Last Wednesday saw the debut of a possible TV classic, “The Inside.” Creator and executive producer Tim Minear is part of creative coterie nurtured by Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Firefly,” speculative action dramadies deeply rooted in a vision of remythologizing what it means to be human.  The first episode shows every sign of continuing in Whedon’s tradition of producing TV fiction that is not just liberal, but radical in its political sensibilities, though with a minimum of overt politics. Jane Espenson, one of Whedon’s key writers, joins Minear as co-executive producer, a sure sign of strong ties to the Buffyverse.  (Espenson studied linguistics at Berkeley, btw.)

Some info on the show:

I’m writing this and posting it here for the same reason that the work of Charles Dickens continues to have political relevance to this day. It was no accident that there was a Dickens revival in the 1980s, during the Reagan years.  Dickens wrote his novels in serial installments, much like TV shows today.  

Plus, like any good TV is this age of reality shows, it needs all the help it can get just to survive.  So read on…and watch.

[Continued on the flip.]

Minear had written for TV before teaming up with Whedon, but with Whedon he became an executive producer on both “Angel” and “Firefly.” Minear’s first venture on his own last year, “Wonderfalls” was the year’s best TV show you’ve never heard of.  It was, however, decidedly more whimsical and less life-threatening than high-stakes mythic terrain Minear had worked on with Whedon.  His new show, “The Inside,” is a riveting turn back into the heart of darkness Whedon has always sought to illuminate. But despite some strong similarities with Wedon’s work–which will be my main focus, in fact–this show clearly bears the mark of a mature creator in his own right.

For one thing, while Whedon is intentionally mannered in his work, Minear is much less so.  He is grittier. There wasn’t a glimmer of Whedon’s quaint, perennial existential awkwardness in the entire first episode.  There was much more the feel of  “Homicide, Life on The Street,” the last great broadcast TV drama before Whedon made his debute.  Texture and tone matter a great deal, and Minear clearly has his own  feel for them.  

But for now, I want to focus elsewhere, on the themes that showed themselves in this first episode, and the continuities they showed with Whedon’s work. Hopefully, what we are about to see unfold is the beginning of a real creative dialogue in which these concerns become increasingly widespread, for they are inescapably a part of what it means to be human that is just now becoming increasingly impossible to escape–except, of course, through the means of concerted darkness against which Whedon and Minear both shine their light.

While Minear never worked on “Buffy,” and “The Inside” is clearly much closer to “Angel” in lighting, tone, and location, the first episode shows strong connections to both, with stronger parallels to “Buffy.”  The clearest core concerns that emerge are female autonomy, identity, self-creation vs. annihilation, calling, individuality vs. hierarchy, and the interpenetration of good and evil–without sacrificing the distinction.

Minear’s setting is an FBI unit in Los Angeles. The first episode has strong overtones of “Buffy” in the pairing of Peter Coyote as Virgil Webster, a make-your-own-rules head of the unit, and Rachel Nichols as Rebecca Locke, the newest, youngest member of his team, called in when their profiler is discovered dead-apparently the victim of the serial killer she was tracking.

Locke and Webster promise to have a special relationship reminiscent of Buffy and Giles. Like Buffy, Locke has a gift born of pain that Webster wants to use.  As a young girl, Locke was abducted for 18 months–and survived, a fact secretly known to Webster, who has pulled strings several times to finally get her.  She has also changed her name, so as not be connected to her identity as a famous victim.  

Intentionally or not, her chosen name, “Locke” is that of a key figure in the political philosophy of liberalism, an intellectual champion of the role of autonomy in both civil and religious matters, as well as the rationale keeping them apart.

In “Buffy,” the source of the Slayer’s power in a form of demon rape is not revealed until well into the last season, though the logic of her very existence preceded the series in the film, premised partly as a response to the reactionary slasher films of the 1980s.  In those films, monsters violently mutilated and killed young women for expressing the early stirrings of sexual autonomy. In “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer,” a young girl not only fights back, she becomes the thing that monsters dread.  Yet, she remains “just a girl.”

In “The Inside,” gender is no longer an issue–at least not in the same way. Locke is one of two women on the squad, and no one makes any mention of her gender.  But that really only means that the issues have sunk deeper into the bones.  As the episode unfolds, we learn that the serial killer removes his victims’ skin–faces and hands. He takes their identities–what they look like, and their fingerprints. The victims are all new arrivals in LA, young women with few contacts, who have come to make new lives for themselves, and not yet found their niche.

These are all familiar themes from “Buffy” and “Angel.” In the first episode of “Buffy,” she has left LA–and, she thinks, slaying. She is trying to make a new start, after burning down her old high school, and getting expelled.  But her calling–and the school librarian, Giles, her Watcher–won’t let her.  She can make a new identity for herself, but she cannot stop being the Slayer. She can only re-define what that means–which she does so utterly and completely, repeatedly refusing to be the good subordinate she is supposed to be, forming strong bonds of friendship that ultimately are the key to her survival.

At the beginning of Season 3, Buffy has run away to LA, changed her name, lost herself in response to being forced to kill the love of her life, and being rejected when her mother learns she is the Slayer. She falls in with a minor recurring character, also a Sunnydale refuge, temporarily named “Lily,” who goes on to appear several times in “Angel,” becoming a guardian of lost children, nearly as old as she is.  

The two of them end up in a demon dimension, where they are taught to say they are nobody.  The demon in charge of new captives goes down the line, asking each of them in turn, “Who are you?” and they reply, “I’m nobody.” When he gets to Buffy, she has hit bottom, and is ready to spring back. In her perkiest vapid teen voice she says, “I’m Buffy, the Vampire Slayer! And you?”  From there on, the demons don’t stand a chance.

Similarly, in the first episode of “Angel,” the very first vampire Angel battles preys on isolated young women who come to LA to make their way.  Cordelia, the vapid teen queen nemesis of “Buffy” who becomes a champion in “Angel” is his last would-be victim.  Finally, at the very end of “Buffy,” Buffy’s best friend, Willow, casts a spell that turns all potential slayers (“potentials”) into fully realized ones.

These are but a few of the most striking examples of an enduring theme in “Buffy” and “Angel,” which Minear actually states more clearly and directly, even putting the wisdom directly in the mouth of Locke, the young heroine.  The killer she is tracking has her at gunpoint, but she remains unafraid. She tells him he cannot take her identity. Someone much scarier than him already tried to do that when she was still just a girl, and he did not succeed.  She also explains to Webster the ordinary heroism of the victims, young women who have come to LA to create themselves in their own image–an image they must struggle to discover.

I began with the intention to explore the complex of themes named above-female autonomy, identity, self-creation vs. annihilation, calling, individuality vs. hierarchy, and the interpenetration of good and evil-but already I have gone on too long, and I haven’t done justice to the one theme I’ve focused on most directly-self-creation vs. annihilation.  

That’s okay. The real reason I wrote this was two-fold: (1) To interest people in a potential TV classic that the network, Fox, is typically failing to support as it should. (2) To start a conversation, not just about the show, but about the potential for storytelling to further the tasks of transformation which is what liberal and radical politics have ultimately been all about, at least since the time of ancient Greece.

Let’s see if I’ve succeeded on either count.

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