TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 6

CONTINUED FROM PART 5 ABOVE.

The rest of the series can be found here: [12,34, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:

 

Season 7:

So at long last we meander to the final, and worst, season. Not that it’s awful, but it does suffer from a number of serious problems.

1. The big bad is diffuse. This season, in an effort to be even more apocalyptic, they decided on an incorporal season villain called “the first evil.” A vaguely couched badness that takes the form of dead people, often Buffy herself (she did, after all, die twice). Frankly, the first is kinda lame, and not very funny. It certainly doesn’t measure up to Glory or the Mayor (although it occasionally looks like the Mayor). It’s “first” appearance (haha) where it slowly winds back through all the villains in reverse order is however kinda cool.

2. The slayerettes – About 40% into the season Buffy is inundated by a collection of 17 year-old idiots known collectively as the slayerettes. They totally suck, are just anoying, gum up the relationships we really care about, and often get themselves killed (good riddance). Only Kennedy has any redeeming qualities — mostly in the form of implied girl-on-girl action with Willow.

3. Andrew – For some reason, this lamest and most annoying of the “Trio” is held captive in Buffy’s house, where he can serve to annoy us, the viewers. He does have his occasional moments and lines, like “Episode one boring?” But mostly he grates on the nerves of the cast and viewer alike. Oh Andrew, why at least couldn’t you have died in “Chosen?”

4. Mysterious documentary-style shooting – Certain episodes have a more documentary style that is not evidenced anywhere else in the series. Notably “Storyteller” (deliberate there for sure) and bits in “Touched” and “End of Days.” It felt amateurish and out of place.

5. No good creative episodes – Nothing like “The Body” or “Once More with Feeling.” Nothing. They may have tried with “Storyteller,” but it was lame lame lame.

At least the writers knew it would be the last season, and so in a neat and orderly manner arced the story toward a decent conclusion. And the first half of the season starts pretty decently. The new character, Principal Wood is good. “Help” is a great episode and the Anya episode, “Selfless” has some totally priceless 1,000 year flash back scenes between Anya and Olaf the troll — totally priceless, and made all the better for being in some Germanic/Scandinavian tongue and subtitled. “Conversations with Dead People” and “Sleeper” aren’t bad either.

Ug. Then enter the slayerettes. The only compensating bit being the sub-boss bad guy, the “ubervamp” who is pretty cool and kicks some ass, including Buffy’s.

The second half of the season is uneven, including my least favorite episode in a long time “Storyteller,” but the pretty good “Lies My Parents Told Me.” The new sub-boss Caleb is decent too. Then we have “Empty Places.”

I don’t know what they were thinking, but it’s obvious the writers decided they had to separate Buffy from her friends for dramatic effect, and so they stage a show down in which they all turn against her. In no other episode of the entire series is there a moment where so many characters just act completely out of character. I can buy a few of them turning on her like this, but the writers failed completely to give each and every one of them a valid personal reason visa-via their relationship with Buffy to do so. I could barely watch it.

The return of Faith however is good, and the last three episodes are pretty strong, particularly the series finale “Chosen.” Despite the lame cameo from Angel, it does all end up in a pretty good place, and reasonably satisfying — a difficult thing to do after such a long and emotional series. Overall, it’s certainly a must watch, but just not on par with the magnificent pair of seasons that preceded it.

As with the previous two times I’m depressed that it’s over. This time I’m going to make a serious effort at Jos Whedon’s season 8 in comic book form.

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 5

CONTINUED FROM PART 4 ABOVE. And the whole series [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:

 

Season 6:

The transition from season 5 into season 6 is the best of the entire series. After the season 5 finale, with its tear jerking “The Gift,” we slam right in with the two hour “Bargaining,” and it’s more or less continuation “After Life.” I’ve never managed to not watch all three of these together because until the end of the third hour things are so unsettled you just have to keep going.

Season 6 is dark, and in my opinion the seven seasons would be ranked 5,6,3,4,2,1,7. With all but 7 being fantastic, and five and six very close. Six is a bit darker, but I’ll give the edge to five just because I like Glory so much and the whole villain bit is more cohesive. But both five and six have almost no “one off” episodes, even those that technically have a monster of the week like “After Life,” or “Hell’s Bells,” are fundamentally crucial to the larger plot. And episode seven of season six is “Once More, With Feeling,” arguably, along with season 5’s “The Body,” the best episode of the entire series.

“Once More, With Feeling” is just mind bogglingly brilliant. Not only is it a musical, sung entirely by the cast and written and scored by Joss Whedon, but it’s a darn good musical. If you are new to Buffy, don’t watch this episode and expect to be wowed — I mean if you like musicals you might like it — but you have to see it in context of the series to really appreciate it. I’ve watched it no less than eight times, and I’ve been spell bound ever time. Plus I hate musicals. First there is the sheer audacity of it: to just up and write a musical episode, complete with MGM musical style titles in the middle of a long running dramatic series. I even own the soundtrack. But then, much more importantly, is how this episode is actually the most central to the season, the one in which everything comes to a head. It has the most plot, the most climax, of any Buffy episode. Nearly every character is pivoting here — and the music makes it happen. Sheer unadulterated genius.

After “Once More, With Feeling,” things grow really dark. This season our nominal villains are the Trio, three geeks who have ganged up to be super villains. They’re pretty funny, although not nearly as menacing as the mayor or Glory. They do have some tremendous lines like “episode one bad?” But really, their villainy is trumped by none other than the best friend. In the middle of this season Buffy herself struggles with Nihilism, and a career in fast food. But Willow… Her magic addiction threatens to destroy her relationship, her life, and ultimately the world. Lots of other stuff is self destructing here. Giles leaves, Dawn suffers teen angst, Anya and Xander implode, and Buffy turns to down and dirty sex to validate her dark self. This is good stuff, almost too dark.

Nearing the end we have the very emotional “Seeing Red,” and then the high speed tripple whammy of Willow’s vengeful meltdown. The end is good too, just not as deeply felt as “The Gift.”

If only season 7 could have stayed this good.

CONTINUED HERE IN PART 6.

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 3

CONTINUED FROM PART 2 ABOVE. And the whole series [12, 3, 4, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:


Season 3:

Everyone must have thought: With the little half-length first season, and such a strong second season, that Buffy season 3 was heading toward a huge sophomore slump. But no, this season is even better than the second. Several things contribute to this:

1. The writers learn to deepen the mythology. They bring back old characters in surprising ways. They take gimmicks that made previous episodes great, and reintroduce them with new twists that get even better. Through it the characters and dialog stay strong, the veneer of comedy and fantasy is used to toe into, and then later delve deep into places where TV was usually afraid to venture.

2. The “experimental” or more radically different episode is introduced.  These special episodes shake up the viewers preconceptions about the show. Many of these are written and directed by Whedon himself, and make up some of the best episodes of the series, culminating in Season 6’s “Once more with feeling.” Season 3 comes out of the gate this way with “Anne” (Buffy alone in LA), and continues with “The Zeppo” (told entirely from Xander‘s perspective), and “The Wish” and “Doppelgangland” (where an alternate version of the town and characters are explored). These introduce vampire Willow, who heralds some of the long term changes in store. Willow: “It’s horrible! That’s me as a vampire? I’m so evil and…skanky. And I think I’m kinda gay.”

3. The main series arcs become more integrated with each of the shows. We get the best darkly comic villain of the whole series, the sinister “Mayor.” The arcing becomes so sophisticated that even the most standalone episodes have important changes affecting the relationships of the characters. We meet bad-girl Faith, who provides delicious counterpoint to Buffy’s honor-bound sense of duty — not to mention introducing sexy newcomer Eliza Dushku. Her presence, twisting as it does across the entire season and winding together with the overall villain arc helps stich the entire season together. The result is very few episodes that feel standalone, as even those with a monster of the week are moving forward the relationships between the characters.

4. Sub arcing involving character relationships, notably the love lives of Xander, Willow, Cordelia, Oz etc. proceeds fast and furiously.

 

Season 4:

This season could have sunk the show, as High School shows often fail after graduation. It’s stil a transitional season,  but it accurately reflects many details of college life (adapted to the Buffyverse). The show’s formula is mildly upset by the change. The relationship of the Scooby Gang (the main gang of friends) and mentor Giles teeters — enough that by season five, college will be downplayed and a new equilibrium established around the magic shoppe as headquarters.

Additionally, the main villain of the season is the weakest of the series, involving a government/army conspiracy and a frankenstein-come-terminator monster. Still, the great writing holds everything together through the change.

Many classic elements of a High Schooler’s transition to college are parodied successfully: college jitters, bad roommates, one night stands, over-drinking, fraternities, four-year lesbians, etc. The show keeps us engaged by continuing the ever evolving relationships. Willow and Oz explode, and she goes gay. Xander finds love with an ex-demon. Buffy has her only healthy relationship of the entire show. Spike, the popular villain from season two makes a return and begins a long an amazing transformation that is pretty much a Whedon halmark, where villains can become heros and heros villains.

The tradition of special episodes also continues with the groundbreaking “Hush,” the extraordinarily creative “Superstar,” and the oddball “Restless.” In “Superstar” for example a relatively minor (at this point) reoccurring character from the past literarily takes over the show. This extends to a meta level, involving the creation of a new custom title sequence just for the episode. There is a radical creativity here, a willingness to experiment and play with even the container and format of TV itself.

CONTINUE WITH PART 4 HERE.

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 2

CONTINUING FROM PART 1 ABOVE. And the whole series [1, 2, 34, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Buffy

 

Season 1:

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.”

Xander: Well, uh, maybe I’ll see you around… maybe at school… since we… both… go there.
Buffy: Great! It was nice to meet you. [walks away]
or
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.

The Master: You’re dead.
Buffy: I may be dead, but I’m still pretty. Which is more than I can say for you.
The Master: You were destined to die! It was written!
Buffy: What can I say? I flunked the written.

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.

 

Season 2:

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.

CONTINUED IN PART 3, CLICK HERE…

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 1

Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Creator: Joss Whedon

Genre: Comedic Teen Contemporary Fantasy

Watched: Winter 2004-05, Summer 2009, Winter 2010-11

Summary: Best TV show of all time.

 

As a diehard vampire fan I saw the movie version of Buffy when it came out. I hated it so much I used to mock it as my pre Twilight example of lame vampires. I have this requirement that vampires need to be menacing, even if comic (Fright Night) or romantic (Interview with the Vampire). The Buffy movie undead were just flaccid.

When the TV show debuted, I was in the midst of the busiest year of my life, the year of Crash Bandicoot 2, when I was in the office every single day (7 days a week) between New Years and September 8th. Besides, the movie had been dumb. So the show even became a punching bag of mine (although I hadn’t seen it at the time) used to illustrate Hollywood’s creative drought: Hey, they’d made a show based on a terrible movie that hadn’t even made much money.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Finally, in November of 2004, after having “retired” from Naughty Dog, my wife having insisted for years that the show was good, I succumbed and ordered the first season on DVD. Thus began an obsessive binge where I watched all seven seasons, plus five of Angel, back to back over the next three months. Generally I consumed three or more a day, including watching 18 episodes of season 3 in one continuous sitting (home Sunday with a cold). My only breaks were the week back east for Thanksgiving and three weeks we spent in Sicily (yum!). Four and a half years later I re-watched all seven Buffy seasons during the summer of 2009. It was almost as good the second time, and I appreciated it more.

Despite a significant cheese factor, and a first season that suffers from being overly episodic, the show is absolutely brilliant. If you aren’t a fan you probably think, “Buffy has these weird obsessive fans, but that kind of thing isn’t for me.”

It is.

I’ve never met anyone who’s sat down and started watching from the beginning who doesn’t absolutely love the show. But that’s just it, you have to start from the beginning. Fundamentally the show blends fantastic writing, really funny dialog, off-beat but likable characters, zany and intricate mythology, a creativity with the TV medium, and quirky humor with a kind of hidden dark realism found in only the best dramas. By disguising drama with humor and the supernatural the writers are able to get at real human issues without freaking out the network, and because they’ve created characters we care about, it all works.

The casting too is inspired. Sarah Michelle Gellar is perfect as Buffy. She may be cute, blonde, and perky, but she isn’t a typical airhead. She combines practical cleverness, toughness, and hidden vulnerability, with a strong sense of duty. Fundamentally the show is about the weight that rests on her narrow shoulders, and what it takes to bear it. The rest of the core team is great too. Alyson Hannigan‘s Willow is every geek’s fantasy, the shy computer nerd who learns to kick ass, Nicholas Brendon‘s Xander provides the token maleness with more humor than testosterone, and Anthony Stewart Head‘s Giles is pitch perfect as the stuffy older advisor with a dark past.

But it’s not just the premise that makes this show rock, but what the writers do with it. I’ll explain when I CONTINUE IN PART 2…

The whole post series [1, 2, 34, 5, 6]