**warning- contains spoilers**
After a shaky but bold first season and two followup seasons that firmly established the show in the annals of TV history, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was on top of the world. The third season ended (quite literally) on an explosive note, and I couldn't wait to see the Scoobies go off to college. Sadly, like seemingly all shows about high school life, the transition to college was shakier than any real life experience.
At the start of the season, Buffy, Willow, and Oz are setting up in their dorms and registering for classes. Y'know, the usual stuff. But before long it starts to spiral. Buffy's roommate is annoyingly chirpy and turns out to be a demon for no other reason than to put Willow up as her roomie. Why not have just made Willow her roommate from the start, letting the two grate on each other, and show that you have to learn to overcome differences instead of just sending the annoying one back home?
Furthering the half-assed way in which the writers shift the setting is Buffy's sudden dip into idiocy. While I certainly sympathize with her for her doomed relationship with Angel, suddenly falling for a guy who is clearly using sweet talk to get to her, sleeping with him, AND THEN still not catching on even when she spots the guy using the same tricks on another girl. The despair of being used leads Buffy to turn to that most trusted of friends: booze. The resultant episode, "Beer Bad," is the worst episode to come along since Season 1's nadir "I, Robot...You, Jane." A simplistic message hit home with all the subtlety of a heroin-crazed bull in a shop that sells only red china, "Beer Bad" is an unfunny, uninsightful exercise in incompetence.
Amazingly, things get worse when the season's arc begins to form. Buffy moves on from Parker and slowly comes to be with Riley, the T.A. of her difficult psychology class. Riley seems to be everything that Parker (and even Angel) is not: a nice guy with no scruples. Well, that would have apparently been boring, so suddenly we discover that Riley is actually a footsoldier in some offshoot branch of the military that deals with paranormal activity. The branch is called the Initiative and it's run by
Basically, this season replicates most of the themes of the first season, but moves it all to college and tacks on an army. This might have been OK if the Initiative guys could act, but it's like they went down to the nearest local theater and just grabbed all the understudies. In particular, Marc Blucas (the "actor" who "plays" Riley), has all the range of a heavily medicated Keanu Reeves. The Initiative is probably the most inept special soldiers in the history of masturbatory governmental paranoia; they have absolutely no understanding of demons and Walsh's horrible creation, the half-man, half-machine, half-demon Adam, is a henchman that gets elevated to the status of Big Bad for no reason. He is uninteresting and spouts the kind of philosophical musings that would have been ponderous in small doses but are overbearing since he gets the screen time befitting a major villain. We got Angelus and The Mayor in quick succession; Adam doesn't stack up in the least.
But enough about the terrible main arc, let's focus on why Season 4 claws its way out of the abyss. For one thing, Spike becomes a regular. I'll admit a bias: I cannot ever pick a favorite character on this show or its spinoff, but Spike is in my top five with Angel, Fred, Wesley and Anya. Seeing him go from show-stealing minor baddie to constant presence was an absolute delight, even if the reasons for it (Initiative chip renders him evil but incapable of attacking humans) made no sense and pushed the show dangerously close to jumping the shark. James Marsters has the ability to play off anyone, and his ability to do so is second only to Anthony Head's. He has terrific interplay with Buffy, Joyce, Willow (in the scenes where he discovers his new biting impotence), Giles, and Xander, any one of which would be reason enough for him to stay a regular despite the ham-fisted circumstances.
Another big plus is the fact that Season 4 of "Buffy" boasts the best standalone episodes of the series and its spinoff. "Fear Itself" is the first episode of the season to really nail it, with an interesting premise and Giles' hilariously practical solution to getting into a sealed building. For some reason they did this exact episode later on in the season, removing all of the humor and development and renaming it "Where the Wild Things Are." "Pangs" is one of the weakest episodes of the show plot-wise (Buffy trying to corral everyone for a normal Thanksgiving dinner), but it's so insanely funny that you have to love it.
Of course, the standalone that everyone knows is the Emmy-nominated "Hush." Ostensibly a self-challenge to prove critics wrong, Joss Whedon created an episode that was mostly silent. Instead of relying on his pop culture-laced conversations to attract fans, he made do with unsettling Monsters of the Week and silent comedy. "Hush" wasn't the first off-the-wall episode (see both of the Xander-centric eps, "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "The Zeppo"), but "Hush" is the most brilliant. Not only was it a fun concept, but it featured a great deal of plot advancement that is both essential to the story at large and accessible to people who just drop in to watch this. "Superstar" is a glorious joke on fan-fiction, in which then-minor recurring character Jonathan suddenly becomes the hero of Sunnydale after he casts a spell to be popular. It's wildly funny on both a surface level and a deeper one and it's one of the most off-the-wall ingenious eps of the series.
But perhaps even stronger than "Hush" is the season finale, "Restless." A Lynchian mixture of thematic advancement, foreshadowing, and cheese, "Restless" is like every great aspect of "Twin Peaks" rolled into one episode. Looking back, it so cryptically yet so clearly points to the future developments of the show that you cannot help but be amazed at how sure of himself Whedon is. It also ties together all the loose strands of themes and character that stuck out during the season in a way that is not only not ham-fisted but stunningly original. I defy you to find a more dense and complex hour of television around.
So what can I say at last about the season as a whole? For all the floundering and retreading of its arc and the insufferable quality of "Beer Bad" and "Where the Wild Things Are," Season 4 gets across a great deal of character development (even by the standards of the show). It gets Buffy out of her rut before I we all go insane, they make the Buffy/Riley relationship work (even though Marc Blucas is the worst casting choice they ever made), Willow becomes a lesbian, Faith comes back for a hell of a two parter, and "Restless" gets across a lot of truths for the characters. The humor is among the series' best (even eclipsing the wildly funny third season), which is good because it keeps you laughing enough to forgive the plots. Add to that its handful of astonishing standalones, and you've got a perfectly entertaining season (although I don't know if I'd classify "Restless" as a standalone since it's so vital to both the events of this season and of future ones). But I must say, it certainly doesn't help that it's sandwiched between the two most consistent seasons of the series.
Who Are You?
The Yoko Factor
Where the Wild Things Are