and when you said I scared you, well I guess you scared me too

The final three.


Fun. Angel comes to a painful but logical realization – that it’s unfair to tie a beautiful young girl down to a moping immortal. So he breaks up with her (at an inconvenient time, but is there ever a good one?). Buffy spends an appropriate amount of time heartbroken, then throws herself into her work and tracks down a lone psycho training hellhounds to ruin prom. Meanwhile, Xander uncovers Cordelia’s secret day job. Despite her continually hostile attitude toward him, he pays for the dress that she’s put on layaway – a lovely, albeit pathetic, gesture.

I know that the hokey ceremony at the prom, where the entire class made an award just for Buffy, should bother me more than it did. It’s such transparent wish fulfillment – in a show that’s all about wish fulfillment, giving the high school outcasts hot dates and superpowers – that I know I should feel seedy. But I don’t. Because, ultimately, Buffy has given up a lot of her normal life in order to protect Sunnydale from everything. She doesn’t get a boyfriend, she settles for a college other than the best she could get into, and all her friends are weird. So I was moved. Or maybe it’s just really effective wish fulfillment.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • A hellhound that’s been trained to shred people in formal wear? A kid who wants to slaughter a gym full of promgoers because … eh, you know what, the episode isn’t even really about this guy. So I’m not mad enough to give this an AYFKM. It’s still pretty lazy, though.
  • The entire episode hinges on the Precious Magic of Prom, which is a trope I’d prefer vanish from American culture as a whole and pop culture in particular. It’s one night. It’s a dance. You’ve been to dances before; you’ll go to dances again. The industry that’s been built up around this one lacklustre night in the tail end of a high school career sickens me – and I work in marketing, so I know from sickening.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • I buy into Anya’s social ineptitude. For the past several centuries, her only interaction with humans has been to toy with them. I’m not surprised she’d have a hard time telling a pleasing anecdote (“so she wished her husband’s head would explode …”).
  • We knew Angel was going to show up at prom. Everyone knew. Don’t pretend you didn’t know. That being said, I’m glad the show didn’t imply that Angel and Buffy were going to get back together. You can acknowledge that you’re not meant to be with someone and still be fond of them.
  • Also, though Xander paying for Cordelia’s dress is, again, pathetic, it represents a nice note of closure on their relationship. A lesser show would use this to imply that maybe they’re getting back together (I can see Aaron Sorkin doing this, for some reason). But that would be stupid. Buying someone a prom dress isn’t a way to rekindle an old romance, especially if he cheated on her and she nearly died. But it’s a great favor for a friend.
  • “For god’s sake, man. She’s eighteen, and you have the emotional maturity of a blueberry scone.”

Overall Grade: Didn’t blow me away, but you can’t depict the senior year of your protagonists without having one episode at prom.

GRADUATION DAY (Parts 1 and 2)

The moment that Season 3’s been building toward since “Homecoming.” Mayor Wilkins culminates his hundred-year plan to Ascend, turning into a demon and devouring most of Sunnydale. The gang’s in for their most desperate fight yet.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • What little Giles, Wesley and the Watchers know about the Ascension suggests that it’s a terrible cataclysm. Even by the standards of the terrible cataclysms the gang avert every week. And getting the inside scoop from Anya confirms this. Given the monumental stakes involved, why the fuck are the only people who can stop it – Buffy, Willow, et al – still going to school? Shouldn’t they be locked in the library 24/7, doing research and calisthenics? Shouldn’t the Watcher council send some backup?

    And if the answer’s “no, it’s not a big enough threat to justify that,” then why have we spent all season building up to it? Because if Sunnydale’s in no more danger from the Ascension than they are from the Apocalypse Cult of Jhe (in “The Zeppo”) or the demon Lurconis (“Band Candy”), then that’s a supreme letdown. And if they’re in more danger, that demands a proportionally greater response. But no one seems worried that the Ascension’s coming in three days.

  • Xander’s meta-consciousness regarding his role as a supporting character (“I just know there’s no way I’m getting out of this school alive”). Thankfully Whedon doesn’t pay off on this, but there’s the fear he might.
  • The Mayor orders Faith to murder Professor Wirth three days before the Ascension, because Wirth is the only one who knows about the vulnerability of the Mayor’s new form. Except (A) Wirth doesn’t know, really; he’s not a demonologist, (B) as Wesley points out, his homicide only draws attention to his life and research, rather than concealing it, and (C) it’s not exactly a momentous revelation! What an obscure bit of lore – the demon’s vulnerable to massive volumes of fire. I wouldn’t have considered blowing it up with enough fertilizer to vaporize a school library unless I’d read this occluded text.
  • “Guess who our commencement speaker is.” “Siegfried?” “No.” “Roy?” “No.” ARGHLEBARGHLE.
  • “We have to find a spell to stop the Ascension,” Willow declares. You mean you hadn’t been trying before today? Or do you mean staking that vampire with a levitating pencil (which I’ll admit was cool) inflated your self-esteem so much that you think you can undo a century-long ritual in three days? Or are you dumb? Or – and I smell a winner – could Whedon not think of anything else for you to do for the next 44 minutes?
  • “This is mutiny.” “I like to think of it as graduation.” WUT IZ THIS SYMBOLIZMS I IS NOT SURE
  • “All that killing, and you’re afraid to die?” … what? How does the one follow from the other?
  • Buffy feeds her blood to Angel, leading to the two of them thrashing around on the floor of the mansion. Angel grinds on top of her, while Buffy moans and crumples things (like tableware) in her hands. EXCUUZ ME I WAZ TOLD DERE’D BE A SYMBOLIZMS?
  • Does the vampiric vulnerability to sunlight mean anything? Does it have to be direct sunlight, unreflected off any other surface? Because Angel wanders around the library while the gang’s getting ready for war like it’s nothing.
  • For being the “key guy,” Xander doesn’t contribute a lot to the final battle. He stands and tells people when to shoot the things they’re holding. I could have done that. Have I mentioned yet that I hate the character of Xander?
  • “Guys – take a moment to deal with this. We survived […] Not the battle. High school.” UGH.

All Right, I Admit, That Was Cool

  • “I’ll scream.” “Who wouldn’t?”
  • The gang engages in some smart, focused problem-solving. Xander brings Anya in for debriefing. Buffy and Giles accurately deduce that the Mayor killed Professor Wirth to hide something important. Buffy learns that Angel needs a Slayer’s blood to survive and decides, without much angst, to take Faith’s. Plot, action, progress – a neat little march.
  • The Mayor! Always the Mayor. “That’s a spunky little girl you’ve raised. I’m going to eat her.
  • And as dumb as the Mayor’s plan was to kill Professor Wirth, his plan to poison Angel is genius. It is, as Wesley points out, an effective way to split the gang’s limited resources.
  • “Fine! You know what? I hope you die! … aren’t we going to kiss?”
  • The Mayor’s been growing paternally fond of Faith since she switched sides, but it ramps up in this episode. This makes his response to her death more appropriate.
  • Though I thought little of the taunts – as I think little of all Whedon dialogue – I loved the final showdown between Buffy and Faith. A classic furniture-wrecking, window-smashing evening brawl.
  • The gang shows up and takes Angel to task for feeding off Buffy to save his own life. Even if she did provoke him into it, this is their logical response. Who’s going to be more crucial to stop the Ascension – the chosen Slayer, gifted with superhuman strength and speed, or a guy who can’t come out before eight-thirty?
  • Though the “riddles” are hell of lame, I liked Faith passing … her Slayerness? Whichever … on to Buffy in the shared coma fantasy.
  • The graduating class doffing their gowns and going to war on the Mayor. I knew it was coming, but I still got a thrill out of it. It’s so subversive.

Overall Grade: It’s an ending. So there.

# # #

Throughout this recap, I’ve been calling Whedon out for various tendencies I liked or (more often) disliked about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I realized recently, though, that it’d be unfair to lay all of that at his feet. Whedon may have been producer and show runner, but network television gets written by a committee of different writers. Maybe the “Whedonesque” style that I hated so much could be laid at the feet of a few delinquents.

So I used Wikipedia and my prior recaps to search for any trends. Below find a list of each episode and its credited writer.

Episodes I Loved
“Faith, Hope and Trick” (David Greenwalt)
“Band Candy” (Jane Espenson)
“The Wish” (Marti Noxon)
“Consequences” (Marti Noxon)
“Doppelgangland” (Joss Whedon)
“Choices” (David Fury)

Episodes I Liked
“Homecoming” (David Greenwalt)
“Helpless” (David Fury)
“The Zeppo” (Dan Vebber)
“Beauty and the Beasts” (Marti Noxon)
“Earshot” (Jane Espenson)

Episodes I Tolerated
“Revelations” (Douglas Petrie)
“Lovers Walk” (Dan Vebber)
“Gingerbread” (Jane Espenson)
“Bad Girls” (Douglas Petrie)
“The Prom” (Marti Noxon)
“Graduation Day” (Joss Whedon)

Episodes I Hated
“Anne” (Joss Whedon)
“Dead Man’s Party” (Marti Noxon)
“Amends” (Joss Whedon)
“Enemies” (Douglas Petrie)

So, no clear rules but several obvious tendencies:

  • I am more likely to hate an episode written by Joss Whedon, selected at random, than I am to tolerate or love it.
  • I am more likely to like or love a Marti Noxon episode than to tolerate or hate it.
  • Jane Espenson’s good, too.
  • Every writer has at least a chance of overcooking the roast, except apparently David Greenwalt or David Fury. The Davids can do no wrong.

And this half-assed statistical analysis neatly wraps up the theme I’ve been addressing since June: I just don’t like Joss Whedon. He’s creative. He comes up with these fantastic worlds – cowboys in space! secret agents with replaceable personalities! high school kids fighting vampires! – that excite you just by hearing about them. And then he fails to deliver in any way that would engage me. I don’t find anything worth emulating in his heroes; I don’t find the gags he writes funny or the stirring speeches stirring; and the moral of each story, when it’s not ham-handed, is just as likely to offend me as instruct me. He’s a great producer and a mediocre writer.

I gave him a fair shake. But when a given season of his seminal work – voted by his fans to be the one to watch – is just as likely to delight me as it is to bore or annoy me, that’s too random a craps shoot for me to bet on. I have better shows to watch.

Thank you for indulging me while I nitpicked at your idol. If you want to do the same with The Wire or Mad Men or The Prisoner, I’ll sit on my hands.


don’t bring tomorrow to justify tonight

I haven’t forgot Buffy, don’t worry. But with the mid-season finale of Burn Notice and the season premiere of Mad Men and the final days of Kings and discovering old episodes of I Spy on Hulu, well, I had a lot more interesting TV to watch.

Whedon never misses an opportunity to indulge in fan service, so why not bend the fabric of reality to put Allyson Hannigan in a corset again? I shouldn’t complain, though, as this episode turns a minor villain – Anya – into a recurring character with interesting motivations. And aside from the usual first-act meandering, this is a really good episode! Every character does what they’d reasonably do; we have some fun chase scenes and vampire brawls; Faith barely shows up. Almost perfect.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • The evil lair where Anya petitions her demon master for her powers back is clearly some guy’s basement with a few Hot Topic throws. Clearly. You can see light coming through the ground-level window.
  • Nothing highlights how superb an actor Harry Groener is, and how poor of one Eliza Duskhu is, then putting them in a scene together (“this place is the kick”- ugh). To be fair, maybe Whedon’s deliberately writing Faith as dumb.
  • … y’know, other than that I’ve got nothing.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • I like Anya. She acts emotionally invested in her situation, rather than with the witty remove that Whedon tries (and fails) to inject in all his dialogue. I’m given to understand that she becomes a recurring character; if so, I approve.
  • “I swear, I’m just trying to find my necklace.” “Well, did you try looking in the sofa in Hell?” I chuckled.
  • After the sluggish first act, the presence of two Willows in Sunnydale proceeds at a reasonable clip. Evil Willow immediately begins consolidating her power, bullying vampires into submission and turning them into a goon squad. Meanwhile, Buffy and crew realize that their Willow isn’t a vampire after thirty seconds – which is good, because a 45-minute comedy of errors would have been appalling.
  • Willow acting as evil Willow. I think Hannigan’s a better actor than Whedon’s dialogue and coaching give her the opportunity to be. She delivers every line with the same perky cadence, punctuating them with a smile and some chin movement, regardless of their content. Here, though (and in “Earshot”), Hannigan portrays a wide range of emotions. The scene in the Bronze, where she must simultaneously keep up a vampiric facade, send as many bad guys outside as she can, allay Oz’s fears and still act tough was very entertaining.

Overall Grade: Lots of fun. A high point of the season.

And then, well. I remember this being the first Buffy episode I ever watched, not long after it originally aired. I formed my first low opinions of Whedon from this one. When it came up again in the queue, I hoped that time had exaggerated its flaws.

Nope. This episode starts with Buffy and Faith running into a demon who wants to sell them the Books of Ascension (why should they care? how does he have them? if the Mayor’s been planning this for over a century, why doesn’t the Mayor have them already?). Faith jacks the demon, steals the books for her new boss, and tricks Angel into standing still long enough for an undead wizard to yank his soul out (that easy, huh?). Angel and Faith go on a tear, screwing and bludgeoning their way across Sunnydale until they lure Buffy back to Angel’s mansion. He ties her up until Faith reveals the Mayor’s master plan, at which point – ah-ha! It was a trick all along! Also, Cordelia’s seducing Wesley.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?
Deep breath. Here we go:

  • Why is Buffy interested in the Books of Ascension, which she hadn’t heard of until 10 seconds ago? The demon trying to sell them drops the Mayor’s name; does that constitute any sort of bona fides? If I showed up at the Pentagon tomorrow claiming to have Osama bin Laden’s address in a Hello Kitty diary, would that obligate the DoD to take me seriously?
  • I’m glad Wesley suggests beating the rather feeble demon up and stealing the books from him. But nobody considers that this might be a trap to lure the Slayer out? Then again, if it were a trap, it’d be a rather poor one. So I suppose Giles and Wesley’s ignorance gets saved by the demon’s stupidity.
  • If it’s that easy to separate Angel from his soul, why hasn’t anyone tried it before? The Mayor makes some throwaway reference to the effort and sacrifice of getting the wizard to show up, but we never see it cost him anything. And the actual ritual involves throwing some alchemical goop on Angel, then the wizard showing up and chanting for a few seconds.
  • The entire episode hinges on Buffy and Angel deciding, off-camera, to run a sting on Faith. When do they do that? Here’s how the sequence of events has to go: the Mayor summons the wizard and makes his request. The wizard, that same day, grabs Giles and tells him, “Hey, you owe me, so I’m telling you: the Mayor wants me to go corrupt a friend of yours.” Giles, having forgiven Angel for murdering his girlfriend and torturing him, tells Buffy, who was on her way to go ask Angel what Faith was doing visiting. Buffy and Giles hurry over to Angel’s mansion, telling him what’s about to go down. In record time, they come up with a plan to make it look like Faith has turned Angelus back. Giles calls the wizard back (which apparently takes him zero effort, compared to the Mayor) and briefs him on the plan. The wizard agrees. Faith shows up with a vial of goop, etc, the episode proceeds as recorded.

    That’s an awful fucking lot of stuff to happen off-camera.

  • Buffy’s rather tolerant of Angel sleeping with Faith. We never see that happen, of course, but we have to presume it did. Because if a ravenous amoral creature like Angelus got his hands on a nubile young sexpot like Faith, made out with her hot ‘n heavy, and then said, “Hold up, let’s not take things too fast here”? The ruse would fall apart in a second. So, Angel screws Faith without turning back into a demon (I never saw Season 2, but I presume the “true moment of happiness” that did him in was the consumnation of his love for Buffy, not the moment of climax) and Buffy forgives him.
  • Every line of dialogue Xander has in this episode makes me hate his character more. I did not think it possible.
  • And Willow’s isn’t much better.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • Angel relishing his released status as a vampire. Boreanaz is a much better actor than Whedon’s dialogue and coaching, oh wait, I’ve already given this note.
  • Angel punching Xander in the face. I know technically it’s part of the first bullet, but it deserves a call-out.

Overall Grade: Not the worst episode of the season, but it’s fighting “Anne” and “Dead Man’s Party” for that title.

Interesting. I figured this for a daring choice by Whedon, since I knew S3 originally aired in 1999. Then I saw that this episode aired, out of continuity, in September 1999. Probably pushed back several months in the wake of the Columbine shootings. Regardless, it takes an interesting concept – what would you do if you could read minds? – and plays it out to its natural conclusion. I respect Whedon for following the episode’s conceit logically, as well as giving us a few twists to keep us from guessing the real killer until the very end.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Once again, the first act angst that foreshadows the episode’s supernatural bent is tacked on. Buffy feels left out of the gang’s social life? Why now? Why more so than usual? She’s ducked out of their events without hesitation before – and even when she and Angel were on the rocks.
  • Who tries to shoot themselves with a hunting rifle?

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • The mind reading. Whedon was good enough not to skimp on the way teenagers actually think about sex, within the limits of PG-13 television (“I’d like to shove her up against a locker and …”). I liked the introduction of mind reading as a power that seemed useful at first but proved twisted.
  • The thoughts of her friends when she reveals her new power to them. Specifically Oz (“I am my thoughts. If they exist in her, Buffy contains everything that is me and she becomes me …”) and Cordelia, thinking what she was about to say just before she said it. Plus, though I haven’t been on board with the Wesley character yet, he did a fine job with comic timing here.
  • Willow’s questionnaire. Her interrogation of Jonathan was, again, one of the few times I’ve seen her act this season: inflecting words, using body language, etc. But I laughed out loud at every character in this sequence, from Xander interviewing Larry (“what secret? that I’m gay?”), to Oz interviewing Hogan (” ‘Moderate strain.’ Is that a good answer?”), to Cordelia interviewing a teacher (“were you planning on killing a bunch of people tomorrow? It’s for the yearbook”).
  • “You had sex with Giles?”
  • Whedon pulls off an excellent double reversal on who the real killer is. I spent so much time cringing in anticipation of the dark, pseudo-intellectual loner being the murderer that I didn’t mind when it turned out the pudgy, frustrated loser was. And then it wasn’t even him! I don’t always think much of Whedon’s plot twists, but they were well used here.
  • ” ‘Dingoes Ate My Baby play their instruments as if they have plump polish sausages taped to their fingers.’
    “Sorry, man.”
    “No, it’s fair.”
  • A few shots of students watching Buffy vault to the bell tower to disarm Jonathan help set up the shifting tide of popular opinion that culminates in “The Prom.” Nicely done.
  • “We can work out after school. You know, if you’re not too busy having sex with my mother!”

Overall Grade: Didn’t have the preachy impact it was aiming for, but fun in its supernatural aspects.

Once again, an idea taken to its logical conclusion: Buffy, as a high school senior, may one day be heading off to college. What does that mean for her duties as a Slayer? And the stakes get raised even higher when Buffy snags an artifact the Mayor needs for his ritual, but gets Willow kidnapped in the process.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Snyder’s drug paranoia, thrown in as an afterthought. There’s one lame scene in the beginning where he rifles the lunch of two students we don’t know just to establish that he might have a reason to be at the school later.
  • “That won’t cut through steel.” “No, but it will cut through bone.” ARGH. Why not just finish the train of thought for anyone else who misses subtext? “Whose bone are you going to cut through?” “The guy I just shot. I’m going to sever his wrist and remove the cuffs that way.” “So then you can take the box to the Mayor?” ET FUCKING CETERA.
  • The sequence with Oz and Xander decoding Willow’s instructions (“twice-blessed sage or twice-blessed toad?”) serves no purpose in the story whatsoever. And it’s not funny.
  • For as much as I complain about 24 and its false dichotomies (“we need to light this school bus of nuns on fire, or Al-Qaeda will detonate a nuke! there’s no other way!”), it would not be fair to withhold the same judgment from this episode. The only two options are to surrender an evil artifact to the Mayor or see their friend get slaughtered? They haven’t infiltrated heavily guarded compounds against impossible odds before? None of them has the least bit of outside-the-box creativity?
  • Not much of a title.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • I didn’t think Northwestern was worth getting so excited over as a school, but U.S. News ranks it #12 in the country. Shows what I know!
  • “You killed him.” “What are you, the narrator?” That is fucking rich, considering the nature of Whedon’s dialogue. I howled.
  • Faith’s knife as a symbol of her lust for power, and her growing reservations about it. The knife appeared just often enough to be memorable, not so much as to hammer (or stab) the point home.
  • ” ‘Faith, we’re still your friends. We can help you. It’s not too late.’ ” “It’s way too late.” Again, one of the few times Hannigan’s called to really act, and she clears the fences. Unexpected and good.
  • Angel and Buffy fighting the vampires over and around the conference room.
  • I like the “great demonic power” in the box being a lot of spiders. And the terror was scripted very well – two spiders jumping out of the box, scurrying somewhere unknown, and everyone in the room freezing. Sometimes it’s the tiny threats that scare us the most.
  • “I married my Edna May in ought-three and I was with her right until the end …” Again, the Mayor carrying a scene effortlessly. And he introduces a logical complication – is the kind thing for an immortal to do to monopolize the best years of a young girl’s life?
  • Oz saying nothing in the argument over whether to rescue Willow or not, until he knocks the pot into the corner. Excellent example of commitment in a negotiation scenario; Thomas Schelling would be proud.
  • Buffy’s bargain with Wesley: if she stops the Ascension, she gets to go to college. Doesn’t work out, of course, but it represents a refreshing level of proactive effort. It shakes up the cycle of Encounter Threat, Lose Fight, Do Research, Win Rematch.

Overall Grade: I liked it very much.

# # #

Next update will be the last: “Prom,” “Graduation” (Parts 1 and 2) and overall thoughts on the season.

you were a vampire, and baby I’m the walking dead

No introductory paragraph this time. Just more Buffy.

Eh, all right. I understand – and even respect – the coy wink that the show turns toward adult authorities in Sunnydale. Buffy can cut classes with few consequences, and the police throw their hands in the air when bodies show up exsanguinated. So to turn that around and have the town get in an uproar over two dead children – compared to however many died in “Dead Man’s Party” or “Beauty and the Beasts” – cuts at the quick a little. Of course, as it turns out, this uproar has enchanted origins: the ghosts of two German children, who reappear every 50 years to thin out the real world of some witches. Though that draws the question of why Buffy and her friends are immune to the enchantment’s effects, but anyway.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • It makes no narrative sense that Buffy flips out over two dead children (“you mean someone with a soul did this?”) when, as recently as “Band Candy,” she was torching demons that ate live babies. I couldn’t buy this at all. Especially considering the children were largely intact. But maybe I’m just a jaded TV viewer – after watching three seasons of The Shield in rapid succession, my first reaction to seeing two dead kids was “but they weren’t molested, were they? missing any limbs?”
  • “What is this?” “A doodle. I do doodle. You, too; you do doodle, too.” GAH FUCK IT’S IN MY BRAIN.
  • “Fairy tales are real?” the werewolf asks of the witch, the vampire slayer and the old British man who casts spells.
  • “All right. You want to fry a witch? I’ll give you a witch!” … ugh. All it needed was a sinister cackle and an invocation of some dark power, like OH GOOD HECATE well that was terrible.
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • The principal relishing his newfound power. ” ‘Blood Rites and Sacrifices.’ Chess club branching out?”
  • Willow’s interaction with her mom wavers between corny and funny, but lands mostly on the side of clever.
  • “You have been such a champ.” “We should do lunch!” “I’d like that.”
  • Buffy’s accidental staking of the giant German demon at the end of the episode.
Overall Grade: Mediocre.

Very neat. When Buffy starts to lose her super strength on her 18th birthday, she fears it means an end to her Slayer career. But it turns out Giles and the Watchers are poisoning her to test her – intending to lock her in an abandoned house with a vampire serial killer. I seriously feared for a few minutes that the test might go off as planned (it’s the sort of thing I think Whedon might do), but complications arise. Buffy not only has to stake the vampire, she has to kill his new subordinate and save her mom as well.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “I’m way off my game. My game’s left the country. It’s in Cuernavaca!” Ech.
  • Angel confessing that he’d been in love with Buffy for years. This may be my ignorance of canon speaking, but weren’t Buffy and Angel enemies in Seasons 1 and 2?
  • Giles getting fired as Watcher because he cares for Buffy too much. I don’t see how this is a disadvantage. A Slayer getting attached to her Watcher, sure – the Slayer is more important, and anything that could act as a liability should be cut out. But what’s wrong about a Watcher being fond of his Slayer? What’s the worst thing that could happen? It’s an artlessly introduced conflict and it rings false.
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • Buffy taking out the vampire with a glass full of holy water. I wondered for the first half of the episode why the Watchers were so considerate as to give Kralik a glass of water to wash down his pills with. But it’s a nice third-act gun on the wall for Whedon to play with.
  • Cordelia giving Buffy a ride home. I respect that as a character choice.
  • “I’ll kill you for that!” “For that? What were you trying to kill me for before?” I laughed.
  • Buffy walking home and getting leered at. She probably wouldn’t have kicked their jaws off if she had her super strength, but she would have carried herself with more confidence. It made me conscious of how the women in my life – who probably get leered at or catcalled pretty regularly, and don’t have super strength – have to handle themselves.
  • Kralik, and the whole chase through the abandoned house, make a severely creepy sequence.

Final Verdict: Good stuff.

Not as bad as I feared an all-Xander episode would be. I worried at first that it would be another “War Stories” – the unfunny comic relief character complaining that no one takes him seriously, staging a temper tantrum, and finally getting respect through contrived means. But it didn’t work out that way. Granted, Whedon completely bobbles the pacing for the first half of the episode. But when the plot gets moving in two directions at once, with Buffy and the gang closing the Hellmouth while Xander rushes around to find a gang of arsonist zombies? It’s exciting.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Xander picking up the blonde girl, and promptly losing her after the next commercial break, doesn’t advance the plot in any way. It doesn’t offer any entertaining bits of characterization, either. I’m not sure why she’s there, other than to stretch the episode out needlessly.
  • Xander and Faith having sex. Faith getting turned on to the point of uncontrollable lust by a fight with a demon is offensive. It smacks of The Rules according to Dane Cook: a girl in the right circumstances becomes a helpless automaton.
  • “The Zeppo.” Why would Cordelia make a Marx Brothers reference?
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • The second half of the episode, when the plot starts coming together, does something I did not think possible: it makes Xander the normal one. Giles is an absentminded professor, oblivious to the zombies following Xander. Willow’s a flighty, emo witch. Faith’s a walking Maxim pull-out, and Buffy and Angel are practicing for their daytime Emmy. Xander’s flustered but driven need to solve his own real problem – the bomb hidden under the school – seems sane in comparison.
  • “Is it hard to play guitar?” “Not the way I play it.”
  • Again, Whedon hangs a third-act gun on the wall in a way that completely reverses expectations by having Oz take out Jack O’Toole. I laughed out loud at that.
  • And the stand-off over the time bomb played out very well. Whedon figured out what it takes to make someone cool: have him react calmly to pressure without saying very much. He even carries it over to the end with Xander’s final confrontation with Cordelia. Too bad it doesn’t last into future episodes.
  • I liked the conceit of never really seeing what the gang dealt with while Xander was running around.

Final Verdict: My second-favorite episode of this batch of five.

Uneven but interesting. Faith turns out to be a bad influence on Buffy, encouraging her to greater heights of larceny and violence until the inevitable happens. Meanwhile, the Mayor ramps his scheming up into overdrive and a new Watcher shows up to relieve Giles.

The villains of the week didn’t do it for me – a “duelist cult”? what, do they worship epees? – but it made for interesting swordfights, of which I always approve. I think the gang’s distaste for Wesley Wyndham-Price (OH PERHAPS HE’S BRITISH) came on a bit thick. The man’s a stranger, sure, and he’s there to replace Giles, but he’s not particularly incompetent. Just young.

I’m ambivalent on the unwitting murder of the Mayor’s aide as the catalyst for the second part of the episode. It seems a little too … easy. Faith doesn’t watch what she’s doing and totally offs a guy! Sure, I guess, but … eh.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • In this episode, Whedon makes Faith dumb. Not impulsive, not spunky, but stupid. Ignorant of the consequences of her actions. And this is explicit. At one point Buffy tells Faith, “Wait! Stop! Think!”, to which Faith responds, “No, no, no!” What is that supposed to mean? “No, I don’t want to think”? Later, breaking into a sporting goods store for some illegal firepower, Faith forgets how to use nouns: “Want, take, have.” I know making characters temporarily dumb is a staple of sitcom logic, but this is particularly disgusting.
  • “I’m torn between the fast-growing fields of appliance repair and motel management. Of course, I’m still waiting to hear back from the, uh, Corndog Emporium …” I had no reason to think that Xander’s character would change. But I hoped. I really hoped.
  • Is there any reason Buffy doesn’t want Willow to tag along with her, other than “the plot couldn’t handle it”? I might buy that Buffy was too embarrassed to be seen with Willow when Faith was around, except Buffy doesn’t seem entirely comfortable around Faith.
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • Balthasar. Ich. Loved it. How an immobile ball of lard got to be top dog over the most athletic vampires I’ve seen yet baffles me, but whatever. He’s got character.
  • The Mayor and Mr. Trick. The two of them can do nothing wrong. “Nobody can tell Marmaduke what to do. That’s my kinda dog.” And the Mayor’s checklist! Priceless.

Final Verdict: It suits. Good lead in to …

Kept me on the edge of my seat. Buffy and Faith deal with the fallout from their unwitting murder. Twists and turns abound – the story drives forward at a quick and engaging clip.

What I liked most about this episode: I couldn’t anticipate where the plot was going. In most episodes, Whedon either telegraphs the plot twists well in advance, or springs them on you then gives you enough time to dwell on them. Here the story just kept moving. First Faith narcs out Buffy, but Giles actually believes Buffy, then Xander lets slip that he got nailed by Faith, then Xander almost …, then Angel clonks Faith on the head, and then … wow.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “First word: jail, second word: bait.” What makes this funnier than just saying “jailbait”? It’s longer, less clever, and it doesn’t allude to anything funny.
  • Giles is right; new watcher Wesley has no reason to assign the Slayers to investigate the deputy Mayor’s murder. There’s nothing remotely supernatural about it (to an outside observer). It’s a decision made purely to make the plot go.
  • Oh, and the Watchers’ means of securing Faith once she gets captured don’t work for shit. All it takes is one (vaguely) threatened hostage and she’s free again. Nice work, guys.
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • I can’t say I “loved” Faith raping Xander, because, well. But it was definitely a way more shocking, and therefore interesting, choice than anything else that Faith’s done in the last five episodes. Put it this way: I buy Faith raping Xander more than I buy Faith growing so unbelievably aroused that she has to sleep with the first thing she sees, and oh look it’s Xander.
  • “She may have many talents but, fortunately, lying is not one of them.” Giles sees through Faith’s story in an instant. Not that Buffy having to prove her innocence would have been a bad arc by any stretch, but it’s very cliched. This takes it in an interesting direction. Now the tension comes not from Buffy having to prove herself, but from Buffy and Giles keeping Faith at arm’s length.
  • Angel’s intervention with Faith. He is, in fact, the best suited to speak with her: he’s the only one who knows what it’s like to enjoy a murder. The dialogue could have been a little punchier, but I could make that complaint about every scene in this series.
  • Mr. Trick siccing the cops on the Slayers. That plot twist came at just the right time to kick the episode into a higher gear.
  • Xander letting slip that Faith screwed him. I worried that Whedon would try to drag that secret out for another 3 or 4 episodes (like Xander and Willow’s affair), but this was the best time for it. And, as with Giles earlier, everyone gets it without needing to spell it out.
  • “I guess that means you have a job opening.” Ambivalent on the end of the episode, but its unexpectedness nudges it into the Awesome hole. Faith going from “slayer of demons” to “aiding and abetting demons” is a bit of a stretch, but she was never in this to save the world anyway. And when you don’t feel like you have anyone in your life to trust, you make some really shitty choices.

Final Verdict: Fun, tense and plotted with razor precision. More like this, please.

to the logical limit

A little under a week ago, I took some flack from folks on LiveJournal for my assertion that sitcoms were an inferior form of art to more active, plot-driven stories. Well, that wasn’t really what I was asserting. What I asserted was that I didn’t like it when sitcoms did that, and that it was a frequent enough trope that I was comfortable generalizing. I thought that was clear enough from beginning the post with, “Here’s what I don’t like about sitcoms,” but.

However, after defending my assertion to several logical people whose opinions I trust, I realized that I should probably unpack my feelings on art a little more. So here they are:

1. I believe that there is such a thing as great art, and that it’s not subjective. You and I, reasonable humans and critical minds, will probably disagree on what that great art is (you: Herman Melville; me: Ernest Hemingway, and on into the clove-scented night). But we should agree that there is such a thing as great art – that not only is it Platonically possible, but that it has been done and will be done again. I do not agree that all aspects of art are relative.

(I spell that out because some people think that, no, all art’s in the eye of the beholder, it’s not possible to say that one piece of art is better or worse than another in an objective sense, etc, etc. And I don’t feel that’s true)

2. I believe that art is anything created primarily to evoke a response. “Primarily” being the operative word. Art is art because its aesthetic value outweighs its utilitarian value. I don’t think that a meticulously crafted Louis XIV ottoman is art, though it has a lot of aesthetic value (attention to form, fine craftsmanship, etc) – it’s meant to be used. Now I suppose if someone buys it and puts it in a sterile room no one’s allowed to enter and insists the children never touch it, it’d be more art than furniture. Similarly, a well prepared plate of food that crosses the line from nutritional diversity (protein, carbs, fiber, fruits) into a tour of the senses could be considered art.

(Most people want a clear definition of Art so they can act as gatekeeper. “Duchamp isn’t art; it’s his gag on the art world.” “Pollock isn’t art; it’s random squiggles on paper.” “Video games aren’t art; they’re toys.” That’s not what I intend. I’m not trying to exclude anything from the category of Art. I want a working definition of art because, per point #1 above, we can’t talk about greater or lesser works of art unless we know what they’re better or worse at. Art has to do something, and the term “Art” has to mean something, for there to be greater works of Art)

3. I believe that every form of art has limitations and benefits inherent to its media. Novels can do things that film can’t; film can do things that comic books can’t; comic books can do things that symphonies can’t; etc. I spell this out in more detail in an earlier post on aesthetics of different media.

4. I believe that a piece of art which evokes a response with little apparent effort is a great work of art. I’m least certain about this belief of anything I’ve asserted so far and would welcome the most hearty debate here. But I believe that, the closer to which art approaches nature while still evoking a vivid response – or proving more diverting – the better it is. Sunsets over the ocean are beautiful, but they’re not art. A symphony that evokes the same wordless feeling in you that a sunset over the beach does is a great work of art. A chorale composition, featuring a talented vocalist singing about how beautiful the sun is, standing in front of a dropcloth on which a sunset is projected, is not as good.

(Note that when I say “nature” I don’t mean “naturalism,” though I have a strong fondness for that myself. The Matrix is a greater work of art than Jet Li’s The One, because the dialogue, effects and pacing in the former far exceed the latter. It is believable, even if it is sci-fi, and The One is not, even if it is largely similar)

5. Since technical effort is the criteria I use, I believe that the strength of the response evoked by art has little to do with its greatness. Or, in English, there’s nothing wrong with being entertained by bad art. A great work of art is great because of its technical strength, not because it evokes more powerful responses or “nobler” responses.

I find Road House more fun than Memento. Moreover, I was more entertained by Road House than I was moved by Memento. But I would still say that Memento is the greater work of art, because Christopher Nolan is the greater craftsman. He tells a more complex story with less apparent effort. I say this and I stick by it, even though I’ve watched Road House at least three times in the last twelve months and haven’t touched Memento in years.

6. And finally, I believe that you will find more great works of art among dramas or romantic comedies than among sitcoms.

Sitcoms, to my jaded and condescending eye, wear their formulas too openly. There’s the introduction, the complication, the rise to climax and the comical denouement. There’s the familiar interchange between bumbling husband and tolerant wife, between lewd boy and coquettish girl, etc. Not that the material itself renders it poor art – when this stuff was new, back in the days of commedia dell’arte, it was groundbreaking. But very few new trails have been blazed in situation comedy in the last fifty years. The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, M.A.S.H., Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Office, Arrested Development … I’m struggling to name more.

Further, sitcoms exist primarily on television today, and television, like all art, is subject to the limits of its medium. The subject matter has to please advertisers. It has to fit into a 24-minute slot. It has to break up into three recognizable beats to fit between commercials. This is why (in my opinion) you find more groundbreaking material on cable: shows like Party Down or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Weeds.

So it’s not impossible for a sitcom to be great. It’s just not as likely. And this is why I believe it.

just like a paperback novel, the kind the drugstores sell

Here’s what bothers me about sitcoms.

Traditional narrative structure gives us a protagonist who has a desire. Between this protagonist and his desire lies an obstacle. The story depicts how the protagonist gets around this obstacle. In boy meets girl, the boy must convince the girl his feelings are true. In the brave little tailor, the tailor must overcome monsters and challenges to win his fame and fortune. Etc.

Sitcoms, however, have to tell lots of stories in rapid succession. So eventually, the writers reach a point where most of the obstacles are in the protagonist’s own head.

Common examples include:

  • “Oh, I have a crush on her, but I can’t tell her.”
  • “Oh, I’ve done something despicable, but I can’t let anyone know.”
  • “I think my boss gave me this promotion because he thinks I’m cute. How can I find out?”
  • “Despite years of competence at this task, I suddenly doubt my own abilities!”

These all suck because they can be resolved at any time. They exist entirely inside the protagonist’s head. He could get over them tomorrow; he could get over them ten years from now. There’s no logic to when the obstacle should be overcome and, therefore, no tension. If I’m late for the opera and my car keys fell down a sewer drain, the obstacle will logically be resolved when I either get my car keys out of the sewer, or flag a taxi down, or call my husband and let him know, etc. But if I’m delaying going to the opera because I hate opera, who knows when I’ll fess up to it?

(If it’s a standard sitcom, actually, we know exactly when I’ll fess up to it: sometime between the twenty-fifth and twenty-eighth minute. But that’s not a function of good storytelling)

Sometimes the writers force their characters into situations that push them over their (self-created) internal tension and get them to act. The meek secretary is trapped in an elevator with her handsome boss. Will she confess her feelings? The problem is that, again, the writers are under no pressure to resolve this dilemma now. They could string along her obvious discomfort until the end of the episode. It’s happened before.

So can internal tension still make interesting stories? Absolutely. But only if it is absolute.

A perfect example would be The Shield. Vic Mackey does something questionable – like snatch five hundred thousand dollars from a drug bust and hide it at his house. Does he spend an episode debating what to do? No. He makes a decision and acts on it. The plot advances. The tension comes when events outside his control force him to reevaluate his decision. For instance, his wife Corinne finds the money while searching the basement. What does he tell her?

“But Vic Mackey was a bold, decisive character,” you object. Fine: consider Billings. In Season 4, Billings witnesses a drive-by shooting while at a self-serve car wash. Rather than flash his badge and draw his gun, he hides around the corner of the building until the shooter drives off. This is a craven decision by a despicable character. But Billings doesn’t fret over it. He sticks to it. He remains silent on what he’s seen until events outside his control force him to reevaluate his decision: Wagenbach gets the case, runs Billings’ plates (from a witness or a videotape, I forget) and corners him.

The Shield is a drama, so let me turn back to sitcoms for appropriate examples. The Office occasionally veers into woe-is-me territory, but can usually count on Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott, to propel the plot forward. When Michael Scott gets an idea, he acts on it instantly and drags the rest of his office into it with him. We’re hiring a stripper! We’re running a marathon! We’re going to Benihana! You can hate him, you can pity him, you can laugh at him, but the one thing you cannot do with Michael Scott as your office manager is ignore him and continue on with what you were doing. “Everybody into the conference room.” This makes Michael an essential character and Jim Halpert, sadly, a weak one.

What’s the lesson? Decisions drive plot; debate delays it. People want to see stuff happen. As soon as you introduce a desire and an obstacle, your characters need to start climbing that obstacle. They can’t just stare at it and pull their hair. And once they start climbing, they either need to cross the obstacle in a reasonable period of time, or they need to fall off. Or find another hurdle at the top. Either way, your story needs to move.

and all the vampires walking through the valley

I’ve been watching the final season of The Shield in concert with the third season of Buffy. This makes for an interesting mix of tastes, like brushing your teeth, then sipping a glass of orange juice. For one thing, almost everyone on The Shield acts more naturally. I prefer naturalism over melodrama, unless the actors crank the melodrama really high (think Mystic River high). For another, as much as Whedon plays at dark, creepy settings, Sunnydale ain’t got shit on Farmington. I know it’s not a fair comparison – FX can get away with a lot more than the WB.

But most jarringly, every given episode of The Shield packs in so much more plot than Buffy does. Whedon struggles to fill 44 minutes with an A and a B plot; Ryan crams A, B, C and sometimes D plots into 48. The cast of major characters tops a dozen – the four-man Strike Team, Wagenbach and Wyms, Sofer and Lowe, Aceveda, Billings, Vic’s family, Shane’s family, the villain of the season, etc.

It just makes Buffy seem … slow.*

My reviews of episodes 306 through 310.

The most fun episode yet. Whedon introduces the evil subtly at first – we see Giles and Joyce compulsively eating chocolate but don’t call much attention to it – culminating in some giggly slapstick at Bronze. The adult actors get to stretch their legs a little, freed from the one-dimensional constraints of their usual roles. And the action and mystery move along at a good clip.

The episode’s fun enough, in fact, that the worn patches only show up on closer inspection. Did Mr. Trick and the Mayor need to turn every adult in town into a carefree teenager just to steal four babies? Mr. Trick makes an awful lot of his final confrontation with Buffy (“I like other people to do my fighting for me, but I just gotta see what you got”), then flees almost immediately. And once again, the powerful demon whose presence would mean terrible things for Sunnydale gets dispatched in about thirty seconds. Oh, well.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “Were you at the Bronze? What was happening there that was so important?” “Bronze things. Things of Bronze.” Ugh. Why not just have Gellar say, “Insert retort here; rewrite later”?
  • “Giles at sixteen? Less Together Guy, more Bad-Magic-Hates-The-World-Ticking-Time-Bomb Guy.” Look, you clearly wanted the word delinquent but didn’t have a thesaurus within arm’s reach, and deadline was in twenty minutes. But don’t try hyphenating eight words into one if what you need is a complete sentence.
  • We check in with Angel but don’t advance the romantic storyline in any meaningful way. Yawn.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • Once again, The Mayor. He pulls off little bits of absurdity (“Now where did I put that Scotch?”) that I would have a hard time with from the good guys. It could be because he’s the villain; it could be because he’s a better actor.
  • “I do well on standardized tests … what? I can’t have layers?”
  • Giles as a rocker. We really got to see his range here; Head pulls off the disaffected teenager (“you’ve got good albums” / “yeah, they’re okay”) with beautiful poise. Plus, you know the cigarettes he and Joyce were smoking were a primetime television stand-in for a different kind of ritual herb. Watch the way he holds his to see what I mean.
  • Setting the demon on fire. It was clearly CGI, but it wasn’t clearly CGI, if that distinction makes any sense.
Overall Grade: Lots of fun. More like that, please.

Decent. The Buffy/Angel tryst finally comes to a head, with Xander catching the two of them making out (only took, what, four episodes?). The crew freaks out that Buffy kept his return secret, since apparently Angel did a lot of despicable things last season. In what becomes a recurring theme this season, Buffy’s sorry for keeping a secret from her friends as soon as they find out about it, but not one second before.

Gwendolyn, the Watcher sent to check up on Giles, bitches a little harder than she needs to, but not too hard for a sci-fi/fantasy TV show. And Whedon scripts her heel turn very well; I didn’t see it coming until about five seconds before it happened (“Destroyed?” she asks, when Giles mentions they’ve found an evil artifact, and then I thought hmm).

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Willow backing down from her confession: “I opened my SAT booklet five minutes early.” That’s not drawing out the tension, Whedon – that’s stalling the obvious.
  • “Faith! A word of advice: you’re an idiot.” Really? I think Faith reasoned pretty accurately from the limited data available to her. And “you’re an idiot” isn’t advice.
  • So this terrible artifact’s power is to shoot lightning? This ancient relic, which we certainly can’t let fall into the hands of a demon, is like a less convenient assault rifle?
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • The Buffy vs Faith fight.
  • Giles lecturing Buffy. Buffy does expect an awful lot of slack for a guy who murdered a bunch of people, including Giles’ girlfriend.
Overall Grade: Serviceable.

Up and down. Spike shows up, getting both the episode’s best and worst dialogue, and kicking the plot in motion. He kidnaps Willow so that she can cast a love charm on his ex-lover Drusilla. This sets Buffy and Angel on a hunt to find her – a fun little jaunt through downtown Sunnydale that puts them in the middle of a huge vampire brawl.

We also get some closure, finally, on the Xander/Willow thing. Again, the two of them become sorry for all the heartbreak they’ve caused as soon as they get caught – which leads me to doubt the sincerity of their apology, but whatever.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Spike’s speech about what love does to people goes on exactly two sentences too long to be cool. I respect the effort, though.
  • Angel can’t enter a home unless invited, but that doesn’t seem to bother Spike when he shows up in Joyce’s kitchen.
  • Speaking of “the rules of vampires,” how much sunlight does a vampire need to be exposed to in order to start crisping? Is it direct sunlight or nothing? Spike spends a lot of time in ambient, reflected sunlight in this episode with no obvious downside.
  • I get that Buffy lives in a universe where magic and demons are real, etc, but the contented little shopkeeper at the Magicke Shoppe struck me as, well, a Hollywood caricature of paganism. “Blessed be,” and all that.
  • The whole “soft like baby food” confrontation between Lenny (vampire scumbag) and Spike seemed a bit tacked on. Spike’s reversal from sad sack to proper villain comes on too quick to be believed.
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • Spike’s initial confession of his heartbreak to Willow went on a few minutes too long. But repeating that same confession to Joyce made it funny.
  • Hell, Joyce was on fire for that whole kitchen scene. “Willow’s a witch? Wait, Xander’s a witch?”
  • “Oh, sod the spell. Your friends are at the factory.”
  • The fight scene in the street, and in the magic shop, was a lot of fun.
  • I was worried the episode was going to end on a string of close-ups of our heroes staring sadly into the distance. But the splash-cut to Spike balling down the highway, screaming along to Sid Vicious, made me laugh out loud.
Overall Grade: Not bad. Fun in places, a drag in others.

Very impressive. Whedon takes too long to get to the crux of the episode – Cordelia’s wish creating an alternate reality in which Buffy never came to Sunnydale – but things ramp up and stay interesting from then on out. We get a quick but encompassing view of the city without Buffy: dark, deserted, and terrified of its own shadows. Cordelia tries to warn alternate-universe Giles and crew about the danger they’re in, but gets ganked by Evil Willow (“bored now”) and Evil Xander before she can spell things out. Buffy shows up and a massive brawl breaks out at the ubiquitous factory. Good times.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • Vampires are attracted to bright colors? What?
  • So this wish-granting demon’s “center of power” – its secret vulnerability – is the necklace hanging over its heart. Given that, why would it ever stand within arm’s length of someone? It has the power of wishes. Let other people cause trouble for you.
  • Buffy gets from Cleveland to California awful fast.
  • “If anyone saw me hanging with Xander Harris’ castoff on top of that …” I’m not going to suggest that high schoolers don’t talk like that. But they don’t talk like that to each other. At least not if they’re not trying to be deliberately cruel.
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • I like Evil Willow and Evil Xander much more than normal versions of same. They seem to be real people inhabiting the situations they’re in, as opposed to poorly constructed punch lines waiting to stumble into a scene.
  • “Look,” Oz tells Willow. “I’m sorry this is hard for you. But I told you what I need. So I can’t help feeling like the reason you want to talk is so you can feel better about yourself. That’s not my problem.” What? Characters on Buffy calling each other out on their self-centeredness? How can this be?
  • The fight in the factory was epic.
  • And that girl being drained of her blood, by a machine, while still alive, creeped me the fuck out.
  • Whedon plot twist that pays off: Cordelia, the only person who knows what the “real world” is supposed to be, getting killed at the end of the second act. Holy shit! Now we’re stuck, right?
  • Loner Buffy, straight outta Cleveland, seemed distinctly different from Sunnydale Buffy. I respect the effort put into that acting distinction.

Overall Grade: Just one coat of wax shy of perfect.

Oh, fuck, a Christmas episode. I can’t think of the last Christmas episode in any TV series that I enjoyed. This one’s no exception, with Angel struggling in unconvincing torment over his past monstrosities. It’s not that I don’t buy his agony when the ghosts of his former victims get in his face – that makes sense. It’s that I don’t buy his borderline turn into a “beast.” He seems scared and annoyed by the memories of the people he’s tortured, but not particularly aroused.

Regardless, Buffy tracks down the cultists griefing him – creepy priests with tattoos where their eyes should be who serve “The First.” Again, for such a primal vessel of Evil, the First’s minions go down like a stack of china. Buffy then goes to track down Angel, reversing the decision she made two episodes ago (but which we all saw coming) to fall for him again. Happy ending. Blech.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • The sun doesn’t come out? That’s the “Christmas miracle” this episode ends on – cloud cover so heavy that it plunges the city into supernatural darkness? Never mind that this is the lamest Christmas miracle in the history of Christmas miracles (which it is). But doesn’t another twelve hours of darkness in a city on the edge of the Hellmouth mean that the Slayer has to work overtime?
  • I know sarcasm’s part of Buffy’s repertoire, but it doesn’t help impress me about how dangerous The First is supposed to be. Could at least one person in this episode act scared of it?
  • This is me being new to the franchise, but – Angel tortured Giles and murdered his girlfriend? As well as a bunch of other people? How are we supposed to like him now?
All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool
  • Remember how I sneered that the dress that Willow changes into in “Homecoming” isn’t that flattering of a dress? Okay, the little red number she’s wearing when Oz shows up at her place? That’s a flattering dress.
  • Angel showing up at Giles’ place. Angel plays his desperation at having to turn to Giles really well. Giles is equally cool in turn, producing that crossbow almost out of nowhere.
  • Whedon didn’t run the “Hanukah spirit” joke into the ground! Three times, and done.

Overall Verdict: No worse than any other Christmas episode in any other TV series.

* I bring this up so people don’t accuse me of judging Buffy too harshly for failing to live up to the greatest thing which the medium of television has yet to produce. The Shield is really good but, to my jaded eye, it’s not as good as The Wire. I’ll explain why if you’re really curious.

the victims have been bled

I’ve struggled for a while on what exactly bothers me about Joss Whedon’s writing style. Realizing that Whedon cut his teeth as a writer for Roseanne clinched it for me: every scene he writes feels like either a sitcom or a soap opera.

His characters take awkward pauses between each sentence – pauses which make no sense in the context of dramatic television, but would make perfect sense if someone were waiting for a laugh track to be dubbed in. The camerawork makes each scene take half again as long as it ought to, lingering on non-speaking characters for reaction shots … which would be fine, if the actors were any better. And most episodes peak with cheap moralizing of the Lassie variety (“y’see, Timmy …”). Ick.

Whedon’s a man of immense creativity but without the stylistic chops to back his vision up. And style matters. Friends had no real concept (they’re these single people who live in Manhattan!) but really clever writing; that carried it for more than a decade. Buffy had a barn-burner of a concept (hot teenagers kill monsters) and mediocre writing, and it struggled to get seven seasons.

That being said: when he gets out of his own way, his stuff can be fun.

Notes on the first five episodes of S3:

Awful. This episode introduces a new season, meaning it should ramp up the conflict early to hook viewers in. Instead, the episode’s nearly half over before Whedon introduces the central conflict (Ricky goes missing; Lily asks for Buffy’s help). The scene where Buffy and Lily ask after Ricky at the clinic – presumably before he got a tattoo of Lily’s name – has some awfully weird cinematography. The camera sticks on the nurse like her face contains Ominous Import, instead of just Ominous Amounts of Cellulite. Buffy quickly finds where Ricky, as well as several other teenagers, have vanished to – a hidden portal to a demonic dimension that manufactures … what exactly? I dunno. Buffy spends all of four minutes here before staging a revolt and escaping; you’d think it wouldn’t be so easy to overpower, slay and evade demons on their home ground, but what do I know?

The A-plot climaxes with a pointless fight scene: Buffy clambers up onto an elevated platform and kicks 20 demons in the head. If those demons were chasing the escaping slaves, why would they climb up after her? Why wouldn’t they just run around this platform – it hardly obstructs the path – and keep after their quarry? And if for some bizarre reason they’re compelled to fight her, wouldn’t the consecutive head-kickings of demons #11, 12 and 13 suggest a need for better tactics? “Hey, let’s throw something at her from one of these dimly-lit railings, maybe.” But the entire scene exists just to make Sarah Michelle Gellar look like a competent fighter, which running with her hands flailing* does not.

Anyhow, Whedon pads out the 44-minute running time with some profoundly dumb B-plots. Xander worries that Cordelia might not like him any more. Willow worries about how they’re going to hunt vampires without Buffy around. So they set a trap for a vampire (“act bait-y”), only they completely screw it up, haw haw. Cordelia and Xander end up on top of each other and start making out – which, in sitcom logic (see above), means they’re together. And I guess the fact that a vampire got disintegrated means the gang can pull off a staking without Buffy. Only we never see anyone acknowledge either of these things; the episode ends with these threads untied.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?:

  • “This is no place for a kid to be. You get old fast here” (OH HAI SYMBOLIZM)
  • “I just want to be alone in a room with a chair and a fireplace and a tea cozy. I don’t even know what a tea cozy is, but I want one.”; and
  • “Humans don’t fight back. Humans don’t fight back! That’s how this works!” (DID I TELL U BOUT DA SYMBOLIZM?)
  • “Want to see my impression of Gandhi?”
  • When Buffy finds Lily being “baptized” (when did this go from non-judgmental place for troubled teens to cult, and why is no one else startled by that shift?), she kicks in the door and confronts the cult leader. Or rather, the door swings open and she walks in rather casually; the sound of splintering wood is Foleyed in. I know Gellar can’t actually kick in a door, but could it have least looked like she tried?

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool:

  • Buffy ripping the telephone off the wall. It’s done casually, the comic timing is perfect, and it’s a subtle (!) reminder of the superhuman strength that Buffy totes around.
  • “If we can focus, keep discipline, and not have quite as many mysterious deaths, Sunnydale is gonna rule!” This was the first character whom I believed was a real person feeling real feelings.

Overall Grade: Second worst episode of the first five.

Wretched. The scene where Buffy’s mom Joyce hangs the Nigerian death mask in her bedroom stands as an example of everything that’s wrong with Buffy when it goes wrong. The acting’s no better than community theater (“leave plenty of pauses between each line, and for God’s sake don’t react when someone else speaks”). Every conversation takes twelve sentences to communicate something normal humans could manage in two. And it would take a psychotic – I mean literally, someone who does not process reality the same way everyone else does – to think that that Nigerian death mask “cheers up the room.” But Joyce has to leave that mask hanging, or else the episode cannot proceed.

Also, Joyce invites Buffy’s closest friends over for a welcome back dinner. Talking it over in the library, they decide to turn this dinner – at which they are guests, not hosts – into a party. A party with a live rock band, two dozen strangers, and liquor (“do a shot! You have to do a shot now!”). Which Buffy’s mom and her weird neighbor Pam are cheerfully attending. Who said this was okay? Who thought this would be okay? Biker gangs behave like this, not teenagers who go to good schools and like each other.

So the entire episode hinges on two instances of stupid behavior that everyone has to pretend are normal. It climaxes with Buffy’s friends yelling at her for running away (right, because nothing keeps your friends around like anger). The confrontation between Willow, Xander and Buffy plays out like bad improv, with characters repeating the same ideas but never advancing the conversation. Thankfully, zombies crash through the window to get things moving again.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “We should figure out what kinda deal this is. I mean, is it a gathering, a shindig or a hootenanny?” I couldn’t hear the rest, as I was vomiting, but Seth Green goes on for another thirty seconds in this vein.
  • The Principal describing the “tingly feelings” he gets when he fantasizes about punishing Buffy. And I don’t think Whedon was trying to make him come across as a pervert – that was his notion of clever, villainous dialogue.
  • “The Watcher’s back on the clock. And just when you’re thinking career change, maybe becoming a … a looker or a … a seer …”
  • “You can’t just bury stuff, Buffy. It’ll come right back up to get you.” (MAI SYMBOLIZM LET ME SHOW U IT)

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • ” ‘Do you like my mask? Isn’t it pretty? It raises the dead!’ Americans.”

Overall Grade: I very nearly bailed on my promise to watch all of Season 3 after this episode. Worst of the first five.

And then suddenly it gets better!

Buffy meets Faith, who got promoted to slayer in the five minutes that Buffy was dead. Whedon ladles Faith’s salacious spunkiness on a little thick – the first anecdote she shares with the gang is about a time she killed a bunch of vampires “without a stitch on … stark nude.” Does he not think that Xander, or the rest of the male audience, would find Eliza Dushku hot unless she talked about being naked? Regardless, Faith is free in all the ways Buffy isn’t, which leads to some tension between the slayers … until Kakistos, the vampire that killed her Watcher, shows up. I don’t buy Faith running from Boston all the way to California – everything about her screams overconfidence, not underconfidence, and nothing about Kakistos makes him look like a threat. But the two team up, stake him, and seem to end up as friends.

B-plot: Buffy acting all confused and coy around Scott Hope, the cute boy who wants to ask her out. Scott has all the backbone of the zombie cat from the last episode: struggling for the courage to ask Buffy to dance, buying her a ring before they’ve even gone on their first date, hoping that they can be “friends,” etc. Then again, maybe a loser like Buffy – a juvenile delinquent with shit grades, no life outside school and no friends except three weird kids and the school librarian – is the best he can do. Ha ha, just kidding: Buffy’s clearly a desirable match, and Scott’s clearly a winner (see sitcom logic, above).

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “They should film that story and show it to children every Christmas.” Upon further reflection, 95% of what I dislike about Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes out of Nicholas Brendan’s mouth.
  • I’m torn between whether or not I like or dislike Giles’ inventing this “binding spell” out of nothing to get Buffy to talk about Angel’s death. Ultimately, I dislike it, simply because Buffy could have legitimately brought up Angel’s death without it (she is dating again, after all) and because I can’t stand the notion of lying to someone for their own good.
  • A pre-emptive AYFKM for Angel reappearing when Buffy leaves her ring at the spot where they fought. We haven’t learned yet how exactly Angel escaped from whatever hell he got sent to, but if it’s “… your love brought me back” or some variation thereof I will spit fire.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • Mr. Trick lunging out of the car window to snag the drive-thru attendant (“… now I’m hungry.”). It was a well-timed shock and a well-delivered line.
  • Mr. Trick casually donning a thick rubber glove to yank the pizza delivery guy in through the front door.
  • Hell, I just love everything Mr. Trick does. You can thank him for turning me around on Season 3.

Overall Grade: Apparently, the A.V. Club’s Noel Murray is also watching Season 3 of Buffy for the first time (note to self: he apparently likes it; discount any future reviews of his). He says that Angel’s reappearance in this episode “seemed like Whedon’s way of announcing that all the season’s main introductory stuff is over. The story starts now.” Though he seems to mean it as a compliment, I’d say that’s one of the places Whedon consistently goes wrong: he thinks that he can waste three episodes on character development and arranging the deck chairs. He can’t. That’s what turned people off of Dollhouse.**

“Faith, Hope and Trick” works because it has three decent fight scenes (Faith taking the vampire outside; Faith and Buffy on patrol; Faith and Buffy vs. Kakistos) in addition to introducing three new recurring characters as well as advancing Buffy’s personality (she’s getting over Angel’s death) on top of a dramatic cliffhanger to cap the episode (Angel’s return). It’s full of action, tension and development. It’s the first episode of Buffy that I would not have minded going longer (compared to “Anne,” which could not end soon enough).

I really liked this episode. It treats the typology of relationship abuse pretty seriously – Pete alternating between a monster, tormenting Debbie both physically and mentally, and then regressing completely to a withdrawn, weeping boy. Abusers keep hold of their victims by becoming so warm and defenseless when they’re “good” that one wants to forgive them for being bad.

Pete’s been slaughtering kids with his bare hands, but Oz takes the blame. Even though he’s been locked in a cage on each night in question (also, which nights does Oz turn into a werewolf?). At first Buffy fears that Oz might be responsible. Then she gets even more concerned that Angel might be responsible, since he’s still a weird, snarling mess.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • “Every guy – from Manimal right down to Mr. I-Loved-The-English-Patient has beast in him. And I don’t care how sensitive they act – they’re all still just in it for the chase.” (KIN I INTEREST U IN SUM FINE SYMBOLIZMS?)
  • Angel saving Buffy from super-strong Pete. For an episode that dwells so much on abused and vulnerable women, watching Buffy kick Pete through the air and onto, say, an upright shard of glass would have capped things nicely. But I guess even the prophesied defender of humanity needs to be SAVED BY HER BOYFRIEND once in a while.
  • The episode ends with an exposition dump on what exactly happened. This is a staple of TV drama – breaking down a mysterious plot with a real-world explanation (“so the landlord was simulating those ghost noises with radio static”). The problem: nobody actually explains anything. Willow’s explanation, word for word: “Mr. Science was doing a Jekyll/Hyde deal. He was afraid Debbie was gonna leave him, so he mixed this potion to become super mas macho.” That’s not an explanation – that’s what we, the audience, saw happen. At least invent some Star Trek pseudoscience (“… created a serum out of the genetic material of bulls that accelerated his adrenal and pineal glands …”) to make it look like you did something worthwhile.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • The Oz / Pete brawl in the library. Bodies go flying, furniture gets smashed, people lunge across the room. Honest fun.
  • Giles getting hit by a tranquilizer dart. Giles really is the Professor X of this crew. Since the most common obstacle between the heroes and resolving the crisis is knowledge – what ritual do we use, what item do we obtain, what demon are we supposed to slay – knocking out the most knowledgeable character heightens the stakes. Plus, his reaction made me chuckle.
  • Bookending the episode with quotes from The Call of the Wild. Very literary touch.

Overall Grade: Rather good.

A rollicking treat. Buffy’s abrupt desire to become Homecoming Queen looks a bit forced at first blush – a cheap “idiot ball” ploy (see sitcom logic, above) to get her and Cordelia at odds. But later we realize it is forced. Buffy doesn’t want to be Homecoming Queen so much as she wants to have left an impression on her classmates. Of course, this revelation only comes when Buffy and Cordelia hide in an abandoned cabin, pursued by Mr. Trick’s posse of demonic mercenaries (“Slayerfest … 98!”).

The B-plot, Xander and Willow’s sudden tryst, wouldn’t work if Xander and Willow weren’t teenagers. But we expect teenagers to do stupid, hormonal things, and the addictive intoxication of a crush makes perfect sense. Of course, nothing comes of their “affair” in this episode – it neither gets any hotter nor blows out into the open. Nor does anything happen with it in the next episode. Or the next one. Nice going, Whedon.

Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

  • The Xander/Willow affair hinges on the two of them noticing each other in a new light – changing into fabulous clothes for the Homecoming dance. Willow models three dresses for Xander. Xander’s jaw drops at the least flattering of the three – a jaw-to-ankles black number that makes her look like a clove cigarette.
  • Buffy takes out the two Germans with AR-15s by sticking one of them with the device they’ve been using to track her. The two of them, receiving remote instructions, fire on each other through a classroom wall, killing each other. Okay, come on. No one who’s ever handled a gun in their life – much less professional mercenaries – would fire blindly through a wall if there was a halfway decent chance their colleague was on the other side.

All Right, I’ll Admit, That Was Cool

  • “We all have the desire to win, whether we’re human … vampire … and whatever the hell you are, my brother. You got spiny looking head things. I ain’t never seen that before.”
  • We first meet The Mayor when an aide lays a WANTED poster on his desk. The camera zooms tight to the aide setting the poster on the blotter, capturing just the poster, his hands, and a letter opener. A musical sting suggests that the Mayor’s going to do something with that letter opener … but no. Never even picks it up. Not even when he asks to see the aide’s hands. Cleverly done, Whedon.
  • “Whatever. The point is, I haven’t even broken a sweat. See, in the end Buffy’s just the runner up. I’m the queen. You get me mad, what do you think I’m gonna do to you?”
  • The tie for Homecoming Queen. Though it often backfires, Whedon loves to reverse expectations for an easy laugh.

Overall Grade: I laughed a lot, I cheered a little.

* Athletes pump their arms when they run. Actresses keep their elbows pinned to their sides and flail their arms. Watch this episode again, when she’s dashing around corners to get the demons to chase her, and see what I mean. Or hell, watch any episode where she has to run.

** In fairness, you could also make the case that that’s why the single greatest thing that the medium of television has yet to produce never caught the critical acclaim it deserved: the language, backstory and rich cast of characters take three to four episodes to even get straight, much less get moving. Scott Tobias raises this point in reviewing Generation Kill; I repeat it in the interests of full disclosure.