Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Buffy's Less Than Happy Birthday Starts With A "Surprise" And Then The Loss Of "Innocence."

The Good: Characters moments, Acting, Humor, Suspense, Much of the plot, Serialization
The Bad: Bits of predictability in the plot
The Basics: When Buffy has a birthday that involves trying to thwart an attempt to reunite the parts of an invincible soldier, she and Angel change their relationship, with disastrous consequences!

Buffy The Vampire Slayer is one of those franchises that was huge for its time and then died a quick, hard death, much like The X-Files. Sadly, the aftermarket for both series' has not supported the show like, for example, Star Trek fans keep the franchise alive. Instead, since Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its sister series, Angel left the airwaves, the fanbase has gradually dissipated and moved on to other programs and movies for enjoyment and the sense of community that they once found there. The disappointing aspect to this, of course, is that as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel find a new audience in syndication and then people buy the DVDs, there is less of a community to keep that alive with discussions or such.

And "Surprise" and "Innocence" are two episodes that spark serious discussions among fans. These are two essential episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and they basically create the framework by which Angel makes sense as a real and viable character. Back in the episode "Angel" (reviewed here!) Buffy learned that Angel was a vampire and we know what sets him apart is that he has a soul. "Innocence," especially, establishes why Angel is the way he is and the true extent of his curse is revealed.

In "Surprise," Buffy has a birthday! Getting a year older leads her to thinking about responsibility and her love for Angel. Her birthday is progressing with a strangely morbid sense to it when she receives an odd gift; a disembodied arm. The arm, she and Giles quickly realize is part of the latest scheme concocted by Drusilla and the wounded Spike to bring chaos to Sunnydale. The current minion, who they are working to reassemble, is the Judge, a giant blue demon who was once defeated and crated up because it could not be killed by any weapon forged. Drusilla and Spike hope to reassemble the Judge to give them an invincible soldier and in the process of trying to defeat them, Angel and Buffy change the terms of their relationship.

In "Innocence," Angel runs off into the night, transformed back into his soulless vampire alter-ego, Angelus. With the Judge assembled, but in a weakened state where it cannot simply mow down legions of people without touching them, Buffy, Giles and the gang table saving Angel - who joins Drusilla and Spike - and work to defeat the Judge before it reaches full power. At the same time, Jenny Calendar reveals the nature of Angel's curse.

"Surprise" and "Innocence" work quite naturally together on a video because they are a two-parter. The conclusion to "Surprise" leads right into "Innocence" and the character action that takes place is one that grows Buffy further into adulthood. As well, it becomes the perfect way to describe the curse Angel suffers from. For those not in the know, I shall endeavor not to ruin it, however, Angel's curse is related to his feeling love for Buffy and that threatens his soul.

This works wonderfully on both a literal level - Angel turning to Angelus as a result of Buffy - and a metaphoric level - the fear most young women have that the one they love might well turn out to be a jerk or a monster. Buffy The Vampire Slayer often works best when it works on both levels - otherwise it might be pretty easily written off as a campy science fiction comedy - and "Surprise" and "Innocence" are possibly two of the best episodes for that, confronting with metaphor fears about aging and love.

As well, Willow has a decent subplot as she learns of the relationship between Cordelia and Xander, giving her and Buffy something to commiserate about. Through much of the series, Buffy and Willow's relationship is one of convenience for Buffy with little genuine emotional connection that illustrates why Willow would have anything to do with the Slayer, but in "Innocence," they actually have a very normal and human bond to explore.

And that's where Buffy The Vampire Slayer works best, like all serialized television; on the character front. Sure, the plot is fairly straightforward: obstacle must be overcome. Why we care to watch and why we bother to purchase the video has to do with caring about the characters. Xander, for example, calls back to the events in "Halloween," when his costume turned him into a soldier. As it turns out, he has the full memories as skills of being a soldier as a result and in "Innocence," he uses that skill set for the first (of several) times in the series to make himself useful.

And while there is wonderful interaction between Jenny Calendar and Giles, these shows are very much about Buffy and Angel. Buffy and Angel have been building a romance and they have been tenuous in so many ways up until "Surprise," so when they decide to open up to true love, this is a big step. The episode plays that decision out with a strong sense of realism and class, making it seem believable as they set aside their reservations.

It helps that Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz, who play Buffy and Angel, respectively, have great on-screen chemistry. When the series started, there was an aloof quality to Boreanaz and Gellar's performance reflected something of a sense that he was just a generic, good-looking guy being thrown in Buffy's way. By this point in the series, the two play off one another well and scenes in "Surprise" and "Innocence" have a great deal of trust illustrated between the two performers. It pays off as the result on screen is one of the best performances between the two in the entire series. Gellar plays Buffy with a vulnerability and a strength that she does not always get to show when she plays Buffy as a somewhat scattered protagonist.

Boreanaz, though, gets the chance to really explore his acting abilities as he transforms from the sensitive and decent Angel into the maniacal and twisted Angelus. As Angelus, Boreanaz takes on both an entirely different personality and way of speaking, but a whole looser body language as well. Boreanaz sells the viewer on Angel's transformation even without saying a word. He's wonderful in the role and he makes "Innocence," especially, worth watching.

It is also worth noting that Juliet Landau gives a creepy performance as the insane Drusilla in both episodes. Brian Thompson, perhaps best known to genre fans as the shapeshifting alien bounty hunter from The X-Files, has an auspicious outing as the Judge.

Anyone who likes fun dramedies with a serious undertone to be found will find value in "Surprise" and "Innocence" and they are certainly part of the essential Buffy The Vampire Slayer, if for no other reason than the true nature of the curse Angel suffers is finally explored. Anyone who has a problem with either science fiction or television that is not dreary and overly serious may not enjoy these. But the dialogue is fast and often funnier than the circumstances in this set and it works beautifully.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Buffy The Vampire Slayer - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season here!
or the complete series is available here!

"Surprise" - 8/10
"Innocence" - 9/10
VHS - 8/10

For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

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

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