Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Buffy Summers is the new girl in town. Having just moved to Sunnydale, CA, Buffy has to get adjusted to her new life: anew school, new classes, new friends. Oh yeah, and vampires. As it turns out, Buffy is a vampire slayer, the one girl in all the world chosen to fight the forces of darkness. However, she doesn't want to be a slayer, she just wants to be a normal girl.
Events, though, are about to conspire against her dreams of normalcy. As it turns out, deep beneath Sunnydale is a Hellmouth, a gate to the demon dimensions. Starting with a trapped vampire lord, the Master, one villain after another will come to Sunnydale and attempt to tap into the magics of the Hellmouth to spread darkness across the world. Whatever she may want to do, Buffy is going to have to get her act in gear and take on the villains before the Earth is lost forever.
For his second crack at the character of Buffy Summer, Joss Whedon (character creator and show-runner) brought her to the WB television network. Starting with a mid-season 13 episode run, Buffy would go on for seven years telling the tale of Buffy and her friends as they fought against all manner of evil. Unlike in the 1992 movie, Buffy ends up fighting more than vampires -- demons, witches, lycanthropes, giant insects, and everything else mystical the writers could come up with. The show had a surprising breadth to the number of beasties Buffy faced down, but what was even more surprising was how seriously it treated its concept.
Like with the movie, Buffy is still about the lone blond girl that should have been killed off in the first reel; instead of dying, though, she was given mystical powers and set against the forces of evil. While the movie treated this concept as a lark, something akin to B-movie fodder, the television show treated Buffy like a superhero, someone with real issues and real goals, someone who knew the danger but had to do it anyway. It was a strong concept made better by the way it was handled and the cast performing the show.
And that cast was almost universally great. Anthony Stewart Head always gets singled out as the stand-out performer and for good reason -- his character, Giles, is Buffy's watcher and over the course of several season he develops true affection for his young charge (as he's the one training Buffy, her "Watcher" as the show calls him). Head gives Giles warmth, making what could easily have been a stodgy, fusty role into something great. Teaming him up with Nicholas Brendon (Xander) and Alyson Hannigan (Willow), the two portraying Buffy's closest friends, creating a core trio the viewers can relate to, people to act as backup to Buffy (as well as crack a few jokes along the way).
Make no mistake, Buffy is very funny. The cast all have moments to crack jokes and be silly but it's naturally worked in to the flow of the series (instead of Paul Rubens in the original movie -- I loved his character but he didn't work in the context of a more serious movie). Everyone feels natural and like they're having a good time (you know, when the monsters aren't attacking them).
Sadly the character I've always liked the least is Buffy herself. I think a lot of that has to do with Sarah Michelle Gellar. While Gellar always seemed more natural as Buffy than Kristy Swanson (who originated the role) there was something that still never quite worked for me, especially as the series went on. Buffy just seemed to get more whiny, more abrasive as time want by, to the point that while she may have been the main character she was also the least interesting part of the series. She's not a deal breaker, and even her Buffy has her good moments, I just always wished she was better.
Still, there's so much to like about the series. It's light, it's funny, and it shows that comedy, action, and monsters can all mix together without being campy. There's a reason that, even now, more than a decade since it went off the air, people still talk about Buffy and regularly watch the series. It's that strong a concept, that good a show.
Season one is arguably one of the weakest seasons of the run. This is to be expected, especially from mid-season starts. Half seasons seem to be harder for shows to pull off, especially if they have any kind of aspiration for greatness, and the first season of Buffy certainly did. It had to introduce the concept, the characters (and their dynamic), a love interest (Angel, the tortured vampire with a soul), and a villain (the Master). They had to do all this and then get a big plot rolling at the same time that could both be epic and yet get resolved in a handful of episodes. Although the series does manage to make the Master compelling and interesting (which is why they brought him back in one form or another in later seasons), the plot around him is fairly... mellow. Not everything clicks here yet and these episodes aren't the best, but there are still a few gems, some good performances, to carry us through.
With more time to breathe, and more directions the show can travel, it really finds its legs in season two. Angel and Buffy have, by this point, found their love for each other but matters are complicated by Angel's curse (that whole "having a soul" thing) -- in a moment of true happiness (Buffy and Angel do the horizontal tango), Angel loses his soul and becomes one of the big villains for the season (a well done heel turn, to be sure). Meanwhile there are other villains afoot: the mentally unstable Drusilla (who's always fun to watch) and fan-favorite Spike come into the mix, giving us a lot of great character to watch and enjoy. Good villains should be compelling in their own right and season two of Buffy works because of how good this villainous trio really is.
The series hit is best marks, though, in season three. First was the introduction of Faith, a second slayer who would add her own dynamic to the series (and play as a great foil for Buffy). Then there was the Mayor (played with such delicious relish by Harry Groener), perhaps the best villain the series ever came up with. Mayor Richard Wilkins III came across as a folksy, down-home, 1950s nuclear family kind of guy which made the fact that he was also an evil, immortal, soon-to-be demonic being all the more fascinating. He was at turns warm, creepy, funny, and chilling, and Groener made it all work. A truly stand-out performance in a wickedly good season. Beyond the Mayor, though, the season had great episodes like the Xander centric "The Zeppo" and and the mirror universe episodes "The Wish" and "Doppelgangland". If any season of the show is worth watch over and over on it's own, our money is on season three.
Of course that season is a tough act to follow. Beyond that, though, there were a number of changes in store for the show that made season four one of the weaker seasons. Her time in high school was over and Buffy (and co.) had to move on to college -- in this setting the show had to find its feet again and there were a few stumbles along the way. That coupled with a vague villain -- were we supposed to trust the Initiative military group or not? -- followed by their weird, uninteresting Frankenstein creation, Adam -- and season four is one of the messiest since the first. While there are still great episodes, the best being the Emmy-nominated "Hush", there were also absolute stinkers ("Beer Bad" for example which is, perhaps, the series's single worst episode). Season four is not one we go back to very often.
Things take a turn for the weird in season five. It opens with a (rather meh, to be honest) episode featuring Dracula (although we will note that Dracula gets greatly redeemed in the later comics books that continue the show's continuity). The, at the end of that first episode, we're introduced to Dawn, Buffy's sister who, up until now, never existed. The rest of the season then deals with the implications of Dawn and how she ties into the season villain, Glory. Oh, Glory... you could be so interesting. You could be an inverse play on Buffy, playing up the vapid, bubble-headed blond stereotypes that Buffy herself subverted. Instead, though, the actress playing Glory, Clare Kramer, just doesn't ever quite get a handle on the role. She plays up the vapid qualities without even making Glory feel like a fully realized character (let alone a menacing one).
Despite a weak villain, the season works better as a whole than it should. Dawn, who should be annoying, quickly fits into the cast. Any pains that should come from awkwardly shoehorning in a new character like this are quickly hand-waved away and Dawn just works. Plus there are some great episodes in the season. Everyone is going to point to "The Body", which is fantastic (it should have gotten an Emmy nomination), but we'll also highlight another Xander-centric episode, "The Replacement". Although we don't know if anyone would watch season five on its own it is a pretty good one to binge through if you're doing the whole run.
Season six is another messy season although this time it feels by-design. The show had to reintroduce its main heroine (for spoilery reasons we'll avoid) and then fit her back into the cast properly. Coupled with another weird villain -- the Super Nerds who, purposefully, never felt like much of a threat -- the season stands on shaky legs. And yet it's hard not to like this season. As much as they aren't great villains, the Super Nerds are dumb and funny. They generate some good laughs and the season, as dark as it could get at times, was kept light by this trio of losers. And, of course, we'd be remiss in talking about the season without mentioning it's most famous episode, the musical "Once More With Feeling". It's a rare episode that's both a musical stand-alone that also has deep ties to continuing plot lines for the season (some of which don't play off until a big villain turn for one of the core cast-members). As messy as the season is, it really flies once it gets going.
And then we get to season seven. I know a lot of fans are torn on this particular season -- some feel like it's a mess that never comes together while others like the places it goes. In our opinion, season seven is better when viewed as a whole than as any particular episode. The big threat comes from the First Evil, a spectral being that's kind of the force behind the evil in the world. It can't directly affect anything but the First Evil can motivate other evil beings. As a villain it's kind of weak -- the powers of the first evil remain vague and it never really gels as a truly powerful being. But the minions it gets, from the Nosferatu-like uber-vamps to Caleb, the evil priest (played with charisma and menace by Nathan Fillion), are some of the best in the series.
While the First Evil may not be a great villain, it does have a good plot line. Every time a slayer dies a new one is born from a pool of potential slayers. That's how we have Faith (who was a potential in training until one of the many times Buffy nearly died). Presumably if Faith ever died a new potential would have been chosen, but the First Evil wanted to stop that. They sent their minions around killing all the potentials rightly realizing that if there was no slayer there would be nothing to stop the true evil from spreading across the world. So instead of being just the slayer, Buffy has to become a Watcher taking care of a group of potentials as they all fight together to save the world. It's a great twist on the dynamic of the series and however messy it might have been in execution it's still one of our favorite over-arching plot lines for the series. It does lead to a great climax for the run, to, sending the series out on a high note (at least until the later comics came along).