by Mitch [I make a brief comment below]
Despite the Buffy meme’s persistent infiltration of nearly every aspect of my life, I managed to avoid watching it until now, nearly ten years after it began. Thus far – I am currently four discs into Season Five – it is largely just as good as, sometimes much better than, and intermittently not as good as the common opinion suggests. The first thing I said to everyone is that I feel like I missed a good opportunity by not watching the show when it was on the air and when I was synchronously going through high school and college. The equation of adolescent melodrama with the supernatural usually fits perfectly, because most teenagers feel things on a supernatural level. Recall how many times you said outlandish things like, “I will love you forever and ever until the end of time” or “Go to Hell” as a teenager and suddenly you realize what creator Joss Whedon is up to. Here Buffy Summers gets a boyfriend who is actually immortal. Here, Buffy can actually send people to Hell. It’s under the library in her high school. The collision of genre and theme brings out the best in both aspects of the show – the paranormal material and the high school melodrama. However, in the midst of the Fourth Season, the show’s mission statement seems to change.
Most people cite Season Four as the beginning of the end for Buffy, but THIS is my favorite season so far, huge glaring flaws and all. Geoff once said to me that the fourth season lacks a strong villain. I agree and disagree. The Initiative is introduced during Buffy’s first year at college – a fraternity that is actually a cover for a military demon hunting assault force. Buffy’s bitchy psychology teacher, Professor Walsh, heads up the program and is willing to make moral compromises for the greater good, like purposely sending Buffy on a suicide mission. Eventually, we learn that the Initiative has built this Frankenstein super-soldier named Adam, who unfortunately becomes the main villain. Geoff is right; this guy and his “What is my purpose?” shtick is totally lame. Really, he should have only been a powerful henchman for the more human, more interesting villain the Season missed out on – Professor Walsh – who was regrettably done away with pretty quickly. Whedon says in commentaries that the overarching Initiative story of Season Four is meant to seem like a long crossover with another TV show. This is a perfect summing up for this season, because instead of playing with genre, like the first three seasons, Season Four plays with the television medium. In the Season Three episode “The Zeppo,” we see – or rather, don’t see – a typical Buffy adventure from Xander’s perspective, and as a result we miss the climactic battle. “The Zeppo” foretells Whendon’s new interest in form over subject matter, perhaps feeling that the high school/supernatural metaphor has run its course. “Pangs,” for instance, was marketed as the first crossover with the Angel show, but in it Buffy and Angel never actually interact – as Jane Espenson says in the special features, it’s a crossover Buffy isn’t even aware of. And of course there is the surreal, nightmarish and brilliant “Hush,” which is eighty percent silent. You see what I mean here, a silent episode is only fun if you think about what normal TV tools – like dialogue – Whedon must give up to make that work. And it’s hard to enjoy the “Pangs” non-crossover concept, without considering what normally happens in a typical crossover. Even minor plot elements or throwaway episodes in the season mirror stick with this, like in “Something Blue,” where two characters who normally hate each other are made to fall deeply in love for one episode, or “A New Man,” where a character turns into a demon. “This Year’s Girl” and “Who am I?” are totally rife with stock TV plot points and devices. Buffy and Faith switch bodies a la “Freaky Friday,” allegedly for character development purposes, but really, I surmise, to let the actresses have fun playing each other. (The way Sarah Michelle Gellar lampoons Eliza Dushku’s shoulder roll thing is hysterical.) As if that’s not enough, the whole cliffhanger hinges on Faith’s “catchphrase,” for which she is ridiculed earlier in the episode. It’s hard not to love the audacious “Superstar” the most, though, for suddenly upgrading a minor character from previous seasons to a major character. Jonathan from “Earshot” all of a sudden appears in the opening credit sequence, seems to have been close friends with everybody forever, and is a total badass – all without any explanation. Of course, it all unravels later, but that initial disorientation lampoons when characters are actually added or removed from a show like this… I’m thinking of the uncle in “Land of the Lost” or Darren in “Bewitched.” “Restless,” the season’s last episode, is a formally abstract and quiet epilogue that foreshadows the Fifth Season, but not in a “Picard has become a Borg and what will they do” way. So overall, Season Four was conceptually awesome, even if the Initiative story was a little bungled.
Season Five, however, has missed just about every mark, starting with the unimaginative Dracula appearance (Really? No reinvention at all?). I don’t even know what to say about Buffy’s sudden sister Dawn, who is at best a retread of the “Superstar” idea, and at worst exactly what “Superstar” was making fun of. Part of the problem, I think, is illustrated by the fact that four discs into Season Five, Whedon has only written/directed one episode. I’m definitely in for the long haul though and I know that there are fun things like Dark Willow and the musical episode (which I have already seen out of context) in the future. For now, I maintain a cautious sense of optimism about where everything is going.
[It is interesting to think that the Buffy/Angel crossover seems like a precursor to Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers, another crossover where the characters do not meet. I have already mentioned on this blog (though I cannot find where) about Morrison's Silent Issue owing to Hush, and his Vimanarama being very Whedon-esque, right after Whedon took over his X-Men run.]
[I will also defend Buffy vs Dracula (and also Dawn, who grows on me). Just like the Zeppo, Pangs, and Superstar, Buffy vs Dracula involves a total reversal of expectations, a radical shift in focus. Dracula, in the hands of a lesser writer, would have been the final villain in season 7 or something and the whole thing would have played out a lot more like the unfortunate Blade: Trinity. At the bare minimum you expect some kind of ramp up, or serious consequence to his appearance (like, say, he kills a lot of people)-- but no, Dracula just SHOWS UP. You have to admire Whedon for turning his source material into a pretty sly joke, just as he did in the Zeppo.]