In my years of TV watching, there have been tons of well-regarded shows that have eluded my gaze. Thanks to the magic of Netflix and other online streaming sites, I now have an opportunity to watch these shows and share my thoughts on them. It may be a classic to you, but It’s New To Me!
Joss Whedon’s beloved horror / comedy / drama series Buffy The Vampire Slayer premiered at a time when I was fairly close to the show’s target audience, and yet I had not seen a single episode during its seven-year run on the WB network and the show has been one of my most glaring blind spots as a fan of genre TV and Whedon himself. At the time the show premiered, I initially dismissed it as a knock-off of the original 1992 movie of the same name (written by Whedon, who famously now has disowned it), and by the time I had heard about how good it was, it had already been on the air for several seasons. Even after becoming a fan of Whedon’s with Firefly and enjoying his comic book and movie work, I never felt compelled to go back to the show that made him so well-regarded in the realm of geekdom, but now that all seven seasons are readily available on Netflix, I felt that now was the time to dive into the show to see if it has the distinct Whedon charm that I got out of his later output.
The series begins with the pilot episode, “Welcome To The Hellmouth,” which opens with what at first appears to be a typical opening to a number of horror stories. In that pre-title sequence, a clean-cut teenage boy breaks into Sunnydale High School late at night with his date (Julie Benz). The boy tries to alleviate the young woman’s nerves by assuring her that they are all alone in the school, and then the she reveals herself to be a vampire and bites the boy. This amusing opening scene automatically informs the viewer that this will be a show that will both comment on and try to subvert the tropes and cliches of standard horror fiction of the past few decades, right down to the fact that the protagonist of the show is a strong female character in a genre in which women are mostly relegated to screaming victims.
We are first introduced to our title character Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) as she wakes from a nightmare on her first day at Sunnydale High. Her conversations with her mother and with the school principal inform us that she was expelled from her previous school for a number of incidents, which included burning down the gymnasium. Almost immediately on her first day, she is introduced to Xander and Willow (Nicholas Brendon and Alyson Hannigan), two of the less popular kids at the school, as well as the snobby Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), who warns Buffy to stay away from them if she has any hope of maintaining a social life at Sunnydale. Buffy heads to the library, where she meets Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), the school’s librarian, who automatically identifies her as a “slayer,” or someone who is destined to hunt and kill vampires. After discovering the dead body of the boy from the opening scene, she confronts Giles, who reveals himself as a “watcher” and says that he is destined to aid her in her mission. Buffy tells Giles that that part of her life is over and that she just wants to life a normal life. Giles tells her that Sunnydale is a haven of supernatural activity and that he needs her to eliminate the many evil forces that threaten the town. Xander, who had previously helped Buffy when she dropped her bag in the hallway and had followed her into the library to return the stake he found on the floor, overhears their conversation.
Later that night, Buffy leaves home to go check out a local club called The Bronze which, much like the diner on Happy Days or the Peach Pit on Beverly Hills 90210, is the kind of teen hangout that only exists on TV shows. On her way there, she is approached by a mysterious young man (David Boreanaz) who warns her that a “harvest” is coming and gives her a silver cross for protection. At The Bronze, Buffy meets up with Willow and gives her some advice on how to attract boys. She is later approached by Giles, whom apparently no one has a problem with hanging out in an establishment full of teens, and is told that a vampire is hiding out somewhere in the club. Buffy uses a combination of vampire knowledge and fashion sense to locate the bloodsucker, only to find that the creature of the night is leaving the club with Willow. As Buffy follows them with Xander in tow, we see Xander’s friend Jesse (Eric Balfour) chatting up Darla, the lovely female vampire from earlier in the episode. We are then taken to a cavernous underground lair, where a weak and elderly vampire known only as “The Master” (Mark Metcalf) charges his minion Luke (Brian Thompson) with the task of fetching him a young victim to feed on so he can regain some of his strength and plan a vampiric takeover of Sunnydale. The pilot episode ends with Buffy saving Willow from her would-be killer and tangling with Darla, who has already bitten Jesse, before being attacked by Luke, who throws her in a stone casket and leaps in after her.
As a pilot episode, “Welcome To The Hellmouth” does a fine job in establishing the main characters and setting up the main conflict of the show in a tight 42 minutes while supplying a decent amount of witty dialogue that is typical of Whedon’s work, even though it is nothing at all like how real teenagers speak. The idea that a small California suburb could be ground zero for a vampire attack and that a petite sixteen-year old is the only one capable of stopping it is admittedly silly, but Whedon and the cast are obviously having fun with it, and the light tone established by the pilot pretty much tells us that this is a heightened reality that isn’t meant to be taken extremely seriously. I found myself immediately charmed by the talented young cast, though Nicholas Brendan’s nerdy wisecracker Xander reminds me so much of a poor-man’s Matthew Perry that I will henceforth refer to his character as “Xandler” until he gets more interesting. The show obviously suffered from a low-budget early on, though I was impressed by the makeup work on the actors playing the vampires, especially on Mark Metcalf, who is virtually unrecognizable as The Master. When not disguised as regular people, the vampires on this show are not the sexy, brooding types that are now in vogue but hearken back to the more monstrous-looking nocturnal beasts of Nosferatu.
While this episode doesn’t offer much in the realm of plot and ends in an awkward, almost hokey freeze-frame cliffhanger, its strengths lie with introducing the characters and establishing the overall tone of the show, which fits just fine in the quippy, post-modern Horror landscape established in the post-Scream era. While it plays almost like a Nineties-era relic now, there’s a lot in “Welcome To The Hellmouth” to keep me wanting to continue through the series to see if it eventually becomes the timeless classic many of my contemporaries tell me it is. 3.5 out of 5 James Spader Shout-Outs.
The second episode, entitled “The Harvest,” picks up with a rather weak resolution to the pilot’s cliffhanger. After jumping into the casket to kill Buffy, Luke is repelled by her cross long enough for her to escape and rescue Xandler and Willow from their vampiric pursuers. She is unable to save Jesse, whom Darla escapes with and presents to the Master. Upon hearing that a new Slayer is in town, the Master shares his intent to use Jesse as bait to lure her out so they can destroy her. Buffy and her friends soon regroup in the library with Giles, where Willow shows off her computer hacking skills by accessing Sunnydale’s tunnel system, which they believe will lead them to where Jesse is being kept. Before entering the tunnel system, Buffy is approached once again by the dark stranger who gave her the cross, who introduces himself as Angel and gives her the exact location of the Master’s lair. Xandler catches up with Buffy, whom he has understandably developed a bit of a crush on, and offers to help, and they are soon ambushed by a group of vampires, including Jesse, who has been transformed by Darla. After they narrowly escape, the vamps return to their Master, who punishes one of them by poking his eye out and entrusts his right-hand ghoul Luke as his “vessel,” meaning that every victim that he takes will give the Master enough strength to rise from his underground prison.
When Buffy and Xandler make it back to the library, the exposition-delivery-system known as Giles tells them that the Master was last seen in this area sixty years ago when he tried to open an otherworldly portal known as the Hellmouth which as its name suggests would basically bring Hell to Earth. Giles tells them that the Master was swallowed by an earthquake and has remained imprisoned underground but is now making plans to escape with the help of his Vessel, whom Buffy has to kill before he takes enough souls to revive the Master. Xandler suggests that the Master’s minions will likely be at the Bronze, since that is apparently the only place that anyone goes in this town, but Buffy is delayed when her mother grounds her for skipping classes at school. This of course doesn’t stop Buffy, who grabs her weapons and sneaks out of the house. She arrives at the Bronze just in time to save Cordelia from one of the vamps and challenge Luke, whom she eventually kills with a stake through the heart. Jesse is also dispatched (sort-of) by Xandler when he is accidentally pushed into his stake. With the vessel gone, the Master’s strength is once again sapped and he is forced to make other plans. The next morning at school, everything seems to be back to normal, but Buffy and her new friends are warned by Giles to expect more trouble in the future.
Unlike the pilot episode, which efficiently introduced the characters and the overall world of Buffy, “The Harvest” seems like a rushed attempt to get the first major threat taken care of before the end credits. The final fight between Buffy and the vampires was somewhat anticlimactic and kind of made the vampires look more like pushovers instead of the vicious monsters they’re supposed to be, and while Jesse’s death was somewhat humorous, I would have preferred to see him stick around as a character who has been lost to the enemy. Whedon’s dialogue is just as light and fun as it was in “Welcome To The Hellmouth,” and while some of the aspects of the plot seem silly, they do work fairly well within the confines of the world that he has established. I did chuckle a bit when Willow revealed her hacker abilities, because of course the token “brain” of the show would be a genius at 1997-era computers. Also, Sunnydale must be a really dull town if every single teenager hangs out in one place. Aside from these nitpicks, I found “The Harvest” to be a mildly entertaining resolution to the introductory arc established by the pilot, but I hope the show gets a little more substantial as the first season progresses. 3 out of 5 “Deliver” Keys.