Incidentally, moving on from that last post…

…I’ve given in to my annoyingly completist instincts and am re-watching the sixth season of Buffy.

It’s actually nowhere near as godawfully terrible as I remember it being.

However, Wrecked is still the worst episode of TV that I’ve seen in my life this year ever this year.

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What I’ve Been Watching: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (seasons 1, 3, 4 & 5)

This was just going to be one of those brief ‘what i’ve seen on tv’ mini-reviews I’ve done before. Turned out rather longer and more detailed than normal, however, so I thought I’d put it up by itself. Unusually for me, there are some spoilers below. I have, however, tried to avoid specific spoiler details and anything too central to the main plot.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

I’ve recently re-watched the first, third and fourth seasons of Buffy (I had to skip the second, because on account of a long story I saw it more recently and it was still too fresh in my mind). [N.B. since starting to write this I went ahead and watched the fifth as well]

I’m struck again by how good, and how overlooked, that first season was. People seem to have a low opinion of it, saying that all it did was take the cliché high school dramedy and combine it with the cliché horror film. And… yes, that’s right, that’s all it did. But it did it extremely well. Yes, there were weak points – few shows emerge fully formed from the imagination, they take a little time to work out. And there’s a certain campness to the villains, of course. But on the two most obvious criteria – being exciting and being funny – I truly think the first season was as good as Buffy got. It seriously was funny, in both a sustained and hilarious way; and it seriously was thrilling, even scary. At its best, it was downright disturbing – there’s nothing in later Buffy (except perhaps Hush – not, as people seem to think, a bold new experiment in the series but just a return to the style of the first season, but with higher production values) as genuinely horrific as, say, The Pack (despite the high quotient of sillyness inherent in it). In general, in the first season, it’s all a lot edgier, creepier, and darker. [As I recall, this feeling is carried over into at least the beginning of the second season also]

Bad points? Sure. But because it was funnier, there genuinely wasn’t an episode I didn’t enjoy, even the in-most-ways-execrable Teacher’s Pet, which I think was the one truly terrible episode (I Robot… You Jane should probably also be called terrible, but gets a pass from me on account of its fantastic premise, which could have made for an entire season by itself – come to think of it, the villain in the first two-parter badly needed more screentime too). Meanwhile, the opening two-parter is good, The Pack I’ll call good for its horror even if it does have flaws, and the final run of four episodes is great. Nightmares is in my opinion far more disturbing than season four’s Restless, if not as deep, and The Puppet Show may well be my favourite Buffy episode of all (and not just for a credits sequence that I found the funniest thing the show’s ever done, though of course in comedy your tastes may vary).

Oh, and a special shout-out for Cordelia, who spends the entire season as source of non sequitur comic relief, yet still manages to come out of it with an intriguing and well-built character.

Season Three isn’t as funny (last time I watched these consecutively, the drop in humour between the second and third years was very noticeable), and isn’t as exciting. Instead, there’s a lot more being angsty and soulfull and teenagery. Despite that, I can understand those who rate it higher than the first season. It does away with some of the more awful clichés of high school shows, and it deepens the characters. Most importantly, it has by far the most succesful season-arc of all the Buffy seasons, and the best villain (actually, three of the best villains!) – plus, the eagle-eyed will have seen hints foreshadowing  the main villain since the first season. Crucially, the villains get plenty of screentime (the Big Bad in introduced in the first handful of episodes, though crucially, unlike the audience, the protagonists don’t know they’re the Big Bad for much of the season), so that by the finale we have a real sense both of the danger they pose and of the depth and complexity of character behind their villainy. For once, the arc really (mostly) works as an arc, latching together the various episodes without drowning out the episodic action. At the time, Buffy was at the cutting edge of a TV structural transformation, and this season is one of the early standout experiments in serialisation, managing to work both as a series of (mostly) stand-alone episodes and as a year-long arc. And along the way we get some very good adventures, a great deal of character development (in particular, despite her uneven screen time, the new character of Faith feels as fully developed by the end as any of the long-time cast), and, far more importantly, get to see Willow in skin-tight leather.

The only major problem (other than a few issues springing from the need for the series to still be mostly episodic, which means that too much character development sometimes has to get crammed into a single episode, making it appear unrealistic – in particular, Buffy’s brief flirtations with the diluted dark side are just silly, thanks to the lack of broader arc significance) is the end. No, no, no. Once the Big Bad and their evil plot are revealed, there’s far too much sitting around saying ‘we can’t possibly stop them’, and too much not even trying to stop them. It’s only when the horrible deaths of all the characters are literally within touching distance that anyone even bothers to think of trying to research ways to prevent it. And then everything rachets up immediately into a massive convoluted plan, complete with several plot holes, that feels entirely unearned. A far better approach, and which a modern TV series would probably follow, would have been to actually show us the Scooby Gang taking steps to prepare their world-saving plan over several episodes. As it is, we get an arc-sized villain, carrying out an arc-length plan, but the protagonists are limited to an episode-length saving of the world. This probably felt pretty epic at the time, watching week-by-week, but feels like an anticlimax now, watching episodes consecutively.

It’s hard not to wonder if Buffy should have ended after three seasons. The finale of the third season is such a natural finale to the series up to that point that maybe it should just have ended there. Surely nothing could top that?

I don’t know if I’d go as far as wishing for a world where Buffy had stopped after three years, but I can certainly sympathise with those who do. The decision to continue – specifically, the decision to take Buffy out of the high school years and into college – feels like a promise to the audience, a new beginning that should only have been undertaken if there was actually something new to say. I’m not sure there was.

Good things first, though. The fourth season continues the trend of the third in ironing out some of the weaker points of the show, in particular stemming the cheese and the sillyness. It feels a more even, more respectable, more professional, and altogether more polished show now. That also applies to the production values, with sets and costumes and image quality and special effects all improving greatly – and, most importantly, Willow cuts her hair and gets a little older and is suddenly not just cute and adorable but is actually hot. [I generally try not to base my opinions of shows on the hotness of the female stars, and regular readers I hope will be aware that I don’t normally mention it at all, but exceptions have to be made for Willow. Who, by the way, isn’t just hot but is also probably the most interesting of the Scoobies, in terms of her character]. The Big Bad gets an unfortunately late appearance, but is intriguing as a character, and their absence in the interim is made up for in part with the intriguing are-they-good-or-are-they-bad guys we keep seeing glimpses of. More generally, the season (and the following one) does convey the notion of a group of children starting to grow up, to grow apart, to find places in the adult world; Buffy may actually be one of the best portrayals of teenage characters genuinely growing up, and it deserves plaudits just for having the guts to address this.

But bad things follow. The obvious place to start: this probably shouldn’t be set in Sunnydale at all. Having everything happen in one small town strains credulity more and more as time goes on, and there’s no reason why it should have to be in Sunnydale at all anyway. Well, sure, the Hellmouth, of course, but it’s not as though Buffy would have been deprived of monsters to fight had she gone elsewhere (just look at Los Angeles in Angel), plus other Hellmouths have also been mentioned. [OK, it’s official: it clearly should have been set in Cleveland…]. Moving Buffy to a new location would have taken everyone out of their comfort zone, emphasised the growing distance between Buffy and her childhood, and made it easier to introduce intimidating newcomers without them feeling overshadowed by the existing scenary. Much of the thematic direction of the fourth season, and even more so the fifth, is about Buffy and friends having to struggle not just with the Big Bad but with the big bad world, and for Buffy in particular becoming a small fish in a big pond, and all of this would have been more powerfully conveyed by literally, physically, moving Buffy to a new place. On a more superficial level, it would have been great to see the polish of a fourth season combined with the freshness of a new locale. More generally, keeping Buffy in the same place for no real reason other than it being easiest and not wanting to upset the audience, rather than taking up the challenge of the third season finale and having the characters move on to a new place in the world, symbolises a decision the showrunners took – perhaps not even consciously – to settle, to go with what worked, to keep the base happy, rather than to challenge the audience, and themselves, in the way that the first and third seasons did.

But I guess that’s not a flaw, per se, so much as a missed opportunity, and probably one missed more for financial reasons (new sets and new location shooting are expensive, and Sunnydale had become a brand that it would have been a risk to change) than for failures of artistic quality. The real problem of the fourth season is exactly the strength of the third: the season-long arc. The fourth season just has far too little direction.

Part of this is the obvious business of the Big Bad, the plot gimmick that by now Buffy relies on. As I say, this season’s is certainly interesting, and quite intimidating – a tough thing to accomplish after the third season so greatly doubled-down on evil and danger. But they’re only around for about a third of the season, which just isn’t enough to anchor things together. Even worse, their evil masterplan is basically not revealed until right before it’s thwarted. In the third season, we may not have known the details of the evil plan, and the protagonists may have been appallingly lax in trying to fight it until the last moment, but at least we, the audience, had a sense of the nature and extent of the evil lurking off screen that is sadly missing in the fourth season. The writers do try to insert a bit of suspense here and there, but ultimately each worrying element is resolved in the most benign and unthreatening way possible (more on that later!).

But the biggest part is the lack of direction and coherence in the lives of the protagonists. Yes, this is part of the point, or at least is retconned into being the point through overt lampshading in the last couple of episodes – these are young people dealing with new environments and statuses and growing apart in the process. But it’s still a challenge for the season, and one that’s never really met head on with any conviction. The character development just isn’t there, and perhaps just as importantly the environmental development just isn’t there. In the first three seasons, the world was Sunnydale High, a tight and controlled environment with its own character, its own cast of (often recurring) background faces, its own geography. This strong sense of grounding and place ties the characters together, gives us a stable background against which we can observe their progress. The college in the fourth season just isn’t ever given that solidity, and nor is any other setting, leaving us with a bunch of characters floating in mid air. The comparison that springs to mind is with Veronica Mars, another show in which the heroine has to transfer from school to university – it’s not entirely succesful either (the third season is the least succesful of the three in my opinion), but it does a much better job than Buffy of fleshing out the college setting, making it seem real, making us care about it. Buffy goes through the motions now and then – oh, colleges have fraternities, so let’s have this plot be set at a frat party, and so on – but it just isn’t solid. And aside from making us not care so much and making it hard to get a grip on character development, this also makes the group seem very insular and self-obsessed (though this is far more a problem in the fifth season).

Well, that’s the character (or lack of it) of the school. But what about the characters? Unfortunately, no. Xander probably got more character development in one episode in the third season than he does in the fourth and fifth combined – true, the writers eventually, particularly in the fifth, take pity on him, stop giving him ‘the funny syphillis’ and let him man up a little, but this to be honest is more just reversing the damage they’ve already done to his character and finally recognising his long-established virtues than it is genuine development. Giles is probably the most fascinating character and the one in the most interesting position in the fourth season – a surrogate parent whose child increasingly doesn’t need them, a teacher/parent figure for the group as a whole who is increasingly coming to deal with the ‘children’ as adults and peers, and of course a librarian and Watcher who is now doubly unemployed. But Giles is pushed away to the periphery, and we’re allowed only taunting glimpses at the changes in his life. I’m not asking for every episode to be about his reinvigorated interest in music, but it would be nice to see a little more of what goes on behind the scenes (and not just because he’s got a fantastic voice – I love that rendition of Free Bird!). This goes back to the decision not to change the setting – just as they kept Buffy in the same place physically, despite opening up the possibility of moving, so too they struggle to keep the relationships between Giles and the characters the same, despite hinting at other possibilities. So we may be tempted by the notion of the gang coming to terms with Giles as a peer and fellow adult rather than an all-knowing and commanding paternal figure, but in the end the show sticks with what it knows – Giles’ arc is underdeveloped in the fourth season, and all but abandoned in the fifth.

Aaand then there’s Willow. Theoretically, the character with the most development to do here because, SPOILER! the whole lesbian thing. But ye gods it’s done badly. First they take a while to ditch the existing never-entirely-convicing romance (and Oz, who I did quite like on the re-watch but who still adds very little to the show). And then they have to disguise the lesbianism in a ridiculous and painful ‘wicca’ analogy for two years, and almost completely (barring one embarassingly obvious cunnilingus-analogy scene) ignore the actual development of the romance. This kind of screws Willow’s character (no pun intended), since on the one hand the one (two, even, including the actual witchcraft as well as the metaphorical) most important thing going on for her this season is pushed behind the curtain, and on the other hand it ends up feeling kind of as though she’s just become a lesbian overnight on a whim (not helped by having her say things like “er, hello, gay now!”). Or how about even a little discussion about what her new identity as a lesbian means for her past relationships and crushes? I’m not so naïve as to believe that a lesbian can’t have had heterosexual crushes, relationships, even happy relationships before she realised her orientation (or maybe she calls herself lesbian but has a degree of bisexuality as well), but it would have been nice to have this, or indeed anything about her presumably pretty confusing and life-changing and important character change, actually addressed (yes, there is a brief moment of Oz-Tara weighing, but that’s phrased entirely in unthreatening loving-both-people ways, without dealing with sexual attraction per se, or getting into any details whatsoever beyond the bland and undescriptive word ‘love’). Instead it’s just presented that she was entirely straight, then the writers flipped a die, and now she’s completely lesbian, no questions to be asked, no confusion or uncertainty or any other sort of issues to be worked out. Now I know that the writers were working within limits and that at the time having any sort of lesbian relationship at all in a popular TV show was controversial, but they could really have done a lot more, both politically and artistically, by at least looking like they were trying to take it seriously. But in any case, even leaving that whole thing to one side, Willow loses out badly by the writers not taking the setting seriously either – Willow is the character for whom college means the most, so the dearth of actual college stuff (which more and more is feeling to me as as much the result of laziness – not wanting to have to bother developing new situations – as honest mistake) is a big problem for her character (indeed, iirc this is lampshaded at the end of the season).

I’ll say more on Tara and Anya and Spike in a moment.

But there we are with the fourth season. It’s a season that faces up to a number of major challenges, both inevitable (e.g. the end of the highschool setting) and of its own making (e.g. Willow’s arc), and doesn’t completely mess everything up – but the improved production values and more professional feel can’t disguise that those challenges haven’t entirely been overcome, and the season feels more aimless, more frustrating, and frankly also more dull than what’s gone before. A good illustration of this comes with the two-parter that sees Faith return – the placement of the episode in the series, and Faith’s complete overshadowing by the looming Big Bad of the season, ought to make these episodes feel an irritating light distraction before the main course, but in fact they’re striking for how much they grab the attention – not because they’re better made, per se, than the surrounding episodes, but because they just feel edgier. The rest of the season mostly just plodded along, signposting itself with plenty of advance warning, so that even if you couldn’t predict every last twist there was never going to be anything really surprising (except, perhaps, the timing of the Adam/Walsh contretemps, which I’d assumed would come an episode or two later). But suddenly with Faith around I didn’t know what was going to happen, possibilities opened up, there was potential and uncertainty and danger and freshness – exactly what was missing from the rest of the season. (and it worked that way for me even now, when I’ve seen the Faith episodes at least twice before). Part of this is that at this point Whedon is clearly losing interest in the show. He wrote four episodes of this season (down from five the year before), and those five could almost be from a totally different show from the rest of the year: the opening episode follows the trajectory set by the third season finale and attempts to deal seriously with putting Buffy into a vaguely new situation where she’s no longer totally in control – only for that to be ignored for the rest of the year; Hush is a fine episode that feels like a throwback to the first season but with fourth-season production values; the Faith two-parter (Whedon wrote the second half), as I say, feels like a jolt of life into a sluggish year, and has a plot entirely tangential to that of the season; and the season ‘finale’, Restless, almost mocks the whole season by not being about the plot of the season at all. Instead, Whedon goes off into a psychological examination of the characters, and a mythological examination of his conceits, that again feels like a throwback to the first season (although not to the same extent as Hush – there’s more new here). It works – but in its seriousness, its innovation, and the sheer love and care and thought that’s clearly been put into it, it just flags up what’s been missing from the rest of the year. Whedon’s contributions, frankly, make the rest of the year feel like filler. [Behind the scenes, executive producer David Greenwalt went off to work on Angel, and Whedon’s disengagement was shown through the creation of a ‘supervising producer’ role for Marti Noxon.]

So what happens in the fifth season? Do they deal with the problems of the fourth and move forward with its potential? Like hell they do. Instead, the show promptly drops all existing sense of direction whatsoever and abruptly shifts into an entirely different plot, about an entirely new character. Now, yes, on some level this is about Buffy continuing to grow up and take on more adult roles. But it doesn’t feel like an organic development. Most eggregiously, they react to the problems of the college setting by more or less (the occasional walk-and-talk through a hallway excepted, and I do mean very occasional, like two or three in the whole year) completely ignoring college altogether. Great, the show’s struggling to anchor Buffy in a relatable setting, so drop the setting entirely and have her live in a bubble. Have her essentially regress by putting her in her mother’s house a lot more, but don’t explore the previous hints at her developing a more adult relationship with her mother, oh no. [In fact, don’t explore anything that was raised in the fourth season finale. Restless is almost like a shopping list of things the show doesn’t have the guts to tackle in the season that follows]. Don’t seriously explore any relationships at all! And having people meet at Giles’ house, while the source of some amusement, is far too much opportunity for character depth, so have them all sit symmetrically around around a table in a soul-less shop instead (and he’s seriously missing out on some revenue by not filling that big bit of floorspace with some more shelving units, by the way…). Drop Giles’ gestures in the direction of character growth, let Xander be less the butt of the jokes at the expense of having him be dull and do nothing all the time (yet still be staggeringly rich, judging by his palace/appartment, although maybe that’s just a British sense of scale leading me astray). Where possible avoid having any actual Willow/Tara relationship, of course. After all, on this show, relationships are things you attain, and that then become trivia facts about you, not actually things that are really important parts of your lives (of course, we’re told that Tara is important to Willow. We just don’t get to see much of it).

As for the season arc: oh dear no. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of Dawn is genius, but it’s an idea that creates obvious problems that never totally feel addressed. The idea of Ben and Glory is also clever, but unfortunately it involves Ben, and more unfortunately it involves Glory. Glory is probably the weakest antagonist the show has ever had (yes, I’m rating her as worse than the Annointed One – the Annointed One at least did so little that there was some interest in seeing if they would ever do anything, whereas Glory’s pointlessness is displayed loudly and continuously). Unlike all the other antagonists, except the Annointed One and maybe the Master, there is no sense of any personality to Glory beyond a set of cliches rolled randomly by the writers – and worse, there’s no novelty to her. It’s hard not to yawn every time she steps on screen – the Master may have been a limited character and ludicrously, cheesily over-acted, but at least it was weird and distinctive cheese. And he was actually pretty creepy when he put his mind to it. Glory… isn’t. It’s made worse by the way that in the meantime the show has become a lot more po-faced, which makes her scenary-chewing more off-putting than the Master’s was way back in the first season. And again, the concept of Glory, her powers and abilities, is a good concept – it’s just that the execution is horribly uninspired (it’s easy to hate the actress for this, but to be honest I don’t see what more she could have done with the material they gave her). And the plot? Don’t get me started on the plot. It – and in general the final run of episodes – are so painfully full of stupidities and plotholes that it’s really not worth going into any detail. I started out making a list in my head of things that hadn’t been thought through properly, but it just got too long. Even the climax of the finale, while emotive in a way, doesn’t actually make much sense. Given that Whedon had five years to manoeuvre his show into that moment, the sheer sloppiness and laziness and halfbakedness of the way they finally get there is just infuriating.

Meanwhile, the fourth and fifth seasons are rich with new characters – chief among them Anya, Dawn, Tara, Riley, and Spike (not new, of course, but back in a big way and taking on new roles). And they’re all highly, highly problematic. Anya is the character I’m most viscerally annoyed about, because she symbolises the pissant attitude the writers by now are taking to their own show. She’s introduced as a cynical, unpleasant, bitchy, knowing, millenia-old demon with endless experience of humanity (hence the cynicism) trapped, to her anger and despair, in a human body. But wait – because she’s been, up to now, a powerful and sadistic demon, she isn’t in the habit of being tactful, plus she’s not used to all the human emotions, which involve less sadistic vengeance and more sexual attraction. Unfortunately, the actress is way too good at this side of the character, so the writers caricature her intensely. In two seasons, the ancient cynic has become, effectively, a five-year-old, not only completely and continually baffled by and unfamiliar with human customs (despite it now being established that not only did she spend a thousand years closely observing human relationships, but she was actually an adult human before), but also with all the emotional lability and enthusiasm and strange speech mannerisms and non sequitur logic of a small child. This makes Xander go from being unsympathetic-because-he’s-putting-up-with-a-horrible-girlfriend-just-for-the-sex to unsympathetic-because-he’s-now-essentially-a-paedophile. Of course, this being the show this has become, the relationship issues can just be waved off with “they’re in love”; we know they’re in love because they tell each other they’re in love, and that’s what love is – saying loudly that you’re in love. Relationship: attained. So we can just accept that as a given and move on. I’d like to think this exposed some naivity about the series at this point in its time, but to be honest I think it just exposes the laziness of the writers. “Look, they’ve said they’re in love, that’s that relationship locked down and we don’t have to worry about it anymore, now on to the next!”.

Dawn is a problem not because she exists, although that’s a problem in the more literal sense, but because the writers don’t seem to want us to care about her. Consider: Dawn is one year younger here than the Scooby Gang were in the first season (i.e. she’s the same age as when Buffy was discovering about vampires and burning down her school). And she’s had a third of her life to adjust to how dangerous life in Sunnydale is. And yet she’s still an idiot, and she’s still a self-centred brat. She cannot possibly have lived that long in that situation and not developed more maturity – and the way the other characters talk about her suggests she can be pretty cool sometimes, it’s just that the writers can’t be bothered to show the good sides of her on screen. [Or, if she’s really this naïve and innocent/brattish, because she’s been excessively sheltered by Buffy, then for goodness sake address that on screen!]. And likewise, we are told, and we know she must, have had good moments with Buffy at some point – but we aren’t shown them (at least not until near the end). Instead, we’re always just shown Dawn and Buffy fighting, which makes it hard for Dawn to really be a sympathetic character. It continually feels as though the characterisation here is being pushed out of the way to make room for the plot. Which is weird, because there’s sod-all plot.The season-long arc doesn’t have that much happen in it, and the episodic plots all feel pretty disposable. So where is all the time going? Mostly, to moping and whining and bickering.

Tara and Riley likewise suffer from a lack of screentime – but it’s not just that. Cordelia in the first season had a fraction of the screentime these two get, but was a far more interesting and memorable character. No, the real problem is that Tara and Riley both feel entirely defined through their relationship to the core characters. In Riley’s case, that’s just “boyfriend”, plus some plot-related stuff; Tara gets “witch” as well as “girlfriend”. In neither case do we get much sense of who these people are outside of the way others look at them (this is even gestured at explicitly for Tara, but the ‘Tara is mysterious’ plot is never really explored and then is explained away far too tritely in order to make room for more moping). We don’t get to see why their pretty amazing girlfriends would fall in love with these people particularly (but don’t worry, they’ve said loudly that they’re in love, so that’s all the relationship analysis we could want, right?) Riley has it a bit easier – he’s so completely wooden and useless that it’s hard to have any feelings about him – but Tara is really given the short end here. Lots of viewers apparently don’t like Tara, and it seems normal to blame this on homophobia and sexism, but really, the problem isn’t that Tara is a woman or that she’s a lesbian or that she’s in one respect replacing Oz (because all three things there are things I can support!), but that she’s not developed enough and that the traits she’s given aren’t very attractive ones. Her two defining characteristics appear to be extreme and caricatured weakness (and her initial stammer is badly-acted to an almost offensive level) and a holier-than-though attitude. Even when that weakness is partially relieved through growing maturity and partly explained through her background, and even when maybe she might actually BE right sometimes, those aren’t two characteristics that make a character loveable. She could probably get away with this if she had more to her, but at this stage (and to be fair she’s one of the few things I remember getting better in the next season) she just doesn’t.

And then there’s Spike. Spike is what I most dislike about the show. That might seem odd, because quite clearly Spike is one of the best things ON the show. That, however, is exactly the problem. With the exception of Head as Giles, and maybe Caulfield as Anya (but her character gets so neutered and pigeon-holed we don’t really get to see), Marsters is far and away the best actor in the regular cast – he’s the most charismatic, and he has a great range, from dry wit through slapstick to genuine intimidation. Unfortunately, as with Caulfield, the writers recognise this and play to his strengths, giving Spike more and more of a role in the series.

Why is that bad? Well, the specific problem with Spike is maybe impossible to pull apart from a broader problem of the show. But in essence here it is: to have Spike be around more, and get to show more of his range, Spike has to be, as it were, ‘domesticated’ – i.e. not scary anymore. I think at one point Spike even calls this what it is: neutering. It’s a castration, a defanging. And that’s bluntly what happens over the course of Buffy as a whole: every threat, every fright, every uncomfortableness, is methodically defanged. Take demons, for instance. They start out being really frightening, totally inhuman, just unstoppable killing machines. But bit by bit they’re whittled down. They go from being individuals, with specific names spoken in horror through the generations, to being representatives of one of the countless species of demon that peacefully infests the world. By the sixth season, they’re just funny guys with skin conditions who like to drink beer and play poker, and sometimes wear tailored suits. They’ve been deflated – and while each moment of deflation, in its own right, may be able to provide a note of humour, taken collectively this deflation sucks a good deal of the tension out of the show. The show, like Spike, used to be brutal – one false move and a character would die. But now the show is committed to being unthreatening, committed to staying in the same place and giving us more of what we want – so Spike is just kept around, neither killed off (just humorously beaten, of course), nor written out (despite his continued hanging around really straining credulity, and leading to some real stupidity when the writers decide they need to explain it).

So my problem isn’t with Spike himself – he’s an interesting character and very well acted. My problem is that Buffy has become the kind of show that Spike can be in, and that feels like a condition utterly inimical to what made Buffy great in the first place. A show that started out as a horror that used teenage life to provide emotional grounding and a vein of comedy has turned into… well, as second-rate semi-comic angsty teenage soap opera with some shakey worldbuilding and some by-the-numbers kung-fu scenes. [The martial arts may be more polished by now, but it’s a lot more boring than it was early on. Other than the big fight scene in the finale, I think there was only one action scene that was genuinely exciting, and Buffy wasn’t in it]. In that semi-comic angsty soap opera (and the word is semi-comic – it’s all a sort of smile-inducing mild amusement, rather than the repeated laugh-out-loud comedy of earlier seasons – I’m not sure I had a good laugh at all in the entire fifth season, and if I did it was only once or twice and not that memorable) Spike is one of the best characters. I just wish that this was still a show that had no place (or at least no central place) for that character.

This time Whedon has only three episodes – Family feels like the mid-season climax to a plotline that nobody thought to tell Whedon they’d already written out (a plotline that actually started the year before, but that everyone has ignored ever since), The Gift is the worst example of Whedon’s horrible trend toward the excesses of auto-fanboyism (the whole thing, quite apart from being as conceptually solid as a too-old block of Emmental, feels like somebody’s Buffy-fanfiction. Come to think of it, that could be said of the season arc as a whole, with Dawn as the fanfic-writer’s personal darling. Quick, did Whedon secretly sell the right to write the fifth season plot some guy from an internet forum?), and The Body is…

…brilliant. Really, seriously, brilliant. It’s probably the best thing Buffy has ever done. It deserves mention up there in the list of the best episodes of TV ever – it doesn’t deserve to top that list, but it deserves mention. It’s a stunningly good depiction of bereavement, it completely understands all its characters, and it also understands the show. Some people take issue with the Buffy-esque twist, but frankly I think that’s part of the point. It’s not trying to devalue the seriousness by linking it to the normal Buffy-goings-on, it’s trying to increase the value of the genre stuff: it’s saying, this is still a genre show, but it’s a genre show in which horrible real things happen, and, what’s more, the genre stuff actually fundamentally is about that horrible stuff, and shares the same stakes. Which is what Buffy has done throughout, when it’s been good. Unfortunately, by this stage Buffy has become so silly, so un-important, so impossible to take seriously (and yes, it’s harder to take seriously when it’s all angsty and mopey and barely amusing than it was back when it was laughable silly, because that sillyness always had that dark, horrible edge to it, which the newer, neutered version doesn’t normally have, except in this episode), that people naturally take the reminder that this is an episode of Buffy to be undermining and devaluing what would otherwise be a fine one-act play.

No, the real problem, as with Whedon’s contributions to the fourth season, is that when you watch The Body you think ‘oh fuck, who wrote this, they should put that guy in charge of the whole series! Quick, get him to do mor… what, he’s already the executive producer? What? Are you sure that’s not a doppelganger? Huh?’ When a man runs out of talent, you just have to accept that, I think (eg, I have come to terms with the fact that Aaron Sorkin isn’t going to write another West Wing, except, you know, in the sense of obsessively re-writing The West Wing like an increasingly frustrated monkey with a typewriter). But The Body shows definitively that Whedon hasn’t run out of talent, in fact he can do better work now than ever before. He just… usually can’t be arsed? Isn’t paying attention? I don’t know what, but this Whedon could have made a great fifth season of Buffy. It almost feels as though he has, somewhere, privately, and nobody’s told him that this episode has been transplanted into the crappier version that was actually shown on TV. Because The Body is also the perfect finale to a plot that didn’t happen. All of those hints for the last three seasons, which Restless explicitly teased us would finally be developed in the fifth season… but, other than the odd plot note squeezed in between other things, weren’t. I don’t know whether Whedon didn’t notice that his underlings weren’t writing the show that he seems to think they were writing, or whether Whedon really was paying attention but doesn’t understand that ‘mentioning’ and ‘developing’ are different, and that ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ are different. Because there are so many themes and plots where they seem to be satisfied with ‘oh, we hinted at that in that one line in the nth episode, didn’t you notice?’ as though that were really a plot arc or a thematic exploration. And yet it’s hard to imagine that the guy who wrote The Body (which, again, is brilliant) could be so completely naive, so completely unsophisticated. So I don’t know what the hell happened.

Anyway, that’s it for now.

Season One: 3/4

Season Three: 3/4. Whether you prefer the third or the first season probably depends which you have a higher tolerance for: angst (the third) or cheese (the first). Personally, I’d go with the first.

Season Four: 2/4

Season Five: 2/4 (and to be honest I might well have given it 1/4 if it weren’t for The Body).

Guard! Guar….. OK, actually no.

As you may have noticed, I’m re-reading all of Discworld in order. Or I was. But unfortunately, there is a problem: I can’t find my copy of Guards! Guards!

I’m sure I’ve owned one in the past. I’m pretty sure I still own one. But for some strange reason, I can’t find the darn thing.

I’ve now given up on finding it, and will move on to Eric instead. I do hope I’ll be able to find it before I get to Men At Arms, though…

Influential Authors in Fantasy, Appendix 2 – Reading List!

The following is a reading list of works by the authors I’ve put forward as among the most influential in the shaping of the Fantasy genre. These books are not necessarily the best books by those authors, for two reasons – first, my own ignorance, which has sometimes left me unable to confidentally select the most famous, most accomplished or most influential work by a certain author, and, second, the way that some authors are better known for works farther from the Fantasy genre. Not every book here is Fantasy – some predate the genre, others are from sister-genres – but I’ve endeavoured to give some works by the authors more relevant to the genre, rather than the best or most famous novels. So, for instance, I include H.G. Wells’ urban fantasy, The Wonderful Visit, rather than a more famous but less overtly fantastical book like The Time Traveller or The Shape of Things to Come.

The number of books for each author is not strictly an indication of their influence. Rather, it reflects my ability to sum up their influence in a single book. Sometimes, I felt that giving several books better reflected their significance (as, for instance, in the case of William Morris), but more often I have listed multiple books only when the books seemed distinct in their influence, and where listing only one would fail, I thought, to encapsulate the spirit of the author. This is not always proportional to significance – so, for instance, while many would argue that Asimov should not be on this list at all, I have given him two works, reflecting two different sides of his authorship, whereas C.S. Lewis, a far more directly influential figure, has been given only one (as I felt that mentioning the other Narnia books would add little, and that the Perelandra novels were not sufficiently innovative or popular to be worth mentioning on their own).

Above all, the motivating force behind my choices has primarily been whimsy. Like the list of authors itself, this in no way sets out to be definitive, objective, or scholarly. This is as much a list for my own benefit, to remind me to read or re-read certain works, as it is for the benefit of anybody else – and, accordingly, my own interests, curiosities and whimsies have guided my hand here and there.

There is also, of course, some dubiousness as to what constitutes a work. For series, I have generally given only the first volume, but with some exceptions where the series was written as a single book and can be found as one (The Lord of the Rings) or where the individual books are so short that an omnibus edition is still not a weighty tome (The Foundation Trilogy). For short stories, sometimes I have given fix-ups and collections, generally where the collection is put together by the author themselves not long after the initial publication of the stories; elsewhere I have just listed some stories, which you may or may not be able to find collected in a single volume.

Finally, two words should be said about names. Regarding the names of books, it was common at one time for all works to carry a subtitle indicating the genre of the book – so, for instance, The Mysteries of Udolpho was published as The Mysteries of Udolpho, A Romance. I haven’t included these subtitles – they are generally bland, they appear to have changed sometimes between editions at the whim of the editor, and should be thought of as advertising descriptions rather than parts of the title. I have also not included fraudulent authorship or provenance information, given to a work either by mistake or as false advertising by the publisher (as with The Vampyre), or for intentional artistic purposes by the author (as with The Castle of Otranto). I don’t think this should really be considered part of the title, although admittedly this is debateable in the case of The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto.

I have, however, included subtitles that offer alternative or explanatory names, and genre descriptions for books after 1850 – I judged that MacDonald and Cabell both intentionally gave their books these genre descriptions against the general trend of novels at the time, for artistic reasons.

The second thing is the names of authors. Again, whimsy has interfered with me. I decided that rather than give initials or middle names or titles or diminutives or whatever, I would just give a very plain and factual version of the author’s name: their personal first name, and their surname, both as given by their parents at birth (I have, however, allowed Byron to have three names, judging his surname to be “Gordon Byron”). There’s no real justification for this – it was a simple formatting decision at first, which I refused to back down from purely on grounds of whimsy. This has sometimes given forms quite distinct from those the author generally goes by. I hope that authors and their estates won’t take offence at this. Where the given name is obviously close to the name an author goes by, I have let this go without mention, but when the given name (either personal name or the entire name) is unguessably different from the popular name, I have given the popular name in brackets.

A statistical randomness: the best name to be born with in order to become an author who influences the Fantasy genre is clearly ‘William’ – there are 5, and one Wilhelm. Runners up, all with three,  are ‘George’ (plus two more if you count Georg and Jorge), ‘Terence’, and ‘John’, both with three. ‘Stephen’, ‘Robert’, ‘James’ and ‘Howard’ are close behind with 2 each, and ‘Joseph’ deserves special mention – 2 authors on this list were christened ‘Joseph’, yet neither is known by that name, nor any derivative of it.

Anyway, the books. Chronologically.

 

Before 1837

1: The Castle of Otranto (1764) – Horace Walpole
The original gothic novel

2: Vathek (1786) – William Beckford
A gothic tale of the decadent orient

3: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) – Anne Radcliffe
The most famous novel by the most succesful (critically and commercially) of the gothic novelists, and more explicitly supernatural than its forebears. Now rather less well-known, however, than its parody, Northanger Abbey

4: Hymns to the Night (1800) – Georg von Hardenberg (“Novalis”)
A meditation on life and death often considered the pinnacle of Romanticism, and the spark that birthed a long-lived worldview (and later translated by MacDonald himself)

5: Heinrich von Ofterdingen (author died 1802) – Georg von Hardenberg (“Novalis”)
Novalis’ novel-fragment gives Romanticism its most potent symbol

6: The Four Zoas: the Torments of Love & Jealousy in the Death and Judgment of Albion the Ancient Man (abandoned c. 1807) – William Blake
Blake’s bizarre Silmarillion, that seeks to unify and set plain his mythology. An earlier version was completed but never published, under the title Vala, or The Death and Judgement of the Eternal Man: A Dream of Nine Nights

7: Faust Part One (1808) – Johann Goethe
A dark folk tale becomes one of the classics of German literature (part two, however, is notoriously difficult and little read)

8: The Lady of the Lake (1810) – Walter Scott
Scott’s narrative poem of the Scottish clans sparked (along with the work of Macpherson) the Highland Revival that presaged later mediaeval revivalism

9: Children’s and Household Tales (1812) – Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Centuries of dark of and bloody supernatural folk tales collected and made more suitable for children

10: Manfred (1817) – George Gordon Byron
Byron’s incest-inspired poem-play of guilt, despair, bereavement, black magic, and a brooding proto-Nietzschean tragic hero who defies authorities mundane and supernatural, and in the process begets two centuries of imitations

11: Frankenstein;  or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) – Mary Shelley
A seminal work of science horror, and a rare Gothic work in which the new could be as frightening as the old. Written under the influence of a rainy weekend, considerable quantities of laudanum, and a copy of Vathek

12: The Vampyre (1819) – John Polidori
Byron becomes immortal

13: Ivanhoe (1819) – Walter Scott
Perhaps the single most influential novel in birthing mediaeval revivalism, and helped establish its author as a byword for literary brilliance for a century

14: Don Juan (author died 1824, unfinished) – George Gordon Byron
Byron’s controversial magnum opus, a dashing epic of heroism with a heavy tincture of oriental decadence

15: [assorted short stories including “The Fall of the House of Usher”,  “The Pit and the Pendulum”,  “The Island of the Fay”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and “The Masque of the Red Death”] (1832-1849) – Edgar Poe
Famous tales by one of the founders of supernatural horror

16: Fairy Tales Told for Children (1835-1837) – Hans Anderson
Contains the bulk of Anderson’s most famous stories, both updated folk tales and his own imitations – the most succesful follower of the Grimms.

 

 

1837-1901

17: Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (1858) – George MacDonald
MacDonald’s symbolic allegory is perhaps the first stirring of the modern Fantasy genre

18: The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860) – Richard Burton
The great colonial explorer’s most famous adventure, to discover the source of the Nile – told by a man determined to discredit his former companion and then rival, Speke. Not actually fiction, let alone fantasy fiction, but still a huge influence on the genre!

19: Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) – Jules Verne
Intended at first as a reasonably scientific adventure, the progress of science has left this a classic tale of fantasy, and the father (if not the ultimate progenitor) of an entire genre of hollow earth fantasy

20: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) – Jules Verne
The earth’s own oceans become a fantastical world to be explored

21: In a Glass Darkly (1872) – Joseph (“Sheridan”) Le Fanu
Five of Le Fanu’s stories, including the novella “Carmilla”, the mother of the modern vampire story

22: The Princess and the Goblin (1872) – George MacDonald
MacDonald’s second great fantasy moves away from the philosophical to the more approachable and familiar – this is the book that inspired writers like Tolkien and Lewis

23: Idylls of the King (1859-1885) – Alfred Tennyson
King Arthur (via Malory and the Mabinogian) retold for Victorians in an elegaic song-cycle. Beyond repopularising the myths of Arthur and his knights, Tennyson’s poems were at the forefront of the reawakening of interest in chivalric ideals, courtly love, and firey magical celts

24: The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night  (1885) – Richard Burton
The hyperflorid, sex-obsessed and idiosyncratic translation that made the ‘Arabian Nights’ famous once more in the English-speaking world, and cemented ideas of oriental vice, and oriental magic

25: King Solomon’s Mines (1885) – Henry (“Rider”) Haggard
The African adventures of big game hunter Allen Quartermain begin, and the Lost World genre with them. Considered one of the greatest adventure writers ever, Haggard and his fame helped launch the pulp magazines

26: She: A History of Adventure (1887) – Henry (“Rider”) Haggard
One of the best-selling novels of all time, with a more overtly supernatural element than in King Solomon’s Mines; renowned also for its racism (on the other hand, Haggard could be unusually multicultural at times, being one of the few bestselling writers of his time to write novels with entirely African casts).

27: The Wood Beyond the World (1894) – William Morris
Reputedly the first pure secondary world fantasy ever published

28: The Jungle Book (1894) – Joseph (“Rudyard”) Kipling
Kipling presents his English readers with a doubly fantastical setting – first by telling tales of India, and then by making the animals of India his characters, not merely to tell fables, but as the heroes and villains of serious and dramatic tales

29: The Wonderful Visit (1895) – Herbert Wells
A now-little-remembered early urban fantasy novel from Wells in which a violin-playing “angel” (not of a religious kind) from the Land of Dreams inexplicably finds itself in Victorian England

30: The Well at the World’s End – William Morris
The second of Morris’ two famous romances is arguably the more directly influential

31: The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) – Herbert Wells
Again Wells shows that his earlier work leans more to the fantastical, with this classic tale of bioengineering

32: Dracula (1897) – Abraham Stoker
Possibly the most famous supernatural novel of all time

33: [assorted stories, including “The Great God Pan”, “The White People”, and “The Terror”] (1894-1917) – Arthur Machen
The stories of the progenitor of 20th century supernatural horror, and Lovecraft’s predecessor

34: The Invisible Man (1897) – Herbert Wells
Wells updates Plato for the Victorian age, though this time the magic ring is disguised in chemistry

35: Kim (1901) – Joseph (“Rudyard”) Kipling
Kipling provides arguably the pinnacle of orientalist literature, suffusing his India with the (to English readers) alien depth and complexity only a child of India could provide

 

 

1901-1939

36: Five Children and It (1902) – Edith Nesbit
The ancient story concept of the wish-giving fairy is updated for a contemporary young audience by marrying magic with realism

37: The Gods of Pegāna (1905) – Edward Plunkett (“Lord Dunsany”)
Dunsany one-ups Morris by creating an entire fantastical pantheon to go with his secondary world

38: [assorted stories, including “The Metamorphosis”, “Investigations of a Dog”, “Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk” and “The Burrow”] (1908-1924) – Franz Kafka
Much of Kafka’s most famous work is far from fantasy, but at other times he does come close. These four stories are examples of the fantastic – a transmogrification and three non-human protagonists

39: The Ball and the Cross (1909) – Gilbert Chesterton
Less famous and probably less influential than his two earlier novels (The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill), but one of the most fantastical – a surreal and sometimes allegorical adventure about what happens when a Jacobite and an atheist agree to duel to the death

40: The Ballad of the White Horse (1911) – Gilbert Chesterton
For once, Chesterton abandons his trademark wit and surrealism, and instead crafts an epic poem about King Alfred’s war against the Danes, distilling much of the essence of heroic romance. One of the few works to equally influence both Tolkien (in its melancholy mythic grandeur) and Howard (in its psychological dissection of sword-swinging heroism)

41: The Night Land (1912) – William Hodgson
A bereaved 17th century man beholds the earth millions of years in the future, after the Sun has gone out.

42: The Book of Wonder (1912) – Edward Plunkett (“Lord Dunsany”)
Dunsany pre-empts criticism of his verbose and important style by authoring a new collection of fantastic tales in which he politely mocks himself

43: A Princess of Mars (1912) – Edgar Burroughs
The first John Carter novel takes the Haggardian novel to the stars, or at least to the planets, and creates the planetary romance genre

44: At The Earth’s Core (1914) – Edgar Burroughs
As an encore to 1912’s Carter novel, and the first Tarzan novel (published the same year), Burroughs delivers one of the classic hollow earth novels. Determined not to outdo the mere dinosaurs of other authors, Burroughs has mind-controlling pterodactyls.

45: Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919) – James Cabell
Arthurian legend and Dante are parodied in one of the first classics of comic fantasy, as Jurgen travels through dimensions in search of courtly love. Alastair Crowley called it one of the epoch-making masterpieces of philosophy.

46: The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) – Edward Plunkett (“Lord Dunsany”)
Dunsany brings his fantasy into a longer format, and combines fairy tale with high romance
47: [assorted stories, including “The Call of Cthulhu”, At the Mountains of Madness, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and The Shadow over Innsmouth]  (1926-1931) – Howard Lovecraft
The seminal writer of cosmic horror

48: [assorted stories, chiefly regarding Conan, Kull and Solomon Kane] (1928-1936) – Robert Howard
The seminal writer of sword and sorcery

49: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937) – John Tolkien
Tolkien takes a break from working on his private mythology to tell a light-hearted fairy tale to his children. Of course, he can’t quite avoid a few darker moments and allusions…

50: The Once and Future King (1938-1958) – Terence White
White updates Arthur for a more cynical age, complete with metatextual irony and a witty narrator – as well as a great deal of tragedy

 

 

1939-1976

51: [the Lankhmar short stories] (1939-1988) – Fritz Leiber
Leiber may not have begun Sword and Sorcery, even if he did give it its name – but his Lankhmar tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser may be the archetypal examples of the genre

52: Fictions (1941-1956) – Jorge Borges
A collection of some of Borges’ most innovative and distinctive short stories

53: [assorted stories, including The Last Question, Nightfall, Blind Alley, The Ugly Little Boy, and Living Space] (1941-1958) – Isaac Asimov
By chance (or perhaps not), Asimov was often at his best when his stories strayed furthest from conventional ‘science fiction’

54: The Foundation Trilogy (1941-1953) – Isaac Asimov
Asimov’s magnum opus (arguably) is an epic of prophecies, of mystic artifacts, and magical mind-bending powers – all dressed up as respectable science fiction – as well as a key turn from the physical to the sociological

55: Titus Groan (1946) – Mervyn Peake
Peake’s one-man gothic revival may have little if any overt fantasy content, but that hasn’t stopped it from inspiring many with its baroque oddity

56: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) – Clive Lewis
The first, if not the best, of the Narnia novels was, I believe, briefly the most succesful fantasy ever published, and remains a mainstay of modern childhood

57: Tales of the Dying Earth (1950) – John Vance
Vance’s short stories merge fantasy with science fiction in the Earth of the far distant future

58: The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) – John Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings.

59: The Stealer of Souls (1963) – Michael Moorcock
A collection of the first Elric stories – Moorcock’s Byronic, parodic, Sword and Sorcery riposte to Tolkien

60: Rocannon’s World (1966) – Ursula Le Guin
Le Guin’s first novel may not have the fame of her later SF works, but it bridges genres even more completely – a novel of faster-than-light travel, interstellar warfare, and sword-wielding elves.

61: One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) – Gabriel García Márquez
The standard-bearer for ‘magic realism’

62: Dragonflight (1968) – Anne McCaffrey
Apparently this is science fiction. Readers confronted with telepathic bonds between humans and teleporting dragons in a mediaeval society might not have read it that way

63: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) – Ursula Le Guin
Le Guin turns to straight Fantasy, in an epic that serves both as a counterweight to, and a spiritual successor of, The Lord of the Rings

64: Salem’s Lot (1975) – Stephen King
The vampires are back – like Stoker before him, King transplants an ancient evil into contemporary society to create an urban fantasy horror

65: Interview with the Vampire (1976) – Howard O’Brien (“Anne Rice”)
Vampires were clearly in the air in the mid-70s. One year after King, Rice takes the vampire myth in a very different direction

1977 and after

66: The Silmarillion (1977) – John Tolkien
A posthumously-published summary of Tolkien’s private mythology

67: Our Lady of Darkness (1977) – Fritz Leiber
One of the founding novels of urban fantasy – Leiber not only brings magic into the city, but creates a form of magic founded on the nature of the modern city

68: The Sword of Shannara (1977) – Terence Brooks
In showing that the surface of Tolkien was all that anyone needed in order to be a commercial success, Brooks opened the door for a commercial explosion in the genre

69: Lord Foul’s Bane (1977) – Stephen Donaldson
The Thomas Covenant novels experimented with a thoroughly unlikeable anti-hero and a baroque, peculiar vocabulary, yet still managed to be a success

70: Gloriana, or the Unfulfill’d Queen(1978) – Michael Moorcock
Moorcock’s own mediaevalist romance, set in a pseudo-Elizabethan world

71: The Stand (1978) – Stephen King
A post-apocalyptic epic that sets out to translate The Lord of the Rings into modern America

72: The Gunslinger (1982) – Stephen King
King’s own world-walking epic fantasy saga begins here

73: Pawn of Prophecy (1982) – David Eddings
The first of ten wildly popular fantasy novels following the farm boy Garion, invested heavily and consciously with fantasy tropes and cliches

74: The Colour of Magic (1983) – Terence Pratchett
The first Discworld novel suggests little of what is to come, but is an exuberant and uncontrollable skewering of the Fantasy of its day

75: The Black Company (1984) – Glen Cook
Cook’s grey-compassed military fantasy has been a great influence on later authors, even if it was not the greatest commercial success

76: Dragons of Autumn Twilight (1984) – Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
The first of the TSR Dungeons and Dragons novels

77: Mythago Wood (1984) – Robert Holdstock
The founding text of modern mythic fantasy

78: Neuromancer (1984) – William Gibson
A gritty, freakish, eyeball-kick of a near-future SF novel that has resonated far beyond its genre

79: It (1987) – Stephen King
Another of King’s most succesful urban fantasies

80: Guards! Guards! (1989) – Terence Pratchett
This early Discworld novel is notable for turning Ankh-Morpork from a passing background setting into what would become the most developed urban setting in modern fantasy

81: The Difference Engine (1990) – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Steampunk is born

82: The Eye of the World (1990) – James Rigney (“Robert Jordan”)
The ‘Wheel of Time’ cycle is by far the most popular epic fantasy since Tolkien. As in twice as many copies sold as of any rival

83: Small Gods (1992) – Terence Pratchett
Often considered the best of the Discworld novels, Small Gods shows how much fantasy, even comic fantasy, can say about the real world

84: A Game of Thrones (1996) – George Martin
Epic, grey, bloody, complicated, psychological, and (at least at first) a low-magic setting very close to historical fantasy – ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ redefined what was expected of mainstream fantasy

85:  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) – Joanne Rowling
Has sold more copies than Tolkien, and to an audience that largely doesn’t read Fantasy

86: Heroes Die (1998) – Matthew Stover
A blend of SF and fantasy that outdoes Martin in grittyness, resurrects and modernises a Sword and Sorcery approach to Fantasy, and sets the foundation for writers like Abercrombie and Lynch

87: Perdido Street Station (2000) – China Miéville
It’s quite strange

Influential Figures in Fantasy, Appendix I – Unified Author List

Thought it might be helpfull to provide the whole list in one place.

Horace Walpole (1717-1797)
Johann von Goethe (1749-1832)
William Blake (1757-1827)
William Beckford (1760-1844)
Anne Radcliffe (1764-1823)
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
Novalis (1772-1801)
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1785-1863, 1786-1859)
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
John Polidori (1795-1821)
Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)
Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849)
Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873)
Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890)
George MacDonald (1824-1905)
Jules Verne (1828-1905)
William Morris (1834-1896)
Bram Stoker (1847-1912)
H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925)
E. Nesbitt (1858-1924)
Arthur Machen (1863-1947)
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
H.G. Wells (1866-1946)
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918)
Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950)
Lord Dunsany (1878-1957)
James Branch Cabell (1879-1958)
Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)
Robert E. Howard (1906-1936)
T.H. White (1906-1964)
Fritz Leiber (1910-1992)
Mervyn Peake (1911-1968)
Jack Vance (1916-2013)
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011)
Gabriel García Márquez (1927-)
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-)
David Eddings (1931-2009)
Michael Moorcock (1939-)
Anne Rice (1941-)
Terry Brooks (1944-)
Glen Cook (1944-)
Stephen Donaldson (1947-)
Stephen King (1947-)
Robert Jordan (1948-2007)
Robert Holdstock (1948-2009)
Margaret Weiss (1948-) and Tracy Hickman (1955-)
William Gibson (1948-)
George R.R. Martin (1948-)
Terry Pratchett (1948-)
Matthew Stover (1962-)
JK Rowling (1965-)
China Mieville (1972-)

N.B. since I first started writing these posts, Jack Vance (RIP) has died. Born during WWI, he had been the oldest living author on this list. That distinction now rests with Gabriel García Márquez, born 1927, followed by Ursula Le Guin. Other than David Eddings (died 2009), all writers on the list younger than Vance are still alive – with the unfortunate exceptions of Robert Jordan and Robert Holdstock, who both died sadly young. The two Roberts (an assumed name in Jordan’s case) were both born in 1948, and died only two years apart, in 2007 and 2009 – Jordan at 59 of amyloidosis (an extremely rare disease involving the creation of misshapen proteins), and Holdstock at 61 of an E. coli infection (E. coli is a bacterium commonly present in the gut, but illness may arise on ingesting more dangerous strains in contaminated food or water – even then, it is rarely fatal).

(while I was at it, I looked a bit more closely at the ages of the writers. The best time to be born, as a writer on this list, was in the early to middle 18th century – Walpole, Beckford and Goethe all made 80 or above, Blake and the Grimms made 70, and the most tragically young to die was Anne Radcliffe at 59. The worst generation were, of course, the Romantics. Eleven writers in total reached the age of 80, but only one reached 90 – again, this was Vance. Borges (87) was the next oldest man; McCaffrey (85), the oldest woman.  At the other extreme, the youngest to die were John Polidori (25, believed a suicide), Novalis (28, consumption), Howard (30, suicide), Byron (36, fever and idiot doctors, while commanding a rebel fleet against the Ottomans), and Poe (40, entirely mysterious)).

Influential Figures in Fantasy, 11

New Turns

JK Rowling (1965-)
China Mieville (1972-)
Matthew Stover (1962-)

You’ve probably noticed that I’m sounding more and more of an idiot as I go through these authors – my level of ignorance is holding steady, while your level of knowledge is probably increasing as we get to the more recent authors. So I’m not going to say too much about these last three authors, none of whom I’ve actually read. Yet they really ought to be mentioned nonetheless.

JK Rowling is the best-selling fantasy author of all time, probably (or possibly second to Tolkien according to some – Tolkien’s total global sales are impossible to accurately measure). It’s hard to point to anything particularly original or noteworthy about her novels themselves, but her popularity – and in particular her popularity with a generation of children (and a generation of parents) who otherwise might not have read fantasy at all is not to be sneered at. Rowling has helped open the door to new authors by showing the potential of the genre – and doubtless she will turn out to have inspired a whole generation of new authors in future. In more concrete terms, her influence can be seen already in the growing genre of secret histories – fantasies in which the magical is present in the real world behind a veil of conspiracy or supernatural concealment. Rowling is certainly not the originator of this subgenre, nor of the magic-school subtype (which I grew up reading…), nor arguably even the original source of its modern popularity (which is probably largely ported over from horror, with the novels of Anne Rice and the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer key moments (oh, there’s a point – should I have included Joss Whedon in this list? No, probably not – but I should at least have thought about writers for film and TV. Oh well, never mind)) – but she’s certainly helped to encourage the subgenre, and to legitimise the genre as a whole. [If you’re seeing a trend here – yes, Fantasy probably does have to be ‘legitimised’ anew each generation – there seems a default assumption that Fantasy is old Fantasy and cannot meet modern demands or deal with modern topics, and it takes author after author to show that it is not just for children and nostalgics]

China Mièville is the posterboy for an entirely different movement in fantasy, a movement that has more in common with Peake, Moorcock, Vance, and Gibson than with Rowling, or with Tolkien. The ‘New Weird’ movement (of which he is of course not the only representative) may not have had the same commercial success – may not even have lived up to critical expectations, with no other author rising to the level of critical or commercial success that Mièville occupies, but it has certainly helped to open up and diversify a fantasy genre that was at risk of becoming stale on a diet of derivative heroic epics. [Though, as a Planescape fanboy, I feel obliged to note that in terms of weird urban settings D&D got there first, and weirder…]

Last of all, Matthew Stover may be most famous as the author of a number of unusually well-regarded Star Wars tie-in novels, but he is also the writer of a critically acclaimed series about the adventures of Caine, a violent adventurer in a fantasy world. The Caine novels combine science fiction (‘Caine’ is actually a character played by an actor in a future form of entertainment) with a revitalisation and modernisation of the old sword and sorcery genre that had fallen into obscurity for several decades. As such, Stover is often cited as a forerunner of such S&S-influenced new authors as Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch.

And there I’ll leave it, with 2000’s Perdido Street Station. I don’t think there’s much sense in trying to talk about ‘influential’ writers of the last decade – we don’t know who will turn out to be influential yet. Already with these three turn-of-the-millenium authors I suspect the real extent of their influence has yet to be seen.

…and now you can shout at me for not including Zelazny, Norton, Kipling, L’Engle, Beagle, Caroll, Baum, and half a dozen others too. Like I said at the beginning, this was only ever meant to be a first wild stab.

 

Additions In Hindsight, and a Round Number

I think that makes a total of 57 authors. Wouldn’t 60 be better? Well, coincidentally, I’ve decided to edit in three more authors that I didn’t originally mention.

First, there’s Anne Radcliffe. Radcliffe (1764-1823) was one of the leading lights of the gothic literary movement, specialising in intense psychological horror (rather than the gorey terror of some other authors of the day). She’s an important figure in the history of Fantasy, however, not only because she was perhaps the greatest populariser of the gothic, but also because she was unusual in emphasising the supernatural and the uncanny elements of the genre, breaking the trail for later writers like Shelley and Poe. She is also apparently responsible for the popularity of lengthy landscape descriptions and detailed descriptions of travelling, two things the Fantasy genre has certainly not failed in seeking to provide…

Second, there’s one of those writers following in the footsteps of Radcliffe and the other early gothic writers: John Polidori (1795-1821). Polidori was barely a writer at all (two books, some poems), and his chief profession was as a physician. In that capacity, he was employed by Byron to accompany him on holiday in Italy, and was present on the rainy evening when Byron challenged the company (Percy and Mary Shelley, Byron himself, and Claire Clairmont) to each write their own ghost story. These were only fragments and sketches, but Mary Shelley continued to work on hers until finally publishing it – as Frankenstein. Polidori, meanwhile, enjoyed Byron’s tale (later published simply as ‘Fragment of a Novel’), and on returning to England reworked and expanded it into the novel that earns him a place in this list: The Vampyre. Polidori’s significance is not in quality, nor in his immediate influence (the story was popular and a few more vampire stories were written over the years, but it was not until Carmilla, and then Dracula that the subgenre took root), but in one brilliant conceit: his vampire, rather than the shambling undead of most folk tales, was Lord Byron himself (given a pseudonym already associated with Byron in the public mind). It was this dashing, handsome, seductive, arrogant, amoral and in some ways tragic image that has continued to form the lynchpin of the public conception of vampires ever since.

And third, there’s Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). Kipling was an influence in two ways. First, his tales of Imperial India, told from the point of view of a resident rather than a gallivanting explorer like Burton, formed the apex of the orientalist genre, topping writers like Haggard both in literary quality and depth and colour. Not only did this continue to demonstrate the power of exotic settings to enthrall the public – from the most discerning critics (Kipling remains the youngest ever Nobel Laureate for Literature) down to the common man – but in presenting such a real and vivid image of the world outside Europe, he forced writers to go further afield to compete. After Kim, writers like Burroughs had to take their adventurers to the stars, or to the centre of the world.

So, that’s 60. I’ll re-iterate one more time: this is not a definitive list. Man of these 60 writers could fairly be omitted and replaced with some other author; and there are many other authors who might fairly be included in such a list. But this is my own first wild stab at compiling such a list, and others can think for themselves what alterations they might make to it.

Things I’ve Seen on TV (4)

For some reason I had a lot more to say about these three. Sorry about that.

 

IN TREATMENT

I’ve already droned on about how good the first two series of In Treatment are. It should be no surprise that I think the third and final season is also… quite good.

I wasn’t sure at first. All three seasons take a while to get going – a while to sink into the unique pace and nature of the show, a while to become interested in the new characters, who inevitably begin each season as rather opaque, and hence potentially uninteresting (or else as hyperbolic and unmotivated, as we haven’t yet worked out what they think they’re doing, and why). There’s also potentially a complaint to be made here about repetition, as both structurally and thematically there’s a lot here that’s very familiar to someone who’s seen the first two seasons. And then there’s the problem of reduced scope – the third season has only three patients, compared to four in the first two seasons (five in the first, if you count the couple as two individuals), which is likely to decrease the chance of finding a patient you as the viewer personally connect with.

But by the end, I had no doubt. The repetition may be there, but it’s intentional – the show is very much about trapped individuals – and is not sterile. There are still surprises and novelties here, from the very small to the very large. The decision to give Paul a new therapist, in particular, prevents sterility not only by letting us see Paul in a new way, and by letting us see a new character, but also by putting the whole of Paul’s relationship with Gina in a new light, and causing us to question many things about the two previous seasons that we had taken for granted. That, I suppose, just demonstrates how true the show is to a certain idealised conception of therapy itself – it may not always ‘find the answer’, but it always finds new ways of framing and understanding the question.

I’ve never seen anything that so rewards the careful viewer – the slightest detail can carry so much import. I read some reviews of the episodes as I went along, and was always frustrated by the things that others hadn’t seen – weren’t they paying attention to his left hand? Don’t they understand the significance of the change of clothing? Of course, some of the ‘significance’ is me reading more into it than is there, but that too is intentional – we, with Paul, are given such an obscure writing to decode that both he and we will of course leap to the wrong conclusions sometime. And I don’t mean to suggest that you necessarily need to watch with a notebook to hand (though there is so much foreshadowing that could easily be missed or forgotten). The obscure here isn’t (primarily) a matter of facts and hypothesis, like in a murder mystery – it’s a matter of character and empathy. If ever anyone is running a class to teach people empathy, they need to show the students In Treatment! It’s one of the few shows that can affect your life not just through what it says but through how it says it, how it encourages you to listen.

It’s a show that grows on you – a show that you can re-watch. Some shows, enjoyable in the moment, fade in the memory; this, quite the contrary.

I don’t know what my favourite TV show is, or which TV show I think is the best ever. I haven’t seen enough TV shows to have an educated opinion on that, and even the ones I have seen, many of them I saw too long ago to be firm in my opinions on. I will say, however, that not only is In Treatment brilliant, but it’s one of the very few shows that I might, in some moods and at some times, call the best thing I’ve ever seen on TV.

Series 3: 4/4

 

SIX FEET UNDER

Talking of the best things I’ve ever seen on TV… Six Feet Under might merit consideration in that category. Not that it would be likely to win, but I’d feel it ought to be considered. I’ve seen all five series, and I’ve just rewatched the first two, which I remember being distinctly the best (although if we’re voting for the greatest five minutes of TV ever made, there’s no doubt in the slightest that it has to go to the end of the final episode of the fifth and final season. I didn’t know I was physically capable of crying so hard).

SFU was a massive and superlatively-acclaimed show back when it was on… but it seems increasingly to be forgotten, lost in the shadow of The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome, Deadwood, and so on, as an also-ran in the ‘golden age’ of US television. To be honest, it’s not hard to see why. In an age of increasing sex and gore, Six Feet Under, notwithstanding the constant corpses, comical deaths, and occasional explicit scenes, was rather tame. In an age of increasingly novellistic series, Six Feet Under with its episodic themes and episodic ‘death of the week’ gimmick, for all that the underlying plot may have relied on season-long arcs, seems a little old-fashioned. With series increasingly devoted to blacker-than-grey antiheroes and pervasive cynicism (this year’s leading actor Emmy nominations include such heroes as an arsehole advertising executive, a murderously ambitious politician, a ruthless drug kingpin and an Islamic terrorist – the violent KGB agent trying to destroy America got edged out, as did one psychopathic serial killer, while the other two psychopathic serial killers narrowly lost out in the supporting category instead),  SFU’s mildly dislikeable protagonists and strong whiff of idealism perhaps seem twee and cosy. With top series increasingly portraying scenarios far larger than life, the domestic squabbles of a few entitled, uptight Californians seem prosaic and inconsequential (and more than a little depressing in places). And, as with many series, there’s the worry that the show outlived its purpose – an original taut three-season framework was extended for money-spinning reasons through the introduction of the wheel-spinning third and fourth seasons, and while there are certainly many moments and elements in those seasons that are worthy, no doubt they dragged down the reputation of the show as a whole somewhat.

But. Yes, Six Feet Under is basically a soap opera, about a squabbling little family of funeral home owners, all very middle class, all arrogant and repressed and fundamentaly insufferable. But at its best, it’s more than that: it’s a soap opera done right. [Perhaps the show it reminds me of most is the first (back when it was good!) season of Desperate Housewives – suburban sterility, comedy and darkness, mysteries lying underneath. The style, however, is very different – SFU approaches from the direction of tragedy and highlights it with humour, whereas DH comes from the side of comedy and adds depth through hinting at tragedy]. Above all, SFU is character-driven and morally ambiguous. One of the most striking demonstrations of this comes from reading how other people reacted to these characters – unlike in almost any other show, there is violent disagreement over the characters, not just because of personal tastes but because of fundamentally different ways of reading these portrayals. My favourite character of the show is Brenda, without a doubt – but others, most others, despise her passionately (the AV Club reviews go so far as to call her a ‘diabolical bitch’ and ‘DangerSlut’). It’s not just that their tastes differ from mine – though they do – but that they seem to completely fail to understand her. What I take to be honest and accurate self-assessments, they take to be self-delusion or attempts at manipulating others – what they take as the real Brenda, I take as protective deceit or projected self-doubt. The thing is, if I try to see it from their point of view… she still makes sense. Brenda is a character who can be interpreted in at least two different ways – and I think that much the same is true (if perhaps less fiercely) of the other characters also. Like real characters, we never quite get a grip on these people, never find the simple rule that unlocks their souls – and if we do, we can still never know that we have. And in the same way, there are no easy judgements to be made about the characters. When two characters are in an argument, a good rule of thumb is that they’re both right, and both wrong – any time you come away thinking that one character is clearly in the right, or perhaps more importantly that the show wants you to think that one character is clearly in the right, you can be sure you’ll have that conviction shaken later on. [One of the most striking examples of this for me was the relationship between David and Keith in the first season, where it seemed very much as though Keith was meant to be the (albeit a little testy) voice of reason and maturity and everything was David’s fault… but later, we start to wonder (as David himself expresses) whether David’s obvious failings were just obscuring Keith’s own, and that if Keith was right perhaps it was only by chance, and not because he has all the answers. For this reason, SFU is a series that not only withstands but welcomes repeat viewings – and this is also one of the great sources of tension and growth on the show. Many shows try to keep their characters and relationships in one place; the better shows are willing to move on from one status quo to another. SFU is one of the few shows that is willing not only to change the status quo but to continually requestion what exactly the old status quo was, and whether the new status quo is really what it seems to be.

On the other hand, this determination to question is also a fault of the show. In it’s obsessive need to show that nobody has any answers, that everybody, no matter how seemingly happy or balanced is really living a horrible life and is terrified of death and is deeply psychologically wounded, it risks falling into an equally but oppositely severe form of naivity (a concern that, of course, it recognises explicitly itself, in the way it deals with the cynical romantic, Claire). It can appear too hopeless and nihilist. And yet there is hope here, not perhaps the ultimate hope of anyone ever feeling fulfilled, but at least the hope of new forms of unfulfillment. These days, many of the most succesful TV shows are premised on the idea that change is impossible, or virtually impossible – whether it’s the explicit “people never change” philosophy of House, the covert insistence of Breaking Bad (I note that the creators are starting to say publically what I thought when first watching it – Walter never breaks bad, he’s bad all along, the changing circumstances merely show the rot already in his heart), or the more structural change-is-constrained-by-institutional-rigidity critique of The Wire, we’re told that we might discover more about what’s going on but we can never, or hardly ever, actually affect change, in ourselves or in the world. Six Feet Under, however, is based on the promise that sometimes people do change, and for the better too. And that’s a powerful promise. But of course, the flip side of hope is fear – if people can change for the better, they can change for the worse too. SFU is one of the few shows that is willing to leave the viewer to judge whether its characters are becoming better or worse. The way that we tend automatically to assume that TV shows will be stories about improvement, unless explicitly told otherwise, is one reason why SFU makes such rich material for reviewing – reading online comments on the series, it’s clear that many people have entirely different impressions of some of the characters in the early seasons once they’ve seen who and where they are in the later seasons. And that, I suppose, is one of the tensions inherent in the show itself, ideologically – to what extent, it asks, can we only judge a life in retrospect, as a whole, and to what extent can we only judge each moment as it occurs, on its own merits? To what extent, indeed, can we ever know anybody, or any event, as a whole, but only in glimpses and aspects, and to what extent can we never know anything as a glimpse or an aspect save by already having knowledge of the whole – when people present differently in different circumstances, is there a coherence to their actions that we have yet to uncover, that perhaps they have yet to uncover, or are these presentations all that there is? And on, and on, the questions can be asked.

I wanted to say a lot more about Six Feet Under, but I’m not going to. In part, that’s because any time you think you have found a theme, a question, in Six Feet Under, a second related theme or question automatically presents itself, and none can be addressed without dealing with the others first. And in part it’s because Six Feet Under is all about questions, and not at all about answers – that’s its genius and its fatal flaw. I’m not sure there has ever been such a thoroughgoing work of intellect in TV drama. Every slightest thing has significance – or, at least, once you’ve been watching and thinking about it for long enough, there’s enough hidden significance that it bluffs you into thinking it’s all significant. It’s a fascinating and infuriating show, for the way it’s accessible to so many different perspectives, susceptible to so many different interpretations, and each interpretation and perspective giving way to more questions that cannot be definitively answered. Anything you’ve thought of, the show has thought of before you – any criticism you make, it has already made and answered, every praise already countered with humility. It’s like standing in a hall of mirrors – and if that suggests something ultimately facile and pointless, that pretends at depth and importance while really being nothing but cheap entertainment, then yes, I think that Six Feet Under has already anticipated that complaint, and explicitly agrees with it. As well as agreeing with those who praise it as one of the greatest works of fiction of the newborn century and a profound meditation on the nature of life and on humanity’s struggle to comprehend both life and death. Everything and nothing – not necessarily incompatible. Or complete bullshit. Take your pick. Or both. Or neither. And so on.

Six Feet Under seems, as I say, increasingly overlooked.  Ultimately, this may be because its depth and sophistication are hidden under a mantle of mild-mannered middle-class soap opera, letting it be ignored by those seeking the purest art, while on the other hand it is too intellectual, too courageous, and too ultimately emotionally troubling and unsatisfying (whatever you want from it, it’ll be unsatisfying!) to really satisfy those looking for casual entertainment. The very fusion that made it so succesful at the time has lead it to be overlooked in our hindsight. Throw in two increasingly grim, unamusing (did I mention that the first two seasons are funny? They are. Actually, correction, no, the first two seasons are hilarious. There are a lot of succesful comedies that I laughed at less than these two grim and philosophical series about the struggle against death), seemingly motionless seasons, and a final season generally considered an improvement but not on the same level as the first two, despite the greatest finale in TV history, and SFU looks more and more as though it’ll end up a footnote.

It shouldn’t. Some shows are wonderfully emotionally engaging, some are funny, some are endlessly thought-provoking, the first two seasons of Six Feet Under were all three at once.

Seasons 1-2: 4/4.

 

FREAKS AND GEEKS

OK, I’m sorry: I don’t get it. I just don’t get why this is so fawned over.

Oh, sure, it’s good. It’s well-written, it’s interesting, and there are some really good performances. But is this one of the greatest things ever made, like people say it is? I’m really not so sure.

I think the problems start with the premise: “this is how high school was for the rest of us”. Well straight off I have a problem, since I didn’t go to an American high school, so the nostalgia doesn’t really work for me. But more broadly, the show keeps hammering home how this is meant to be a subversion of the perfect American high school portrayal that we all know and hate (the scenes between the ‘perfect’ athletes and cheerleaders that take place on the corners of the real plot make sure we never forget that this is the gimmick of the show). And the problem with that is… wait, American high schools aren’t really like that? What are you going to tell me next week, that sometimes you can’t play be the rules if you want to get things done as a troubled cop? From where I’m sitting, the cliché isn’t the perfect high school, the cliché is the subversion. Freaks and Geeks came out in 1999, but is set in 1980 – and it feels like it could really have been relevant and important, if it had actually come been made in 1980. But… it wasn’t. Instead, it was made 14 years after The Breakfast Club. About the same topic and the same people, making the same points. Now, true, F&G is more realistic than TBC, more nuanced and complex (as you’d expect from an 18-episode series, rather than a one-off film), and, yes, it lacks the film’s abomination of an ending, but on the other hand it never feels as raw and as intense and as psychologically acute as the film either.

Or, you know, forget the fact that an entire generation had passed since The Breakfast Club, yet Freaks and Geeks still has nothing new to add – this was aired two years after Buffy the Vampire Slayer began! Another high school subversion show, at least to begin with, but there the tribalist elements (in the unaired pilot, Xander goes through the halls pointing out the freaks, geeks, jocks, etc) were actually toned down, at least in part probably because they were already passé. Of course, the existence of Buffy doesn’t mean you can’t make high school subversions any more (I’m on record as saying that Veronica Mars was better, for instance), and, yes, F&G is a lot deeper and more sociologically interesting than Buffy. But, again, don’t pretend you’re saying anything new here. And… well, could you please say something new? Because as it is, I knew everything in this show before I saw it, and far too well, and not in a good way.

The familiarity, the dedication to cliché in every element, from setting to character to plot to dialogue, takes out most of the opportunity for tension. Once you work out that this is a big ferocious growling dog that’s had all its teeth pulled out, that no matter how grimy and gritty it hints at being, it’s wedded to the happy flowery notion that everybody is ultimately a good person and will redeem themselves and everything will work out great in the end… well, that’s the rest of the adrenaline gone out of it at once.

I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. But then again, this isn’t really an insightful sociological or psychological study, either. The characters are all pretty straightforward, larger-than-life, and disappointingly unchallenging. The two central characters, Lindsay and Sam, are to a considerable extent voids for viewer insertion, and Lindsay in particular fails to attain any real agency or motiveful behaviour, just drifting around and backward and forward as the plot demands. There are also some troubling simplicities in how that plot is conceived: in particular, the heavy-handed, dichotomous choices that are offered do the characters no service, and feel demeaning to the viewer, denying as they do the possibilities of individual life-choices that are not simply picked from an array of pre-set mass-produced identities – in particular, the way that nobody is able to suggest that Lindsay might be able to accept some part of her former, ‘mathlete’ identity (such as, you know, winning maths competitions, which she clearly enjoys), without having to accept all parts of that identity (such as, for instance, wearing pink cardigans and never touching beer), is just infuriating. Sure, you could argue that in the end (trying to avoid spoilers here) she finds a third way out from the dichotomy between freak and geek (or, as the show itself states through a heavy-handed Dostoevsky analogy, between nihilist and moralist), but this is still only by discovering a third pre-offered identity, not by actually developing a personality of her own. And it could be that a show could say some interesting things about the social construction of identity, of course – I just didn’t feel that this one did. It just took it for granted.

I also have to point out: while the ‘freaks’ all turn out far less troubled and troublesome than many real teenage delinquents, the ‘geeks’ are unhelpful caricatures. I don’t think they’re hostile caricatures – I do think that the authors want us to sympathise with them. But having known a whole lot of geeks – we’re really not all that bad. Again, this portrayal feels like it could have been positive and groundbreaking – if it had been produced two decades earlier. By 1999, it feels as though it’s not really moved with the times. I wasn’t watching too much American TV in the 1990s, but this show was contemporaneous with Buffy and The West Wing – and it doesn’t feel like the people who wrote Freaks and Geeks were really writing for a world falling in love with geeks like Willow Rosenberg and Josiah Bartlett.

Of course, part of this is that it is set in 1980. Within the show, then, we can’t expect much geek pride (although since I’ve already mentioned The Breakfast Club (1985), I should also maybe mention Revenge of the Nerds (1984) – Freaks and Geeks really would have been at the forefront of the reassessment of high school culture, if only it had come out no later than about 1987). But the date was itself troublesome to me – despite the odd pleasing reference, it never really felt genuinely as though it were 1980, just as though it were 1995 with slightly different music. In this regard, for instance, I need to mention the excellent The Americans (set in 1981), which nails the period far more robustly. Indeed, during Freaks and Geeks, entire episodes went by with me forgetting that this was meant to be 1980, until suddenly a period reference would be made and I’d think “oh, yes, that’s right, this is 1980, isn’t it?”.

One brief thing that was bugging me: I know the word ‘geek’ has been around a long time, but in 1980 high schools, sandwiched chronologically between Happy Days and Revenge of the Nerds, wouldn’t the word ‘nerd’ be far more likely than ‘geek’? ‘Geek’ sounds so… 1999.

Two final complaints. First, the structure – Freaks and Geeks rejects the general moves being made at the time toward serialised narrative structures, and instead the episodes are almost entirely independent of one another. A few plot strands do imply a proper order to the episodes, but these are very minimal, as evidenced by the lack of ‘previously on’ segments in all but one or two episodes – what happened previously on just isn’t going to be important. Indeed, I accidentally watched two episodes in the wrong order, and didn’t realise at the time that I had – I had no reason to suspect it, even. Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong in a highly episodic format – in fact, I think that TV’s relentless move toward uninterrupted season-long narratives with little episodic independence is causing something to be lost. There’s great pleasure to be had in episodic drama – which is why, perhaps, while more and more awards and critical attention are going to serialised dramas, many of the most popular shows remain episodic. There’s nothing wrong with episodic drama – it’s just a terrible fit for this show. This show is all about learning and growth and adolescence – themes that cry out for serialisation! It’s hard to grow much or learn much if you have to remain recognisable for the beginning of each episode. At the same time, while the episodic plots are often clever, sometimes they feel too procedural and constrained by the demands of the larger structure, in a way that clashes with the open-ended setting.

And, second, the comedy. No, wait, don’t misunderstand me: Freaks and Geeks is funny. It’s reliably funny, very enjoyably funny. It just isn’t funny enough for this to be a great comedy. I hardly ever laughed out loud. Which is fine – except that there’s often nothing here except the comedy, so the fact it doesn’t work as an out-right comedy show is a bit of a problem.

But there are good things here as well. I can see why people liked it. The dialogue is amusing, endearing, occasionally insightful. The acting performances are great – you can take your pick as to the stand-out, from at least half a dozen candidates, several of whom (particular the Freak trio of James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen) have gone on to greater (or at least more famous) things (and incidentally, only now in retrospect do I understand how overwhelmed with fannish joy high school show enthusiasts must have been when How I Met Your Mother arrived, pairing F&G’s Nick and Buffy’s Willow as a romantic couple (actually, now I’m thinking HIMYM was a missed opportunity – I would so watch a show that was really about Willow and Nick, rather than just having the same actors…)). Personally, my favourite is probably Rogen’s laconic, over-compensating awkwardness, but for dramatic achievement I’d have to go for Martin Starr’s brilliant Bill, investing what could have been a one-note caricature with surprising emotional depth and complexity, particularly later on in the series. [Wait, what’s that you say? Martin Starr is in the Veronica Mars movie!? Just one more reason to watch it, I guess, as if any more were needed…] The plotting, while conventional and largely predictable, seems to be that way intentionally, rather than through laziness, and even if it doesn’t produce many twists it does provide us with plenty of moments that show that the writers were dedicated to trying to make this good.

And it is good. It’s an impeccably-put-together piece of feel-good entertainment – the sort that makes viewers feel sophisticated by being just slightly smarter and slicker than their usual fair, but still gives them what they came for. Provided they came for nostalgia and to warm the cockles of their hearts. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. It’s cute. It’s endearing. It’s likeable.

What I don’t understand is why people list it as one of the greatest shows of all time. There’s nothing unusually deep, unusually clever, unusually beautiful, unusually funny, unusually insightful or true, nothing really unusual about it at all except for its general quality and well-roundedness. That makes it a show I’ll happily endorse if people ask if they’d like it, and a show I probably will watch again at some point – but it takes more than that to make a show that I’ll rave about, a show I’ll tell people they have to watch.

I suspect a lot of this may ultimately just come down to nostalgia. I wasn’t there, man, I don’t know what it was like. I guess that if you were a child in an American high school in the 1970s or 1980s (or even to a lesser extent the 1990s, since, as I say, it doesn’t feel particularly date-specific), particularly if you liked to see yourself as kind of an outsider, and if what you really want from TV is an idealised recreation of your schooldays in an unthreatening and reaffirming manner, this show may well be THE show for you.

[But even then, and even though I normally want good shows to last, I can’t see the cancellation of this show after just one season as a great shame. It feels… done. When your show is about scratching just slightly beneath the surface of the characters, and you’ve scratched just slightly beneath the surface of all your characters… you’ve finished. In particular, it’s hard to keep the drama going in a show that has no external sources of drama, but that at the same time keeps its characters in a constrained and limited environment. I have to feel that – unless the creators had radically altered direction – a second season would just have been the same as the first season but rapidly running out of new jokes. Either you give serious character development – which neither the spirit of the show nor its format seem geared to – or you change the cast and give us totally new characters, or you force the existing characters into increasingly pointless and forced circumstances to try to continue to generate drama… or it becomes stale. I really do think this was a show destined for just one season.]

Anyway:

Freaks and Geeks: 3/4. Very enjoyable if you like this sort of thing, and a must-see for anyone planning on writing a show set in an American highschool in the 1980s. For everyone else, worth picking up if you come across it and you have the time (the episodic format and generally upbeat nature probably make it good relaxation viewing if your life is stressed) but I don’t think you need to rush out this minute and buy it.