Colleague and good buddy DiscoStu and I recently began an argument about the relative merits of musical episodes of late 90s cult action/drama series. I posed a challenge to DiscoStu - that we watch both "The Bitter Suite" (from Xena: Warrior Princess), and "Once More With Feeling" (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and finally, once and for all, come up with a definitive answer as to the question "Which Is Better".
So last week DiscoStu left the secret, babe-infested Olilolo lair and ventured across town to Chez Clumsy, and we settled in for a night in front of the plasma with a six-pack of champagne and a packet of Green's "Just Like Mother Used to Burn" cupcakes I baked especially for the occasion.
We watched Xena first, so you may want to head over to Disco Stu's site to read up on "The Bitter Suite". Then you can proceed with "Once More With Feeling" commentary. It's up to you to plough through this lengthy post, and work out who's right - a geeky yet sexy journalist.... or me?
We break out the cupcakes and Twisties for "Once More With Feeling", the viewing of which was prefaced by about 10 minutes of back-story and fill-in. I mention that I found Season Six of Buffy really depressing and hard to watch. Stu says everyone did, even die-hard Buffyites like himself. But he's glad it exists, because it has this episode in it.
Stu: This episode is like a moment of joy in a middle of a volcano.
GC: It's like a very small ice-cube in the middle of a volcano.
Stu: It's like a million-dollar diamond hidden in just a giant pile of excrement. (pause) It would be like dipping your hand...
GC: I think I get your metaphor.
Stu: OK. OK.
I did watch Buffy at the time, but have never gone back for a re-watching. So Stu reminds me that Season Five had ended with Buffy dying to save the world; and Season Six opens with the useless Scooby Gang bringing her back to life in her coffin six feet under. We also mention the Buffybot. which hangs around for the first few eps allowing Sarah Michelle Gellar to do some humourous/inappropriate acting.
GC: You know, the greatest scientists in the world can invent robots that look a bit crap, and yet some Californian dude can make an entirely lifelike, humanlike robot in his basement.
Stu: So that's the point where you draw the line?
GC: It's not just Buffy, there's loads of sci-fi shows that go "Yeah, humanoid robots, they're really possible," and you're like, how much money has Sony thrown into making the real-life sex doll, or whatever, and they can't do it.
Stu: It's true that it kind of the kills the suspension of disbelief - you can believe in demons and monsters and everything else...
GC:... yeah, yeah, yeah!
Stu: ... but we know for a fact that technology doesn't exist, and yet there's the Buffybot walking around.
GC: And Spike was the one who'd had the Buffybot made...
Stu: Yeah, and was shacking up with it for a while.
GC: And that's not screwed up. No!
Stu: Everything about Season Six was screwed up. And believe me, I will be ragging the shit out of the show - don't take that as a criticism of the episode itself, it's more just my hatred of Season Six in general.
To further prove the screwed up, dark nature of Season Six, Stu mentions how magic became a "drug" for Willow, the sexy-lesbian-uber-witch.
GC: I remember being really annoyed at one episode when she brings back the chick from high school who was a witch at high school...
GC:... yeah, she's been a mouse for seven years in Willow's bedroom, and then one day before the opening titles, Willow thinks "Oh, hang on... what if I just click my fingers?" and all of a sudden she's back - and she knows where to score the good magic!
Stu: Yes, exactly, I know.
GC: She's been a mouse for seven years, how does she know where to score the new magic?!?!?
Stu describes the tension there'd been tension with Willow and her girlfriend Tara leading up to this episode about Willow's reliance of hocus pocus.
Stu: ... She's been leaving her magic pipes lying around...
GC: Staying out 'til 4am on the abracadabra...
Stu: Going out to rave parties and taking too much magic...
GC: Reading too much Harry Potter...
We briefly go over Giles' issues, Xander & Anya's issues, and irritating Sommers sister Dawn's kleptomania - and then we hit play on the DVD, taking in the special one-off-dodgy-50s-musical-style credits.
Stu: So now, we start with a song! Because it's a musical - rather than just being an episode that has songs in it.
GC: I'm still not thinking that's an automatic justification for why it's better. Because their construct for the episode - that comes later - explains why it's a musical from the start.
Stu: Absolutely, but I just think as a musical, it works better....
GC: Everyone has such beautiful hair...
Stu: They do - and for someone who's broke and has to go work in a fast food joint, Buffy has really nice designer clothes.
Both of us tuck into cupcakes as Buffy sings the opening song "Going Through the Motions", about her staid life since returning to, well, life. At the end, Buffy stakes a vampire, and it explodes in a cloud of dust around her face. Stu points out and says he's probably going to spend the next hour gushing. Either that, or do the lines along with the show: when Buffy inquires if any of the other Scooby Gangers have had a mysterious musical interlude, Stu mimics "Has anybody.... burst into song?". A song, "I've Got A Theory" follows, including Anya's idea that it might be her dreaded foe, bunnies.
Stu: Oh, this is just wonderful. Anya has a fear of bunnies...
GC: Yes, I know. I did watch Buffy...
Stu: Oh, right. Well, I'm explaining for people at home.
GC: I'm just loving... she's wearing this bizarre outfit.
Stu: It's a weird poncho thing, isn't it?
GC: It's a weird sort of half-poncho shirt.
Stu: Actually, there's some pretty weird fashion in this episode.
GC: There's a lot of weird fashion in Buffy if you go back....
Stu: Yeah, especially if you go back to the really early ones because it's late-90s fashions...
GC: Late 90s, high-waisted...
Stu: Well there's a scene, I think it's in the first episode, where Buffy's walking along in thigh-high boots, a mini-skirt and a leather jacket, and I wish she'd worn that for the entire run.
GC: It's funny what clothes men think are hot, compared to what women think are great outfits.
Stu: It could just be me too.
The Scooby Gang resolves to find out what's going on and deal with it ("If We're Together"), and discover the whole of Sunnydale seems to be infected with song ("The Mustard"). Then Dawn enters.
GC: More beautiful hair!
Stu: I actually have a real thing for Michelle Tractenberg, I think she's very pretty. But Dawn as a character is so annoying. and didn't really need to be there.
GC: But her hair! That's just not even... (GC is left speechless by Dawn's impossibly shiny, silky, straight brown mane). Nobody in this series ever had short hair. Everyone always had beautiful long hair.
Stu: Is that bad?
GC: No, it's just there's no variety. And then they fight...
Stu: You know that Xena has huge, lustrous black hair and fights in every episode?
GC: Yeah but Xena had characters with short hair as well... Gabrielle got her chair chopped off, so did Callisto...
Stu: Yeah, they both went the dyke cut, didn't they?
GC: Pixie cuts.
Stu: That's a much more charitable name for it.
Tara and Willow are now onscreen, with Tara singing a love song to her beloved ("Under Your Spell" - cause they're witches, geddit? Geddit?)
Stu: Tara was the best character, and I was so pissed when she died - at the end of this season. One more thing that season six doesn't have going for it.
GC: She's got lovely ears that stick out from under her hair; and I'm sure she's probably a size 10 or something but compared to the others in the show she just looked more like a normal girl.
(Stu makes a Dollhouse reference that means nothing to GC. Moving on...)
GC: But look, what are they wearing?
Stu: This has been pointed out before - they're basically dressed as if they're going to a renaissance fair, a medieval fair. If they had the pointy hats with ribbons on them, they would be straight out of a period piece.
GC: Now is the reason this isn't a duet because Alyson Hannigan can't sing?
Stu: Literally because Alyson Hannigan can't sing.
GC: But Tara can sing obviously.
Stu: Tara can sing. But not dance. As it witnessed here, she can't dance. (Tara does some dance moves. Awkwardly).
Stu: Also what you don't get in Xena is an actual, genuine lesbian sex scene. This is basically the foreplay.
GC: This is why you've watched this often. Sometimes with the sound turned down.
Stu: Yeah, just by myself.
(Tara sings a somewhat filthy line)
GC: "Spread beneath her willow tree"?!?!
Stu: Yeah, yeah, he just went there. And, uh...
GC: So I see what the metaphor is, she's floating in the air, and obviously that's 'cause of the sexing. It's obviously very good.
Stu: You spotted that.
We humourously jump cut to Xander et al in the magic shop. Then we see a man dancing until he bursts into flame, before we catch our first pre-ad-break glimpse of the villain. The first song back is "I'll Never Tell", Xander and Anya's Doris Day/Rock Hudson-style duet. After a street scene involving a lady singing about getting a parking ticket, we move to Buffy confronting Spike the vampire-with-reinstalled-soul-chip in his mausoleum house.
Spike offers Buffy booze. She replies "A world of no".
GC: Why is she always so sassy? Gawd, Joss Whedon's females always have to be so sassy.
Stu: They're also really empowered.
GC: Yeah, so empowered - she's about to have sex with a vampire. Jeeee-sus!
We discuss Spike's dye-job platinum blond hair and put-on English accent as he starts to sing "Rest in Peace".
Stu: So this is Spike's soft-rock ditty that he sings to Buffy. Just, you know, getting real with her. Telling her some truth.
GC: Something about Spike just reminds me of Luke Perry.
Stu: He's got that vibe about him, that sunken-cheeked thing - the funny thing is Luke Perry was in the Buffy movie.
GC: I actually quite liked the Buffy movie. I thought it was quite fun.
Stu: It has its moments.
GC: Oh look at that, he's angry, he just threw a bottle into the wall.
Stu: He's totally smashed a bottle, and that's how Buffy knows he's pissed, and things just got real. She just had some reality dropped on her.
GC: Thing is, he's trying to be angry, but he's still singing in this soft-cock rock voice.
Stu: It's so hard to be angry when you're singing soft-rock.
GC: In the Xena episode when she was singing at Gabrielle "It's YOUR fault!", you could hear the anger in her voice as she sang. (GC gives an apt demonstration of Spike's mellow ditty).
Stu: To be honest, I don't think the song suits his voice. 'Cause James Marsters sings in a band.
GC: Of course he does.
Stu: He's a Californian actor, he has a band.
GC: Do they tour with Keanu Reeves' band?
Stu: Probably. And 30 Odd Foot of Grunt.
GC: And 30 Seconds to Mars with Jared Leto.
Just then, Spike jumps up onto the top of a coffin to belt out the chorus.
GC: Who has a burial at night?!?!
Stu: Exactly - they've got this setpiece, but because he's a vampire, they couldn't be out in the day. So they have the metaphor of having a funeral, and they're now in a grave.
The song finishes, Buffy runs off, and Spike questions "You're not staying then?"
Stu and GC: DURRRRRRRR.
Cut to Tara telling Dawn they have a lead on the demon causing all the singing and dancing. Tara tells Dawn it's like a Lord of the Dance, but not the scary one, just a demon.
Stu and GC: DURRRRRRR.
Stu: See, you don't get jokes like that on Xena.
GC: That's true, you don't get Michael Flatley references.
Stu: That was very topical at the time.
Dawn opens a jewellery box full of klepto'd items.
GC: Aw, look. Dawn's got a jewellery box full of shit.
Stu: It really is the most terrible stuff to steal.
GC: I had a jewellery box full of shit when I was 15. When you're 15 and you're a girl, you get really into large, chunky pendants, with bizarre stones in them. Then you think you're all deep and stuff.
Stu: Some people never grow out of that.
GC: Goths, mostly.
Dawn's song is mercifully cut short as she is kidnapped by the villain's ventriloquist-dummy-like henchmen. In his hideout, she launches into a ballet routine.
Stu: I'm spending most of this scene just trying to remember if Michelle Trachtenberg is legal and whether it's OK for me to perve on her at this point.
GC: I don't know that she was. It depends, how long was this after Harriet the Spy?
The demon's feet appear.
GC: Oh look, spats!
Stu: The scariest of all shoes.
Sweet the song demon does his big sing-y, dance-y number. ("What You Feel").
GC: Oh, so she summoned the demon, accidentally?
Stu: Yeah, with her shitty necklace.
GC: See, girls, guys at home - don't buy shitty goth jewellery. It's not worth it.
Stu: You could get annoying dancing demons.
GC: So she's dancing all sexily, but looking scared. Again Stu, you probably shouldn't be watching.
Stu: The police are going to break down the door any second and drag me away. See it's doubly wrong because I'm not even sure if the actress was legal, but the character certainly isn't.
The song finishes with a close up on Sweet.
GC: Why has he got a giant pimple in the middle of his forehead?
We watch Giles bemoan his growing irrelevance to Buffy in the slow-mo training montage "Standing", before The Wah wanders into the room in time to see Tara realise she's been magicked by Willow to forget about their fighting.
GC: Oh no! She's under her spell...
GC & Stu: ...LITERALLY!
GC: It's not just a metaphor for love and sex and stuff!
Stu: See, layers, layers. That's what Xena's missing.
The Wah: And lesbians.
Stu: Well, yes. Well actually, you could argue the point there.
GC: There's layers of lesbians.
The Wah: It's like a lesbian lasagne. With meat. No! No meat!
The Wah muses about the casting of the show.
The Wah: There are no black people in this whole series, is there? Everyone's white in this whole show.
Stu: There's Principal Wood in series seven.
The Wah: So one minor character is the only black person?
Stu: The only black guy.
GC: There are a lot of black-looking demons.
The Wah: Nice.
The cast launch into their rousing fight song "Walk Through the Fire", which contains a number of mixed fire metaphors. First they're walking through the fire, then drawn to it, then caught in it. WHICH IS IT, JOSS? HUH? Buffy then combats the demon by launch into her big revealing plot-detail-revealing solo, "Something to Sing About".
Stu: Listening to this now, it's apparent the Auto-Tune must've burnt out working on Sarah Michelle Gellar's songs. It's basically a robot singing.
GC: She's all right, though. They've been written for her range, which is the most important thing.
Buffy reveals she was in heaven.
GC: It's a weird note, "Heaaavven".
Buffy starts dancing.
Stu: This is some of the weirdest choreography I've ever seen. And I get she's meant to be all tortured and stuff, but it's just into interpretive dance territory.
Xander admits to summoning the demon with the pendant that Dawn then nicked.
Stu: Xander's now worried he'll have to go to hell to be Sweet's Queen, but he's not interested. Which is weird, because you'd think as a musical theatre demon, he'd prefer Xander to Dawn.
The demon vanishes with a flourish, but the cast keep singing.
GC: They're still singing!
Stu: I feel like an enormous geek for saying this, but the justification is that there's residual magic hanging around from the spell.
GC. Yeah. Residual this, Joss.
Spike says "Bugger this", leaving the group singalong only to be confronted by Buffy. She sings a bit to him, then the episode climaxes with a kiss.
Stu: At the time, that was huge.
GC: Oh, I remember. It was all the build-up of sexual tension.
Stu: So there we go, "Once More With Feeling".
GC: Yeah, it stands up well, apart from the fashion.
Stu: So final verdict?
GC: Yeah, it's a good episode, it stands up well, and it certainly is well-written. But I don't think you've changed my mind.
Stu: And you haven't changed my mind.
GC: Well screw you Stu!
Stu: Screw you Nat!
GC: So this whole thing...
Stu: ... has been pointless!
There was more post-show discussion, but essentially, neither of us changed our minds. Damn stubborn folk, I'll tell you. Xena is totally way better though.