Nathan Fillion, Vampires, and Coming Around on Pop Culture

It took me a really long time (apparently over two months, whoops!) to think of something I wanted to write about. A number of ideas floated through my head—current podcast power rankings, my growing obsession with Thrilling Adventure Hour, that time Scott and I watched Twister because he jokingly suggested it and I jumped at the chance—but none of them stuck till this morning, and that’s all Nathan Fillion’s fault.

Up until recently, I never fully understood Nathan Fillion’s appeal. Fully embraced by geek culture for his Whedon pedigree and a bit of a heartthrob even outside those circles due to his charming “Aw, shucks, I guess I am awesome” act on Castle, he’s an undeniably likable guy. But his personality has always struck me as outsized, and that has a tendency to leak into his onscreen personae; I have an especially hard time with this on Firefly, and I realize that’s blasphemy, but it’s not my favorite Whedon property and it never has been. Malcolm Reynolds is a decent character, a big damn hero, even, but he’s no Buffy. So, before I became an avid Thrilling Adventure Hour listener, my view of Fillion was charitable at best. I liked him in Buffy, I liked him in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and I could take him or leave him in any other case. But then, I heard him play Cactoid Jim.

Thrilling Adventure Hour—a new-time podcast told in the style of old-time radio, as the introduction informs us—features regular segments ranging from staples “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars,” a space western, and “Beyond Belief,” an ongoing tale of an alcohol-loving married couple who happens to see ghosts, to “The Cross-Time Adventures of Colonel Tick-Tock” and “Amelia Earhart, Fearless Flyer,” time-traveling yarns with plenty of puns and humor picking apart the very concept of shifting through time. A few months’ worth of episodes into the podcast, a new character is added to the “Sparks Nevada” cast: Cactoid Jim, an almost absurdly Good Guy played by Fillion. And no one could do it better than he does. He’s an ideal counterpoint to Marc Evan Jackson’s Sparks and a surprisingly dynamic love interest for Busy Phillips’ Red Plains Rider, with a knack for oratory greatness and helping his fellow man. Or robot. Or alien. Once I got into this role of his, I remembered how much Fillion added to Buffy when he was added to the cast in season seven. As Caleb, an inarguably insane preacher working with the Big Bad First Evil, Fillion was one of the show’s most memorable villains by far—compelling from the start, and deeper as the season progressed. And I’ve always loved Fillion in Dr. Horrible, if only because he seems like he’s playing a parody of himself, a self-important but entirely harmless hunk. So I’ve come around completely on Nathan Fillion, and that got me wondering if there are any other circumstances in which I’ve done the same

The most obvious is my recent turnaround on Joshua Malina, who I’d previously only seen in The West Wing. I don’t care for Malina’s West Wing character at all; the less said about that, the better, because I may start weeping over the loss of Sam Seaborn again. But once I heard an episode or two of Thrilling Adventure Hour featuring Malina as the barkeep at Sparks Nevada’s favorite saloon, I grew to really like the guy. It reminded me of the time he was on Jordan Jesse Go!, an occasionally terrific podcast, and how endearing he’d been there. And then he started singing, and I needed no more convincing that Joshua Malina was A-OK.

Of course, these things can go the opposite way. The first time I ever remember this happening was nearly ten years ago now. I was a fairly insufferable teenager, a fan of pseudo-intellectual literature and the films of Wes Anderson (which I probably called “films,” ew). One of my favorite authors was (ugh, this hurts) Chuck Palahniuk, the man behind the debatably well-done Fight Club and the kind of awful Lullaby, Invisible Monsters, and, now, many other pulpy novels chockfull of the kind of hedonism that is not in any way appealing. Nymphomania! Rampant drug abuse! Esoteric references to Radiohead! At some point, this got to be too much for even 17-year-old Christy, so I gave up on the guy and haven’t touched a Palahniuk book since. (Also, I wrote an editorial for my school newspaper lambasting his body of work. Please do me a favor and never, ever find this.)

TV is a harder medium to pin down in terms of varying tastes from season to season. That’s because the nature of a show is to evolve, and sometimes, if you’re particularly attached to the way a show was going, that can feel more like devolution. I’m not sure if that’s what happened with The Vampire Diaries, but I know I haven’t seen 75% of last season, and before that, I was a staunch defender of the show. Sure, it went down the love triangle road too often, a character dying meant essentially nothing, and the montages set to weepy postmodern love songs were cringe-inducing, but it also had a lot of heart, a great cast of characters, and, on occasion, surprisingly strong writing. That might all still be true, but I wouldn’t know, because I just got over it. Let me know if I should return to the show, because at one point, I really did love it.

Can this situation of love-to-ambivalence or vice versa happen to the same thing twice? This year, I found out that yes, it certainly can. I so disliked the How I Met Your Mother finale that I literally couldn’t watch it in syndication for months on end. But I just picked back up with it, and guess what? The episodes that were endlessly charming and sharply written and, often, truly resonant still are! I don’t find myself picking apart interactions between Ted and Robin, looking for hints at what was to come. Instead, I’m just laughing and saying out loud to Scott, “This is a really great episode.” So maybe I’ll come back to The Vampire Diaries, and maybe I’ll decide to dislike Joshua Malina again. (Just kidding about the latter. Probably. Probably kidding about that.) In the meantime, I will marvel at my own shifting opinions, and I will write that marveling down, just like all good blahggers should.

Female Friendships That Work

Warning: this post contains mild spoilers for each series mentioned, however oblique. Apologies for not catching that sooner.

A while back, I wrote a post documenting my favorite fictional bromances. Then last night, I started thinking about female friendships on TV and how hard it was to find examples of really great ones. But I was able to make a list anyway, and aren’t you glad of that? (Note: the alternative would be me posting pictures of my cat’s surgery scar, and I really don’t think you want that.)

Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

There’s a moment in the second season of Buffy that occurs shortly after vampire slayer Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) loses her virginity to Angel (David Boreanaz), the brooding vampire with a soul. Buffy’s not quite ready to tell anyone what happened, even her closest friends. But all it takes is a single meaningful glance for Willow (Alyson Hannigan) to know what occurred and know Buffy needs, more than anything else, a friend who understands why she did what she did and what the consequences might be. (As it turns out, they’re pretty dire, but that’s a story for another time.) That exchange of glances is emblematic of Buffy and Willow’s still young friendship. It establishes how well connected they are and how much they need each other’s companionship–and there’s no definition of friendship that’s purer than that. By the time season seven rolls around, Buffy and Willow have been through all kinds of hell together and they’re closer than ever, just as the best of friends should be.

Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins, Parks & Recreation

Though Leslie (Amy Poehler) and Ann’s (Rashida Jones) relationship isn’t the most interesting or entertaining on Parks & Recreation, it feels the realest. They’re two relatively normal people living and thriving in Pawnee, Indiana, brought together more by circumstance than shared interests or common bonds. And yet, they end up having the most organic-feeling friendship, partnering over projects, supporting each other in the trials and tribulations of romantic relationships, and accepting each other’s occasional quirks and shortcomings.

Caroline Forbes and Elena Gilbert, The Vampire Diaries

Though Elena (Nina Dobrev) doesn’t often describe Caroline (Candice Accola) as her best friend, Caroline is unquestionably the most reliable person in her life. No matter how terrible circumstances get for Caroline–and sometimes, they’re terrible by any measure–she’s still up for doing whatever it takes to protect, comfort, and support Elena. This is a tall order, one Elena’s best friend Bonnie (Kat Graham) and vampire loves Stefan (Paul Wesley) and Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder) can’t consistently live up to. But Caroline can, making her scenes, with Elena and otherwise, some of the most emotionally resonant and convincing the show produces.

Annie Edison, Britta Perry, and Shirley Bennett, Community

Annie (Alison Brie), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) have next to nothing in common. Annie’s a young, overachieving eternal optimist, Britta’s a hardened 20-something causehead, and Shirley’s a mother of three with a strong moral compass and a tendency to nurture everyone in sight. Somehow, though, their differing viewpoints make their friendships work wonderfully as they help each other to understand the struggles presented by enrolling in community college when there’s so much more for them beyond the Greendale campus. Plus, few things are funnier than seeing Shirley help Annie back to the on-campus med center in only her flimsy hospital gown or Annie handing Britta a banana reading “You are a lying junkie.”

Lily Aldrin and Robin Scherbatsky, How I Met Your Mother

No matter how unsatisfying it can sometimes be, I’ll always love one thing about How I Met Your Mother: the friendships feel real. When the gang meets Robin (Cobie Smulders) in the series premiere, it shifts their group dynamic in such a way that Lily (Alyson Hannigan–hi again!) finally has a female friend, one with whom she can chat about the things she’d never tell hopeless romantic Ted (Josh Radnor), philandering suit-wearer Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), or even her husband Marshall (Jason Segel). Sure, they argue about things both trivial and serious, but what real life friends don’t? No matter how tough or personal their conflicts become, they always end up finding ways to resolve them and get back together at McLaren’s Pub for the umpteenth time.

Favorite Characters, Part I: The Smaller Screen

As you may have noticed, I enjoy making lists. Here, I specifically enjoy making lists of characters. Televised crushes. Prospective best friends. Favorite bromances. Favorite couples. So I want to do that again, but I think I’ll go a bit broader this time. I think it’s time to share my favorite characters. Because there are many of them, this’ll be a three-post series, starting with TV, then moving to books and concluding with film. Now, this could get tedious quickly, so I’ll limit myself to more than five but less than ten. Fair? Fair. Here we go.

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

There are countless standout characters in this particular corner of the Whedonverse. From Adam Baldwin’s cruel, calculating, and undeniably cool Marcus to Charisma Carpenter’s surprisingly multifaceted Cordelia, Angel’s characters are a consistently interesting and attention-grabbing bunch. And more so than anyone else, there’s Wesley (Alexis Denisof). Denisof takes a feeble minor character from Buffy and, over the course of five seasons, develops him into one of the richest, most complex parts of an altogether great show. Wesley goes from startled scientifically minded geek to roguishly handsome ass kicker to some balance thereof and does so seamlessly. It’s always a joy to watch Wesley’s story unfold.

Spike, Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Spike (James Marsters), a rebellious bleached blond vampire with a wicked sense of humor and a nicotine addiction, wasn’t meant to stay around for very long on Buffy. But he ended up as one of the series’ most enduring characters, staying strong even through the uneven final seasons. Not quite a villain, but never a hero, Spike’s complicated, tenuous relationship with Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the entire Scooby Gang led to endless gags, surprises, and even the occasional tender moment. By the time both Buffy and Angel come to a close, Spike is much more than a womanizing vamp with a sarcastic streak and a killer pout.

Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, Battlestar Galactica

This was hard.

I can’t think of a single member of the BSG cast I don’t absolutely adore in their role. But I keep coming back to Kara (Katee Sackhoff). At first blush, Starbuck’s just a wiseass pilot with some unresolved issues. Look again, though, and you see a deeply flawed, beautifully complex character. She doesn’t always make the right decisions, and she knows that. But she embraces her flaws and does what she can to pursue whatever destiny she might have, even if it might kill her.

Abed Nadir, Community

If Abed (Danny Pudi) were a real person, I think we’d be friends. We’re both socially uncomfortable, so we could be uncomfortable together. He actually knows more about pop culture than I do, which is alternately attractive and intimidating. And his ability to read people is nothing short of stunning. Though his personality and quirks are solidly set in place at this point, it’s true that there is hidden depth to his character. He’s layered, and he’s peeled back slowly, such that, even if a pop culture reference is inevitable, Abed’s sure to do something surprising every now and then.

Ben Linus, Lost

(Caution: any conversation of Lost inevitably includes a spoiler or two. You have been warned.)

Introduced as an unassuming balloonist who stumbled on the island by chance, no viewer could expect what Henry Gale–soon to be revealed to be Ben Linus (Michael Emerson)–would become, and what bearing he would have on the show. Perhaps the most morally complex and confusing character of the whole Lost gang, Ben’s motives are often unclear; on occasion, the man seems downright evil. But someone so wise surely can’t be completely corrupt, as we are reminded in his rare moments of mercy and kindness. Those moments become more common as the series progresses, and over time, Ben Linus is shown to be so much more than a turncloak or an antihero or whatever word comes to mind.

Leslie Knope, Parks & Recreation

It’s a tired complaint and I’ll turn it into a compliment here: you don’t see a ton of funny women in the limelight on TV, but on NBC every Thursday night, they’re unavoidable. Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, Tina Fey, and the lovely and amazing Amy Poehler do their damnedest on every episode of their respective shows, and the result is consistently hilarious. While her comedy may be a touch more restrained than what is seen on Community or 30 Rock, Poehler shows the most chops of anyone in the bunch. Her Leslie Knope is a genuinely inspiring character, a champion for an otherwise unremarkable small Midwestern town. She plays well off any other comedic force, whether it’s a familiar foil like the incomparable Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) or any number of guest stars (Will Forte, Andy Samberg, Parker Posey, and beyond). She’s simply brilliant and yet another reason to love P&R.

Henry Pollard, Party Down

Not since Jason Bateman’s Michael Bluth (Arrested Development) have we seen such a great straight man as Henry (Adam Scott), a former commercial actor who goes into the L.A. catering business as a last resort. No matter where he’s serving, from orgies to high school reunions and everything in between, craziness abounds, but Harry stays centered through it all. Throughout the show, though, Henry’s fighting back the urge to get into the acting game. Watching him struggle through mixing drinks and serving appetizers while knowing what he could be if he only tried never gets old till the very last frame.

TV Shows and the Episodes That Made Me Love Them

Someday I’ll probably run out of TV-related lists to write. Today is not that day, as I was just thinking about episodes of my favorite series that moved me from mere enjoyment to all out love. To pare down the list, I’m avoiding shows that commanded my undying affection within their first hour. That’d be the pilot of Lost, the Battlestar Galactica miniseries, and the first five minutes of The West Wing.

That being said, here are some thoughts on the episodes that convinced me I was watching something brilliant. Warning: As always, there are spoilers ahead.

Angel: Episode 1.8, “Hero”

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to determine whether I prefer Angel or Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the Great Whedonverse Race. That said, I think Angel’s dramatic high points are often more affecting than Buffy’s, and that’s true from an early point. The earliest instance occurs in “Hero,” in which one of the three central characters, Doyle (the late Glenn Quinn), passes his visionary power on to Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) with a wrenchingly sincere kiss before dying. Doyle, you see, is half-demon, something Cordelia does not know. The monsters of the week have created a Beacon that kills all half-breeds in a certain distance. To save those others like him, Doyle takes the fall, creating a truly dramatic moment and therefore solidifying Angel as one quality show.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Episode 1.7, “Angel”

Ah, the birth of Angel’s rich mythology. Viewers are clued in to so much about Angel in this single episode that it could’ve easily felt like an overly expositional info dump. But no, instead, it flows as seamlessly as the best episodes of Buffy. Bits and pieces of Angel’s past are revealed, Angel shows himself to be far from your run of the mill bloodthirsty vamp, and Angel and Buffy share their first kiss. The moment in which the cross around Buffy’s neck burns a temporary scar into Angel’s chest, though not so subtle, is a well executed narrative move forward–though their relationship has the potential to be beautiful, it’s not going to come without pain.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: Episode 1.12, “The Storm”

I love origin stories. And from the first episode, it seemed pretty clear to me that Avatar was on its way to a pretty good one with the character of Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen). “The Storm” delivers in a way few origin stories do; it gives Aang the kind of depth that normally goes unseen on an animated show (just further proof that Avatar is so much more than a children’s program). We learn that Aang is far from perfect, and that he’s still struggling with the flatly irresponsible moves he made in the past. And we learn that Katara (Mae Whitman) and Sokka (Jack DeSena) are willing to accept what he did in the past, knowing that going forward, he’ll be working to fix any grave mistake he made. The heart of Avatar is revealed, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Community: Episode 1.9, “Debate 109”

This episode gets at what’s unique about Community: its willingness to feel oddly surreal in a relatively normal setting. While the A plot–Jeff (Joel McHale) and Annie (Alison Brie) team up for a debate competition against the evil geniuses of City College–is great, even better is the absurdity of the B plot, in which Abed (Danny Pudi) begins making films about his study group that accurately depict their future actions. This culminates in some eerie coincidences, one of which involves a werewolf attack that closely follows a kiss between Jeff and Annie that Abed unbelievably predicted. It’s Community’s subversion of the typical half-hour comedy that makes it so original and consistently funny, and this was the first grand example of that idea at work.

The X-Files: Episode 1.11, “Eve”

Despite its complete nosedive somewhere around the time Cary Elwes shows up in the season 9 pilot, The X-Files was, for a time, everything good TV should be–dramatic, consistently interesting, full of heart, humorous, and completely worth watching. The first time the show truly struck every single chord on that list was with “Eve,” which explored the idea of human clothing in a thoroughly non-hokey way. The idea that human cloning could begin successfully and end with a throng of completely insane, intimidatingly smart, extra-chromosomed (that’s a word now!) women is a harrowing one–and perversely entertaining at that.

Least Favorite Episodes of Favorite Shows

This one’s been percolating for a while.

A note before we start: It’s worth mentioning that none of these episodes do anything to denigrate my appreciation for the respective programs. But no show is perfect (not even Battlestar, though it is absent from this list, because even its weakest episodes are better than many shows’ strongest offerings). And sometimes that’s worth clarifying, just for fun.

So, onward and downward.

“Doublemeat Palace,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Without question, BtVS has more bad episodes than any other show on this list. As I said, this doesn’t take away from my affection for the program. But it does mean I have to avert my eyes and scowl every once in a while, at least once a season on average. “Doublemeat Palace” sees Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) landing a job at a local fast food restaurant. Honestly, I’ve largely blotted this episode from my mind. I remember there’s something wacky and disgusting going on in the back room of the restaurant, but I don’t remember how it works or why I should care.

Dishonorable mentions: I literally fell asleep during the first season cyber horror fiasco “I Robot … You Jane”; “Beer Bad” takes all the fun out of a show that really can be funny; and “Where the Wild Things Are” is a superfluous sex romp, an absolute mess of an episode.

“Never Again,” The X-Files

I’ll give this to The X-Files: even when the episodes are weak, they typically have some redeeming value. Not so with “Never Again,” the episode that immediately follows Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) discovery that she has cancer. “Never Again” sees Scully having what might be sex with an anonymous guy whose tattoo talks to him. She also gets a tattoo of an ouroboros, because that’s totally something Scully would do. I understand that Scully would behave out of character after finding out something so important. But a tattoo and casual sex? This is not the Dana we know and love. And she’s back to normal within an episode or two, if a little depressed. It’s almost as though this atrocity never happened. And it shouldn’t have.

Dishonorable mentions: “Chinga” proved that Stephen King should never, ever, ever write an episode of what is typically a very successful television program, and “First Person Shooter” could’ve been great fun, had the writers known anything at all about gamer nerd culture.

“The Message,” Firefly

Firefly is kind of a peripheral favorite show of mine, a series I’ve seen beginning to end and for which I have plenty of affection, but one I maybe could live without. (Please don’t kill me.) Even so, it doesn’t include a single disappointing episode, except for “The Message.” I don’t know if you noticed, but I take issue with principal characters acting nothing like themselves, and this is something we see here with Kaylee (Jewel Staite). Kaylee is otherwise a very consistent character, so it’s jarring to see her reject the object of her affection, Simon (Sean Maher), for someone she’s never met who doesn’t deserve her trust. Also, there’s a shameless emotional one-two punch at episode’s end that falls flat completely.

Dishonorable mention: Captain Mal’s (Nathan Fillion) not himself in “Heart of Gold,” what might be a schlocky morality tale about the future of prostitution.

“Dave,” Lost

I’ll admit to feeling a little weird about my dislike of “Dave.” It’s directed by the brilliant Jack Bender and written by the typically successful duo of Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, and it’s an episode about one of my favorite characters, Hurley (Jorge Garcia), so it’d be logical for me to enjoy it. But something about it falls flat to me. It’s just the idea that Hurley would only now be having hallucinations–and if they’ve been around for a while, then why didn’t we hear about it sooner? Lost keeps a lot of secrets, but not like this. Plus, the twist at the end accomplishes nothing, rare for a Lost episode’s conclusion.

Dishonorable mentions: I know I’m not alone in this, but Kate-centric episodes often get to me, despite Evangeline Lilly’s obvious talent. “What Kate Did,” with hackneyed attempts at triggering emotional reactions, sticks out to me as one of the worst. And, of course, the notorious “Stranger in a Strange Land,” or “Jack’s Tattoos,” is an example of everything Lost shouldn’t be: a handholding, direct explanation of every character flaw Jack (Matthew Fox) possesses.