Thursday, November 27, 2008

Buffy The Vampire Slayer — Season 1


**Warning: contains spoilers**

It's too early to say, but I don't think my opinion of any season of Buffy will change as much as mine has for its first season. When I first started Buffy, I saw these early days as a glorious send-up of horror clichés, a twist on the classic "helpless blonde" routine that managed to get in a few truths about high school along the way. While I fundamentally agree with those thoughts, I must say the flaws are much more apparent, to the point that I could barely make it through tghe shortened season.

Things start off nicely with the first episode of the two-part premiere. "Welcome to the Hellmouth" does an excellent job introducing the main characters and giving them a surprising amount of characterization for the very first episode. You can tell from the opening scene in which two teens break into the high school, hear a scary sound, and look about wildly, only to reveal that the girl (Darla, who would become a major figure in future seasons and in Angel) is the beastie. The resultant episode features lines a bit too much on the corny side, but it's easy to fall in love with Buffy, Willow, and Xander even here. Then "The Harvest" comes along and mucks it all up with stilted dialogue and Angel and Darla come off as completely one-dimensional. This wild swing in quality more or less erves as a microcosm of the season.

The chief issue here is that the plots never really gel, and mainly consist of simplistic "Monster of the Week" setups. The worst of these is "Teacher's Pet," in which Xander gets seduced by a teacher...who turns out to be a praying mantis. No, I'm not kidding. Even when the monsters work on a metaphorical level, such as the invisible girl in "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" (people who pass through school and life unnoticed) or the crazed teens in "The Pack" (hormones make teenagers cruel), make for boring literal plots; nothing on Earth can quite prepare you for "The Puppet Master," in which the writers try to make a smarmy talking dummy scary.

What does work is the character development; even in these early stages the characters move past the fun but limited ranges given to them in the pilot into people not entirely fleshed-out, but well on their way to breakthroughs. Giles could have so easily been a stuck-up, pompus ass who simply gave Buffy her orders and sent her away; actually, given Joss' usual depcition of parent-child relationships (which Giles and Buffy have, even though they aren't related), it's a surprise he didn't. Instead, he straddles the line between the lovable, quasi-crusty uncle and the youthful spirit that will be expounded upon when the "Ripper" days catch up with him. Even episodes with big flaws are worth watching for little moments of growth and originality. The only excpetion (besides the atrocious "Teacher's Pet") is the even worse "I Robot...You Jane," without question the worst episode in Buffy, Angel, or Firefly. The metaphor (chatroom hookups can be dangerous) is thin, the monster is dull, the lines aren't funny(!), and do we really need an entire episode devoted to Willow being shy when it has been so thoroughly covered in snippets here and there that were much more revealing than this? And as for anyone who isn't a lead or a prominent regular, none of the minor characters (apart from Principal Snyder, Flutie's replacement) is very interesting, and the Buffyverse as we know didn't really start to populate itself until the second season.

The finest episodes are "Angel," an early highlight of the show, and the finale "The Prophecy Girl." The former presents many of the themes that would define the first 2-3 seasons (chiefly the allegory-rich romance between Angel and Buffy), while the latter shows the writer's potential for handling something big and gives an insight into the future brilliance of arcs that would span multiple episodes. You can also see a more developed writing style emerging with a single line: Buffy, upon learning that she is destined to die against the Master, timidly mutters "Giles, I'm 16. I don't want to die." Nothing on paper to make that seem genius, right? Well, when you've heard it, you understand just how simple and powerful it is, just like all the best moments to come.

Upon this second viewing, I found the first season to be a moderately enjoyable parody more than a drama in its own right. The shoddy camera work; the stilted, obvious dialogue; the corny jokes; the characters who are moving out of one-dimensional territory but have not fully evolved all come off like a weekly version of Shaun of the Dead or Young Frankenstein. Then again, maybe I just choose to look at it as a spot-on, deeply ironic parody instead of a show that is struggling to move past its premise, like some sort of Buffy apologist. If so, then that attitude has been greatly lessened with a rewatch. Knowing now where this show will go, I found the majority of the season to be excruciatingly tedious, recommendable only to those who have never seen the show before on the basis of its slowly developing growth and its penchant for minor splashes of originality: what other show would kill an established character, and so quickly (Principal Flutie in "The Pack")?


Choice episodes:

Welcome to the Hellmouth

A fun introduction that touches upon all of the major characters and makes all of them interesting from the start. The dialogue isn't quite up to speed, but then the writers are still clearly finding their way.

Angel

The first episode to really point in the direction that the show would take in the future. It sets up the irony and even hints towards the inevitable doomed status of Buffy and Angel's relationship. The final shot of the cross burned into Angel's chest from their kiss is the most memorable image of the season.

Nightmares

Probably the strongest standalone, unimportant episode of the season. It serves as an early glimpse into the pathos and weaknesses of our heroes. This concept would come back again in the stronger Season 4 episode "Fear Itself," but this is an early highlight of the show.

The Prophecy Girl

The main Big Bad arc wasn't fleshed out and it wasted the Master, who hinted at being a much more entertaining villain, but "The Prophecy Girl" did a damn fine job of tying things together and really making them far more interesting than the separate elements. Buffy's reaction to finding out that the prophecy says she must die against the Master is the first heart-wrenching moment of the show: "Giles, I'm 16. I don't wanna die."


Ones to avoid:

The Harvest

Whedon follows up the shaky but fun pilot with a much weaker second part that stands as probably the worst episode of TV he's ever written and the only one that isn't eminently entertaining. It fails to build on the characters, despite the vast potential for growth even from the start and makes Darla, Angel, and The Master into one-dimensional characters, which they very much aren't.

Teacher's Pet

Xander gets seduced by a teacher who turns out to be a Praying Mantis. I feel like I should stop here and let that sink in. It's not funny, deep, and the monster looks awful even by the standards of the ludicrously low budget of the first season.

I Robot...You Jane

Almost universally recognized as the worst episode of the series. The message is heavy-handed (BE CAREFUL ABOUT THE INTERNETS!!), it's rarely funny, and it moves absolutely nothing forward.Plus, it just retreads the already overdone notion that Willow is shy.

7 comments:

  1. ....I simply didn't love this season that much.

    It was enough of a reason for me to get to season 2, which is overall so much better in comparison that it might as well have been the premiere of another series, so I give this season credit for that.

    I have a secret theory(one that's of course against my conscience) that Whedon's writing didn't start getting really good until after 97. Think about it. Alien Resurrection, the Buffy film(Though I will be fair and admit that I haven't seen it yet, I just know it got bad reviews, and most films that get GOOD reviews I don't like nowadays.)

    I saw season 1 over a year ago, so my memory's a little fuzzy, but I do remember not being all that impressed. But due to my fading memory of it, I asked for it for Christmas. Afterwards, I took a watch of the first 1 and a half episodes.

    Welcome to the Hellmouth was, meh, pretty average, and a lot of the writing was a bit too campy. (And was I the only person that saw the opening twist coming from a mile away?) Buffy's introduced in a decent manner, but one of the things I simply couldn't stand was Willow, who I ALWAYS considered to be the most attractive woman in the series from the very start, which is saying a lot buddy, is this unpopular, boyfriend-wanting nerd.

    I simply can't stand that. You'd think that in a realistic show like this, a nerdy character would be casted by a woman that doesn't happen to be the sexiest person in the series, but maybe that's asking for too much. Watching a woman this attractive play such a nerdy character is like being cruely and senselessly mocked. (And maybe there's some young guys out there that LIKE red-heads and quiet, nerdy looking women, rather than women that have no dignity and don't wear anything.)

    The only thing in the episode that (intentionally) entertained me was Cordelia. Beyond that, I found myself wanting to skip through like, the season. But since I hate cliffhangers so much, I surrendered to The Harvest, which is so boring and badly-written that if you ask me, IT should be the episode titled "Welcome to the Hellmouth". Between the stale acting and writing, and the COMPLETELY contrived reactions that Willow and Xander make when they first find out about Vampires and how long they've been around, I simply couldn't make it past the first twenty minutes.

    This wouldn't have been the case if I hadn't already seen it, but this episode was the reason why I stopped on season 1 and moved on to begin watching Freaks and Geeks. (I have yet to have any regrets on that decision.)

    Maybe when I reluctantly finish Freaks and Geeks, I will give this season another try and just skip The Harvest. I want to prove to myself that I'm still a Joss fan, even if I have to watch a Hole in the World again.(YOU know why I don't want to watch that more than once.)

    Feel free to give your opinion on this matter.

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  2. I actually think my opinion has gone up slightly since reviewing this. It's got some of the series flat-out worst episodes, but most of them are at least watchable for a show that was still finding its format under the creative direction of a writer who was only just being put in control of his work at last. I think that the premiere, Angel, and the finale are three of the better episodes of the show's early years, though the series got much, much better and none would ultimately my top 25 (Angel got an honorable mention though).

    Certainly not a great season and only occasionally better than average, but given the circumstances I don't mind sometimes popping in a few of these campier episodes instead of the honest drama that later exhibited itself.

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  3. Angel and the finale(I think) were my favorite episodes of the season, but I wouldn't say they were some of the best of the early years.(Seasons 2 and 3 do have a whole lot of my favorite episodes.) But I know the difference between a good show with a rough start and a bad show that started good, and I personally prefer the first one.

    I can understand that Joss was taking his time while trying to develope his little world, believing that (at the time) the series could be cancelled any day. And at least this season gave us one of the better Angel characters (oh yeah, besides Angel)

    I'm just saying it's average, and it's a tragedy that some people didn't continue watching the series because of it.

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  4. Yeah, when I'm recommending the show to people I usually tell them to watch the first two episodes, Angel, the finale then move straight into S2 and maybe come back later if they're bored.

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  5. I've read some stuff about Joss Whedon. In one interview, he talked about lonliness, and it was lonliness that he had and always had when he became old enough. And it's not the type of lonliness that psychiatric help can prevent, and being more social sure as hell can't prevent.

    He once said that "lonliness is the scarriest thing out there". I dissagree of course, brussle sprouts are much worst. He said that this gave him depression, but he kept working on scripts and stuff. He also said that that he didn't have a girlfriend for a while, and that he wished he could be above being sad about it.

    Jake, you're a better guy than me. I'm flawed like hell, and I've whined about a hundred times more than most people. Joss is a great guy too, one that's lucky enough to have made four shows-cancelled or not cancelled- and become beloved by many people, not to meintion getting married, even if he was lonely. I just wish I knew how he managed to live with it.

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  6. The weakest season, no doubt. But a Joss Whedon fail is still better than 98% of the crap out there. And "Prophecy Girl" is right up there with his best.

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  7. I don't even think I'd call it a failure. Unfocused, sure, but it was the first season of his first show and the good moments are incredible and better than the peaks of many shows.

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