In which I'm on hiatus.

I haven’t been sending out my newsletter, because — listen, on Twitter, it’s easier. I can amplify black voices and causes and share links to fundraisers, amid the rest of my bullshit. And while I can absolutely do that here, this just doesn’t feel like the right platform. For one thing, I don’t have the same audience, but more importantly, my voice is too central here.

So I’m continuing this brief pause. As I’ve said on Twitter, all current newsletter posts are public, which means there is no need for a paid subscription. If you currently have a paid subscription, please consider canceling it and donating that money to Black Lives Matter — I’m going to include some links below of where I’ve given recently. If you subscribed for an entire year and would like to be refunded, please reach out to me privately and I will reimburse you.

Note that I will still be writing things here — about theater, horror, and Housewives, yes, and also about anything else pop culture that strikes my fancy. I just wanted to acknowledge that I’m on a little hiatus, in large part because I don’t want anyone who has paid for a subscription to feel cheated. And please do remain a free subscriber, if you’d like! I’m not going anywhere, and I hope you’re not either.

Here are some fundraisers/organizations I’ve supported recently, if you’re looking for any ideas:

Justice for Breonna Taylor

Official George Floyd Memorial Fund

Black Trans Femmes in the Arts (raising money for Black Trans Protestors Fund)

G.L.I.T.S. (and more information here)

The Official Peace and Healing for Darnella Fund

Homeless Black Trans Women Fund

Emergency Release Fund

Reclaim the Block

And this page has Black Lives Matter educational resources, as well as more ways to donate, support black-owned businesses, and get involved.

#BlackLivesMatter #BlackTransLivesMatter

Every single verse can make it that much worse

In which I revisit Season 6 once more, with feeling.

It’s been a little over a month since I wrote about the Buffy and Angel rewatch I had embarked on with my boyfriend — or, more specifically, since I wrote about my least favorite episodes of the show, inspired by our rewatch — and now we are somehow nearing the end. We’re on Season 7 of Buffy and Season 4 of Angel, which is, to be totally candid, not a great place to be. (Some words of warning: I am about to say critical things about at least one of these shows, so if you worked on either or are otherwise sensitive about them, which I completely understand, you should probably stop reading now so I don’t feel bad later. Thanks.) Rather than attempt to write about the flaws in these two seasons while we’re only halfway through, I wanted to write a little about the preceding seasons — Buffy Season 6 and Angel Season 3 — and why one fails where the other succeeds.

Think back, if you can, to the 2001-2002 television season. Buffy and Angel were on different networks at this point, and the occasional crossovers that had peppered the prior two seasons were suddenly verboten. (The closest thing we got here was Angel learning Buffy had been resurrected, and the two agreeing to meet somewhere between Sunnydale and Los Angeles, which is like, I don’t know, Valencia?) But in watching these two seasons side-by-side, which I’d actually never done before, I discovered some surprising commonalities: more serialized storytelling, a marked increase in darkness, beloved characters’ falls from grace, and the lack of a consistent Big Bad. Most of which, it’s worth noting, wasn’t really new to Angel, but felt like a rather jarring departure for Buffy. That might be the root of the problem.

It’s not that Buffy, whose characters were a few years out of high school at this point, shouldn’t have been allowed to play in Angel’s sandbox, but that Buffy hadn’t figured out how to do so effectively. The result is a season that feels scattered, unnecessarily bleak, and dragged down by inconsistent characterization. There are, to its credit, some high highs — “Once More, With Feeling” remains one of the show’s greatest achievements — and even a weaker season of Buffy is pretty damn good. But while I thought rewatching Season 6 would reveal it to be underrated, as so many fans claim, rewatching it alongside Angel Season 3 only served to further expose its weaknesses.

Angel has an unfair advantage here: The areas where Season 6 of Buffy falls flat were basically built into Angel’s DNA, particularly the darkness that characterized Angel from its inception. It’s not that Buffy never got dark, but that it had never — up until Season 6, that is — delved into the level of trauma and despair that was inflicted on fans. An episode like “Dead Things,” probably the most challenging Season 6 episode to rewatch next to “Seeing Red,” feels notably out of place on Buffy, a failed experiment in seeing how low every character can sink. Watching Buffy and Xander and Willow hit their respective rock bottoms in Season 6 is frankly unpleasant, not because Buffy was never a show where bad things happened, but because the bad things never happened so relentlessly. Even so, it’s less where the show arrives and more how it gets there. Here again, the comparison to Angel Season 3 is unflattering.

There were some really lovely arcs on Buffy over the years, and I don’t want to take away from that, but on the whole, Angel was stronger when it came to serialized storytelling. (On the flip side, Angel has fewer memorable standout episodes, so nyah, take that.) This really comes through when you consider the respective downward spirals of two characters on both shows: Willow and Wesley, the bookish, brainy, mostly well-behaved members of the team. Season 3 of Angel presents a compelling case for Wesley’s betrayal, and the fallout that sees him estranged from his friends and sleeping with the enemy. Season 6 of Buffy, on the other hand, turns Willow into a hardcore magic junkie over the span of two episodes. Yes, the seeds of Willow using too much magic had been planted long before then, but the abrupt shift to Willow as a literal addict — one of my biggest issues with the season — is enough to give you whiplash.

There are also, of course, parallels between Wesley/Lilah and Buffy/Spike, though I don’t think the latter’s severely toxic relationship is necessarily a mark against Season 6. It feels like both the natural conclusion of years of sexual tension and a symptom of Buffy’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. The problem comes in “Seeing Red,” when things take a sudden and nauseating turn. Here, again, the issue seems to be the show’s failure to lay the groundwork for another character’s rock bottom, and an inability to place the moment within the context of a larger arc with more cohesive characterization. It’s not so much that idea that Spike could never inflict sexual violence, but that it doesn’t really gibe with the Spike the show had been building up as a flawed demon vying for antihero status, and certainly not with his Season 7 redemption arc.

Sometimes the characters on these shows, even the “good guys,” do unforgivable things. But we do move past Angel trying to smother Wesley with a pillow in the hospital, despite how heinous that is. Spike’s sexual assault of Buffy, however, is obviously in another category, and as such it’s something the show as a whole struggles to contextualize and ultimately brushes under the rug (much like Jaime’s out-of-character rape of Cersei on Game of Thrones). It becomes just another shocking, terrible, unbelievably upsetting thing that happens in Season 6 — dark for the sake of being dark.

I realize that I am being awfully hard on Buffy, but that’s because I’m more passionate about the missteps of something I care deeply about. Buffy remains my favorite show of all time — yes, above Angel, which I also love a lot. And I think my frustration with Season 6 is that so much of it actually does look good to me on paper. There’s a version of that story that comes closer to Angel’s stunning execution of Season 3: painful and sometimes challenging but thematically rich and cathartic. And I do think, for what it’s worth, that one of Buffy Season 6’s most effective moments is thematically rich and cathartic — Buffy climbing out of the grave in the finale, with Dawn at her side. In fact, I’ll take that over glowy Cordelia floating into the heavens. Point: Buffy.

Photo via 20th Television.

State of the Housewives

In which I soothe myself to the white noise of the Miami Housewives.

Another newsletter, another reminder that I am struggling with a temporary attention deficit brought on by… (and here I am gesturing wildly again). I have mostly managed to stay on top of my Bravo shows, for better or worse. (By better, I mean Real Housewives of New York. By worse, I mean Vanderpump Rules.) I don’t feel like I have anything all that insightful to say, but since this is, on occasion, a Housewives-centric newsletter, and because I’m trying not to neglect my readers for two consecutive weeks, I figured I’d do a little State of the Housewives with some scattered thoughts on the current seasons. If you’re not a Bravo person, good news, you can go ahead and delete this email now!

The Real Housewives of New York City

Leah McSweeney. Leah McSweeney! There has not been a better new Housewife in — I couldn’t even tell you. I mean, it’s almost impossible to add to the casts anymore, because anyone who wants to be a Housewife at this point is likely severely broken in an unfun way. Which, you know, is maybe the case with Leah, whose politics are muddled, at best, and who decided to start drinking again after years of sobriety — which is totally her choice, to be clear! — and then lost her shit so thoroughly at Ramona’s Hamptons home that it looked like footage from an over-the-top anti-drinking PSA. When she threw those tiki torches, though, I cheered. When she screamed “fuck J.P. Morgan,” I felt alive.

In many ways, I feel like Leah is who everyone wants Erika Jayne to be: the fun, no-nonsense, not-so-prim-and-proper new Housewife who shows up and wreaks havoc. Erika has always been more controlled than that, though, which is why watching Leah’s descent into madness was such a delight. RHONY as a whole feels looser than it has in years, and yes, I’m willing to acknowledge that might have something to do with Bethenny’s absence. I love Bethenny, but maybe she did keep things a little too restrained, if only because the women were afraid to get that sloppy around her. This doesn’t account for huge chunks of the most recent seasons, but it’s the only real explanation I have. Well, that, and Leah is a chaos agent, bless her heart.

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

I feel bad for Garcelle Beauvais, who is a refreshing addition to this series and already pushing the show in the right direction, but who can’t possibly compete for “Best New Housewife” when Leah is around. This show also feels looser, and that, I think, we can definitely pin on Lisa Vanderpump — or rather, the lack thereof. More than Bethenny, LVP held the reigns in ways I don’t think Bravo ever really wanted to acknowledge, and the show is better off without her, even if the Beverly Hills cast can’t possibly compete with the New York ladies. I mean, it’s telling that they started their season at New York Fashion Week, of all places. They know.

But I am excited about this season, despite the fact that getting excited about RHOBH is almost always a recipe for disappointment! PuppyGate is dead and gone, and we are finally pivoting to Denise Richards. I love Denise. Loved her last season, love her contributions to the culture, namely the holy triumvirate of Drop Dead Gorgeous, Wild Things, and Starship Troopers. But something weird is going on with her and her husband, and I feel like their bizarre dinner party behavior was just the tip of the iceberg. I mean. I know it’s just the tip of the iceberg, because I watched the promo for the season. Yes, I am thrilled about a Housewives show finally allowing the Sapphic subtext to become text, but mostly I am thrilled to hear Denise’s hung husband explain cancer to a very stoned Mauricio. The brain worms are alive and well on RHOBH! For all of that, I will put up with Sutton Stracke, who is Dana Wilkey by way of Southern Charm. No, thanks!

The Real Housewives of Miami

Listen. Some people are using their social distancing time to catch up on prestige shows they missed like Succession and Breaking Bad. I am using my social distancing time to finally watch The Real Housewives of Miami (and D.C., but I’m not there yet). This is not a great show. It is far from top-tier Housewives. But then, most top-tier Housewives series have ceased being top-tier at this point, so really, we should probably be a little kinder to RHOM. I’m on Season 2 now, and there’s certainly more drama than there was at the start. It still feels slighter than modern-day Housewives, but I wouldn’t say I mind that.

If anything, I appreciate RHOM for its simpler aims. Everything feels smaller and more contained. Fighting about who said what in the tabloids and who showed up to which charity event without paying? That shit seems quaint to me. And yes, I say this as the show is heating up, and Adriana just punched Joanna in the face, but honestly, there’s something really comforting to me about the Housewives of yesteryear. It’s white noise, essentially. Nothing groundbreaking. Certainly nothing requiring my full attention. As far as ways to pass the time, though, one could do much worse. And the perpetually smiling Karent Sierra is absolutely terrifying.

Photo via Bravo.

“Beer” bad, “Wild Things” worse

In which I come to the defense of “Doublemeat Palace.”

Because I’m rewatching Buffy, I’m also tweeting about Buffy, which is — let’s face it — a thing I would be doing with or without the rewatch. Still, revisiting the series (along with Angel) has been an excellent opportunity for content. (And to distract myself from the pandemic.) (And to gently encourage my boyfriend to have the same Whedonverse opinions I do.) (I digress.) Recently my tweet about “Beer Bad” being widely regarded as the worst episode of Buffy got some attention, because “Beer Bad” has its defenders, and they will pop up if you dare speak ill of it. Having just watched “Beer Bad” again recently, I can confirm that it remains not good, but I will concede, as several people suggested in my replies, that “Where the Wild Things Are” is far worse.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the other bad episodes, with the caveat that I’d still rather watch the worst episode of Buffy over pretty much anything else on TV, a testament to my enduring love of the series, and my strong desire to disassociate right now. We’re only through Season 4 on the rewatch, but I feel confident enough in my Buffy opinions (and my memory) to do this now, so here are my picks are the worst episodes of every season.

Season 1

Worst: “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date.” People rarely cite this as one of the show’s worst episodes because they don’t remember it exists, which is precisely the problem. Despite the presence of one of the all-time great lines — “If the apocalypse comes, beep me” — it might just be the most forgettable episode of the series. Well, at least until Season 7. Also, it introduces the whole Anointed One thing, which was a totally useless storyline featuring a tragically bad child actor.

Runner-up: “I, Robot… You, Jane.” Reasonably entertaining as a time capsule. Still bad.

Unfairly maligned: “The Puppet Show.” Sid is great, haters. Also has Cordelia performing “The Greatest Love of All.” Enough said.

Season 2

Worst: “Inca Mummy Girl.” Yes, we get it, Xander has hilariously bad taste in women. But “Inca Mummy Girl” (what is that title!) doesn’t cover any ground we hadn’t already covered in the also bad “Teacher’s Pet.” The cultural appropriation of that school dance hasn’t aged well, but then, the whole thing feels… insensitive, at best.

Runner-up: “Bad Eggs.” What did we do to deserve Lyle and Tector Gorch?

Unfairly maligned: “Go Fish.” Xander in a Speedo before we all hated Xander. Could do without the implication that the sea creatures sexually assault their coach, though.

Season 3

Worst: “Beauty and the Beasts.” There’s something really icky about the whole allegory here, and the domestic violence metaphor is especially uncomfortable when Pete gets grouped together with Angel and Oz. (We’re better off not thinking about the fact that Buffy and Willow’s romantic partners are occasionally violent, unless the issue is being handled with real depth.) Plus, it’s boring. A real dud in the show’s most consistent season overall.

Runner-up: “Dead Man’s Party.” Not really a bad episode, even, but everyone is kind of dick, and it’s annoying.

Unfairly maligned: “Anne.” Though certainly not a top-tier Joss episode, it works well enough as a season opener. Maybe I just have a soft spot for Chanterelle/Lily/Anne.

Season 4

Worst: “Where the Wild Things Are.” Just like, tremendously uncomfortable to watch. I think even if you like Buffy and Riley as a couple — which, how come? — you can be grossed out by the relentless fucking. It’s amazing that Giles singing “Behind Blue Eyes” can’t redeem this mess, but it’s seriously such an unpleasant episode of television, and after my recent rewatch, I felt like I needed a shame shower when it was over.

Runner-up: “Beer Bad.” Episode bad, Buffy punching Parker pretty.

Unfairly maligned: “Living Conditions.” Actually kind of fun? Kathy is allegedly annoying because she listens to Cher a lot and has a Céline Dion poster, which in retrospect is low-key homophobic. She’s a gay icon, and we have to stan.

Season 5

Worst: “Listening to Fear.” I always confuse this one with “Shadow” — they are both part of a really depressing arc that I don’t mind as a whole, despite the tragic ending, but man are these episodes rough. To that end, I’m not sure if “Listening to Fear” is any worse than “Shadow” (and that horribly fake snake demon), but Joyce’s tumor-induced ramblings are certainly more uncomfortable to watch.

Runner-up: “Into the Woods.” Fuck Riley and fuck Xander and fuck the men on this show, just in general. (“Shadow” could also go here, but I feel like we’ve covered that.)

Unfairly maligned: “Buffy vs. Dracula.” Dracula is great, the end. Plus, it ends on one of the most iconic “what the fuck” moments in TV history.

Season 6

Worst: “Wrecked.” Remember the good old days when magic was a metaphor for lesbian sex, and then the show had to go and make it a metaphor for drugs for some reason? This is really the low point in the series’ bleakest season. (For what it’s worth, I think Season 6 is somewhat better than Season 7, but they’re the weakest overall.) There were so many ways to show Willow’s spiral that didn’t involve that bullshit with Rack.

Runner-up: “As You Were.” Because Riley. But let’s be honest, there are a number of episodes I could list here, and you’d nod sagely at all of them.

Unfairly maligned: “Doublemeat Palace.” You heard me. More clever and self-aware than it’s given credit for, along with a delightfully phallic demon and some horribly depressing alley sex. What’s not to love!

Season 7

Worst: “First Date.” Special guest star Ashanti! I think one of the things Buffy did so well in the early seasons was show the conflict between Buffy’s higher calling and her desire for a normal life. Like, yes, apocalypses happen, but you still have to let loose sometimes. “First Date,” on the other hand, just feels forced and woefully out of place. Sometimes it’s just not the right time to embark on a new relationship, is the thing!

Runner-up: ...Any number of episodes in the middle. You expect me to distinguish between “Never Leave Me,” “Bring on the Night,” and “Showtime”? I’m sure there’s a worst, I just couldn’t tell you what it is.

Unfairly maligned: The thing about Season 7 is that the good episodes stand out, and people talk about them. And the bad episodes — well, we pretty much agree. But those good episodes are honestly really good!

Photo via 20th Television.

Quick bites

In which I let YouTube fill my days and nights.

“How are you holding up?” replaced “How are you doing?” so suddenly that I barely even noticed. And yet, here we are, assuming a baseline of misery that’s completely appropriate given… you know, everything. It’s fair to assume that anyone who claims to be doing well, or — horror of all horrors — ”thriving in quarantine,” is actually just a bad person. Even if you, specifically, are managing decently amid the pandemic, basic human compassion should preclude you from thriving. The correct answer to “how are you holding up?” is either “not well” (and you can elaborate, if you choose to) or “fine, all things considered.” Personally speaking, I am fine, all things considered.

I have, however, found that my attention span is completely shot, which means I’m struggling to get through the backlog of television I have, and I’m not watching any of the must-see movies on my list. It’s kind of amazing that I’ve completely abandoned any pretense of a social life, and I’m still behind on everything, but well, we live in hell, and coronavirus was never going to allow me the satisfaction of being on top of my shit. (I remain employed, and more grateful for my job than ever, so I do at least have some excuse for why I’m not just finally getting through Ozark.) In times of intense anxiety, I find that I can’t really focus on anything for very long. Like, I’m theoretically watching the final season of Homeland, but that’s really more something I put on while I nervously read Twitter, glance in horror at breaking news stories, and count the minutes between texts from loved ones.

One of the many consequences of my inability to get my shit together and watch most TV and movies is that I’m also having a really hard time finding things to write about in this newsletter. I’m behind on all horror, theater is depressingly non-existent, and while I have managed to stay on top of all the Housewives, I haven’t really been able to muster an opinion beyond that this is the worst season of Vanderpump Rules ever, and the timing could not be worse. Mostly, I watch a lot of YouTube videos, which is what I did after I got laid off and was unemployed for the bulk of 2019. YouTube videos are short and easily digestible — which I think is at least part of the mission statement of Quibi, but I refuse to write about Quibi or otherwise acknowledge that Quibi exists.

Because I didn’t want to leave you hanging forever, I thought I’d offer a brief look at the YouTube channels that have been keeping me (relatively) sane. There is no real method to this madness: I can’t explain why I watch the videos that I do. But maybe you’ll find them just as compulsively watchable and distracting. And I promise one day, when things feel a little bit more normal or when I’ve at least managed to repress all the terror, I’ll get back to the content you subscribed for.

Bon Appétit: I love the Bon Appétit YouTube channel more than I love most things in life. The test kitchen chefs are my literal family (with apologies to my literal family reading this). Claire Saffitz is the best thing that’s ever happened to me specifically, and you should read my newly updated ranking of Gourmet Makes episodes if you haven’t already. All of which is to say, these videos are the ultimate comfort food for me, which is ironic because I have not exactly been using my social distancing time to learn how to cook. I’m especially enchanted by the recent videos of the chefs cooking in their homes, which provide the same voyeuristic thrill as therapy over Zoom. There was a time when Bon Appétit felt like a cool, under-the-radar thing, but now everyone knows these videos amazing, so I’m preaching to the choir here. Good!

emmymadeinjapan: Still not cooking, still watching every video Emmy releases without fail. Emmy is a powerful force for good. She may be the purest person on YouTube. (One time she made a dick joke, and I literally screamed.) Her videos are deeply soothing to me, and when she says that we’re going to get through this, I actually believe her. Recently she’s been doing live hangouts where she chats while eating lunch, and I’m getting a little choked up just thinking about it. Without fail, Emmy keeps me grounded. I watch her videos because she makes delightful and exciting things, but also because she’s maybe the best person on the internet.

The King of Random: I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t really know why I can’t stop watching these videos. It feels super off-brand for me. There’s an occasionally unnerving bro-y tone here that I find vaguely icky. But also, fun experiments! Often involving food! I scroll past the “blowing shit up” videos and focus on the videos about freeze-drying things that should not be freeze dried, and making cotton candy out of things that should not be cotton candy. And then I go back and watch the “blowing shit up” videos, because well, I’m only human. Science is neat. So is putting inappropriate things in the microwave.

Simply Nailogical: I do paint my nails sometimes, but I haven’t in months, and yet, I cannot stop watching Cristine’s videos. I understand that she is a very popular YouTuber, and I’m late to the game here. I just think she’s really fucking funny, and I have a crush on her boyfriend, Ben. I can’t really explain it. Her sense of humor just works for me, and I think she has great screen presence. OK, I guess I just explained it. And while watching cooking videos has not made me try to cook more often, and watching nail painting videos has not made me paint my nails, I’m confident at some point I might try to do… something. In the meantime, Cristine mellows me out.

Photo via Bon Appétit.

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