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BVS, Season by Season: Season 4

A continuing review of the series. Now it's time for season 4.

Overview: How do you move a high school show to college? In the televerse, the two are radically different worlds with completely different dynamics (although, oddly enough, neither seems to involve going to class). Shows have been known to stumble as they make this transition, or sometimes keep their characters in some sort of 11th grade limbo forever to prevent the issue from coming up.
Buffy manages the transition successfully, for the most part. Part of the success comes from the simple fact that the show was never really a "high-school" show, although Buffy and the gang's school experience was a big part of the story. A move to college was just a change of context. The other main reason the transition is successful is that the show makes the awkwardness of the transition from high school to college a part of the main story line. The family dynamic that holds the show together gets put to the test as every character pursue their own interests, often at the risk of alienating their true friends. A few of the season's best episodes, like "The I in Team" and "The Yoko Factor" tackle this subject.
There are a lot of changes in season 4 beyond the change of setting from Sunnydale High to UC Sunnydale (Sunnydale, the town so small that anyone can walk anywhere, is apparently significant enough to have a UC campus). Angel and Cordelia had left the show at the end of season 3 to make their own series; Oz takes off a little ways into the season. Spike returns, ultimately to be rendered unable to attack humans by a secret government program. Anya becomes a regular as her relationship with Xander intensifies, Buffy gets a live-action GI Joe boyfriend named Riley, and Willow makes some discoveries about herself and forms a romance with another Wiccan named Tara. That's a lot of story to tackle in a season that also has Buffy becoming a part of and eventually coming into conflict with The Initiative, a secret government agency that fights -- and sometimes makes -- demon monsters. Oh yeah, and Angel shows up a few times to remind people that he has his own series in a couple of badly managed crossovers. And Faith wakes up from her being-stabbed-by-Buffy-induced coma, which causes some trouble.

Main Villain: Adam, a human/demon/cyborg constructed by The Initiative who kills his creator, Buffy's psych professor, who apparently never read Frankenstein, or maybe stopped reading a third of the way through. Adam is a pretty cool Final Boss, but not much of a character.

Main Message: The only way to get through college is by sticking with your own friends. This is also true for fighting unstoppable killing machines.

Best episode that isn't "Hush": Look, I realize that "Hush" is considered by most people to be the best Buffy ever. It's one of the first episodes that really got the show some serious artistic cred. I don't think it's all that great. It's a great idea that's executed extremely well and it's a good exploration of non-verbal communication. But lets face it: the whole episode is set up as a meet-cute for Tara and Willow and a way to get Buffy and Riley's relationship to come together. I'll stop before this becomes an anti-Hush rant and say that my favorite non-Hush episode is "Restless," which has to be the weirdest season finale of the series. It's a dream episode, something the show has dealt with frequently and proficiently in the past, but this time manages in long form.

Worst Episode: Probably "Pangs," which is several kinds of bad. First of all, it's an awkward crossover, employing a flimsy excuse to bring Angel to Sunnydale to lurk around. Second of all, it employs a sort of mealy-mouthed political correctness that has Willow defending the rights of a vengeful spirit to kill people and collect ears. Finally, it's a Thanksgiving episode, the lamest of all possible holiday episodes.

Why you would argue that it's the best season: I don't know. Maybe because it's the only season you've seen? No, that's not fair. Because there are a lot of really creative episodes like "Hush," "Who Are You?," "Superstar," and "Restless."

Why you might not make that argument
: At the same time, there are too many episodes that are mediocre at best, like "Fear itself," "Pangs," and "Where the Wild Things Are."
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