Friday, November 30, 2012

The Idiot Box: Buffy The Vampire Slayer Retrospective - Season One

Joss Whedon's breakthrough series Buffy the Vampire Slayer lasted for seven seasons across two networks, doing for the teenage demographic what The X-Files did for adults only a few years before. It established a pattern that has been followed by countless shows since, essentially providing the blueprint for long running series like Smallville and Supernatural, as well as newcomer Arrow, and pretty much half the CW line-up as it stands today. Based on the considerably shittier movie of the same name, so poorly made that it's writer reportedly cried during the premiere, its one of the seminal shows of my young life that inspired me to want to write for television. Granted, half a dozen amateur pilot scripts later and I'm still just a shlub with a blog, but I thought if there was any show I should start with for my planned series of TV retrospectives, this was a natural introductory point.

Season One - (Second) First Impressions

It sounds weird to say after such a laudatory set up, but if I had to be honest right out of the gate about my feelings coming back to this show after so many years away, my first thought is that I cannot believe how terrible the majority of these first season episodes are compared to the show in its prime. Granted, a lot of really great shows have really bad first seasons, and this being a shorter season than most due to being a mid-season replacement means there was even less time to find their sea legs in time for the finale. But still...damn is this some bad television. This show almost rivals Star Trek: The Next Generation in terms of the chasm in quality between season one and the seasons to come. When it was airing for the first time, I didn't get into the show until season three, and I honestly don't know if I would have stuck with it had I started watching from the beginning.

And perhaps this is unfair, but I didn't remember this show being so 90's-tastic. There's enough of a sensibility that comes off as still modern, if only because so many shows still use this formula, so I can't quite call it completely dated, but there are moments that are just painfully silly. Some of it is understandable and forgivable, like using bands of the time to boost ratings or having Xander dressed like the happiest grunge rock fan ever, but other stuff seems unnecessary. The first time we see Xander for example, he literally comes in on a skateboard, which I'm fairly certain we never see him ride again in the entire series. And the cutesy, adding "y" to words that shouldn't have "y" at the end Whedon-speak is more grating than I remembered. Overall its a minor quibble that doesn't bog down the season nearly as much as some of the other stuff I'm gonna complain about, but it can be distracting and unintentionally humorous.

The Big Bad - The Master

A good rule of thumb concerning the entire Buffy run is that any given season is only as good as the main villain (the only real exception being Season Four, which all told was actually better overall than its lackluster villain, but then that season is all screwed up, and the subject for another post). Season One's Big Bad, as they would eventually come to be called, was The Master, an ancient vampire reminiscent of Nosferatu trapped underneath the city of Sunnydale awaiting his chance to rise and take over.

I enjoyed the Master up to a point, but out of all the villains on the show except maybe the First Evil in Season Seven, his schtick probably gets old the quickest out of all of them. He has the sort of sardonic wit that we've now come to expect from a Joss Whedon character, especially when it presents an ironic clash of expectations or a twist on genre conventions as it does here with the ancient vampire lord spouting quips and playing against his regal status. Its a testament to the actor Mark Metcalf (The Maestro on Seinfeld), that he works as long as he does, but as would ultimately become the fate of the entire vampire species (something I'll talk about when we get to Season Three), his menace is undercut for humor far too often, and by the end I can't take him seriously long enough to consider him a threat to the characters that I should be concerned about.

If you can say that Whedon has any sort of fatal flaw, it is that his need to defy expectations in this way and always find the ironic twist often serves to diminish what might have been better served with a more traditional, non-genre tweaking take. It's the one problem I had with Cabin In The Woods earlier this year, that while it was and still is one of the funniest movies I've seen all year, when it tried to actually be a horror movie and not just playfully mock them, it failed, where one of the cliched movies they were poking fun at might have at least been scary. The whole concept of Buffy the Vampire Slayer succeeds precisely because of this impulse, so you can't exactly damn him for it, but in the end, the Master falls victims to it, joking all the way to irrelevancy.

The Scooby Gang

Season One of course introduces us to our core group of characters, minus a few mainstays who wouldn't be introduced until a few seasons later. As much as I might complain about individual episodes in this first year, I have to say that the cast is set up very well from the outset. I mentioned Star Trek: TNG before, and there a lot of shows like that, that don't start out with any clear idea of who the characters are beyond maybe one or two defining traits, and while sometimes it can work seamlessly, other times the characters don't work and have to be changed abruptly, to the point where the birth pains of a new series are abundantly clear. The one thing I can say about Buffy's first season is that despite some of the silliest episodes in the whole series, they definitely had a clear idea of who these characters were from the beginning, or if they didn't, they did a much better job of hiding that fact than some other shows I could name.

Ex: Serious Face
That's not to say they don't change over the years. Willow is probably the starkest, starting out as a very meek, introverted nerd, far from the outgoing witchcraft flinging super  chick she eventually becomes. Buffy hasn't yet grown into her more dour, crushed by the weight of her responsibility, serious face and still has the passion and momentary immaturity pre-death and resurrection, and Xander begins as more of an outcast than the stalwart everyman in his future. Rounding out the regulars, not counting the soon to be spun off Angel, is Giles, who remains a fuddy duddy throughout the first year, not revealing his darker, bad ass side until much later. And yet, all of these turns these characters would eventually take seem well seeded here, as if not only the was there potential here for those deeper character dynamics, but maybe even a plan in place already. Overall, I think Whedon and his regular writing team had a much better grasp of who they wanted these people to turn out to be at this point than most shows do. None of them seem like stereotypes that were enforced by committee or formula, even if they can all periodically fall into those pigeon holes from time to time.

The Arc Episodes

Welcome To The Hellmouth/The Harvest: The two part pilot episode introduces the world of this new Buffy, as separate from the movie incarnation, very quickly, to the point where I wonder if people jumping in with no context, as one imagines most do for a pilot, wouldn't be a bit disoriented by it. She's already the slayer, knows she's the slayer, and jumps right back in to slaying from the word go, and I as someone fully prepared to suspend my disbelief have no problem going along for the ride, but I could see it being harder for someone a bit more grounded. Beyond that concern, everything is set up and encapsulated about as well as any pilot can bring together so many disparate elements while still telling one cohesive story. It gives us the good guy, the bad guys, the good guy support, the unique world they live in, and establishes a tone that seems commonplace now, but was for its time very different, all without skipping a beat or feeling too rushed, which even at two hours would not have been unbelievable.

Angel: Not really an arc episode for the season, but definitely a show that introduced themes that would play out significantly in Seasons Two and Three, as well as set the stage for the titular spinoff show (which I'm sure I'll get to at some point). Here's where we learn that Angel is a vampire, but with a soul, who has a past connection with the Master through his sire Darla, who dies here much too early in retrospect, given how major her role becomes later on, which would have been much easier to pull off if she'd just escaped and been established as a recurring villain. Watching it again, I still find it a bit hard to believe that any of our heroes, after what they experienced, least of all Buffy, would buy this shit about ensouled vampires long enough to keep him alive, but obviously that's the story contrivance we have to live with to get a great character into his own great show down the line. Angel's character in Season One is a bit annoying, popping in to be mysterious and broody and then leave, but at least the one episode designed to give him some definition and a solid back story is legitimately a good one.

Never Kill A Boy On The First Date: Again, only just barely an arc episode, in that it introduces The Anointed One, a character that no doubt would have been more important to the season had it had more episodes to explore who and what he was. He's seen here in a big shocking twist at the end that seems more than a bit manipulative, especially considering his ultimate role in the prophecy in which his rise was predicted basically amounts to him walking up to the slayer and saying, "hey, the season finale is this way." I was always a bit surprised that they didn't do more with him after they brought him back for one more episode in season two, but I understand the obvious problem with having a kid vampire, as one growth spurt from the actor and he's gotta die off screen. Oh wait, he does that anyway. Nevermind.

Prophecy Girl: The season finale, one of three episodes written by Joss Whedon including the two part premiere, and rising to the same level of quality to bookend the season and perhaps give one the illusion that the stuff in the middle was actually a lot better than it was. As the name suggests, much of the plot hinges on the fulfillment of a prophecy in which the slayer is supposed to die and the Master is supposed to rise, both of which happen, but neither in the way one expects them to. In the end, this element of the story that has persisted throughout the season to me makes the Master a bit too passive, just waiting for things to turn his way, occasionally sending a bad guy after the slayer, but mostly just sitting around and hoping for his chance after getting smacked down once in the first episode. Still, he goes out with a bang, the only vampire to leave anything behind of himself post staking, which both sets up a plot line for the next season, and is just really cool.

The Best Of The Rest

The Puppet Show: Ordinarily I'll have a few of my bests and worsts for each season, but with so few episodes, I'm keeping it to one this time. And there wasn't much to choose from. Even this episode really only survives for one gag, that the evil ventriloquist dummy is alive, but isn't actually evil, no matter how many movies have told you that was impossible. Sid the Demon Hunter turned Sid the Dummy is the highlight, taking what could easily have been a stupid concept and executing it very well, to the point where I and many fans always wanted to see a return of the character in some form or another, be it a flashback, or ghost, or something. Evidently enough people felt that way that they did bring him back in one of the games, Chaos Bleeds, though still in puppet form from what I understand, as I never actually played the game.

And The Worst

I Robot, You Jane: This was tough, because if you haven't picked up on this from the many times I keep harping on it, there were a lot of stinkers in this season. This one takes it because it represents not only a bad episode, but an episode whose badness exemplifies utter failure at something that is most of the time a unique strength of this show, which is its ability to present a keen understanding of how young people think, act, and perceive the world. The way the internet is talked about in this episode is maybe just barely one notch above Ted Steven's series of tubes, and the discussion of internet dating and chat rooms feels like it came right out of an after school special. In short, it feels like much older people writing about the concerns of young people that they don't really understand that well, in the voices of young people, in a bad attempt to sound hip and modern. When the creepy fat kid worships his demonic lord through the computer screen and his mantra is "I'm Jacked In..." over and over again, I just lose it every time. It sounds like something Bob would have said on Reboot after he punched Megabite in the face.

Final Thoughts

Without putting too fine a point on it, this might just be my least favorite season, though its currently fighting with Season Seven for that honor in my head as I type this. When it comes to TV shows, its always hard for me to recommend skipping any episodes, let alone a huge bulk of them, but here, at least for the uninitiated, I just might. Obviously, the arc episodes are a must, which is why I separate them out for these retrospectives (or rather will continue to do so now that I've started this series), but other than that, I'd tread lightly with the others. "The Witch" introduces a character that comes back and is semi-important in Season Six, but other than that and The Puppet Show, there's not much else to recommend.

One episode I want to note in particular is "Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind," which not only features an early appearance by actress Clea DuVall, but presents an element of the Hellmouth that I always liked but that sort of went away, in that the supernatural event really had no other explanation than "strange things happen on the Hellmouth." This episode and the previous one "Nightmares" were the only ones to really showcase this, and almost right after this, everything had some underlying cause, be it this or that demon or specific spell, with the Hellmouth energies only enhancing things, and rarely ever outright causing them. I always thought this added a really cool element of mystery and magic to the show to have some undefinable font of weirdness so close by that could make anything happen, but eventually, it just became a hole in the ground for tentacle monsters to jump out of sometimes. And boring as shit "Ubervamps."

Anyway, stay tuned for next time, when thankfully, things get a lot better really fast, when I take a look back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Two. Or get bored with this and do something else. Really either one might happen.

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