Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Season Of Darkness Made Better By Bonuses: Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Season 2!

The Good: Decent character development, Moments of acting, Plots, DVD bonus features
The Bad: Still does not know whether it wants to be drama or camp!
The Basics: This boxed set is a real mixed bag of good acting, inconsistent characters and a show that slowly develops though it doesn't hit its stride this season.

As I have been rewatching the entire DVD collection of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (entire series reviewed here!), I have been struck by how erratic the series truly was in a lot of ways. I think the first viewing I did of the series, I neglected just how bad the matching was between stunt actors and principle actors was. Similarly, on DVD the shows irregularity is well-encapsulated in the bonus features, specifically the commentary tracks. In the second season Buffy The Vampire Slayer DVD boxed set, commentary tracks include insightful commentaries by writers and directors tying the series together and a terribly commentary track by one which simply advertises Angel and tells the listener exactly what is happening on screen. In other words, there is a huge break between the worthwhile and the worthless. The second season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is very much like that overall.

Following the climactic battles of the surprisingly mediocre first season (reviewed here!), Buffy returns to Sunnydale in an erratic season that finds her pitted less against vampires and more against obscure creatures and constructions like robots, undead mummies, a snake-like creature living underground, and demon/extraterrestrial eggs. Yes, living on the Hellmouth is fun and games and disturbing this season.

Season two has both the bottle episodes and a serialized arc; following Buffy's calamitous victory against the Master, she returns to Sunnydale angry and depressed and taking more risks than before. After a period of resistance, she accepts her place as Slayer and her love for Angel. Unfortunately, as the vampires regroup under the direction of new-in-town Spike and his crazy and ill sire, Drusilla, who have come to enjoy the benefits of the Hellmouth. When Buffy and Angel have a chance to actually explore their love, disaster follows and the fate of the world hangs in the balance when Buffy's gang loses members, including one who joins the forces of evil.

The second season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is oddly the most involved with foreshadowing of any of the seasons. "Reptile Boy" foreshadows the big bad of season three, "Some Assembly Required" foreshadows the big bad of season four, and Willow's magical powers grow setting the stage for the sixth season. The appearance of Kendra the Vampire Slayer, a second slayer, sets up the third season and this season contains the most annoying over-referenced episode of the series. That episode is "Halloween," which introduces the chaos-worshipping warlock Ethan Rayne, an old associate of Giles, who bewitches everyone's Halloween costumes. It seems like an annoying little bottle episode, but when Xander becomes a soldier as a result of his costume, the skills he suddenly inherits are called back to constantly throughout the series, making it pretty indispensable. Similarly, Ethan Rayne pops up for future episodes that seem like bottle episodes but get referenced again (like season three's "Band Candy").

Buffy The Vampire Slayer works on two levels, though season two has the balance of those levels very much out of whack. The show works on a literal sense; the story of a young woman, in love with a vampire, who kills the evil demons every night while wisecracking her way through school throughout the days. In the literal story, there is campy wordplay and fun and the harsh reality of characters getting killed, hurt, and hunted. The show has moments that are hilarious and disturbing and it turns on a dime. In that way it's a somewhat fractured show that awkwardly straddles camp and humor and harsh horror. The show even references that, though, with things like swelling melodramatic music accompanying Xander and Cordelia kissing during a crisis situation.

The other level is a metaphorical one. The show explores larger themes of life and growing up using the creatures and such as a metaphor. So, for example, "Ted" finds Buffy adapting to her mother dating a new man. Ted is loving and perfect one moment and horrible and abusive the next, with no one believing Buffy that he has such a distinct difference in his personalities. On the metaphorical level, the episode works because it illustrates well the fear young people have when their single parents begin dating; the guy appears too good to be true and is a monster underneath. Similarly, Buffy and Angel's burgeoning intimacy and its result captures well the fear many young women have about the power of sexuality on a relationship.

Like most serialized television (I'm not sure Buffy The Vampire Slayer would fall under "great," certainly not for this season), the key selling point is the characters and the show works hard to develop the characters over the larger plot arcs, adding a strong sense of growth to the characters and the series as it progresses. In the second season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, peripheral characters like Jenny Calendar and Spike exert more influence over the plots and character arcs than in the first season. This is who the principles are for the second season:

Buffy Summers - The Chosen, one, she returns to Sunnydale (from summer vacation and the netherworld) feeling a bit lost, though she soon reconnects with her friends and Angel. As her love for Angel grows, she finds herself preyed upon by Drusilla and Spike, two vampires bent on simply ruling Sunnydale and succeeding where the Master failed. Her friends assist her, but she soon finds herself on a lonely road when her love for Angel takes a terrible turn,

Cordelia Chase - The snobby young woman who has been on the outside of the group is let into the group when she continues to help the Slayer fight evil and she improbably falls in love with Xander. While she and Xander develop a relationship, she is often attacked by the demons and villains roaming the Hellmouth,

Willow - Continually frustrated by Xander's ignorance to her affections, she begins to move on when she encounters a brilliant young man named Oz, who happens to be a werewolf. She begins to assist Giles with spells and takes over teaching when tragedy befalls one of the teachers at Sunnydale High,

Xander - Continuing his trend of falling in love with the wrong creatures, Xander soon bucks that trend by falling for Cordelia, despite deeply caring for Willow. He briefly becomes a soldier, instantly developing skills that he is called upon to use to aid the Slayer, for whom he still has some unrequited affection,

Giles - He has been developing a relationship with teacher and technopagan Jenny Calendar, a love that is challenged when she is possessed by a demon and her origins are revealed. He continues to train Buffy and provide her with the methods needed to defeat the enemies they face,

and Angel - The vampire with a soul is challenged by his sire Drusilla and grandsire Spike who come to Sunnydale to rule over the vampire population there. He continues to fall in love with Buffy and works with her and her team to try to defeat the vampires and other evils that inhabit the area.

This season is strengthened by better acting than in the first season. Sarah Michelle Gellar comes into her own as Buffy, quickly illustrating that she can handle more than just delivering campy dialogue and being an action hero. She is able to evoke a real sense of pathos from the viewers with her performance when she struggles with her love for Angel. Gellar is good and this season illustrates that she was well-cast and gives her the chance to explore that well.

The supporting cast is decent as well. David Boreanaz and Charisma Carpenter stand out as Angel and Cordelia, easily setting up the spin-off "Angel" and their parts in it. Seth Green recurs for the latter half of the season as Oz and the role is very different from anything else he has performed in. As well, Anthony Stewart Head and Nicholas Brendan, Giles and Xander, are good lending dignity and goofiness, respectively, to the show and their characters.

But it is Alyson Hannigan who shines in this season. Hannigan makes it easy to see how she got How I Met Your Mother with her performance in this season. She has an excellent sense of comic timing and wit that she brings to Willow. Willow spends much of the season lacking in confidence, but she grows and Hannigan's performance is transformed through her body language and vocal attitude as the season progresses.

On DVD, the second season is well-presented. There are no "Previously On Buffy The Vampire Slayer" bits in the teasers, so those who see the show in syndication will be treated to a few extra scenes. The commentaries (as mentioned before) are a mixed bag, but the featurettes are extensive and decent. The behind-the-scenes information is fun and interesting for those who are real fans of the series.

But this is a tough sell for those who are not already fans of the series. The season ultimately gets the recommendation from me because the latter half of the season ramps up into something that it truly worthwhile, even as the first half is shaky and sometimes just plain bad. Joss Whedon, the creator of the show, is counting on fans to stick with it and the DVD presentation is the ideal way to see it; so the risk is somewhat mitigated. But for those who are looking for real drama or who aren't fans of science fiction/horror, there is not enough to recommend this set.

For a better sense of what this entails, please check out my reviews of specific episodes from this boxed set, at:
"Passion"/"I Only Have Eyes For You"
"Becoming, Parts 1 & 2"


For other television programs, please be sure to check out my index page with links to those reviews by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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