Rewatching Buffy: Season Five

Season five of Buffy is my second favorite, behind the third season.  It's more consistent than seasons two or four, but the overall story arc (and the main villain) pale in comparison to season three.

Dawn Finally Arrives/Origins of the Slayer

This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I liked the addition of Dawn to the cast.  Giving Buffy a sister changed the dynamic of the show in a positive way.  In some ways, it could have been seen as desperate, as the show spent all of season four floundering around, looking for a direction.  And perhaps that's why this season works for me -- from the first episode, it's about something.  There's a level of cohesion across all 22 episodes that we hadn't seen since season three, and season five actually does it better.

The cohesion comes from Buffy digging into the origins of the Slayer, something that was hinted at in the season four finale.  This show has always worked best when it embraced its mythology, but it often seemed to shy away from that, perhaps as a way to gain new viewers.  But staying on the surface is why season four (and season six) were so hard to enjoy.  The drama was manufactured, which was all the more frustrating when avenues for organic drama were available.

Dawn was sent to Buffy because she's the Slayer (side bar: technically speaking, she should have been sent to Faith, but I guess the monks did their research before assigning the Key to a protector).  It has nothing to do with who Buffy is, it has to do with her lineage.  In one, simple move, they've expanded Buffy's role beyond the city limits of Sunnydale.  She has a larger part to play in the world, and this season goes along way towards making that clear.  High school is over Buffy; it's time to grow-up.

Thanks to a shockingly well written premiere featuring Dracula, Buffy becomes motivated to find out what she is even before Dawn is introduced.  And with Buffy's new found enthusiasm for being a Slayer comes new found motivation for Giles, who spent all of last season as something of a hanger-on.

Speaking of hanger-ons, this season actually manages to accomplish the nigh impossible task of making Spike relevant and, better yet, making his continued existence seem less unbearably stupid.  Giles can provide Buffy with all the information in the world, but what she needs are details from someone who actually lived it.  Spike telling Buffy about the two Slayers he's killed was some of the best stuff of the season.

Granted, that also forces us to ignore the fact that Spike, who has killed two Slayers, should have been dusted by now, but we do what we can.

The Scooby Gang

The introduction of the idea that Spike is in love with Buffy actually works initially because it's a response to his inability to kill her.  He's obsessed, and since he can no longer express that obsession through violence, it twists into a perverted love.  It's nicely done and almost makes up for the last season of Spike, but it's sadly soon flipped into another mind numbing story line that is, thankfully for season five, fleshed out the most in season six.

Willow arguably receives the least screen time of the Scooby Gang, which is fine, as they are able to focus on her relationship with Tara and her dynamic with Xander and Anya more.  Willow coming out in season four was enough of a change that just dealing with that over the course of season five was enough.  They did a nice job of slowly showing her increasing power, too, without resorting to the stupidity coming next season.

Tara and Anya both get nice spotlights.  Both stories are rooted in the characters' pasts and both make good use of their connections within the Scooby Gang.  While Tara's episode was more emotional, Anya's ends up working better, if only because it captures the group dynamic better.

Xander finally gets the episode that we've been waiting for since he was introduced.  Honestly, Xander peaks in season five, which was great at the time, but unravels in the next season.  While he was adrift at sea all of last season, he comes into his own in season five, and suddenly he seems like the most stable member of the group.

Riley is all but largely destroyed in season five.  His story makes up much of what went wrong during this season.  He could have been an interesting addition to the group, particularly when placed at odds with Xander, but he was entirely defined by Buffy, and he wasn't going to survive like that.

In the End...

Despite all the positives, the cracks definitely begin to show during season five.  Perhaps because of the meandering nature of season four, the writers spend a lot of time placing the focus on Buffy even when it's unnatural.  Like it or not, there are times when Giles is more qualified to make decisions than Buffy.  It's not meant to be a slight against her, it's just that he's smarter and more experienced.  Giles is also willing to make hard choices that Buffy just won't.  This creeps up again in season seven.  I appreciate that Buffy's the titular character, but so was Angel on his show, and they were able to push him aside when it made sense.

As much as I loved the musical and a handful of episodes from season seven (like the premiere, "Him," and "Conversations with Dead People") it's hard not to feel like Buffy would have been better served by ending with season five.  Sure, we'd need an extra episode to wrap things up, but given how powerful the season five finale is, and how mediocre (at best) the final two seasons were, you have to wonder if they should have gone out on top.

Stand out episodes: The Body (top 5), the Gift (top 5), The Replacement, Fool For Love, Checkpoint

Rewatching Buffy: Season Four

It was the best of episodes, it was the worst of episodes.  It was Buffy: season four.

What can you say about a season that includes both Hush and Beer Bad?  That includes Restless and Where the Wild Things Are?

I have this theory that the writing staff on Buffy did not have typical childhoods.  My theory holds that they didn't have the same college experiences that most of us did, nor did they have the same twentysomething experiences that most of us had (it's easy to see in Whedon himself, as his background is fairly unique).  This made it very hard for them to tell "college" stories and, later, "twentysomething" stories.  This explains why season four is so hit and miss and why season six is so bad.

All that said, even the worst season can be saved by a qualified overarching storyline.  Season two is constantly referred to as being great, when the reality is that it's only great because of the main plot.  This, of course, is of no help to season four, as the big storyline is horrible on almost every level.

There's a common complaint that Buffy failed when the characters graduated, that the show was unable to expand beyond it's central metaphor of high school as hell.  I disagree.  I love season five.  I think the show's failure comes when it tries to expand beyond its borders.  The show is at its best when it's telling small stories.  The characters are the key.  No one is tuning into Buffy for the fight scenes -- no one.  They're tuning in to see what's going on with their favorite characters.

Season four attempted to expand the mythology, but did so without using a character as the focal point.  Yes, an argument can be made that Riley was that focal point, but Riley was a brand new character that no one ever had the chance to get to like.  Expanding the world by incorporating the Initiative and then making the only access character someone brand new to the show was a bad idea on almost every level.

Notice how the expanded mythology worked in season two -- because it all came through Angel, a character we knew.  To a certain extent, the same could be said for Faith in season three and, appropriately, Buffy in season five.

On the big character arc front, there's not much to write home about.  Obviously, the big one is Oz leaving and Willow dating Tara, but even by the end of the season that relationship is still too new to really appreciate.  It's easy to forget how groundbreaking it was when it originally aired, though, which makes it a pretty big deal.

Giles finally gets a girlfriend, or at least a friend with benefits and, hey, look, there's a non-white character on the show! Whedon often gets criticized for having a vanilla cast (as Mr. Trick says in season 3, "...strictly the Caucasian persuasion in the 'Dale.") which is underscored by an expanding cast that stays white. As the new additions are ultimately added as romantic interests, I have to wonder if the show ran into a road block with the network regarding interracial relationships.

The biggest development for the show is the evolution of the relationship between Xander and Anya and the eventual addition of Anya as a core cast member.  She's a fantastic character who is unique among the Scooby Gang.  It's something they never manage to achieve with Riley and something that takes more than a season to achieve with Tara.

And speaking of characters finding their role on the show, we come to perhaps the biggest problem: Spike.

Spike initially helping the group doesn't bother me.  After all, they appear to have a mutual enemy.  Given that, it doesn't seem strange that they'd keep him alive, let alone take care of him.  They need information.

But as soon as Buffy discovers that Riley is a part of the Initiative, Spike should be dust.  There's no reason for him to be kept alive.  At one point, he becomes suicidal and Willow intervenes.  Now, I appreciate that Willow is a kind, gentle soul, but let's think about all of the things Spike has done since he was introduced in season two, let alone the things he did before he came to Sunnydale.

It's absolutely insane that Spike is left alive.  Once you start forcing a show to change for the sake of a single character, you're in trouble.  It's less problematic in season five, but becomes intolerable again in season six.

I would love to say that season four worked as a metaphor for the transition some of us make the year after we graduate from high school, but it simply wasn't good enough.  There was transition there, for sure, but it came in the form of the writers not really having any idea what the show was about anymore.  They knew the characters well enough to write some funny bits, but they spent most of the season desperately searching for drama, and when they couldn't find it, they manufactured it in a way that was untrue to the show.

Still, by the end of the season they'd found their footing.  They managed to bring the gang back together while strengthening them.  The finale did an excellent job of setting up the fifth season, laying the groundwork that they so desperately needed for season four.

Rewatching Buffy: Season Three

As I mentioned in my review of season two, the bar was raised for this show heading into season three.  The question, then, is did the show manage to meet its new, lofty standard?

Well, yes, yes it did.

I wouldn't go so far as to say every single episode of this season is great, but none of them are horrible.  Sure, "Amends" is as melodramatic and heavy handed as anything we'd seen on Buffy up to that point, and every character during "Beauty and the Beasts" is willfully ignorant, but none of the episodes come close to the standard of badness that we saw in the first two seasons.  I would imagine this had to do with the solidifying of the writing team on the show -- every writer has at least 2 episodes over the course of this season.

Season three benefited from the addition of 3 notable characters (yes, 3): Faith, the Mayor, and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce.  Yeah, you probably think that third one is overstating, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Let's start with the Mayor, who is easily the best Big Bad the show ever sees.  He's the only Big Bad who gets set up the season before.  He's also payoff for the high school years, which could be perhaps more accurately described as the Sunnydale Years (later seasons may take place in Sunnydale, but they're not tied to the town the way the first 3 seasons are).  The Mayor represents an organic expansion of the show, one which is much smoother than further attempts in season 4.

And, let's face it, the Mayor is just flat out hilarious.  He's a wonderful change of pace from the melodrama of the Master and Drusilla (yes, I'm naming her the season two Big Bad, something that we'll get to again way down the line in season seven).  He's also the only legitimately funny Big Bad we'll see over the course of the show, not to mention the only Big Bad with a well thought out, long term plan.

The introduction of Faith adds so many layers to the show.  Aside from being a complicated character, Faith impacts every person.  They dynamic between her and Angel pays off over and over again when she shows up on his show.  She's also the most overt example of the "other" that becomes a running theme throughout Buffy.  Each character ends up with multiple versions of his or her self over the course of the show, from Xander literally being split it two, to Willow losing control, to Ethan Rayne and Wesley being reflections of a Giles that might have been.  It's a nice way to explore what makes the original character tick.

And, hey, Faith also kicks up the energy level of the show.  While Buffy wallows in any number of new depressions, Faith is constantly up.  She fulfills a hole on the show by embracing her supernatural role and luxuriating in it.  She's the manic half to Buffy's depressant.

This leaves us with Wesley.  How, you might be wondering, can I possibly consider Wesley a notable addition to the cast?  He doesn't do much but get in the way and act officious (and somewhat lecherous).

But Wesley is added to the show to replace Giles, who has been fired, and this is a brilliant move.  Basically, they have made Giles a member of the Scooby Gang.  He's no longer the establishment -- he's a rebel, just like the rest of them.  Firing Giles and bringing in what he was supposed to be like does a nice job of showing us just how different Giles is from the rest of the Watchers and, when push comes to shove, which side he'll choose.  Giles may be old enough to be their father, but firing him closes the gap between him and the others.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't point out how nice it was to have a season of Buffy where her mom knows she's the Slayer.  The secret identity business got tiresome in season two, and Joyce gets to show off some depth as she becomes involved in her daughter's life.

While there's room for debate about the quality of the show as a whole once it left the high school setting, there can't be any doubt that sending Angel (and Cordelia) off on their own was an excellent decision.  Angel was never going to grow as a character if he stayed on Buffy, and Cordelia's involvement with the group had become questionable at best.

All and all, in was a nice send off for the high school years, and the revamped core cast (minus Angel and Cordelia, plus Oz) made for plenty of potential for the next season.

Stand out episodes: Band Candy, Lovers Walk, The Zeppo, Dopplegangland, Earshot, and Graduation Day, both parts.

Rewatching Buffy: Season Two

I made a comment on Facebook the other day that people who say the best season of Buffy is season two must have stopped watching after season two.  Because, hey, it's much, much better than season one, but it's still being weighed down by a bunch of just horrible episodes.

Season two is known for its finale, and rightfully so.  Becoming parts 1 and 2 take the show to a new level.  It's scary the jump that the show makes for that two part finale.  It's as if, 32 episodes in, Joss Whedon and the writers realized the potential of Buffy.  It's is unquestionably a stunning change and worthy of all the praise that is heaped upon it.

But there were 20 episodes before it.

This season made the unfortunate mistake of doubling down on bad episodes.  Yes, a stinker here and there was understandable at this still relatively early stage, but during season two they seemed to come in pairs.  "Inca Mummy Girl" and "Reptile Boy" in back to back weeks is brutal.  "Ted" and "Bad Eggs" in back to back weeks is even worse.  I don't think I'd watched some of these episodes more than once before now, which is saying a lot.

The cast really starts to gel in this season.  Each character develops over the course of the season, although the continuation of Xander's infatuation with Buffy is pretty painful, particularly with regards to Angel.  The addition of Oz is great, both because of who he is and how he's introduced.  They do a really nice job of slowly working him into the show.

The actors really started coming into their own during season 2.

The actors really started coming into their own during season 2.

One of my favorite things about season two is the expansion on Giles' history.  We get a few glimpses into the life of the guy formerly know as Ripper and they add all sorts of depth to the character.  Giles' past also plays nicely off of the rest of the gang, particularly Buffy, who has been working under the assumption that Giles is a stuffy old man.  Giles clearly understands her better than she realizes.

The most glaring flaw in this season, aside from the horrible episodes scattered here and there, is the utter failure that is the curse on Angel.

I'm not against the idea of Angel having a curse on him, but the specifics of it are painfully stupid and completely at odds with ideas the show has gone to great lengths to explain.

From the very first episode, we're told that the vampire and the person whose body they've stolen are two very different people.  Once someone is turned, they're gone.  The curse on Angel actually underscores this, as the spell has to pull Angel's soul back from the ether to put it back into his body.

So Angel and Angelus are two separate people who just happen to share a body.  This is fact.  The gypsies clearly know this, too, given the spell.  They want to punish Angelus for killing their princess.  Okay, sounds good.  They trap him in Angel's body, unable to do anything but watch.  They basically stuck him in a human prison.  I'm on board so far.

Okay, so giving Angel all of Angelus' memories is a shitty thing to do to Angel, who had nothing to do with the things that Angelus did, but, hey, these gypsies are vengeful and they don't care about a little collateral damage.  And, hey, lucky for them, Angel decides he wants to do some good in the world, maybe in part to offset the bad that Angelus did.  So now not only is Angelus trapped, he has to watch as Angel does good deeds.  It's the perfect punishment for Angelus; he'll be tormented non-stop, particularly when Angel falls in love with a Slayer!

I am on board the gypsy curse train!  Aside from pissing all over Angel, this punishment they've created for Angelus seems like a winner.  You know what would be the ultimate torture for Angelus?  If Angel were happy!  That would be brutal.  Oh, it would be even worse if that happiness was because of the Slayer!  Just imagine how nuts Angelus must be going inside Angel.  It would kill him!

So, clearly, when this happens, he should be set free.

Wha-??

Angel having a moment of perfect happiness is the ultimate torture for Angelus, yet for some reason the curse sets him free when this happens. 

It makes no sense, no sense at all.

But, not unlike a lot of concepts on this show, they clearly made it up on the fly, and as the show progressed they had to make due.

Speaking of concepts that changed on the fly, I can't talk about season two without mentioning Spike and Drusilla.  It's hard to believe that they were originally only supposed to appear in a single episode, let alone that they were actually supposed to be from the South of America, not British.  That would suggest to me that they weren't supposed to have a connection to Angel in the beginning, either.  Sure, they botch a later storyline by having Spike call Angel his sire (when it's later revealed to be Dru), but see above: making things up on the fly.

Why a fence?

Why a fence?

For all the nonsense that surrounds Spike and Dru (Dru can get drama student obnoxious at points, and Spike is in a wheel chair how?), their connection to Angel pays big dividends.  They serve to flesh out who Angelus was, which is useful, given we only see him in the present and we really need to know what he was like for 200 years.

Sadly, Spike becomes problematic in later seasons, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

In the end, season two is a bridge season for Buffy, a bridge that leads to the show realizing its true potential and becoming something special.

Rewatching Buffy: Season One

In honor of Buffy's 20th anniversary, I'm posting the reviews I did of each season after the last time I binged the entire series, which was four years ago.

Do I need to give a spoiler warning for a show this old?  I suppose this is it.

Anyway, I've started watching Buffy again from the beginning.  I don't know why.  It's the summertime and I'm feeling nostalgic, what do you want from me?

I've been randomly updating my Facebook page with comments about certain episodes because some of them just need public commenting.  Fortunately for me, most of my friends are also big fans of the show, so my comments are not falling on deaf ears.

A little background: I didn't discover Buffy until half way through season 3.  The first episode I ever watched "live" was "The Wish."  I have some dim recollection of seeing a repeat of "The Pack," but Buffy wasn't required viewing for me until "The Wish."

After that, I went to the local video store and discovered the 3 tapes that had been released with earlier episodes.  The tapes contained 2 episodes each, so half of season one.  Thankfully, the WB was good about showing reruns during the summer, so I was able to fill in the blanks the summer after season three (at that point, I was taping every episode).

Looking back, it's kind of surprising that those 3 VHS tapes didn't kill any interest I had in the show.  While they're made up of arguably the better half of the first season (although, being a big Xander fan, I would have preferred "The Pack" over "Angel," but it's easy to see why it was included), they're still of questionable quality.  As I said upon re-watching them, there's a certain Sci-Fi original movie quality to them and the acting is just not particularly good.

There are, in fact, two actors who stand out from the rest of the cast from the very start.  One is fairly obvious -- Anthony Stewart Head was always going to overshadow the teenagers, at least to begin with.  He is Giles from the very first moment he comes on screen.  While the rest of the actors are still struggling to get past that kind of high school drama club performance, Head does exactly what you'd expected a seasoned professional to do.  The supernatural aspect of the show was always going to be harder to sell than the teen aspect and having ASH as the focal point was essential.

Surprisingly enough, the other actor who stands out is Charisma Carpenter.  She is Cordelia.  Everything she says sounds natural, as opposed to the other actors who sound like they're acting.  Now, part of that is the fact that the rest of the characters have yet to be fleshed out at all, so the actors are clearly struggling to figure out who they are.  That's just not a problem for Carpenter or Cordelia.

As much as I enjoyed the Xander-centric "The Pack," it's still not a great episode.  In fact, the vast majority of season one can be considered average, if that.  The Buffy/Angel pairing is as hamfisted as ever, the characters are more archetypes than characters, and the monsters aren't particularly scary.

The first glimpse of what the show can be comes with the 9th episode, "The Puppet Show."  The addition of Principal Snyder to the show is welcome one, giving the core cast a day in and day out foil that has (we assume) nothing to do with the supernatural.  Snyder grounds the show.

The characters have bonded by this point, too.  There's a clear dynamic among Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles, and the scenes are becoming more and more natural.

The upside to "The Puppet Show" is that we get a nice plot twist on top of some of the best character work we've seen from the show.  They fall into a wonderful dynamic in this episode where Willow does research on the computer, Giles hits the books, Buffy investigates the crime scene, and Xander interviews other students.  It plays wonderfully to their strengths.  This episode almost makes up for episodes like "I, Robot...You, Jane" and "Out of Mind, Sight."  Almost.

The show is dragged down by the ongoing crush that Xander has on Buffy.  It's always painful and they drag it on much, much longer than necessary (although one episode was probably too long).  I appreciate that Buffy is the new girl and she's a Slayer and all that, but the events of "The Pack" would have been a perfect way for Xander to move on.

Honestly, I'm surprised that Buffy had the following it did after the first season.  But I suppose teen shows were still a thing back then, and adding a supernatural element to it made it different.  The fact that most of the cast were easy on the eyes probably helped, too.

A Blog Post About Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I wrote this 8 years ago. Still on point.

I came a little late to the Buffy party. In fact, the first original airing of an episode that I watched was on December 8th, 1998 -- and before you think I'm a complete freak, I got that date from IMDB. I do remember the episode, though: "The Wish." It would be an odd episode for me to delve into the show, as it a) took place in an alternate reality and b) was written by a writer whose eventual ascension to show runner would mark a bleak period in Buffy's history.

But anyway...

I was in grad school in 1998. The band I was in at the time had made an ill fated attempt at a tour over our winter break and, once that was over, I was pretty much left with nothing to do. It should also be noted that I was in Ohio at this point, so wrap your brain around the idea of having nothing to do in December in Ohio. The Shining could have taken place there.

The fledgling WB network was showing a bunch of repeats of Buffy during this time, but they were pretty scattered. The local video store, however, had some videos that Fox Studios had released, featuring two episodes each of the first season of Buffy. I think I rented one of them before I went out and bought all three (which have since been replaced by DVDs). By the end of Ohio University's winter break, I was hooked. Actually, I was pretty obsessed.

Why was I obsessed? What was it about this show that sucked me in? At the beginning, I honestly didn't know. I think it had to do with the fact that I was pretty lonely, and the show featured a group of friends, almost all of whom seemed like people I would like to hang out with. I could relate to Xander, the guy who always felt like he didn't really belong, even in that group, as he was the only one with no abilities. It probably helped that my first season of the show also happened to be the first season with Faith, but I'll save my Eliza Dushku digression for another time.

Later, I think the quality of the writing really got to me. While eventually I would begin to notice the patterns that the show would fall into, during those first few years it seemed like they were willing to try anything. There was a certain bravery to the storytelling that I didn't see in other shows. And, hell, I'm a sucker for the supernatural. So, yeah, it's easy to see why I became a bit neurotic about the show.

Sadly, for as much mocking as I took from my friends, they all ended up becoming enablers. Over the course of the next year and a half of grad school, "Buffy Nights" at the house I was living at grew larger and larger. For a misanthrope like myself, it offered me the added bonus of being able to socialize without having to go anywhere. Whereas I was once the guy who kept talking about his band all the time, I soon became the Buffy guy (who only stopped talking about his band because it broke up). And, of course, I became the Angel guy, too.

When I left Ohio, I took my Buffy obsession with me. The only friends I made in Atlanta that I didn't import in from Ohio were others who loved Buffy. Suddenly, a new Buffy night was born, this time in the South. At one point I even went so far as to leave my own apartment to watch the show, although it was just to walk across a parking lot to another apartment. I was also pretty active online and found myself wasting hours and hours of time reviewing, discussing, and debating the in's and out's of every episode.

Next, I moved to Los Angeles, and, as is befitting of Los Angeles, I started watching the final season of Buffy (and the penultimate season of Angel) by myself. The internet became my sole source of interaction when it came to Buffy. The upside, though, was that I was now living in the city where the show was made. I actually got to meet Joss Whedon, Amber Benson, and Michelle Trachtenberg at a signing for the Buffy musical CD. That wasn't something that would have happened in Ohio.

By this point, of course, the show was releasing its earlier seasons on DVD, so I was now stocking up on those. I also bought an Xbox specifically because it was the only system that had the Buffy video game. These are all things that would come in useful when I hosted my very last Buffy night, during the finale.

But Kyle, you're saying, you've said that you watched Buffy all alone in Los Angeles? Well, I did, except for the finale, when three people I had never met before in my entire life flew all the way to Los Angeles to watch Buffy with me. Could there be better icing on the cake of this story? I don't think so.

They were people I'd known for a while online. One of the bonuses of living in Los Angeles is that people are willing to come visit you for the most minor of reasons, because you actually live in an interesting city. So while these three, fine people were coming to watch the end of an era with me, there were some added bonuses. I don't know that they would have flown out to watch the finale with me if I were still living in Ohio.

Two years later, with my Buffy library fully stocked, I began the process of indoctrinating my then girlfriend Nicole. Now, Nicole has always been a nerd, so it wasn't that hard to get her started. It got a bit more difficult when Angel got his own series, because then she had to go back and forth between the two, and suddenly her commitment to catching up doubled. But she was a trooper, and while I doubt she'd consider the show to be her favorite, she did enjoy it. It was also really cool for me to go back and watch it all with someone who'd never seen it before.

One of these days, when I have a job that pays more, I'll finally give in and buy the complete series box set. I think, perhaps, I should have a party then, as it would make a fitting bookend.

Maybe I'll invite Nicholas Brendon. I did rent him an apartment once.

Update: No, really, I did rent him an apartment. He was totally nice. And I bought and eventually sold that box set (and the one for Angel) when I switched from DVD to digital. I hope whoever bought it from the used bin at Amoeba in Hollywood enjoys it.

Also, I wrote two essays for Popmatters.com on Buffy, so you should check those out.