Saturday, 30 July 2011

'Why don't we start with, "Hi, I'm Buffy"?'

In case it's not painfully clear, I am a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I would go so far as to describe myself as a Buffologist. Unsurprisingly, I own the boxset of the complete 7 series and recently, much to my delight, Boyfriend suggested we watch every single episode, right from the start*. This has led to much joy, but also much sadness: whilst my adoration for the show has caused me to overlook some of its flaws, similarly rose-tinted metaphor glasses do not blind Boyfriend and he has opened my eyes to some problems with the show.

Now don’t get me wrong, I still love it. Love. It. But I am more aware of some problems inherent with it and would like to discuss these further. Because I also want to do the show justice (seriously: LOVE. IT.) I’m also going to discuss its brilliance and what lead Buffy to have such a loyal fanbase. I’ll take you through it one season at a time: and brother, if you thought my last post was geeky, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet...

Just a quick note, I’m not going to criticize clothing or hair styles or anything like that, because fashions date. It’s beyond the control of TV writers or producers. Deal with it.

...I will add one thing about clothing though, beautifully summarised by my mother: “There’s everyone else dressed for school and then there’s Buffy, who’s dressed like a whore.”

Now, class, take out your number 2 pencils and we’ll begin – a long time ago, in a Southern California town far far away....

SEASON ONE: Originally Aired 1996-97**

The Good:
This season gets a lot of stick from critics and fans alike, because there’s a lot of elements that are not very good. What is good, however, is brilliant. The first episode opens with two kids breaking into the school after hours, setting up the usual “sexy blonde teen gets axe-murdered” scenario that is pretty much a horror movie trope. The Whedon-twist, however, is that here it’s the sexy blonde who is the murderer. Now a lot of people say this is an obvious set-up: however I would argue that it’s only obvious in retrospect. With knowledge of Whedon’s writing style it’s pretty easy to see the twist coming, but back in the Dark Ages of 1996 this was a fresh twist, and I love it. It plays along the same lines as the Slayer, the eponymous Buffy, being a cute blonde teen – taking typical (often misogynist) movie tropes and turning them on their head. A repeated theme that crops up in Whedon’s audio-commentary and interviews is that Buffy came from a feminist origin, giving women the power and the control in situations where they’ve usually been depicted as helpless. This resonates with me: I think, by and large, this show depicts real women. Sometimes they’re in control and in charge, sometimes they’re falling apart emotionally and needing support, and sometimes they’re being catty and spiteful and mean. Because people are three-dimensional and being a women doesn’t restrict you to becoming a 2D stereotype – but I’ve
ranted at length about this before, so I’ll leave it there. Whedon doesn’t always get it perfect, but he writes women I can get behind, you know?

Buffy always plays with your expectations: either through red-herrings (like the line-up of potential killers in ‘Puppet Show’) or by turning tropes on their head, as with Buffy and Darla. Sometimes it’s more successful than others, but this show is always trying to surprise you and I love it for that. Take Castle: now, this is another show that I love and adore and will defend to my grave. But nine times out of ten you can predict exactly what’s going to happen and when: I won’t bore you by going off on a tangent about what the usual set-up is, but trust me it’s pretty by-the-numbers (which just proves how great the characters are that I keep enjoying that show). Buffy never felt that way to me. True, by the later seasons that very playing-with-your-expectations thing had become, in itself, an expected motif – but a) the show still tried to surprise you, and b) for the moment we’re just on Season One.

This leads me on to another of the good points: the characterisation. From one-appearance-only extras to regular characters, Whedon knows how to write ‘em (and how to pick a team of writers who are similarly gifted). Everyone in this show feels like a real person to me; off the top of my head I cannot think of anyone who stands out as completely wooden and badly written. Sure, there’s the occasional Extra In Need Of A Line*** but on the whole, everyone you see on screen is a very believable, individual personality. The reoccurring characters grow and develop as people, too. Even within this one series, the Buffy we see in ‘Prophecy Girl’ is a much stronger, more developed person than the Buffy of ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’. Yes, characters like The Anointed are just awful; but they’re still believable.

Slayer-slang is also a big part of why I love this show. I’m sure it’s put off more than one viewer, but the “-y” suffixes and the “slayage” in-joke dialogue that the central characters use is really enjoyable for me. This show is pretty much what happens when you let a geek make every geeky reference he wants to: and as I get all the references, this is right up my street. The dialogue is awesome and eternally quote-able – so much so that I had forgotten how many of my daily quotations are lifted from this show, until Boyfriend pointed it out whilst watching with me. Even in the bad episodes there are laugh-out-loud lines and comic set-ups that make every episode worth repeat viewing.

At its best, there are episodes that are absolutely hilarious whilst also being incredibly creepy (‘Puppet Show’, ‘Nightmares’); or episodes that blend real emotion with snappy dialogue (‘Prophecy Girl’). There are also times when the show’s attempts to turn teen problems into analogies-with-monsters works really, really well. It can get heavy-handed (magic-addict-Willow plot, I’m looking at you) but there are episodes where the monster-of-the-week theme and teenage angst go brilliantly hand-in-hand (the best being, in my opinion, the Angel/Buffy plot from Season Two). In Season One this “monsters as metaphors for life problems” was just finding its feet, but episodes like ‘The Pack’ handle it really well.

....‘The Pack’ is about puberty and the personality changes of adolescence, in case you were wondering. Anyhoo.

Buffy is also about empowering geeks: Willow and Xander in particular are social outcasts, but in this show they save the world. Repeatedly. And they do research. In a library. As have pointed out: “even in the not-exactly-realistic Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the characters solved their dilemmas in nearly every episode in the library over stacks of books. That is, real discovery is often a slow grind through theories other, smarter people came up with in the past”. Sure, it’s a show where a super-powered teen battles monsters from hell dimensions, but it’s (remotely) grounded in reality and dammit, it’s the geeks who help to save the day!

Also, this show takes the bold move of having someone who is actually English play the English character. Not with every English character in the show, true, but for this season at least we can fly the Union Jack with pride. Giles is another major Good Point about this show for me. Firstly, damn:

Awww yeah

Giles is fantastic: he’s dry, sarcastic, incredibly intelligent and smart; he’s sexually attractive (boy is he ever) and yet he can also be a non-threatening, supportive male role-model and father-figure. Which, yes, makes his sexual attraction all very Oedipal (and Buffy, Willow and Xander actually perform a scene from Oedipus in ‘Puppet Show’, that I think about it...Yeah...) but, in a show where there are pretty much zero other positive father-figures, it is a role that desperately needs to be filled.

Also there’s Armin Shimmerman as Principal Snyder, who is utter genius. His lines, Shimmerman’s delivery of them, the set-ups to the Mayor (who won’t be introduced until Season Three; god I love storytelling arcs) – his character is an absolute delight.

Basically I could go on and on about the characters I love and why, so suffice to say, Buffy has some great characters.

Now, the problems...

The Bad:
The major thing is the unresolved plot from the end of ‘Teacher’s Pet’. Again, I have to thank/loathe for pointing this out to me: at the end of the episode we see the eggs laid by the human-sized-praying-mantis-disguised-as-a-substitute-teacher (don’t ask), hidden under a desk and hatching! ...Except we never see them again. It goes nowhere and is never spoke of again. So what the hell happened to them?!

While we’re on the subject of things that are never spoken of again: Jesse.

Dude, I am totally forgettable!

Poor Jesse. When the show opens in ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’, Jesse is best friends with Willow and Xander. We sense there’s real history there, a bond of friendship that goes back years. At the end of the first episode he’s missing; in the second episode ‘The Harvest’, Jesse shows up again – and he’s now a vampire, having been caught by Darla and turned. Xander ends up staking him and yes, he does seem emotionally affected by it.

Good thing he gets that emotion out of the way then and there, however, because Jesse is never mentioned again. Seriously, Willow and Xander’s best friend and he never warrants so much as a mention; not even a reference or a casual nod to his former existence. And in a show where Xander’s lie to Buffy about Willow saying to kill Angel is referenced five seasons later, that’s a pretty big sin of omission.

‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ also features Xander on a skateboard – which is the first, last and only time we see Skateboard Xander. Yet, the internet being what it is, someone totally
made an action figure of this:

The internet everybody!

Giles, alas, features in ‘Bad’ as well as ‘Good’ because there are a few significant continuity errors with his character. In ‘The Witch’ he casts a spell that he says is his “first” – yet in Season Two he’s revealed as an ex-warlock who was into serious dark magic. There’s also his fighting ability: Season One Giles is your typical TV librarian, barely able to swing his fists; yet Season Two shows him as having a rebel-without-a-cause past in which he was a violent, threatening figure. Ethan Rayne is extremely intimidated by him, hinting at the fact that Ethan knows Giles can deal out a can of whup-ass should the need arise. The show undermines its own continuity when it starts to develop the background of its characters.

The same pattern is apparent with Darla. Another character I really enjoy, don’t get me wrong – but it’s pretty obvious that the writers decided after killing her off that she was a) a great character and b) really crucial to the character-development of Angel. So later in Buffy and in the spin-off Angel, Darla becomes not only Angel(us)’s maker, his Sire, but this crucial driving, shaping force in his life. She gets padded out with back story and further development and her relationship with Angel(us) is explored as this complex issue that actually works really well in both shows. My problem is thus: this was all after her death. In the episode ‘Angel’ (which is, shockingly enough, mostly about Angel) Angel ends up staking Darla in order to save Buffy.

Now in Season One, first time around, this isn’t really a problem: we’ve only seen Darla a couple of times and, whilst we know there’s history with her and Angel it doesn’t seem to be all-consuming. Angel doesn’t seem overly affected by having to stake her.

Seen through the ret-con perspective of further seasons of Buffy/Angel, however, and this is really terrible scripting: Angel’s Sire, the person who gave him this new existence, who he was obsessed with and fixated on for centuries and he stakes her over some hot chippy who he’s barely flirted with?! And he doesn’t even bat an eyelid?!! It makes no internal sense! When we see Spike offering to stake Dru to prove to Buffy that he loves her (‘Crush’, Season Five – we’ll get to that) it is a major deal. Now I’m willing to accept that part of the lack-of-apparent-reaction is down to David Boreanaz as Angel (I’ll get to that, too) but still; it’s seriously problematic.

So, David Boreanaz.

It was very important this be the picture I used

Now, he’s a great actor and totally owning Bones. Now. Then, however, his acting was ... not so good. You can see him trying, really trying, but playing Angel was his first major role and his inexperience shows. It makes for some clunky, awkward viewing – made somehow all the more obvious by seeing how good he is now. It’s weird. It’s also personally weird for me, because as a teen watching Buffy for the first time way back in the 90s, I had the biggest crush on Angel. Now, none of my Angel-love remains (it’s all Booth, baby) so it’s kind of weird watching the Buffy/Angel thing develop when I now have the maturity to look back and see just how melodramatic Buffy was being. It’s real teen stuff, sure, and it really resonated with my teenage self – just not so much anymore.

It is vital we reconsider David Boreanaz at this juncture

On to ‘Out of Mind, Out of Sight’: it’s a neat concept, a good analogy for how teens can feel overlooked, invisible. I’m okay with this episode right up until the final scene, where Marcy has been taken to an FBI-run school. For invisible kids.

Now, I can buy that kids turn invisible in Sunnydale: it’s on a Hellmouth, weird crap like this happens all the time, the Mayor and the police are in on the secret and make efforts to cover it up...I can buy it. However, the idea of this being a nationwide problem is a bridge too far for me. How is this not national news? Even if the government cover it up, why aren’t people writing conspiracy theories about this cover-up? How do the FBI even know who has turned up to class?! The supernatural-things-happening-outside-Sunnydale bit could even work if, say, the writers had dropped in something about this being a school in New York state that was run by a professor who was used to kids with special abilities. Young people who are gifted. If you see what I mean. But no: no, this episode just straight up wants us to be okay with the fact that the FBI run a school for teens that have literally turned invisible – all because Buffy can’t kill humans (much like Batman, really) so there needs to be a plot contrivance to get rid of Marcy without making Buffy into a villain. It just does not work for me.

Also in ‘The Pack’ Willow starts watching a film about hyenas. There are hyena noises on the soundtrack. Midway through the scene, the film she’s watching changes to images of African wild dogs. Wild dogs are not hyenas. This is problematic to me.

Lastly, The Anointed. *sigh* He is just...awful. I get that it's meant to be, "oooh, child-vampire, scary" but he's no Claudia. I just find The Anointed whingey and irritating. Total waste of screen time.

The Ugly:
There are also some real big honking terrible things in this series. Firstly, Alyson Hannigan wasn’t the original casting for Willow. In the unaired pilot it was Riff Regan, who was, shall we say, a plus-sized Willow. So in developing the show from pilot to airing, the decision was made to drop the fat chick and replace her with slim-line Alyson. Let’s be clear: I adore Alyson Hannigan and think she’s absolutely perfect in the role. What I don’t agree with is the fact that, once Regan was dropped from the cast, there’s not a single character who is more than a size 10**** at most. Yeah, some of the guys get a little less sculpted (and there’s always Jonathan) and Tara seems more like a real human female than a Hollywood Clone – but in Season One, Willow dressing dorky is about as unconventional-television as it gets. Which, considering Joss is all “this is written from a feminist place” and gung-ho about having Slayers of many different body types appear in ‘Chosen’ and in the comic series, is pretty sad.

There’s also another glaring plot issue that Boyfriend highlighted to me, that I felt really belonged in ‘Ugly’ rather than ‘Bad’ for soon-to-be-obvious reasons: In ‘The Pack’ Xander and a gang of four never-seen-again bullies get possessed by hyena spirits. Together, this gang go around being general dicks; they then progress to eating the school mascot, an adorable piglet. Buffy manages to trap hyena-Xander after this point, but the rest of the group eat Principal Flutie. As Xander reveals to Giles at the end of this episode, he remembers everything he did whilst hyena-possessed. In Season Three, ‘The Prom’, another classmate makes a reference to “hyena people” and everyone laughs, so it’s obvious Xander isn’t the only one to remember this happening.

So let’s be clear. We have four teenagers who remember tearing a man apart with their hands and teeth and eating him raw. And we have five kids who remember doing the same to a pig.

And no one has any apparent lasting psychological trauma from this.

In fact this whole incident is pretty much glossed over; Willow and Buffy occasionally tease Xander about it for the rest of the show’s existence, and Xander makes the odd joke about it. But the whole visceral experience of ripping porcine flesh with his nails and teeth and devouring the meat hot, raw and twitching? Never spoken of again. Leaving aside Xander’s hyena-driven activities, what about the other four who cannibalised a man?! The school needs a new principal so it’s not like they can just forget about it – how the hell do they sleep at night? You’d think they’d at least get counselling or something.

This is also the episode where Buffy deals with the bad guy by throwing him over her shoulder...into the pen with the demon-hyenas, who eat him. Admittedly Buffy does try to rescue him, but she doesn’t seem especially bothered by the fact she fails to save him and instead has to watch him get torn limb-from-limb and eaten.

So that’s Season One, folks! Next time I tackle just how devastatingly attractive Spike is, how Giles becomes the best person ever, and why Oz is awesome.

*We discuss Batman and watch Buffy. My idea of romance, folks.

** Which makes Buffy 15 years old. FIFTEEN YEARS. Jesus. There are teenagers out there who weren’t even born when Buffy first hit TV screens. I wasn’t kidding about that “long time ago” stuff.

***Extras In Need Of A Line: People who, for obvious budgetary reasons, haven’t been granted a speaking part even when the role they’re fulfilling so desperately calls for dialogue to make this a realistic human interaction.

****Size 10 in UK terms: that’s a 6 for my American audience.