Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fateful Revelations And Silly Reversals Make For An Average Buffy The Vampire Slayer Experience!

The Good: Moments of acting, Moments of character, One of the reversals
The Bad: Most of the reversals, Light on plot, Some of the acting is still shaky
The Basics: Two good, but not great, episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer occupy a VHS that is bound to gather dust after the novelty wears off.

There is something about secrets in television shows that makes writing about the first season of a series particularly awful. In the case of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the creators and executive producers of the show hold out a secret for only seven episodes - just over the midpoint of the first season - before showing their hand with their big secret for season one. And those who know my reviews know how very hard I try to write without revealing spoilers. In this case, it is pointless and stupid and in discussing this VHS set, it's damn near impossible. So:

Angel is a vampire.

There, it's out. Of course, this is nowhere near a climactic revelation for anyone who is awake and keeping an eye on pop culture for the past decade. Why? Angel went on to a spin-off series, "Angel" and the fact that he was a vampire with a soul was pretty much the tag-line of the series. One need not be a fan to even know that. But for those first six and a half episodes, this was a huge secret and one is generally pleased that the producers did not drag it out longer to make it something that was a real spoiler for those of us reviewing things like the VHS that has "Angel" and "The Puppet Show" on it.

In "Angel," Buffy has settled into a nightly routine of killing vampires and managing to go clubbing at the Bronze occasionally, while keeping her mother ignorant of her double life. Often on the periphery of her vampire encounters is Angel, the mysterious man who watches her almost as vigilantly as Giles. Deciding that Angel is either a creep or the cutest option she has, Buffy makes her move and in the process discovers that Angel is, in fact, a vampire. Despite her instant recoiling from the man who ought to be her enemy, she finds Angel still has his uses and she works to come to terms with his nature.

In "The Puppet Show," Principal Snyder demands that the students all participate in a school talent show. Unfortunately for the school upon the Hellmouth, the talent show quickly becomes a venue for an organ harvesting and as students begin to turn up dead, Buffy, Xander, Giles and Willow begin to suspect that the culprit might well be a ventriloquist doll that is creeping them all out. It does not take long for the group to discover that the doll is not an ordinary doll, but it is not quite what they suspect it to be, either.

"Angel" and "The Puppet Show" both have surprisingly weak plots which hinge largely on reversals. "Angel" almost pioneers what I've come to call "Joss Whedon Moments." A Joss Whedon Moment is when the climax of an episode makes a shocking revelation that compels the average viewer to sit up straight, swear and begin a countdown for the next episode. "Angel" almost does this, save that the JWM comes in the middle of the episode and the revelation of Angel's true nature does not quite have the impact of, say, Quentin revealing Glory's nature in the fifth season.

Sadly, the reversals are truly what these two episodes are all about. Buffy is suddenly forced to accept that her romantic interest might be something that she has to kill. The ventriloquist doll turns the entire plot of "The Puppet Show" and ironically, that episode becomes one of the few freestanding episodes in the series (whereas many of the other seeming bottle episodes get alluded to or brought back up in other ways). And, in the end, it is actually a pretty weak reversal.

Almost as weak is the way the regulars are used in that episode. How one of the principles from Buffy's group ends up with their head in a guillotine is just idiotic. I don't care if it's only the ninth episode; they've seen enough to not be that stupid, even by then! It's like Giles has lost all sense of adult perspective here. Indeed, in "The Puppet Show" the only characters that truly work are Willow and Principal Snyder.

Snyder is played by Armin Shimerman, and this is arguably his most recognizable role outside prosthetics. Shimerman might be best known for playing Quark on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but this role has him in a more menacing and authoritative place as Snyder and it is refreshing to see he has the range to pull it off. And, ironically, Snyder becomes the principal who lasts simply because by the end of the episode, the producers had forgotten to kill him off!

"Angel," however, has slightly better character development and performances. At the heart of it, Angel's revelation of his vampiric nature - while being completely plot-convenient - is essentially a character change and a fairly decent one at that. This creates a "Romeo & Juliet" type love affair and that sort of character conflict works very well and plays remarkably well in this context. Angel is almost instantly transformed from a blandly good-looking guy into an interesting and viable character. All it took was a CG morph into a vampire prosthetic! Bam! The show buys itself a second season!

But equally important is that "Angel" provides a decent character struggle for Buffy to explore. How does one react when the man one loves is the sworn enemy? How does Buffy reconcile the idea of a bloodsucker with the concept that he might have a soul? The concept works in this episode on both a literal and metaphoric level. Under the surface, this becomes a more universal exploration of how we reconcile the emotions of love with the fear that the one we love will end up being a jerk. Or a monster.

This also gives Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz an opportunity to establish some chemistry on-screen by playing off one another in a more meaningful way than they have before now. Boreanaz is able to become more physical and less cerebral and this works well for him and Gellar gets the chance to actually emote in an meaningful way. At this point in the series, Buffy has not lost anyone truly close to her (one teacher she liked and a friend of a friend). Angel's transformation allows Gellar to effectively play Buffy with a real sense of shock and hurt.

Unfortunately for the viewers, it's not quite enough. This VHS presentation is average and there is nothing that one gets on this that they would not get out of watching it in syndication, save the control to watch it whenever one wants. There is still too much of a feeling that this is an early series episode. Everything is a little off, there is a clunky quality to the presentation, the direction and much of the acting that makes it worth seeing - once, perhaps - but hard to recommend for the purchase.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Buffy The Vampire Slayer - The Complete First 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!

"Angel" - 7/10
"The Puppet Show" - 4/10
VHS - 5/10

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

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

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