May 8, 2000
After a sluggish start, the current Buffy-goes-to-college season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" has flowered into a juicy depiction of freshman-year sexual awakenings. Buffy has become an emotionally independent woman (no mommy or watcher needed) and has left behind a frustrating, masochistic, hands-off relationship with Angel for mature sexual fulfillment with hunky Riley Finn. Willow (Alyson Hannigan), meanwhile, has been involved in a lesbian relationship with sister witch Tara (Amber Benson), although their affair has been mostly rendered in "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon's favorite metaphors: When they do magic together, their powers shoot out of their bodies, zap around the room in sparkly streaks and leave them panting on the floor, surrounded by candles and rose petals. I believe Willow actually made a reference to "Rubyfruit Jungle" in one episode, although I may have hallucinated it.
This is all quite alluring. But for some of us of a certain age, the real story of this season has been Giles' raging midlife crisis. You'll remember that Buffy's reserved British watcher was out of a job at the end of last season, having been fired by the Watchers' Council (he lost his cover job as Sunnydale High's librarian, too, when the school burned down on graduation day). For the first few months of this season, the heretofore erudite and very proper Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) behaved as if he were in the throes of a second adolescence, slacking off, getting hooked on game shows and soap operas, wolfing down American snack foods by the bushel.
But the thrill of freedom eventually wore off and self-pity set in; Giles was a man without a purpose. Yes, he had a little thing going with that African-British woman who would pop into town to see him every now and then, but his young friends were cruelly unsympathetic to the idea of stuffy Giles getting some action. Walking in on Giles and his girlfriend one week, Buffy couldn't keep her revulsion to herself: "You're very, very -- old!" she gasped.
And fate conspired to make Giles feel older with each episode. He couldn't deal with the fact that his surrogate daddy's little girl was growing up. He sank into a jealous funk over being usurped as the No. 1 adult in Buffy's life by her new college mentor, psych professor Maggie Walsh (since deceased). He flipped out when he discovered that Buffy was keeping her relationship with Riley a secret from him. When Ethan Rayne, his old running buddy from his days in an occult-worshipping punk band, came to visit, he went out drinking with him, whining about how kids these days have no respect for their elders. Ethan, however, slipped Giles a Mickey and turned him into a big ugly demon unrecognizable to his young pals -- which was a neat metaphor for getting old. Giles was once cool, and deep inside he feels he still is, but the kids look at him and see only a geezer of 40.
Head has handled Giles' blue period with his usual impeccable sensitivity and arid wit (not that that'll make any difference come Emmy time). Head kept his character's pathos and foolishness in perfect balance all season, culminating in the showstopping scene from the April 25 episode where Giles seeks solace in classic rock, performing an unplugged set at a coffee house.
I don't think I laughed harder at any TV moment all season than I did at the sight of Willow, Tara and fellow Scooby Gang-ers Xander and Anya's expressions of open-mouthed shock when they stumbled upon Giles at the coffeehouse. With eyes closed and an earring glistening in his ear, Giles strummed his acoustic guitar and poured his heart into a morose version of the Who's "Behind Blue Eyes," the very picture of a tragically misunderstood aging hipster. And I don't think I agreed so wholeheartedly with any TV statement this season than I did with Willow's observation that she found the whole thing, well, weirdly sexy. There's a distinguished canon of depressed ballads by old British guys (Townshend, Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello) who won't go gentle into that good night. I want to hear Giles sing every one of them.
On the May 2 episode of "Buffy," Willow came out to her friends and chose Tara over prodigal boyfriend Oz. That same night on NBC, "Will & Grace" reran an episode where gay pals Will (the cerebral, buttoned-down one) and Jack (the crusading queen) protested NBC's (fictional) censoring of a gay sitcom kiss by staging their own same-sex lip-lock in front of the "Today" cameras in Rockefeller Center. For this, we should all erect little shrines to the goddess Ellen and burn lavender incense. Network TV finally has gays and lesbians on its radar.
Or in the case of "Will & Grace," its gay-dar. This is the gayest show on television -- and that's "gay" as in both queer and merry. Lawyer Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and kooky-redhead decorator Grace Adler (Debra Messing) have one of those gay man/straight woman mind-meld things that might look far-fetched to the uninitiated but, trust me, "Will & Grace" gets it right.
Best friends/roommates Will the mensch and Grace the shameless attention craver leaned on each other a little too much when the sitcom first premiered in 1998; it felt like the old network TV cop-out, sticking a gay man in a pseudo-marriage with a straight woman.
But this season, Grace moved out (OK, across the hall), their respective love lives have picked up, and the show is funnier and politically tougher for it. Besides the NBC kissing protest ("But it's a gay network," argues Jack. "Its symbol is a peacock!"), a second episode May 2 satirized organizations of "former" gays that tout a "cure" for homosexuality -- although Jack, in typical on-the-prowl fashion, infiltrated the latter group only because he wanted to date its cute leader. "There are no straight men, only men who haven't met Jack!" he proclaims.
The irrepressibly self-absorbed Jack (Sean Hayes) and his partner-in-crime, Karen (Megan Mullaly), an acerbic, boozing, fashionista who married for money, are Will and Grace without Will's self-discipline and Grace's neuroses. Jack and the divinely Mae West-ian Karen are absolutely without shame or self-editing; whenever they enter a scene, impish anarchy follows. They get the best lines in this razor-sharp comedy, the ones that make you gasp and wonder if the censor fell asleep at the switch. "Heterosexual marriage is just wrong!" exclaims Jack in one episode. "I mean, if God had intended man and woman to be together, he would've given them both penises!" Explaining to Jack that "Welcome Back Home" is a group of ex-gays, Karen tells him that the members have turned their backs on other men -- "and not in a good way."
"Will & Grace" blurs gay and straight culture, does an inclusionary redecorating job on classic sitcom structure -- it's "I Love Lucy," except Lucy is Jewish, Ricky is gay, Ethel is a fabulous flamer and Fred is a cynical, liquored-up diva. To "Will & Grace's" triumphant year, add the big ratings for HBO's all-lesbian extravaganza "If These Walls Could Talk 2" and all of those openly gay male "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" contestants (with the camera cutting to their partners cheering them on in the "relationship seat"), and it has been a pretty amazing season for gays on TV. Take a weekend in Vermont, people -- you've earned it!
"The Sopranos" second season finale (April 9)
I don't know about you, but I found the graphic depiction of Tony Soprano in the throes of food poisoning infinitely more disturbing than the scene where Tony, Paulie and Silvio execute Big Pussy for ratting them out to the feds.
On second viewing though, I realized that Tony's noisy digestive problems did serve a purpose -- the food poisoning was a metaphor for Tony's inner turmoil and moral decay, just as his lithium-induced hallucinations at the end of last season suggested the power of the subconscious. Tony (James Gandolfini) still remains a strangely sympathetic figure, just trying to hold his families together. But the bad things he does at "work" (pumping a kid full of lead in retaliation for a hit on Christopher Moltisanti, driving a pathetic gambler into bankruptcy to collect on a debt) are eating at his soul.
This season, though, belonged to Tony's wife Carmela (Edie Falco), who is emerging as an even darker and more complicated figure than her husband. Carmela considers herself a deeply religious person; when Pussy's wife talks of leaving her husband, Carmela will not hear of it: "Marriage is a holy sacrament!" But that doesn't stop Carmela from pursuing an affair with a wallpaper hanger. Carmela is a hypocrite, but she doesn't see it that way. As this season played out, we understood for the first time the depth of Carmela's revulsion and anger over Tony's keeping of a mistress. Tony's infidelity justifies every holy sacrament she breaks, every harsh word and disgusted look she flings her husband's way, every extravagant, unnecessary purchase, every flirtation.
Normally, Carmela is not a negotiator; she takes what she wants, as we saw in the extraordinary scene where, armed with a ricotta pie and a dazzling smile, she intimidates a Georgetown alumna into writing daughter Meadow a letter of recommendation to college. But Carmela is willing to negotiate with God if it means protecting the people she loves. In one episode, as Christopher lies gravely wounded in the hospital after the hit, she slips into an empty room and, kneeling before a crucifix, promises to try to guide her family toward righteousness if Christopher is spared.
How can a woman of such obvious faith, who can communicate so easily with God, live with herself for choosing to marry a mobster? It isn't easy. As a Mafia wife, Carmela must share in all her husband's sins, because they've bought her suburban matron respectability -- the mink coat, the jewelry, the faux-stately house with its little Martha Stewart touches of gracious living, the book club get-togethers with the girls. But Carmela thinks she can balance it all out, maybe even come out ahead, if she's a good enough Catholic. She's caught between a deal with the devil and a deal with God, and, next season, something has got to snap.
The final curtain
How do you say farewell to a show that changed the face of television as we know it? A show that provoked controversy, that drew us in with the harshness of its disturbing imagery and then said, "Ha-ha, made you look?" I'm speaking of course about "Wonderland," the ABC drama series set in a New York public hospital's psych ward. Many series have closed up shop this season -- "Party of Five," "Boy Meets World," "God, the Devil and Bob" -- but the loss of "Wonderland," which solidly anchored ABC's 10 p.m. Thursday slot from March 30 to April 6, is one from which network prime time may take minutes to recover.
Created, directed and written by Peter Berg (Dr. Billy Kronk on "Chicago Hope"), "Wonderland" drew the ire of mental health professionals who claimed it sensationalized the mentally ill and portrayed them as untreatable, wild-eyed freaks. For instance, in the main storyline of the first two episodes, a mentally ill man refused to take his medication and then slaughtered a bunch of cops in Times Square; he later heard voices in his head that told him to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the neck with a pen, but not before sticking a hypodermic needle into the belly of a pregnant psychiatrist.
But perhaps the mental health professionals were nitpicking. Because "Wonderland" certainly made you appreciate the plight of those poor souls who think they're receiving radio transmissions through their fillings. After watching the show, with its psych ward inmates babbling and skulking around like extras from "The Snake Pit," its unrelenting din of a dozen actors shouting at once and its dark, grimy, depressing sets and spinning camera work, I felt on the verge of a full blown anxiety attack, not to mention a migraine; I had to lie down in a dark, quiet room and be very, very still until the Martians told me it was safe to get up again.
Alas, ABC quietly canceled "Wonderland" after approximately 98.9 percent of its viewers switched over to "ER" during the second episode. But then, who knows how long "Wonderland" would have lasted anyway? After the series was canceled, a gossip column reported the anonymous comments of one of the show's stars, who revealed that some cast and crew members resented Berg's on-set antics, which included bringing his large pet dog to work and letting it defecate in people's dressing rooms. It's that kind of creative energy that made "Wonderland" the show it was. R.I.P.