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"Todd & The Book of Pure Evil" Season 1

“...it takes more than fire to destroy the book. It survives... perhaps weakened, but searching for another soul from which to draw power. It'll make itself known to whomever needs it the most. The insecure, the desperate, the feeble... they will find comfort in the bosom of the book.

“THEN THERE WILL BE CHAOS.”

Take one part stoner comedy, one part supernatural adventure, and one part high school drama (okay, maybe 3/4ths part high school drama) and you get "Todd & The Book of Pure Evil" -- a Canadian television series that chronicles the exploits of four teenagers as they combat the forces of evil plaguing Crowley High. As the title of the series suggests, those forces originate from an infernal artifact known as The Book of Pure Evil, a tome that makes the deepest wishes of anyone who reads from it come true... but like the wishes granted by treacherous genies or the monkey's paw, the reality wrought by the book tends to be far darker than the reader's fantasy. Also in keeping with the title, the protagonist of the story is Todd Smith, a perpetually stoned loser with a mysterious connection to the book and who's out to find it for the purest of reasons. (He wants to impress a hot girl, natch.)

If the show sounds kinda cool, that's because it is! A fan of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- which is what I am (inside joke if you watch the show; there's a character who frequently says that after mentioning some designation he holds) -- will find a lot to like about the show. In some ways, in fact, the setup is very familiar. Where Sunnydale High's location on top of the Hellmouth was the source of many of the evils Buffy and company faced on a regular basis, The Book of Pure Evil haunts the school and (when unassuming students read from it) is similarly responsible for various unsavory supernatural occurrences at Crowley High. Both shows' supporting casts have an adorable tech-savvy nerd girl (Willow on "Buffy"; Hannah on "Todd"), a devoted slacker best friend (Xander on "Buffy"; Curtis on "Todd"), a kinda bitchy hot girl (Cordelia on "Buffy"; Jenny on "Todd"), and a not-so-hip authority figure (Giles on "Buffy"; Atticus on "Todd," though admittedly Atticus is more like a much goofier Principal Snyder).

Todd and Curtis rock out!omg THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL
The team investigates.Reefer madness.

Even the major difference, that Todd's no Buffy in the action hero department, doesn't feel completely unfamiliar. Todd is himself fairly reminiscent of Xander, such that his antics and the more comedic tone of the show make it a lot like the Xander-centric episodes of "Buffy." Basically, if you imagine "The Zeppo" extended for the length of a series -- and with a whole lot more marijuana references and over-the-top Troma-style gore -- you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from "Todd." For readers unfamiliar with Buffy, there are a number of apt comparisons -- the aforementioned Troma films, horror comedies like Zombieland and the Return of the Living Dead series, even animes like "Highschool of the Dead" (although, while fairly pervy, "Todd" is nowhere near as pervy as that series). Yes, there are moments of genuine horror and shock and sadness, but the prevailing emphasis remains on comedy -- and it's largely pretty funny stuff. The unpleasantness that results from students' use of The Book of Pure Evil sets up a lot of humorous situations (for instance, when the gang finds out that a classmate is luring boys to her home in order to feed them to zombies, they foil her plans by spreading a rumor about her having herpes). The nature of the show provides for a lot of inspired and fun nods to various horror and television themes (one episode involves a demonic baby; another has a character possessed by the ghost of a cool kid from the 1950s). The numerous gruesome deaths occur in cartoonish fashion, with showers of blood and CGI special effects, and the characters are more likely to crack jokes about the passing of their fellow classmates than spend a moment mourning their demises. Todd usually responds by hitting on Jenny. So if you enjoy horror comedies -- particularly of the irreverent, low-budget variety -- you'll likely find the humor in "Todd" to be both familiar and refreshing.

But while I was prepared for the more comedic aspect of the show, I admittedly wasn't expecting the emphasis on marijuana -- and although they're not shown smoking that much, Todd and Curtis do spend a lot of time talking about getting high and/or already being high. That doesn't bother me so much, but because it sort of precludes deeper growth on the part of the characters (at least where Todd and Curtis are concerned) the characters do start to feel a bit stale as the series wears on. These kinds of characters well in stoner comedy films, I think, since the stoners largely serve to move the viewer from one improbable event to the next -- and since, in a 90-minute movie that takes place over the course of several hours or a couple of days at most, there is arguably not sufficient time for the characters to truly evolve. (How much have you grown as a person since the weekend?) Over the course of a thirteen-episode season in which the characters have multiple, diverse experiences and repeatedly find themselves in life-and-death situations, however, I found myself wishing that they would acquire at least some depth from their ordeals. Todd and his friends experience things that would traumatize most people -- or at the very least somehow harden their personalities -- but they largely remain the same nonchalant, unaffected, and often callous characters in the final episode of the season that they were in the first.

Flesh-eating zombies!Babies are the devil.
Yep... that's what you think it is.My, my... what big EYES you have.

This is also, I think, one of the more glaring flaws with the series as a whole. I'm not sure that the show is actually written with a teenage audience in mind -- the actors are obviously much older than the characters they portray (not that that's unique for high school dramas, but here it almost feels like part of the joke), and the school setting and teacher antics are even less realistic than those on "Saved By the Bell" -- but it does effectively highlight on a lot of the problems teens face, from academic rivalry to parental issues to discovering/exploring one's sexual identity to body image issues to bullying. The way in which these issues are raised is also exceedingly clever and in keeping with the show's premise, given that the book presents itself in response to the students' despair concerning them. However, because the show is ultimately a comedy -- and because of the grisly fates that tend to befall those who read from the book -- it doesn't offer a particularly useful moral or even attempt to suggest ways that teens might deal with these issues in the real world. (In fact, to the extent that, as Crowley High's guidance counselor, Atticus is intended to represent helpful authority figures the show arguably suggests that teens should not seek help from such individuals; Atticus is a buffoon with a wealth of emotional issues himself.) I understand that to a point, as the show is a comedy and is likely intended for adults who might not want or need advice in the first place, but I also think it's possible for a show to offer valuable messages and commentary -- and have its characters learn and grow from events -- while still remaining true to its comedic intentions. That "Todd" doesn't even try for the most part is disappointing.

But even though "Todd" is very light on character growth and depth, it is still an enjoyable watch. Some viewers will appreciate and even identify with Todd's slacker approach (it's also worth noting that the show features Jason Mewes, a name that I didn't recognize but might resonate with Kevin Smith fans); Jenny and Hannah provide welcome eye candy; the characters (especially Atticus) and developments provide ample humor; and the machinations of The Book of Pure Evil are intriguing and inspired. In short, there's probably something for everyone here... though the nature of the comedy and lack of helpful commentary probably means that easily offended audiences should approach "Todd" with caution. (Along those lines, while I don't know whether there was actually any conscious thought or intent behind this, I couldn't help but notice that nearly all of the few minority characters on the show die very grisly deaths. That doesn't make them unique at Crowley High, but I might not recommend the show to viewers who are very sensitive to that sort of thing -- even though it's not necessarily or overtly racist here. The show does, however, have foul language and some pretty gross stuff that squeamish audiences should avoid.)

DVD Special FeaturesJenny and Hannah! (and Atticus)
Satanists in hooded robes!Marijuana doesn't do that to people.

So that's what I have to say about the show itself -- but this is a review of the Season 1 DVD set, I should also say something about the set itself. The two discs come in a clear case with the first disc on a separate hinged piece inside and the second disc in the space single-disc releases typically occupy. I don't see this arrangement all that much, but I definitely prefer it; whereas the first disc sometimes comes loose and rattles around inside in the case when sets have the discs facing each other on opposite sides of the case, this design seems more likely to keep the discs in place. The case also contains (inside the front half, where one usually finds postcard-sized advertisements and the like) a multipage Entertainment One booklet with lots of other shows and films from the distributor. It's actually one of the nicer and more thorough advertisements I've seen, though of course a booklet related to the show would have been preferred. Even so, I have to admit that they did something right with this -- I tend to toss and/or ignore the postcard-style advertisements that one usually finds inside DVD cases, but I actually flipped through this one. (That said, it could also have something to do with them placing Missy Peregrym on the booklet cover. Good call, EO.) As far as printed material with reference to "Todd" goes, the episodes on each disc (along with the included extras) are listed and summarized on the opposite side of the DVD insert, which is visible through the clear case (though it's a bit cloudy) once you remove the booklet and discs. It's minimal, but it works.

The extras are similarly serviceable without being impressive. There's a blooper reel, outtakes and deleted scenes, promo clips, Q&A sessions with the cast -- standard stuff that might appeal to hardcore fans but will probably go unviewed by many. (It's also worth noting the clips and extended scenes are largely viewable on the show's official YouTube channel.) There are also commentaries for three of the episodes, and I didn't find them to be very appealing. Now, I admit that I'm not usually a fan of commentaries. When I am, it's because the participants focus more on what they wanted to communicate in a particular scene, what ideas motivated the action in another, and so forth. Yet most commentaries -- and the "Todd" episode commentaries fall into this category -- largely feature the participants joking around, sharing anecdotes from the set, and so forth. But even though I don't typically enjoy these, I tend to think that viewers who do would probably prefer to hear the cast and crew comment on more than just three episodes. I did, however, very much enjoy the extended scenes from the musical episode (which is definitely on the shortlist for my favorite episode). The short film that inspired the series is also among the extras; that was pretty neat, too.

Todd & The Book of Pure Evil - Disc 1!All they're missing is a tweed-wearing librarian... or a talking Great Dane.
Er, Jenny... you're looking rather... large.Thanks for the memories!

So, again, "Todd & The Book of Pure Evil" is an enjoyable show. It's not especially deep, and the extras aren't super awesome -- but the show is a lot of fun. And at $11.99 on Amazon for the thirteen-episode first season, it's also a great value as far as season sets tend to go. (Full disclosure: the copy I reviewed was provided for free for the purposes of this review -- along with three sets that we're giving away! Click through to the blog entry at the bottom of the review to see how you can win one.) I can't guarantee that you'll love it -- but I certainly enjoyed it enough to be excited for the second season, which is currently airing on Tuesday nights on FEARnet in the US. I highly recommend checking it out -- once you've seen the first season, that is!

-- Wes --
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(You can also win "Todd & The Book of Pure Evil" Season 1
on DVD by doing so... at least until March 26th.)
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