Buffy the Vampire Slayer Followup: Season 1

06/28/2012

This week I finished watching all seven seasons of Joss Whedon’s cult TV classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To commemorate whatever accomplishment I can lay claim to — primarily being unemployed and hitting the “next episode” button a lot — I’ve decided to do a series of writeups on each of the seasons and highlight their strengths and weaknesses.

For spoiler-related reasons, I have to choose upfront whether this exercise is for fans or non-fans. On the assumption that most people who’d be interested in a Buffy blog fifteen years after the debut are probably up to speed, I’m gonna stick with the former and thus venture into some of the show’s grittier details. Yes, I realize that less than a month ago I would have been an exception to this rule, but going in I knew practically nothing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer that couldn’t be inferred from the title. There were a number of seemingly irrelevant details that I was happier being surprised by — even details that made the cover of the DVD packaging. So even if I didn’t think I was posting spoilers, I’d argue that your best bet is to trust nobody, me included, and just get going on the show. I mean, it’s Joss Whedon. Do you really need someone like me to encourage you to get started?

Anyway, onto season 1 which follows the events of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie (which admittedly I haven’t seen yet) as Buffy moves to a new high school, hoping to leave her slayer calling and all its pesky responsibility behind her. This is an understandable sentiment. After all, her family was uprooted by a gym fire she caused at her old school while defeating a vampire hoard — and of course she can’t say what she was really up to, so everyone, her parents included, just chalks it under the “Buffy is a lunatic pyro” category. Her parents are divorced — which we later learn is due in part to her slaying activity — and her mother had to quit her job and relocate so Buffy could change schools. So yeah, understandably the teenage girl is more than ready to figure out something else to do with her life.

Unfortunately, Buffy soon learns that, whether by fate, dumb luck, or the maneuverings of a powerful secret organization, she has been relocated to an even more prime location to continue her slayer duties. Her new hometown, Sunnydale, sits on what her new watcher Giles calls a “hellmouth.” The details are a bit fuzzy, but basically this means that mystical energy surrounds the area drawing in all kinds of demonic activity — including, but not limited to, vampires — and causing otherwise normal human activities to gain supernatural significance. In Sunnydale, if you and your friends act like a pack of hyenas, there’s a good chance you might actually become one.

Reluctantly Buffy accepts the role of Slayer once again and tries to balance it with the demanding life of a normal teenage girl. She also makes a couple good friends, Willow and Xander, falls in love with a mysterious stranger, Angel, who turns out to be a vampire, and manages to save the world. Twice. Not bad for an abbreviated 12 episode season.

What Works?
The metaphor of high school students as monsters resonates on an archetypal level, and Whedon actually has the guts to do it justice. This is an unforgivingly brutal season of television — even by later Buffy standards — where sympathetic and central characters run the risk of turning evil or being violently dismembered at any moment. That makes for some great standalone horror episodes like The Pack, Teacher’s Pet, Nightmares, and Out of Mind, Out of Sight. But I’m not just talking about brutal physical violence. The show is also psychologically daring, venturing into the tricky realms of school violence, child abuse, suicide, and rape, all while maintaining the show’s pulp sensibilities and not hiding behind the “very special episode” mentality most shows have when addressing such topics. 

The central cast is also great right from the get go. Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), and Angel (David Boreanaz) take a while to round out, but they’re still extraordinarily well cast and written. Meanwhile Xander and Buffy arrive fully formed, with Nicholas Brendon charmingly channeling Whedon’s nerd voice, and Sarah Michelle Gellar shining right away as an up and coming star. Those two characters work their way through compelling arcs despite the abbreviated 12 episodes, and although there are more than a few rough spots along the way,  the show finds some form of perfection by its finale, Prophecy Girl, which is a series highlight.

What doesnt work?
The finale aside, the arch-plot of Season 1 simply doesn’t work. The vampires hoard, led by “The Master”, seems content producing a lame assault or generic prophecy every couple episode that the main heroes find some equally generic way to defeat. The exception to this is episode 6, Angel, where Buffy and the titular vampiric lover have a complicated love triangle with one of the Master’s minions. But considering the Drusilla/Angel/Spike/Buffy arc from Season 2, these dramatic complications run pretty thin. Mark Metcalf infuses his “Master” with charisma every now and again, but 70% of the time he’s just a Power Rangers villain and his plots aren’t a whole lot better. In most of those episodes, I expected the vampires to “Grow!” after their defeat and start smashing Sunnydale’s cardboard skyline. Fortunately the standalone “monster of the week” episodes are pretty stellar this season, Puppet Show and I Robot, You Jane notwithstanding.

Of the central cast, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) is the only one who never really comes into her own. Unsurprisingly she also has the least screen time. While I kind of like the way she’s played off of other students at the end of the season, especially in Out of Mind, Out of Sight, I don’t think the writers ever conclusively make her work in Season 1; and she is truly unbearable in the first few episodes. Also a lot of the high school dialog near the beginning is vintage 90’s — not how people talked in the 90’s, but how people talked on TV shows in the 90’s. The trademark Whedon patter is more or less up to snuff by season’s end, but it’s pretty rough going early on.

Conclusion
The central irony of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that a show can have a title like that and still be painfully emotionally honest. Consider a conversation between Buffy and her mother in the second part of the series debut, one of my least favorite episodes. Buffy has to go save the world, but her mom won’t let her leave the house. This could have easily been played off as a joke, but Whedon ignores any present irony and makes sure that at its core, this is a conversation between a mother and daughter in a strained relationship.

Truth is the key.

You can have all the vampires and witches and insect women you want — we’ll even forgive the occasional chatroom demon robot — so long as the characters feel real and their plight honestly explores some aspect of the human condition. Buffy never had a truly perfect season, but for its entire run* its characters were fascinating and believable. Even when the narrative stalled, I was willing to just hang out with them because they felt that real.

This extends beyond the primary cast and into the supporting players, including the villains from week to week. There’s even a sense in Season 1 that the monsters themselves are the protagonists. The most relatable ones range from cheerleaders to bullies to social outcasts, all lost in some way in the perilous woods of adolescence. Whedon doesn’t celebrate their negative decisions or their angst, but he does create a show that’s not the least bit squeamish about expressing the depth and severity of their pain. And he provides an alternative: an empowered young girl who feels the same pain and the same weight of the world but manages to overcome it. That’s the very definition of a hero; all the more startling when the hero’s domain resembles real life.

*…save a few smaller gripes with a later season, which I’ll get to later

Best Episode
Prophecy Girl

Worst Episode
– Welcome to the Hellmouth

Other Classic Episodes
The Pack
Nightmares

Nearly Classic
Witch
Teacher’s Pet
Out of Mind, Out of Sight

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