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November 15 2009

Pop culture head trips. The Buffy episode 'Normal Again' gets included in this list of tv episodes and films that played games with the mind.

Good idea for an article, I love 'Normal Again' mainly because it's so unsettling, takes guts for any creator to so totally undermine his fictional universe to tell a story (and, secondarily, make a point about the nature of reality).

And they're right about the ending to 'Life on Mars' UK - if you had it described to you it'd be hard to see it as an amazingly positive, uplifting and life affirming ending, still was though ('Flashforward' *spoiler* - again, shouldn't be beautiful and again, was).

(I disagree about 'Memento' though, that made perfect sense by the end, the convergence of story threads was brilliantly "managed". Great film)
I'm glad they listed The Prisoner. SyFy (I have reluctantly given in on the name, even if Saje hasn't) has put so much effort into advertising the "reimagined" version beginning tonight that I feel the need to go dig out my DVDs of the original. Time reviewed the new one, with a passing reference to Dollhouse here.

ETA: Mental meltdown. The new show is on AMC.

[ edited by palehorse on 2009-11-16 01:21 ]
There's a Smallville episode that's exactly like "Normal Again" and I hated it so much. Its the only episode of the Smallville that pained me to watch. I've never seen such an interesting concept applied so badly.

Plus, you know, it doesn't work in Supes land.
The last scene of Normal Again is what always completes the mind frak in my head: half expected a comic in season 8 to revisit it...
I hate normal again, i get really upset with the head games and cant watch it. I get all.....did she make the right choice or is she still in that hospital. Yuck, i hate felling this unsure of the world.
I wouldn't love "Normal, Again" if it was just a head-spinner, but it was also a heartbreaker. In the alt dimension, a tragedy.
You mean in the real dimension, Pointy. :-)
To me it doesn't matter which world was "real." Buffy chose to be strong. To me, that's usually the right choice.

Still, quite the trip.
One of the strengths of the episode is that each universe it portrays provides a full, coherent explanation for the other. If Buffy's the slayer, then the other universe is the result of magic; if Buffy's mentally ill, then the other universe is the product of her mind. Unlike The Sixth Sense, "Normal, Again," doesn't neatly resolve by casting one fiction as really fictional and the other fiction as (fictionally) real. You're invited to contemplate the series as a grandiose delusion of pseudo-heroism that hides one consciousness from the truth about itself (a very disturbing theme for a fantasy show and one Dollhouse has explored ever more deeply). And then you're invited to watch the next episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

[ edited by Pointy on 2009-11-16 06:30 ]
The Normal Again alt-reality cannot be real because Buffy would have made up everything on Angel and she wasn't even in L.A. That would make sense. Occam's razor and all...

That episode never bothered me because it was the catalyst that snapped Buffy out of her depression. I thought it was rather brilliant myself.
"Why can't you people leave me alone!"

This was a great episode 'cause you saw it from Buffy's point of view. Well, so speaking. "Goodbye." Goodness, so many thoughts there, don't know which to shake a stick at.

Guess the thing is, Buffy was reaching the end and was crying for help at that point. Yes?
Good to see Normal Again getting the recognition it deserves - definitely one of the best of BTS.
This is a pretty good list.

The Usual Suspects was my introduction to the magic of both Kevin Spacey and Gabriel Byrne.
Fight Club is probably on my top ten movies ever list, Memento is a little piece of genius - Being John Malkavitch, Brazil .... I'm realizing that I own several of these movies.

I'd like to have seen Eternal Sunshine on the list, and I could have done without The Sixth Sense - a blatantly manipulative gimmick placed at the end, to mask the fact that this was not that great a film. But then, I dislike pretty much everything by M. Knight Shyamalan - empty smoke and mirrors, IMO.

I'd also have loved to see Carnivale on the list - definitely a first class head trip.


[ edited by Shey on 2009-11-16 08:49 ]
The Normal Again alt-reality cannot be real because Buffy would have made up everything on Angel and she wasn't even in L.A. That would make sense. Occam's razor and all...

Well, she doesn't need to be there to have made it up ? Assuming you're not kidding electricspacegirl, applying Occam's Razor (which is just a guideline BTW, not a law) to the Buffyverse yields 'Normal Again' as true (i.e. Buffy's in an asylum) since one mentally ill girl is fewer entities than all the vampires, werewolves, gods, hell dimensions, Scoobies etc. etc. of the Buffyverse. Given two equally plausible situations, the asylum is the simplest.

For me what mattered isn't which choice Buffy made (or even which choice is "true"), it's that she made a choice at all (and then followed through) and did it consciously. That's crazy brave and truly heroic, literally a world changing decision. Pretty broad shoulders for a wee slip of a girl but then we knew that already.

(and there's also great stuff in there about our own choice as fans to invest in a reality almost as if it's real. It's about "chosen realities" in the same way that BtVS in general was about "chosen families")

And IMO the best other interpretation of the "Maybe none of this is real" trope that crops up a fair bit (especially in genre TV) is 'No Reason' from 'House' (their take is also a variant on the "last gasp fantasy" which i've loved since reading "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" as a kid). Whether House's "choice" is crazy brave or just crazy arrogant is debatable but then he's just a man, not a superhero. Some extra leeway seems fair ;).
Saje, no I'm not kidding. Listen to the Buffycast podcast ep.13 and then tell me if you think it's possible that the Buffyverse is something she made up in her own mind.
OK, had a chance to listen to it and yep, I still think it's possible ;) - partly because, as I say, Occam's Razor is a guideline in critical thinking, it's categorically NOT a law of nature that can be used to disprove a point of view (it's more a "tie-breaker"). Some interesting points though and here're some potted responses (from memory so apologies if I mix up the order etc. and sorry this is quite long, the podcast makes quite a few points):

To the early point (from a listener) that it undercuts the feminist message by saying the strong female characters™ are fantasies i'd submit that the strong female characters ARE fantasies because they're on a fictional TV show and that that relationship between the fictional Buffyverse and our (actual, real) world is part of what the episode is about. As the guy touches on, it's interesting that (most, mentally healthy) people obviously know that but are invested enough in the universe that it doesn't matter UNTIL they're explicitly reminded of it by the show.

To the podcaster's points:

Pt 2 - None of the writers would agree that it's "all a dream". Maybe, we'd have to ask them but I suspect it's true (just as I suspect most fans wouldn't either). It's irrelevant though (and also nothing to do with Occam's Razor).

Pt 3 - How can Buffy be surprised when it's her fantasy, in her mind ?

This seems to confuse the sort of fantasy Buffy is having with the sort of deliberately constructed fantasy that e.g. a mentally stable writer (if that's not a contradiction in terms ;) would come up with. She's not "making it up", her mind is i.e. she's not sitting and deliberately thinking "Oh, and then Angel could leave and go to LA", the fantasy is happening to her in the same way it's happening to us - her consciousness is just an (involved) observer, it's her subconscious that's doing all the work. So how can she be surprised ? Have you ever been surprised in a dream or scared in a nightmare ? Assuming yes, how could you have been, it's your mind right ?

Pt 5 - Xander's dream.

Finally, Occam's Razor can be applied. Either we have a girl dreaming a dreaming boy (who is, perhaps significantly, having exactly the sort of dream a girl would think of a boy having) OR we have a girl and a dreaming boy (and an entire universe of vampires, werewolves, monsters etc.). One "dreaming" girl is simpler.

The argument that from the show's perspective (given 6 seasons of being shown that vamps, werewolves etc. exist) it's simpler to believe it's true just doesn't hold because 'Normal Again' posits that none of that evidence is valid, it's all made up i.e. it doesn't matter if the preponderance of evidence is on your side if ALL of that evidence is suspect (this is the commonly held "no smoke without fire" fallacy). There's also a hint of "argument from incredulity" about this point in that it's kind of saying "But look at everything we've seen, you're asking me to believe one mentally ill girl could've made all of that up ? Incredible !". Again, fallacious.

I almost mentioned upthread BTW (and the podcast touches on) the idea that continuity problems, plot discrepancies etc. actually support the asylum position, something i've always liked about the episode - it has "error correction" built in ;).

Note though, BTW, i'm not saying I personally think she's in an asylum. I make the same arbitrary choice that Buffy makes and choose to believe in the "reality" of the Buffyverse. What the episode makes clear (to me) though is that it is, ultimately, an arbitrary choice (just like in our actual reality) - there's no provably right or wrong answer, you pick one and you act as if it's true. Otherwise you're lost.

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