Monday, July 16, 2012

Buffy Blog: "Superstar"

“Anya pours herself a bowl of JONNIE-Os”. If you have, dear unreaders, only watched Buffy on DVD you probably don’t undestand the full impact the season four episode “Superstar” likely had on its audience the first time they saw it on the WB. From 29 February 2000, when “Who Are You” was first broadcast, Buffy went on hiatus, as sometimes happens on American television, until 4 April 2000. When Buffy returned the first thing devoted viewers saw was an episode of Buffy in which Buffy and the Scoobies have been replaced as the heart of the show by one Jonthan Levenson, “Superstar”.

“Superstar” begins with a remarkable breaking of the fourth wall thanks to a turning of almost everything we in the audience have grown accustomed to seeing in Buffy upside down. In the teaser Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Anya, now fighting with the Scoobies as well as hanging with them, are fighting a couple of vampires if not particularly well. What’s up with that? One vamp escapes and the Scoobies follow it to a crypt where five vamps are feasting on a happy meal with legs. The Scoobies instead of taking on the vamps, as we would expect the Scoobies to do, decide that there are too many vampires for them to take on so they decide to go for help. Help? Buffy is going for help? Cut to a mansion, we see Buffy and the Scoobies in that mansion, we see a chair facing backwards behind a desk in a room they walk into. When Buffy says to that chair, “Um, Hi? We have a problem” we see the chair turn. Sitting in that chair is Jonathan (Danny Strong). Jonathan? “Sounds like you could use my help, he says”. Use his help? Cue James Bondy guitar twangy music. Cue Buffy theme song and credits.

Even the credits in “Superstar” are disconcerting for the returning viewer. Jonathan appears right along side our Scoobies in the title sequence. What is going on? Did I miss something? Did I miss an episode? Is Jonathan now a Scooby?

As the episode continues everything seems a bit off. Jonathan is now stronger than Buffy, a better strategiser than the Slayer, a better punner than the Buffster, better at computer hacking than Willow, better at chess that Giles, a tactical consultant to the Initiative in their hunt for Adam, better at William Telling apples off the heads of Initiative solders than even William Tell, a noted author, inventor of the internet, a famous musician and songwriter, a superb trumpet player, a famous actor who starred in The Matrix, a sex symbol who has two sexy Swedish female twins cohabiting with him, and a celebrity chased by the paparazzi even when fighting evil. He’s even better than Xander at the talking cure helping Buffy and Riley seemingly work out there problems in the wake of their Faith, a Faith whose memory hangs like a fog over Buffy and Riley in this episode, slept with my boyfriend crises.

“It's Buffy, You Big Bleached...(can't find the right word) Stupid Guy”. By now we should now that when Buffy’s punning is off something is amiss. In “Superstar” Buffy is not the Slayer she used to be. She runs to Jonathan for help in killing vampires, her punning is horrible as her repartee with a Spike who calls her Betty in act one shows, and she is halting when she tries to tell ad convince the other Scoobies, the very skeptical Scoobies, that Jonathan may have manipulated the world by creating an alternative reality and that he is ignoring evidence, a symbol--remember how seriously the Scoobies took the symbol in “Doomed”?--relating to the monster. Despite put-downs, the script calls them betrayals—a shape of things to come?—from the Scoobies about Buffy’s abilities Buffy proves to be correct about Jonathan not revealing everything he knows about the monster as Jonathan admits when he breaks into the secret no Jonathan invited at Giles’s.

Jonathan tells the Scobies to their relief, particularly Xander’s, that he has a past with the monster. Jonathan tells the assembled Scoobies that every time he faces the monster his mind becomes confused because it seems to have some power over him. Xander being Xander compares what happens to Jonathan around the monster to what happens to Superman when he is around kryptonite. So Jonathan is Superman in Xander’s mind? Now that Jonathan has admitted he knows the monster and that he tattooed the monster’s symbol on his back so he wouldn’t underestimate him the next time he fights him, Buffy grows more and more self-confident and is able to box Jonathan into a we need to go after the monster and kill it because it is harming people like Karen with a K and Tara corner.

“You Could Have, Like, a World Without shrimp”. “Superstar”, like “The Wish” and “Doppelgangland”, is one of Buffy’s alternative universe episodes. And like “Doppelgangland” and Buffy in general (see my Reading Buffy Synoptically Blog Post on doubles in the Buffyverse on this blog site) “Superstar” has its own doppelganger. The monster, which Jonathan says is little better than an animal and is thus not a demon, is the dark double of Jonathan himself. The monster is the consequence of the augmentation spell Jonathan has cast to make himself the centre of a universe of his own design. In order to balance the forces of good Jonathan had to, at the same time, create the opposing force of evil, the worst of everything, everyone’s nightmare, as Giles notes. Geek Xander, always the Jonathan groupie, thinks that Jonathan casting a spell to be cool is cool. Disrupting the balance between good and evil is, by the way, exactly what the Scoobies, Ethan Rayne, and many in the demon world think that the Initiative has done when they created their new “man” Adam. Can you say parallelism?

While the Scoobies discover through research that is a little more difficult to do this time thanks to the fact that Jonathan has cast an augmentation spell making himself the hero of his own universe, Jonathan and Betty, err Buffy, particularly Buffy this time—her punning and hence her Slayer skills are returning along with her self-confidence—pump Spike for information. He sends them to a cave near Brookside Park which, he has heard, was where something big kicked some demons out of earlier. Adam? Jonathan’s demon?

As Jonathan and Buffy walk through the cave the monster attacks and Jonathan and Buffy alternate fighting the monster of the week of “Superstar”. As the monster gets weaker Jonathan gets weaker, it is his double after all, and Buffy gets stronger. Though Jonathan in the end acquits himself with his morality mostly intact there is a Hitchcockian moment where we viewers wonder whether Jonathan is going to push Buffy into a deep pit in the cave particularly after Anya says to the other Scobies that Jonathan isn’t going to want to bring back the “real” world of the Buffyverse given that it will mean he will be bringing back a world in which he is once again far from the ultra-confident and uber capable centre of the universe of his desires. But he doesn’t. He helps Buffy fight the monster and reveals to her that as the monster is weakened so will he be and that she needs to defeat the beast. In the end it is Jonathan who saves the day by pushing the monster into the chasm. Jonathan, in other words, is basically a good guy. In the shooting script, by the way, Jonathan fell into the pit along with the monster to be saved from certain death by Buffy.

Scoobies Disassemble. Anya, Riley, and Tara, Tara to a less extent, are part of the Scooby Gang now. All the Scoobies, seem to be taken with Jonathan. Anya reads Jonathan’s memoir, Oh Jonathan, while Xander is away from his basement apartment. Is Anya living there now? Giles has the Jonathan Swimsuit Calender. A little guy on guy action? Xander, geek and nerd that he is, has Jonathan comics, a Jonathan CD, Jonathan trading cards, and Jonathan posters. A little guy on guy action? Anya and Xander, when they see Jonathan in concert at the Bronze, go off to have sex. Jonathan as turn on for gals and guys? Willow and Tara put pictures of Jonathan up on Tara’s dorm wall. Jonathan as a turn on for even those who seem to be interested in the same female sex?

“Things Taking Work”. When Buffy raises the issue of whether Jonathan might have created an alternative universe at Giles’s apartment the only one not to betray her and to take her somewhat seriously is Riley. “It [Jonathan manufacturing an alternative universe] sounds like nonsense”, he says, “But I'm starting to know this girl pretty well and I think she sees things the rest of us don't. I think -- for once -- we should follow her lead.

Riley believing in Buffy is important because, as we know from “Superstar”, Buffy and Riley are still feeling the after effects of Riley sleeping with Faith in Buffy’s body. Buffy believing in Riley at this point is a bit tough. Jonathan tells Buffy, while they are having coffee at the Espresso Pump, that she has to really believe that Riley didn’t know he was having sex with a Faith in Buffy’s body not just know it. Jonathan tells Riley in a later conversation in the Initiative lair that he has to let Buffy know that he really cares about her. So when Riley shows a Buffy who is at a vulnerable moment in her life as a Slayer, a moment when, as the script says, Buffy is being betrayed by the other Scoobies, Riley shows the Buffster that he really does believe in her. As a result Buffy’s and Riley’s relationship seems back on track. Buffy and Riley out of pain thanks to the talking cure?

“Let's go have sex now. Yeah, Okay”. Anya and Xander’s relationship seems to be going well. Riley, however, wonders, as he tells Jonathan, if it will work out for them. After all Anya and Xander sex seems to be stimulated this time by the desires associated with their Jonathan gazes.

You Can't Keep Trying to Make Everything Work Out All at Once, With Some Huge Gesture”. The last time we saw Jonathan was in “Earshot” (1:18), where he attempted to kill himself, and in “The Prom” (1:20), where he gave Buffy the Class Protector award Sunday broke in “The Freshman” and which we haven’t seen since. Now he has tried to deal with his inner pain by making himself the centre of the universe upsetting many as a result including our Scoobies, especially Xander who says he now feels empty after losing how Jonathan made him feel about himself—shape of things continuing?—but apparently not Anya who simply says that alternative reality spells are neat. Buffy tells him that, just as she told Willow in “Something Blue”, that dealing with pain takes time and work and that huge gestures, magical or otherwise, aren’t the way to deal with pain. Has Jonathan learned his lesson? Has Willow learned hers? Can you say parallelism?

“It's a small reservoir of Uranium 235”. Jonathan is no dummy. He figures out what is powering Adam and what it will take to kill him by looking at some of Walsh’s schematic designs for Adam. Adam’s power source, Jonathan discovers, is not biological. He is powered by uranium. Since the uranium is encased in lead it will be difficult to track Adam though Geiger counters, which Jonathan plans to equip the Initiative with, will help. And since Adam is powered by uranium it will be difficult to kill him. You can’t kill him, Jonathan says, by decapitating him. He has to be thoroughly annihilated. How are either the Scoobies or the Initiative going to do that?

“I'm aware”. Adam, doing research in the library, librarian he has eviscerated lying on the floor, tells his vampire sidekick and us viewers that the world we are seeing in “Superstar” and Jonathan’s central place in that world, is a lie. He finds it intriguing because he is interested in chaos, and what Jonathan apparently has created through magicks is chaos, but he is aware that it is “wrong”. Adam also tells his vamp flunky that he seems to be the only one not affected by Jonathan’s spell because he is singularly aware of every molecule of himself and everything around him. Adam is a quick learner.

The Chorus. This Jane Espenson penned and David Grossman directed episode is full of that patented Jane Espenson humour and wordplay. “Superstar” is fascinating for a number of reasons. The episode takes a background character, Jonathan, a character Jane Espenson once said she loved to write for and who she would give prominent roles to in later episodes she wrote, makes him into the central character and hero of the Buffyverse.

Danny Strong, who played Jonathan Levenson in Buffy, by the way, has gone on to a writing career in television. He wrote the superb Recount (HBO, 2008) a docudrama about the Al Gore-George W. Bush recount battle in Florida in 2000, and the highly praised Game Changer (HBO, 2012) about Sarah Palin’s vice presidential run in 2008.

Buffy had broken the fourth wall, the wall between TV programme and television audience, several times before including last week, as I mentioned, in “Who Are You” when Faith summarised what she saw as Buffy’s character traits and in “The Wish” (3:9) and in “Doppelgangland” (3:16), but not as extensively as it does in “Superstar”. With “Superstar” Buffy takes the breaking of the fourth wall to new levels.

While “Superstar” is primarily a Jonathan episode, an episode focused on one to the minor and background characters of Buffy, it does move several other arcs along. Buffy and Riley seem to reconcile. Willow and Tara seem to be growing closer. When Tara leaves Willow and Buffy to go into her dorm Willow puts a hand on Tara's shoulder, lets it drift down to Tara's arm, and gives her hand a warm squeeze before they part. Riley is still a part of the Initiative. Spike is getting butcher’s blood so he can eat and avoid becoming one of those vampires who looks like one of those children from one of those dusty countries. Xander’s and Anya’s relationship still seems close even if there appears to be a bit of foreboding on the horizon.

Hilarious. Buffy kiddingly moaning Jonathan while she and Riley are kissing on a bed at the end of the episode. Xander had accused Anya of doing the real thing earlier in "Superstar".

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