Sunday, October 16, 2011

Buffy In The Sea Of Transition: Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Four!

The Good: Amusing, Occasionally clever, Social realism, Acting
The Bad: Wandering focus, Some character choices, One or two performances
The Basics: When Buffy goes off to college, Willow becomes a more interesting character and the show struggles to keep fresh and interesting.

When it returned for its fourth season, Buffy The Vampire Slayer had a tough task. How to come back from a season finale where the apocalypse is averted and the High School is literally destroyed in a fiery battle? How to come back to the town of Sunnydale in an entirely new place with an entirely new dynamic with two fewer characters (Angel and Cordelia had gone off to Los Angeles as this was the first season of Angel). This was a turning point for Buffy and her gang and it's a tough sell.

And the show almost does not survive.

Not the characters, mind you, but the show. There are high points in the fourth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but there are also some very low moments that are almost unwatchable. Indeed, while the third season was consistent, getting better and better with the rising actions of the season, the fourth season feels like a show that does not truly know where it is going or where it wants to be.

In the fourth season, Buffy and Willow head across town to Sunnydale College. At the college, they begin to adapt to life on their own with strange roommates and - in Willow's case - boyfriends (she and Oz are still together at the outset of the season). Meanwhile, Xander adapts to the working world and his new, weird relationship with Anya, while Giles struggles to find his place now that Buffy no longer truly needs him. And while they start to figure out their new lives, a new organization appears in Sunnydale to fight the good fight, the Initiative, a group combating the vampires and demons with military precision.

Of course, in the Buffyverse, nothing is quite that simple. The Initiative, despite its straightlaced face Riley, is more insidious than it initially appears and is being run by someone who has her own agenda. And that leads to the most ridiculous and improbable villain in the Buffy universe: Adam.

Adam is a "frankenstein monster" type creature and his genesis makes little sense considering the source. Adam begins to convince demons to take back the night and he's unconvincing, dull and difficult to watch. In fact, Adam fails to work on such a basic level that he is dispatched before the season finale, leaving an awkward, weak episode to close the season on.

Buffy has always been about characters and here is how the fourth season of the show finds and develops the regulars:

Buffy - Now at college, Buffy begins to consider the future and believe her life is somewhat pointless. She finds herself eased out of much of her work by the Initiative and its efficient commandos, her friends doing their own things and her feeling blah,

Willow - As Willow grows in power, she has a falling out with Oz and discovers her sexuality. As she gets closer and closer to Tara, she feels her other friendship's straining and her magical abilities growing immensely,

Giles - Feeling lonely and lost, Giles questions his own purpose. In the process, he is turned into a demon and tries everything he can to be a part of Buffy's life,

Spike - Returns to Sunnydale seeking invincibility and fails to get what he needs. Instead, he ends up a prisoner of the Initiative and the subject of their experiment to control vampires,

Oz - Torn between his love for Willow and his inability to control his werewolf nature, Oz makes the difficult decision, early in the season, to leave Sunnydale to seek a cure for his lycanthropy,

Xander - Gets the short end of the writing staff this season. He comes along for the ride, complaining about construction work occasionally. His relationship with ex-demon Anya is about all he does this year,

Riley Finn - Introduced as a commando of the Initiative, Riley faces a series of tough decisions as he grows to love Buffy and sees the negative way the Initiative reacts to her,

and Anya - Still recurring in this season, the ex-demon continues to explore life as a human through her intimacy with Xander.

The characters are interesting and as Willow blossoms into an openly gay character, it is clear the writers are trying to come up with new and interesting directions for the characters. Willow's character is probably the best conceived part of this fourth season. Buffy, Giles and Xander make for difficult watching week after week as they seem to spend most of their time lamenting how they are not growing. Indeed, if it weren't for Willow keeping the show interested and moving on the character front, the show would have collapsed.

The apathy and elements of disconnect that Buffy is experiencing as a college student with an improbable future are far better related and explored in the show's sixth season. While foreshadowed in the fourth season with "Something Blue," the elements of alienation that Buffy explores in her relationship with Spike do not come to fruition until that sixth season.

There are high points in the fourth season and they are truly in three episodes. The first is the episode "Hush." "Hush" is a mostly-silent episode wherein Sunnydale falls under the spell of a group of creatures that cast silence over the town. It is clever, funny, witty and honestly scary. "Hush" is a rare episode in the fourth season as it proves that Joss Whedon can still innovate and push the envelope.

The other high point is the two-part episode where Faith wakes up from her coma. Merging nicely with "Angel" at this point, the two-part episode restores some sense of urgency and danger from the third season.

The acting hinges in this season on three people: James Marsters, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Alyson Hannigan. Spike begins to grow in the fourth season out of his monolithic evil self, forcing Marsters to infuse some element of humanity into his performances. As Marsters adapts, he manages to keep Spike an intriguing character without weakening him significantly.

Sarah Michelle Gellar has a tough time. Gellar is forced to portray Buffy at a crossroads and because Buffy is so lost until her relationship with Riley takes off, it is hard to separate Buffy from Gellar's portrayal. There seems to be a great deal more uncertainty in Gellar about how to play Buffy and until the last few episodes of the season, that uncertainty dominates Gellar's performance and is somewhat distracting.

Hannigan, however, comes through. Given a great deal of emphasis in the third season, Hannigan smoothly makes the transitions in her character as Willow goes through some pretty hefty emotional changes. Hannigan plays Willow with an exceptional range from sadness to enthusiasm and she has an energy to her that plays very well off Amber Benson's understated portrayal of the quiet, nervous Tara. Hannigan is who keeps the show floating while it is at its most uncertain in the fourth season.

Fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer are likely to enjoy this season of the show more than people who are not already fans. The truth is, though, that the show does from being intense and witty in the third season to rocky and strained in the fourth to restarting somewhat with a fresh idea in the fifth. This truly is the "take it or leave it" season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The reason to take it is that it has its moments of charm and excitement and the growth of Willow as a person is enjoyable.

Often, that's reason enough.

For other fourth seasons of fantasy or science fiction shows, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Lost - Season Four
Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Fourth Season
Heroes - Season 4


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

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

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