Friday, March 09, 2007


She saved TV a lot

"Trust me, only someone who had lived underground for ten years would think that was still the look."
— Buffy Summers, "Welcome to the Hellmouth" (March 10, 1997)

By Edward Copeland
Ten years later, Buffy the Vampire Slayer still looks as stylish as ever to me. Admittedly, I was a latecomer to the Buffyverse, catching up out of order with reruns on FX and only watching Season 7 as it actually aired. (Actually, I did see one Buffy before FX. I watched the delayed premiere of Season 3's "Graduation Day Part 2" because of all the hubbub when they pulled it because of Columbine. Funny, I don't remember the killers at that Colorado high school transforming into giant serpents and using an army of vampires. I must have missed that part of the story). I never had much interest, no matter how many people I knew said good things about the show, because the taste of the lame 1992 theatrical movie still lingered in my mouth. How wrong I was and how great Joss Whedon was in translating a movie misfire into a classic television series. Has there ever been another instance of a so-so movie spawning a really good TV show? If so, I can't think of one.

TV's M*A*S*H was a watered-down but still good facsimile of Robert Altman's great movie MASH before it became too self important and went on long past its prime. I can think of countless examples that didn't work or were fair at best, but Buffy is the only one that I can think of that improved on its film source. Admittedly, I'm not as obsessive as other fans are about the show, but despite some real clunkers of episodes (Am I alone in being bored silly by any episode that mainly focuses on Angel's past in Europe? By the way, why did his accent vanish but Spike's remain?) and nearly one entire season that could be thrown out (I'm looking at you Season 4), Buffy became one of my all-time favorites. It's worth noting that I'm somewhat odd when it comes to DVD collecting (or maybe I just think I am). Some shows, I have to have the entire run (such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Soap, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm) but Buffy falls into the same category as The X-Files (I only have Season 6) and Homicide: Life on the Street (I stopped with Seasons 1-3) for me: I only collect my very favorite seasons.

I only own two seasons of Buffy on DVD: Season 6 and, in my opinion, its very best one, Season 3. I might get Season 2 someday (How can you not love Angelus? He made David Boreanaz much more interesting.). Season 1 is a possibility as well to get to see Mark Metcalf as The Master, though I still wish he could have said something akin to "a pledge pin! On your uniform!", but I doubt I'll ever get 5 or 7 (even with the fun of Glory (Clare Kramer) and the heartbreak of "The Body") and I KNOW Season 4 will never take up shelf space ("Hush" or no "Hush"). I know some big Buffy fans who disagree with me about Season 4, but I found most of that season to be a waste. Sure, "Hush" was fun and Spike (James Marsters) really started to come into his own, but the whole story with The Initiative, Adam and the bland Marc Blucas, you can keep those. Skip from Season 3 to Season 5 and I don't think you'll miss much that's vital. Since this post really is to mark the 10th anniversary of the show as a whole, I'm going to concentrate on Seasons 3 and 6, since those are my favorites.


I realize that not everyone was crazy with Season 6 as a whole but if the only episode it offered was the incomparable musical extravaganza "Once More, With Feeling," that alone would be worth a DVD purchase. However, Season 6 offered much more than just that. Rewatching Season 6 recently what struck me most was that while it's often painted as the series' darkest season, it's really the most deft blend of all the elements that made Buffy great. What's spectacular about Season 6 is that while the usual supernatural elements are there, the focus really is on living in the real world and the ostensible "big bad" for the season are the comical trio of nerds (from left, Danny Strong, Adam Busch and Tom Lenk), quite human, only able to use supernatural things for their diabolical ends, usually with mixed results. It's only as the season progresses that you see that the three, particularly Warren, can be just as deadly as The Master, the Mayor or Glory, only they have to rely on common weapons such as firearms and the damage left in their wake turns out to be even more heartbreaking because of it. In fact, the trio are more annoyance compared to the problems the Scooby Gang face for most of the season. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) turns to fast food because of money problems. Willow and Tara (Alyson Hannigan, Amber Benson) have problems over Willow's growing addiction, not to drugs or alcohol but to magic. Xander and Anya (Nicholas Brendon, Emma Caulfield) move toward the altar before Xander has second thoughts. Even Spike has to cope with being lovesick for his immortal enemy, the slayer.

The masterpiece of this season and, perhaps, the series is "Once More, With Feeling," the best attempt any television show has ever made at having a musical episode, something made more amazing when you realize that Joss Whedon who wrote all the songs was really trying it for the first time. The score is so good, it's worth buying the episode's CD just to listen to. Compare it to the recent musical episode of Scrubs, which while entertaining did little in the way of advancing story or character. "Once More, With Feeling" actually is able to do something normal stage musicals can't in that all the songs are driven by the characters and the plot. Since it's coming well into the series' story, no exposition is necessary. The episode also excels at what Season 6 as a whole does, perfectly balancing the sudden swings between humor, pathos and horror. Every time I watch this episode, it's more impressive than the last. It also sets up what may be the most heartbreaking moments the show ever produced.

The death of Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland) in Season 5's "The Body" certainly was sad, but it doesn't come close to preparing viewers for the death of Tara, the emergence of "Dark Willow" and Giles' return. The final three episodes of this season are breathtaking, none more so than its conclusion when a grieving Willow is determined to destroy the world and no magic in the world can stop her, only the humanity of the love of her longtime friend Xander (Brendon's finest moment in the series). Television doesn't make me cry often, but watching this conclusion between Xander and Willow always gets to me. It even adds on Buffy's realization that she's glad to be alive again and tosses in the cliffhanger of Spike regaining his soul to boot. As I'm writing, I'm liking Season 6 even more than when I began this post.


The fun of Season 3 is much more conventional when compared to Season 6, but it always stands out for me because of two actors, neither of whom were series regulars before the season started: Eliza Dushku as Faith and the Emmy-robbed Harry Groener as Mayor Richard Wilkins. Groener has to go down in television history as one of the most unique and sunniest of villains to ever grace any show. Obsessed with cleanliness and good manners and downright square at times, he also happens to be making deals with demons to ascend into a demon form himself — and he's hilarious doing it. Dushku adds spice as well as another slayer who turns to the bad side and who represents the flip side of Buffy, the bad girl she'd like to be at times. Still, the arc of the Mayor and Faith aren't what make this season the standout.

Aside from the season premiere "Anne," which bored me, the Buffy staff nearly hit every episode out of the park. In fact, I think I enjoy this season so much because so much of it is played for laughs (the same reason X-Files Season 6 is my favorite). You get Buffy and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) battling to become homecoming queen while new vamp in town Mr. Trick (K. Todd Freeman) sets up a "SlayerFest" and the participants assume Cordi is Faith. That's followed up with the hysterical "Band Candy" where the town's grownups start acting like teens, with Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) returning to his delinquent days and fooling around with Joyce. We even see a new side of Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman). Then we're treated to the arrival of the new watcher in town, Wesley Wyndam-Price (Alexis Denisof, whom I'll always resent for wooing Hannigan in real life. Bastard), followed in short order by the return of a drunken, lovesick Spike who has been jilted by Drusilla, the introduction of Anya in her vengeance demon mode, Xander's inferiority complex and the return of Vampire Willow from the alternate universe in "Dopplegangland."

Then, before we're able to have too much fun, we're treated to "Earshot," where Buffy can hear the thoughts of a student planning to mow down his classmates and has to rush to stop him. The season ends with the one-two-three punch of the devil dogs of "The Prom" and the sweet tribute Buffy gets from her classmates and both halves of "Graduation Day." I'm glad I got to see the show later, because I think seeing "Earshot" and the finale out of order would have ruined the rhythm of a nearly perfect season. I just thought of something else that connects Seasons 3 and 6 that might not occur immediately even to the most rabid Buffy fans: Amy (Elizabeth Anne Allen) becomes Amy the rat in Season 3's "Gingerbread" when the adults go on a witchhunt and she doesn't turn back into a human until Season 6's "Smashed," when Willow finally figures out how to return her to human form.

I'm sure by now most Buffy fans realize that a Season 8 is about to be upon us. Alas, it won't be in the form of film or TV, but rather comic book as Joss Whedon has written the story and the first few installments of a comic series that picks up where Season 7 ended and which premieres from Dark Horse Comics next week. I'm ready to leap back into the Buffyverse. Happy 10th anniversary.

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i'm with you all the way on season three; i doubt i'll ever love a tv show as fervently as i did 'buffy' back in its faith days. it features so many of my favourite episodes ('doppelgangland', 'lover's walk', 'the wish') and it introduced me to hotness that is eliza dushku

it was all downhill from there for me, save for occasional highlights - season four's 'hush', season five's 'the body' (the best hour of television ever) and season six's 'once more with feeling'

and i try not to think about season seven
i love buffy so much on that i'm on my third run through of the entire series.

you're so so wrong about season 4. It's pretty darn brilliant ---especially in the ways it handles the total identity chaos that greets the first year of college.

and HUSH is so impossible to beat. Well, except for by the other three or four best episodes
I tried to watch Buffy, but I couldn't get past my prejudices to enjoy it as a thing-in-itself. Sarah Michelle Gellar is a Bush-Iraq War supporter, and I had a hard time repressing a sneer when she was on screen. And sneering is not a good look for me.

Now Firefly--that I loved.
I've never heard that about her and found nothing in a cursory Google search to back that up. Even still, I'm a big Dubya/Iraq war opponent but unless a piece of entertainment itself contains an explicit political slant, I've never understood people disliking movies, music, TV or whatnot based on what the actors might think in private life. I would have thoroughly disagreed with John Wayne on most things but that doesn't prevent me from enjoying some of his movies. Besides, Buffy ended its run before Iraq even started.
Actually, if this were true, why would she have appeared in this movie I found described?

"Sunday saw one of the most egregious attacks in the form of ’Southland Tales’ by Richard Kelly, the director behind 2001’s cult movie ’Donnie Darko’.
In his new film, a satire set in a dystopian future Los Angeles, broad parallels are drawn between fascist pre-WWII Germany and the United States under a Bush government that holds onto power well into 2008.
A star-heavy cast moves the story along as it takes scattershot aim at a range of targets, particularly the war in Iraq, Big Brother-style spying on US citizens, the US dependence on energy and the fusion between celebrity and politics.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays a big-name actor tied to a political family who tries to unravel a plot involving him travelling into the future and back and trying to stop Armageddon. And any resemblance to a certain California governor who starred in ’The Terminator’ is coincidental.
Also spotted is ’Buffy’ star Sarah Michelle Gellar, putting in a delightful turn as a marketing-savvy porn star, and pop singer Justin Timberlake who treats the sometimes befuddled audience to a music clip underlining the damage the US military has taken in Iraq."
I tried watching Buffy off Netflix rentals--not in real time.

I saw her and her vacant-eyed husband make a Bush-supportive comment somewhere on TV--not active support, perhaps, like Toby Keith. More along the lines of Brittney Spears in Fahrenheit 911--just your basic unexamined jingoism. In ordinary times, I'm not that bothered by political apathy. But when a virtually powerless country has been invaded and occupied in my name, I chafe at a shallow disregard for the responsibilities and duties of citizenship.

This is a prejudice of mine, my antipathy for her. And I'm open to being convinced that I got the whole thing wrong. It was just an impression, it turned my stomach and infuriated me, and I closed my mind to her. But it's very, very hard for me to forgive stupidity that has a death-rate attached to it.
I never watched another John Wayne movie after he actively criticized anti-Vietnam war protesters. And I never watched another Stallone movie after Rambo.

I also bought Dixie Chicks CDs a couple of years ago, though I'd never heard them. Turns out I actually liked them, but I would have been glad I bought their CDs if they'd turned out to be talentless bimbos.
I too bought Dixie Chicks albums after their problems and liked them a lot. Of course regardless of Stallone's politics, not watching any of his movies after Rambo would have been a wise idea anyway.

i share your political feelings but won't you be cutting off WAY too many entertainers if you take this stance. I mean for, what, 2 years or so there was uninformed jingoism everywhere.

i still shudder sometimes that the media is acting all high and mighty about the mistakes now when they were helping to cause them by shutting their mouths and doing the rah rah bit too.
Buffy is great. I don't think it's the GREATEST TV show ever, but it's probably one of my favorites. When it was on, I anxiously anticipated it every week.

I disagree that season four is completely worthless -- like season six, it plays better on DVD, where you can minimize the Riley stuff. To me, seasons seven and one were the show's clumsiest. The former because of the uncertainty about plotlines and whether the show was ending and the latter because they were still figuring out the tone (a common thing to do on shows).

Good write-up! It makes my plans to do the same seem needless.
I'm curious. I caught up with Angel late as well (mainly because I knew I had to follow James Marsters when I read that he was going over there). I thought the show was fine, but it never grabbed me the way Buffy did. If I had to pick, I guess I'd say I liked Season 4 the best, but I don't think I've seen many Angel episodes more than once (unlike Buffy where I have seen just about all of them at least twice, even in Season 4). What's your collective takes on Angel?
Angel's all right. It's probably the least of Whedon's TV efforts, but the final season is extremely good. The show got better as it went along, I think, and they figured out that they didn't have it in them to do a supernatural detective show.
'angel' always suffered from the "it's not as good as buffy" curse; plus it completely sucked the life out of the character of cordelia, expected us to care about dull characters like gunn and fred, and really it hit rock-bottom when it introduced angel's son.

that being said, it did have some kick-ass individual episodes and it's finale was everything buffy's lame final episode should have been.
I'm like Ed, I came to the Buffy party after the festivities had started and a friend of mine obsessed with the show brought me up to speed by loaning me some VHS recordings.

I have Seasons 1-3 in my DVD collection...and that's about as far as it goes with me. The beauty of Buffy was the whole "high school is a dangerous place...literally" concept and with graduation and college in season 4, it just seemed to have played itself out.
Sarah Michelle Gellar--I don't know her politics, and the impression I get is that it's more notable in its absence than any discernible presence. I'd guess she made that remark out of sheer thoughtlessness, or out of some hazy grasp of politics. More to the point I think would be the auteur's politics--in this case, writer/producer/director Whedon. He's as blue as they come, is my impression.

Yes, thought Season 4 was dull, liked 5 and especially the finale, where all the disparate elements throughout the season(the hammer, the robot, the mind-stealing trick) came together, liked 7 and 1 okay, loved 2 for Angelus, 3 for, yes, the Mayor and Faith, and 6 for the complexity. Sure--the Big Bad wasn't the unholy trio (three stooges is more like it; it was only by the end that their menace became really serious, almost by accident), but their own inner demons.

That song that plays in the finale of the finale of Season 6, incidentally, is a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Often sung in hymn form in Christian or even Catholic schools. Interesting Whedon should pick that.
Your pick of Season 6 is particularly a good call, Ed. As much as I enjoy Seasons 2 and 3, the show's sixth season---which you defend beautifully---encapsulates a lot of what I love about it as a whole: in many ways, it shows these characters grappling with the trials of adulthood, and not always doing it in the most positive ways. There was one episode during that season, "Normal Again," that was marvelous but particularly difficult to watch: Buffy was given this curse that made her dream up this alternate reality that felt so real that it, for a short time, convinced her that she actually wasn't the Slayer, and that her friends were imaginary beings hindering her ability to become a regular girl again. Its climactic moments found our heroine tying up her friends and throwing them into the basement for a demon to eat up. Season 6 was dark, yes, but it was also powerful, funny, resonant, and moving, and the messy Season 7 wasn't a patch on it (although I did like its finale).

By the way, I don't know if you caught this, but there's one moment in Season 6 that also references, both directly and indirectly, an episode from another show's Season 6: in "Life Serial," when Buffy is trapped in repeating time until she successfully sells a mummy hand, the geek trio actually makes mention of "Monday," the sixth season X-Files episode in which Mulder is trapped in a Monday that won't end until he somehow prevents a bank robbery/explosion from happening. Coincidence?
I didn't catch that X-Files reference. That is interesting. Also anonymous, I didn't mean to imply that I was underestimating Buffy fans, I was just pointing out that I didn't catch that the the beginning and end of the Amy the rat story happened to fall in my two favorite seasons until I rewatched them.
Gosh, Willow's addiction to magic WAS just like drug addiction. Amazing! How subtle of them.
Blogger please!

Edward and Todd how can you be so far off the mark re: Season Four? Yes it's the least compelling in terms of season-long structure - something the writers have long acknowledged - but it contains such a high percentage of the show's all-time most enjoyable episodes that that alone should render it worthwhile. Have you watched 'Beer Bad' lately? It's not an insipid anti-booze after-school special like everyone thinks the first time around, it's a hilarious anti-booze after-school spoof. And it contains one of the show's most compelling monologues about adult sexuality - by Parker, the cad whom Buffy sleeps with early in her freshman year. Stronger than you remember: 'Something Blue', 'Superstar'(!!), Angel's return in 'The Yoko Factor', the two Oz episodes ('Wild At Heart'/'New Moon Rising'), the two-part Faith arc (especially Whedon's harrowing body-switching episode), the surprisingly heavy opener 'The Freshman', and especially the huge one-two ending, 'Primeval'/'Restless'. Yes, 'Primeval' is awesome: big emotional payoffs, big action, the dual duels with Adam and Forrest that redeem every lame moment those characters had. And everyone (but Todd!) forgets 'Restless', which is as impressive as the musical. Then there's Alyson Hannigan's complex work, Tony Head and Nick Brendon at (easily) their funniest, Seth Green playing lots of new notes, Amber Benson finding her way into the role of Tara...It's overshadowed by Season Five (which is better in every way than year six, like a direct sequel to Season Three in its balance of emotional payoffs and mythology), but Season Four is far stronger than people seem to want to believe.

But your big mistake, sirs, is to discount Blucas as Riley Finn. A lot of people seem to get hung up on the fact that Captain America is vastly less interesting than Angel/Angelus (and his opposite number in Season Four, James Marsters's intermittently-useless but always entertaining Spike), but Blucas actually turned in a solid performance in a very subtly-written part. Riley really came into his own early in Season Five - see the lovely monologue he delivers Xander at the end of Jane Espenson's characteristically funny/earnest 'The Replacement', with its knockout ending - but by the middle of Season Four he was playing a lot of different sides of the Nice Guy With a Chip on His Shoulder, really strong stuff. That performance came to a head at the end of 'New Moon Rising' - 'I'm an anarchist,' one of the most telling lines of the whole season. I suspect that some people piss on his performance because it's comparatively un-showy, certainly next to Brendon's broad intuitive comedy and Gellar/Hannigan/Head's finely metered performances; nonetheless, his character's place on the show was vital, and Blucas really did make the most of it. The role wasn't underwritten, it was just what it was: temporary but substantive in a merely human way.

And let's add: Blucas was excellent in his Season Six encore, nicely capturing the tension of being both attracted to one's ex and self-righteous about her foibles yet authentically trying to move on. Partially because of the emotional disequilibrium of that 'Life is the Big Bad' year I think it was easier for people to enjoy his presence. Yet it was all an extension of his earlier performance - cf. 'Buffy vs. Dracula' where Riley faces down Spike in his crypt, his old 'anti-demon bigotry' tendencies flaring up a little. Angel was a perv and a half, and Spike was worse; Riley's presence really pointed up the progressivism of the show, and bringing him around to the Scoobies' point of view at a natural pace was one of the writers' least noticed triumphs.

Also: Anya in the bunny suit. QED.
If you skip Season 4, Willow will just suddenly... be gay.
Of course Riley did end up having a thing for vampires feeding off him.
Hey, I'm late to the party, but as someone who is just recovering from both "Buffy" and, even more so, "Firefly" obsession, I had to chime in....Season 4 was pretty good. Season Six, less so. So, I intone, "nyah."

And get busy with the Firefly. (I mean watch it.)

I do want to kind of chide some folks here slightly for making any kind of artistic judgement based on actor's -- or any other creative person's -- putative political views. The fact of the matter is that creative people in general and the actors and writers on Joss Whedon shows in particular are all over the map on politics. Really, all over the map, I gather, actually.

Regardless, if you try to view everything through that prism, you're going to miss a lot of good stuff. I'm a pretty outspoken liberal, but if I refused to enjoy stuff by rightwingers that would mean no Dostoyevsky, no Howard Hawks, no Merle Haggard or John Ford 50% of the time....

While I probably agree more or less completely with your take on Iraq, I have to say that it's wrongheaded to dismiss the show based on something vaguely jingoistic you vaguely remember the lead actress or her embarrassing husband saying some time after the show's run had ended. Especially if you liked Firefly. It's your loss.

I agree with the thing about Anya in the bunny suit. I started watching the show toward the end of season 1, and never stopped. It had its weak moments, but even in the weakest episodes, even with season 7, there was always something there to remind me who these characters were and why I loved them.
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