Talkin’ violence, strong language, adult content. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1
Alright, I know, crap title, because BtVS doesn’t even really have these things. It has strangely arch, balletic violence (you’ll have to go to Angel for some real bone-crunching), very smart, highly intelligent use of language, and an equally intelligent ongoing examination on the process of growing up from adolescence to adulthood. Conducted through the medium of vampires and other staples of the horror genre.
As some of you are no doubt aware, @purofilion is currently working her way through Buffy for the first time and, consumed with envy, I’ve decided to join her, only this time this is my first rewatch in maybe seven or eight years. And it’s been highly enjoyable. What follows below is a personal reaction to the first two seasons, for the sake of kickstarting a general discussion of those seasons for whoever might be interested, while remaining spoiler free of anything that happens beyond that. I’d ask any discussion below to respect that, as well as consider anything happening in any season of Angel to be similarly off-limits.
I’m not going to go too much into the often quite interesting and well-documented behind-the-scenes to-ing and fro-ing of the show. It’s all quite easy to find on the interwebs. But the original concept of ‘Rhonda the Immortal Waitress’ (soon to be renamed the more memorable Buffy) became a so-so but not awful movie starring Kristy Swanson, although ‘creative differences’ with both the Kazuis and Donald Sutherland’s take on Merrick the Watcher led to Joss Whedon walking away and largely disowning it. That would have been that had the WB not needed a mid-season replacement for failed Aaron Spelling drama Savannah.
So, what we get to start with is essentially half a season that I’d argue that takes almost its entire duration to really find its feet and its full confidence. Some shows really hit the ground running — Firefly and perhaps the Who reboot being good examples — while some take their time to find themselves. It’s a depressing state of affairs that it’s becoming harder and harder to find networks that will allow shows this kind of evolution time, which is why we’re constantly seeing shows being canned and then revived further down the line. Appropriately for a show that’s all about the maturation process, Buffy had that luxury. But I’d argue that there’s a lot of evidence that with the exception of Whedon himself, many of the writers were still not sure what the show was, where it was going.
But it did have a strong start. And that helps. Welcome to the Hellmouth starts with that classic horror movie trope, the jock and high schoolgirl in mid transgression before turning it completely on its head. It also introduces us to the idea that the line between People and Monsters is often not that easy to find sometimes. It’s almost like a mission statement for the entire show.
But Welcome to the Hellmouth and its conclusion The Harvest, like all pilots, are largely about set-up and introducing the cast. And this was where BtVS was particularly blessed. Sarah Michelle Gellar (who originally auditioned as Cordelia but instead got offered the lead) is fantastic, as are all the regulars. It’s hard to single out any one for particular praise, so I’ll leave that for episodes in which they clearly shine but just add that one of the things that boosted the pilot is the quirky take on Giles that Antony Stewart Head brought with him. In his commentary, Joss commented on how all the other actors who read for Giles were very straight down the line, patrician and dull, but ASH brought something unique to the part. And it shows right from the off. (As an aside, it’s always well worth checking out any commentary done by Whedon on any episode. Not only are they highly informative about the show, they also provide what essentially amount to a free course in TV screenwriting and directing.)
The other thing I’d highlight about the first two episodes is that Mark Metcalfe did amazing work as The Master. No relation to our Master, of course, although it has always struck me that if the Deadly Assassin-era Master had been played like this, he would have seemed like a more credible continuation of the Delgado character, instead of the bland generic villain we got. But rather than playing a straight Nosferatu-type, Metcalfe brought a humorous, sarcastic edge to character that if anything made him more scary, again served as a mission statement for subsequent Big Bads in the show, as well as influencing just about every other genre show since. There was just no going back to ‘mwah hah hah. insert joyless, unconvincing megalomania here’.
The Witch is interesting in a ‘not just about vampires’ kind of way but isn’t massively memorable. It does serve to illustrate the ongoing tension between Buffy’s desire for a normal life and her Slayer life however. Plus it introduces Amy.
Teacher’s Pet is similarly fun but forgettable. Good for deepening Xander’s character and I loved the writing of Dr Gregory’s character. A key strength of Buffy is that there are very few characters, even their equivalent of the ‘red shirts’ who don’t get some decent development.
Never Kill A Boy On A First Date is much more of an arc story. More on the Master, more on Angel. More on the Anointed One. Probably a good time to talk a little about Angel. In terms of acting in the first season, David Boreanaz is the weak link, almost as if he’s still learning as he goes along. His take on Angel is still less than convincing here and I don’t think he really has the character nailed until Season 3 really.
The Pack is another one I don’t really love and fastforwarded through chunks of it on my rewatch. Nick Brendon does good work here though, taking Xander to some darker places. And we do get rid of the going-nowhere character of Prinicipal Flutie for the far more satisfying Snyder. It also hits upon one of the show’s writers nuclear options — Make Willow Cry. This will be used to devastating effect in later stories.
Angel is the first key episode we see in the show’s mythology. The start of the Bangel arc and cementing Darla’s place as a key figure in the show’s history.
I Robot, You Jane takes us back into a run of more self-contained ‘monster of the week’ episodes but I’m singling it out because it a) introduces Jenny Calendar and b) contains Giles’s great ‘books should be smelly’ speech.
The Puppet Show/Nightmares/Out of Mind,Out of Sight are all again standalones but all with some really nice moments. I loved seeing Buffy as a vamp, Willow’s operatic nightmare and the Scooby’s take on Greek drama. Out of Mind is also nice because it develops Cordelia beyond being the cartoon bee-atch and emphasises that she’s a Scooby in her own right, even though she really doesn’t want to be.
But I’d say that it’s not until Prophecy Girl, the season finale that the show really finds its feet. This is where all the elements hinted at in the previous episodes come together and we see the show that we’ll recognise throughout subsequent seasons. Buffy effortlessly slaying vamps to the strain of the Nerf Herder theme, Angel putting on his game face for the final battle, Giles breaking his own Watcher’s code because of his love for his Slayer, Xander’s sheer ordinariness bringing Buffy back from the dead, Buffy’s smart putdown of the Master (‘you have fruit-punch mouth’) and all the Scoobies working together to beat the apocalypse. Even Cordelia. This is where Buffy finds itself and it’s pretty bloody glorious.
(Right, that’s it for season one. Feel free to leave your own thoughts below. Season Two to follow but don’t worry, I won’t trawl through every episode but go for a more edited highlights kind of thing.)