WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS.
The Buffy pilot is a work of art. In just 74 minutes, it manages to effortlessly introduce a big cast and a complex setup. But it’s the dialog that sells the entire series, and how that manages to consistently characterize a big cast of very funny, yet very real people, caught up in ridiculous situations. There’s a rhythm to it, capturing natural teen dialog, self referentially referred to as “buffy-speak.”
- Willow: Well… when I’m with a boy I like, it’s hard for me to say anything cool, or, or witty. Or at all. I-I can usually make a few vowel sounds, and then I have to go away.
- Buffy: It’s not that bad.
- Willow: No, i-it is. I think boys are more interested in a girl who can talk.
- Buffy: You really haven’t been dating lately.
Whedon even manages to make an info dump funny:
- Buffy: [to Giles] To make you a vampire they have to suck your blood. And then you have to suck their blood. It’s like a whole big sucking thing. Mostly they’re just gonna kill you. Why am I still talking to you?
The pilot may be brilliant, but some of the other episodes in this mid-season 12 episode run are a little “monster of the week.” The special effects are laughable. But still, the dialog is spot on and the characters are great. Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, and even the evil Darla are all sexy, yet not fully stereotyped. Xander and Giles are just plain funny. Even in this early run, the season has an overall meta-villain, the sinister, yet silly “Master,” a rehash of all Most Ancient Vampires.
He’s totally silly, but he’s also kinda scary in his own goofy way. And he is a nasty killer. The connections between the pilot, a few of the intermediate episodes, and the literally killer finale (“Prophecy Girl“) give the show a nice hybrid continuity (see my article on this). Overall it’s the weakest season until Season 7, but it’s still fun, and the show slips in references to material from older episodes in such a consistant manner (much as real High School friends never let you live anything down), that it’s essential to foundation for the greatness that is to come.
It’s with the second second that Buffy really starts to hit stride. As our season villains we get the awesome Spike & Drusilla, a pair of british vampire lovers who play marvelously against type. On first watch a lot of the episodes in this season don’t seem as integrated into the overall story and mythology as they will from Season 3 on, but the clever writing team retroactively mines them as sources for ongoing material in later seasons, therefore pulling them into the fold. The robot employed in “Ted” will eventually lead to Season 5’s robot girlfriend and hence the Buffybot. “Halloween” sets up Giles’ past as Ripper, and his old nemesis Rayne. The creation of a second slayer upon Buffy’s first season death at the hands of the master is revealed. And that’s just a few.
Across all the episodes the relationships between the characters start to really come into their own. Willow’s lifelong crush on Xander is stymied and she meets Oz and begins to dabble in witchcraft. Xander’s negative chemistry with Cordelia draws them both into something unexpected. Giles’ dark past begins to surface. Fundamentally, the writers aren’t afraid to play with their formulas. Since season one, Buffy’s relationship with the brooding reformed vampire Angel has been growing, and when on her 17th birthday she decides to give her virginity to him: Things don’t go exactly as planned. Writers before and after have used the supernatural as allegory for human problems, but never with such darkly comic panache. The show isn’t afraid to go dark. I mean really dark, and still be funny. Most shows would have just beat around the bush of Buffy’s sexuality, but here, she does it, and gets a metaphoric stake in the heart in return. This pivot drives the second half of the season into really dark territory, and it’s all the stronger for it. Watched back to back on DVD there is a raw emotional intensity to the arc, and it comes from just plain good writing. The characters are funny, yet real, and their genuine changes and growth irresistible.