When Buffy The Vampire Slayer debuted in March of 1997, my wife and I were living in an apartment that didn't have The WB as part of its cable package, so even after I started to hear through the grapevine about how good the show was, I wasn't able to see for myself. When the first DVD set was released in 2002, I picked it up, but we had a baby in the house by then, and shrieking TV characters weren't conducive to placid family time, so we stopped watching after two episodes. When we got our first TiVo, we waited until the Buffy syndication package came back around to Season One and started recording, but whatever cable channel had Buffy at the time was showing two to three episodes a day, and we couldn't keep up. (Plus, my wife was having a hard time getting into the show, which sometimes happens in our household when it comes to the geeky stuff.) So as of this week, I've seen the first two or three episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer a couple of times each, and I've watched some scattered episodes here and there–including about a five-episode stretch of Season Four, when I decided to start watching the show in syndication on my own for one abortive week. But generally speaking, this TV Club Classic project will be my first prolonged exposure to one of the best-loved cult series of all time.
Why me? Because I've been wanting to work my way through Buffy for a while–especially after becoming a fan of creator Joss Whedon's Firefly and Serenity–and when Amazon had the complete series box set on sale for half-price at the end of last year, I snapped it up and made my pitch to the TV Club powers-that-be. My argument was that it might be interesting to have one of these TV Club Classics written by someone new to the show, who wouldn't be judging everything based on what's to come.
What does that mean to those of you who do already know what's to come, and want to talk about it? I don't want to ruin your fun, so I'm not placing any restrictions on spoilers in the comment field, except to say that if you're going to talk about a major plot twist, a warning would be nice. I do plan to read the comments, but I'll skip past spoilers if they're clearly marked. Still, don't worry too much about my accidentally reading something major. I've been keeping up with the entertainment press for the past 10 years, so there aren't too many Buffy deaths, romances or unexpected changes in sexual preference that I don't already know at least a little about. I just won't always know when they're coming.
Most TV Club Classics stick to one or two episodes per post, but I'm going to do three a week with Buffy, and here's why: I'd like to get through Seasons One and Two by the end of August, and then take a break once the fall TV season starts. To do that, I'll need to bulk up a little. When I wrote about the previous Lost seasons for my Lost blog, I was doing anywhere from four to six episodes a week, so three should be child's play. (On the other hand, speaking of child's play, my kids are out of school for the summer, which will reduce my available TV time during the day. I'll let you know if adjustments are in order.)
Anyway, let's begin at the beginning, with a trio of episodes with which I'm perhaps over-familiar:
"Welcome To The Hellmouth"
"In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is The Slayer."
Those are the first words of Buffy's first episode, delivered in a breathless rush that precedes the series' opening scene, in which a meek teenage girl roams the halls of a darkened high school with a slicked-up lothario, then turns the tables on him by pulling a monster face and chomping down on his neck. Five minutes into Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Joss Whedon's already developing themes: high school is dangerous, desire is dangerous, and beautiful girls…well, you get the idea.
Much of "Welcome To The Hellmouth" is dedicated to introducing the cast and the premise, which Whedon and director Charles Martin Smith (Terry The Toad!) accomplish fairly fleetly. Our heroine, Buffy Summers, arrives for her first day at a new high school–while the soundtrack plays a song with the lyric "we are the anti-heroes"–and from her mom's worried tone and Buffy's first meeting with the principal, we quickly learn that she was kicked out of her last school for torching a gym full of vampires. (Principal Flutie promises her a clean slate at Sunnydale High, but after tearing up her old file, he hastily tapes it back together, just in case.)
Then in history class, while the teacher lectures on ancient plagues, Buffy has her first encounter with curt, curvy popular chick Cordelia, who initially seems sweet and helpful, until she starts picking on the two people who were first friendly to Buffy at Sunnydale: smart-mouthed slacker Xander and sweet, wallflowery Willow. It's a dilemma for Buffy, right off the bat: Her mother wants her to fit in at her new school, and the easiest way for her to fit in would be to click with Cordelia's crowd, which Buffy is certainly pretty enough and hip enough to do. But she also been gifted with special powers that require to take a stand against evil, and while Cordelia's not exactly demonic, she's certainly not that nice.
Once we meet the last major cast player, Rupert Giles–the school librarian, who doubles as Buffy's "watcher" and an expert in all things supernatural–we're plunged into the plot, involving a clan of vampires preparing for "the harvest" by bringing young bodies down to their pasty master. The best place to find those bodies is The Bronze, a nightclub with post-grunge bands playing nightly. Drawn into the danger at The Bronze, Buffy manages to embarrass herself in front of Cordelia, then she fails to keep Xander's friend Jesse from getting vampire-ized while she goes scrambling after Willow, who's picked the wrong time to get flirty in a room full of predators.
There are a few kinks with "Welcome To The Hellmouth," including some dialogue that sounds more faux-clever than actually clever, and an overall flatness to the action/horror sequences that will carry over into Episode Two (which originally aired on the same night, as part of a two-hour premiere event). But there are some poignant moments too, like when Buffy first meets Angel, the mysterious stranger who we'll learn in "The Harvest" is a vampire tortured by a conscience. ("I really didn't like him," Buffy tells Giles, protesting too much.) And I especially liked the scene where Buffy prepares to go clubbing and mutters to herself, "I used to be so good at this," already mourning the normal teenage life she's lost for good.
So, all in all, a good introduction to the show, establishing the characters and the premise quickly and cleanly, before ending on a cliffhanger…
…that resolves anti-climactically. To be fair, "The Harvest" is part two of two, and as it originally aired, the closing moment from "Welcome To The Hellmouth"–where Buffy is about to be bitten by The Master's main man Luke–was separated from the scene where she quickly escapes by about a five-minute commercial break. Still, if I have one major complaint about the more action-packed second Buffy episode, it's that too many of the fight scenes lapse into mano-a-mano action-horror clichés, even when there's a room full of vampires surrounding a single slayer. The best action beats in "The Harvest" are leavened with humor, like when Buffy jabs a pool cue into an off-screen vampire (accompanied by off-screen falling-to-the-floor sound effect), or when she dupes Luke at The Bronze by breaking a window and snapping, "You forgot about sunrise," causing Luke to duck and her to say, "It's in about nine hours, moron," before finishing him off.
But all of that happens at the end. First we get a little more character development, as each player finds their appointed roles: Xander stupidly and bravely pledges to go wherever Buffy goes, Giles and Willow do research and worry, The Master belittles his underlings, Angel offers helpful info then broods off into the shadows, and Buffy tries to avoid authority figures while somewhat angrily saving the world.
For the most part, "The Harvest" just continues what "Welcome To The Hellmouth" succeeds at, as well as what it fails at. But Episode Two does bring Xander to the forefront a little more, making the most of incredulous lines like, "We're talking about vampires…we're having a conversation with vampires in it," and "The dead rose…we should've at least have had an assembly." It also plays up the risks of being Buffy's friend, which can lead to being used as bait by the armies of the night.
Mostly though, "The Harvest" confirms what Buffy is about in one tense scene between the heroine and her mother, who chastises her for staying out late and repeating the same patterns of behavior that got her chased out of their last town. ("I've read all about the dangers of over-nurturing," she insists, before ordering her in vain to stay home.) For all the curses that plague Buffy, from the burden of being The Slayer to the demonic presences that are drawn to her, nothing seems to unnerve her more than the curse of expectation.
The third Buffy lurches a little as the show shifts from master-plot mode to monster-of-the-week mode. Still, "Witch" is an entertaining hour with a semi-clever twist–one that I saw coming before it was officially revealed, but was still surprising to me when I first realized what was going on–and an exploration of mother-daughter relations that helps flesh out who Buffy is.
The main point of comparison is between Buffy's mom Joyce, a busy gallery owner who cares about her daughter but can't dedicate the time to keep up with all of Buffy's school activities and personal dramas, and Catherine Madison, the meddling ex-cheerleader mother of another Sunnydale student, Amy. When the main rivals for Amy's position on the cheerleading squad suffer bizarre ailments–fire-hand, no-mouth, perpetual intoxication–Buffy and the gang suspect witchery on Amy's part. ("She's our Sabrina," Buffy quips.) It turns out they're half-right. It's actually Catherine who's the culprit, because–and here's the twist–she's taken over Amy's body!
As I said, the twist is semi-clever, and capped by a cool ending that has Catherine trapped inside of one of her old cheerleading trophies. And while there's nothing especially revelatory about the message that mothers who try to re-live their youths through their daughters are no damn good, I liked the way "Witch" gives more definition to Joyce Summers, by subtly asking whether too little involvement is as bad as too much.
The introduction of Amy gives Xander and Willow a little less to do in this episode, though Willow (yet again) puts her web-surfing skills to good use, and Xander declares his crush on Buffy by giving her a bracelet. This pays off later in the episode when a wacked-out Buffy, suffering from a spell cast by Catherine/Amy, reveals that she likes Xander as a friend, and that she appreciates the bracelet because it comes from a friend, and not a suitor. Ouch for Xander.
The only problem with the "like you as a friend" scene is that it gets to an emotional place that the rest of "Witch" doesn't even come close to approaching, though there was ample opportunity to do so via Buffy's sudden whim to join the cheerleading squad. Buffy's still pining for normalcy, and when Giles warns her not to "enslave yourself to this cult," I got psyched for a cogent critique of conformity, and how the popular crowd can be a bad model for "normal." Instead, Buffy got spell-hammered and injured some teammates. End of cheerleading storyline. Oh well.
Despite the warnings from friends and readers that I needed to scale back my expectations for Season One, I really enjoyed this first batch of three, perhaps even more than I did the previous times I've seen them. I can spot the roughness that everyone's talking about, particularly in the action and in the dialogue. Cordelia's "coolness test" for Buffy, for example, is a complete cringe-fest, dialogue-wise. But at the same time, Cordelia's insistence at the end of the test that Buffy will learn to recognize losers by sight smartly references Buffy's ability to ferret out vampires, and implies that she can recognize evil both great and benign. That's good writing.
I'm sure there are rough patches ahead (and great patches, which is why I'm grading conservatively here at the start), but I can easily imagine how much I would've dug these episodes had I seen them when they first aired, and how much I would've looked forward to watching Buffy every week. I've been reading superhero comics since I was a kid, so I've trained myself to see beyond the panels and imagine the deeper character moments that most comic book writers don't have the time or skill to write. From what I've read about Buffy, Whedon will get to those moments eventually. For now though, I'll do what all faithful fanboys do. I'll extrapolate.
-I love the opening credits, which combine the kind of images familiar from the average high school soap with random bits of slayerage, all set to a theme that could've accompanied any of the Marvel Comics cartoons of the '90s. And the theme song isn't the only comics connection. Buffy sacrificing her social life in order to do her job recalls the power/responsibility dilemmas of Peter Parker; and when The Master rises from the primordial ooze, it reminded me of Batman villain Ra's al Ghul.
-Good line from the principal: "All the kids here are free to call me Bob. But they don't."
-Good–and from what I understand, prescient–line from Willow to Catherine-Amy: "I can help you…with all your…witchcraft?"
-The fashions and music in Season One make me wonder if it's too early to be nostalgic for the Clinton years.
-I've been spoiled by Lostpedia. The various Buffy sites and wikis I've discovered are nowhere near as handy or thorough. C'mon nerds! You can do better.
-Is it generally accepted that the Buffy TV series is a sequel to the movie? All the talk about what Buffy's already been through made me wonder. I actually saw the movie in its original run (because I was working at a multiplex at the time) and I thought it was pretty terrible, trading almost exclusively on the cheap joke of the title. I had a friend though who tended to make excuses for female-centered action-adventure stories, and she really liked the original Buffy–something I mocked her about for years, until the TV series vindicated her intuition that the concept was strong even if the movie wasn't. So consider this a formal apology, Ellen.
-I have another friend who was a huge Buffy fan throughout the series' run, watching the episodes over and over. She even reminds me a little of Sarah Michelle Gellar's portrayal of Buffy, from the wry humor to the shadowy moods to the genuine concern for others. So I dedicate this series to you, Maureen.