Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mediocre And Blase, Two Early Episodes Yield Little To Love From Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

The Good: Moments of humor, "The Witch" introduces an essential guest star/subplot
The Bad: Most of the acting, Bland plots, Camp quality to bits.
The Basics: While fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer might enjoy “Witch” and “Never Kill A Boy On The First Date” as useful for establishing characters and plotlines, these two episodes are dull television.

There are some series' that are now easily considered classics in the science fiction or similar genre works that when one looks back upon them, they might be amazed that they survived long enough to get good. Reviewing, for example, the first season of The X-Files (reviewed here!) might make one cringe at its occasional awkwardness. Similarly, as I find myself rewatching early episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I am rediscovering how rocky a start it had. In fact, some of the early episodes wherein the series attempted to establish itself as something other than a vampire show are just plain terrible. Sadly, some of these mediocre or bad episodes have a "necessary evil" quality to them. In other words, in order to understand some of what comes after, one needs to actually see them.

Such is the case, at least in part, with "Witch" and "Never Kill A Boy On The First Date," two episodes collected on video for Buffy fans before it was put into syndication on heavy rotation. "Witch" is an episode that establishes some of the long-term arcs that are played out over the seven seasons of the series and "Never Kill A Boy On The First Date" moves forward the serialized elements of the story that deal with the Master and his quest to be freed of the Hellmouth.

In "Witch," Sunnydale High is overcome by . . . cheerleader tryouts! Despite Cordelia's challenge to Buffy to stay away, Buffy tries out for the cheerleading team. Soon, though, tryouts turn dangerous and weird as a cheerleader literally bursts into flames, another takes an awkward fall and the list of candidates to be on the team begins to get whittled down. As Buffy herself falls prey to the forces at work, Giles and Willow come to discover who is behind the supernatural acts and they seek to thwart her.

In "Never Kill A Boy On The First Date," Buffy decides that when the mysterious stalker, Angel, will not make a move, she will resume some ordinary teenager activities, like going out on a date. Against the wishes of Giles, Buffy asks out Owen and when a bus crash compels Buffy to check out a morgue at night, Buffy, her friends and her date find themselves trapped in a life or death struggle with an extremely powerful vampire. Buffy works to thwart the vampire while keeping Owen ignorant of her nature as the Slayer.

"Witch" stitches the first thread in Willow's series-long arc as a witch when she has her first real encounter with a witch. Willow shares a lot in common with Amy Madison, her fellow student. The minutiae of the episode might be forgotten, but the introduction of Amy - who recurs in subsequent seasons - becomes important as does Willow's first encounter with magic. Even in this first non-vampire episode, there is the hint that Willow might have a power and that power might have a seductive nature to her.

"Witch" clearly defines Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the Hellmouth as somewhere that is not simply overrun by vampires, but a mystical convergence where legions of forces and entities might exist. Some wiccans were offended by this first offering of witchcraft into the series, but it's hard to argue that the show does not strive to strike a balance. "Witch" illustrates an abuse of magic, though responsible individuals like Giles are able to manipulate it with care and some measure of grace. The series manages to show what happens when one goes overboard and the corruption of magical powers is used as a tool to play out the metaphor of an obsessive parent living through their child. The episode works well on that front.

"Never Kill A Boy On The First Date" begins a series of painfully dull appearances by Collin, the Anointed One. Collin is a tool in the Pergeum Prophecy, a series of revelations about the Slayer and her role in his ascension out of the Hellmouth. The Master, an ancient and powerful vampire, becomes a formidable big bad for Buffy and his reliance on the prophecy and the Anointed One is cheesy at best. At worst, it's dismal television.

Fortunately, most of this particular episode focuses on Buffy trying to do normal young adult things, like dating. Buffy chooses the extraordinary white bread Owen and one wonders why casting is obsessed with Hollywood good looking kids. There is no chemistry between Owen and Buffy and Sarah Michelle Gellar and her guest star seem to have no connection that comes across on screen. Moreover, the episode underplays Xander's feelings of being a tool with Buffy never taking his romantic interest in her seriously.

The episodes continue to feel out the relationship between Giles and Buffy as he tries to assert his will as her Watcher over her. Moments of character wherein Buffy impudently declares her intentions toward independence only to be put in her place by Giles feel like they should read as very real and good for the series. In this way, "Never Kill A Boy On The First Date" becomes a remarkably necessary evil episode. Buffy needs to learn a very special lesson and over the course of the episode she must face that she is not like other girls.

It would be extraordinary character development were it not so very obvious to any viewer with a functioning brain. Moreover, in this particular context, it is framed in such plot-heavy ways as to be utterly contrived.

As early episodes, it might seem impolite to gripe about the acting, but these are by no means the finest hours of any of the performers on screen. Guest actress Elizabeth Anne Allen, who plays Amy, is stiff in many of her scenes and there are moments where she is downright painful to watch (this gets better with her subsequent appearances). Mark Metcalf, who plays The Master, is frequently overwhelmed by his prosthetics and make-up, but otherwise gives an adequate performance.

Of the main cast, only Charisma Carpenter stands out in "Witch." Carpenter, who previously was a Laker girl and thus comes easily to the role of cheerleader for the episode. Carpenter makes this seem entirely the function of Cordelia and that's decent acting on her part. Unfortunately, she is given a rather small role and one that is very snobby. The powerful qualities of that type role would later be used by Carpenter in her role on Veronica Mars (reviewed here!), but here it is largely still establishing Cordelia. Still, Carpenter gives a performance that allows her to dominate every scene she is actually in.

Sarah Michelle Gellar comes into her own in "Never Kill A Boy On The First Date." Despite how annoying the plot is and how obvious the character arc is, Gellar sells the slow (painfully slow!) transition of Buffy to super hero with a daytime alias. Over the course of the episode she does everything from altering her body language to speaking more confidently in her character's rebellious moments to illustrate her acting talent.

For the most part, though, it's a wash. Both episodes have dull streaks, from Angel's obvious jealousy in "Never Kill A Boy On The First Date" to Xander's idiotic teenager obsession with any girl in a short skirt. The episodes want to hinge on reversals, but the setups dominate such that the obvious plot reversals that come at the climax of each episode hardly seems the point. Most of the acting is stiff and it is clear in "Witch" especially that the actors are still figuring out the balance between the tension implied by the plot and the comedy illustrated in the words they are force to say.

Ultimately, these are forgettable episodes and while they are both called upon in future episodes, knowing simply that Amy and Collin appear is enough to get one by and allow them to skip over these episodes.

[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!

"The Witch" - 4/10
"Never Kill A Boy On The First Date" – 2.5/10
VHS – 3/10

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

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