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Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season by season: Season 1

Hi! This is my first post for United States of Geekdom. In addition to being a geek, I wear many hats, including graduate student, college teacher, and soon-to-be dad. I don't know how often I'll get to post, but I love many geeky things, and it's good for me to write stuff.

This is the first in a series of reviews that I started on my other blog. My wife and I recently watched all the way through the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- we own all seven on DVD (and now, you can watch them all online on Netflix!) BVS is the only series I can think of that lasted for seven strong seasons. Not all the episodes were good, and not all of the seasons are as good as the others. But the premise of this blog is that I can make a case for any season of Buffy as the best season of the series. First up: season 1

Overview: The first season of any show can be really, really difficult: you have to introduce all the characters and story elements while making a compelling case to the audience that these are all worth caring about. On top of this, you have to hope that the network doesn't screw you over, as it did to Joss Whedon's two follow-up series, Firefly and Dollhouse. A fantasy/sci-fi series has another hurdle to clear: you have to sell the audience on the shows central conceit. It can help a lot if you're using a prior mythology (like in a spin-off) or if you start with a mini-series, like Battlestar did on Sci-Fi. Buffy actually had two hurdles: not only did Whedon have to explain a mythology in which vampires, witches and demons exist alongside the real world, he had to distance the show from the movie of the same name, a movie that Whedon wrote but that ended up a long way from his vision. In fact, the movie was so stupid that one wonders why Whedon stuck with the title.

What's truly amazing about Buffy is how quickly it showed its quality. Right away, the series establishes a family dynamic that would be at the show's center for its entire run. At its core is the relationship between Buffy Summers, a high-school cheerleader who was chosen as a super-powered demon hunter (and oh wow, I just realized proofreading this how patently ridiculous that sounds. But hear me out, okay?), and Rupert Giles, the British Librarian who is appointed her "watcher." From the start, there is a loving tension between the two, as they negotiate their boundaries and commitments. Also in the gang are friends Xander and Willow, the loyal sidekicks. Of course, there is plenty of monster-fighting along with the establishment of the show's deep mythology, one that's inspired in part by the Cthulhu mythos. The show manages to weave this mythology and a season-long story arc into a series of stand-alone episodes: the so-called "Monster of the week" shows. This would be a pattern the rest of the show follows. The first season can't do this as well as later seasons do, since there's no well of prior episodes to refer back to.

Another strength is the way in which Whedon and his staff manage to strike a good balance, though, between the supernatural and the ordinary. The writers always manage to make an explicit connection between the literal and figurative demons that Buffy and her friends have to fight. Occasionally, these come across as really heavy handed. For instance, did you know that you shouldn't beat up kids who screw up in little league games? Well, if you saw the episode "Nightmares," you'd know. And there's also plenty of signs that this is a first season: acting, writing, and (most noticeably) special effects are often more than a little awkward. Still, the good outweighs the bad by a substantial margin.

Main villain: The Master, an older-than-old vampire king who's pretty good with a witty comeback. He sets the standard for Final Boss characters in BVS part mythic horror, part snarky wit, all bad-ass.

Main message: Fighting demons is exactly like high school.

Best episode: Prophecy Girl, the season finale. It brings home the seriousness and potential lethality of Buffy's mission in a good way. Other contenders would be the two-part premier and the monster-of-the-week episode "The Pack," in which Xander gets to show the dark side of adolescence.

Worst episode: Probably "Nightmares." Main premise: nightmares turn into reality. But dream episodes are hard to do, and this one isn't done well. Particularly irritating is the aforementioned preachiness: don't beat up kids!

Why you could argue that it's the best season: Because it's so rare that you see a good first season for a sci-fi/fantasy series.

Why you might not win that argument: Being better than expected isn't quite enough. This season gets an A for effort, but a gentleman's C for deliver in just about every important category: the writing is a bit heavy handed, the special effects and makeup are better off just ignored, and the acting could charitably be described as awkward. Despite the drawbacks, the season is overall a success. Also, just about everything from season 1 is done better in later episodes. ("Nightmares" < "Restless," "The Pack" < Any Oz episode, "I, Robot.... You Jane" < "Ted", "Out of Mind, Out of Sight" < "Gone" and so on.)
2 comments:

I defy you--DEFY, I say--to make a good case for Season 7 as the best season of Buffy.

I mean, I'll wait for your review... but I'll be watching. ;)


Season 5 will be the tough one.


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