Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Overview: Season 01

Warrior Woman Wednesday

Buffy Summers was living the dream of the typical American girl, popular, a cheerleader, and friends to spare, but everything changed the moment she was called as the Slayer. Now she battles against the forces of darkness in an effort to save the world from the threat of vampires and demons alike, destined to die young with no way to avoid her fate. Now she finds herself standing on the mouth of Hell and, with the help of her friends, makes every attempt to save Sunnydale from the rise of the Master.

The review for "Prophecy Girl" can be read here.

Partially a soft reboot of the 1992 movie starring Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry, the series continues on from the events of the film in order to side step having to create another origin story, allowing itself to jump directly into the action here. Written in an effort to give a voice to the young blonde girl that gets killed in every horror movie, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) became a series about empowerment and fighting back against those who would oppress you. Though the two had originally vied for each other's parts, eventually Gellar and Charisma Carpenter would become Buffy and Cordelia, respectively, and soon Allyson Hannigan would join the cast to replace Riff Regan as Willow.

Creator Joss Whedon has worked to create a very real sense of family among these characters, despite the fact that most of them have families waiting for them at home. Buffy certainly has her mother's (Kristine Sutherland) presence in the home, but her parents are divorced, and in Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) she is given a real father figure, someone who gives her advice and cares about her well-being, knowing exactly what's happening in her life and promising always to be there for her. What makes the relationships in this show so compelling is that they need each other, not just because they have come together to save the world, but because they're the only ones that know what the world really has to offer, the only ones aware how thin the line is between those who walk in the day and those that stalk the night. Willow, for one, finds a sister in Buffy when before she had only ever had Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Jesse (Eric Balfour,) both of whom cared for her as a friend but neither of whom she could really connect with as a woman, and this new friendship is very important to her, giving her for the first time an outlet for the questions she only could ever ask a girlfriend. Buffy had come from a life of privilege, very much like the one that Cordelia lives now, and the friends that she had had before likely would never help her in her fight against the vampires. In coming to Sunnydale Buffy found not only friends but allies, and while she would never purposefully put her friends in danger, the fact that they're so willing to watch her back and risk their own lives to help protect her means everything. We care about these people because they care about each other, and it's their relationships here that keep us coming back week after week.

The characters themselves are all designed as one-note stereotypes at first glance, but every last one of them proves, through the course of the season, to have a great deal of depth that saves them from being one-dimensional personages. Buffy would be the obvious example, presenting herself as a typical teenage girl more hung up on her looks than anything else, only to reveal later that she's strong and smart and willing to lay down her life in the line of duty. Willow, too, is created as an outcast, unsure of herself or how to act around other people, but providing a great deal of self-awareness and knowledge when given the chance to prove her worth. Even Cordelia, as the antagonist to the main trio, is shown to have very real emotion, trapped within the image that she's created for herself while no one is aware of how truly lonely she is. The protagonists are also given the chance to display their flaws, providing opportunities to write in how horribly even the best of people can act in the worst of times. No matter how despicable some of Whedon's characters can appear, each one of them is relateable in some way or another, giving the audience the chance to root for the villain and to abhor the hero for their mistakes.

For the majority of the season the villainous Master (Mark Metcalf) is trapped underground, only meeting our hero in the final hour of the program. At one point, during the episode "Nightmares," Buffy imagines what her encounter with the Master will be, and he becomes a physical force, taking control of Buffy's situation and throwing her to her grave with ease, but even that isn't real. Only once within a dozen episodes does Buffy come face to face with her greatest enemy, and it's a story that feels as though it should have played out for an arc of episodes. Perhaps it's the limited number of episodes in this season, maybe, had they had another ten episodes, Whedon would have plotted a cat and mouse game for the Master to play with Buffy as he overtook the town of Sunnydale before forcing a final confrontation with the Slayer. The problem with the Master isn't that he an ineffective villain, because it's clear that he could have done great and terrible things had he had the opportunity to leave his lair, but he's so underused here that he can't make much of an impact. Metcalf could have given us an incredible villain had he been given the chance to stalk his prey, but instead he only makes it as far as the roof, and it's a shame that his reign of terror didn't last a little longer.

This series sometimes appears to be taking on a monster-of-the-week format, using one episode to set up the arc of the season, then abandoning any mention of that the next week in favor of fighting a demon that won't be mentioned again. There's something to be said about one-off episodes that break the tension of a season, a moment for the audience to catch their breath and enjoy these characters for who they are, but these stories often add nothing to the overall series and seem like a bit of a waste of an hour. The unaligned monsters that Buffy and her friends fight from week to week are meant to add a sense of grandiose to Buffy's world, showing just how vast the underworld unknown to most people really is, but instead it's poorly executed, giving too much focus to the random demon than to character development and robbing these characters of their chance to grow.

None of the cast here take to their characters immediately, needing time to grow accustomed to their voices and relationships to get a good grasp on who they portray, but Gellar is most definitely the bright spot in most every episode. Outside of the occasionally dubious line reading, Gellar's Buffy is a very well-rounded character, and her performance in dramatic scenes is great, providing a good chemistry with Head's Giles, who transforms his stuffy librarian from an authoritarian figure into a fatherly role very naturally. Hannigan is spotty throughout the season, providing a very authentic vision of despair in the season's finale, but spending much of her time on screen with an asthmatic approach to her dialogue, breathing heavily between words and pausing at strange times. Brendon and Metcalf are good in their roles, though both seem to have unused potential that's just waiting to spring forth, and the same can be said for Carpenter who manages to make Cordelia a sympathetic character despite how horribly she acts towards those around her. Boreanaz is, perhaps, the weakest link of this season, walking through the motions of his lines without much feeling behind his words, and it sometimes seems as though he's unsure of whether or not Angel is meant to feel much of anything. The chemistry between these people is great, and it's clear that they're going to be a pleasure to watch for seasons to come.

The direction in this series suffers from a lack of focus, with clearly not every member of staff understanding the full purpose of the show. Whedon's episodes tend to focus on smaller character moments, dissecting who these people are in their struggles and providing chances for them to grow through their shared terror, while other directors place more emphasis on the demon of the week, eschewing personal developments for special effects shots. The fact of the matter is that most of the effects and costuming used in this season is terrible, with few exceptions, and where Whedon's episodes know not to linger on those shots, the other directors try to get the most of their money's worth. The music, too, is objectively good, but the use throughout the season is somewhat off-putting, sometimes too loud, sometimes clashing with the mood of the scene, and sometimes just out of place entirely. That's not to say that everything about the show's direction is bad, as most of the character interaction is great, and the conversations that these people have about their lives, about their struggles, are very compellingly shot, but some of the directors here are clearly unversed in the art form of supernatural action, and this is where they seem to panic.

Whedon's team of writers appear to have a good understanding of character voices, maintaining a consistency to their development throughout the season. What's most interesting about these scripts is that they play on common themes and tropes prevalent in many teen-oriented dramas, subverting them as a commentary on society at the time. Obviously, some metaphors work better than others, such as high school as Hell, or the episode "Witch" which focuses on the pressures that parents put on their children. There's a very distinct style in which Whedon's characters speak, and it grants them the opportunity to say incredibly obvious things that are very genuine without being poorly scripted. Buffy is a series that doesn't take itself too seriously, but it also doesn't tread too lightly, finding a good balance of what it is and what it should be and providing the viewer with something to think about when the credits have started to roll.

The Slayer's fight against evil is never truly over until she has died, and while Buffy herself experienced the finality of death at the hands of the Master, she finds herself walking among the living due to the efforts of her band of allies. Her story should be over, but instead she soldiers on, forced to keep battling the forces of darkness, and it remains to be seen whether or not she considers this a second chance at life or an extension to a death sentence.

The review for "When She Was Bad" can be read here.


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