"Been a long while since I met one who didn't know me."
Because for me this is a rewatch of one of my favorite shows of all time, I thought it would be interesting to get the perspective of someone who's new to the series. Fortunately for me, I know someone who fits the bill. And fortunately for all of us, he's agreed to be involved with this project.
Everyone, say hi to Russ. Russ is a gentleman and a scholar, and a man of impeccable taste. (He hated PACIFIC RIM nearly as much as I did.) We'll check in with Russ regularly throughout the year. Our plan is to discuss elements of the series itself, as well as how it might fit into the teevee big picture over the last 15 years. Here's our first chat, a brief email back-and-forth about pilots, premises, and serialization vs. stand-alones. (I'll try not to be as repetitive in future weeks. It's the first week - we're still figuring this out!)
Admit it: we're all a little jealous of someone getting to watch BUFFY for the first time.
There are two main things I always hope that the pilot of a TV series can do:
1. Tell me what the show is about.
2. Give me some sense of how the show will tell stories.
For BUFFY, let's consider "Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "The Harvest" to be the show's pilot, since it's a two-parter. I think these episodes do a terrific job of telling us what the show is about: we meet the key characters (Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, Angel - though I'd forgotten how mysterious Angel is treated at the beginning), and we establish the premise that Sunnydale sits on a Hellmouth, which will allow Our Heroes to battle all sorts of monsters, not just vampires.
I also think Whedon's script does a solid job of establishing distinct voices for these characters, and how they will actually relate to each other. It features one of the standard pilot tropes: main character moves to a new town, which allows for all sorts of introductions and exposition, but it works well here, both with and without the 1992 movie as background.
Pilots tend to have so much work to do establishing the setting and characters that it's not until the second episode that you can start to get a real sense of what a typical episode will be like. "Witch" is a nice "Monster of the Week" episode, almost entirely procedural. You really sense the similarities between BUFFY and X-FILES in an episode like this one, even as BUFFY remains more focused on the characters than X-FILES (or, say, LAW & ORDER) would in a typical episode.
Of course, I'm revisiting these episodes and these characters - but even knowing what's to come for each of them, I'm excited to see the journeys they'll take. As a newcomer to the show, what did you think?
Thanks for inviting me to discuss Buffy with you. As you note, I have not seen the show before, though – as a pop culture guy and a geek – I am familiar with the main characters, at least by name. (I also saw the original movie, but, as you intimate, that probably doesn’t add much here, and I can’t remember it anyway, except for Donald Sutherland.)
I think I agree with your assessment of what we should expect from a pilot, and I agree that Hellmouth/Harvest met those expectations. One knows at the end who the main players are, what they’re about, and how the story will unfold. The pilot also gave me a sense that the show would have a sense of humor, and would mix the high-school-life angle with the vampire-fighting angle. So, as far as set-up goes, so far so good.
I did have a number of problems with these episodes, though. I hope that they fade as the show finds its footing. But let me set them out, because they do tell you where I’m at after three episodes.
First, I have been so wholly won over by true serial storytelling that I react badly to the monster-of-the-week format. This means that Witch did far less for me than Hellmouth/Harvest. I’d attribute this preference to shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad, but the truth is that it predated even those to some degree: I generally liked the X-Files when it was doing mythology episodes (at least at the beginning, before it all got too convoluted) and generally didn’t watch the MOTW episodes. That said, I loved The West Wing, which generally coincided with Buffy and, at least at the beginning, focused on issue(s)-of-the-week. Anyway, we’ll have to see how I deal with the mix between overall arcs and one-off episodes.
Second, I had heard a lot about how well Buffy “got” the high-school life. Perhaps I was holding it against too high a standard, but I viewed it in comparison to My So-Called Life, and there was no contest, at least in these episodes. MSCL made Buffy’s high school experience seem fairly one-dimensional. Again, this may be something that gets better over time.
Third, I found myself naturally comparing the Buffy pilot to the Firefly pilot (the actual pilot, “Serenity,” not the second pilot, “The Train Job”). Serenity seemed to me a much more sure-footed pilot. It not only introduced the main characters and the types of stories it would tell over its short run, but also provided a fairly comprehensive overview of the show’s universe (literal and figurative) and had a confidence that Hellmouth/Harvest seemed to lack. Maybe it’s my preference for sci-fi, or maybe Whedon’s experience on Buffy just made him better at his job. I don’t hold this against Buffy too much – pilots are notoriously difficult, and shows often find their way afterward.
Finally, maybe I do need to go back to the movie, but I’m just not yet totally sure what it is that Buffy can do that a slightly more buff Willow or Xander could not. In the scenes I’ve seen, she just fights the vampires using weapons that are effective against vampires. Can nobody else do this? I’m interested in seeing this question addressed in the coming episodes.
Part of the reason I wanted to do the Buffy Rewatch (or, in your case, Watch) was to see how BUFFY compares to series that have aired since, so I'm glad you've mentioned some of these other shows. And I think you're also right to think of serialization of some of these shows, compared to the serialization on BUFFY. I'm sure this will be a recurring theme throughout the year.
I find it interesting that you say you generally preferred the X-FILES mythology episodes to the monster of the week episodes - my reaction could not have been more different. I think that almost every one of my favorite X-FILES episodes was a "monster of the week" - the best ones worked incredibly well as mini-movies, and were often fun and interesting experiments in tone (like Darin Morgan's more humorous scripts). You're right about the X-FILES mythology becoming too convoluted - for me, it happened somewhere around season four - but before this discussion gets too off-track (since this is about BUFFY, not X-FILES), I just wanted to highlight a couple of key differences between the two series.
First, BUFFY's serialized stories are generally one season long. This works very well in the context of a standard 22-episode season (because we get climax and resolution each season), and also in the context of a show maybe not knowing its future. We saw what kind of trouble LOST got into before ABC set an end date, for example.
And second, BUFFY's standalone episodes aren't true standalones in the classic X-FILES / LAW & ORDER vein, where the focus is exclusively the case at hand. These BUFFY episodes generally have character development and/or plot developments relating to the overall arc of the season. (Some seasons do this better than others, and the show definitely struggles to find its voice in season 1.)
Confession: I've never seen MY SO-CALLED LIFE, so I can't speak to its portrayal of teenage life. But yes, I'm sure you'll find - or at least, I hope you'll find - BUFFY's presentation of it to become more layered over time.
And finally, regarding Buffy's abilities as a Slayer: she is stronger, faster, and often more intuitive than a normal person. (Though normal people can obviously stake a vampire in the heart, too.) You'll definitely see more of that as the series progresses - and not just as Buffy throws a cheerleader across the gymnasium.
Just one more thought from me, unrelated to my previous comments. I’m sure this has been noted by others long ago, but I really liked how the pilot’s opening scene sets up the concept that this show is going to play around with traditional gender roles. A boy and a girl sneak into the school, the boy pushing things along with the apparent goal of messing around. The girl seems scared and somewhat resistant: The first line in the episode is her asking, “Are you sure this is a good idea?” But then, when the moment arrives, the tables are turned: the girl is the predator – a vampire, in fact – and has lured the boy here so she can kill him. Maybe I’m reading too much into the scene, but I “read” it as a declaration: This is a show in which girls will kick ass, and in which traditional roles will be subverted. Not bad for a late-90s show that wasn’t aired on pay cable.