By Les Chappell
Welcome back to Okay, I Finally Watched It, an occasional feature where TWTV writers discuss their experience with shows generally viewed as classics.
It seems like in the last few months Joss Whedon’s been virtually everywhere in the public consciousness. First there was Cabin in the Woods, a brilliant horror film that pulled off the trick of both subverting all the tropes of the genre and throwing them all together to see what would happen. Then there was The Avengers, the culmination of Marvel’s years of effort to build a film franchise and the undisputed king of the summer’s blockbuster releases. And now with the development of the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot for ABC and a distributor acquired for his version of Much Ado About Nothing, it seems like there’s almost nothing he can’t do.
This success comes as validation to a lot of people who’ve followed Whedon’s career for years, though it’s something I’ve only been able to appreciate halfway. I’ve sampled some of his work over the years—watching Firefly in college with a friend, intermittently watching parts of both seasons of Dollhouse as they aired—but I’ve never had the appreciation for his writing and creativity that people who grew up with his more famous work do. And by that, I of course mean Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the 1997–2003 supernatural teen drama that redefined both genres to a remarkable extent. It inspired a legion of fans whose interest borders on cult-like devotion, and the show still receives high billing on most “best of” lists (including This Was Television’s, where our own Cory Barker recently named it the top show in UPN/WB history).
I can’t quite put my finger on why I’ve never seen the show by now, especially given I was about the right age (12) to watch it when it debuted, and in the 15 years since my interests have always revolved in some measure around science fiction and fantasy. My best explanation is both a lack of awareness—I wasn’t always the avid TV consumer I am now—and the fact that my attitude toward all teen dramas is historically disdainful at best. This may be due to the fact that I’ve worked very hard to repress every memory of my own high school experiences, but the few teen dramas I’ve actually spent any length of time watching have needed to bring something more for me to appreciate. Veronica Mars, for example, is a show where I enjoyed the season-long mystery arcs plus cases-of-the-week approach, while finding myself utterly uninterested in the dynamics of Neptune High.
But, compelled by no small amount of peer pressure from my friends in the Good TVeets army, the easy availability of the series on Netflix and Hulu, and Whedon’s incredibly prolific summer, I decided that now was as good a time as any to make Buffy a project. And now that I’ve worked my way through the first three seasons of the show, allow me to make a proclamation to all of you who have told me over the months and years that I needed to watch it:
Yes, you were all right. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a good show. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it’s a great show—maybe not consistently great, but one that more often than not reaches highs I’d have never thought a show with that title, on those networks, was capable of reaching.
Not that it hit those points right at the start. Quite the opposite in fact, to the point that half of my Twitter feed kept promising me it got better as I started watching the early episodes and spent as much time making fun of them as I did praising the show. This isn’t surprising given that this was the first time Whedon had ever run a television show, deciding to reboot his 1992 feature film script after what he perceived as a disappointing result. The early episodes are choppy in a lot of ways, operating in a “monster of the week” format that goes to places that are campy bordering on ridiculous: a science teacher who’s actually a giant praying mantis in “Teacher’s Pet,” hyena-possessed kids eating their principal in “The Pack,” and a demon lord being scanned into the Internet in “I, Robot… You, Jane.” There are also some truly horrid special effects that belie the show’s limited budget, from poorly done vampire makeup to CGI that’s laughable in only the way the late 1990s could give us (see also: The Langoliers). The laughable part is especially key, because while these early episodes are kind of awful, they at least have the decency to be horrible in an entertaining fashion.
At the same time, there’s definitely a core to the show where you can see flickers of something better trying to break through. More specifically, the central ensemble enjoys a chemistry that’s apparent even in the early episodes, and they grow more comfortable in their roles as time goes on. Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular vampire slayer is always ready with a sarcastic reaction to the fighting, but at the same time she imbues Buffy with an emotional center that reminds the viewer a 16-year-old vampire slayer is still sixteen years old. As her mentor, Anthony Stuart Head’s Giles provides a comforting presence and is always ready with an overly detailed explanation, even if he’s not exactly the best person for operational support.* Her school friends are more of a mixed bag—Nicholas Brendon’s Xander has his moments but always seems to have one punchline too many, and Alyson Hannigan’s Willow is so adorably awkward that making her cry should be a jail-worthy offense.
*Fun drinking game: take a shot every time Giles gets knocked out. It happens a lot.
The character work is also what leads to the strongest installments of the first season. “Angel,” which exposes the true nature of David Boreanaz’s character who had previously been only a mysterious stranger, creates a tragic relationship worlds more interesting than anything in True Blood or Twilight. “Nightmares” is an excellent psychological episode that shows Whedon is as interested in getting inside the heads of his cast as he is in presenting action scenes; it also launches an interest in alternate realities that will gradually evolve through the course of the series. (Plus, while I go back and forth on liking Xander, the latter episode has him punching a clown, and there’s nothing not funny about that.) The season finale, “Prophecy Girl,” contains some truly egregious CGI Hellmouth denizens, but also some terrific character moments as Buffy faces the reality of dying as the Slayer, and as the Buffy-Xander-Willow love triangle delivers some impact after being an annoyance for most of the season. And the closing line makes for an ideal philosophy for life: “We saved the world. Let’s go party.”
The second season of Buffy continues that track record throughout, although some of the fun of the cheapness is gone because the show has proven it’s capable of doing so much more. When episodes move away from the titular vampire slaying to explore other kinds of monsters as metaphor, they feel like filler that distracts from more exciting and interesting parts of the arcing mythology. Some easy examples: “Inca Mummy Girl” and “Bad Eggs” aren’t laughably bad,* they’re just poorly plotted and full of silly concepts; and “Ted” collapses under the weight of being a metaphor for the often conflicted relationships between stepchildren and stepparents.
*Not that laughable badness has completely abandoned the series. Kendra, the second Slayer who first appears in “What’s My Line,” has an accent that should be outlawed. “I am Quiendra, the Vawmphyre Shlayer!”
But when the show is allowed to embrace its continuity, it inches ever closer to greatness. Any of the episodes with recurring villains Spike (James Marsters) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau) are much more charismatic and interesting than the stand-alone installments, partly because of the actors’ portrayals and partly because of their established history with Angel. And when the stand-alone episodes do work, they do so because they’re interested in fleshing out the characters: establishing the demonic “Ripper” past of Giles in “The Dark Age,” introducing a love interest for Willow in laconic musician-turned-werewolf* Oz (Seth Green) in “Phases,” and making Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) so much more interesting** by bringing her into the Scooby gang and building a relationship with Xander in “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”
*Though the werewolf effects are, let’s be honest, pretty terrible. Not exactly a gorilla with a dog mask on, but most every time Oz appears I find myself uncontrollably saying “Oh no Oz, you is warwilf!”
**Lesson learned, showrunners: your supporting cast is much better when they’re not being kept in the dark about the protagonist’s secret life. Chuck learned this lesson with Captain Awesome and Morgan, Grimm’s learning it with Hank, even Dexter seems to be learning it in its seventh season with Debra.
And of course, there’s the Angelus arc. I didn’t know until watching this series that Buffy was the first show to establish the concept of the “Big Bad,” and what a way they inaugurated that. To transform Buffy’s love interest into the season’s arch-villain was a brilliant idea, expanding the Angel character (and Boreanaz’s acting range) immensely, and adding a raw emotional edge to the show through Buffy’s emotional damage and Angelus’ murder of Jenny Calendar. Those episodes in the second half were dark, conflicted installments that ramped up the stakes for Buffy far more than the Master ever had in the first season, and the two-part finale “Becoming” was the sort of thing I needed a few minutes to cope with at the end.
Coming off that high, I wasn’t sure if I should expect season three to be a step down or not, but it turns out no fear was necessary. I don’t think that anything in season three hit with precisely the same impact as the highs of the Angelus/Spike story, but as a whole it’s easily the strongest the show has been. There’s a definite sense of confidence from both the writers and the actors as to what they could deliver, and enough of a pool of mythology that they could call back to a multitude of references. More to the point, episodes that were separate from or only loosely tied to this season’s Big Bad, the Mayor, didn’t suffer from that distance. What had been a sporadic string of hits and misses turned into a murderer’s row of quality hours of television. “Homecoming,” “The Wish,” “Lovers Walk,” “Dopplegangland,” “The Zeppo”—I finally understand why so many of these titles are spoken of with admiration bordering on reverence. They’re clever and deep, but they’re also damn fun, a tightrope that Joss Whedon’s writing walks better than most any TV writer I’ve encountered.
But again, the most fascinating thing about the show to me is just what it does with its character work. There were some excellent new tweaks made to the ensemble—dark-hearted Slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku) gave Buffy another friend turned enemy, and bringing Buffy’s mother Joyce into the loop helped make Joyce even more awesome—but it was the work done on the four central leads that’s so remarkable. Buffy’s emotional journey and struggle to come to terms with what being the Slayer means is brought even more to the forefront, thanks to the return of Angel and betrayal of Faith. What Giles goes through in “Helpless” in keeping secrets from Buffy hurts all the more because we’ve seen how much he truly cares for her. Xander’s side adventure in “The Zeppo” is not only structurally interesting but personally rewarding for a character who more than occasionally feels superfluous. And the Willow at the end of “Choices” isn’t even close to the Willow of “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” giving her best friend a speech that speaks to three entire seasons of what the writing team put her through:
Actually, this isn’t about you. Although I’m fond, don’t get me wrong, of you. The other night, you know, being captured and all, facing off with Faith, things just kinda got clear. I mean, you’ve been fighting evil here for three years, and I’ve helped some, and now we’re supposed to decide what we want to do with our lives. And I just realized that’s what I want to do. Fight evil, help people. I mean, I-I think it’s worth doing. And I don’t think you do it because you have to. It’s a good fight, Buffy, and I want in.
Witnessing speeches like that, and development like that, are what distinguishes Buffy the Vampire Slayer amongst all the other teen dramas I’ve sampled and discarded over the years. It’s tense, hilarious, quotable, exciting, emotional, and at its peak able to transition between all of those moods without even breaking a sweat. Before watching it I wondered why everyone was so in love with the show; now, I’m just wondering what the hell took me so long to join the team.
Worth the Wait or Overrated?: Worth the Wait
(Addendum: While I know there’s four more seasons of the show, I opted to write this piece now as it seemed like a good transition point. Not only is season three generally considered the series’ best, it’s also the point when the show transitioned from high school to college and when Whedon spun off Boreanaz and Carpenter’s characters to Angel, making Buffy a different show to some degree. I’ve gathered there’s no small amount of debate about the next four seasons, and I’d rather avoid that debate for the time being. Depending on reaction to this piece, perhaps I’ll revisit once I complete my rewatch and open up the discussion boards then.)
Previously on Okay, I Finally Watched It: Cory Barker on Seinfeld (Seasons 1-2)