Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Bowl Of Sugar For The Science Fiction Fans: Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 1

The Good: Funny, Moments of character, Camp value, Serialized nature
The Bad: Often the acting, ridiculous plots
The Basics: Buffy Summers arrives in Sunnydale to fight some vampires, learn at school and have a good time with her friends in the first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and it sounds as fluffy as it is.

I travel quite a bit and I often do it alone, which means I spend a great deal of time in hotel rooms, laying around and hoping for something decent on television. On one trip, the only thing on the television other than golf or televangelists was an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I wasn't tired at the time, so I actually sat and watched it. It was an episode from a later season, but what I enjoyed about the episode was that it was pure camp. It had little quips between characters in quick, well-timed dialog, the characters had quirks and it was just fun to watch. It was nothing more than fun. Later, I caught another episode and that, too, was fun. So, I confess, I've made a habit of watching the show when it is on. And now, there's the DVD boxed set looking at me from my shelf. How did that happen?!

Season one of Buffy The Vampire Slayer begins after the poorly received movie by the same name ends. Having still not seen the movie, all I know is that the series begins with Buffy Summers, vampire slayer, moving to Sunnydale after having problems at her school elsewhere in California. Sunnydale is a city built on a Hellmouth, a mystical doorway to Hell, so it is the focal point of all sorts of evil energies. Buffy arrives, befriends a computer geek named Willow and her best friend, the zany, quick-witted Xander, and tries to do the "normal high school girl" thing. She fails.

Instead, Buffy finds her life a balance between being trained as a Slayer by her Watcher, Slayer mentor, Giles, school activities, love with Angel (who we learn relatively quickly is a vampire), and competing with the local snob Cordelia. Season one's arc establishes the show and pits Buffy against The Master, an Ubervampire who is trying to escape the Hellmouth and ascend to the surface to bring a vampire revolution and society into being.

More than any other season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, season one is a study in how the series may, and maybe even should, be viewed in two very different ways. There is the literal viewing of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where Joss Whedon - like Chris Carter of The X-Files - quickly tries to break the established mold (vampire shows) and expand what the show is by pitting his heroes against all sorts of weird phenomenon under the guise that the Hellmouth attracts all sorts of evil. As a result, season one is a weird collection of fights against supernatural cheerleaders ("The Witch"), praying mantis' ("Teacher's Pet"), hyena's in human form ("The Pack"), demon robots ("I Robot. . . You, Jane"), and deranged puppets ("The Puppet Show"). And, oh yes, vampires. The literal viewing of Buffy The Vampire Slayer yields a show that is pure, wonderful, ridiculous camp. It is impossible to take seriously, it is filled with quick dialog and snappy one-liners and it has little substance. This show is pure candy from that viewing stance.

The other way to watch the first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is as an allegory. Joss Whedon, as he says on some of the DVD bonuses, intended to make the different villains Buffy and company analogous to the problems and villains we encounter while growing up. So, while there is Cordelia, a very literal childhood nemesis who competes with Buffy for popularity and such, there are also the vampires which symbolize those people who we feel preyed upon by in high school and we believe are trying to rob us of our identity at every opportunity. In such interpretations, the episodes carry a great deal of weight, with explorations of teen angst ("Out of Mind, Out of Sight"), the insecurities that we have of our dreams being portents of reality ("Nightmares"), and the male insecurities about both virginity and sex as a teen ("Teacher's Pet"). So, for instance, the terrible hyena episode ("The Pack"), where Xander goes over to the dark side as part of a hyena pack, becomes a metaphor for how people change to try to become popular and the episode has a great deal more meaning. The problem is, under this viewing scheme of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the show is mostly an over-the-top melodrama.

So, the choice here is between camp which is just plain fun and teen melodrama. Both interpretations make it difficult to become invested in the characters this season. Still, the characters are interesting and they are worth seeing where they begin this show:

Cordelia Chase - The spoiled, rich, popular girl who lives completely in a bubble, oblivious to the realities of the Hellmouth and the dangers there,

Angel (who is not actually a star the first season) - A vampire with a soul, in search of redemption who opens up to Buffy and attempts to aid her in her quest to keep the Hellmouth closed and the world safe from vampires,

Xander Harris - A smart alec who harbors a crush for Buffy the first season until in the season finale, he gets it up to make his move,

Willow Rosenberg - The cute-as-a-button computer nerd, she easily adapts to being Buffy's sidekick and Giles' research aid. She harbors a secret crush for Xander that he is oblivious of,

Rupert Giles - The Watcher, a traditional, by the book paranormal researcher who puts his faith in knowledge and trains Buffy to be the best she can be,

Buffy Summers - The quintessential hero who tries, and often fails, to balance vampire slaying with schoolwork with school social stuff, all the while keeping her mother in the dark about her true nature as the Slayer. That's a pretty full docket.

As with many first seasons, the first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is seriously marred by the uncertain acting of the protagonists. They clearly have no idea in many of the episodes how they are supposed to be playing their parts - serious, campy, with nervous energy - and so the first season feels like an uncertain hodgepodge for the characters as the actors struggle to define them.

The notable exception to this is Anthony Stewart Head as Giles. Head plays the role with great skill, clearly defined from his very first shots as someone in command, with great knowledge. Head makes much of the first season more watchable, giving substance to many of the scenes that wander. In a somewhat less firm position is Nicholas Brendon, who plays Xander. Brendon plays Xander as the jester sidekick fairly consistently. The problem is, he does that so well that it is difficult to accept him when he tries to kick toward the dramatic gears (like in "The Pack").

The plots often seem ridiculous, but are salvaged by the allegorical interpretation of the show. The problem, then, is often in the details. For instance, in the season finale ("Prophecy Girl"), Angel and Xander find someone who needs mouth to mouth resuscitation. Angel declares that Xander has to do it because he has no breath, despite the fact that both Xander and Angel's breathing can be heard quite loudly as they run into the chamber. That sort of detail is frustrating to those who want to make a serious interpretation of the series and embarrassing to those who want it for the camp.

Still, there is something to be said for a fun show and the first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is referenced quite a bit in subsequent seasons, making it essential to those who get into the show. For that reason, I do recommend this boxed set, though I imagine later seasons will get more viewings. Still, this season is great for fans of camp. For those who want the teenage, growing up drama thing with a little bit of humor thrown in, you'll have to wait until Boy Meets World hits DVD to get better than this.

For a more complete idea of what this set entails, please check out my reviews of some of the episodes at:
"Welcome To The Hellmouth"/"The Harvest"
"Witch"/"Never Kill A Boy On The First Date"
"Angel"/"The Puppet Show"

As well, for fans considering purchasing Buffy The Vampire Slayer, there is a superior, space-saving package with some extra goodies, reviewed here!


For other television reviews, please click here to visit my index page on the subject!

© 2011, 2008, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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