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.

TV Couples Worth Emulating, Minus The Parts With Horrible Accidents And/Or Death

This is my third attempt at a blog post today. I started one and it fell apart after one paragraph. The second took less than two sentences to do the same. So I figured I’d do what I do best: rehash something I’ve already written about extensively but take a slightly different tack.

Here is an abridged list of some of my favorite TV couples. These are the couples whose relationships I find refreshingly functional. They have their hiccups, their miscommunications, and their occasional deadly consequences. But these couples are generally content with each other and the loving partnerships they maintain.

Two notes before we begin:

1. Here come some spoilers!

2. I chose to go with series I’ve seen from end to end, thus the absence of The West Wing’s Jed and Abby Bartlet and any couple, however major or minor, on The X-Files.

Bernard and Rose Nadler, Lost

I would argue (and I think it would be a pretty solid argument, if I do say so myself) that more than any other couple on Lost, Rose (L. Scott Caldwell) and Bernard (Sam Anderson) excel at ducking out of the supernatural to maintain a healthy, happy relationship. They’re undeniably older and most likely wiser than just about everyone who survived the Flight 815 crash, and the story of their relationship feels more familiar than more tumultuous and unusual fare. They remain largely unaffected by the existence of apparitions, alternate timelines, and the concept of the constant, and I maintain that their reunion midway through season two is one of the sweetest, most satisfying moments in the show.

Karl “Helo” Agathon and Sharon “Athena” Agathon, Battlestar Galactica

I get that Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) once grappled with the idea of falling in love with a Cylon and, at some point, shooting her in order for her to be born again. Really, I get that. But I also get that through all the chaos that comes with living in the BSG world, Helo and Athena (Grace Park) were able to stay relatively stable together. Even as they defied death on a near-daily basis and saved the life of their daughter time and again, they never fell out of love.

Marshall Eriksen and Lily Aldrin, How I Met Your Mother

I’ll flatly state this: no one else on How I Met Your Mother is good at relationships. While I do think that HIMYM is, as far as sitcoms go, excellent at portraying the friendships of 20- and 30-somethings in a realistic way, it’s undeniable that Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) is a semi-unstable sex addict, Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) has unhealthily unrealistic expectations for relationships, and Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) tends to fail spectacularly, no matter who she’s with. But Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) help me to forget all that. No matter how many times one disappoints the other, they always come out stronger for it. Though the title of the show has so far been one giant six season tease, as long as Marshall and Lily are around, I don’t care how Ted met those expressionless kids’ mother all that much.

Hoban “Wash” Washburne and Zoe Washburne, Firefly

It’s been said before and I’ll say it again: I don’t love Firefly as much as the rest of the world seems to want me to. That said, I do love Wash (Alan Tudyk) and Zoe (Gina Torres), two members of the Serenity crew who, under the circumstances of being space cowboys or something of the kind, couldn’t possibly be a more normal couple. In general, their sensibilities are remarkably different. Wash is defined by goofy charisma and a knack for making light of unquestionably dark situations, whereas Zoe treats everyday struggles on the ship as vitally important military-style missions. In some cases, this may force them to oppose each other. Instead, they’re mature enough to balance each other out, recognizing the good in each other’s attitudes and working from there.

Stay tuned for next time, when I write something new and different and maybe even not in a list format! (Maybe.)

Stunt Casting Triumphs and Mishaps

First, for those of you who are new here (i.e. just about everyone), thanks for stopping by. Sadly, not all my entries are written as letters to Damon Lindelof. Most are about television, though, and hopefully with a touch of humor here and there. And that’s exactly what you’re about to read. Or ignore. Your choice.

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts at work yesterday, NPR/Monkey See’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. I highly recommend this particular podcast to anyone who cares about pop culture analysis and/or enjoys laughing. One of this week’s topics was stunt casting, defined by tvtropes.org as “hiring of a big-name actor to play a supporting role.” In my mind, this can only go one of two ways: very, very well or very, very poorly. I don’t have the sunniest view of stunt casting in general. I think it has the potential to distract from whatever else is going on in the episode, and pretty cheaply at that. However, there are times that it works beautifully. Here are some examples of both.

The Triumphs

Jon Hamm as Andrew Baird, 30 Rock

Jon Hamm’s rise to prominence in the entertainment world is a fairly recent development, thanks entirely to his role as the irresistibly charismatic ad executive Don Draper on AMC’s Mad Men. Because of this, it can be difficult to see him outside that persona. But Hamm proved his comic chops with his turn as the ridiculously handsome but semi-idiotic Andrew Baird on 30 Rock. A great comic foil for love interest and lead Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), Hamm showed that he can be funny and has a sense of humor about his role in pop culture.

Jack Black as Buddy, Community

It’s close to impossible to think of Jack Black as anyone but Jack Black. But in Community, he was able to perfectly embody a role: Buddy, a Greendale student desperate to join the stars of the Spanish study group. This leads to an excellent cold opening, a well-crafted B-plot, and a bit of even crazier stunt casting with Owen Wilson as the leader of a cooler study group. Community’s stunt casting is generally quite good, with Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Shirley’s (Yvette Nicole Brown) ex-husband in a Cosby sweater and LeVar Burton as himself and Troy’s (Donald Glover) greatest hero. But this one was the first, and may well have been the funniest.

Garry Shandling and Tea Leoni as themselves, The X-Files

As with Community, The X-Files does well with stunt casting, whether it’s Michael McKean as a swarthy secret organization’s operative or Luke Wilson as a charming Texas ranger and vampire. But the best example comes with what might be referred to as one 42-minute stunt, the delightfully goofy “Hollywood A.D.” There’s a movie being made about FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), and Garry Shandling and Tea Leoni, playing slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, have been cast as the leads. Shandling’s eccentricity and Leoni’s crush on her real life husband Duchovny make for yet another entertaining set piece in a great bit of X-Files history.

The Mishaps

John Hodgman as Dr. Gerard, Battlestar Galactica

Make no mistake: I really appreciate John Hodgman and his contributions to geek/pseudo-intellectual culture. But I think it was a misstep on the part of BSG’s producers to recruit him for a one-off role as a neurosurgeon in “No Exit,” what is otherwise a pretty somber episode. Sam Anders (Michael Trucco) is almost completely brain dead, Ellen Tigh (Kate Vernon) explains that one of the Cylon models is forever extinct, and then there’s Hodgman, yukking it up in the corner. His presence is distracting, and the people behind BSG were wise to never try something like this before or again.

Jennifer Lopez as Anita, How I Met Your Mother

HIMYM loves stunt casting. It loves it too much. And this was never more obvious than when Jennifer Lopez came around to play a relationship expert and potentially have sex with Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). “Of Course” was an episode that generally fell flat, with a bizarre song break for Ted’s (Josh Radnor) “Super Date” and the strangeness of Robin (Cobie Smulders) showing what might have been misplaced emotional vulnerability. But Lopez was the weakest part. There was nothing about her performance that didn’t shout, “Look, it’s Jennifer Lopez!” And that’s the biggest mistake a stunt casting choice can make.

Stephen Tobolowsky as Professor Sheffield, Community

What, you thought I didn’t have it in me to critique Community? I don’t think it was Tobolowsky’s fault that his appearance as a Who’s The Boss? scholar fell flat. Tobolowsky is a brilliant character actor, but in “Competitive Wine Tasting,” he was wasted (no pun intended). His was relegated to a C plot and got approximately 5 minutes on screen to be wacky and move along. Between this and Katharine McPhee, Community isn’t perfect at casting recognizable celebrities in random roles.

Less Likable Protagonists

Last night, my ever-so-compliant husband and I were watching “Once More, With Feeling,” one of the greatest triumphs in the history of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As we admired Sarah Michelle Gellar’s stunning good looks and surprisingly impressive vocals (for those of you who don’t know, “Once More, With Feeling” is a musical), I noted that Buffy is actually one of my least favorite characters on the show, even with all her charm. Scott then suggested that I make a list of lead characters who aren’t, in fact, as likable as the characters who surround them. So, away we go, starting with Ms. Summers herself.

Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I think it’s certainly worth noting that Buffy is by no means a bad character. She’s strong, she’s independent, and her wit is razor sharp. However, when you’re surrounded with such endearing supporting players, and your character suffers from issues with maturity and control, it’s hard to keep up. She’s certainly not as empty as Riley or infantile as Dawn, but she’s far from perfect, and her imperfections are much less interesting than a character arc like Xander’s or Willow’s.

Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother

Like Buffy, Ted is constantly surrounded by more interesting, endearing characters. But he’s also just flat-out annoying. He’s both hung up on himself and pretentious, and his hopes for great romance went from “Aw, that’s cute” to “Ugh, shut up” seasons ago. He flip flops on just about every decision he makes, and it’s usually because of some woman’s external influence, a woman we’ll never see or be asked to care about again. In truth, the fact that we’re still being asked to care about Ted is tough on its own. But give Josh Radnor credit for filling that role as best he can. (Note: all I wanted to write was “Just look at him!” after I found that picture.)

Angel, Angel

This is the first case where I have to add the disclaimer that I really appreciate the character of Angel. Just as the show took Cordelia and Wesley and made them into intricately written characters, it did the same with Angel, formerly just a broody, hunky guy best kept in the shadows or turned evil. Like Buffy, it’s a case of better characters all around him, but there’s also a flaw that keeps coming back: that darn brooding. Sure, plenty is thrown at him in the run of the series that justifies sulky behavior, but it gets pretty trying every now and then.

Jack Shephard, Lost

First, it’s essential that I point out how hilarious this picture is. Look, it’s Jack … balanced between some rocks … raising one foot like a gimpy flamingo, the ocean’s waves crashing behind him. How is that not funny?

Anyway, Jack is another character I don’t have any glaring problems with straightaway. However, after a riveting glimpse into his past in the first season, he becomes less of the focal point and more of a somewhat grating background player. By the time he’s addicted to pain pills and yelling about how WE HAVE TO GO BAAAACK, he’s fallen somewhere between Juliet and Kate on a character likability scale. I will say that his lack of charisma doesn’t stay the course of the series; by that final moment, you love Jack as much as you did at the very beginning. Still, he’s not a consistent hero, earning him a spot on this list, certainly not as cringe-worthy as Ted Mosby, but occasionally worthy of scorn nonetheless.

Jeff Winger, Community

Look, just because I want to date him in a fictional universe doesn’t mean he’s a likable person. When the first two words on your Wikipedia entry are “snarky” and “glib,” chances are you’re not going to be the friendliest guy at Greendale Community College (though it hasn’t been determined whose honor that is just yet). Jeff isn’t the only character with undesirable traits. Britta is shrill and a causehead, Pierce is flat out offensive, and Senor Chang is … well, he’s Senor Chang. But he’s still a jerk. An attractive jerk you’d like to kiss, sure. But a jerk nonetheless.

Jim Halpert and Michael Scott, The Office

(At series’ beginning, Michael is the focal point; somewhere down the line, Jim steps into the spotlight.)

At some point in time, Jim Halpert was very, very likable. He was equally goofy and charming, and you, the viewer, were always rooting for him. Get the girl, Big Tuna! We know you can! And then, after he did, something shifted. He became more like the character with whom he shares the spotlight most, Michael, the worst boss in TV history. (I’m going to go ahead and say his British equivalent, David Brent, is better, but that’s just one girl’s opinion.) Their jokes are bad, their social skills are questionable at best, and their respective levels of self awareness are nonexistent. This was never cute on Michael and, now, it’s never cute on Jim. The Office’s appeal is lost on me of late, and that’s due, at least in part, to Jim and Michael, who just keep on letting me down.

To me, there are no other glaring examples. I can think of shows with no sole protagonists on which I love each and every character (BSG, duh, and The West Wing), in addition to some truly excellent protagonists (30 Rock’s Liz Lemon and Flight of the Conchords’ Bret & Jemaine). Honestly, even with an unlikable main character, these are quality programs, and I can look past a showblocker or two for their sake. (Except The Office, which I haven’t stopped watching, and don’t know why.)