Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season One
Everyone has, no doubt, heard of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I think it’s safe to say that everybody has some handle on the plot. Buffy Summers, high school student, is the Slayer that stands between the world and all kinds of unseemly evil. Oh, and there’s a love story between a girl and a vampire, ala Twilight. Still, as much as the two line summary makes me cringe and flee, the show was created by Joss Whedon (of my beloved Firefly) and is often hailed as a classic by a whole host of people whose opinions I respect. So, praying that Whedon could breathe life into dead-from-birth clichés like vampiric love, I slipped the first DVD into my laptop.
The show’s two episode opening storyline had me convinced that all my fears were insufficient to the horror that awaited. Welcome to the Hellmouth and The Harvest possess clever moments, but that’s drowned under generic vampires, unexplored characters, and an unexciting plot. Not only is the story shown generic, it’s not well told. To be perfectly honest, if I hadn’t purchased a DVD of the entire season, I would probably have stopped here. Thankfully, the third episode – Witch – heralds a massive increase in the quality and intelligence of the show. And there’s not a vampire to be seen. Though the title might be Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the shows strengths are actually when it strays from those overdone beasts of the night and ventures into fresher territory. When the writers let their imaginations roam, we’re treated to interesting creatures enmeshed in more complex and surprising plots. The show’s core is, as it turns out, not the generic save the world tale of the opening, though that’s a part of it, but rather a series of supernatural metaphors for life and, especially, life’s teenage years – a rather more interesting proposition, at least to this viewer.
Unfortunately, the show’s believability and monsters are often crippled by the special effects. Shallow a complaint as it might be, the effects here are, by and large, awful. The actors in vampire masks look like people in vampire masks, the Master looks like a more generic rendition of Lord Voldemort (alright, that’s not the show’s fault), and a fair number of the show’s one off villains look downright silly. Teacher’s Pet, judging by the concept and the first half, should have been a quite good episode, albeit not a great one. The entirety of a science class falls for an attractive young teacher, who happens to be a Praying Mantis siren luring them to their deaths. Unfortunately, all tension departs like a fart noise from a popped balloon the second we glimpse the teacher in Mantis form. Simply put, she looks like a comedy prop.
That is nothing, however, to the menace in I, Robot…You, Jayne, which proves to be perhaps the weakest episode not focused on vampires. We focus on the internet and how teenagers react to it, which would be fine if the show’s conception of the internet wasn’t so ludicrously outdated by this point. That’s not, admittedly, the show's fault, but it’s difficult to accept the premise of a demon taking over the internet in 2011. The true final nail in the coffin, however, is how that demon looks, as pictured left. That shot’s from the show’s theme, which means that the creators were – somehow – convinced that the generic joke they’d spawned looked anything but laughable.
But the problem of effects is, thankfully, not universal. Many episodes manage to use more modest effects to far greater effects. Witch, mentioned earlier, is one of the best examples of this and my favorite episode from the season. A mother, desperate for her daughter to relive her glory years, uses black magic to enforce her daughter’s place on the cheerleading team. The spells are restrained in their depiction and all the more effective for it, and the episode features a fantastic plot twist and several moments that are genuinely creepy. Out of Mind, Out of Sight; The Pack; and Nightmares all function similarly, and all come off strong. Of them, Nightmares has the grandest scale of, perhaps, any episode in the season, showing the residents of the town’s nightmares coming to life. The premise is familiar, but Whedon and co manage to keep things interesting and even frightening while the show’s leads play their parts with enough daring and skill to render anything believable and gripping.
The season’s overall plot does manage, over time, to develop a shade more depth than is exhibited in the first two episodes, but never by all that much. The reason that so much Weird Shit goes down in Sunnydale is that it’s sitting on the Hellmouth, a portal to – you guessed it! – hell. The vampiric Master, played by Mark Metcalf, is trapped in the Hellmouth and struggling to get out. At times the Master seems like a dark god, at others like an even more overdramatic vampire grunt, and his plots to escape are often a tad roundabout. The much vaunted Anointed One makes his debut to help the Master in episode five, but rarely does anything of note. The final episode of the season, Prophecy Girl, brings the conflict between Buffy and the Master to a head. The episode is indeed a climax for Buffy’s character, and the emotional impact of some scenes is fantastic, but the vampires are – as expected, by then – rather disappointing, and certain aspects feel more cheap twist than climax. Overall, the vampire portion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the least interesting by far, varying from weak in comparison to the show’s other elements to just weak.
Sarah Michelle Geller as Buffy successfully plays Buffy as both an exuberant and cheerful teenager and as a determined woman willing to risk everything for what she thinks is right. Buffy’s main conflict throughout is balancing the duties of being a Slayer with attempting to live a normal life. The dichotomy is explored often, but perhaps most directly in Never Kill a Boy on the First Date, where Buffy attempts to coordinate dating Christopher Wiehl’s Owen with not being slaughtered by a newly risen vampire, the Anointed One. The episode’s amusing, and laden with Whedon’s standard wit, but this is one of several cases where humor deflates the scene of tension. That being said, the concluding lines are excellent. After glimpsing the “excitement” of Buffy’s life, Owen tries to join her as a daredevil accomplice. Buffy turns him down, drawing a line between her and the rest of her age group. She may be young, but she’s mature enough to realize the seriousness of her situation.
David Boreanaz plays Angel, the vampire that Buffy – surprise! – ends up falling in love with. It’s difficult to view this with anything but gut wrenching terror in our post-Twilight world. Whedon can’t really be blamed for later abominations, though, and Angel is, so far, an interesting character in his own right, an enjoyable mixture of aloof mystery and humanity. At the close of the season, it still remains to be seen whether his relationship with Buffy will grow into something interesting or merely cringe worthy. Hope can be found in the fact that the show is aware how close such a love story dwells to the melodramatic. As one character remarks: A vampire in love with a slayer. It's rather poetic...in a maudlin sort of way. (Out of Mind, Out of Sight)
Nicholas Brendon’s Xander and Alyson Hannigan’s Willow form Buffy’s social circle, and the friendship between the three of them is warm and believable. Willow is the nerdy, computer and book focused girl, but the character is sweet, and well acted, enough to draw us in anyway. Xander is a joker who wears his Social Outcast tag proudly and loves to mock his own flaws: I laugh in the face of danger, and then I hide until it goes away. (Witch) He’s also, as comes up several times, a moderately charming mixture of sex-crazed and incompetent with the opposite sex. In the first two episodes, there was a third friend, Jesse, who’s dead by the third and never mentioned again. In fact, the inhabitants of Sunnydale – and of the high school in particular – have an incredible gift at moving on. In every school I’ve been in or heard of, a death would be a fairly major event, but here we’ve forgotten about serial murders on campus by the next day. Of course, forgetfulness is needed for the show’s mélange of monsters to work – or everyone would have caught on after the first mass murder – but it does remain somewhat disconcerting throughout.
The final important student character is Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia, a school bully and bitch of the highest order. Whedon, however, is well aware of how clichéd her role is, and so he pushes her well past any sane measure. After a murder, she says: Oh please. I don't mean to interrupt your downward mobility, but I just wanted to tell you that you won't be meeting Coach Foster, the woman with the chest hair, because gym was cancelled due to the extreme dead guy in the locker. (Welcome to the Hellmouth) Cordelia may not always be believable, but her every line is hilarious.
Giles, played by Anthony Stewart Head, is Buffy’s Watcher and the school librarian. He’s an urbane, intelligent, British man who happens to be a technophobe and occultist. Throughout, he’s used for both laughs and drama, and he proves adept as both. The rest of the school’s administration is largely irrelevant, present at most for a single episode, with the exception of the dictatorial Principle Snyder (Armin Shimmerman), who comes to Sunnydale midway through the series.
The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a mixture of the excellent, the overwrought, and the cheesy. That being said, almost every episode has enjoyable parts, and, when the writers allow their imaginations to run unconstrained by unconvincing vampire masks, the show almost always improves drastically. So far, Buffy seems a show that’s enjoyable but not essential. Season two will, in large part, decide whether I keep going.