Buffy: Season 1, revisited

Those of you who have become regular readers of The Reinvigorated Programmer but who don’t watch Joss Whedon’s show Buffy the Vampire Slayer will probably be inclined to skip over this article. Don’t do that! I hope to show you that Buffy has depths that you’re probably not aware of, and maybe to introduce you to a TV programme that you’ll not only enjoy over the next few months, but also add to your cultural tapestry.  Buffy is very, very good, and I missed it for a long while because I thought it sounded dumb and fluffy and insubstantial.  My bad.  Don’t make the same mistake I did.

So far, I’ve seen the first four season of Buffy (plus the first of its spin-off Angel).  A wiser man would hang back on the reviewing until he’d seen all seven seasons, but that’s not how we run this blog.  (I will ask you, though, to avoid spoilers in the comments; and I in turn will try to avoid them in the article as far as possible.)

For reasons that seemed to make some kind of sense at the time, I decided to go back and watch Season 1 before progressing to Seasons 5-7.  I wanted to look back at those early episodes with a different perspective from what I had the first time around.  I’m glad I did: it’s an enlightening process, and it’s helping me understand more of why I like Buffy so much.

It’s widely considered that Buffy didn’t really hit its stride until Season 2, and I think my Season 1 review upholds that conventional wisdom.  There’s already a lot to like by half way through the first season, but hindsight shows that it was casting about for its idiom in the earliest episodes. By episode 12 (the last in the season, which is half the length of the subsequent seasons), the character of the show has already drifted a long way from its debut, and gone a long way to becoming the show we love from Season 2 onwards.

What’s it all about?

I suppose I should include a brief synopsis for the two or three of you who have not heard of Buffy.  The title character Buffy Summers (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a high-school girl (at least for the first three seasons, after which she goes to college).  She starts the series aged sixteen, and is about as frivolous as you’d expect.  She lives in Sunnydale, Southern California, with her mother (Dad lives in Los Angeles).  In addition to her everyday life, she is also The Slayer, the one girl in all the world with the power to fight vampires, demons, and the rest of the bestiary.  She’s strong, fast, heals well, etc.  So she has a heavy responsibility, and it doesn’t sit well with the typical teen lifestyle.

That’s it — that’s the High Concept at the heart of the show, and I think that the original intention was to play it primarily as a comedy.  One moment Buffy is auditioning at the cheerleader tryouts, the next she’s fighting vampires — ha ha ha, how incongruous!  She is nearly electrocuted, then worries about how her hair looks — ho ho ho, what a contrast!  To be fair, it’s a good joke; but there is only one of it, and any one-joke comedy is going to get old pretty quickly.

So of course having established this very marketable concept, the show is actually pretty quick to discard it.  The oh-she’s-a-cheerleader-oh-she’s-a-slayer vibe is strong in the opening pair of episodes, but quickly fades into the background, so that by the time the electrocution/hair joke crops up in Episode 8, it’s actually rather jarring (though delivered well enough to be funny).  The incongruity trope does continue to make the occasional appearance throughout Seasons 2-4, but it’s downplayed: aside from the Struggle Against Evil, what the show is really about turns out to be Buffy’s friends.  (I almost want to say “Buffy’s relationships”, but that makes it sounds like a soap-opera, which it decidedly is not.)

(Soon I’m going to watch the much-derided Buffy movie that was made a couple of years before the show started: I bet that is pretty much entirely played as comedy.  BTW., no-one approaching Buffy for the first time should start with this movie, which by common consent has little to do with the TV series.)

Xander, Willow, Giles

Aside from Buffy herself, the core cast is made up of (from left to right in the back row of this picture) Buffy’s school-friends Xander and Willow, and the school librarian Rupert Giles, who is also Buffy’s Watcher — the guy who has the necessary training and knowledge to guide Buffy in her role as Slayer.  It’s interesting to see how quickly things change between the three kids in this group: early episodes have a classic love-triangle thing going on: Xander fancies Buffy, who Just Doesn’t Think Of Him That Way; Willow Fancies Xander, who etc.  Like the oh-that’s-incongruous-ha-ha-ha trick, this relationship schema is quietly abandoned pretty early on — Joss Whedon evidently recognised quickly that it was too stereotypical to have legs.  (It’s dealt with, very humanely and touchingly, in the last episode of the season — and then it’s done.)

Instead, Buffy, Xander and Willow (and, to a lesser extent, Giles) quickly settle into a friendship.  It’s hard to explain what a profound thing that is to anyone who’s not seen the show: it is, simply, a deep, unfeigned affection for each other — a thing that is not in itself dramatic, but that provides a backdrop of stability against which all the weird stuff can happen, and seem all the weirder for it.  It’s surprisingly rare to see believable portraits of friendship in films and TV — it’s the most overlooked and underrated of relationships, and whatever the relationships in Friends were, they weren’t friendship.  And yet it’s such a very important thing.  The Buffy-Xander-Willow friendship is so solid that on the few occasions that it is threatened (especially in Season 1 Episode 6, and towards the end of Season 4), it feels like a violation.  When Xander is cruel to Willow, even as early as that sixth episode, it is genuinely disturbing.

And that, in part, is a tribute to how very likeable the show has made these three characters.  I know that the word “likeable” is weak sauce — Word Inflation means that we’re all supposed to aim for Turbo Verbs and suchlike in our writing, but no thanks.  When “likeable” is the right word, I’ll stick with it.  Note that by this I don’t just mean a weaker form of “lovable” but something qualitatively different.  I like these people.  These are people I would like to have a drink with (or at least I would if I were 20 years younger; or, rather, given the California liquor-licensing laws, if they were 20 years older).  I want things to work out for them.  I want them to be happy.  I felt distraught for Willow when she found out in Episode 8 that her Internet boyfriend was not what he seemed.  The forced laughter between the three friends at the end of that episode was very poignant — and funny at the same time.  That’s only possible because the show has made me like the principals so much.

Again, if this seems like a small thing, consider how different it is from The Dreadful Torchwood: Owen is contemptible, Captain Jack is a child, Gwen is weak, Ianto is a cipher — by the end of Season 1, I was actively rooting for the Giant Rift Kaiju Thing to kill ‘em all.  (but as it turned out, it was defeated by Captain Jack’s Can-Never-Be-Killed superpower — funny how useful that turned out to be, who’d have guessed?  Apologies to the spoiler for anyone who didn’t see that coming.)

Bad Guys

Season One’s main bad guy (or the Big Bad, as they are known in Buffy-world) is frankly not very interesting: a vampire known as The Master who is imprisoned underground until the last episode.  From Season Two onwards, the bad guys become a lot more interesting — funnier, but also more menacing.  Part of the payoff for this change is that when the incongruity between Buffy’s two lives is drawn out, it’s not played for laughs any more, but represents a harrowing weight of responsibility that is completely inappropriate for someone at her stage in life.  Like many aspects of the second and subsequent seasons, this is first seen towards the end of Season One, and specifically in the final episode.  I’ve written before about the quietness of her courage as she goes to face the Master, knowing that her death is prophecied.  One of the last things she does before going to meet him is to comfort Willow, who is scared of recent developments but has no idea what lies in store for Buffy.  It’s heartbreaking to watch Buffy take the parental role towards Willow, shielding her even then from painful knowledge, and simultaneously steeling herself for the confrontation ahead.

This only works because Gellar is a frankly sensational actor.  The writing is very sharp and witty, and the supporting cast are all very good (though all three of them are to some extent stereotypes, so that little subtlety is required of them), but Gellar is several dozen orders of magnitude beyond them, and qualifies as one of the most perfect pieces of casting ever.  To be blunt, Buffy is Gellar’s show (which is why the recent talk of making a new version without her is not so much offensive as it is meaningless).  She can say a whole world without even opening her mouth, conveying rich cocktails of conflicting emotions.  Yet this is done with a light touch — it’s never Academy Award Clip acting, never acting-for-the-sake-of-acting.  It’s always done in the service of the story that the show is telling.  In that sense it’s deliberately unspectacular — like a great guitarist who plays precisely the right solo, the one that the song needs, rather than the one that will show off his guitar-hero moves.  (It astonishes me that Gellar is not getting more and better film work.)

The bottom line, and I know this is going to sound weird, is that Buffy is realistic.

Yes, I know that the premise is wildly unrealistic.  But if there was a sixteen-year-old girl with superpowers whose destiny was to fight vampires and demons, and whose best friends were a couple of nerds and a middle-aged librarian, then it would be just like it’s portrayed in Buffy.

So: go and watch Buffy.  Although I’ve written about Season One, it should be clear from what I’ve said that Season Two is a better place to start for most people.  (Also, the Season Two box set [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk] is better value than Season One, because there are twice as many episodes.)  I’ve deliberately said nothing about the important developments in Season Two, so as to avoid spoilage.

Enjoy!

Epilogue

Note that Buffy’s binary search code is provably correct.  She is one talented girl.

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33 responses to “Buffy: Season 1, revisited

  1. The director’s name is Josh Whedon, not Josh Wheden. Just saying…

    (I like to think you weren’t expecting the same kind of high-brow comments you often get in your programming articles, so I don’t have to feel bad about posting this.)

    [Mike: fixed now, thanks.]

  2. … It also had a kick-ass theme tune!

    I used to watch this in primary school / secondary school. Buffy was hot — that got me hooked as a kid, the stories kept me watching as an early teen, and later on during high school I watched it for Whedon’s humour (remember the episode where they all wake up without memories?) which is the same as in Firefly, which I loved for its humour.

    I laughed through this whole post; that someone would actually go and make a blog about it. I think most nerds and geeks, in fact, pretty much everyone had a soft spot for Buffy The Vampire Slayer. (Buffy the movie was really bad.)

  3. The movie was great. Rutger Hauer, Pee Wee Herman, Luke Perry, Donald Sutherland and a generic blonde who gets PMS and stabs people in the heart: what’s not to like?

    Not that I’d *ever* watch series: grown men getting into and blogging about shows about high school/college girls is just, well, it’s creepy.

    Go watch /Firefly/ instead, and rightly bemoan the fate of great SF.

  4. Best. Show. Ever.

    Well that might be overstating it a bit. Slight hyperbole aside, the show earns the statement :)

    I avoided the show for all the silly reasons people do and ended catching up during the time between the 6th and 7th seasons. Big mistake. Got into it just in time for it to end.

    Good luck with the later seasons. My experience was that the show just “lost something” post 4th season. I tend to blame it on influence from Angel leaking into Buffy where it didn’t belong.

  5. JokeyRhyme

    This is my favourite show of all time, and I can’t watch it without Angel (also very very good).

    My favourite season would have to be season 5. The story arch is probably the most intricately woven of all seven. Season 3 is definitely close, and for many people is probably going to be the best.

    Season 7 has it’s moments, but most of the core actors just seem tired all the way through it, and the plot (while pivotal) doesn’t make alot of sense.

    Something I find amusing is how little I care about Buffy in comparison to her supporting characters. Her friends are definitely what makes this show amazing.

    A small curiosity is that the blooper reels are completely void of Sarah Michelle Gellar. Either she is even more amazing an actor than you say, or maybe her lawyers are over-protective?

  6. I agree with perceptive Ron. Grown men who watch a show featuring teenage girls are probably paedophiles. I’ve never watched it of course, so I feel qualified to comment. It does seem to fit into the fantasy/sci-fi genres so its odd that I would want in the same breath to both condemn it and suggest we should support these sort of genres, especially when well written by that Whedon fellow. But I’m odd like that. Oh look I’ve pissed myself again. Nurse!

  7. I’m sort of speechless. This may be the most inept review of BtVS that I’ve ever read. I can’t even begin to address 99% of the outrageous things you say, so I’ll call you on the most obvious. The Scooby Gang? “…little subtlety is required of them…”? You’re either not watching the same show or you’re completely unable to read human emotions. Anthony Stewart Head, Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter carry their roles with a mastery of their craft that very few others in television can claim. Eliza Dushku? James Marsters? You are ridiculous. You’ve watched season 1 twice and seasons 2 through 4 one time and you seriously think you have something to say about this show? If you want to have a serious conversation about BtVS watch the shows a few more times and then look me up. Until then…shush yourself.

  8. It’s actually *Joss* Whedon, not Josh.

    There are things to like about Buffy, but it sure is chock full of misandry.

  9. Tryst asserts:

    You’re either not watching the same show or you’re completely unable to read human emotions. Anthony Stewart Head, Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter carry their roles with a mastery of their craft that very few others in television can claim. Eliza Dushku?”

    Head and Hannighan both handle their roles well, as very clearly stated in the article (“the supporting cast are all very good”). Still, both characters are essentially sterotypes — Willow the shy but likeable nerd and Giles the socially inept but likeable librarian. The actors do their jobs well; but the jobs are much less demanding than Gellar’s.

    As for Charisma Carpenter: she is not without her assets, but you’re surely not going to tell me she is strong on subtlety? When I watch her act, I do not see “a mastery of the craft that few others in television can claim”; frankly, I think that notion is pretty insulting to actual actors. She does, however, have a truly dazzling smile.

    Eliza Dushku? Pretty good; but every time she and Buffy are on the screen together, the gulf in class approaches embarrassing.

    You’ve watched season 1 twice and seasons 2 through 4 one time and you seriously think you have something to say about this show? If you want to have a serious conversation about BtVS watch the shows a few more times and then look me up. Until then…shush yourself.

    Well, I’ll be more than happy to read your own review, to see how it should be done. What’s the URL?

  10. Sam says:

    There are things to like about Buffy, but it sure is chock full of misandry.

    Misandry (pronounced /mɪˈsændri/) is hatred (or contempt) of men or boys. (Wikipedia definition.)

    Hmm, I don’t really see that in Buffy. Care to elaborate?

  11. Thanks, Nix for some interesting comments. I particularly like the way you give me tasters of what’s to come without spoilers :-)

    The Buffy/Xander/Willow friendship is fairly solid, but not that close, not after s2. They drift apart more and more as the seasons go by, not helped by Buffy’s understandable problem with trust, Willow’s control-freakery and viciously unethical argumentative strategies, and Xander’s abiding moral weaknesses.

    There’s something in what you say. Still, although their circumstances have changed — especially with Xander not being at college with the other two — there still seems to be something very firm about the friendship as of Season 5 Episode 3. I’d say that the details have changed but the foundation hasn’t. Still, you know what’s coming and I don’t.

    This only works because Gellar is a frankly sensational actor.

    Oh, do you have a huge treat coming with s5. Really. In a few episodes in there her acting is simply incandescent.

    Thank you, I am really pleased to hear this — so far, our impressions of Season 5 have not been favourable. It’s great to know that good stuff lies ahead.

    Gellar is several dozen orders of magnitude beyond them

    What, beyond Marsters or Head, who were both seasoned actors long before BtVS ever existed? Hardly. She’s good, but she’s not that good.

    Head may be an equally good actor — I’ve not seen him in enough things to know. But his role in Buffy is constrained in such a way that if he has those chops, he’s not able to show them. That said, he was excellent as the Krillitane headmaster in Doctor Who 2:3 (School Reunion), and I admit I liked the idea of him as The Eleventh Doctor back when that was one of the possibilities floating around. But I stand by what I said in the article: based on performanced in Buffy and nothing else, Gellar stands far ahead of him. (I am prepared to admit that “several dozen orders of magnitude” may have been slight hyperbole.)

    As for James Marsters … I deliberately didn’t mention him, because I was restricting myself to Season 1. But I do agree that he, and he alone among the cast, is an actor on the same level as Gellar. He is magnetic: every scene he is in goes up a level from his sheer presence. (It doesn’t hurt that his character is so well written, too.) I think that he is the main reason that that Season 2 is so much better than Season 1 — Buffy finally has a foil who is worthy of her. If Angel is Buffy’s Duncan Kane, then Spike is her Logan Echolls.

    In fact, James Marsters is the one and only reason that I am going to make a Long Overdue Serious Attempt on Torchwood Season 2, even after the utter train-wreck that was Season 1. Heaven knows, it’s not because of Captain Jack or Gwen Cooper.

  12. Mike: They don’t stay stereotypes. Really not. This is where they start their growth from. Look at Willow in s6. Same person? Yes. Character growth? Just a tiny little bit. I also don’t know how you can look at _Doppelgangland_ and describe what Hannigan did there as undemanding, given that she was playing four different parts (if you consider that the two people she was playing each spent some time trying to act like each other in notably incompetent fashion).

    (Also, reviewing the series without having watched at *least* through s6 is probably a mistake: there are thematic reflections and foreshadowings that reach at least that far forward. Hell, you’re reviewing it and you probably haven’t even seen _Restless_ yet, let alone season 5, which has as many as four of the most awe-inspiringly good episodes I’ve ever seen on TV. I think you’re jumping the gun *just* a little here.)

  13. the original intention was to play it primarily as a comedy

    Word of God has it that this is precisely what Whedon hated about the movie. BtVS has comedic elements, surely (especially the dialogue), but later in the series it gets very dark. Mike Marinaro over on criticallytouched.com has classified the BtVS episodes into three ‘acts’. You have seen Act I and about two thirds of Act II. Act III is where it really gets dark, and where a lot of us think it really gets good. It’s also where the humour starts to cut deep, because it’s playing out against such a dark backdrop.

    The Buffy/Xander/Willow friendship is fairly solid, but not that close, not after s2. They drift apart more and more as the seasons go by, not helped by Buffy’s understandable problem with trust, Willow’s control-freakery and viciously unethical argumentative strategies, and Xander’s abiding moral weaknesses.

    This only works because Gellar is a frankly sensational actor.

    Oh, do you have a huge treat coming with s5. Really. In a few episodes in there her acting is simply incandescent.

    Gellar is several dozen orders of magnitude beyond them

    What, beyond Marsters or Head, who were both seasoned actors long before BtVS ever existed? Hardly. She’s good, but she’s not that good. (I’d agree that Dushku is not as strong as the rest.)

    Grown men who watch a show featuring teenage girls are probably paedophiles.

    Er, the “teenagers'” ages at series initation varied between eighteen and twenty-five. Sorry to burst your bubble, but they don’t really use people below the age of eighteen in shows like this unless they have to: the constraints on how they can be used and how much time they can spend on it are too severe.

  14. Charisma Carpenter is a bad actress. Her lines come out with as much ease as water from a rock. Gellar isn’t that great, but she did get better. The Xander character was so stereotypical and far too weak for far too long (by human standards) that it reeked of intentional script tweaking to not overshadow the female characters. Spike was good at times and borderline super emo wimp at others. Giles was ok. I really like Alyson Hannigan. Thought her part was really badly written at times (you haven’t seen the worst of it yet, brace for it.). Sometimes it was great.

    Yet I really liked the show. Because there were always gems in the rough. I could never rewatch it though. Still, I consider it one of the best series I’ve ever watched. One of the later seasons was especially good. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal which one.

  15. Joss Whedon is often described as being a bigger feminist than any female feminists. :) You’ll often feel this influence his works (especially Buffy season 7), but it’s mostly for the better.

    Charisma Carpenter was obviously distracted by her real life condition during Angel season 4, which is definitely the low point of her performances. However, at all other times she practically radiant. Effulgent, even. :P

  16. Nathan Myers

    Hey, you promised this would be interesting! Well, fool me once.

  17. There are different ways of being a good actor. Some actors have had a great career with basically one character that they play very well, over and over again. (Clint Eastwood comes to mind.) Some other actors are revered for their range and ability to do a variety of different things.

    Gellar was just terrific as Buffy, but I’m not convinced that she can do anything else as well. Her post-Buffy performances in The Grudge and the execrable Southland Tales were not great. I haven’t seen Scooby-Doo.

    I think that Alyson Hannigan is the better actress or at least is more versatile. If nothing else, Hannigan has better taste in projects, e.g. How I Met Your Mother.

  18. Mike; 5×5 _No Place Like Home_ is where s5 reaches for the stratosphere. It never looks back.

    Vorlath: The Xander character is *normal*. The female characters are just, mostly, supercharged.

    I guess from your later comments that you don’t like the end of s6? The stuff happening there (but not the drugs metaphor in the middle of the season, ick) was visible in her character right back in _Halloween_ in early s2, and certainly by s4.

  19. You’re reviewing Season 1 without having watched Season 5? How dare you!

    Heaven forbid we write reviews on, y’know, the things we say we’re writing reviews on. If Season 5 changes your perspective of Season 1, then that should be noted as an attribute of Season 5 imo.

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  21. Nix wrote : “Er, the “teenagers’” ages at series initation varied between eighteen and twenty-five. Sorry to burst your bubble, but they don’t really use people below the age of eighteen in shows like this…” – um, yes, I know! I was taking the mick out of Ron’s earlier post. Employing sledge-hammer-subtle irony. Wait…. are you all American? ;-)

  22. I know Gellar and a number of the other actors came out of the soap opera world. If nothing else, one gets to do a lot of acting in the soaps what with five episodes a week. It’s almost like the old Hollywood where one could play in dozens of movies a year and actually get good and better at it.

    I saw the movie when it came out on VHS. It was excretable. That’s one step down from execrable. I didn’t start watching the show until the middle of the first season, and what impressed me was the way the show used high school anxiety tropes, basically after school special stuff, and worked them into the big battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. This was especially common in the first season. The “swimming team is turned into lagoon beasts” episode was a particularly good example.

  23. Will no one mention Emma caulfield as Anya? You haven’t gotten to her yet, and many would perhaps brush off her character as inconsequential, but she acts with incredible subtlety at times. And I don’t even truly like her character!

  24. Courtney,

    I do think Emma Caulfield’s performances can be excellent (although like Willow, Xander and others, her character is much less layered than Buffy’s, so the role makes fewer demands). But my review was specifically of Season One, and Anya of course doesn’t turn up until well into Season 3 (and even then is nothing like the character we know by the end of the Season 4).

    I’ll get to her in time.

  25. What’s with the sushi picture above? :p

    I love Xander the most. He is the average typical guy who brings “normality” to the show. My opinion.

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