Back to School

Classes are starting back up! Apple-cheeked youngsters are arriving at schools, ready to learn, to mature, and to be judged and evaluated by merciless educators. And in the spirit of merciless evaluation, I've been getting some questions (and guff) lately about how I grade things here. Naturally, everyone has their own system, whether it's the stars-out-of-five method, the points-out-of-ten method, or my preferred method of using letter grades. I feel like letters do the best job of conveying quality, because while there doesn't seem to be much of a difference between 7/10 and 8/10, the vast difference between a "C" and a "B" is easily apparent.

It can be difficult to explain just what I mean by any particular letter; grading people on whether they correctly identified the capital of Madagascar is, after all, much easier than grading a book or movie on how entertaining and well-crafted it is, or how well it struck an emotional chord. With those caveats out of the way, I figured I'd give explaining the reasoning behind each letter the ol' college try anyway.


Perfect. An A+ generally means that something is as close to flawless as it's possible to get. It can be a representative of exactly what I'm looking for in the genre, or something that is such a fond memory for me that it has attained hallowed status in my brain. If I can't think of a single thing I'd change or that bothered me, what other grade could it get? If I grade correctly, seeing an A+ should be a pretty rare occurrence here. It should be reserved for the truly special.

Examples: Portal 2, Downton Abbey - Season 1, Waiting for Guffman


Outstanding. Perhaps they just miss the invisible line for Hall of Fame status, but they're damn close. Things that get an A are worthy of effusive praise, and you can bet that I'll recommend them to anyone who will listen.

Examples: The IT Crowd, Wreck-It Ralph, Beautiful Ruins


Extremely good. Things that get an A- are delightful. Maybe there's one or two things that don't quite work, but there's nothing that detracts to any significant degree. Plenty of A- titles are things I'd be happy to buy, but an A- is also sometimes the delineation between something I want to own and something I really enjoyed, but only needed to experience once.

Examples: A Couch to Call Home, Much Ado About Nothing, Who Could That Be at This Hour?


Very good. It's no surprise that I actively seek out entertainment that I think I'll enjoy, and since my filters are pretty effective, I wind up liking most of the things I consume, even if I don't out-and-out love them. That means that the range from B+ to B- is far and away the most common grade. A B+ is something that's really enjoyable, but lacks that special something that would push it into the vaunted A-range.

Examples: Moonrise Kingdom, House of Cards - Season 1, Hairspray (2002)


Good. This grade may seem a bit bland, but a B is nothing to be ashamed of. Something that gets a B can be perfectly entertaining, but perhaps not entirely memorable. Or maybe it was technically proficient, but didn't give me that thrill of something truly exciting. Of the entire grade range, I'd say the biggest quality difference lies between B+ and B.

Examples: Magic Mike, Mad Men - Season 6, Look at Me


Not bad. Something that gets a B- has more to like than dislike about it. While a B denotes something that is wholly well-done, a B- property has noticeable problems. That could encompass numerous, but small systemic problems, or one big issue mucking up something that would be otherwise enjoyable. I'd still recommend a B- title, but not glowingly.

Examples: New Girl - Season 1, This is the End, Mass Effect 3


Not good. A C+ isn't hopeless, though. It could have several redeeming features, but not enough to save the enterprise as a whole. If I say something like "This could have used another twenty minutes in the oven," chances are good for a C+. I'd say that C+ is also the last grade at which I could feasibly recommend something. I'd offer a warning about the issues, but admit that there's still some fun to be wrung out of it.

Examples: Assassin's Creed 3, Film Critic, Rise of the Guardians


Bad. Something that gets a C has many noticeable problems. It may still hang together as a coherent piece of work, but it's not an enjoyable one. The C is not just for bad things, though. Earning a C may also imply that something is utterly dull and pointless. If it can't grab my attention for either good or bad reasons, it'll land here.

Examples: Thor, White Collar, MDNA


Really bad. While a C may just be bland, a C- is actively poor material. A C- may simply be something that has far more to dislike than to like about it. Things that get over-hyped or are way more popular than they deserve to be also settle nicely into C- territory. If I'm watching a movie that cleaned up at the box office with a slack jaw and a frustrating confusion about what the hell is wrong with American audiences sometimes, keep your eyes peeled. A C- is probably not far off.

Examples: The Amazing Spider-Man, Partners, Freedom


Terrible. If there's anything good about a D+ title, it's only the tiniest glimmer of hope. Things that earn a D+ would be an affecting scene in an otherwise awful movie, or a book having a good premise, but going nowhere with it. Those iotas of quality are nowhere near enough to make the experience worthwhile, but you can at least see what the artist was trying to accomplish.

Examlpes: Identity Thief, Man in the Empty Suit


Offensively bad. If something gets a D+, it means I hated it, but don't necessarily harbor any ill-will against the artist's other works. Things go awry, after all. But if something gets a D, it's time to question whether the artist even knows what they're doing. A grade of D means that something missed the mark on every level, or is just top-to-bottom unappealing to me, personally. There have been a few things I'd give a D based solely on my tastes that other people might enjoy. In general, these things are so bad that I can't even get through them. Everything mentioned in the examples below are titles I abandoned partway through, and thus never got graded. If they had been, it would have been a D all the way.

Examples: Passing it On, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Private Secretary


Complete and utter garbage. People are always horrified by the dreaded F, of course, but in many ways, D- is the worst grade something can get. Getting an F is an achievement, of sorts. Getting a D- isn't even that. A D- title isn't interesting enough to be noticed (even for its flaws) or worth being recognized as a beautiful disaster; it's just crap. A D- means that there is absolutely nothing going on that's worth your time, not even for mocking purposes. If something gets a D, I feel like I shouldn't have bothered with it. If something gets a D-, I feel personally insulted, and actively want bad things to happen to those who foisted it upon me.

Example: Bachelorette


A Supernova of Suck. Getting an F means that anything that could have gone wrong, did. No artistic ability is perceptible. A blind possum could have pulled off better work. And yet, sometimes, there's something fascinating about complete failure. The F is reserved for works that are so terrible, they just might work their way around to being compelling, and sometimes even fun. Mystery Science Theater 3000 knew how to separate the D- detritus from the blazing F stinkbombs. That's not to say that an F should be encouraged. Intentionally bad works are never as fun as something that shot for the stars...and fell down a well, instead.

Examples: The Room, Batter Off Dead

Song of the Summer 2013: The Also-Rans

The season is winding down, so it's almost time to choose my "official" Song of the Summer. In the meantime, I should give a nod to the songs that didn't make the cut. These were all brought to my attention by other people (the TBTL podcast and my friend Joe, whose musical tastes are infinitely wider and more sophisticated than mine). It's entirely possible I'm missing a worthy tune. Feel free to let me know if so.

The one that came closet to being in contention is Rilo Kiley's "I Remember You". I really like the song, but it doesn't quite fit in with my idea of what a summer jam is. It's more of a year-round listen:

Like "I Remember You", there were plenty of other songs that were entertaining for any number of reasons, but just couldn't capture the feel of a tune that would represent summer to me. Still, I'd definitely recommend them:

"Lightning Bolt" (Jake Bugg)
"Radioactive" (Imagine Dragons)
"Inner Ninja" (Classified - feat. David Myles)
"Out Of My League" (Fitz and the Tantrums)
"Doin' It Right" (Daft Punk) [A catchy tune - just not as catchy as "Get Lucky".]
"Entertainment" (Phoenix)
"Crazy Kids" (Ke$ha) [I've taken any amount of crap for liking a Ke$ha song, and while I wouldn't put it up for any poetry awards, it's got a good beat to it.]
"Imagine It Was Us" (Jessie Ware)
"Recover" (Chvrches)
"Bad Girls" (Solange)

There were some songs that were either not my style or that were perfectly fine, but not anything that I'd ever actively seek out:

"Can't Hold Us" (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - feat. Ray Dalton)
"We the Common (For Valerie Bolden)" (Thao & The Get Down Stay Down)
"Stare at the Sun" (Eleanor Friedberger)
"You (Ha Ha Ha)" (Charli XCX)
"Diane Young" (Vampire Weekend)
"Together" (She & Him)
"Wildest Moment" (Jessie Ware)
"Baby Get Worse" (Divine Fits)
"Grown Woman" (Beyonce)
"#Beautiful" (Miguel and Mariah Carey)
"Unbelievers" (Vampire Weekend)
"People Like Us" (Kelly Clarkson)

And then there's the annoyingly popular song that I loathe:

"I Love It" (Icona Pop)

Ugh, this piece of shit. The self-satisfaction. The faux-rebellion. The most obnoxious combination of whining and smugness that could possibly be set to music. And so of course it's inescapable. If only that car crash into the bridge had gotten the job done. Oh, that's not nice of me. I guess we geezers from the '70s have little patience for stupid '90s bitches.

Jasmine Guy

A few people have suggested going out to the movies lately, and when they do that, my brain immediately leaps to what's out that I haven't seen yet. If I can't think of anything, I ask if they have anything in mind. Both of those methods have not been terrifically successful in the past couple of weeks; I have no aching desire to see Austenland, and am staying far, far away from Kick Ass 2. This past Friday, I was wrinkling my face in frustration at every title offered, but when we realized that we could catch a late screening of Blue Jasmine, the clouds lifted.

I knew only the barest minimum of plot details about this latest film from Woody Allen, but have been reading some pretty glowing praise about it on the film websites I frequent. Plus, Cate Blanchett. How could I not sign up for that? Blanchett plays a woman who was married to a Madoff-esque money manager (Alec Baldwin). When the financial house of cards tumbles down, she loses everything, and moves to San Francisco to stay with her much more down-to-Earth sister (Sally Hawkins), and to try and build a new life.

Giving up wealth and privilege is easier said than done, though, and Blanchett plays a woman desperately trying to hold on to her dignity (not to mention sanity) to the hilt. Not that you needed to be told that. She tears every role she's ever had to shreds, and I'm completely unsurprised to hear that her name is already being bandied about for an Oscar nomination.

Jasmine will do anything to land herself back into a secure existence, and if that means lying or conniving, she's certainly not above it. This is emphatically not a jolly tale, and though Jasmine's one-percenter problems are not wholly relatable, Blanchett's stellar performance at least makes them understandable.

Whenever I sit down to write a blurb about a movie I've just seen, I try and stack up the things I really liked about it against any big problems or little nitpicks that may count against it. When one of the biggest issues I can come up with is that I wish filmmakers would freaking put liquid in the clearly-empty coffee cups that characters carry around, you know you've got a good movie on your hands.

Blue Jasmine: A-

The Rewatch: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 2

One of the reasons I'm doing a full rewatch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that I noticed that when I went back to the show, I was always watching the same four or five episodes over and over. That's too limiting, so I wanted to immerse myself in the entire show, and not just my perceived high points. I worried that subjecting myself to episodes I didn't care for (or about) the first time I saw them would cause me to disengage, and spoil my fondness for the show as a whole. There have certainly been a couple of times that I noticed the upcoming episode title and thought "Ugh, this one." Season 2 is widely regarded as one of the strongest seasons, though, and I was anxious to see if it still lives up to its reputation. The opening credits now include David Boreanaz, and that poor, nameless voiceover guy has been booted in favor of Giles reciting the "In every generation..." introduction. I never liked that introduction. Maybe it'd have been okay for the first few episodes in the first season, but we don't need an omniscient narrator to tell us who Buffy is at the beginning of every episode. Those who have been watching all along already know the background information, and those watching for the first time wouldn't be sufficiently filled in anyway. Just something that mildly irked me. Anyhow, let's dig down into the individual episodes. Those wary of spoilers should wander away now, and go do something productive.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 2
Big Bad: Spike/Drusilla/Angel

Episode 1: "When She Was Bad"

Even though Buffy dispensed with the Master in Season 1, let's not forget that he did bite her and she did die. You know, briefly. There are naturally going to be repercussions from that, and Season 2 makes the smart choice of opening with Buffy's attempts to deal with her residual fear and hate. Her attempts mostly involve her acting like a complete bitch, to the point that even Cordelia tells her to simmer down. Not that her concerns about the Master are totally unfounded, because the Anointed One has his vamps dig up the Master's skeleton for a plan to resurrect him. Buffy's friends and Miss Calendar are kidnapped for a blood sacrifice for this ritual, so Buffy gets to work out her issues by wreaking violent revenge on the vampire den and bashing the Master's skeleton to dust. This episode was also the closest Xander and Willow ever get to actually kissing, which was strange to watch. It's also an episode I'd generally tell a rewatcher to skip by, because while it makes sense in the overall story arc, it's not super-fun to watch Buffy be sour and mean for half an hour.

Episode 2: "Some Assembly Required"

Standalone episodes are starting to distinguish themselves as both my favorites and my least favorites of the rewatch. While this episode certainly wasn't bad, it is one of those that inspired one of those "Ugh, this one" comments when I saw it coming up. The bodies of Sunnydale High girls killed in a car accident are getting dug up, then hacked up, which points to something other than vampires. It turns out that a couple of advanced science students are building a zombiette with those spare parts - one of the science geeks has reanimated his dead brother, and said brother desperately wants a girlfriend. All they need is a fresh head, and Cordelia is kidnapped to provide it. The rest of the gang saves her, and both zombies go up in flames. Romance also begins to bloom in this episode. Giles and Miss Calendar are getting close, and we get our first glimpse of Cordelia's interest in Xander, as she attempts to thank him for saving her from decapitation. Not that he picks up on it. There's also a little side-plot in which Angel is jealous of the attention Buffy gives other guys, but that's pretty dull. It's a fairly entertaining episode, but pales in comparison to what this show routinely accomplishes in others.

Episode 3: "School Hard"

Introduces: Spike, Drusilla

Like this one! Spike's character certainly goes through its ups and downs over the course of the show, but this is one hell of an introduction. Him and Drusilla blowing into town is what finally kicks Season 2 into gear. Vampires are at the peak of their power on the Night of St. Vigeous, which happens to be the night after Sunnydale High's parent-teacher conferences. Buffy tries to juggle the pressures of school and and slayage, and isn't helped when Spike (who has killed two Slayers in the past) attacks the school a day early. Buffy is almost outmatched, as she's too distracted protecting Joyce and the other civilians to put up much of a fight. Spike didn't count on a Slayer having a support system of friends and family, though, and just as he's about to strike, Joyce wails him in the head with an axe, and he's forced to retreat. We learn that Angel was the one that sired Spike (well, grand-sired through Drusilla), and that Principal Snyder and the police department know everything about the supernatural goings-on in Sunnydale, but cover it all up. And in the best bit, the dour, ritualistic den of vampires is thoroughly shaken up by Spike and Drusilla. They want nothing more than to enjoy themselves, and so Spike kills the Anointed One (or "the Annoying One", as he calls him) and takes over. This episode manages to advance the seasonal arc, develop the backstory about the authority figures in Sunnydale, and still be a load of fun. Definitely a highlight.

Episode 4: "Inca Mummy Girl"

Introduces: Oz, Jonathan Levinson

On a field trip to the local museum, the seal of protection on a mummified Incan princess is broken and she awakens, rejuvenating herself by sucking the life out of others. She poses as an exchange student, and is soon smitten with Xander, as he is with her. Unlike a lot of the "bad guys" on this show, the mummy (Ampata) is more pitiable than evil. Her life was sacrificed as a teenager, a position Buffy is all too familiar with. All Ampata wants is the freedom to live like a normal girl, but she's stuck with the whole needing-to-suck-life-out-of-others method of survival. At the Bronze, we're introduced to Oz, who immediately notices Willow, who's sad about Xander's infatuation with Ampata, who's about to suck the life out of Jonathan (in his first appearance). Ah, teenage life on the Hellmouth! Eventually, the gang discovers Ampata's true nature, and stops her from sucking Willow's life out. Ampata crumbles back to dust, but it's a hollow victory; everyone realizes that she really got a raw deal. It's episodes like this that make the rewatch worth the time. I recalled this episode as being kind of blah, but in retrospect, it's not only more important than I remember, it's more entertaining. Also, for those who keep track of such things, this is the fifth of eight series episodes not to show a single vampire.

Episode 5: "Reptile Boy"

I never noticed the episode name symmetry between this and "Inca Mummy Girl". Clever! Unfortunately, that's about the only clever thing about this episode. Buffy, fed up with the pressure from Giles about her duty and Angel's maddening habit of keeping his distance (since he's a vampire, and oh yeah, about 230 years older than her), sneaks off to a fraternity party with Cordelia. But because this is Sunnydale, it's not just a normal frat house full of boozy date rapists. Nope, this one is full of boozy date rapists who also happen to worship a giant snake demon that lives in the basement. The demon provides wealth and power to the frat guys' families in exchange for sacrificing nubile young ladies. Xander's trademark jealousy makes an unwelcome appearance, and Willow finally stands up for herself (well, her friend), as she tears into Giles and Angel for giving Buffy such a hard time. Buffy and Cordelia are drugged and taken to the sacrificial chamber (along with a before-she-was-sort-of-famous Jordana Spiro), but naturally, Buffy is able to break her chains and kill the snake demon. The frat guys are arrested, their families lose their clout, and both Giles and Angel promise to ease up on Buffy. And that's about it. While none of the episodes in Season 2 are out-and-out bad, this one is the very essence of skippable.

Episode 6: "Halloween"

Introduces: Ethan Rayne, Larry Blaisdell

I'm a guy who loves a well-executed gimmick. "Halloween" runs along similar lines as "Nightmares" did in Season 1, and is just as awesome. Principal Snyder forces Buffy, Xander, and Willow to volunteer to take kids trick-or-treating, so they all stock up at a costume shop run by the charming Ethan Rayne. Trouble lurks beneath that charm, though. Ethan worships chaos, and has imbued his costumes with a magical property that will turn the wearer into the actual costume persona. Xander turns into a special forces military grunt. Willow covers up some sultry clothes that actually flatter her with a ghost sheet, and drops dead, emerging as a phantom. And Buffy, upset that Angel has had a century's worth of old-fashioned ladylike types to pick from, has dressed up in a hoopskirt and petticoat, and morphs into a simpering, idiotic noblewoman.

Naturally, the town goes nuts, cause there are bunch of kids that have suddenly turned into demons. Spike is delighted by all this madness, not least of which because Buffy is now entirely helpless. Giles goes to confront Ethan, who he used to pal around with (Ethan refers to Giles as "Ripper", hinting at their mysterious past together). Giles manages to break the spell in time for Buffy to recover and kick Spike's ass, and here's where I'd usually say everything goes back to normal. But it doesn't. Cordelia learns that Angel is a vampire. Angel tells Buffy that he never liked those insipid 19th century women, and the two of them kiss, their romance blossoming anew. Willow gains self-confidence from effectively leading the gang through this latest crisis, and Oz's interest in her climbs even higher. We're also introduced to Larry, who is just a garden-variety lout and bully in this episode, but who would be put to better use later in the series. An outstanding episode from beginning to end.

Episode 7: "Lie to Me"

Where "Halloween" indulges in a lot of jokey fun, "Lie to Me" is a lot more serious. Buffy sees Angel talking with Drusilla, and learns about how he mentally tortured her into insanity before siring her. She also reconnects with Ford, a student she knew back in her Los Angeles days. Angel immediately smells a rat, and though Willow tries to convince him he's just jealous of Buffy spending time with a human boy, she reluctantly agrees to check him out. There is a lot kind of off about Ford, especially since he tells Buffy he knows she's the Slayer, and the second her back is turned, spares a vampire in exchange for information. It seems Ford belongs to a group of vampire admirers who wish to be turned. Most of them are run-of-the-mill morons, and Ford has agreed to sacrifice them to Spike and his cronies in exchange for immortality. He's rapidly dying of cancer, and vampirism is his ticket out. Buffy discovers this plan, and is unable to dissuade him from it. When the vampires attack the wannabe club, she threatens to stake Drusilla unless Spike lets everyone go. Ford stays behind, and insists that Spike hold up his end of the deal. At the episode's conclusion, Buffy and Giles have a sober discussion of morality, and how it's often difficult to tell the difference between heroes and villains. Ford's intentions may be understandable, but he's still a vampire now, and Buffy stakes him the minute he rises from the grave. Although this is the episode that Angel and Buffy declare that they are, in fact, in love, nobody walks away from this week's adventure happy.

Episode 8: "The Dark Age"

Remember Giles' mysterious backstory that was alluded to in "Halloween"? Here's where it erupts. Back when he was "Ripper", Giles and his gang of pals used to dabble in the dark arts, playing around with a demon named Eyghon who possesses dead or unconscious hosts. Now Eyghon is back, and is systematically killing members of Giles' old crew by possessing the body of the victim to murder the next one. A scuffle with one of these possessed corpses knocks out Miss Calendar, and the demon leaps into her body. Ethan Rayne is next on the demon's to-kill list, so Ethan attempts to escape notice by burning off his demon mark tattoo with acid, and by serving up Buffy as bait. When the demonic Miss Calendar attacks, Angel saves the day by choking her until the demon moves to the next dead/unconscious person in the room - Angel himself. His vampire essence and the demon essence battle it out within him, and the vampire emerges victorious. Ethan escapes into the night again, and while Miss Calendar is saved, her relationship with Giles is severely damaged. It's a fairly good episode, and a handy lesson for Buffy, who has viewed Giles as stuffily perfect up to this point. Now she must confront the fact that he's human, and just as capable of making dangerous mistakes as anyone else. While the plot-driven standalone episodes can go for broke on pure entertainment, it's these well-developed character beats that really make Buffy such a well-regarded show, and this episode is a perfect example of that.

Episode 9: "What's My Line? - Part 1"

Introduces: Kendra Young, Willy the Snitch

Mark it! This episode is the first time that Buffy and her crew are referred to as the Scooby Gang. I've been studiously avoiding that terminology up until now, and it's so freeing to be able to finally deploy it. And you know some serious shit is about to go down in a Buffy episode if there's a "Part 1" attached to the name. And not just because this episode is where Willow and Oz officially meet for the first time. Career Day comes to Sunnydale High, so of course Buffy is bummed that she doesn't have more choices in her life, and that her destiny is already laid out before her. Part of that destiny is dealing with an order of assassins that Spike contracts with to deal with Buffy while he works on a cure for Drusilla's illness. These killers can be anyone, from human to vampire to demon, and Buffy gets beset by wildly different assailants. A mysterious girl that we assume to be one of the assassins witnesses Buffy and Angel kissing, and attacks Angel when he goes to get info out of Willy the Snitch. She locks him in a cage that will soon be bathed in sunlight, and goes to attack Buffy as well. The two fight for a while, and just when we expect to learn more about the assassin group's methods or motives, we find out that the girl trying to bring Buffy down is Kendra... The Vampire Slayer.

Episode 10: "What's My Line? - Part 2"

What, what, what? But it's been drilled into both the audience and the characters that there can be only one Slayer in all the world (a supposition that carries its own issues, but whatever). How can Kendra be a Slayer? Well, she was called when Buffy briefly died in "Prophecy Girl". OK, then why did she attack Buffy? It's because she saw her kiss Angel in his vampire form and assumed Buffy was an enemy, too. OK, then why is she in Sunnydale at all? Because a dark power is about to rise. OK, then what now? Oh. That whole Angel-about-to-be-dusted-by-sunlight thing. Angel has actually been saved by Willy the Snitch, then immediately delivered to Spike so he can be killed in a ritual that will restore Drusilla's health. Not enough of an exposition dump? OK, one of the assassins (whose body is made up of a seething mass of worms - ick) has cornered Xander and Cordelia, and in their imperiled position, they kiss for the first time. Oz saves Willow from being shot by another assassin. Kendra and Giles bond, and Buffy considers giving up the slaying gig and letting Kendra take over full time. It all culminates in the restoration ritual, in which Kendra and Buffy save Angel and kick Spike's ass so hard that he's essentially crippled, but enough of the ritual has been completed that Drusilla returns to full strength. With Spike disabled and the worm assassin ground to paste, the assassin contract is canceled, and Kendra is free to return to her watcher. Though the Scooby Gang has been working well as a group for a while now, this remarkable pair of episodes is what really solidifies them into a team, and teaches Buffy that despite what the Slayer Lore has been up to this point, she is not alone.

Episode 11: "Ted"

Any standalone episode coming after the one-two punch of "What's My Line?" is going to suffer by comparison. Spike and Drusilla are thought to be defeated, the order of assassins has been called off, and everything seems to be as normal as it ever gets. John Ritter guest stars as the titular new man in Joyce's life, and immediately rubs Buffy the wrong way. He's outwardly pleasant and generous, but he's got a rigid code of rules, and when Buffy breaks them, he slaps her across the face. Buffy wants her mother to be happy, so she attempts to make nice with Ted. It isn't long before the conflict flares up again, and Buffy winds up causing Ted to fall down the stairs, where he is pronounced dead. Buffy must then deal with both the guilt of using her super-strength against a normal person, and the utter devastation she's brought down on Joyce. No worries, though. Ted turns out to be a robot who serially marries women, then kills them when they don't conform to his programmed ideal of a Leave it to Beaver type of family. There are a couple of things to admire about this episode. It's one of the few that involves very few supernatural elements, and drives home the idea of what it must be like for a Slayer to deal with banal things like routine police investigations and unwelcome stepfather candidates. Joyce has often been treated like background, but this episode gives us a sense of what it must be like to live with Buffy and not know about her double life. Aside from that, though, it's not a terribly engaging episode. Ritter does a fine job, but doesn't distinguish himself on the level Clea DuVall did in "Out of Mind, Out of Sight". Ah, well. At least Joyce's hair looks way better now.

Episode 12: "Bad Eggs"

Introduces: Lyle Gorch

Xander and Cordy continue their secret relationship, while Buffy gets lectures on responsibility from Joyce. Further responsibility is loaded onto her shoulders when the school's Health class gives all the students eggs to take care of as surrogate children (my school did this too, with stuffed animals). Because this is the Buffyverse, these are no harmless chicken eggs. They belong to a Bezoar, and the hatchlings burrow into a host, taking over their brains. Joyce, Giles, Willow, Cordelia, Jonathan, and a bunch of others are enslaved, and toil in the basement, pulling eggs out of the Mother Bezoar and preparing them for shipment all over the world. Buffy, who has been distracted by fighting a pair of cowboy brother vampires named Lyle and Tector Gorch, works with Xander to fake their way to the Bezoar lair in the school's basement. The Gorches attack, but what are vampire/human squabbles when there's a monster nearby that's happy to kill anyone not under her thrall? Tector is eaten, and Buffy is pulled to the monster's maw, but is able to kill it with a pickaxe she grabs along the way. With the Mother Bezoar dead, the affected people come to their senses, as does Lyle, who figures picking a fight with the Slayer is a bad idea, and runs away. A reawakened Joyce grounds Buffy for not having enough of a sense of responsibility (irony!), but Angel still manages to get smooches through Buffy's bedroom window. This is another of those episodes that I rarely choose to revisit, but was far better than I expected it to be on the rewatch.

Episode 13: "Surprise"

And, we're back into the serious season arc advancement. Speaking of surprises, it's strange that we'd get another two-episode storyline so soon after "What's My Line?", but "Surprise" and "Innocence" are executed so well that nobody seemed to mind. These episodes pop up on a lot of Best Of Buffy lists, and while I enjoy them a lot, I'm not as into them this time around. In "Surprise", Buffy has a dream in which a fully-recovered Drusilla kills Angel. She worries that it's prophetic, but at least she has a heads-up that Spike and Drusilla are still alive (though Spike is confined to a wheelchair - let's just not worry about how vampiric paralysis works). Indeed, the evil couple is hard at work on assembling the pieces of a monstrous Judge, a demon who the lore describes as invincible to any weapons forged by man. Meanwhile, Oz and Willow arrange their first date to be Buffy's birthday party, Miss Calendar's uncle stops by to reveal that she's part of the Gypsy clan tasked with making sure Angel stays miserable, and Angel gives Buffy a claddagh ring as a token of his love. Oz witnesses Buffy dust a vampire, and is accepted as part of the Scooby Gang with minimal fuss. Although Miss Calendar does her best to send Angel away on a quest to keep a vital piece of the Judge safe, the mission fails, and Buffy and Angel are captured by Spike and Drusilla. They manage to escape before the reanimated Judge can kill them, and seek refuge in Angel's lair, where they have sex for the first time. Buffy falls asleep, and in a crash of thunder and lightning, Angel runs out into a storm, screaming her name. Uh, oh. Something bad is afoot. This was an extremely important episode in terms of series significance, and it's very well done (I particularly like how nonchalant Oz is about the whole world of supernatural forces suddenly being apparent to him). It would definitely be a requisite episode for any discussion of Buffy as a whole, but in terms of pure entertainment value in a rewatch, it doesn't have as much punch.

Episode 14: "Innocence"

"Innocence" has the distinction of being the highest-rated Buffy episode of the entire series. It's not difficult to see why, as it's clearly the turning point of the season. Sleeping with Buffy has brought Angel a moment of "true happiness", which according to the curse he's been given, causes his reclaimed soul to once again depart his body. His humanity gone, Angel is now back to being Angelus, a full-fledged evil vampire. And he is not happy with the memory of being Buffy's compliant boyfriend. In the interstitial plotline, Willow discovers the relationship between Xander and Cordelia, and is devastated that Xander would rather date someone he professes to despise over Willow, who has been obviously in love with him since childhood. But back to the main thread. The newly-evil Angelus, in addition to killing prostitutes and other fun activities to show he's truly bad now, takes the Judge to the nearest mall with Drusilla in order to start wreaking a little havoc. Fortunately, though, the Scooby Gang has two tricks up their sleeves. One is that everyone still remembers everything they went through on Halloween, so Xander retains his military knowledge. And two, that whole Judge-can't-be-killed-by-any-weapon-forged-by-man rule was written before things like...oh, say...rocket-propelled grenade launchers were invented. The "Oh, shit!" faces that dawn on Angelus and Drusilla two seconds before Buffy blows the Judge to smithereens is a thing of beauty. Buffy is having understandable trouble letting go of her idea of who Angel is now, and can't bring herself to kill him yet. That doesn't preclude her from giving him a good kick in the balls, though. As with "Surprise", it's a masterfully-crafted episode, and as with "Surprise", it's more important as canon than entertainment.

Episode 15: "Phases"

As I said in "The Pack", Buffy often used supernatural stories as an allegory to examine social issues, and this one is a good exploration of gender politics. A werewolf is terrorizing Sunnydale, and though it hasn't killed any people yet, it's obviously a concern. And unlike being able to dust vampires with a clear conscience, the gang doesn't want to kill a monster that is a normal person 27 days out of the month. That is not a moral quandary that troubles a werewolf hunter that has come to town, so Buffy is in the odd position of having to both capture and protect the beast. Meanwhile, Willow is dropping heavy hints to Oz that she wants their relationship to progress, Larry sexually harasses the female student body, and Angel stalks and murders Theresa, a helpless classmate of Buffy's. All of these seemingly disparate storylines are woven together - everyone assumes Larry is the werewolf and that he killed Theresa, but both of those misconceptions are cleared up when Theresa rises as a vampire and Oz morphs into the werewolf. Larry's big secret is not that he's a lycanthrope, but that he's gay and deeply closeted. His relief upon coming out to Xander (who he suspects is a fellow dude-admirer) helps him make the change to becoming a better person. Willow accepts Oz for his wolfish leanings, ribbing him that she's no fun a few days out of the month, either. Both his and Larry's self-acceptance, along with the werewolf hunter's insistence that tracking wolves is no business for a pert little blonde like Buffy makes for interesting interactions about what it means to be a man or a woman, and also makes for a pretty fun episode.

Episode 16: "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered"

Up there in "Some Assembly Required", I said that standalone episodes are fast becoming both my favorites and my least favorites of the rewatch. "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" is a textbook example of that, but unlike "Some Assembly Required", this one is on the great end of the spectrum. I adore this episode. Cordelia dumps Xander because she finds herself suddenly unpopular for dating a loser. Xander displays his trademark overreaction and jealousy by blackmailing Amy (who's taken up the witchcraft mantle from her mother) into whipping up a love spell that will make Cordelia fall helplessly in love with him. There's just one tiny problem. The spell actually affects every female in town except Cordelia. That includes Amy, Buffy, Joyce, Willow, Miss Calendar... You name it. Girls being crazy in love with you sounds fun, until you focus on that "crazy" part. Buffy punches Amy. Amy turns Buffy into a rat. Harmony attacks Cordelia. Willow grabs an axe. In a fantastic scene, a murderous Angel snags Xander, and just when it's looking bleakest, Xander is saved by a love-struck Drusilla. Giles is able to break the spell with a reluctant Amy's help, and though everyone else is furious with Xander, Cordelia appreciates his protection during the hysteria, and she announces to her social-climbing friends that she'll date whoever she damn well pleases, no matter how lame he is. Episodes that allow the cast to stretch their wings by acting in ways that are polar opposite to their usual characteristics can be grand fun, and if I'm ever in the mood to watch a single Buffy episode, this one always makes the short list.

Episode 17: "Passion"

Sure, Angel killed Theresa and that one hooker, but Joss Whedon had the not-unreasonable concern that viewers still considered him to just be kind of grouchy, instead of a soulless monster. "Passion" sure takes care of that. But first, we learn all sorts of interesting things. For instance, there's a spell that revokes any existing vampire invitation, so now Angel can't stroll into Buffy's house anymore. Whew. Also, Miss Calendar is able to fill in the gaps of the ancient ritual used to restore the soul to a vampire's body. She downloads the completed ritual onto a computer disk, but Angel is onto her, and he attacks her before she can leave the school. Sure, we've seen that Buffy has real stakes (no pun intended), but when Angel snaps Miss Calendar's neck, it still comes as a genuine shock, even if you know it's coming. Angel arranges Miss Calendar's body in Giles' bed, so that he will discover it in the most horrific way imaginable, and watches with pleasure as Buffy and Willow receive the news. A shattered Giles marches off to get some ill-conceived revenge, and though Buffy is able to rescue him, she loses her opportunity to dispose of Angel. She's now more than ready to do what must be done, though, and as Willow takes over Miss Calendar's classes, the forgotten computer disk that contains the secret to restoring Angel's soul falls off the desk into a narrow crevice. It's an incredibly tense, thrilling episode, and cements once and for all how far this show was willing to go.

Episode 18: "Killed by Death"

Well, they can't all be gems. So far, I've been pleasantly surprised by the standalone episodes I wasn't particularly looking forward to, but "Killed By Death" lived down to its reputation. Buffy lands in the hospital with a serious case of flu, and begins dreaming of a demon that sucks the life out of ill children. Despite facing death and pain on a daily basis as the Slayer, the writers contrive to have Buffy be averse to hospitals, because she witnessed her favorite cousin die in one as a child. Angel drops by to be menacing, but it's pretty useless. It turns out the dream demon is all too real, but is only visible to the sick. A recovering Buffy realizes that this must be the entity that killed her cousin, and intentionally makes herself weak again so she can confront it. She kills it, the sick children are happy, and... That's it. Even "Reptile Boy", which wasn't a terrific episode, managed to have some suspense and humor. This episode just lands with a thud.

Episode 19: "I Only Have Eyes For You"

This one's concept had the potential to land with an equally dull thud, but some thoughtful writing and plotting make it very enjoyable. The annual Sadie Hawkins dance at Sunnydale High stirs up the ghosts of a teacher and student who had an affair in 1955. Despite loving the student, the teacher attempted to call off the affair, and the devastated teen winds up shooting her, then committing suicide. In the present, the two spirits begins possessing others, and reliving their doomed final night, with violent results for the hosts. Buffy, confident that she can handle an attack by an emotional civilian, goes to the school. Angel finds her there, but before he can attack, they're both possessed. In a clever twist, the violent male student takes Buffy's body, while the distraught teacher enters Angel. When Buffy shoots Angel, he survives (bullets don't do the job against vampires), and so the two spirits are able to talk out their feelings, and finally achieve closure. They depart for good, and a freaked-out Angel momentarily loses his killing mojo, running away to find comfort in Drusilla. He and Drusilla go out to cleanse their palates with a good kill, and we close out on a reveal that Spike is all healed now, and is in the mood for a little revenge against Angel snaking his woman (and let's face it, being kind of a dick to Spike in general lately). There are a couple of other interesting notes about this one. The guest star casting is pretty remarkable, with Christopher Gorham (Ugly Betty, Harper's Island) as the murderous student and Oscar-nominee John Hawkes as a janitor that gets possessed by him. Also, this episode marks the first mention of "The Mayor", a name that causes a lot of uncomfortable shifting for Principal Snyder and the police department. That was some nice, subtle foreshadowing. This isn't an episode that springs to my mind a lot, but it should. It's a good example of how great Buffy was at presenting self-contained stories without going overboard on the supernatural elements.

Episode 20: "Go Fish"

Hey, this one had some notable guests, too! Wentworth Miller (Prison Break) is a snotty member of Sunnydale's swim team, and Hey-It's-That-Guy Conchata Ferrell is the conspiratorial school nurse. This was another of the "Ugh, this one," episodes that turned out to be better than I remember. It's got some good banter to it. Sunnydale's swim team are the celebrities du jour, and though they're riding high on a wave of admiration and power, a monster appears to be attacking and eating them - all but the skin (Xander: "The skin's the best part!"). Angel manages to corner one of the swimmers as well, but can't stomach his blood. All signs point to something being introduced into their systems, so Xander goes undercover as a member of the team. It turns out that the coach and nurse have stumbled across Soviet DNA experiments that are turning the swimmers into fishy monsters the coach keeps in the sewer to serve as a championship-winning team. Oh, THAT old saw. The nurse gets eaten, and the insane coach throws Buffy to the monsters as a mate. Ew. Xander saves her, and the coach is killed by his own creations before they find their way out to the open ocean where they can live (happily?) ever after. Though this episode was better than I expected on the rewatch, it doesn't stack up very well against the rest of the season as a whole. It's still skippable, but thankfully, not awful.

Episode 21: "Becoming - Part 1"

Having multiple two-episode arcs in a single season is risky, but it's understandable why "Becoming" needed more than a single episode to wrap up the season, because this finale packs a wallop. Part 1 shifts back and forth in time to explore how the characters got to this point, "this point" being a fresh new apocalypse to worry about. Scenes in the past include Darla siring Angel (Ireland - 1753), Angel tormenting and siring Drusilla (England - 1860), Angel getting his soul restored (Romania - 1898), Angel meeting Whistler, a neutral demon who is tasked with maintaining balance between good and evil (New York - 1996), and Buffy being informed that she is the new Slayer (Los Angeles - 1996). In the present, a stone block is taken to the museum. The block is the solidified form of the demon Acathla, who will swallow the world into Hell if awakened. And guess what Angel wants to do? More? You want more? Sure! Buffy and Willow find the disk with the ritual that will restore Angel's soul. Kendra comes back to Sunnydale with a weapon that should be effective against Acathla, hopefully. Angel and Drusilla acquire Acathla, and then Angel lures Buffy away from the school so that Drusilla can attack. Giles is kidnapped, Willow is knocked out before she can complete the soul-restoration ritual, and Drusilla kills Kendra. And then Buffy gets back, is seen by the police standing over Kendra's corpse, and must run away before she gets arrested. Aside from David Boreanaz's laughable attempt at an Irish accent, it's an incredible episode, and puts me on the edge of my seat every time I watch it. And that's only half of the story!

Episode 22: "Becoming - Part 2"

The police are hunting Buffy (oh, and Principal Snyder expels her), Willow is in a coma, and Angel is torturing Giles for information about how to wake Acathla, so our heroes don't begin this week in a promising situation. After a brief chat with Whistler, Buffy is nearly captured by the police, but is saved by Spike, of all people. He makes the apt argument that just because he's a blood-sucking vampire, it doesn't mean he wants the world to end. He rather likes the world, what with all those tasty people walking around. The two of them strike up a tenuous alliance, with Spike agreeing to help stop Acathla if he and Drusilla are allowed to leave town. They head back to Buffy's house, where Joyce arrives just in time to see Buffy dust a vamp. Yup, the secret's out, and Buffy spills as much info about her role as the chosen one as she has time for - that is to say, not much. Joyce is understandably confused and upset, but even her panic and threats isn't enough to stop Buffy from leaving to go face Angel. Willow wakes up and wants to reattempt the soul-restoration curse, sending Xander to tell Buffy to stall until she can get it done. Xander, however, doesn't want Angel to survive, and lies in order to encourage Buffy to kill him. Drusilla tricks Giles into giving up the secret to waking Acathla, who begins to stir just as Buffy arrives. She and Spike square off against Angel and Drusilla, and after some initial setbacks, Buffy gets the upper hand. Having made good on his promise, Spike knocks Drusilla out and carries her off. Just as Buffy is about to strike the killing blow, Willow's curse kicks in, and Angel's soul is restored. Buffy recognizes this, but it's too late, as Acathla's mouth opens and a whirling vortex emerges. The only way to save the world is by skewering Angel into Acathla with the sword, and after telling him she loves him and giving him a final kiss, she stabs him and sends him to Hell. The apocalypse is averted, but after everything Buffy has been through, she doesn't feel like she can resume her normal life. She boards a bus out of town, and we end the season on Sunnydale losing its Slayer.


Once I was done rewatching Season 2, it was easy to see why it's considered so highly, because it is, in a word, awesome. The cast has fully gelled into a terrific ensemble, and the vast majority of episodes work on either a level of cleverness, emotion, or both. There's a seasonal arc, but the show doesn't crawl up its own ass in terms of mythology. There's plenty of levity, there's plenty of pathos, and neither one ever outweighs the other too much. Season 3 was also considered a series highlight, so I'm looking forward to seeing how it compares to my memory on the rewatch. In the meantime, let's do some ranking for Season 2:

Best Episode: Oof. This is a really tough choice. There are plenty of episodes that could arguably be my top choice on any given day. In trying to balance good storytelling, a smart blend of comedy and drama, and pure fun, I think I'm going to go with the two-episode arc of "What's My Line?"

Worst Episode: "Killed By Death"

Must-Watch: "School Hard", "Inca Mummy Girl", "Halloween", "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered", "Passion", "Becoming" (These are "Musts" from a rewatch perspective - they may not fill newbies in on the plot, but they're the most enjoyable.)

Free-to-Skip: "When She Was Bad", "Some Assembly Required", "Reptile Boy", "Ted", "Go Fish" (Converse here. Skippable episodes may be very important from a story perspective, but struck me as weak, entertainment-wise.)

Save the Date: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Event: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere
Date: Tuesday, September 24

Even if I immediately pass on 90% of the new offerings, and then later drop 90% of what I originally pledged to watch, I'm always excited to read about the fall television season. So much promise! I haven't seen the full slate for the upcoming season, but there is one show that has already leaped to the top of my list. I recently admitted that the superhero genre is starting to lose its luster for me, but that's mostly because the same tropes keep getting recycled. If a story involving people with remarkable powers could be told with a fresh perspective, I'd be all over it.

Enter Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - premiering on ABC this September. Though Jed is the Whedon serving as showrunner, Joss co-wrote the pilot, and directed it as well, so let's go ahead and raise our hopes now. The show centers on Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, who's great in everything) and his special ops team trying to deal with a world in which there are emerging super-humans. I don't know how much the show will even involve said super-humans - it might solely (or at least heavily) focus on the members of the agency.

And actually, that sounds kind of cool. Naturally, properties in the superhero genre tend to revolve around those with the powers, but it would be neat to write stories centered on the normal people who interact with them. I don't know any of the planned stories (or if they hew to ones in the comics), and have not read up on the characters. I'm intentionally keeping myself mostly in the dark on this one. I trust the people involved enough to know that only someone with super-strength will be able to pull me away from the screen on September 24.

Cesspool on the Potomac

I couldn't resist! It took me a while to get through the thirteen episodes of House of Cards that Netflix released simultaneously, for a couple of reasons. First, it's a very complex, layered show, and I generally like to have some time between episodes to digest and reflect on the overall arc. Also, watching any episodes without my friend Kyle coming over for some food and libations to go along with the show was strictly verboten. Given those restrictions, it actually went pretty quickly, because as soon as we'd finish an episode, we were both anxious to see what would come next.

I haven't seen anything of the British version, but the American show is about Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the majority whip of the House of Representatives. When he is passed over for Secretary of State by the new president, he vows to claw himself to power by any means necessary, and hey, if that should involve revenge against the people who have spurned him, so much the better. His wife Claire (Robin Wright) runs the Clean Water Initiative, a noble charity, but one that often gets wrapped up in the couple's political ambitions. Rounding out the main cast is a young, ambitious reporter (Kate Mara), who starts out the season willingly trading information with (and sleeping with) Underwood to get ahead, but who is coming to realize the depths to which he'll sink to get ahead.

Kyle opined that it's a very Shakespearean style of show, and I have to agree. Not only because of the machinations surrounding the careers, egos, and motivations of all of the players involved, but in the asides. Underwood often breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to us as the audience, and though that annoyed me a little at first, I got used to it fairly quickly. We weren't the only ones to be engrossed; while we were ensconced in the middle of the season, House of Cards was busy making history by landing nine Emmy nominations, including one for Best Drama of the year. It's the first direct-to-internet show to ever be considered (Arrested Development has also gotten a few nominations, but has also actually aired on television). I was a little suspicious of how good a direct-to-Netflix show was going to be, but was happy to put those fears to rest. This show was extremely well-made, and a lot of fun to watch; I'm already looking forward to seeing what evil schemes are hatched next season.

House of Cards - Season 1: B+

Award Repo: Crash

One way of ascertaining if a Best Picture win was deserved is by charting a movie's esteem in the years after its win. Whenever you see one of those montages about the Wonders of Cinema, for example, there are always clips from cherished films like All About Eve and Chicago. Movies like that weren't just appreciated in the year they were released, but are actively enjoyed today. There are plenty of movies that won that I didn't personally care for (like Gladiator - feh), but I can't argue against the impact they had on American film. But what happens when a movie wins Best Picture, and is then immediately forgotten? Crash happens. Oh, sorry. Crash hasn't been totally forgotten. It comes up in contemporary discussions occasionally - as a textbook example of a ludicrous Best Picture win. It would be one thing if it were an unimpressive movie nominated in a field of other unimpressive movies. But let's take a look at the other nominees for the 78th Academy Awards (given out for the movies released in 2005):

Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, and Good Luck

Sometimes, I feel like I need to vehemently defend or over-explain my rationale behind calling for an award repo. In this case, all I really have to say is, "Come on. Look at that list." There are other undeserving Best Picture winners that are inferior to another movie in contention, but I'm hard-pressed to think of another year in which the undeserving Best Picture winner is inferior to all four of the other nominees. I'd love to see a full autopsy on this win. Academy voters are a staunch, old-fashioned bunch, so it's not surprising that a gay cowboy drama didn't win, nor that voters felt like they'd be able to give themselves a warm pat on the back for choosing a screechy diatribe of overwrought racial politics. I imagine that "I'm not racist! I voted for Crash!" is a thought that passed through a lot of smug minds that year.

Whatever the reason was for this laughable mistake, enough time has passed to see that clearly, a correction is needed here. Brokeback Mountain seems the obvious choice for a replacement winner, so let's get the repo team over to Paul Haggis' place. And while he and the other winners are kindly bundling up their awards in bubble wrap for shipment, let's go ahead and snag the other undeserved statuettes given out for that abominable screenplay. Try and tell me that the script for Crash was better than the ones for The Squid and the Whale or Match Point with a straight face. I'll take you out for ice cream if you can do it.

Shorties #10

I wish my bursts of productivity were in more practical realms than entertainment. Getting through a big to-do list would hopefully entail getting my household and finances in order, but instead, it involved knocking things off lists of pop culture to consume. I don't imagine I'll be getting a merit badge for that. But hell, I'll take my triumphs where I can. Let's dispense with some Shorties!

#1: This is How You Lose Her: I don't get a lot of book recommendations from my coworkers, but one woman really sold me on this 2012 collection of short stories by Junot Díaz. I'll never truly be able to walk a mile in the shoes of someone from a different ethnicity, but immersing myself in books by and about them (like Silver Sparrow) gets me as close as I can ever be to their perspectives. This is How You Lose Her features male Latino protagonists, and the stories mostly focus on their infidelities or struggles of identity. Some of the stories were a rough read, not because they were poorly-written, but because they seem to really burrow into the minds of guys who cannot build lasting relationships. (Grade: B+)

#2: Captain America: The First Avenger: Aside from the X-Men franchise, I can feel myself getting more and more bored with the superhero genre. I really enjoyed The Avengers, though, and thought I would make an effort to go back and catch up on some of the lead-up movies. The less said about Thor, the better, and I didn't bother with either of the Iron Man sequels. So I went into Captain America (2011) with a certain amount of trepidation. It turned out to actually be one of the better entries of the franchise. Sure, there are plenty of well-worn superhero tropes to be had, but the story flowed well, there weren't massive plotholes, and the character motivations all made sense. As usual, Chris Evans is game for whatever role he's in, and Hugo Weaving is always dependable as a villain. I didn't do cartwheels after the movie was over, but in an increasingly stale genre, it was a breath of fresh air. (Grade: B)

#3: The Impostors: Ready to hear the cast list? Oliver Platt. Stanley Tucci. Alfred Molina. Lili Taylor. Tony Shalhoub. Steve Buscemi. Allison Janney. Richard Jenkins. Isabella Rossellini. Campbell Scott. Billy Connolly. Dana Ivey. Hope Davis. Seriously! This 1998 farce is about two friends (Platt and Tucci) who spend all their time trying to hone the craft of acting, intentionally causing melodramatic scenes in public to test themselves. They insult the hammy performance of a drunken, albeit famous Shakespearean actor, and stowaway on a cruise ship to escape his wrath. All sorts of wacky, madcap schemes are taking place on board, from bomb threats to suicidal lounge singers to exiled royalty, and our protagonists get embroiled in all of them. It wasn't as good a movie as I was hoping, given the stellar cast (nailing the tone of a farce can be incredibly difficult), but it wasn't half-bad, either. (Grade: C+)

#4: Assassin's Creed 3: I just realized that I brought up how excited I was to play this game, and alluded to the fact when I was in the middle of it, but never said anything about it once I finally finished it. In a word - underwhelming. Like I just said, I'm a completionist, and thus a fan of video game busywork, but this game tested even my limits. Take out a guard with a smoke bomb? An announcement pops up that you need to do it nine more times. Hunt a deer? Do it twenty more times, with various types of traps and weapons. Find a treasure chest? Go find the other forty. Discover a tunnel? Go explore the other nineteen. The game's main story is almost lost in the shuffle, and though it wasn't a terrible game (I'm not sorry I bought it or anything), it certainly doesn't compare to Assassin's Creed 2 or Brotherhood. (Grade: C+)

#5: American Harmony: Every time I go over to my dad's house, he tries to entice me into watching a movie he's got on the DVR or that is in his Netflix queue. Sometimes, he's successful, and I get sucked into a movie I would never seek out on my own. This 2009 documentary is a perfect example. Competitive barbershop quartet performances are not something I'm at all interested in, but after watching twenty minutes or so, I was invested enough to have to stay and see who wins. As a movie, it's laughably goofy - it's everything A Mighty Wind was written to satirize. But for fans of the subject matter (like my dad), you could do a whole lot worse. (Grade: C)

The Body Politic

I make sure to work plenty of non-fiction into my reading list, but I've come to mistrust the Post-Colon books. You know, those books that can't leave well enough alone with just a title, and must insert a colon and unwieldy description to really hammer home their point (or more likely, their polemic argument). Lately, though, I've allowed a couple of Post-Colon books to slip through the filter, because they both sounded pretty interesting.

First up was Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail - But Some Don't (2012). See what I mean with that? It's a book by Nate Silver, the terms "signal" and "noise" are heavily used in the field of predictions, and researching what books are about is pretty simple with a little help from our old pal Internet. What possible need is there for that post-colon description? Nate Silver, for anyone who doesn't know by now, is the guy who builds predictive models about all sorts of topics, but is probably best known for correctly forecasting how all 50 states would wind up voting in the 2012 election. I'd seen him in a couple of interviews and read a couple of his blog posts, and he seemed like a really interesting guy, so when I heard he'd written a book about professional forecasting and the problems within that field, I was immediately intrigued.

The book certainly didn't let me down in terms of its range of topics. Naturally, electoral predictions were a big reason of why I wanted to read it, and Silver doesn't shy away from exploring why political pundits are so often colossally wrong in their predictions, but never seem to learn from their errors. He's not partisan about it; he's interested in probability and mathematical precedent, not talking points and speech gaffes. It was a fascinating chapter, but the book doesn't just explore political predictions. If there's something that people make a living trying to forecast, it's covered.

Chess. Financial markets, including the Great Recession. Weather prediction. Baseball. Terrorism. Earthquakes. Poker. All of these involve trying to figure out what's coming next, and the methods people have developed to deal with the unknowns vary wildly in terms of their success. Weather prediction has come a long way in the past couple of decades, but we're still hopeless at figuring out when the next earthquake will hit. It's not dry math. Even if successful predictive models exist, translating things like hurricane warnings into useful public policy can be a challenge, and the book goes into that as well. It was a very interesting read, and a handy reminder that our society could do with a lot more fact-sifting, and a lot less reactive emotion.

The Signal and the Noise was not a politically strident book, but the same cannot be said for Dan Savage's American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics (2013). Jesus, with the post-colon descriptions already. Savage is a controversial figure, not only in society as a whole, but in my groups of friends as well. I listen to and usually enjoy his weekly podcast, but several people I've talked to about him find him overly pugnacious, crass, or believe that he gives poor advice. I don't always agree with his advice, myself, but I find him to be a welcome voice, because aside from being a strong political ally, he's one of the few advice-givers who accepts the practicalities of love and sex, and doesn't force people into a rigid set of rules that enshrine a monolithic Path to Happiness.

Like Silver, his book encompasses a range of topics, all but one of which make sense within the context of his life and career. He covers personal stories, like his complicated relationship with Catholicism, the death of his mother, and his rearing of a straight teenager. There are also plenty of chapters that apply to his involvement in issues that affect us all, like gay marriage, the hypocrisy of bigoted Christians (naturally, bigotry is not limited to Christianity, but let's not harbor any illusions about who's throwing the biggest rocks at us in America), and the It Gets Better campaign, which reaches out to gay teenagers who can't see a life beyond the hell of their tortured adolescence.

It was a pretty good read, although most of the arguments made were things that I'd already caught up on as a regular listener of the podcast. Also, note how I said above how "all but one" of his chapters make sense. I consider Savage a pretty established expert on many topics, but American gun laws are not one of them. Not that I particularly disagree with his positions on the matter, and not that he's not allowed to have opinions on it, but... I'm not reading a book by a guy famous for his career in love and sex to get talking points on the grim circumstances of mass shootings. It was an odd chapter, forced into the book without really fitting into it - it was like running across a diatribe about abortion in the middle of a cookbook. Aside from that minor quibble, I liked it. In fact, both of these books were very enjoyable. That said, I think I've had my fill of Post-Colons for a while.

The Signal and the Noise: B+
American Savage: B

Song of the Summer 2013 Contender: "Dance Apocalyptic"

Pharrell Williams isn't the only artist with two songs on the short list of jams battling for supremacy this summer. Janelle Monáe has been burning up the charts lately, and in addition to "Q.U.E.E.N.", there's another bouncy summer single of hers that constantly finds itself on repeat in my apartment: "Dance Apocalyptic".

I'm the furthest thing from a prude that you'll find, but I have to admit that it's pleasant to hear a modern pop song that's joyful in a way other than "Let's bang as soon as possible". Imagine yourself dancing to this song. It shouldn't be difficult - it's so jaunty! When I dance around to this song, it's not sultry or suggestive, but a dance that's more of a frenetic burst of sunshine. I can easily envision twirling a partner around at the end of my arm as this plays in the background.

It's not a perfect song; I find myself actively annoyed by the tinny speech at the end. Still, it's an enormously fun tune that not only manages to distinguish itself as a song of the summer, but manages to distinguish itself amongst the songs of summer. "Dance Apocalyptic" is truly in a category by itself, and although something like "Blurred Lines" may represent this year's season better, I have a feeling that five years from now, I'll rather listen to this one.

Song of the Summer Odds: 5:2

Sin City

When it comes to adventure games and RPGs, I tend to like a certain amount of structure. An open world environment has its advantages, of course, but I find too much freedom kind of annoying, to be honest. I don't want it to be totally rigid, but appreciate a certain amount of go-here-do-this in quest design. I'm also a completionist. If I stumble across a feather, I want to find all 100. If there are twenty side-quests available in a town, I want to wipe out all twenty before I move on to the next town.

This approach skews my opinion of games that are popular with other gamers. I have yet to really get into Skyrim, because there's just too much. It plops you down and basically says "OK, go do whatever you want." And while I like games that force you to live with decisions, like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, I didn't like how my Skyrim decisions would cause effects that I couldn't understand. Certain people would suddenly hate me for seemingly no reason, probably because I harvested a pumpkin seven towns over or whatever.

So I was a little bit suspicious when it came to Fallout: New Vegas. I had never played a Fallout game before, and it has the same game engine as Skyrim. Would it have the same limitations? I just finished a playthrough of it, and happily, it addressed a lot of my concerns. True, certain people will turn on you if you make certain choices, but at least their reactions are understandable, if not totally predictable. Quests are (mostly) described plainly, and (mostly) direct you to the locale you need to visit to complete it.

The writing and acting is pretty engaging, too. A mix of futuristic sci-fi and wild west storylines sounds like it would be ripe for disaster, but I never found the plot ridiculous. That's saying something when you're marching down the street with a robot dog you borrowed from an Elvis impersonator that runs a gang on one side of you, and a hideous, seven-foot super-mutant that wears a gardening hat and talks about her grandchildren on the other. The various factions that populate New Vegas and the surrounding Mojave wasteland all have work for you to do, and though it's impossible to please everyone, it's fun to try and figure out how you fit into the framework of this post-nuclear society.

That's not to say there aren't problems. Some are purely technical; this can be a very glitchy game, and it crashed on me a few times. Some are the same issues I mentioned above - I would give what I thought was a fairly neutral answer, and suddenly found myself shut out of multiple quest lines because someone else didn't like what I had just said. Once I found myself in the odd position of being unable to complete a quest, because the gentleman I was supposed to report to had just been gunned down by a roving pack of enemies who were out to get me. There's also an awful lot of aimless wandering in this game. I kiddingly mentioned on Facebook that its tagline should be "Fallout: New Vegas - Walk Around This Mountain".

Still, there was more to like than dislike. As with many other games in the genre, you pick up companions along the way, and the ones in this game were a fun bunch, each with their own strengths and quests and personalities. There's naturally a lot of struggle and unhappiness in a post-nuclear society, and several quests successfully incorporated how terrifying it would be to live in such a world. It also offers several skills to focus in, so while I was a goody two-shoes with a specialty in standard guns and computer hacking in this playthrough, the game will be quite different if I play again as a jerk who's good at sneaking up on people with a baseball bat. All in all, I'd say that my trek through radioactive casinos was pretty entertaining, if not spectacular. If nothing else, I learned a lesson applicable to pretty much any RPG I'm likely to play in future: Just make sure you save before every conversation.

Fallout: New Vegas: B

Lifetime Pass: Harriet Sansom Harris

There are actors who always give a great performance, even if it's in the midst of a terrible show/movie. Helen Mirren springs to mind. There are actors that have genuine talent, but seem to lack the ability or power to pick quality scripts, and seem to be doomed to languish in whatever horrible show/movie they're trapped in. Amanda Seyfried would be a good example of that. But what do you call an actor who always manages to not only be a standout in whatever show/movie she happens to be in at the time, but actively makes the entire enterprise better? You call her Harriet Sansom Harris.

Six Feet Under. The Lost Room. Memento. Frasier. All of these were acclaimed or popular to some degree, and yet all of them got even better when Harriet Sansom Harris appeared on screen. Even Desperate Housewives, which could get patently ridiculous at times, benefited from her stopping by to add her own special brand of crazy.

There are some actors who excel at comedy, and some at drama, but I'm hard-pressed to think of many that are experts at both. And yet Harris handles it effortlessly. She makes dramas more dramatic. She makes comedies funnier. She makes thrillers more thrilling. And let's not forget that she's not limited to screens. She's also a Tony-award-winning stage actress, and oh, how I wish I could see her in a play.

In looking at her IMDb page, it seems she hasn't done much lately, and that is simply unacceptable. Casting agents, get on top of this. I would watch Harriet Sansom Harris play sentient dental plaque. You're telling me she can't do a guest spot on Mad Men or something?

Blue Bloods

I can't remember what initially inspired me to put Maggie Shipstead's debut novel Seating Arrangements (2012) on my to-read list. It was probably a book review I stumbled across somewhere or a recommendation from my sister. Its description on Goodreads mentions that it's set on an exclusive New England island over a wedding weekend, and "provides a deliciously biting glimpse into the lives of the well-bred and ill-behaved". That synopsis put me on alert, because while it would be nice for a novel to live up to that description, it's exactly the sort of language that would be employed to sell a trashy, annoying wish-fulfillment or revenge-fantasy chicklit book; the Real Housewives in literary form.

I'll happily eat a little humble pie for my suspicions about Seating Arrangements, though, because it's easily one of the best books I've read so far this year. The story spans a mere three days, and centers on the wedding of an aristocratic, wealthy family's pregnant daughter. Actually, I say "centers", but the story is told from the points-of-view of just about everyone except the bride and groom. Chapters freely jump from the staunch, stiff-upper-lipped patriarch to the emotional younger sister to the boozy aunt to the blase, detached brother of the groom, and so on. The joining of two families - especially families obsessed with money and social position - is a situation ripe for conflict, and plenty takes place, both external and internal.

It would be extremely easy for a book that is related by characters with names like Winn, Biddy, and Dicky to become insufferable, but Shipstead never falls into the trap of making them overly snide or stuffy. None of the characters are wholly good or bad, but relatable people with understandable motivations. They may be the 1%, but even their problems that would strike us plebeians as petty - like not being able to join a particular golf club - are able to resonate. When the wedding weekend ends, curiously little has been resolved. I usually find that to be an appallingly lazy writing device, but for once, it struck me as a realistic conclusion. A novel may have the words "The End", but in life, our problems and victories extend long after the wedding reception winds down.

The upper crust is often portrayed in television and movies as being otherworldly, but in this remarkable book, social position doesn't shield anyone from jealousy or embarrassment or fear. No amount of money or breeding can separate you from the herd.

Seating Arrangements: A
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