Monday, August 24, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Season 4

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.]


Shlomo said...

Its funny that youre suddenly finding buffy when I just returened to it myself. I watched the highschool years when they originally aired, and I myself was in hischool. But when Buffy graduated so did I, and I couldnt find time for it during our college years. So NOW, almost a decade later, I've just started plowing through season 4 marathon-style, and while it can be a little much to super-saturate yourself in this way, Im really enjoying it so far.

The best moment so far was buffy's speech on the TV, right after the professor tells riley that she was killed. totally bad-ass. I was surprised when she was killed so quickly, but then again i was also surprised when she turned so evil so quickly. if we would of had a more gradual arc for her, I guess the season might have benefited from having her around longer.

And in rebuttal, i kind of like the philosophical adam--He reminds me of the more philosophical original Frankenstein (which I read in college for the first time). I dont really feel the lack of a main villain is such a big deal, though one could argue that the initiative as a whole is the "main villain". But I do think it would have fit better if the initiative was not a US military operation, though. I think the metaphor would have worked better if they were just an independent-minded branch of the faculty/student-body.

Matt Jacobson (formerly Ultimate Matt) said...

Is the show generally agreed to start weak and improve? I ask because I tried to start watching it a few months ago - having never seen an episode - and couldn't get past disc two of season one. If the general consensus is that it improves as it goes I may give it another shot.

Anonymous said...

Dawn and Superstar is certainly a reasonable comparison to make now, looking back on it, but bear in mind that these were six months apart when they aired. I think. At least roughly.

Whedon's biggest shtick is surprising the audience and when Dawn first showed up, back when it first aired, I found it to be very effective. Superstar was the last thing on my mind.

Anonymous said...

@ Matt

Personally, I think that the show is best represented by seasons 2-5. However, the character of the show doesn't change from season one, only the execution.

Troy Wilson said...

Matt J: The show improves A LOT after Season One. So far, I've seen Seasons One - Four, and I'm very glad I slogged through that first season. And yes, I recommend slogging through it, as opposed to skipping it.

For the record, I rank Two and Three at the top, Four below that, and One a distant last. (Hope I'm not overselling subsequent seasons by underselling Season One.)

jennifer said...

great review of season 4. i've been jonesing to rewatch it again, for all of the points you make here.
5, to me, is the weakest season. although i thoroughly enjoyed the dracula episode. zander is so funny in this episode. i also liked how inconsequential the appearance of such a grand villain is in THIS season. dracula is so far down on the list, considering how this season unfolds.
i know a lot will disagree, but i loved season 6 and 7. i'm jealous that you are still to see them.

Anagramsci said...

wow--wish I had more time to comment right now--Season Five is by far the best season, in my opinion

Patrick said...

Morrison said that he'd never actually seen Buffy, which surprised me since he talks in his X-Men pitch, the Morrison Manifesto, about wanting to make the series more like Buffy. So, I guess he knew what Whedon's stuff was like even if he hadn't seen the series. But, in that case, I doubt that "Hush" was a conscious homage.

But, as for Buffy itself, I think seasons five and six are the series' high point, six in particular for me. As with Claremont's X-Men, I prefer the messier, more freeform later years to the simpler early stories. The primary reason in Buffy's case is that I simply prefer the later years cast, with Spike, Tara and Anya to the earlier incarnation of the gang. But, I also think the issues at play are a bit more complex, in season six in particular.

Geoff Klock said...

Season 7 is terrible and the end of six is very very rocky for some clear and basic storytelling reasons -- mostly Willow is simply not given enough time to be evil.

I remembering really being impressed with season 5 of Buffy, but also being exhausted by it. I really like the stuff with Dawn and I really like Glory but I remember it being really punishing to both the audience and Buffy -- there needed to be a lighthearted moment in there somewhere, something Whedon did in season six with the musical ep.

Patrick -- I did not say it was an homage. I think it was under the influence of. Also, when you ask writers what they read, they often lie, and Morrison talking about Buffy in the Manifesto but also claiming not to have seen it is evidence. Not definitive evidence, but evidence.

jennifer said...

yes, the last half of season 5 hits you on the head over and over again.
but oddly, so does angel season 4 and that season is fantastic.
why is that?

Anonymous said...

I meant to reply sooner but haven't gotten to it - Geoff: you have made a good point about Dracula and I will cop to it. What seals the deal is that rather than using Dracula for "Big Bad" villain, Whedon uses him to develop Buffy's character.

Season 5, though frustrating at times, ended very well. The last two episodes are just about the best Buffy climax so far. When I got to the point where the medieval knight guys were attacking the RV on horseback, I realized that I love this show too much to stay angry at it. Dawn has grown on me too.

Then there is "The Body," which I won't dare spoil, because wow. A beautiful little art film disguised as a TV episode.

Season Six, ho!


DarkReviewer said...

I also really enjoyed Season 4, though I haven't watched it since 2006. The season is about new beginnings and all that malarky, not awesome Big Bads and cliched end-of-the-world scenarios. The change of direction was both necessary AND refreshing and while it is not as good as Season 3, I think it deserves far more respect than is generally allotted to it by the fanbase.