ll give the edge to five just because I like Glory so much and the whole villain bit is more cohesive. But both five and six have almost no “one off” episodes, even those that technically have a monster of the week like “After Life,” or “Hell’s Bells,” are fundamentally crucial to the larger plot. And episode seven of season six is “Once More, With Feeling,” arguably, along with season 5′s “The Body,” the best episode of the entire series.

“Once More, With Feeling” is just mind bogglingly brilliant. Not only is it a musical, sung entirely by the cast and written and scored by Joss Whedon, but it’s a darn good musical. If you are new to Buffy, don’t watch this episode and expect to be wowed — I mean if you like musicals you might like it — but you have to see it in context of the series to really appreciate it. I’ve watched it no less than eight times, and I’ve been spell bound ever time. Plus I hate musicals. First there is the sheer audacity of it: to just up and write a musical episode, complete with MGM musical style titles in the middle of a long running dramatic series. I even own the soundtrack. But then, much more importantly, is how this episode is actually the most central to the season, the one in which everything comes to a head. It has the most plot, the most climax, of any Buffy episode. Nearly every character is pivoting here — and the music makes it happen. Sheer unadulterated genius.

After “Once More, With Feeling,” things grow really dark. This season our nominal villains are the Trio, three geeks who have ganged up to be super villains. They’re pretty funny, although not nearly as menacing as the mayor or Glory. They do have some tremendous lines like “episode one bad?” But really, their villainy is trumped by none other than the best friend. In the middle of this season Buffy herself struggles with Nihilism, and a career in fast food. But Willow… Her magic addiction threatens to destroy her relationship, her life, and ultimately the world. Lots of other stuff is self destructing here. Giles leaves, Dawn suffers teen angst, Anya and Xander implode, and Buffy turns to down and dirty sex to validate her dark self. This is good stuff, almost too dark.

Nearing the end we have the very emotional “Seeing Red,” and then the high speed tripple whammy of Willow’s vengeful meltdown. The end is good too, just not as deeply felt as “The Gift.”

If only season 7 could have stayed this good.

CONTINUED HERE IN PART 6.

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 4

CONTINUED FROM PART 3 ABOVE. And the whole series [12, 3, 4, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:

 

Season 5:

Season 5 and 6 pretty much tie for the best of the seven! Pretty incredible how this show just keeps on getting better and better until the final season. With this season everything slips into a serious groove, but what’s really surprising is the depth of emotion pulled out of the viewers. Nearly gone are the episodic “one off” episodes (discussed in my Lost vs The Love Boat post), instead the story just rolls from one episode to the next with only a few exceptions.

The first episode (“Buffy vs. Dracula“)  is light, but it ends with a shocker, one that is reinforced in episode 2 (“Real Me“). Suddenly, and without explanation only-child Buffy has a little sister named Dawn. What casually might seem like a gimmick to spread the show demographic younger in fact becomes completely central to the season’s plot and deepens the character interactions immensely, particularly for Buffy. The season’s “big bad,” Glory — my second favorite after the Mayor — is a Hell God in need of a magical key to break open the barriers between dimensions. Some crazy monks rebuild the entire reality of the world to hide the key as Buffy’s sister, having altered all reality and history such that she existed all along. Pure genius.

What this really does is turn Buffy’s nice little dyad with her mother into a full-fledged family, upping the personal stakes immensely. And it isn’t all supernatural. Joyce (Buffy’s mom) develops a brain tumor in a long and very emotional arc that ties in brilliantly with the family aspect and with Dawn’s growing understanding of her esoteric nature. This comes to a series of shattering culminations in “Blood Ties” and “The Body.” This last episode is probably the best of the entire series, or at least tied with “Once More with Feeling,” and is a stunning piece of television. Written and Directed by Joss (as most of the great episodes are), it is a tour de force of film making. Free of music, almost free of the supernatural, but jammed packed with horror, reality, and emotion, this is a seriously tear inducing hour. And it includes network television’s first on-screen lesbian kiss!

Wisely after the disruptions in some of the formulas from the first three seasons that college (season 4) brought on, season 5 brings the gang into a stable new orbit. Giles has purchased the Magic Shoppe and this replaces the library as the central hub. Xander and Giles are back in full orbit, and Anya, Tara, and Dawn integrated into the team. But it’s Spike, and his new every episode role and gradual character transformation that really livens things up. In an amusing, poignant, and brilliant turn he falls for Buffy (hopelessly — at least for now) and she literally ends up making him a better man. But this doesn’t stop him from still being sordid, hilariously. “Fool for Love” in particular is a brilliant episode in which Buffy forces spike to recount the story of his creation (by Drusilla) and his killing of two other slayers. Plus the Buffybot is pure genius, and real Buffy’s turn playing the bot to get the truth from Spike truly touching.

There are some serious themes of loss and alienation going on here, growing and growing as we head toward the dark territory that is season 6 — Love it! The weight of the world, the family crises, and the burden of protecting Dawn, take their toll on Buffy. This comes to the world shattering conclusion in the finale, Joss’s brilliant “The Gift,” which even on the third viewing had me crying. Seriously, this show is that good!

As the poignant music surges, and Buffy runs from Dawn to dawn across the platform — Death is your gift!

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 3

CONTINUED FROM PART 2 ABOVE. And the whole series [12, 3, 4, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:


Season 3:

Everyone must have thought: With the little half-length first season, and such a strong second season, that Buffy season 3 was heading toward a huge sophomore slump. But no, this season is even better than the second. Several things contribute to this:

1. The writers learn to deepen the mythology. They bring back old characters in surprising ways. They take gimmicks that made previous episodes great, and reintroduce them with new twists that get even better. Through it the characters and dialog stay strong, the veneer of comedy and fantasy is used to toe into, and then later delve deep into places where TV was usually afraid to venture.

2. The “experimental” or more radically different episode is introduced.  These special episodes shake up the viewers preconceptions about the show. Many of these are written and directed by Whedon himself, and make up some of the best episodes of the series, culminating in Season 6′s “Once more with feeling.” Season 3 comes out of the gate this way with “Anne” (Buffy alone in LA), and continues with “The Zeppo” (told entirely from Xander‘s perspective), and “The Wish” and “Doppelgangland” (where an alternate version of the town and characters are explored). These introduce vampire Willow, who heralds some of the long term changes in store. Willow: “It’s horrible! That’s me as a vampire? I’m so evil and…skanky. And I think I’m kinda gay.”

3. The main series arcs become more integrated with each of the shows. We get the best darkly comic villain of the whole series, the sinister “Mayor.” The arcing becomes so sophisticated that even the most standalone episodes have important changes affecting the relationships of the characters. We meet bad-girl Faith, who provides delicious counterpoint to Buffy’s honor-bound sense of duty — not to mention introducing sexy newcomer Eliza Dushku. Her presence, twisting as it does across the entire season and winding together with the overall villain arc helps stich the entire season together. The result is very few episodes that feel standalone, as even those with a monster of the week are moving forward the relationships between the characters.

4. Sub arcing involving character relationships, notably the love lives of Xander, Willow, Cordelia, Oz etc. proceeds fast and furiously.

 

Season 4:

This season could have sunk the show, as High School shows often fail after graduation. It’s stil a transitional season,  but it accurately reflects many details of college life (adapted to the Buffyverse). The show’s formula is mildly upset by the change. The relationship of the Scooby Gang (the main gang of friends) and mentor Giles teeters — enough that by season five, college will be downplayed and a new equilibrium established around the magic shoppe as headquarters.

Additionally, the main villain of the season is the weakest of the series, involving a government/army conspiracy and a frankenstein-come-terminator monster. Still, the great writing holds everything together through the change.

Many classic elements of a High Schooler’s transition to college are parodied successfully: college jitters, bad roommates, one night stands, over-drinking, fraternities, four-year lesbians, etc. The show keeps us engaged by continuing the ever evolving relationships. Willow and Oz explode, and she goes gay. Xander finds love with an ex-demon. Buffy has her only healthy relationship of the entire show. Spike, the popular villain from season two makes a return and begins a long an amazing transformation that is pretty much a Whedon halmark, where villains can become heros and heros villains.

The tradition of special episodes also continues with the groundbreaking “Hush,” the extraordinarily creative “Superstar,” and the oddball “Restless.” In “Superstar” for example a relatively minor (at this point) reoccurring character from the past literarily takes over the show. This extends to a meta level, involving the creation of a new custom title sequence just for the episode. There is a radical creativity here, a willingness to experiment and play with even the container and format of TV itself.

CONTINUE WITH PART 4 HERE.

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 2

CONTINUING FROM PART 1 ABOVE. And the whole series [1, 2, 34, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Buffy

 

Season 1:

The Buffy pilot is a work of art. In just 74 minutes, it manages to effortlessly introduce a big cast and a complex setup. But it’s the dialog that sells the entire series, and how that manages to consistently characterize a big cast of very funny, yet very real people, caught up in ridiculous situations. There’s a rhythm to it, capturing natural teen dialog, self referentially referred to as “buffy-speak.”

Xander: Well, uh, maybe I’ll see you around… maybe at school… since we… both… go there.
Buffy: Great! It was nice to meet you. [walks away]
or
Willow: Well… when I’m with a boy I like, it’s hard for me to say anything cool, or, or witty. Or at all. I-I can usually make a few vowel sounds, and then I have to go away.
Buffy: It’s not that bad.
Willow: No, i-it is. I think boys are more interested in a girl who can talk.
Buffy: You really haven’t been dating lately.

Whedon even manages to make an info dump funny:

Buffy[to Giles] To make you a vampire they have to suck your blood. And then you have to suck their blood. It’s like a whole big sucking thing. Mostly they’re just gonna kill you. Why am I still talking to you?

The pilot may be brilliant, but some of the other episodes in this mid-season 12 episode run are a little “monster of the week.” The special effects are laughable. But still, the dialog is spot on and the characters are great. Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, and even the evil Darla are all sexy, yet not fully stereotyped. Xander and Giles are just plain funny. Even in this early run, the season has an overall meta-villain, the sinister, yet silly “Master,” a rehash of all Most Ancient Vampires.

The Master: You’re dead.
Buffy: I may be dead, but I’m still pretty. Which is more than I can say for you.
The Master: You were destined to die! It was written!
Buffy: What can I say? I flunked the written.

He’s totally silly, but he’s also kinda scary in his own goofy way. And he is a nasty killer. The connections between the pilot, a few of the intermediate episodes, and the literally killer finale (“Prophecy Girl“) give the show a nice hybrid continuity (see my article on this). Overall it’s the weakest season until Season 7, but it’s still fun, and the show slips in references to material from older episodes in such a consistant manner (much as real High School friends never let you live anything down),  that it’s essential to foundation for the greatness that is to come.

 

Season 2:

It’s with the second second that Buffy really starts to hit stride. As our season villains we get the awesome Spike & Drusilla, a pair of british vampire lovers who play marvelously against type. On first watch a lot of the episodes in this season don’t seem as integrated into the overall story and mythology as they will from Season 3 on, but the clever writing team retroactively mines them as sources for ongoing material in later seasons, therefore pulling them into the fold. The robot employed in “Ted” will eventually lead to Season 5′s robot girlfriend and hence the Buffybot. “Halloween” sets up Giles’ past as Ripper, and his old nemesis Rayne. The creation of a second slayer upon Buffy’s first season death at the hands of the master is revealed. And that’s just a few.

Across all the episodes the relationships between the characters start to really come into their own. Willow’s lifelong crush on Xander is stymied and she meets Oz and begins to dabble in witchcraft. Xander’s negative chemistry with Cordelia draws them both into something unexpected. Giles’ dark past begins to surface. Fundamentally, the writers aren’t afraid to play with their formulas. Since season one, Buffy’s relationship with the brooding reformed vampire Angel has been growing, and when on her 17th birthday she decides to give her virginity to him: Things don’t go exactly as planned. Writers before and after have used the supernatural as allegory for human problems, but never with such darkly comic panache. The show isn’t afraid to go dark. I mean really dark, and still be funny. Most shows would have just beat around the bush of Buffy’s sexuality, but here, she does it, and gets a metaphoric stake in the heart in return. This pivot drives the second half of the season into really dark territory, and it’s all the stronger for it. Watched back to back on DVD there is a raw emotional intensity to the arc, and it comes from just plain good writing. The characters are funny, yet real, and their genuine changes and growth irresistible.

CONTINUED IN PART 3, CLICK HERE…

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 1

Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Creator: Joss Whedon

Genre: Comedic Teen Contemporary Fantasy

Watched: Winter 2004-05, Summer 2009, Winter 2010-11

Summary: Best TV show of all time.

 

As a diehard vampire fan I saw the movie version of Buffy when it came out. I hated it so much I used to mock it as my pre Twilight example of lame vampires. I have this requirement that vampires need to be menacing, even if comic (Fright Night) or romantic (Interview with the Vampire). The Buffy movie undead were just flaccid.

When the TV show debuted, I was in the midst of the busiest year of my life, the year of Crash Bandicoot 2, when I was in the office every single day (7 days a week) between New Years and September 8th. Besides, the movie had been dumb. So the show even became a punching bag of mine (although I hadn’t seen it at the time) used to illustrate Hollywood’s creative drought: Hey, they’d made a show based on a terrible movie that hadn’t even made much money.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Finally, in November of 2004, after having “retired” from Naughty Dog, my wife having insisted for years that the show was good, I succumbed and ordered the first season on DVD. Thus began an obsessive binge where I watched all seven seasons, plus five of Angel, back to back over the next three months. Generally I consumed three or more a day, including watching 18 episodes of season 3 in one continuous sitting (home Sunday with a cold). My only breaks were the week back east for Thanksgiving and three weeks we spent in Sicily (yum!). Four and a half years later I re-watched all seven Buffy seasons during the summer of 2009. It was almost as good the second time, and I appreciated it more.

Despite a significant cheese factor, and a first season that suffers from being overly episodic, the show is absolutely brilliant. If you aren’t a fan you probably think, “Buffy has these weird obsessive fans, but that kind of thing isn’t for me.”

It is.

I’ve never met anyone who’s sat down and started watching from the beginning who doesn’t absolutely love the show. But that’s just it, you have to start from the beginning. Fundamentally the show blends fantastic writing, really funny dialog, off-beat but likable characters, zany and intricate mythology, a creativity with the TV medium, and quirky humor with a kind of hidden dark realism found in only the best dramas. By disguising drama with humor and the supernatural the writers are able to get at real human issues without freaking out the network, and because they’ve created characters we care about, it all works.

The casting too is inspired. Sarah Michelle Gellar is perfect as Buffy. She may be cute, blonde, and perky, but she isn’t a typical airhead. She combines practical cleverness, toughness, and hidden vulnerability, with a strong sense of duty. Fundamentally the show is about the weight that rests on her narrow shoulders, and what it takes to bear it. The rest of the core team is great too. Alyson Hannigan‘s Willow is every geek’s fantasy, the shy computer nerd who learns to kick ass, Nicholas Brendon‘s Xander provides the token maleness with more humor than testosterone, and Anthony Stewart Head‘s Giles is pitch perfect as the stuffy older advisor with a dark past.

But it’s not just the premise that makes this show rock, but what the writers do with it. I’ll explain when I CONTINUE IN PART 2…

The whole post series [1, 2, 34, 5, 6]

Thoughts on TV: Lost vs The Love Boat

I’ve had a funny relationship with TV as a storytelling medium. During the 80′s and much of the 90′s I used to mock it as generally inferior and for numbskulls. But let it be said that I watch TV for stories. I pretty much detest the medium for information transfer (like news) and I despise reality TV and other non story based programming. The article title makes light of the difference between what I call “episodic” and “continuous” television. The Love Boat is episodic, you could scramble the order of many episodes, and everything resets back to neutral between shows. This is pretty much a constant. You KNOW when watching the show that any changes that occur during the course of the episode will get resolved and unwound by the end. Almost all sitcoms fall into this category. Although in more recent years, even some of these are hybrids, like Friends, where major changes do slowly occur.

Lost is an extreme example of continuous television. The story runs continuously — I hesitate to say linearly — from episode to episode. In the most extreme shows of this sort, like Lost and HBO/Showtime dramas, the episodes and seasons are merely chunks of delivery, much as Dickens novels were originally sold in chapters.

I was never much for episodic TV. During the dark years of the 80′s I watched little TV, and the few programs I did watch were either hybrids or had extreme appeal (like the original Battlestar Galactica which is both). I did find myself attracted to some early ventures into the continuous arena: Hill Street Blues, Saint Elsewhere, Miami Vice (my REVIEW HERE), Wiseguy, etc. One might classify these as adult soaps — and they are — but at least they allowed for character development. That’s the thing about episodic television. There isn’t much development, and very little risk. If you know that everything will get back to where it started by the end of the hour, why worry, why invest?

A number of factors have contributed to the rise of continuous television. These 80′s trendsetters can take some credit, as can the miniseries, but probably it is the rise of cable that was the next big step. On cable, freed of some of the childish conventions of traditional network programming and more importantly of the albatross of mid-show advertising, television has become a medium where it is possible to deliver “books” of 10-17 hours of solid programming. This is radically different than film’s 1.5-4 hours (and 4 is a Gone with the Wind length movie) scope. Sure film often has a bigger budget to work with, but that’s not what really makes a story. Writing fulfills that responsibility. DVD packaged television provided the second huge step, allowing even interrupted network programs to be viewed in a continuous manner.

With this in motion the 90′s saw the rise of more hybrid continuous shows: My So Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (my DISCUSSION ON BUFFY HERE), the X-Files, to name a few. These straddled the line, retaining a roughly episodic format, but allowing characters, relationships, and big conflicts to arc from episode to episode. In the late 90′s, with the rise of the big HBO dramas this all changed. Some network shows like Buffy that started episodic became largely continuous. In the 2000′s we experienced a golden age of fully continuous television. Network shows are still mixed, with most being largely episodic or hybrid. It’s rare on the networks to have a fully continuous show like Lost, but few are wholly episodic like most 80′s fare. The big cable dramas: The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome, Carnivale, The Tudors, Six Feet Under, Big Love, Dexter (my REVIEW HERE), Weeds, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, Trueblood, Entourage, etc. are pretty much all continuous.

This new medium, the continuous or strongly hybrid series, allows for a depth of character development and intrigue not possible in the traditional visual mediums. Although, I guess technically soap operas have done this for decades, but the narrow demographic focus, slow pace, and extended melodrama makes these a unique species of their own. I myself am basically drawn to television on a basis of how continuous it is, and the quality of the writing, not so much the particular genre or subject. Often I sense  the progressive modulation of quality in a show is based on where it falls in the spectrum. For example, Roswell, which began with a hybrid first season that leaned toward continuous was forced into a more episodic form in the second season, much to the detriment of the show’s quality. Likewise, Buffy, my all time favorite show, picks up strength in seasons 2-6 as the show sheds itself of the early episodic quality and becomes a more continuous narrative.

Another interesting phenomenon is that continuous shows are much better when watched in bulk on DVD without the breaks in time or advertising. I’ve discussed this with many friends and all agree that when you start a show like Lost on DVD, bingeing through episodes back to back it has a continuity and emotional intensity that is lost when one is forced to skim through ads and wait a week between episodes — and we won’t even mention the endless inter-season breaks. Catching up to “realtime viewers” can feel like driving into a brick wall. This exists for book series as well. Pounding through a huge series of fantasy novels back to back is much more satisfying than when one catches up with the author and has to wait years.

In any case I’m all for this, as I like longer more substantial storytelling where characters are free to change. Anything else is just repetitive.

Book and Movie Review: Twilight

TwilightTitle: Twilight

Author: Stephenie Meyer

Genre: YA Romantic Supernatural

Read: January 2008 and Oct 2010

Summary: Confused.

_

Since I’m such a vampire fan, having seen or read vast untold volumes of the stuff, I thought I should put my formal two-cents in on the strange source material that spawned the Twilight phenomenon.

First the book. I read it before the movie came out. There was a lot of buzz about it already, and I was excited about it. Generally, things that are really popular have a kernel of quality about them, and I love vampires and teen heroines. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favorite TV series of all time — I will blog about it one of these days. So I started reading Twilight in the Vegas airport while waiting for a flight. Despite the clunky prose (more on that later) I was actually pretty engaged in a low key way during the first half. Then Edward revealed to Bella that he was a vampire (not that I didn’t know) and the whole thing went to shit. I had to force myself through most of the rest, and the ending left me baffled. “Wait, where’d the fight go?  What about the climax?”

Back to the writing: It’s really clunky. I won’t go into too much detail, this other blogger did. But let me say Meyer is the anti Cormac McCarthy (I’m in the middle of The Road right now). He eschews punctuation, she loves it. Every long improper sentence is peppered with a random assortment of commas and em-dashes. She adores the em-dash, using it in approximately 50% of sentences, and usually not for its proper purpose of offsetting a parenthetical. Maybe she felt she had too many commas (she does), and needed to replace some of them with em-dashes for the hell of it. Oh, and she loves certain words or word combinations, like “cold fingers” and uses them several times a page in places. And she clearly choses random synonyms from the thesaurus without being aware of the connotations of said words. For example: “His expression shifted instantly to chagrin.” Can the word be used that way? I don’t think so. But none of this really matters when reading the book, you adjust and just role with it. I guess if you’re 14 and haven’t read a lot you don’t notice to begin with.

The plot and content: Given what actually happens in the first book, it’s pretty long: 118,000 words. Not much really does happen. We have a LOT of words devoted again and again to how pretty Edward is and how much Bella loves him. This isn’t really SHOWN too much, or justified, but she sure TELLS us about it a lot. But again, the first half was okay. However, once the reveal came in, it gets really silly. Basically they go play this ridiculous baseball game and the Black Eyed Peas (oops, I mean the evil vampires) walk onto the field, sniff Bella, and decide the most important thing in the world is to sink their fangs into her blood. There is no real attempt to sell anything in this plot, to provide any believable reasons, it just happens. You couldn’t possibly have more one dimensional villains – although they do compliment the one dimensional heros nicely. Then my all time biggest gripe, we close in on the unbelievable “final” confrontation of the book and Bella gets knocked unconscious (she is after all the narrator) and we miss the whole thing. It’s told to us by Edward after we know it came out okay so as to minimize tension. I had the feeling that the author didn’t know how to write an action scene, so she just chickened out.

The vampires: Oh my. It’s totally clear (particularly in later books) that Meyer doesn’t do research. This includes even watching a few vampire films or perhaps reading Dracula. Her undead aren’t really vampires, or even undead, except for being immortal and having a taste for blood, and “cold fingers.” They don’t seem dead, or particularly evil. They sparkle in the sun, they apparently have like, oh my God, no real weaknesses. And they’re all really pretty. We hear about that a lot. Let’s not forget their smorgasbord of cool psychic powers like seeing the future, and reading minds. These make hack plot construction really convenient. I actually started my novel a year before even hearing of Twilight, but reading it certainly motivated me to make sure my vampire heavy was a really bad-ass undead in a nasty evil way. He doesn’t sparkle in the sunlight but he will leave your entrails hanging from a tree to make a point — and he certainly wouldn’t ever concern himself to learn current High School vernacular.

Publishing mystery: Twilight had a very aberrant publishing history. As a first time novelist it was picked up by Jodi Reamer of Writers House really quickly. This is a very prestigious agency and that’s very rare. It was then sold quickly to a great publisher for a really huge advance. That Reamer showed interest in it is not what surprises me. There is a mysterious something about the first half of the book — it had potential. But what surprises me is that it was never edited — or if it was I’ve never heard of an editor that lax. The standard length for YA books is more like 50-70k, and there is a LOT of fluff in the book, not to mention the bad grammar and the flaccid ending that would be easy to fix. Having been through rounds and rounds of revision myself, the book was held to none of the standards my editors have exhibited. Of course it turned out to be a great decision for Jodi, but I still don’t understand why it was never edited.

The movie: Catherine Hardwicke directed the first movie. She actually did a really good job with the source material, and I think the movie is actually better than the book. Not exactly great, but better. The casting was excellent, particularly Kristen Stewart who does have a soft charisma, and she’s hot in a non obvious way. If you see her in some of her other films like Adventureland or Speak you realize that she’s actually a very fine young actress in certain roles. Twilight doesn’t provide a lot of room for subtle acting. I myself had casually known Hardwicke from when she did production design for Insomniac’s Disruptor in the mid 90′s (Insomniac was located next to my company Naughty Dog in those days). So I’d noticed when she started directing with Thirteen, which is a depressing but brilliant movie — particularly given what must have been a VERY low budget. Hardwicke brought the same kind of hand-held-documentary style to Twilight, and it worked well to offset the inherent cheese factor of the material. Not totally offset, but the result was somehow watchable. She did a nice job capturing Bella’s POV. This is tricky because in a novel, particularly a first person one like Twilight, so much of the book is dominated by the voice. With a combination of diary style voice over (more-or-less quoted from the book) and a peeping-over-the-shoulder viewpoint (as also used in Thirteen) Hardwicke pulls it off. For some reason, they ditched her with regard to directing the sequels, and the those devolve into further cheesiness. Of course so do the later novels. Can I just say Volturi?

Conclusion: I’m kinda baffled. Twilight isn’t particularly good, or well done, but it does have a certain appeal. However, the overall magnitude of success has left me totally confused. Harry Potter is ludicrously popular, but at its core rest three stunningly good initial books. The first book is really well written, the central premise is very novel and sold with incredible style. Even the ridiculously melodramatic Vampire Dairies is more fun than Twilight. I’m just left scratching my head and hoping the anti-vampire backlash isn’t too bad.