Sunday, 8 March 2009
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Much has been written about Buffy The Vampire Slayer over the years and I doubt that I can find anything too new or original to say about the show. What I can do is to give my own personal overview of the show and why it is so brilliant. Buffy has never been short of critical praise, but that praise has always been somewhat guarded. There's a view that the show is a great show disguised as a mutant comic book, teen drama hybrid. This is almost correct. But the truth is that the show is actually a mutant comic book, teen drama hybrid that also happens to be one of the greatest TV shows ever made.
Much of this is due to Joss Whedon and the strength of his writing and the writing team he assembled to produce the show. The show itself has it all: great iconic characters, heart, imagination, wit, depth, a genuine mythos of its own and a willingness to subvert audience expectations at every turn. This ethos extends to the very title of the show; Whedon insisted on the faintly ridiculous title to be deliberately obtuse. The idea being that those who could not appreciate the deliberate joke of the title would exclude themselves from the joy of the show.
Broadly speaking the show can be split into two eras. Seasons one to three and seasons four to seven. The first era relates to Buffy's High School Years, the second deals with her life after High School. This post will deal with the first three seasons, I'll deal with seasons 4 to 7 some other time.
I could write pages about the show, but the real way for people to appreciate it is to watch it. As the title of this post suggests, what follows is a brief guide to the essential episodes of Buffy. Those stories that should be viewed because of their sheer quality and/or importance to the overall storylines of the show. That is not to say that the other episodes are dispensable or poor and it should be noted that a number of excellent and/or important episodes did not make the cut. Similarly even the most pedestrian episodes provide a context for the greater episodes and as such it should be realised that watching the whole series in order is the best way to get the most enjoyment and a full appreciation of those episodes that have made the cut. Spoilers are ahead, where possible I've tried to be non-specific though.
The first season is a truncated run of 12 episodes. The series was commissioned as a mid-season replacement for a failed show. Much of the season is concerned with establishing the characters and the overall tone of the show. What is impressive though is how the series hits the ground running with an exceptionally good pilot story and two genuinely classic episodes. What is also notable is how the feel of the show is consistent with later seasons. Certainly it lacks the depth and maturity of later years, but it does feel consistent with the other 6 seasons. Compare this with the feel of, for example, the development of Star Trek: The Next Generation or a more mainstream show like Seinfeld.
1) Welcome to the Hellmouth & The Harvest. This is where it all began, the very first story. It is essentially a two part pilot episode establishing the core characters (Buffy, Giles, Willow, Xander) for the entire 7 year run and the “Big Bad” for the season (The Master a vampire many centuries in age). Often you a pilot episode is a necessary evil for getting into a series, but this is a genuinely entertaining piece of TV in its own right.
2) Angel. Mid way through the series we get the first genuinely classic Buffy episode. I followed Buffy right from day one and had enjoyed it a lot. But up until this point I thought that it was a reasonable clever a witty bit of telefantasy which would soon run its course. I thought it was formulaic show which would quickly run out of ideas, but which at least had a certain Doctor Who like vibe to it. This is the episode that changed all of that. The revelation at the core of the episode turns the show on its head and immediately makes you realise that the writers were going to take risks and weren't going to run a formula into the ground. It also marks the beginning of the poetic Buffy/Angel relationship. Again, up until this point I thought that the show was simply going to string out the “will they wont the” storyline to which US dramas seem to be addicted. That wasn't to be the case, even more surprising was the fact that the Buffy/Angel relationship was always more interesting when they were together than when they were apart.
3) Prophecy Girl. Buffy's first season finale and a belter of an episode it is too. It is a measure of how brilliant the series became that this episode is something of a forgotten classic. Sarah Michelle Gellar gives an astonishingly good performance as the young Buffy facing up to the knowledge of her impending death and Anthony Stewart Head is similarly awesome as Giles struggling with his duties as a watcher and his paternal feelings towards Buffy. Again the show surprises by killing off the Big Bad leaving a big old question mark over what the future direction of the show.
Honourable Mentions: Nightmares.
Season 2 is the point where Buffy changes from a cool and fresh bit of telefantasy to one of the best TV shows ever made. This is a season of revelations and whilst season one's Angel was a clear indication that the show would confound expectations; season 2 almost confounds any non-expectations the audience may have had. Season 1 had a clear focus on the characters of the Scooby Gang (that is to say Buffy, Giles, Willow, Xander and to a lesser extent Cordelia). Season 2 would take this to another level with constant exploration of the Scoobies. But this was also complimented by a stronger group of adversaries, all of whom also had strong characters (as opposed to the relatively functional bad guy of Season 1's Master).
1) School Hard. A watershed moment for the series as Spike and Dru hit the show becoming 2/3rds of the Big Bad. This is a classic case of the show delving into the characters of the bad guys as well as the Scoobies. Spike in particular makes an immediate impression and his relationship with Drusilla is immediately believable. Spike is also irreverent eschewing the stereotypical vampire traits in favour of pop culture, anarchy and punch ups! The writers have said that they initially saw Spike and Dru as being the Sid and Nancy of the show and this is as good a comparison as any. What is important is that the Baddies are as cool as the Scoobies, a feature lacking in season 1 but a feature which would become a hallmark of the show from this point onwards. This episode sees the seeds laid for the story arc of the following season, albeit in a fairly oblique way.
2) The Dark Age. This show is significant and surprising for the way in which it turns your expectations of one of the Scoobies on your head as their somewhat dubious past is dealt with. Just as School Hard was so important for giving us Multi-faceted villains, so The Dark Age starts the process of showing us the darker side/histories of the Scoobies.
3 & 4) What's My Line (part 1& 2). This one just sneaks in because of its importance to season 2. Once again this is an episode dealing with characters. It is also important for introducing the notion of a second slayer and the start of a new relationship between the Scoobies (which is both unlikely yet unsurprising if you were paying attention through the earlier episodes). It also features a baddy who is literally made of bugs which has got to be worth and hour and a half of anybody's time.
5 & 6) Surprise (part 1) & Innocence (part 2). Made of Awesome. No scratch that, made of totally fucking awesome. Another character gets a surprising past, Willow and Oz get closer, Buffy and Angel consummate their relationship and a regular character is revealed to be the last third of the seasons big bad trio. This was the point of no return. Up until this point the series could have gone into a safe little rut, but after this NOTHING would ever be the same. There effect of the character developments on the plot was such that there was no way to go back to monster of the week format. This is the show where the younger Scoobies take their first steps into adulthood and the point where the serialised nature of the show became an integral part of what people expected from Buffy.
7) Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. I was toying with having this one under Honourable Mentions as it isn't particularly earth-shattering in terms of the Buffy Mythos or its importance to season 2. But it is very, very, funny and also very clever it also begins the process of making Xander a more centred and confident character. Marti Noxon would go on to be known as the series “angst writer” with Jane Epenson becoming the shows “comedy” writer. But back in season 2 Marti was still the funny one. The basic story is that Xander uses a spell to get Cordelia back after a break up. The spell backfires; Cordelia is immune to its effect whilst the rest of Sunnydale's female population find Xander irresistible. This somewhat clichéd idea fuels the entire episode with Marti Noxon piling on one great joke after another.
8) Passion. An incredible episode. Perfect in every way. One of the regulars is murdered by another regular and Giles goes apeshit as a result. Suddenly everything becomes very dark, very nasty and very dangerous. Visceral and disturbing just about covers it here.
9) Becoming (Part 1 & part 2). The season finale of season 2. This is damn good and damn clever. It is also epic and serves as a dry run for the ground that the Angel spin off would cover for 5 years. This story sees some classic moments. Buffy's mother finally being forced to see what her daughter is, the first moment in the humanisation of Spike, the death of a slayer (a permanent one!) and Buffy saving the day in an awesome moment of romantic tragedy. Buffy may have gone on to have stronger seasons and finales (season 5 being a personal favourite); but never again would the show be able to hit a cumulative peak of sheer brilliance of episodes, combined with such an array of crucial developments and revelations.
Honourable Mentions: When she was Bad, Halloween, Phases, I Only Have Eyes for You.
Season 3 is, to my mind, one of consolidation. The season is more consistent than season 2 (no real bad episodes at all) but for my money it only occasionally hits the heights that season 2 often reached. Similarly there are nowhere near as many moments of revelation and surprise as season 2 provides. This is understandable given all that had already been revealed about the principle characters. Nevertheless the show maintained a high quality which is reflected in the sheer number of honourable mentions.
1) Faith, Hope and Trick. Actually something of a functional episode, but it qualifies on the basis of being an immensely important show for both Buffy and the eventual Angel Spin-off. This show introduces a recurring bad guy who would be relevant for the first half or season 3, but more importantly it introduces Faith. Faith is usually though of as The Other Slayer and as being a somewhat screwed up individual.
2) Band Candy. Utterly superb. If Passions is the Perfect Tragedy/Angst episode, then Band Candy is its mirror image. The perfect Comedy episode. As with Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, this is a show which takes a somewhat clichéd idea and makes it all shiny and new. The basic idea is that the adult population of Sunnydale revert to their teenage years giving the wiggins to the Scoobies in the process. This one is almost endlessly quotable and full of great moments (Giles: Oooh Coppa's got a gun!, Giles: Hit him, Joyce pulling out the handcuffs, Snider's every line, Buffy stamping out Joyce's ciggie). However, as funny as it is, this episode reveals as much of the characters as many an angsty episode has done. Whilst Snider is no more likeable at the end of the episode, he is more understandable. You can see the life of loneliness and disappointment that he must have led. Similarly, whilst Giles is no less likeable, you get a real sense of how insufferable he would have been during the Ripper years and of his more dangerous side. An absolute classic of the first order.
3) Amends. Buffy's take on a Christmas Carol. A beautiful poignant episode which also lays more ground work for the Angel spin-off and sets up season 7 too. I love it when the snow falls.
4 & 5) Bad Girls & Consequences. The former episode culminates in Faith making a VERY bad mistake and the second deals with her reaction to this mistake (which is worse). Along the way there are some fantastic moments (Giles knowing Faith has lied to him), Faith's “I don't care” which has about a million levels of emotion behind it. There's also a good deal of The Mayor, who is frankly George Bush Jnr in all but name!
6) Enemies. Very much an arc episode, but a good one which is also a complete story in its own right. This one sees the Scoobies learn of the Mayor's plan. It also revives the always brilliant Buffy/Angel angst and sees Faith go ever further to the Dark Side. The ending is a little too clever and convenient though.
7) Choices. Another arc episode but one which is very important to the development of the characters of the show. The Buffy/Angel angst gets ramped up by the Mayor and the pieces are put in place for Season 4 and the season 3 finale. There's a distinct atmosphere of impending doom in this one and the finale set piece and stand off is incredibly tense.
8 & 9) Graduation Day (Part 1 & 2). And so we reach another season finale. This one doesn't quiet hit the high points of Becoming, but it runs it pretty close. Loads of great stuff, The stabbing, Angel draining Buffy's blood, Snider's demise, The Mayor's demise, Buffy leaving the Watcher's counsel and on and on it goes.
Honourable Mentions: Anne, Homecoming, Lovers Walk, The Wish, The Zeppo, Doppelgangland, Earshot, The Prom.