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BVS, Season by Season: Season Five

A continuing series. This time: ah, ah, ah, ah, Season Five

Overview: There's a whole lot going on in season five, and not all of it works. A harsh critic might say that this is the season the show jumped the shark; that it's best years were behind it. Season five has some of the hallmarks of shark-jumping, most noticeably the addition of a character from nowhere, Buffy's mysteriously present sister Dawn. Still, Whedon finds ways to make the season work in spite of its shortcomings.
The storylines of season five bring Buffy up against some pretty harsh stuff, even before the major shocker of the finale. On the supernatural side is an adversary who may well be beyond Buffy's abilities. This is connected to the sudden appearance of Dawn, Buffy's younger sister who has always been there. Trust me: it's too complicated to be worth explaining. Dawn is just a small part of the personal demons Buffy has to face in her personal life, struggles that, as is typical of the series, are sometimes tougher than the literal demons. Buffy's family life is rocky, what with taking care of a new/not new sister and her mother's health problems -- cancer, followed by a recovery, followed by sudden death. Her love life is just as problematic, what with her boyfriend Riley's departure and Spike's growing obsession with her. It's a tough balancing act for the show to tackle, covering all this material while evenly distributing storylines among a somewhat bloated cast and keeping the overall tone from getting too dark.

Main Villain: Glory, an exiled hell-god who has assumed a mortal guise in the form of a deeply unstable diva played by a gloriously over over-the-top Clare Kramer.

Main Message: Growing up sucks. Oh yeah, and death is your gift.

Best episode: "The Body." There's no other episode like "The Body." It's almost too painful for me to re-watch. It's the episode that deals with the aftermath of Joyce's death, which is perhaps the cruelest (well, maybe second cruelest) character death. It's certainly the one that I felt the most. The episode is done entirely without background music and with only one vampire. I've lost someone in a similar situation (except without the vampire, and my sister has been real forever, as far as I know). My father died suddenly when I was 18; the show hits all the painfully familiar beats with stunning accuracy. Anya's speech in the hospital is one of the few moments in the series that can consistently bring tears to my eyes.

Worst Episode: "Buffy Vs. Dracula," which is exactly as lame and not at all as awesome as the title would suggest.

Why you might argue it's the best season: I don't know. For surprise factor? In all seriousness, there are some truly good episodes. "Fool for Love" is essentially the only BVS/Angel crossover that doesn't feel forced, "Triangle" is a fun romp, "Checkpoint" has Buffy facing down the Watcher's council and winning, and the last few episodes of the season -- leading to Buffy's death in the finale -- are awesome to watch.

Why you might not make that argument: If this season were a Wikipedia article, it would be tagged as having "multiple issues." Let me run down the two I have the biggest problem with:
1) Dawn. Michelle Trachtenberg is, to quote Glory, "as cute as a bug." She is not, however, a great actress, at least not in season five, in which she she has two settings: pouty and annoying and screechy and annoying. Granted, that probably is a pretty accurate portrayal of a teenage girl.
2) A bloated cast. A show like Lost or Star Trek can get away with having a whole lot of cast members, but it's harder to do so in Buffy, where everything ultimately has to relate back to, well, Buffy. By the fifth season, there are so many characters that the show has trouble making them all seem relevant. I felt sad for Buffy when Riley took off halfway, but I was actually pretty glad to see him go. To tell you the truth, I was pretty ticked they didn't have the guts to kill him -- or Spike, which would have worked just as well -- in the episode "Out of my Mind."

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