“If someone could just wake me when it’s time to go to college, that’d be great.”
That was Buffy’s line in the final scene of Season Three, but it also describes my attitude through most of my final two years of high school. After my sophomore year, I spent a month at an academic summer camp on a university campus—sleeping in the dorms, eating in the cafeteria, taking classes, gabbing in the quad—and from that moment on, I couldn’t wait to get back to a place where I was free from parental supervision and pursuing my own interests on my own time. Like Willow, I was ready to leave high school, “where knowledge was pretty much frowned upon,” and move to new world where scholarship is practically thrusting and spurting at me.
As we start Season Four, I feel I should offer a couple of disclaimers. I know that a lot of you are less-than-enthused about this season, and I’ll be keeping that in mind as I work my way through it. But I’ve seen a few Season Four episodes before (during one of my previous abortive attempts to get into Buffy) and enjoyed them. Plus I have a strange fascination with movies and TV shows that have a university setting. Such shows can be wince-inducingly clichéd at times—and I saw some of that in these first three episodes—but when they work, they brings back much fonder memories for me than any high school story every could.
So, with those caveats, let’s get to slayin’.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer matriculates to its university years with a well-paced, well-balanced episode that introduces a new setting, new characters and new problems, all while capturing the common anxiety of the first few days of college. We begin with our heroine wholly unprepared: unsure what classes to take, knowing hardly anything about UC Sunnydale, still mooning over the absent Angel, and so complacent about her fight against evil that she lets a fresh vampire slip through her grasp simply because she’s not paying close enough attention. (I realize the opening scene’s primarily a gag, but it does encapsulate much of what this series is about: While Buffy’s distracted by life issues, the forces of darkness wander off and do their own thing.)
Making matters worse for Buffy is the fact that everyone she does know on campus seems to have their business in order already. Willow (in her “The Mysterious Woman” hoodie) seems much more mature than she did in high school, and alternates between a rarin’-to-go enthusiasm for this new phase of her life and an almost stoned nonchalance. Oz—the master of stoned nonchalance—tries to make Buffy feel better by insisting that he’s just as confused as she is by college life, and yet he already appears to know every cool person around. Giles is listening to Bowie and leading a Playboy lifestyle, while telling Buffy that she needs to makes her own choices and lead her own life. And Xander’s reportedly off on a Kerouac-ian cross-country “find America” adventure, leaving Buffy with no one around who’s more pathetic than she is.
When Xander returns, Buffy asks, “Is America nice? I hear it’s nice.” Then Xander confesses that his car broke down and that he’s been stranded in Oxnard all summer. But that still doesn’t cheer up Buffy, who’s feeling like Betty Louise Plotnik from East Cupcake Illinois. (“You look like you just got diagnosed with cancer of the puppy,” Xander says.) She’s stuck with a roommate, Kathy, who loves Celine Dion, and whom she can’t tell about her night-job because she’s supposed to go back to being Secret Identity Gal. And on her first day of a cool-looking Pop Culture class, the professor kicks her out for talking, complaining, “You are sucking energy from everyone in this room.” (Buffy: “I didn’t mean to suck.”)
Of course, a lot of freshmen go through this, right? They feel overwhelmed and out-of-place, so they bail. Or, alternately, they have all their stuff stolen shortly after getting killed by a band of freshman-feeding vampires who exploit the crushing loneliness of the noobs. In "The Freshman," this klatch of slacker-vamps lounge around a basement, picking through their collection of stolen CDs and generally trying to out-cool each other. (They’re like that one casual high school friend of yours who got an off-campus apartment during his freshman year of college and immediately became a pompous jerk.) The leader of the freshman-feeders is a suave, fit blonde named Sunday—at my school, she would’ve been named “Kat”…they were all named “Kat”—who recognizes Buffy as The Slayer but doesn’t seem all that impressed by it. She even smashes up Buffy’s beloved Protector Trophy, from prom. To Sunday, Buffy’s about as hip as a new kid who fills his dorm with his high school forensics trophies. You may have been really cookin’ in high school, but here, you’re meat.
Eventually, Xander lifts Buffy’s spirits, yelps “Avengers Assemble!” and the gang reunites to take Sunday down. (Too soon, I thought… I liked that character.) A few freshman-feeders survive, but—dunh-dunh-dunnnnh!—they’re captured by as-yet-unidentified uniformed men.
Because of the short stretch of S4 episodes I watched a few years back, I know who those uniformed men are. I also know the significance of the psychology class Buffy will be taking with the renowned Professor Walsh. (Willow on how Walsh got renowned: “First, there’s the painful nown-ing process.”) And I know to look out for Walsh’s TA, Riley, who has a meet-cute with Buffy when she accidentally drops a bunch of books on his head.
All of that’s waiting in the wings, though. “The Freshman” is mainly about Buffy going through the painful process of self-discovery that so many do when arriving at college (or getting their first salaried job, or getting married, or buying a house, or having kids). It’s the process of realizing that while circumstances have changed, you’re still you. Whatever weaknesses you’ve always had, they’re still there. But the strengths are there too.
Here’s an interesting tidbit… When I was looking up “Living Conditions” on Wikipedia, I read this disclaimer: “This article is about an episode from the TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. For the economic and philosophical concept, see ‘Quality Of Life.’”
Okay, so maybe it’s not that interesting. But it’s more interesting to me than the episode itself, which takes a good premise—roommate troubles, exacerbated by the revelation that said roommate is a demon who steals souls and borrows sweaters, both without asking—and can’t seem to do any more than move it predictably from point A to point B to closing credits. The Celine Dion-loving Kathy adds an obsession with Cher’s “Believe” to her list of sins in “Living Conditions,” and it’s also no fun the way she snips at Buffy for “coming and going at all hours,” and the way she labels all the food in the fridge (even individual eggs) after Buffy takes a drink of her milk. (Buffy tries to blame the milk-theft on “Sid The Wily Dairy Gnome.”) And of course it doesn’t help their relationship when Buffy pulls Kathy’s face off, and Kathy explains that she’s trying to duck her demonic daddy by removing Buffy’s soul, so that daddy’s lackeys will think Buffy’s the soulless hellion.
Look, I had some bad roommate experiences during my first year of college—though in retrospect, it was really me who was the problem—and I appreciate to effort by Marti Noxon to render that common experience metaphorically. I also thought the addition of Kathy's disapproving father at the end was a nice touch: another common college situation. But I quickly grew tired of the Buffy-Kathy bickering, and Buffy’s overreactions to everyone around her—even after the explanation that it was Kathy’s soul-stealing that was making Buffy bitchy. There were too many scenes in “Living Conditions” that were little more than marginally intensified variations on earlier scenes. A strong subplot or two would’ve helped considerably.
Even much of the dialogue sounded first-draft-y. When Buffy freaks out and clobbers a nearby park bench, Oz quips, “On the plus side, you killed that bench, which was looking shifty.” That’s not a bad line—it made me chuckle a little—but it’s the kind of line that nearly any skilled TV writer could come up with. I expect Buffy’s writers to catch me by surprise, and come up with lines I wouldn’t ordinarily expect. Ah, well. “Living Conditions” wasn’t terrible, but coming after such a strong season premiere, it struck me as a letdown.
On the other hand, the episode did keep advancing some significant season-arc business. Oz sees a mysterious girl when he’s patrolling with Buffy. The uniformed agents are still nabbing the beasties that Buffy doesn’t catch. And we meet Parker Abrams, smart-ass food-stealer, whom I immediately disliked, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.
“The Harsh Light Of Day”
“It’s silly to have these interlocking bodies and not interlock.”
That’s the contention of the recently returned Anya, who uses that irrefutable logic on Xander—along with a spontaneous shedding of what we humans call “clothes”—in order to get him to have sex with her. She stumbles into his parents’ basement, which he’s in the process of decorating with a disco ball, and after reminding him to put the fabric softener in when the timer sounds, she drops her frock and says, “I have condoms. Some are black.” Cue Xander squeezing his juicebox until it squirts. (And cue the dryer-buzzer.)
“The Harsh Light Of Day”—which I enjoyed much, much more than “Living Conditions”—is about the way so many of us attempt to rationalize our sex drive, and divorce it from our emotions. Anya believes that if she just scratches the itch that arises whenever she thinks about Xander, she’ll feel better and the itch will go away. Instead, she discovers what all itch-scratchers learn: Once the brief moment of satisfaction fades, the itch gets itchier.
Meanwhile, across town, the gang’s old stuck-up nemesis Harmony has also returned, having recovered from the whole “killed by a vampire at graduation” the natural way: by becoming a vampire. But her nature hasn’t changed much (probably because she was already fairly evil to begin with). She’s hooked up with Spike, who’s back in Sunnydale—“a place which has witnessed some truly spectacular kickings of my ass”—in order to retrieve The Gem Of Amara, a mythical jewel that grants invincibility to the undead. To Harmony, Spike’s just a variation on every other popular stud she went with in high school. She doesn’t understand why they can’t jet off to Paris, or why they have to spend so much time consuming the blood of losers. (“I think I had a math class with this guy last year and I didn’t like him much then either.”) Even for fearsome creatures of the night, romance isn’t perfect.
Which brings us to Buffy, who goes from flirting with Parker in the cafeteria to dancing with him at The Bronze to listening to him tell his sad Dad story to sleeping over at his dorm room to getting the brush-off. It’s my understanding that back when this episode aired, some fans (including Sarah Michelle Gellar herself) took exception to the idea that Buffy would fall so quickly into bed with a guy, so soon after losing Angel, and that the guy would turn out to be a cad to boot. For me, it all makes sense. A lot of people get a little bolder with their sexuality in college; and anyway, I couldn’t stand Parker to begin with, so I was happy to see him revealed as a bastard. I know Buffy will have more love interests as the series goes on, and I hope she doesn’t always get her heart broken so quickly by the guys she sleeps with. That said, the writers have had a hard time coming up with non-Angel love interests that are, y;know, interesting. Most of the mortal boys Buffy dates are like more-handsome, less-likable versions of Xander.
Aside from being forced to see Buffy suffer in love yet again, and aside from an “invincible” Spike proving far too easy to defeat, I don’t have much to complain about with “The Harsh Light Of Day.” I was happy to see the return of some old characters—always good to get a sense of the Buffyverse’s scope—and though the rhythm of the show isn’t quite yet where it should be, the emotional underpinnings here are as strong as they are in “The Freshman.” Though it’s never directly said by anybody, it’s obvious (to me at least) that Buffy has sex with Parker because she feels like it, and because he’s not an “I’m dark and brooding so give me love” type like Angel (and he has a reflection, which as Willow points out is a “big plus”), and that in the aftermath she tries too hard to ascribe more meaning to the event than it deserves because she has Willow in her ear babbling excitedly about the fun part of relationships and sex, when “everything’s all new.” It’s not really a relationship that Buffy’s after—or Harmony for that matter, or even Anya—but some kind of normalcy. To be like others. To have what others have.
Plus she’s horny. Happens to the best of us.
As I said, I’m coming into this season with lowered expectations, but I honestly liked two out of three of this first set of episodes. Maybe I’m adjusting too much—while bearing in mind that there’s scarcely a TV series in the history of the medium that didn’t take a while to get up to speed at the start of a new season—but I thought “The Freshman” may have been the best season premiere of the series to that point, especially given that Buffy in Season Four is practically a new show.
That said, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed in the way the writers are using the college setting so far. I almost feel like they had a checklist up on a big board with all their memories from college (and college movies), and were ticking them off. Roommate troubles? Check! Humiliating hook-ups? Check! Stoner vampires? You bet! (Both Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls suffered through similar bouts of “college cliché-itis” when the high school years were done, though both also used their new settings smartly at times.) I’m also a little tired of Buffy being presented as an average student who fears she’s in over her head, academically. But maybe that’s because as I noted up top, I was always more of a Willow. Buffy's problems here are alien to me.
-I like the logo for The University Of California At Sunnydale: “UC*D.” (Picture the asterisk as a sun and you get the idea.)
-Boy, those dorm rooms are huge. I’ve stayed in luxury hotel suites that weren’t that big.
-A good piece of college-themed humor from the freshman-feeders, who keep a running count of how many Monet posters they snag versus how many Klimts. They also should’ve kept watch for Einstein with his tongue sticking out.
-Another good college joke, after Buffy takes her first walk through a bustling campus: “I’ve heard about five different issues and I’m angry about every one of them.” (Veronica Mars later did a version of this gag too.)
-Willow is impressed with UC*D’s huge library. “Occult books aside, our last library didn’t have the greatest selection.”
-So Giles isn’t a librarian anymore. How does Giles make money with no gig? Is he independently wealthy? Did I miss something?
-On the other hand, I like the idea of everyone congregating at Giles’ pad instead of the library. It’s so much more casual.
-Giles, upon being caught coming back from a jog by Buffy, who’s holding his copies of Motorbike & Scooter magazine: “Congratulations, you’ve found me out. I’m a mod jogger.”
-Whenever people introduce themselves with their full name in movies and on TV, the person they’re introduced to always repeats the full name back. This has never happened even once in real life.
-When Harmony wants to check her non-pulse, she suggests that she and Spike “eat a doctor” to get a stethoscope.
-For some reason, I was inordinately charmed by the green Band Aid Willow wears after Harmony bites her.
-Giles has a TV! And a vintage copy of The Velvet Underground’s Loaded! Can I hang out at Giles’?
-More justly forgotten alt-rock bands than usual have been booked at The Bronze so far this season.
-Hey, they added the Willow wave from “Doppelgangland” to the opening credits!
-Boy, the campus security at UC*D is poor.
-“Up for a little reconnaissance?” ... “Where we all sculpt and paint and stuff?”
I’m not going to write a whole lot about Angel each week, because I just don’t have the time, but I am watching Season One in step with Buffy’s Season Four—three episodes per week—and I’ll spend a paragraph or two each week noting my reactions. (Next summer, when I resume this project, I’m planning to cover Angel in more depth, alongside Buffy… probably two episodes each, each week, until I complete both series.) As with Buffy’s Season Four, I’m aware that many of you Angel fans aren’t crazy about Season One, but I have to say that I really enjoyed the first three episodes. There’s a certain amount of fumbling to find what the show’s about, and I don’t feel like Cordelia’s dim-until-the-light-dawns routine really fits (yet). Also, I wish Angel’s advisor Whistler were instead of Doyle, as reportedly intended. (Max Perlich would’ve been a nice addition to the mix.) Still, it’s especially fun to watch these along with Buffy, because it almost feels like the original show’s been spread out and doubled. I feel the lack of Angel and Cordelia on Buffy, then I see them on Angel and it’s oddly comforting. Was it like this when the shows originally aired?
Also, I see a lot of promise in these early episodes. I’m inclined to like detective stories—and L.A. stories—and even though I know that Angel moves beyond its case-of-the-week format at some point, I’m still enjoying the prospect of our brooding vampire tracking down bad guys out there in Michael Connelly territory. The one episode from this first three that I had a little trouble with was the mythology-heavy third one, featuring Oz and Spike, and ending with Angel’s decision not to make himself invincible with The Gem Of Amara. I’m not saying I’m opposed to all future attempts to deal with Angel’s tortured soul and troubled past, but after the introduction of the evil law firm in Episode One and the meddlesome police detective in Episode Two, I was looking forward to more building on Angel’s world, not further extensions of the Buffy storyline. (That said, the closing scenes with a briefly unkillable Angel enjoying the beach and the sunset were pretty sweet.)
As a Lost fan, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the appearance of Josh Holloway as a vampire in Angel’s opening scene (and one of the ladies from The Looking Glass as a victim!). And as a Buffy fan, I want to make note of Oz’s van, which appeared to be wallpapered with leftover band posters from the halls of Sunnydale High. (I recognized that ol’ reliable, the Cornershop poster.) In future weeks, I may get more into the themes of Angel, as they develop more. For now, I’m just happy to have it as a weekly companion to my Buffy-watching.