Monday, March 23, 2009

DVD review - season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I'll admit right up front that I am very late coming to the Buffy party (over a decade). I knew about the show after its run began on FOX in the late 90's, but I didn't tune into it. Maybe something else I watched conflicted with the time. Maybe it was because I never was a big horror movie fan. Maybe I just was out of the loop. Most likely, though, it was probably because I don't like to get into a show after it has been on for a couple seasons. I feel like I am walking into the middle of the movie or starting a book on page 100. I just don't like to do that. It goes against my nature. Still, I knew enough through references in other places (like comics or other TV programs). I knew the names of Xander, Willow and Angel. I had friends who were huge fans of the show. I just never got into it.

That's not to say I didn't get into other Joss Whedon shows. I was onboard with Firefly from the start. And I jumped into Dollhouse right when it debuted this season - it is part of my must-see shows on Friday nights. But I was missing the experience of those early TV successes of his.

A few weeks back, that all changed. I was in the local WalMart with my family doing some shopping. I was checking the DVD section while my son looked at video games. On one of the end aisle shelves were a number of TV season box sets on sale for $14.95 apiece. Among them were the first four seasons of Buffy and the first two seasons of Angel. I figured "hey, for that price, why not give them a look?". But, my son had just gotten a lecture about spending money needlessly so I very well couldn't put six box sets in the cart. What kind of example would I be setting. Curse the timing.

So, a week later we were in the same WalMart and the same boxes were still there. I decided to grab season 1. I told my wife that I wanted to see if I would like the show before getting the rest. She accepted that premise - as long as I was going to watch them. I said I would. As soon as we got home, I put in disk 1 and proceeded to watch three episodes in a row. I was hooked.

A few days later, I went back and picked up seasons 2 through 4. One of the Angel sets was gone so I skipped that. But then at Target this weekend I saw Angel seasons 1 and 2 for $26.00 in a set so I was able to pick that up. My wife likes David Boreanaz on Bones, so this was an easy sell. In fact, I think she might have even watched Angel once or twice when it was on FOX. Then, today, I was browsing and noticed that they had the rest of the Buffy and Angel seasons, in the slim cases, all for half price. Score! Guess what is on order? You got it! While not as good a deal as the earlier WalMart and Target purchases, this is still pretty decent - certainly better than any local retailers will provide me.

So, after a week and a half, I have gotten through season 1 of Buffy. I thought I'd go through the episodes and offer some comments I had. Though the show ran over 12 years ago (1997), I'll put a SPOILER notice anyway - just in case someone is not familiar with the show like I was just a week or so ago.

**** SPOILERS ******

"Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "the Harvest" serve as a great introduction two-parter. They almost play like a movie, or a sequel to the original film that starred Kristy Swanson. In fact, events from the film are hinted at as Buffy moves to Sunnydale to try and start over. She makes new friends at school, begins her mentoring with Giles the watcher, and learns of the nexus of evil that this town sits upon. What I really liked is that all the initial elements are there in these episodes. Joss sets up threads and relationships that build as the season builds. This is why one really needs to start viewing from the beginning. As a writer, it helps me too to see the characterizations take root and unfold right from the start. That's what good writing does - give you characters you can hook into and become instantly interested in.

"Witch" was the first standalone tale. I like how it and many of the first season episodes have that reflection of the difficulty of high school, the pressures and the conflicts. Adding the horror element gives the show its spin.

"Teacher's Pet" also stands alone, but it and the previous episode remind me of those classic comic book horror stories. Both had twists and the theme of "things aren't always what they seem". I liked these both too because they showed that we'll be getting more than just vampires for the gang to face off against.

"Never Kill A Boy On A First Date" is a classic example of why the hero(ine) can't get too close to anyone who isn't in on the secret. All Buffy wants to do is go on a date and her chosen destiny gets in the way. This was an okay episode, a little weak in spots, but it is crucial to set up some things for later in the season.

"The Pack" was really creepy. Maybe it was just the laughter of the group after the trip to the zoo, but it was creepy. It worked for me. One thing though: despite all the deaths around the school up to this point, the school still tries to function. Then when Mr. Flutie meets his end, we still have the school open and everyone there. I guess this is where the suspension of belief has to kick in big time. Okay - I'll go with the premise as it is needed to make the series work.

"Angel" is another key episodes of the season (like the two part opener and the finale of the season). Here we get the dirt on the mysterious man who shows up with cryptic advice and comments. It really helps solidify the character and the relationship with Buffy. It also helps add some conflict for Xander. All that teen tension - critical for an ongoing series about high school. I also like the connection that we're given to Darla, the she-vampire from episode 1. Again, tying it all together.

"I, Robot...You, Jane" gives a nice focus on Willow. I know Allyson Hannigan well from three seasons of How I Met Your Mother, but here she plays a totally different character. The whole cyber-nerd girl gives her a unique position in the group, and in this episode leads to some of the trouble. Add to that her unrequited love for Xander leading her to take up an online relationship with someone who "cares" and you've got some great character development. The beauty is this is a timely episode even today - when cyber-predators still abound. Finally, we get the added element of another adult ally for Giles. That works too.

"The Puppet Show" again took a classic horror twist and turned it on its ear. I thought I had this one pegged and then we get the twist. That made it work as a refreshing kind of story.

"Nightmares" was also one of the weaker episodes of this season, I thought. I am all for nightmares come true kinds of tales, but this one just didn't work completely for me. Ah well, they can't all be gems.

"Out of Sight, Out of Mind" was a fairly easy one to figure out too, but the motivation behind the attacker and the level she would stoop was what made it work. I remember sometimes that invisible feeling from school but not to this extreme. I like that this is the episode that moves Cordelia closer to the group. I figured it was about time as she was one of the five stars of the show (per opening credits). She needed that motivation to be part of the gang. The end was a bit of twist too with the FBI guys. That last scene seemed like a commentary about the government more than anything else. Quite a few of the season 1 episodes had some open-ended aspect that could lead to a potential return of a former adversary. I'll have to keep watching to see if any of them do.

"Prophecy Girl" seemed like a nice way to tie up the loose ends from the earlier parts of the season. We have Buffy questioning her role. We have Cordelia working with the others. We have the computer teacher back. We have Angel back. We have Xander coming to the rescue too even though he has no special abilites. And we have a conclusion to some of the things started in earlier episodes. The way it ended up could have easily served as a show end if FOX didn't renew it. The saga could have stood solidly with just 12 episodes if need be.

Thankfully, there is more - much much more!

And I'm looking forward to starting season 2 this week.


Michael O'Connell said...

Woo hoo!

Welcome to Sunnydale, sir.

Congrats on 1) making the leap to try this stuff out and 2) for making it through any show's first season! Oh, it was in no way bad, as you now know. But most shows (that last longer than one season, which is rare these days) usually work out their kinks in the first season, and these end up being considered the "weak" episodes of the series. This makes "Heroes" the anti-Buffy...

Season one did its most important job right - setting up the characters and setting the tone. It gave us so many reasons to love this gang of characters. And it set the simple-yet-brilliant theme of the first three seasons of the show - high school as the metaphor. It's like Joss sat around thinking up facets of the high school experience - feeling invisible, crush on a teacher, the whole cheerleader thing - and then asked, "What if stuck a demon in there?!" He took easily identifiable high school memories and experiences that we can all connect to - which connected us, in turn, to the show on a deeper level - and then turned them into demonic/vampiric/magical action stories. Again...simple, but brilliant.

There's a quote somewhere from Joss where he says something to the effect of being always convinced the show was going to be canceled, so he always tried to give each season and ending that could stand as a series ending. Not too pessimistic or anything, huh? You'd think the guy worked in Hollywood or something... You're right, season 1 had a very satisfying end. And yet...only the beginning! Yahoo!

I'm very excited to jump back into season 2 with you (I feel okay skipping season 1 because I've tried to start Buffythons in the past and haven't made it out of season 1, for some reason, so I've seen those more recently). I'll follow along with you, and I will try to stand to this promise - I will avoid being that annoying "I know what's coming next!" guy as much as possible, and will hereafter avoid phrases like, "Wait'll you see what happens to (insert character) next season!", "Oh, man, if you think THAT was something, just wait until season (X), and "Yeah, you'll be seeing (insert character or monster or storyline) again, don't worry!". I plan to approach this as me experiencing it again for the first time, so will try to use my brain accordingly and stay in the here and "now".

Bring on the vamps, baby!

Martin Maenza said...

Ruth, welcome to the blog. I haven't written much lately - just haven't been in the mood. That may change soon. Stick around.

Martin Maenza said...

Mike, season 1 was pretty good - I only found a few "weak" in the bunch. The high school metaphors work very well for me - and I am sure the rest of the audience at the time. Everyone could relate. It allowed a generational thing for the show.

Oh, and I will likely do blogging about one to two episodes at a time, as I watch them, so we can have some discussion. I don't know if I will be able to start with one tonight - we'll see. Gotta get up at 3am because the kid leaves for a school D.C. trip at 5:30am tomorrow. Joy. No sleep.

KC Ryan said...

Hey, you're back!
Was missing your missives Martin!

Welcome to Sunnydale, home of the Whopper.

Check out mine on occasion (I'm writing again).