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The 22 Best ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Episodes

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*credit to Entertainment Weekly for the cover photo*

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show which occupies a unique place in both pop culture and television history. While it began its life as a second-tier, mid-season replacement on the struggling WB network, by the end of its life cycle it would be home to one of the most ravenously devoted fan bases on the planet.

Buffy, like The X-Files, was a cultural touch point that helped to pave the way for horror to become a genuine successful television genre outside of anthology shows like The Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt. Instead of going for the all or nothing horror of those shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer opted for a focus on characterization, and an increasingly well-established world where it really felt like almost anything could happen.

Through its deliberately subversive writing, its relentless questioning of social and storytelling tropes, and its talented cast, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has stood the test of time for 22 years as one of the best reviewed and most beloved television shows of all time.

With that in mind, we’re here to catalog the 22 best, most representative, and most essential episodes of Buffy across all seven of its seasons. Obsessives and newbies alike will find plenty to love in our collection of the best Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes below.

The Best Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes:

22) “Prophecy Girl”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Season one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is by far it’s most hit or miss collection of episodes. With several downright silly episodes (“The Pack”, “I Robot, You Jane”) and only a few that are stand-outs (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”, “Angel”), season one can make for a tough entry point for outsiders and newcomers.

Still, Buffy’s showdown with The Master in the season one finale, “Prophecy Girl”, is the absolute high point of this middling collection. Being the first time that Buffy feels downright out-matched and the first time she fails in her slayer duties, “Prophecy Girl” is also notable for giving every central character a purpose, and uniting them as the Scoobies in the final shot.

With high stakes, top-notch writing, and a genuinely thrilling battle as its centerpiece, “Prophecy Girl” re-wrote the rules for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and helped it to grow into the show it would come to be.

21) “Something Blue”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Some of Buffy‘s most charming episodes are also some it’s goofiest. Being set in a world where magic can wreak endless amounts of chaos and havoc allowed Buffy the Vampire Slayer to take a break from the heavy stuff for some truly funny episodes like “Something Blue”.

The premise of the episode (random phrases Willow says become reality at a whim) is so silly that the episode could have been an absolute flub, but thanks to some sharp writing and a lot of imagination, “Something Blue” is memorable as one of season four’s best episodes.

From the Spike and Buffy pairing (a scene-stealing notion that would have major implications for the future) to Xander becoming a literal demon magnet, “Something Blue” is an episode that embraces its wacky premise in a way that is supremely admirable.

20) “The Zeppo”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Another extremely silly outing, “The Zeppo” finds a season three Xander feeling like the only one in the Scooby squad who has nothing to offer. With that in mind, when Xander finds himself roped into a crime caper led by gang of undead classmates, he opts to handle it himself rather than ask his friends for help.

While this might easily turn into a tired message episode about learning to rely on those closest to you, “The Zeppo” instead doubles down by having Xander eventually come to terms with his weaknesses and even overcome them as the hour winds down.

Bonus points here for Xander’s short sexual encounter with Faith and a subplot where the rest of the central characters battle an unfathomable evil force and save the world in a collection of scarcely commented upon background scenes.

19) “Lie to Me”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The first truly great episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t arrive until well into the second season of the show. “Lie to Me” sees an old friend of Buffy’s come back into her life while harboring a dark secret. As Xander and Willow begin to suspect Ford is more than he appears, Buffy is blinded with nostalgia and affection.

The grim twist of “Lie to Me”, that Ford is dying of brain cancer and has cut a deal with Spike to become a vampire, isn’t revealed until late in the episode, making this knife twist all the more brutal. The thematic mirror between Spike and Buffy, as they are the only characters not to lie in this episode, is especially interesting when you consider where the show ultimately takes the two of them.

Finally, the tragic ending, which sees Buffy forced to stake her newly undead friend, cements the surrogate father/daughter relationship between Buffy and Giles, when she asks him to lie to her about how dark this world really is.

18) “A New Man”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Any time Ethan Rayne comes to town, Buffy fans generally know that they’re in for a fun episode. “A New Man” is no exception. Centering on an increasingly lost Giles feeling untethered to his life (with no job to do, no kids to teach, and no slayer to watch) and making a series of poor decisions that have dire, if hilarious, consequences, “A New Man” is a ridiculous hour of television.

After a night out drinking with his rival, a chaos warlock, Giles awakens to discover he’s been transformed into a demon. Only able to speak in grunts and roars, and having torn up his home in shock and frustration, Giles is now being confused for a monster and hunted by his own slayer.

The buddy cop style hijinks that unfold between Giles and Spike, the only one who can understand Giles’ demon grunts as a language, are just the cherry on top of this ridiculously silly and undeniably entertaining episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

17) “Two to Go”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Though viewers had already seen the beginnings of Dark Willow, it wasn’t until “Two to Go” that Willow went all in on the villain arc. As she continues to reel from the murder of her girlfriend, Tara, Willow goes after the people she holds responsible.

As Buffy, Xander, and Giles try to stop her, they also find themselves in her cross hairs, and as Willow grows increasingly unhinged, the stakes are raised considerably.

It’s a testament to the writing team of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that they could actually make this arc, in which the show’s meekest, nicest character turns into the surprise big bad, work. While there are some clumsy mis-steps along the way in season six, the pay off of seeing Buffy and Willow go toe to toe is well worth the price of admission.

16) “Innocence”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The two-episode arc of “Surprise” and “Innocence” is one of the most daring moves a teen drama has ever had the audacity to pull. Buffy the Vampire Slayer began with the mission statement of using the supernatural as metaphors for real life issues, and “Innocence” brings this thesis to a chilling reality.

After losing her virginity to Angel, Buffy awakens to find that Angel is acting like a totally different person. What she doesn’t know is that through an elaborate confluence of events, he has lost his soul. The metaphor, however, probably rang horribly true for the many, many teenage girls who had given themselves to an older boy, only to be tossed aside and treated like trash.

While Buffy is initially destroyed by Angel’s cruelty, she eventually hardens her pain into a steely resolve when Angel attacks a movie theater full of innocent bystanders. Though Buffy is unable to kill Angel in the final moments of “Innocence”, she does emancipate herself from him with a very satisfying kick to the nuts. “Give me time,” she promises as she leaves him on his knees. It’s one of season two’s best moments.

15) “Hush”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
One of the most memorable episodes in the entire series emerged as a result of, and answer to, some of Joss Whedon’s most outspoken critics. They contended that Buffy the Vampire Slayer only worked because of its snappy dialog, questioning Whedon and co’s ability to tell a good story.

Enter “Hush”, an episode in which everyone in Sunnydale is struck silent by demons right out of a fairy tail. The delightfully creepy gentlemen hover about town in the silence, murdering women and stealing their hearts as part of a grand ritual.

Of course, outside of the main plot is where a lot of the fun is had, as the Scoobies make goofy gestures, draw pictures, and write on little erasable whiteboards to communicate with one another. A scene in which Giles stages an elaborate slide show, complete with music, in order to explain the results of his research remains one of the funniest scenes in the entire series.

Further, “Hush” has real implications for the story, as Tara and Willow come together for the first time and Riley and Buffy discover each other’s hidden lives. “Hush” is an all-around great episode and certainly the best hour of season four.

14) “Seeing Red”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Some of the most traumatic moments of the entire series emerge in the troubling and contentious final act of season six, which sets Willow up as the villain. The worst of these both occur here, in “Seeing Red”.

The trio, a group of man baby villains who grow to be a real and dangerous threat at last, is headed by the misogynistic and sociopathic Warren. In “Seeing Red” Buffy shuts down their plans at last, but at a deadly price. When Warren shows up with a gun and shoots Buffy in the chest, this is only the beginning of the damage he will do.

Unwittingly, he also shoots Tara threw an upstairs window as he fires wildly. The chilling final scene of the episode sees Willow look up to the camera, her tearful eyes red with rage.

“Seeing Red” also features a truly hard to watch scene in which Buffy and Spike’s incredibly unhealthy relationship comes to a head when Spike tries to rape Buffy in her upstairs bathroom. In terms of implications, this one episode sets up two major arcs: one in which Dark Willow is born, and the other in which Spike attempts to redeem himself by getting his soul back. It’s an unforgettable hour.

13) “Band Candy”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
As was mentioned above, the Ethan Rayne episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are among the silliest and most fun the series has to offer. “Band Candy” is no exception.

As the students of Sunnydale High begin selling candy for a fundraiser, logically, their parents end up purchasing most of it. However, Rayne has cast a spell on the chocolate which reverts the parents to their teenage selves. As Giles becomes a dangerous rebel, Joyce becomes a swooning school girl, and Snyder becomes the world’s biggest dork, it falls to Buffy to keep them safe while getting to the bottom of their newfound youthful attitudes.

Filled with great gags, hilarious writing, and a certainly memorable tryst between Joyce and Giles, “Band Candy” is a season three stand-out for its strong comedic chops.

12/11) “Becoming Pt. 1 & 2”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
If “Innocence” introduced us to hard new realities concerning Angel, “Becoming” is the ultimate expression of this new dynamic between the slayer and her former lover.

While the first part showcases more of Angel’s past, as told by an enigmatic demon named Whistler, it also features the untimely death of Kendra (complete with Buffy’s epic blue trench coat run), a moment that will pave the way for Faith’s arrival in season three.

In the second part, as Angel seeks to bring hell on earth, it falls to Buffy to finally step up and take him out for good. However, the many moving pieces in the background of the plot give this already difficult task an even crueler edge. As Willow cracks the spell to restore Angel’s soul, at last, Buffy must finish him off anyway, as the portal to hell must be closed using his blood. As if this weren’t heartbreaking enough, the sappy tones of Sarah McLaughlin hammer the stake in even further as Buffy leaves town a shattered wreck of her former self.

Further, “Becoming” also features Spike flipping the script on Angel and working with Buffy, a moment that will have huge ramifications for all three characters for the rest of the series.

10) “Lover’s Walk”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Though Joss Whedon originally planned to kill off Spike, he loved James Marsters’ portrayal of the punk rock vampire so much that he let him live through the season two finale… and good thing he did. Had he followed through with the original plan for Spike and Dru, we wouldn’t have a fantastic episode like “Lover’s Walk.”

As a despondent Spike returns to Sunnydale a shadow of his former self, he seeks out Willow to help him with a love spell to get Dru to come back to him. His decision to confine Willow and Xander together has several unintended consequences, including the two of them hooking up, which leaves the Scoobies shattered and separated by episode’s end.

Worse still, he delivers the nail in the coffin for Angel and Buffy’s second try at a relationship. The shot of truth he offers, that they will never be friends, no matter what they say, is the first of many final blows that will separate them once and for all at the end of season three.

Luckily, “Lover’s Walk” isn’t all doom and gloom. Spike, Buffy, and Angel have some truly funny moments, including Spike playing up Angel’s evil turn for laughs, and the endless bickering the three get up to when forced to work together. Rich with drama and laughter, “Lover’s Walk” is one of season three’s best episodes.

9) “Passion”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
While the aforementioned “Innocence” established Angel as a villain, it wasn’t until “Passion” that fans were sent down the dark path for good. After Angel murdered Jenny Calendar, the audience knew that there was no coming back for him… and so did Buffy.

While much of the episode plays out like a standard season two episode of Buffy, the overarching voice-overs and bevy of flashbacks establish the fact that “Passion” is going for something more dynamic. As Ms. Calendar struggles to give Angel back his soul, and right the wrong she participated in, Angel becomes aware of her plan and arrives to stop her.

Though we’d seen Angel chase and threaten Buffy’s friends before, the chilling moment when he catches Jenny out of nowhere, before abruptly snapping her neck, was a total shock to our collective system. Ms. Calendar was the first main character death of the entire series, and as such, no one saw it coming until we heard that fateful crack.

From Giles discovery of his beloved, arranged like a come-hither date night, to his suicidal revenge attack on Angel, to Buffy and Giles collapsing in tears in the alley, “Passion” is a non-stop tour-de-force that not only makes irrevocable changes to the characters but also goes a long way toward explaining who Angel is and where he came from.

8) “Fool For Love”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
As “Passion” made us aware of Angel’s history as a vampire, “Fool for Love” did the same for Spike. As was mentioned earlier in the show, Spike has killed two slayers, and after Buffy almost dies in active duty, she corners him to ask how.

As Spike unfolds the story of his life, he trades barbs and flirtatious remarks over pints of beer and games of pool. We see flashbacks to 18th century Britain, the Chinese Boxer rebellion of 1900, and 1970s New York, as Spike explains how he became a vampire, and how he would eventually come upon, and kill, two slayers in his lifetime.

As if this weren’t enough, the second fight sequence is interplayed with a mock fight between Buffy and Spike in the alley behind The Bronze. As things get more and more intimate, Spike goes in for the kiss at last, only to be left on his knees weeping in the alley. Though a humiliated Spike initially vows to kill the slayer, he manages only comforting her while she worries about her mom’s cancer diagnosis.

This is the real beginning of what will be a tumultuous but eventually loving and amicable relationship between the two, and for that, as well as a great many other reasons, “Fool for Love” is an absolutely essential episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

7) “Conversations with Dead People”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
For a teen drama, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was always more audacious and experimental in its structure than the majority of its ilk. Case in point, “Conversations with Dead People”.

Focusing on 5 separate, yet connected stories, in which Buffy, Dawn, Willow, Andrew and a nameless young woman converse with the dead, “Conversations with Dead People” casts a wide thematic net more reminiscent of something like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under… and points for the writers, because they pull it off.

As Buffy is out on patrol she meets a vampire who was actually in her psych class, and instead of fighting, they talk about the old days while waxing philosophical. Dawn finds herself attacked by a demonic force in her home, while Willow, for her part, speaks to a dead girl who claims to be there on Tara’s behalf. The final two stories concern Andrew being visited by the ghost of Warren and Spike out on a date with a young woman.

Of course, part of what makes this episode work is how the light interplay and snappy dialog eventually turn incredibly dark. Buffy is forced to kill her classmate, Dawn receives a foreboding message from beyond the grave, Willow is encouraged to commit suicide, Andrew murders his best friend, and Spike kills the girl he’s on a date with.

As it turns out, The First is behind most of this, and “Conversations with Dead People” is an excellent centerpiece that exposes the powers of this new, and different, kind of villain. It’s also one of the first season’s seven episodes that shows how brutal of a challenge the Scoobies will be facing in their final season of television.

6) “Once More With Feeling”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The famous musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is commonly cited as an all-time favorite, and with good reason. If you’re one of those people who hates how every show has to have a musical episode these days, you can blame this pioneering episode of television for your rage.

However, “Once More With Feeling” is anything but a lazy episode of fluff and bad music. Featuring a staggering 19 original songs for its 50 minute run time, the styles cross a wide range of genres, from rock ballads, to pop ditties, to old Hollywood yarns, to Broadway show tunes.

Further, the concept that makes this all possible, that a demon has come to town with the power to make people burst into song at a moment’s notice, actually works, mainly because they’re singing about their hidden feelings and desires.

While this sounds fun, and it certainly is, it can also be wildly sad, as when Buffy reveals that she wished she’d been allowed to stay dead, before trying to kill herself (for the second time in season six). Xander and Anya’s song about their hidden relationship concerns also has very real consequences for the remainder of of the show.

For all of these reasons and more, “Once More With Feeling” is well-deserved of its status as one of the best Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes of all time.

5/4) “Graduation Day Pt. 1 & 2”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Season three is home to Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s best villains in the happy go lucky mayor, Richard Wilkins, and the slayer gone bad, Faith Lehane. As such, the final showdown with these two baddies in the two-part season three finale goes down, without question, as one of the great Buffy arcs.

The first part ends with the knockdown, drag-out fight of fights between Faith and Buffy, as Buffy arrives quite literally out for Faith’s blood in order to heal Angel’s wounds. As the two slayers go toe to toe at last, they battle around Faith’s apartment, smashing and destroying the place as they go. As the battle finishes up on the roof, Buffy plants Faith’s own dagger in her gut, and sends her off the roof of her apartment building, putting an end to their rivalry… at least for the time being.

Meanwhile, part two sets the entirety of Buffy’s graduating class against the monstrous Mayor Wilkins and his vampire army. As an eclipse heralds the apocalypse on graduation day, the students reveal the weapons they have hidden under their robes, and the battle for Sunnydale begins. For her part, Buffy leads the mayor through the school, and escapes out the other side, triggering some explosives to take out the previously unkillable Big Bad for good.

Finally, season three wraps up with the appropriate melancholic mixture of Angel leaving Sunnydale behind, and the scoobies looking joyfully toward what the future holds… now that they have one, that is.

3) “The Gift”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Initially meant to be a last-minute series finale after the WB pulled the plug on Buffy the Vampire Slayer just in time for its 100th episode, “The Gift” isn’t just one of Buffy‘s best finales, it’s also one of its finest episodes.

As Dawn is taken away to be sacrificed in Glory’s ritual, Buffy and co. face their greatest challenge yet. As hope begins to seem fleeting, the scoobies come up with a last-ditch plan, using all of the tricks in their playbook in order to beat Glory down and scale her tower.

Unfortunately, by the time Buffy arrives, the ritual has already started, forcing Buffy to make a terrible choice. Suddenly all of the clues given throughout the fifth season come together (“it’s always the blood, blood is life”/”death is your gift”) and Buffy offers Dawn some final, touching words of encouragement before hurling herself valiantly from the tower and giving her life in order to close the portal.

As her friends gather around her body in heartbroken disbelief, we see her grave, marked with the entirely appropriate phrase: “She saved the world… a lot.”

Finally, extra points must be given for the best Giles moment in the entire series, when Ripper shows his dark side once again, smothering Ben in cold blood after Buffy spares his life. “She’s not like us.” An amazingly dark, and undeniably awesome turn for Giles.

2) “Chosen”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
While season seven of Buffy The Vampire Slayer definitely has its detractors, most can still agree that the final episode of season seven, and of the series, sends the scoobies out in fine style.

As Buffy and the potential slayers prepare to go to war against the demon hordes of The First, the stakes have never been higher than in “Chosen.” However, when Angel arrives with a last-minute pick-me-up, and Willow finds in herself the power to change the world, it finally looks like team slayer might have a fighting chance.

“Chosen” is filled with brilliant moments, from the last minute Dungeons and Dragons session, to Buffy’s cleaving domination of Caleb. The last walk that Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles take as the original scoobies, heading into the final battle is light and fluffy but filled with heart just the same. Buffy’s heartfelt speech about every girl in the world being a slayer is not only tear-inducingly powerful but also a gorgeous love letter to the fans and what Buffy has meant to so many people.

Finally, the epic battle in the hell mouth is Buffy’s biggest and best set piece ever. It genuinely feels, right until the moment that Spike’s necklace begins glowing, like this could be the end for every last one of our heroes. Further, many characters do die, including several of the potential slayers, as well as Anya and Spike. The gut punch of Spike’s death, and Buffy finally deciding she’s ready to live in the world again is affirming, and the episode’s closing moments, where Buffy is finally free to live as she pleases, make a beautiful send-off for her.

All in all, “Chosen” is a brilliant series finale, and would be the absolute stand-out of the series, if it weren’t for a certain stellar season five episode.

1) “The Body”

Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Inspired by the Joss Whedon’s real-life experience of losing a parent, the absolutely jaw-dropping quality of an episode of television like “The Body” cannot be overstated.

As Buffy arrives home from an otherwise normal day, she discovers her mother’s lifeless corpse, already cold, lying on the couch. As she flies into a tearful panic, the abject anxiety of what is occurring sinks in immediately. From this moment on, “The Body” is a total tour-de-force of emotional turmoil and the unmistakable pain of loss.

While the scoobies rally around their friend in her time of need, no one really knows how to handle a threat of death that isn’t supernatural in nature. Willow frets over her clothes, Anya struggles to understand mortality, Xander punches a hole in the wall, and Dawn reverts to a shattered state of being.

Making the drama even more palpable, the camera pans off occasionally to remind us how the world continues to revolve around us, unflinching and uncaring, even during a time when we feel it must stop. Parking tickets are still being given, lawnmowers are still going, and the gentle breeze of a summer day still rustles our hair.

It is this painstaking attention to detail that makes the grief and sorrow of “The Body” work so insanely well. Because Joss Whedon had experienced a similar event, the nuance and panic of it all never rings hollow. On the contrary, the cruel silence and lack of easy platitudes force viewers to join in this painful process with these characters in a way that feels almost too real.

An utterly perfect episode of television, “The Body’ is unquestionably the highest quality episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the beating heart of this series.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Marty Allen

    March 10, 2019 at 2:13 pm

    Great list, we definitely see eye-to-eye on a lot of Buffy! In particular the #1 episode, which is to my mind one of the finest episodes of television ever created. Bold #2! I love seeing ‘The Zeppo’ in there, that great ep does not get enough love. A few other favorites of mine are ‘Restless,’ ‘Normal Again,’ and ‘Superstar.’ Seriously, how can we get a Goomba podcast together where we talk about Buffy? I’d do it in a heartbeat. Here’s my article from the 20th (before I wrote for Goomba): https://medium.com/@martyallen/buffys-best-big-bad-by-season-59c2c708cb9

    • Mike Worby

      March 11, 2019 at 3:30 pm

      I’m glad to be one of many Buffy fanatics on Goomba Stomp. I had to leave some great episodes on the sideline even with 22 to go from. I’d love to do a podcast on Buffy, if that’s somehow possible. We’d probably have to check in with a few folks first though.

  2. Wayne Chapman

    July 26, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    I’m a huge fan of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and anyone who knows me can tell you it’s my favorite show. (I suppose I would put “Angel” at 1.5 on my list since it shares the same universe as “Buffy.”) I generally cite “Once More, With Feeling” and “Doppelgangland” as my co-favorites. The musical episode was destined to be so before it even aired, but I was disappointed that Willow, my favorite character, was the only character without a showcase number. (Seriously, couldn’t Joss have had someone serve as a voice double for Alyson Hannigan?!) I actually wrote a song for Willow just a few days after that episode aired, and it was one of my proudest moments as a fan. “Doppelgangland” was a no-brainer for me since it offered twice the Willow and left us with the obvious hint that Willow was gay or bi. (By the end of the third season, I was hoping she’d hook up with bad girl Faith. I was cool with Tara though.) A few other episodes that are personal favorites include “Restless” and “Who Are You?” The two that really unnerved me were “The Body” (I’m still having to face the inevitable death of my parents) and “Normal Again” (which played on my fears of questioning my sanity), so they’re both standouts for me. Could go on and on about the show, but that’s it for now.

    • Mike Worby

      July 27, 2019 at 10:08 am

      Thanks for commenting Wayne. There are so many stand-out episodes of Buffy that it was a legitimate challenge to nail down only 22 for this list. I really love Normal Again, as the ending leaves it up for debate as to which reality is correct, and whether we truly got a happy ending. It’s a daring, chilling trick that The X Files pulled on several occasions, and one of the reasons that show endured for so long as well.

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TV

American Horror Story: 1984: “Camp Redwood” Puts the ‘Camp’ in Summer Camp

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American Horror Story 1984 Camp Redwoord Review

The ninth installment of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s horror anthology series embraces nostalgia and horror iconography as it heads back to the ‘80s for a hilarious send-up of slasher movies that buries a surprising amount of surprises under buckets of gore.

There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie…

These days, everyone knows the rules of how to survive a horror movie — and no one’s ever laid them out quite as well as Randy Meeks in the Scream franchise. With its witty self-awareness and sharp deconstruction of modern horror tropes, Scream was a truly groundbreaking horror film when it was released in 1996. By subverting audience expectations, the movie managed to be a critical and commercial success, delivering an unpredictable plot and an iconic villain alongside some refreshingly clever moments of dark comedy. And if there’s one thing the Scream franchise never let you forget, it was the rules you needed to follow in order to survive.

Much like Scream, this season of American Horror Story promises to be a savvy reconstruction of the all-too-familiar subgenre, jumping back and forth between 1970 and — you guessed it — 1984, which is arguably the golden age of the slasher genre. While the rules of modern horror movies have changed since Scream was released, American Horror Story: 1984 seems set to return to the formula that made franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween so incredibly popular. Take, for instance, the cold opening, which features three camp counselors in the midst of a threesome before being massacred by a stalker. Not only is it a direct reference to the opening of the original Friday the 13th, but it reinforces that if anyone is bound to survive this season, they best not have sex — and given how horny these teenagers are, I don’t expect many of them to make it out alive.

AHS Review

While we have yet to see just how far Ryan Murphy is willing to play with genre conventions and bend these rules, American Horror Story: 1984 thus far honors the genre with numerous callbacks to a number of genre classics and lesser-known gems that mostly lived and died on home video. The ‘80s references come hard and fast too, with nods to such films as My Bloody Valentine, Sleepaway Camp, Psycho II, Black Christmas, and of course, John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Set in 1984 and in Los Angeles during the midst of the summer Olympics, American Horror Story: 1984 follows a method-trained actor named Xavier (Cody Fern) who brings a band of unemployed teenagers to work as counselors at the newly re-opened Camp Redwood. Among them is disgraced athlete Chet (Gus Kenworthy), who lost his chance at Olympic gold by failing a drug test; an aspiring aerobics competitor named Montana (Billie Lourd); the obligatory nice guy, Ray (DeRon Horton); and Brooke (Emma Roberts), the last virgin in town and recent survivor of an attack by the infamous Night Stalker.

The hapless teens are quickly introduced to a delirious hitchhiker and the obligatory voice of doom in the form of a surly local gas station attendant (Don Swayze), who warns them of Camp Redwood’s bloody past and tries to scare each character away before “bad” things happen. With the injured hitchhiker in tow, the fledgling counselors arrive at Camp Redwood, where they’re greeted by Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman), a devout Christian who intends to spend the summer teaching impressionable youth to love Jesus. As it turns out, Margaret has a secret past of her own: fourteen years earlier, on this very campsite, she was the sole survivor of the worst summer camp massacre of all time.

American Horror Story 1984

Three Killers?

As this is the first episode of the season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “Camp Redwood” takes its time introducing the cast while fleshing out the backstory of both the summer campers and the killers who continue to terrorize the citizens of Los Angeles. To that end, this season introduces two (if not three) serial killers, starting with Benjamin Richter — aka Mr. Jingles (John Carroll Lynch) — who escapes a nearby mental hospital (in an extremely Halloween-esque sequence which even includes a female version of Dr. Loomis), and is headed straight to Camp Redwood, where he murdered several students a decade earlier. Then there’s also the Night Stalker, based on a real-life serial killer who terrorized California and horrified the nation. It’s been a banner year for fictionalized depictions of serial killers, and now American Horror Story: 1984 joins the likes of shows like Mindhunter by including Richard Ramirez, whose highly publicized home invasion crime spree terrorized the residents of the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco area from June 1984 until August 1985.

While the Night Stalker will most likely be the central threat for the upcoming episodes, one of the reasons behind the popularity of American Horror Story is that each season contains at least one major plot twist, usually involving the mystery surrounding who the killer or killers really are. And with just one episode, American Horror Story: 1984 already seems to be teasing a third killer in the form of Cody Fern’s Xavier who — wait for it — is a method actor trained by Stella Adler who was recently offered the role of a serial killer on a TV show. Of course this is just speculation, but there is a good reason to believe that Xavier can’t be trusted, since he could have an ulterior motive for inviting the teens to the camp.

Theories aside, what makes American Horror Story: 1984 so fun so far is how it painfully recreates the low-budget aesthetic of the slasher films we once watched on well-worn ‘80s VHS cassettes or on late-night TV. Everything about this season nails the tone and style of the slasher films of that era, from the synth score (that calls to mind the music of John Carpenter), to the fantastic title sequence, to a soundtrack which includes tracks from Frank Stallone, Bananarama, Def Leppard, Hall and Oates, and Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.” The cinematography is especially on point, with jittery tracking shots, over-the-head bird’s eye views, and even missing film grain. Take note of the especially inspired sequence of a panic-stricken Brooke running from the killer that is juxtaposed with the torch lighting ceremony from the 1984 Olympics. It’s scenes like this that make me keep coming back to American Horror Story year after year.

Maybe it’s because I adore the slasher genre or maybe it’s because 1984‘s tone is so much lighter and stylized than previous seasons, but whatever the case, American Horror Story: 1984 is promising to be the most enjoyable installment yet. Whereas last year’s American Horror Story: Apocalypse is an acumination of eight seasons of crossovers diving deep into the mythology of the series (while indulging in too much fan service), 1984 feels like a breath of fresh air and a far step away from the sometimes nihilistic tone the series has become known for. There are still plenty of Easter eggs that connect to seasons past, and there is still plenty of blood that is shed, but overall the season premiere titled “Camp Redwood” is relatively light on gore and heavy on lustful undertones that potentially confirms the hugely popular fan theory about how all the seasons are connected.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have always found clever ways to remix classic horror films and movie tropes, and while American Horror Story: 1984 isn’t necessarily doing anything new, “Camp Redwood” is an exciting way to kick off the season. With every installment, AHS hooks viewers in with a radical new premise and plenty of shocking twists, and I personally can’t wait to see how it will shake up the slasher genre over the course of the next twelve episodes. With a new cast, a new tone, and a new decade, American Horror Story: 1984 could potentially be one of the show’s best seasons yet. All in all, 1984 presents a gory, funny, and affectionate skewering of the slasher genre. If you are a fan of the exploits of the 80s cinematic stalkers, you’ll find a lot to like here.

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‘Veronica Mars’ Explores Our Dark Obsession with True Crime

Veronica Mars’ fourth season explores America’s true crime obsession, both admiring and skewering the community in tandem.

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Veronica Mars

*Please note that this article contains spoilers for the 4th season of Veronica Mars*

After a five year hiatus, the long beloved mystery series Veronica Mars returned this summer with one of the only TV comebacks to be actually worth a damn (yes, we’re looking at you The X-Files.) While the Hulu revival has been widely acclaimed by both fans and critics alike, one of the key elements of the 4th season that hasn’t seen much coverage is its stellar exploration, and at times skewering, of true crime culture.

Even these modern marvels, Veronica Mars included, are only really scratching the surface of an obsession that has hid beneath the shiny veneer of modern Americana for hundreds of years.

Over the last decade, there has been a wild resurgence of true crime. While movies like Zodiac and TV shows like The People vs. O.J. Simpson have achieved great success in their respective mediums, it has been the true crime podcasts which have been most responsible for this boom. Wildly popular shows like Last Podcast on the LeftCriminal and My Favorite Murder have blown up to be some of the biggest podcasts in the world, and with so many people listening, fans don’t feel so ashamed or morbid talking about the gruesome details and awful circumstances behind some of humanity’s most horrendous crimes.

Of course, even these modern marvels, Veronica Mars included, are only really scratching the surface of an obsession that has hid beneath the shiny veneer of modern Americana for hundreds of years. If the murder ballad folk songs of the early 20th century or the detective novels of the late 19th century weren’t an indication of this fact, surely the hundreds (or thousands) who might gather to watch criminals being publicly executed in the middle ages (often stealing a possession or lock of hair after the execution) surely is.

However, there is an even darker side to true crime and the public’s obsession with it than a simple morbid souvenir or two. Killers like Ed Kemper (recently made famous by Netflix’s Mindhunter) or BTK have sometimes been known to ingratiate themselves into the investigative process, misleading those searching for them or gathering information on how much the police actually know.

This is the most interesting element that Veronica Mars taps into in its latest season. After a string of grisly bomb attacks rocks Neptune, there’s no shortage of suspects who might be responsible. There’s Big Dick, a real estate maven who stands to profit from the plummeting market values the attacks create, and his Chino cellmate Clyde, a former bank robber. There’s a violent bar matron with a vendetta against sex offenders (who make up some of the victims) and some squirrely frat brothers who definitely seem to be hiding something. Hell even the cartel and a scandalized senator avail themselves as possible perpetrators before long.

With that laundry list of usual suspects, though, comes a lowly pizza delivery man. Penn Epner seems to have little going on in his life, and while he comes across as charming and affable, his true crime leanings hide a much darker secret. As he consistently makes himself the center of the investigation, standing up to accuse people at town meetings, talking to any journalist who will listen, and constantly visiting the police and Mars Investigations, he attempts to direct the focus of the investigation toward his enemies and away from himself.

Meanwhile, Penn is responsible for nearly all of the criminal carnage being perpetrated around Neptune. Though the first bombing is indeed revealed to be part of a real estate scam, the remaining copycat crimes, committed by Epner, are a part of his sick manifesto: to punish the unruly spring breakers who rudely accost him and strike fear in the hearts of the political and financial elite he despises. A brilliant man who was kicked out of college for his part in a sick game that mutilated a classmate, Epner takes a sort of ironic outrage at being teased and berated by today’s students. He also feels unable to utilize his strong intellect for anything truly worthwhile, which causes him considerable frustration in his true crime group, a group which is filled with otherwise very successful people.

Of course, he is only revealed as the perpetrator of the bombings in the final episode of Veronica Mars’ fourth season. Up until that point, he’s the last person you would expect to be responsible for so much death and destruction. Portrayed by the amusing and likeable comedian, Patton Oswalt, Penn is usually the comic relief or the wacky side character to the proceedings, giving viewers little reason to suspect he might be the one behind the crimes he seems so intent on helping to solve.

There’s actually an interesting real-life correlation there as well. Oswalt’s wife, Michelle McNamara, was a very serious true crime enthusiast before she passed away in late 2016. She was instrumental in the final stages of the Golden State Killer investigation, and her book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, explores her rich, dark obsession with the vicious killer that she never lived to see unmasked as former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo in 2018. This additional kernel of knowledge leads one to wonder if his role in the 4th season of Veronica Mars is meant as a loving tribute to his late wife, as the background knowledge seems to close for coincidence.

In any case, Veronica Mars‘s exploration of true crime isn’t all doom and gloom. The rest of Epner’s true crime obsessive group, dubbed The Murderheads, are more or less well-adjusted and useful members of society. Ranging from a librarian to a political consultant, the other Murderheads seem to be intelligent and analytical thinkers who genuinely want to help law enforcement find the person responsible for the Neptune bombings. Like in real life, the majority of true crime aficionados in Veronica Mars are people who are just as fascinated by the dark underbelly of society as they are troubled by it.

Epner, though, remains a vivid portrayal of the real-life criminals who return to their crime scenes, taunt law enforcement, or purposely direct the flow of an investigation. While they may not always be as nefarious or calculating as their fictional counterparts, these people do exist, and the latest season of Veronica Mars serves as a welcome reminder to keep our eyes open for them.

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The Righteous Gemstones Season One Episode 5 Review: “Interlude” Is an Early Series Highlight

The Righteous Gemstones flashes back and delivers its best episode yet.

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The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

One of Peak TV’s most pervasive trends is an addiction to the flashback episode – what was once a silly device to fill episode requirements on long-running comedies became essential backbones to modern dramas. Propelled by shows like LOST and Orange is the New Black, which utilized frequent, lengthy flashbacks to build out its array of characters, the last few years have seen an uptick of these “retro” episodes – from Arrow to Westworld and even Carnival Row, modern shows have a penchant for self-indulgent episodes full of wigs and retro fashion. And while “Interlude,” The Righteous Gemstones‘ best episode yet, initially feels like another one of these unnecessary digressions, by the time it reaches the stunning conclusion of its 40-minute running time, it firmly establishes itself as one of the best episodes constructed in this very specific, suddenly popular mold.

As “Interlude” slowly lays out the many personalities and loyalties in Aimee Leigh’s life, The Righteous Gemstones begins to build out some of the more meaningful, contemplative ideas teased in its earlier episodes.

Where most flashback episodes fall apart is their sense of self-importance; what “Interlude” understands is that it is possible to recreate a moment in the past without having to build some sense of mystery around it. “Wicked Lips” already gave us the foundation of the central conflict between Eli and Baby Billy, which means “Interlude” exists simply to give context and texture to stories and people we already understand. Billy’s opportunistic ways, Eli’s disgruntled sense of self, Judy’s strange, unappreciated uniqueness… all of these elements are well defined in the first four episodes of the series, and “Interlude” smartly doesn’t try to play coy with these long-festering conflicts.

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

Centered around Aimee Leigh discovering she’s pregnant with Kelvin, “Interlude” is a careful observation of the ripple effect the news sends through the family. In doing so, The Righteous Gemstones goes through a radical emotional shift; rather than just being a black comedy about a falling evangelist empire, “Interlude” reveals a deeper, more complex emotional core to the young comedy – so much so, it almost feels like a different series, the humor of “Interlude” often taking a much subtler route than the abrasively juvenile style of the opening episodes.

But as Eli said, change takes time to understand; as “Interlude” slowly lays out the many personalities and loyalties in Aimee Leigh’s life, The Righteous Gemstones begins to build out some of the more meaningful, contemplative ideas teased in its earlier episodes. And it does so across a broad spectrum of characters; Billy’s desperation to stay relevant, Eli’s slow transformation into the imposing figure he’d become, and Jesse’s misbehavin‘ ways are all given voice in “Interlude,” injecting Gemstones with some much-needed emotional depth, which helps deepen the many Biblical parallels Danny McBride and his creative team are beginning to flesh out.

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

But where “Interlude” surprises the most is with the two OG Gemstone women; both Aimee Leigh and young Judy spring to life as characters in this episode, offering intriguing perspectives on the two “true” Gemstone women. It’s a tough act to nail; Aimee Leigh is essentially the God of the Gemstone kingdom, her absence the foreboding catalyst for the downfall of the evangelical empire -you only get one shot at a first introduction for such an important character, and “Interlude” absolutely hammers it out of the park, as dynamic a combination of writing and performance by (the eternally incredibly talented) Jennifer Nettles.

“Interlude” offers a look at so many different shades of Aimee Leigh; as the family matriarch, the famous face of the burgeoning Gemstone empire, a sister, and a woman in her 40’s facing a difficult, unexpected pregnancy. In an episode with a lot already on its plate, the most impressive part of “Interlude” is how her character is brought to life; it’s hard to make a woman who manipulates poor people with cheap platitudes and displaced righteousness, but goddamnit, “Interlude” does it with nuanced grace, a highly unexpected (but entirely welcome) turn that nonetheless helps the many plot threads of the series find their harmony.

I mentioned Judy as another highlight; perhaps this one is more personal, as a one-time contender for “child in the family with the weirdest habits,” but where “Interlude” does so well is informing Judy’s character in the present. As the Gemstone family plans the future of their family business, she’s left to sit on the stairs alone, or be admonished for her stranger habits and indulgences; of course, this leads her to lash out, in the form of being an absolute bitch to her guests, during an elaborate birthday party thrown by her parents (perhaps as some sort of compensation for how intentionally excluded she is from the normal rhythms of the family).

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

That party is the absolute highlight of the episode, the “pushing all the chips to the center of the table” moment for The Righteous Gemstones. While watching Judy piss and moan about the gifts she’s being given, Eli is admonished by his father for the people they’re turning into, tarnishing the humble legacy of their family name with extravagant gifts and exploitative practices. They talk about what Eli’s birthday used to look like (he’d usually get chores off for the day), leaving Eli to contemplate the generational chasm that inevitably forms in families, and how hard it can be to stay eternally loyal to the amorphous, irrational idea of what a family “should” be.

In typical Gemstones fashion, this leads to a drunk Jesse (thanks, Uncle Baby Billy!) getting shitfaced, puking on the hamburger grill while yelling at Eli about pissing on the face of his unborn sibling. But those moments of humor only act to illuminate the deeper conflicts The Righteous Gemstones is beginning to surface, ideas about legacy and loyalty that should illuminate characters like Kelvin, Judy, and Billy as Gemstones moves back into the present, and the temptations of power and money only continue to tear the inter generational bonds apart.

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Freaks and Geeks Episode 1 Review: “Pilot” Remains Iconic and Subversive

Our rewatch of Freaks and Geeks begins with the show’s infamous pilot episode.

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Freaks and Geeks Pilot

Even after twenty years, the opening minutes of Freaks and Geeks‘ first hour feel subversive; it opens on an overwrought confession of love between a football player and cheerleader (“I just love you so much… it scares me”) on the bleachers, only to immediately shove them off-frame to introduce us to the “freaks” hanging out below. In one beautifully-crafted shot, “Pilot” sidesteps so many of the shows of its era, from big names like Dawson’s Creek, to other fare like Hang Time or USA High (both notable as female-led series airing in the late 1990’s). This wasn’t a show about the stress of winning regionals or melodramatic love triangles; Freaks and Geeks was interested in more fundamental truths about adolescence, about those formative years of life where elements of the real world begin to seep into the sugar-coated fictions of childhood. At its very core, it is about the infancy of identity, the beginning of the lifelong struggle to figure out who we are.

Freaks and Geeks captures the poetic dichotomy of high school life: how every small personal or moral victory gained in the four years between middle school and college, is often met with a doubly embarrassing and humiliating experience.

The first characters we meet are the male freaks – who, ironically, would be the three actors who would become the biggest stars of the show. Daniel Desario (James Franco) is telling Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) and Ken Miller (Seth Rogan) about the “edgy” Molly Hatchet t-shirt he wore to church. Daniel’s aghast at why the priest wouldn’t let him in: “Why not, man? It’s church; we’re supposed to forgive people there.”

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

Both an interesting framing device for it’s most complicated character (he’s wearing someone else’s shirt to form an identity, something we’ll see explored more later in the series) and an indictment on what the high school experience is like, writer Paul Feig’s opening lines are laser-focused on upsetting the stereotypes and expectations of what a high school story is; though many series of its ilk posited themselves as explorations of identity, few even attempted to explore the psychological (and existential) implications of high school in a way the first ten minutes of Freaks and Geeks quietly does.

From there, “Pilot” slowly begins to build out its expansive cast of characters, set against the backdrop of the first day back to school after summer vacation – one that just so happens to form a demarcation of the Weir children’s identities, as they begin to break out of the archetypal boxes placed on them by their class mates, teachers, and society as a whole. Seeking nuance where most shows would look to establish familiarity, it’s the little touches to Lindsey and Sam’s characters that flesh them out so magnificently; while there are certainly the familiar notes of “suddenly rebellious teen” and “nerd striving for more,” there’s great care built into the show’s two central protagonists. Lindsey suddenly wearing her father’s army coat, Sam’s absolute fear of any kind of emotional interaction… these notes are subtly surfaced throughout the first hour, and help establish an impressive ability to build characters, of which it would do so about a dozen times in the first hour (save for maybe Rogan’s Ken, who is just an insufferable douche in his few starring moments).

More importantly, Freaks and Geeks captures the poetic dichotomy of high school life: how every small personal or moral victory gained in the four years between middle school and college, is often met with a doubly embarrassing and humiliating experience. Take Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) and his friends, Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuk (Martin Starr, in arguably the show’s best role); they try to stop the class bully Alan (Chauncey Leopardi) from picking on them, only to endure triple the ridicule and physical intimidation from standing up to him. Sam even conjures up the nerve to ask out his biggest crush Cindy Sanders in painfully awkward fashion (Natasha Melnick), but she’s already got a date (but promises to save a dance for him, which hardly turns out the way he expects).

What remains impressive is how Feig hasn’t forgotten these moments of insecurity and struggling with self-definition, or conflated those struggles with sentimentality for the space between a child’ts life and adulthood. It explicitly rejects that approach for something more contemplative, and in its unassuming honesty, something far more layered and exploratory.

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

In one of the pilot’s best scenes, her brother Sam comes to talk to her after she explodes on her father Harold (Joe Flaherty), who tries to point his daughter in the right direction by pointing out that everyone dies when they do things wrong. When Sam asks her (in Millie’s words) “why are you throwing away your life?”, Lindsey’s response is heartbreaking. She reveals she was alone with her grandmother when she died, and saw how scared she got when her grandmother saw “nothing” waiting for her as she felt herself dying.

“She was a good person – and that’s what she got,” she tells Sam, and Lindsey’s search for identity snaps into place: she’s coming face to face for the first time with the biggest existential question of them all… what the hell is the point of a life? It’s a trauma most adults can hardly contend with, forget teenagers who barely know what their life will look like six months from now; “Pilot” places Lindsey squarely in the center of that essential internal conflict – and more importantly, observes just how ill-equipped the world around her is to answer her question, the well-meaning intentions of others, like her parents or Mr. Rosso, the school counselor ultimately empty, self-serving gestures to assuage their own fears (or in Rosso’s case, trying to win the academic decathlon).

It’s a rather unconventional approach to take for a high school series, to immediately marginalize many of the events it contains – particularly those of the “geeks”, and their fear of bullies – dismissing the typical high school narratives as the vapid pieces of work they are. Like a spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused (or a predecessor to Linklater’s other young adult masterpiece, Everybody Wants Some), the typical high school experience is but a lens for more meaningful explorations of character and identity, and not the other way around.

It’s even more unconventional for a high school series to center itself on a young woman, one not concerned with boys, popularity, or some strange intersection of the two: Lindsey’s conflicts are decidedly internal, rejecting the empty sense of accomplishment garnered from her intelligence and achievement in competition. She’s still young and naive – her visible crush on Daniel’s freewheeling approach to life a clear sign – but she’s both in control of her emotions, and isn’t dismissed as a superficial entity, as so many other high school shows would do with their central female characters (I’m looking at you, Gossip Girl). She’s not a cheerleader or an Ugly Betty; she’s Lindsey Weir, a complicated, confused person trying to find her way – Freaks and Geeks‘ ability to personify her, without judging or manipulating her into a stereotype, is still a fascinating thing to deconstruct.

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

Another reason Freaks and Geeks remains an all-time favorite of mine is how this approach is eventually applied to every character in the series,big or small. Though this isn’t necessarily conveyed effectively in the first hour (after all, it’s only 49 minutes, which leaves little room for characters like Millie or Ken to be developed), but as the series continues, Feig’s signature becomes defining a set of archetypes by breaking down and redefining the stereotypes it employs. Even the bullies like Alan and Kim Kelly (an absolutely magnificent Busy Phillips) get defined a bit: as the geek seer Harry Trinksy tells Sam and company when they’re seeking options to solve their bully problem, the reason he’s picking on them is probably because he wants a friend, and just doesn’t know how to express his feelings. It doesn’t forgive him for being as asshole (as Harry’s friend points out), but it fills out a snot-nose shithead like Alan, and make him a much more three-dimensional character than he had any right to be (and one it would further expand on, in later episodes like “Chokin’ and Tokin'”.

Oddly, the part of “Pilot” Feig, Apatow and company attribute most to the early dismissal by most of the series is the presence of Eli, a mentally retarded character played very heavily by Ben Foster. I tend to disagree – Eli’s one of the more important characters of the pilot, revealing to Lindsey what a self-righteous journey her public displays of rebellion have been. When she calls out the kids who are joking around with him (in a semi-mean way, but are still being friendly), she insults Eli, who runs away and falls, breaking his arm in the process. It’s a brutal reminder to Lindsey about how honesty can be such a double-edged sword in a world like high school – and a condemnation of her attempts to appeal to other students by being his date to the dance (which later serves another purpose, when they share a dance and Freaks and Geeks reminds us just how trivial and easily solved so many dramatic high school moments can be).

Although every minute of a pilot is tough, the final sequence is really the hardest, often leading to overt platitudes, forced emotional moments, or plot set-up for a potential series: Freaks and Geeks does none of these, pushing most of the characters aside in its final minutes to focus on Lindsey and Sam at the homecoming dance. Sam finally gets the dance with Cindy he’s been dreaming about – but it’s not a slow song like he thinks, as Styx’s “Come Sail Away” goes from its slow opening chords to the moving, dreamy prog rock beat of the verses and chorus. Lindsey apologizes to Eli, and lets all the problems of her life melt away around her as they sway to the increasingly-loud backing track, finally taking off her father’s bomber jacket and enjoying the moment she’s in, and not worrying about the ones past and to follow. It’s simply a beautiful, beautiful conclusion, one that still makes any room I’m in extremely dusty when watching it.

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

It really can’t be understated the use of “Come Sail Away” in this scene; as the song’s ludicrous lyrics ebb and flow through the ever-changing instrumentation, Freaks and Geeks uses its licensed music in “Pilot” as a parallel for the series to follow. So often Freaks and Geeks would take the normal, almost operatic approach to high school conflict, and re-contextualize it, immediately undercutting the expected conflicts to tug away at the deeper truths forming during those times, transforming moments we’ve seen so many times before, into uniquely moving, haunting pieces of contemplative art.

We all know the unfortunate fate of Freaks and Geeks, dismissed by NBC and America, cancelled before airing its final handful of episodes (which would show up later in the fall to little fanfare). But like many cult favorites, its cancellation was a blessing in disguise: there are few blemishes of failed story lines, and no time for controversial cast changes or the inevitable dip in quality shows see in longer runs. For 18 episodes, Freaks and Geeks is near-perfect television, a depressingly poignant look at high school (and the world) in 1980, with a few hopeful moments thrown in to remind us that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, a time when we can look back and remember the trials and tribulations much more fondly than we could actually living it. Even if there’s nothing waiting for us in the end, Freaks and Geeks argues that the journey of discovery is worth the trip itself, as long as we’re suffering through it all together.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Welcome to our 20th anniversary Freaks and Geeks celebration! I’m going through all my original Sound on Sight/PopOptiq reviews from back in 2013, re-examining each episode and expanding each of my original pieces on the series over the next two weeks.
  • Seriously, if you’ve never seen the closing sequence of “Pilot,” it is perhaps my favorite five-minute sequence of television. Watch it.
  • Nobody ever knows how to say Neal’s last name correctly.
  • the dodgeball scene is pure art.
  • Mr. Ross makes a great point to Lindsey about her relative privilege; her biggest concern is being sentenced by her prosperous family to attend a homecoming dance, a bit of sorely-needed perspective so many other genre counterparts willingly ignore.
  • Among other things, Nick’s drum kit has 2 gongs, 10 cowbells, 12 toms… and four kick drums, as overwrought and useless as it sounds. It’s construction does a lot to explain the comment he makes earlier about shop being the only class he can pass, though.
  • It’s difficult to watch Eli’s character through the pilot: in a series that often explores the lack of genuine support systems for its characters (and how fundamentally important it can be to healthy development), seeing Eli struggles to exist and be accepted are heart wrenching.
  • Between Freaks and Geeks and Other Space, Paul Feig is behind two of my favorite “why the fuck did they cancel these after a single season” series.
  • Bill asks Neal a poignant question about his bullying: “What’s the point of all this?” Alan doesn’t have an answer, so of course, he compensates with his aggression. We’ll learn more about where that comes from later on.
  • Sam’s “that could be good” when Cindy says she’ll save a dance for him… it is awkward perfection, a perfect showcase of how well-casted John Francis Daley is in the role.
  • Nick talks about how much disco sucks, and Bill threatens someone who makes a joke about dating his mom… even though it is only the first episode, Freaks and Geeks is smartly planting seeds for future episodes to germinate in fascinating ways.
  • Neal suggests enlisting Kim to beat up Alan after she intimidates the hell out of Sam – probably not a terrible idea.
  • Bill just wishes his mom would leave notes inside his lunch, instead of writing them in ink on the front of the bag, giving him the “Little Man” moniker he is frequently mocked with.
  • “Should I wear a cup for this?” “That’s between you and your God, Bill.”
  • I always forget how much the opening credits of this show fucking rock.
  • “For the record, I weigh 103 pounds.” Line kills me every time.
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“Rodman: For Better or Worse” is a Superlative 30 for 30 Documentary

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Dennis Rodman in "Rodman: For Better or Worse"

The question of whether a professional athlete who supposedly causes a lot of trouble off the field or in the locker room is worth the trouble for his team — and the accompanying question of whether such framing is fair to the athlete after all — remains frequent in professional sports discourse. At pretty much all times, that debate is being had about one sports star or another. Throughout the 1990s, the most frequent subject of such discussion was NBA forward Dennis Rodman. He’s in the basketball Hall of Fame, was on five NBA championship teams, and is generally considered one of the best rebounders in the history of the game. 

He was also once referred to, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, as “the NBA’s weirdest player,” and probably made more headlines in his career for his various antics than for what he did on the court. He dated Madonna. He cross-dressed, hinted that he was gay, and once “married himself” while wearing a full wedding dress. He joined pro wrestling’s NWO. He had ugly divorces from multiple NBA teams (and from multiple women), and after retirement, he befriended North Korean dictator — and supposed Bulls fan — Kim Jong Un, claiming credit for his subsequent summits with the president. 

Now, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has released a documentary about Rodman, titled “Rodman: For Better Or Worse.”  Directed by Todd Kapostasy, the husband of figure skater Tara Lipinski, the film goes through the entire history of the man known as “The Worm,” from his troubled youth up through his career, his many controversies, and his post-retirement life. It’s a fair, accurate and balanced depiction of Rodman that understands why he was a significant figure in NBA history, but also doesn’t let him off the hook for some of his antics. For instance, the film has no interest in making excuses for the North Korea stuff, or for the time Rodman kicked a cameraman for no reason during a game. 

To its credit, “Rodman: For Better or Worse” cares about Rodman’s actual on-court game, and why it was important and revolutionary. He was a dominant rebounder who hardly ever shot or scored — the the type of player who might not have a place in today’s game, when rebounding matters a lot less. And yet Rodman was a significant player, part of the Detroit “Bad Boys” teams (subject of their own 30 for 30 a few years ago), as well as the first contending David Robinson teams in San Antonio and the second cycle of championships of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. His career concluded with ill-fated stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks. 

“Rodman: For Better or Worse” is far from a pure hagiography and apology. For one thing, it includes footage of Rodman’s adult daughter revealing that her father was hardly ever around for her childhood. This evokes shades of the Ric Flair 30 for 30, which had as a primary takeaway that the wrestling legend was a terrible father. The film also goes into the incident where Rodman considered suicide when he played for Detroit, and indicates that the player has battled mental illness and substance abuse throughout his life. 

“Rodman: For Better or Worse” mostly leans on media members as talking heads, although there’s also some presence of his former teammates. John Salley is all over the film, while Isiah Thomas and David Robinson appear briefly, with Thomas even walking off camera while crying. The producers were also able to land the big fish — Michael Jordan — who doesn’t do this sort of thing often. (And in traditional Jordan fashion, he has nothing of note to say.) 

All of that works, but there’s one thing in particular that doesn’t. For some reason, weird metatextual touches that accompany an intrusive narration by Jamie Foxx are tacked on at points. Not only are the touches a bit too cute, but the film doesn’t even commit to them. It’s also not exactly clear why footage of the Broadway production of Oklahoma! needed to be used to demonstrate that Rodman lived in Oklahoma. 

The 30 for 30 series began ten years ago next month as an ambitious series of documentaries meant to commemorate ESPN’s 30th anniversary, while encroaching on HBO’s then-dominant position in sports documentaries. A decade on, 30 for 30 isn’t quite as ambitious. There are only five or six of them each year, they’re no longer being made by famous directors (Peter Berg and Barry Levinson made some of the early films), and seemingly half of them somehow involve the University of Miami football team. At their best, they look back on sports stories you probably barely remember, and do them justice. These includes docs like Big Shot, the 2013 story about how a guy named John Spano lied about having money so he could buy the New York Islanders. There’s also the following year’s The Day The Series Stopped, about the earthquake that disrupted the 1989 World Series. At worst, there’s ridiculous stuff like where Deion Sanders talks about the time he played both baseball and football on the same day — which probably doesn’t crack the top ten of intriguing stories from Sanders’ sports career. 

Occasionally 30 for 30 gets super-ambitious, like with the Oscar-winning OJ: Made in America from 2016, and 2017’s Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies; and they’re doing it again next year, with a long documentary about the 1990s Chicago Bulls teams on which Rodman played.  The show also has branched into podcasts, including a terrific recent series about the fall of racist Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. “Rodman: For Better or Worse” isn’t quite up to those heights, but it’s still a winning entry. 

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