The Pleasures of the Ensemble

Watching the pilot for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Joss Whedon’s new show on ABC, I am struck by how watching a Whedon show is a play of familiar pleasures, shaken and stirred. Whedon texts are almost always both familiar and unfamiliar, which makes sense because these are often hybrid; for example, witness the strange and wonderful combinations of the following: western/sci-fi in Firefly, high school/horror in Buffy, and musical/super villain tale in Dr. Horrible. Even Much Ado About Nothing, which I haven’t yet been able to see, appears to combine the intricate, often lofty, language and complex, larger-than-life characters of Shakespeare, so often a vast, grand affair in film—giant in both scale and scope—with a decidedly low-budget, intimate, kitchen-sink dramedy.

Whedon ensembles are familiar/unfamiliar as well. If you watch a number of Whedon texts, as I must confess I have, you see the same actors showing up, in different permutations and combinations, bringing to a new text the familiarity of their bodies and personas and the emotional affect of their previous roles. As they do, worlds collide in a way that is both disorienting and pleasurable, casting one outside the text for a moment, then plunging one with renewed vigor and interest back in again.

As I watch the opening of the pilot, an out-of-work factory worker caring for his young son is introduced; he quickly becomes a hero. I know this face and body, but not as this character but another: as Gunn, the private eye in Whedon’s Angel, played by actor J. August Richards. I remember the strength and sureness of that character, and compare it to the vulnerability of this new character, so ably portrayed by Richard. Later, in the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, a doctor arrives, but he’s more to me than simply a scientific expert; instead, I recognize Book, the gentle Shepherd (priest) in Firefly and its feature sequel Serenity, acted by Ron Glass

Just as Whedon is fond of hybridity in genre and in content, often blending humor and horror, leavening his rising action with wit and wry detachment, so is he loyal to interweaving his texts with past casts, actors he’s come to know and, it seems, trust. As a new Whedon text arrives, one of the pleasures is to see actors who may have died onscreen in past roles return to life, finding vigor in new forms, charm in new Whedonesque wordplay.

Whedon’s interest in the ensemble he has assembled over many years reminds me of William Shakespeare, an actor and playwright who was part of a group of performers known initially as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men. While this is perhaps not the best analogy, I think of it given Whedon’s interest in Shakespeare, evidenced not only in his recent Much Ado, but by stories that have circulated for years of his weekend brunches, at which friends, many of them actors in his texts,  perform plays.

As Whedon does, Shakespeare depended on a gifted ensemble of actors whose gifts he knew intimately: writing for them and, probably, revising with their improvisations in mind. Just as Shakespeare could depend on his actors, so they could on him: over time they must have come to know his skills and how to excite him, possibly garnering even more juicy lines and business. The ensemble of Shakespeare included tragedians and clowns, famous names such as Richard Burbage, Henry Condell, Will Kempe (the original Dogberry), and Robert Armin (the original Feste and Fool in Lear). Knowing these actors may have allowed Shakespeare many comforts: the ability to write quickly, knowing how soon they could pick up his words, the chance to lean on their gifts, and the opportunity to expand his imagination in any way he pleased. For Elizabethan audiences, there must have been a pleasure in seeing these actors again and again, not only viewing the variation of the same performance over several nights, the changes that organically appear in a performance, but seeing these actors in very different roles, roles that may counter and complicate those earlier roles. While Shakespeare’s ensemble had some stability, allowing a level of comfort and continuity, it was also the case that this was only temporary: actors might leave for other acting companies while others arrived, ensuring fresh blood and shake-ups.

Whatever Whedon does to his actors, they keep on coming back, eagerly, for more. Here are just a few examples that demonstrate the loyalty of Whedon to his actors, and they to him: Nathan Fillion appears first in Buffy, then Firefly, then Dr. Horrible, and then in Much Ado; Clark Gregg works with Whedon in The Avengers, then Much Ado, and now on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Amy Acker was in Angel, Dollhouse, and Cabin in the Woods, the last not directed by Whedon but written by him. She then snagged the role of Beatrice in Much Ado. Her Benedick, Alexis Denisoff, was on Buffy as the stuffy Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, then on Angel. If I remember my star news correctly, he’s married to another Whedon alumna, Alyson Hannigan, and the two appeared together on a non-Whedon project How I Met Your Mother.  Several of Hannigan’s co-stars have gone on to work with Whedon, from Neal Patrick Harris in Dr. Horrible to Cobie Smulders, who starred in The Avengers and appeared in the pilot for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

There’s an essence of family in this: families created behind and on the screen. Whedon often works with his brother Jed, as in the case of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The pilot was written and directed by Joss, with Jed as a co-writer, among others, and a co-producer. In his texts Whedon often deals with the coming together of a family: not a family of blood, but one of shared anguish and desires, one that grumbles and flirts and occasionally gets crazy with each other, but a family in all its imperfections. The Scooby Gang—Buffy’s family—is made up of Buffy, Willow, Zander, and Giles, the core group, with further members adding and leaving as the core characters grow, lose loved ones, mourn, and find joy again. As the series begins, Buffy has a mother, no father, and later in the series her mother dies and she magically gains a sister. This family is vital, but Buffy’s real family seems to be the other members of her core group: the family she’s gained through love and pain.

The characters in Firefly are all refugees and outlaws, fleeing to the furthest reaches of space. Brought together unwillingly on Firefly, their homey, humble spacecraft, they slowly come tougher, with the ship itself becoming a member of the family. The Avengers, full of characters who are both super and human, do not want to cooperate, but find that they must. Squabbling and self-involved, independent and grieving, they finding solace in cooperation.

The little worlds that Whedon builds, full of these makeshift families, are pragmatic utopias: fragile, brittle, supported by wit and furtive longing, sweat and hard decisions. This is often the way of the world in Whedon texts, in which heroes are always flawed and the villains are multi-dimensional and often better at the hard truths and the grand gestures than the texts’ putative heroes. All I know is that I’ll keep watching, enjoying the pleasures of Whedon’s ensembles, the pull of the familiar/unfamiliar.

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