What I’ve Been Watching: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (seasons 1, 3, 4 & 5)

This was just going to be one of those brief ‘what i’ve seen on tv’ mini-reviews I’ve done before. Turned out rather longer and more detailed than normal, however, so I thought I’d put it up by itself. Unusually for me, there are some spoilers below. I have, however, tried to avoid specific spoiler details and anything too central to the main plot.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

I’ve recently re-watched the first, third and fourth seasons of Buffy (I had to skip the second, because on account of a long story I saw it more recently and it was still too fresh in my mind). [N.B. since starting to write this I went ahead and watched the fifth as well]

I’m struck again by how good, and how overlooked, that first season was. People seem to have a low opinion of it, saying that all it did was take the cliché high school dramedy and combine it with the cliché horror film. And… yes, that’s right, that’s all it did. But it did it extremely well. Yes, there were weak points – few shows emerge fully formed from the imagination, they take a little time to work out. And there’s a certain campness to the villains, of course. But on the two most obvious criteria – being exciting and being funny – I truly think the first season was as good as Buffy got. It seriously was funny, in both a sustained and hilarious way; and it seriously was thrilling, even scary. At its best, it was downright disturbing – there’s nothing in later Buffy (except perhaps Hush – not, as people seem to think, a bold new experiment in the series but just a return to the style of the first season, but with higher production values) as genuinely horrific as, say, The Pack (despite the high quotient of sillyness inherent in it). In general, in the first season, it’s all a lot edgier, creepier, and darker. [As I recall, this feeling is carried over into at least the beginning of the second season also]

Bad points? Sure. But because it was funnier, there genuinely wasn’t an episode I didn’t enjoy, even the in-most-ways-execrable Teacher’s Pet, which I think was the one truly terrible episode (I Robot… You Jane should probably also be called terrible, but gets a pass from me on account of its fantastic premise, which could have made for an entire season by itself – come to think of it, the villain in the first two-parter badly needed more screentime too). Meanwhile, the opening two-parter is good, The Pack I’ll call good for its horror even if it does have flaws, and the final run of four episodes is great. Nightmares is in my opinion far more disturbing than season four’s Restless, if not as deep, and The Puppet Show may well be my favourite Buffy episode of all (and not just for a credits sequence that I found the funniest thing the show’s ever done, though of course in comedy your tastes may vary).

Oh, and a special shout-out for Cordelia, who spends the entire season as source of non sequitur comic relief, yet still manages to come out of it with an intriguing and well-built character.

Season Three isn’t as funny (last time I watched these consecutively, the drop in humour between the second and third years was very noticeable), and isn’t as exciting. Instead, there’s a lot more being angsty and soulfull and teenagery. Despite that, I can understand those who rate it higher than the first season. It does away with some of the more awful clichés of high school shows, and it deepens the characters. Most importantly, it has by far the most succesful season-arc of all the Buffy seasons, and the best villain (actually, three of the best villains!) – plus, the eagle-eyed will have seen hints foreshadowing  the main villain since the first season. Crucially, the villains get plenty of screentime (the Big Bad in introduced in the first handful of episodes, though crucially, unlike the audience, the protagonists don’t know they’re the Big Bad for much of the season), so that by the finale we have a real sense both of the danger they pose and of the depth and complexity of character behind their villainy. For once, the arc really (mostly) works as an arc, latching together the various episodes without drowning out the episodic action. At the time, Buffy was at the cutting edge of a TV structural transformation, and this season is one of the early standout experiments in serialisation, managing to work both as a series of (mostly) stand-alone episodes and as a year-long arc. And along the way we get some very good adventures, a great deal of character development (in particular, despite her uneven screen time, the new character of Faith feels as fully developed by the end as any of the long-time cast), and, far more importantly, get to see Willow in skin-tight leather.

The only major problem (other than a few issues springing from the need for the series to still be mostly episodic, which means that too much character development sometimes has to get crammed into a single episode, making it appear unrealistic – in particular, Buffy’s brief flirtations with the diluted dark side are just silly, thanks to the lack of broader arc significance) is the end. No, no, no. Once the Big Bad and their evil plot are revealed, there’s far too much sitting around saying ‘we can’t possibly stop them’, and too much not even trying to stop them. It’s only when the horrible deaths of all the characters are literally within touching distance that anyone even bothers to think of trying to research ways to prevent it. And then everything rachets up immediately into a massive convoluted plan, complete with several plot holes, that feels entirely unearned. A far better approach, and which a modern TV series would probably follow, would have been to actually show us the Scooby Gang taking steps to prepare their world-saving plan over several episodes. As it is, we get an arc-sized villain, carrying out an arc-length plan, but the protagonists are limited to an episode-length saving of the world. This probably felt pretty epic at the time, watching week-by-week, but feels like an anticlimax now, watching episodes consecutively.

It’s hard not to wonder if Buffy should have ended after three seasons. The finale of the third season is such a natural finale to the series up to that point that maybe it should just have ended there. Surely nothing could top that?

I don’t know if I’d go as far as wishing for a world where Buffy had stopped after three years, but I can certainly sympathise with those who do. The decision to continue – specifically, the decision to take Buffy out of the high school years and into college – feels like a promise to the audience, a new beginning that should only have been undertaken if there was actually something new to say. I’m not sure there was.

Good things first, though. The fourth season continues the trend of the third in ironing out some of the weaker points of the show, in particular stemming the cheese and the sillyness. It feels a more even, more respectable, more professional, and altogether more polished show now. That also applies to the production values, with sets and costumes and image quality and special effects all improving greatly – and, most importantly, Willow cuts her hair and gets a little older and is suddenly not just cute and adorable but is actually hot. [I generally try not to base my opinions of shows on the hotness of the female stars, and regular readers I hope will be aware that I don’t normally mention it at all, but exceptions have to be made for Willow. Who, by the way, isn’t just hot but is also probably the most interesting of the Scoobies, in terms of her character]. The Big Bad gets an unfortunately late appearance, but is intriguing as a character, and their absence in the interim is made up for in part with the intriguing are-they-good-or-are-they-bad guys we keep seeing glimpses of. More generally, the season (and the following one) does convey the notion of a group of children starting to grow up, to grow apart, to find places in the adult world; Buffy may actually be one of the best portrayals of teenage characters genuinely growing up, and it deserves plaudits just for having the guts to address this.

But bad things follow. The obvious place to start: this probably shouldn’t be set in Sunnydale at all. Having everything happen in one small town strains credulity more and more as time goes on, and there’s no reason why it should have to be in Sunnydale at all anyway. Well, sure, the Hellmouth, of course, but it’s not as though Buffy would have been deprived of monsters to fight had she gone elsewhere (just look at Los Angeles in Angel), plus other Hellmouths have also been mentioned. [OK, it’s official: it clearly should have been set in Cleveland…]. Moving Buffy to a new location would have taken everyone out of their comfort zone, emphasised the growing distance between Buffy and her childhood, and made it easier to introduce intimidating newcomers without them feeling overshadowed by the existing scenary. Much of the thematic direction of the fourth season, and even more so the fifth, is about Buffy and friends having to struggle not just with the Big Bad but with the big bad world, and for Buffy in particular becoming a small fish in a big pond, and all of this would have been more powerfully conveyed by literally, physically, moving Buffy to a new place. On a more superficial level, it would have been great to see the polish of a fourth season combined with the freshness of a new locale. More generally, keeping Buffy in the same place for no real reason other than it being easiest and not wanting to upset the audience, rather than taking up the challenge of the third season finale and having the characters move on to a new place in the world, symbolises a decision the showrunners took – perhaps not even consciously – to settle, to go with what worked, to keep the base happy, rather than to challenge the audience, and themselves, in the way that the first and third seasons did.

But I guess that’s not a flaw, per se, so much as a missed opportunity, and probably one missed more for financial reasons (new sets and new location shooting are expensive, and Sunnydale had become a brand that it would have been a risk to change) than for failures of artistic quality. The real problem of the fourth season is exactly the strength of the third: the season-long arc. The fourth season just has far too little direction.

Part of this is the obvious business of the Big Bad, the plot gimmick that by now Buffy relies on. As I say, this season’s is certainly interesting, and quite intimidating – a tough thing to accomplish after the third season so greatly doubled-down on evil and danger. But they’re only around for about a third of the season, which just isn’t enough to anchor things together. Even worse, their evil masterplan is basically not revealed until right before it’s thwarted. In the third season, we may not have known the details of the evil plan, and the protagonists may have been appallingly lax in trying to fight it until the last moment, but at least we, the audience, had a sense of the nature and extent of the evil lurking off screen that is sadly missing in the fourth season. The writers do try to insert a bit of suspense here and there, but ultimately each worrying element is resolved in the most benign and unthreatening way possible (more on that later!).

But the biggest part is the lack of direction and coherence in the lives of the protagonists. Yes, this is part of the point, or at least is retconned into being the point through overt lampshading in the last couple of episodes – these are young people dealing with new environments and statuses and growing apart in the process. But it’s still a challenge for the season, and one that’s never really met head on with any conviction. The character development just isn’t there, and perhaps just as importantly the environmental development just isn’t there. In the first three seasons, the world was Sunnydale High, a tight and controlled environment with its own character, its own cast of (often recurring) background faces, its own geography. This strong sense of grounding and place ties the characters together, gives us a stable background against which we can observe their progress. The college in the fourth season just isn’t ever given that solidity, and nor is any other setting, leaving us with a bunch of characters floating in mid air. The comparison that springs to mind is with Veronica Mars, another show in which the heroine has to transfer from school to university – it’s not entirely succesful either (the third season is the least succesful of the three in my opinion), but it does a much better job than Buffy of fleshing out the college setting, making it seem real, making us care about it. Buffy goes through the motions now and then – oh, colleges have fraternities, so let’s have this plot be set at a frat party, and so on – but it just isn’t solid. And aside from making us not care so much and making it hard to get a grip on character development, this also makes the group seem very insular and self-obsessed (though this is far more a problem in the fifth season).

Well, that’s the character (or lack of it) of the school. But what about the characters? Unfortunately, no. Xander probably got more character development in one episode in the third season than he does in the fourth and fifth combined – true, the writers eventually, particularly in the fifth, take pity on him, stop giving him ‘the funny syphillis’ and let him man up a little, but this to be honest is more just reversing the damage they’ve already done to his character and finally recognising his long-established virtues than it is genuine development. Giles is probably the most fascinating character and the one in the most interesting position in the fourth season – a surrogate parent whose child increasingly doesn’t need them, a teacher/parent figure for the group as a whole who is increasingly coming to deal with the ‘children’ as adults and peers, and of course a librarian and Watcher who is now doubly unemployed. But Giles is pushed away to the periphery, and we’re allowed only taunting glimpses at the changes in his life. I’m not asking for every episode to be about his reinvigorated interest in music, but it would be nice to see a little more of what goes on behind the scenes (and not just because he’s got a fantastic voice – I love that rendition of Free Bird!). This goes back to the decision not to change the setting – just as they kept Buffy in the same place physically, despite opening up the possibility of moving, so too they struggle to keep the relationships between Giles and the characters the same, despite hinting at other possibilities. So we may be tempted by the notion of the gang coming to terms with Giles as a peer and fellow adult rather than an all-knowing and commanding paternal figure, but in the end the show sticks with what it knows – Giles’ arc is underdeveloped in the fourth season, and all but abandoned in the fifth.

Aaand then there’s Willow. Theoretically, the character with the most development to do here because, SPOILER! the whole lesbian thing. But ye gods it’s done badly. First they take a while to ditch the existing never-entirely-convicing romance (and Oz, who I did quite like on the re-watch but who still adds very little to the show). And then they have to disguise the lesbianism in a ridiculous and painful ‘wicca’ analogy for two years, and almost completely (barring one embarassingly obvious cunnilingus-analogy scene) ignore the actual development of the romance. This kind of screws Willow’s character (no pun intended), since on the one hand the one (two, even, including the actual witchcraft as well as the metaphorical) most important thing going on for her this season is pushed behind the curtain, and on the other hand it ends up feeling kind of as though she’s just become a lesbian overnight on a whim (not helped by having her say things like “er, hello, gay now!”). Or how about even a little discussion about what her new identity as a lesbian means for her past relationships and crushes? I’m not so naïve as to believe that a lesbian can’t have had heterosexual crushes, relationships, even happy relationships before she realised her orientation (or maybe she calls herself lesbian but has a degree of bisexuality as well), but it would have been nice to have this, or indeed anything about her presumably pretty confusing and life-changing and important character change, actually addressed (yes, there is a brief moment of Oz-Tara weighing, but that’s phrased entirely in unthreatening loving-both-people ways, without dealing with sexual attraction per se, or getting into any details whatsoever beyond the bland and undescriptive word ‘love’). Instead it’s just presented that she was entirely straight, then the writers flipped a die, and now she’s completely lesbian, no questions to be asked, no confusion or uncertainty or any other sort of issues to be worked out. Now I know that the writers were working within limits and that at the time having any sort of lesbian relationship at all in a popular TV show was controversial, but they could really have done a lot more, both politically and artistically, by at least looking like they were trying to take it seriously. But in any case, even leaving that whole thing to one side, Willow loses out badly by the writers not taking the setting seriously either – Willow is the character for whom college means the most, so the dearth of actual college stuff (which more and more is feeling to me as as much the result of laziness – not wanting to have to bother developing new situations – as honest mistake) is a big problem for her character (indeed, iirc this is lampshaded at the end of the season).

I’ll say more on Tara and Anya and Spike in a moment.

But there we are with the fourth season. It’s a season that faces up to a number of major challenges, both inevitable (e.g. the end of the highschool setting) and of its own making (e.g. Willow’s arc), and doesn’t completely mess everything up – but the improved production values and more professional feel can’t disguise that those challenges haven’t entirely been overcome, and the season feels more aimless, more frustrating, and frankly also more dull than what’s gone before. A good illustration of this comes with the two-parter that sees Faith return – the placement of the episode in the series, and Faith’s complete overshadowing by the looming Big Bad of the season, ought to make these episodes feel an irritating light distraction before the main course, but in fact they’re striking for how much they grab the attention – not because they’re better made, per se, than the surrounding episodes, but because they just feel edgier. The rest of the season mostly just plodded along, signposting itself with plenty of advance warning, so that even if you couldn’t predict every last twist there was never going to be anything really surprising (except, perhaps, the timing of the Adam/Walsh contretemps, which I’d assumed would come an episode or two later). But suddenly with Faith around I didn’t know what was going to happen, possibilities opened up, there was potential and uncertainty and danger and freshness – exactly what was missing from the rest of the season. (and it worked that way for me even now, when I’ve seen the Faith episodes at least twice before). Part of this is that at this point Whedon is clearly losing interest in the show. He wrote four episodes of this season (down from five the year before), and those five could almost be from a totally different show from the rest of the year: the opening episode follows the trajectory set by the third season finale and attempts to deal seriously with putting Buffy into a vaguely new situation where she’s no longer totally in control – only for that to be ignored for the rest of the year; Hush is a fine episode that feels like a throwback to the first season but with fourth-season production values; the Faith two-parter (Whedon wrote the second half), as I say, feels like a jolt of life into a sluggish year, and has a plot entirely tangential to that of the season; and the season ‘finale’, Restless, almost mocks the whole season by not being about the plot of the season at all. Instead, Whedon goes off into a psychological examination of the characters, and a mythological examination of his conceits, that again feels like a throwback to the first season (although not to the same extent as Hush – there’s more new here). It works – but in its seriousness, its innovation, and the sheer love and care and thought that’s clearly been put into it, it just flags up what’s been missing from the rest of the year. Whedon’s contributions, frankly, make the rest of the year feel like filler. [Behind the scenes, executive producer David Greenwalt went off to work on Angel, and Whedon’s disengagement was shown through the creation of a ‘supervising producer’ role for Marti Noxon.]

So what happens in the fifth season? Do they deal with the problems of the fourth and move forward with its potential? Like hell they do. Instead, the show promptly drops all existing sense of direction whatsoever and abruptly shifts into an entirely different plot, about an entirely new character. Now, yes, on some level this is about Buffy continuing to grow up and take on more adult roles. But it doesn’t feel like an organic development. Most eggregiously, they react to the problems of the college setting by more or less (the occasional walk-and-talk through a hallway excepted, and I do mean very occasional, like two or three in the whole year) completely ignoring college altogether. Great, the show’s struggling to anchor Buffy in a relatable setting, so drop the setting entirely and have her live in a bubble. Have her essentially regress by putting her in her mother’s house a lot more, but don’t explore the previous hints at her developing a more adult relationship with her mother, oh no. [In fact, don’t explore anything that was raised in the fourth season finale. Restless is almost like a shopping list of things the show doesn’t have the guts to tackle in the season that follows]. Don’t seriously explore any relationships at all! And having people meet at Giles’ house, while the source of some amusement, is far too much opportunity for character depth, so have them all sit symmetrically around around a table in a soul-less shop instead (and he’s seriously missing out on some revenue by not filling that big bit of floorspace with some more shelving units, by the way…). Drop Giles’ gestures in the direction of character growth, let Xander be less the butt of the jokes at the expense of having him be dull and do nothing all the time (yet still be staggeringly rich, judging by his palace/appartment, although maybe that’s just a British sense of scale leading me astray). Where possible avoid having any actual Willow/Tara relationship, of course. After all, on this show, relationships are things you attain, and that then become trivia facts about you, not actually things that are really important parts of your lives (of course, we’re told that Tara is important to Willow. We just don’t get to see much of it).

As for the season arc: oh dear no. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of Dawn is genius, but it’s an idea that creates obvious problems that never totally feel addressed. The idea of Ben and Glory is also clever, but unfortunately it involves Ben, and more unfortunately it involves Glory. Glory is probably the weakest antagonist the show has ever had (yes, I’m rating her as worse than the Annointed One – the Annointed One at least did so little that there was some interest in seeing if they would ever do anything, whereas Glory’s pointlessness is displayed loudly and continuously). Unlike all the other antagonists, except the Annointed One and maybe the Master, there is no sense of any personality to Glory beyond a set of cliches rolled randomly by the writers – and worse, there’s no novelty to her. It’s hard not to yawn every time she steps on screen – the Master may have been a limited character and ludicrously, cheesily over-acted, but at least it was weird and distinctive cheese. And he was actually pretty creepy when he put his mind to it. Glory… isn’t. It’s made worse by the way that in the meantime the show has become a lot more po-faced, which makes her scenary-chewing more off-putting than the Master’s was way back in the first season. And again, the concept of Glory, her powers and abilities, is a good concept – it’s just that the execution is horribly uninspired (it’s easy to hate the actress for this, but to be honest I don’t see what more she could have done with the material they gave her). And the plot? Don’t get me started on the plot. It – and in general the final run of episodes – are so painfully full of stupidities and plotholes that it’s really not worth going into any detail. I started out making a list in my head of things that hadn’t been thought through properly, but it just got too long. Even the climax of the finale, while emotive in a way, doesn’t actually make much sense. Given that Whedon had five years to manoeuvre his show into that moment, the sheer sloppiness and laziness and halfbakedness of the way they finally get there is just infuriating.

Meanwhile, the fourth and fifth seasons are rich with new characters – chief among them Anya, Dawn, Tara, Riley, and Spike (not new, of course, but back in a big way and taking on new roles). And they’re all highly, highly problematic. Anya is the character I’m most viscerally annoyed about, because she symbolises the pissant attitude the writers by now are taking to their own show. She’s introduced as a cynical, unpleasant, bitchy, knowing, millenia-old demon with endless experience of humanity (hence the cynicism) trapped, to her anger and despair, in a human body. But wait – because she’s been, up to now, a powerful and sadistic demon, she isn’t in the habit of being tactful, plus she’s not used to all the human emotions, which involve less sadistic vengeance and more sexual attraction. Unfortunately, the actress is way too good at this side of the character, so the writers caricature her intensely. In two seasons, the ancient cynic has become, effectively, a five-year-old, not only completely and continually baffled by and unfamiliar with human customs (despite it now being established that not only did she spend a thousand years closely observing human relationships, but she was actually an adult human before), but also with all the emotional lability and enthusiasm and strange speech mannerisms and non sequitur logic of a small child. This makes Xander go from being unsympathetic-because-he’s-putting-up-with-a-horrible-girlfriend-just-for-the-sex to unsympathetic-because-he’s-now-essentially-a-paedophile. Of course, this being the show this has become, the relationship issues can just be waved off with “they’re in love”; we know they’re in love because they tell each other they’re in love, and that’s what love is – saying loudly that you’re in love. Relationship: attained. So we can just accept that as a given and move on. I’d like to think this exposed some naivity about the series at this point in its time, but to be honest I think it just exposes the laziness of the writers. “Look, they’ve said they’re in love, that’s that relationship locked down and we don’t have to worry about it anymore, now on to the next!”.

Dawn is a problem not because she exists, although that’s a problem in the more literal sense, but because the writers don’t seem to want us to care about her. Consider: Dawn is one year younger here than the Scooby Gang were in the first season (i.e. she’s the same age as when Buffy was discovering about vampires and burning down her school). And she’s had a third of her life to adjust to how dangerous life in Sunnydale is. And yet she’s still an idiot, and she’s still a self-centred brat. She cannot possibly have lived that long in that situation and not developed more maturity – and the way the other characters talk about her suggests she can be pretty cool sometimes, it’s just that the writers can’t be bothered to show the good sides of her on screen. [Or, if she’s really this naïve and innocent/brattish, because she’s been excessively sheltered by Buffy, then for goodness sake address that on screen!]. And likewise, we are told, and we know she must, have had good moments with Buffy at some point – but we aren’t shown them (at least not until near the end). Instead, we’re always just shown Dawn and Buffy fighting, which makes it hard for Dawn to really be a sympathetic character. It continually feels as though the characterisation here is being pushed out of the way to make room for the plot. Which is weird, because there’s sod-all plot.The season-long arc doesn’t have that much happen in it, and the episodic plots all feel pretty disposable. So where is all the time going? Mostly, to moping and whining and bickering.

Tara and Riley likewise suffer from a lack of screentime – but it’s not just that. Cordelia in the first season had a fraction of the screentime these two get, but was a far more interesting and memorable character. No, the real problem is that Tara and Riley both feel entirely defined through their relationship to the core characters. In Riley’s case, that’s just “boyfriend”, plus some plot-related stuff; Tara gets “witch” as well as “girlfriend”. In neither case do we get much sense of who these people are outside of the way others look at them (this is even gestured at explicitly for Tara, but the ‘Tara is mysterious’ plot is never really explored and then is explained away far too tritely in order to make room for more moping). We don’t get to see why their pretty amazing girlfriends would fall in love with these people particularly (but don’t worry, they’ve said loudly that they’re in love, so that’s all the relationship analysis we could want, right?) Riley has it a bit easier – he’s so completely wooden and useless that it’s hard to have any feelings about him – but Tara is really given the short end here. Lots of viewers apparently don’t like Tara, and it seems normal to blame this on homophobia and sexism, but really, the problem isn’t that Tara is a woman or that she’s a lesbian or that she’s in one respect replacing Oz (because all three things there are things I can support!), but that she’s not developed enough and that the traits she’s given aren’t very attractive ones. Her two defining characteristics appear to be extreme and caricatured weakness (and her initial stammer is badly-acted to an almost offensive level) and a holier-than-though attitude. Even when that weakness is partially relieved through growing maturity and partly explained through her background, and even when maybe she might actually BE right sometimes, those aren’t two characteristics that make a character loveable. She could probably get away with this if she had more to her, but at this stage (and to be fair she’s one of the few things I remember getting better in the next season) she just doesn’t.

And then there’s Spike. Spike is what I most dislike about the show. That might seem odd, because quite clearly Spike is one of the best things ON the show. That, however, is exactly the problem. With the exception of Head as Giles, and maybe Caulfield as Anya (but her character gets so neutered and pigeon-holed we don’t really get to see), Marsters is far and away the best actor in the regular cast – he’s the most charismatic, and he has a great range, from dry wit through slapstick to genuine intimidation. Unfortunately, as with Caulfield, the writers recognise this and play to his strengths, giving Spike more and more of a role in the series.

Why is that bad? Well, the specific problem with Spike is maybe impossible to pull apart from a broader problem of the show. But in essence here it is: to have Spike be around more, and get to show more of his range, Spike has to be, as it were, ‘domesticated’ – i.e. not scary anymore. I think at one point Spike even calls this what it is: neutering. It’s a castration, a defanging. And that’s bluntly what happens over the course of Buffy as a whole: every threat, every fright, every uncomfortableness, is methodically defanged. Take demons, for instance. They start out being really frightening, totally inhuman, just unstoppable killing machines. But bit by bit they’re whittled down. They go from being individuals, with specific names spoken in horror through the generations, to being representatives of one of the countless species of demon that peacefully infests the world. By the sixth season, they’re just funny guys with skin conditions who like to drink beer and play poker, and sometimes wear tailored suits. They’ve been deflated – and while each moment of deflation, in its own right, may be able to provide a note of humour, taken collectively this deflation sucks a good deal of the tension out of the show. The show, like Spike, used to be brutal – one false move and a character would die. But now the show is committed to being unthreatening, committed to staying in the same place and giving us more of what we want – so Spike is just kept around, neither killed off (just humorously beaten, of course), nor written out (despite his continued hanging around really straining credulity, and leading to some real stupidity when the writers decide they need to explain it).

So my problem isn’t with Spike himself – he’s an interesting character and very well acted. My problem is that Buffy has become the kind of show that Spike can be in, and that feels like a condition utterly inimical to what made Buffy great in the first place. A show that started out as a horror that used teenage life to provide emotional grounding and a vein of comedy has turned into… well, as second-rate semi-comic angsty teenage soap opera with some shakey worldbuilding and some by-the-numbers kung-fu scenes. [The martial arts may be more polished by now, but it’s a lot more boring than it was early on. Other than the big fight scene in the finale, I think there was only one action scene that was genuinely exciting, and Buffy wasn’t in it]. In that semi-comic angsty soap opera (and the word is semi-comic – it’s all a sort of smile-inducing mild amusement, rather than the repeated laugh-out-loud comedy of earlier seasons – I’m not sure I had a good laugh at all in the entire fifth season, and if I did it was only once or twice and not that memorable) Spike is one of the best characters. I just wish that this was still a show that had no place (or at least no central place) for that character.

This time Whedon has only three episodes – Family feels like the mid-season climax to a plotline that nobody thought to tell Whedon they’d already written out (a plotline that actually started the year before, but that everyone has ignored ever since), The Gift is the worst example of Whedon’s horrible trend toward the excesses of auto-fanboyism (the whole thing, quite apart from being as conceptually solid as a too-old block of Emmental, feels like somebody’s Buffy-fanfiction. Come to think of it, that could be said of the season arc as a whole, with Dawn as the fanfic-writer’s personal darling. Quick, did Whedon secretly sell the right to write the fifth season plot some guy from an internet forum?), and The Body is…

…brilliant. Really, seriously, brilliant. It’s probably the best thing Buffy has ever done. It deserves mention up there in the list of the best episodes of TV ever – it doesn’t deserve to top that list, but it deserves mention. It’s a stunningly good depiction of bereavement, it completely understands all its characters, and it also understands the show. Some people take issue with the Buffy-esque twist, but frankly I think that’s part of the point. It’s not trying to devalue the seriousness by linking it to the normal Buffy-goings-on, it’s trying to increase the value of the genre stuff: it’s saying, this is still a genre show, but it’s a genre show in which horrible real things happen, and, what’s more, the genre stuff actually fundamentally is about that horrible stuff, and shares the same stakes. Which is what Buffy has done throughout, when it’s been good. Unfortunately, by this stage Buffy has become so silly, so un-important, so impossible to take seriously (and yes, it’s harder to take seriously when it’s all angsty and mopey and barely amusing than it was back when it was laughable silly, because that sillyness always had that dark, horrible edge to it, which the newer, neutered version doesn’t normally have, except in this episode), that people naturally take the reminder that this is an episode of Buffy to be undermining and devaluing what would otherwise be a fine one-act play.

No, the real problem, as with Whedon’s contributions to the fourth season, is that when you watch The Body you think ‘oh fuck, who wrote this, they should put that guy in charge of the whole series! Quick, get him to do mor… what, he’s already the executive producer? What? Are you sure that’s not a doppelganger? Huh?’ When a man runs out of talent, you just have to accept that, I think (eg, I have come to terms with the fact that Aaron Sorkin isn’t going to write another West Wing, except, you know, in the sense of obsessively re-writing The West Wing like an increasingly frustrated monkey with a typewriter). But The Body shows definitively that Whedon hasn’t run out of talent, in fact he can do better work now than ever before. He just… usually can’t be arsed? Isn’t paying attention? I don’t know what, but this Whedon could have made a great fifth season of Buffy. It almost feels as though he has, somewhere, privately, and nobody’s told him that this episode has been transplanted into the crappier version that was actually shown on TV. Because The Body is also the perfect finale to a plot that didn’t happen. All of those hints for the last three seasons, which Restless explicitly teased us would finally be developed in the fifth season… but, other than the odd plot note squeezed in between other things, weren’t. I don’t know whether Whedon didn’t notice that his underlings weren’t writing the show that he seems to think they were writing, or whether Whedon really was paying attention but doesn’t understand that ‘mentioning’ and ‘developing’ are different, and that ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ are different. Because there are so many themes and plots where they seem to be satisfied with ‘oh, we hinted at that in that one line in the nth episode, didn’t you notice?’ as though that were really a plot arc or a thematic exploration. And yet it’s hard to imagine that the guy who wrote The Body (which, again, is brilliant) could be so completely naive, so completely unsophisticated. So I don’t know what the hell happened.

Anyway, that’s it for now.

Season One: 3/4

Season Three: 3/4. Whether you prefer the third or the first season probably depends which you have a higher tolerance for: angst (the third) or cheese (the first). Personally, I’d go with the first.

Season Four: 2/4

Season Five: 2/4 (and to be honest I might well have given it 1/4 if it weren’t for The Body).

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