Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Let me take you back…
It was the spring of 1997, and I was idly channel surfing when a show caught my eye. Though I’d come into the show late, I ended up watching the rest of it, and actively tuned in to the next episode. The show quickly became my favorite program, and I was a loyal viewer until its eventual end in 2003.
That show was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Joss Whedon’s supernatural take on high school and the undead has often been imitated but never duplicated, and it remains my all-time favorite television show. Recently, I was fortunate enough to complete my collection of the series’ run on DVD. A few months ago, I popped in the first disc of Season 1 for something to watch on a Sunday afternoon.
Mrs. Buck knew it was a favorite of mine, and had seen an episode here and there, but was for all intents and purposes a Buffy virgin. She was a bit hesitant, but quickly saw what made the show so enjoyable. Long story short, in the space of roughly two months (possibly three; we’re a little fuzzy on just when we started), we watched the entire series from beginning to end. And after digesting the entire run, I felt a retrospective was in order. If you think I’m going to be one of those folks who attempts to psychoanalyze the show and what Buffy meant to a generation, don’t worry. These are just reflections and observations; what I took away from revisiting a show that helped shape my interests.
For the record, the episode I stumbled across that got me hooked was the sixth episode, “The Pack.” And it’s probably a good thing I started a few episodes in, as the pilot may not have kept me coming back week after week. Not that the show’s bad, just that it’s a genre show that has trouble finding its legs in the first season. But even though the 12-episode initial season tells a complete story with a pretty final ending (they didn’t yet know they’d get picked up for another year), it does lay solid groundwork for the future.
Highlights: Anthony Head as the long-suffering Giles, Mark Metcalf’s gloriously over-the-top portrayal of The Master, the story potential of a vampire with a soul. B+.
The cast was more comfortable in their characters’ shoes in the second year, and about halfway through the season the production values notably increase (though it’s still fun to watch a fight scene and go “That’s Gellar…now it’s her double…Gellar…double…" They got better at the editing as the show went on). It’s also around the halfway point, specifically the two-parter of “Surprise” and “Innocence,” that things really kick into high gear. Angel losing his soul showed that the rules could change in a heartbeat in Buffy’s world, and the show was all the better for it.
Highlights: David Boreanaz as the villainous Angelus, the introduction of James Marsters as Spike (who would go on to become one of my all-time favorite characters on any television show), the ensemble really starting to click. A-.
Senior year at Sunnydale High. Angel returns from the Hell dimension Buffy was forced to send him to, and the kids make some hard choices about what the future holds for them. Toss in Mayor Richard Wilkins III, the best Buffy villain of them all (in my opinion), and rogue Slayer Faith, and you’ve got what may be the most solid season start-to-finish of the entire series.
Highlights: Hopeless romantic Spike in “Lovers Walk” (“I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”), Harry Groener’s delightful turn as the evil Mayor Wilkins (I can’t praise it enough), the final battle on Graduation Day. A.
No more Angel! No more Cordelia! Giles doesn’t get to wear his fashionable tweed anymore! And yet…I love it. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite season of Buffy, but Season 4 comes close. For one, there’s a lot of great comedy in this season, as everyone tries to figure out where they fit into each others’ lives following high school (Heck, Willow even went gay!). Spike’s return as a series regular and the intrigue of Riley Finn and the government-sponsored demon-hunting Initiative were nice additions as well (Naysay all you want, Buffy fans, but I actually liked Mr. Finn.) But the real reason Season 4 remains my favorite is the mostly-silent episode “Hush.” It’s funny, it’s scary, and The Gentlemen are some of the greatest supernatural villains ever created in any medium.
Highlights: Spike’s forced co-habitation with Giles, The Initiative and the human/demon/cyborg monstrosity known as Adam, “Hush.” A.
Seasons 6 and 7 have their moments, but this was the last truly great season of Buffy. Admittedly, the introduction of Buffy’s sister Dawn was a little weird at first. But as it became obvious she was what would drive the season’s storyline, as chaos god Glory attempted to break down the barriers between dimensions, things really came together nicely. Sadly, this season also included the death of Buffy’s mother. As Joyce Summers, Kristine Sutherland may never have been a series regular, but her absence would be felt for the remainder of the series.
Highlights: “The Body” (the death of Joyce, an episode so well-written and performed that I still have trouble watching it without getting a little verklempt), the beginning of Spike’s evolution from villain to hero, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance in the finale “The Gift.” A.
Buffy is resurrected through black magic, only to realize that she was not pulled from a hell dimension (as her friends believed), but quite possibly from Heaven itself. This season is uneven at times, though it does have some high points, particularly the critically-acclaimed musical episode “Once More, With Feeling.” I didn’t care for the turn the Buffy/Spike relationship took at the time, but watching it again it makes sense (even if it's still not all that enjoyable), given the psychological state Buffy found herself in. Oh, and Willow went evil and almost destroyed the world.
Highlights: The afore-mentioned musical episode, Giles’ return in the nick of time, Dark Willow. B.
The ethereal First Evil, the very thing that evil itself fears, gathers an army of primordial vampires to lay waste to the world. Not to be outdone, Buffy and Giles raise an army of potential Slayers as the final battle (and episode) approaches. Simply put, Season 7 tries too hard. If Gellar had announced her intentions to leave before the season began, I’m sure it would be a wholly different thing. But the front half of the season is too full of episodes getting everyone in their place and new status quos. As a result, Gellar’s decision coming halfway through the season (thus making the season finale the series finale) makes things rush to a head almost too quickly. One can’t help but think that the story potential here couldn’t fill two seasons rather than 10-12 episodes. Heck, if they could have made Season 7 just six episodes longer, that would have gone a long way towards a more satisfying conclusion.
Sidebar: Another minor complaint here is the new principal of Sunnydale High, Robin Wood. Not that D.B. Woodside is a bad actor, or that Wood's a bad character (introducing someone who turns out to be the son of the Slayer Spike killed in the '70s is inspired), but rather that they sort of try to make him a substitute Giles. As a result, Giles kind of gets the shaft story-wise when he returns with the potentials. An interesting route would have been (provided they could have gotten Tony Head for the entire season) to have Giles obtain the principal position when he found out the school was being reopened, then be forced to leave on his search for potential Slayers, and give Buffy the counselling job she ended up with so someone was keeping an eye on the school while he was gone.End Sidebar
Highlights: The continuing evolution of Spike (Now with Soul©!) and Dawn’s characters, the revelations of the origins of the Slayers and Watchers, the final battle between forty Slayers and an army of vampires atop the Hellmouth. B.
Season 7 was, of course, not exactly the end for the Scooby Gang. In early 2007, Dark Horse Comics launched the ongoing series Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight. I've read the first three collections, and while it hasn't exactly set my world on fire, it is a good continuation of the characters and their world.
So how did the show mature? Well, it gets pretty adult at times. Relationships go to the physical level (sometimes not in a good way), marriages are discussed, etc. The cast really grow into their roles as the series progresses. There’s a great brief scene in the second half of the final season, where we see Buffy, Xander, and Willow sharing silent glances as a house full of potential slayers erupts into a shouting match, and you can see in their eyes their amazement at how far things have come from when the three of them comprised the entire “gang.”
Given that the wife was seeing most of these episodes for the first time, I tried to be more objective this time around. And while I’ll always be glad I have the entire series on DVD, seasons 6 and 7 probably won’t see heavy rotation in my viewing habits. There are simply too many flaws in there despite the true shining moments. That being said, I told Hooper that if you start with the second half of Season 2 (the afore-mentioned two-parter “Surprise” and “Innocence”) and go up to the end of Season 5, you’ve got four and a half years of real quality television, and I stand by that. The show will always be my all-time favorite, despite the imperfections.