excellently Bgrade SF telly

I will watch any SF or supernatural television program at least once. Some stick, some don’t. I favour programs with female protagonists. I like queer stories or subtexts because they tend to fuck up the gender norms.

Besides the usual big names (Buffy, Dr Who), I am also into Bgrade stuff. Mostly because Bgrade stuff tends to be far more subversive, and that’s where you find the women protagonists. For all sorts of reasons. But apparently women don’t sell advertising, so we don’t see such great stuff from them in the Agrade programs. The ethnicity stuff is a bit of a fail (everyone is whitey mcwhite unless I’ve noted otherwise).

I tend not to remember the names of actors, but I like to read across programs, following a particular actor. I also tend to read all these programs as part of a broader metanarrative or general universe rather than as separate and distinct worlds. This is encouraged by the fact that many of these actors turn up in the other programs.

Lost Girl: 1 season, 2010. Canadian supernatural, female protagonist, sexual content (which of course is the predominant theme in many of these shows). Definitely B.
Story: woman hero (and female sidekick) work as ‘private detectives’ in the ‘fey’ world, which humans don’t know about. She’s trying to discover who her family is (she doesn’t really understand her super powers).
I don’t mind it because it looks quite good (in a ‘cinematic’ sense), has two female protagonists (one of whom turned up in Nikita once – I think she speaks Russian?) with a male werewolf love interest for the bisexual woman hero. That male love interest reads a little queer (though his character isn’t), or at least a little gender-flex (rather than solidly Super Straight Hegemonic Masculinity), which is nice. I’m still undecided about the gender politics in this one, though there are obviously some challenges in a sexualised succubus identity for the hero. I watch this one.

Blood Ties: 1 season, 2007. Canadian supernatural, female protagonist, sexy themes but not too sexy. Low production values.
Story: human private detective discovers supernatural world, begins to work with teh sexy vampire Henry Fitzroy solving supernatural crimes.
This one is important because it’s an adaptation of Tanya Huff’s Blood Books series, which is one of the best vampire series I’ve ever read, when Huff was really at her best (I think she’s a bit weaker these days). The female hero is excellent, and while the telly series doesn’t mention it, Huff’s characters are often bisexual or queer, which makes watching the telly series (within that context) a bit more interesting. The main actor has gone on to do other bits and pieces, mostly in crime shows like CSI.

Sanctuary: 3 seasons, including 8 webisodes. Canadian supernatural.
Story: ‘Sanctuaries’ are linked places where supernaturals are a) contained/held captive or b) educated (this bit is unclear and dodgy). These places are big ‘historic’ buildings, run by a team. There’s an international network of them. They solve ‘monsters of the week’ stories.
Female and male protagonists (three or four, depending on season), very decent gender politics. Season 2 introduces an Indian-American female character. A bit too much greenscreen special effects, and not really high-end stuff. A sort of swirly aesthetic that I find soothing when I’m ready for bed. The second season picked up the editing speed/tempo a bit. Less of the sexy stuff, more of the stronger female characters (the ‘boss’ is a centuries old woman scientist). Still Bgrade.

Moonlight: 1 season, 2007, American supernatural.
Vampires…. doing vampire stuff? I think the hero was… some sort of problem solver? Indolent rich? Who knows. This one is bad. I’ll stick with something really bad if the hero is female, but this hero (the actor is now the hero on Hawaii 5-O) is not good. Totally Bgrade, but with an Agrade aesthetic at times (in terms of special effects at least), and it was a struggle even for me to get through all the eps of this doomed program.

Vampire Diaries: You know this one. High production values, sometimes very, very poor scripting and acting.
Story: teenagers and vampires!
The second season started well with the way Caroline’s turning into a vampire was handled, but this hasn’t been sustained. There’s quite a bit of sex, which is a bit weird in a teenage character/high school setting, and the relationship between the brother vampires is ripe for a little slash fiction, even thought it’s a very straight show. Sometimes the show almost seems to be self-reflexive, and the ‘bad’ brother Damon assists this with his treatment. But it doesn’t quite get there. The best bit is having the ‘bad boy’ werewolf character from Wolf Lake as the ‘good’ brother Stephan. I think he’s actually a decent actor, though he struggles.

Wolf Lake: American supernatural from 2007, 1 season. Bgrade.
Story: ex-cop (Lou Diamond Phillips!) comes to small mountain town looking for his missing wife. Town is run by werewolves. He doesn’t quite discover their existence by the end of the series.
Hispanic protagonist! Tries to bring in some Native American subtext, but fails a bit. This is a weird mix of Twin Peaks and… some strange show set in a small rural town. It’s not consistent with its kooky Twin Peaks vibe and humour. Some sexy bits, some violence, but mostly laughable. It stars Stephan from Vampire Diaries, though, Lou Diamond Phillips, and a few other characters who turn up all over the place, including Phillips’ missing (werewolf) wife, who’s also in Vampire Diaries (as the sooky Stephan-girlfriend’s vampire mother). Dodgy special effects. Just didn’t quite work.

Demons: British supernatural, 2009, 6 eps of 1 season.
Story: basically Buffy with a teenage boy hero who’s descended from van Helsing and kills supernatural things.
This one is hampered by its bad acting (esp the hero), and I’m not all that interested in a male hero. The ‘mentor’ figure is played by that guy from Life on Mars who’s in all those British cop shows. I think he was miscast. I couldn’t finish watching even the 6 episodes. I’d say B, but the people who made this also made Merlin and Hex, and they have really good special effects and a glossy look.

Hex: British 2007, 2 seasons, supernatural.
Story: Witches and ghosts and teenagers and stuff.
Sexy, bit queer, except the queer character reads a bit too much like a thrill for male viewers – I was totally unconvinced. The other female protagonist is a rubbish actor. I just couldn’t handle this one, though my mum loves it. Despite the female protagonists, it’s genderfail. Bgrade, but with Agrade production values.

Supernatural: 6 seasons? You know this one too.
Story: 2 brothers travel around rural American south (sort of American gothic, but actually filmed in Canada I think) fighting monsters. More horror than supernatural, really.
Mainstream American telly. I quite like it, even though it has just about no women in it all, fails the Bechdel test. I like to watch it as though Sam and Dean are actually lovers with a rubbish relationship. They cry and talk about their feelings all the time, but they never kiss. Well, I haven’t caught them at it yet. Jensen Ackles is interesting because he was in ‘Dark Angel’, ‘Smallville’ and ‘Dawson’s Creek’, which are big teen shows. I like the way Supernatural plays on its wider fan discourse, including the slash fiction stuff. Total gender politics fail if you read it straight. Excellently queeraliciously genderfuck if you don’t. Not Bgrade at all.

Dark Angel: 2 seasons 2000, American supernatural/SF/post-apocalyptic whatever. Stars Jessica Alba. I like this one.
Story: Female protagonist who’s a bike courier in some post-apocalypitc city (Seattle?). She’s a clone or something, reads as kind of ethnic-flexi, has cat DNA mixed in with hers. She and some other kids escaped some corporate facility as kids and she’s constantly in hiding, looking out for searchers, though she has a job and pays rent in a dodgy apartment. Decent gender politics, except for the sexing up of the hero via the cat DNA – she ‘comes into heat’. The female protagonist has a lesbian housemate who has partners and the queer stuff is negotiated. I think this is actually an ok show, though it’s Bgrade.

Haven: American/Canadian coproduction, 2010 1 season (renewed).
Story: woman FBI agent goes to mysterious town where people have random (and usually uncontrollable) supernatural skills to find her mother/follow some mystery or something.
I love this one. She has a male partner (a local cop) who is suitably deferent to her leadership, but also has spine. He has a supernatural power (doesn’t feel pain), is good looking but not too good looking, and they have some really great unspoken sexual tension that could just as easily be platonic love and mutual respect. Their relationship is what makes this show for me. That and the amazing location. It’s Bgrade, the stories are silly, but I like it. It uses the ‘kooky rural town’ trope. Also stars that guy Eric Balfour who is kind of the Kevin Bacon of teen telly.

Eastwick: American 1 season 2009 supernatural.
Story: set in the Eastwick of the great film Witches of Eastwick, with three similar protagonists (same talents, etc), but with slightly different backgrounds, etc.
Genderfail, and undoes all the good work of the film. Okish special effects, Bgrade in execution, but intended as something more. Reminds me of Gilmore Girls in terms of setting. One of the few with a non-anglo protagonist.

Other programs that I watch, and which inform my reading of the above programs:
Murdoch Mysteries (19thC police crime)
Hellcats (female athletes)
Veronica Mars (female teenage private detective teen)
Being Human (UK and US)
Caprica and BSG
Sarah Connor Chronicles
Smallville (early series only)
Stargate Universe
True Blood
Dead Like Me
Pushing Daisies
Warehouse 13
Dr Who, Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures
Ultraviolet (British vampire/crime show)
Walking Dead
Buffy and Angel and Firefly
The Cape
Dollhouse (totally fucking gender FAIL and I hated it so much I had to stop watching. This show convinced me that Joss Whedon is actually fucked up RE gender stuff and that Buffy was a fluke we should attribute to Jane Espenson and other people NOT Whedon).
Nikita (a woman spy = supernatural in my book)

Smallville v Sunnydale

In the video shop* the other day, I picked up the first disc in the first season of Smallville.
I have to admit, I was inspired by my recent (and pleasant) experience with Superman Returns [insert insanely effusive gushing over the Alien Beauty that is the noo soops], and I’m not sure I’ll stick with it (though I’m up to disc 2), and we do have plenty of Buffy and Angel to watch)…
Yeah, so anyway.
Smallville. I’ve been struck by the similarities between Buffy and Smallville. This is, no doubt, an illustration of the influence of Buffy on the genre I’m sure my supes would call ‘teen supernatural’ or something similar. I know there’s been lots written about self-reflexivity and polyvocal texts ‘n all – all lain to varying degrees at the door of Joss Whedon – but I think that Buffy had a more interesting influence on Smallville (or perhaps, that we can see similar tropes across this genre?).
Ok, now before I go any further, please do remember that this is a three-seconds-worth-of-thinking theory, in a post I’ll probably publish as soon as I finish it, without re-reading (eek)…
Ok, so here’s the thing I’d not realised about Smallville (what with never having watched it before):
In Buffy, particularly in the first 4 seasons, while Buffy was in High School (or was it 3 seasons?), the program was very much a story about teenagers, doing teen things, mostly in high school. Everyone knew there was something ‘kind of weird’ about Sunnydale, but nobody really took issue with it. Certainly, no one ever moved away. The city’s proximity to the/a hellmouth justified all manner of strange and supernatural dealings, from girls who turned invisible to substitute teachers who were actually giant praying mantuses(i?).
Similarly, in Smallville all manner of strange things in the town are ‘explained’ by the presence of bits of meteorite which fell to Earth with Kal-El’s space ship, way back there (in 1989 – god, it scares me that 1989 constitutes ye olde days in teenland today. I was 15 in 1989 and had already read every decent SF book known to familykind and secondhandshopdom). This is an interesting twist – it gives a little ‘consistency’ to the paranormalness of the town, with this paranormalness being something only Chloe seems to consciously recognise, despite the fact that there are at least a wall’s worth of weirdness for her to seek out in local (and national) magazines, newspapers and other media. The whole meteorite thing also gives Clark something to feel guilty about. And guilt seems to be the S-Boy’s stock in trade… maybe it’s something for him to sublimate later on? Heck, I wish I was hip to psychoanalisis. I just know there’s something I’m missing, what with all the father-son relationship action going down in Smallville.
All this interests me. While I don’t buy that either Sunnydale or Smallville is actually in the ‘country’ (we all know Sunnydale is actually an outer suburb of LA – the Geelong or Ipswich of the city of Angelus, and sure as shit no one in Smallsville sports a Kansas accent…I think ?), I’m kind of caught by the idea that not only do terrible things happen more frequently in rural communities, but that rural communities also produce fiesty female characters**.
One other thing about the supernatural in Smallville that reminds me of Sunnydale is the way that ‘super villians’ are usually teenagers, or people in the teenage world – female students with envy issues, football coaches who need some anger management advice. Again, much has been written (and spoken) about the ways in which the monsters in Buffy represent the monstrous… or mundane in teenagerdom, but it seems Smallville is attempting the same sort of work. Far less effectively, of course, and with terribly inferior dialogue.
In a similar vein, please do read this discussion of race and class in Joss Whedon’s work (from Feminist SF and discovered by Kate – strength to her for the moving thing). It’s mighty interesting.
Now, I’d been thinking to myself, ‘yeah, sure Whedon is neat, but, Self, should I be all yay! go! about another white guy writing for me, rather than a sister doing it for herself, television-writing-wise?’. In other words, I’d had reservations about the wholehearted and uncompromised passion for Joss Whedon which others seem to evince. I had had issues with the race thing. And that’s been kind of exaggerated by Smallville, where Clark’s buddy Peter is black, he has other not-white friends, and Lana Lang has this Eurasian*** thing going on.
And in a third ‘why Smallville is a bit like Sunnydale’ point, I’ve been thinking about something prompted by these comments from Wikipedia:

Technology in Buffyverse has been shown to be advanced enough to produce such an advanced robot as April

(in the I Was Made to Love You April the robot girlfriend episode from season 3)

In the Buffyverse there seems to be some extraordinarily advanced technology available to some. For example, robots are living among the ordinary citizens of the Buffyverse: in the Internet (“I, Robot… You, Jane”), produced by people decades ago (“Ted”), produced by youngsters today (“I Was Made to Love You”), and even used by dark powers (“Lineage”).

(Buffyverse article in wikipedia).
That wikipedia article on the Buffyverse discusses the ways in which the world of Buffy is not like the ‘real world’ (and we could make all sorts of interesting segues into more talk about teenagers and the Teen World, but we won’t), and technology seems one of those points. I’ve waxed lyrical (and slightly manically) on the issue of technology in Buffy before, so I won’t go into it again, but it’s worth mentioning that this matter was called to mind while watching Smallville for two real reasons:
1) Chloe (Clark’s fiesty sidekick) is the technology person, what with all her digital cameras and computers (macs, no less) and things (despite Lex’s best efforts) and
2) the ease with which the Sunnydale people accept robots (particularly the scoobies – and I do like the way the gang unanimously agree that April is a robot – why can they accept robots when they are usually so cynical and wise to the ridiculousness of life on the hellmouth?…look, I know it’s a joke. But.) reminds me of the way the Smallville people seem cool with the whole ‘meteorites destroyed my town’ thing. That, and the 12 years of strange, meteorite-related events. In this ‘verse, not only are Smallville and Metropolis real places, African American kids mixing happily with white kids with no hint of racial tension at the high school and teachers set on fire with no police investigations, but no one really seems to mind that kids turn into giant insects and girls shape change to rob banks.
Oh my, it’s late (all of 11:08! My, how the world changes!), so I’m not sure I can write more. But if you have watched both these programs, do chime in.
Oh, and: everyone’s had a doppleganger in Buffy – Buffy, Willow, Xander – who’s anyone. What does that mean?
And, and: was I the only one who wondered what class Clark was reading Neitzche for in high school? And Lana with a great Russian work of lit? Hmmmm.
*soon to be the only-DVDs shop
** I’m talking Chloe, not the ever-irritating Lana Lang here.
***Well, maybe. But probably not.
[promise I’ll fix the typos and add links later when I’m less tired and have more battery power on the lappy]