"No, beer bad. Bad, bad beer. What the hell am I saying?"
There are, maybe, a few other contenders for Worst Episode Ever: "I Robot... You Jane" and "Doublemeat Palace" are often cited, and someone recently suggested season 5's "Listening To Fear". But for me, no episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER stinks as deeply, completely, terribly, and truly as "Beer Bad".
I should give credit to "Beer Bad" for at least warning us it sucked in its title. But its premise - beer turns college students into cavemen - is approximately 100% too Afterschool Special-y for this great, great series. (Where is the ambiguity that the show usually excels at?) Buffy is still feeling down over what happened with Parker, so she joins a group of fellow UC Sunnydale students (inluding Kal Penn!) at the campus pub, where Xander the Underage Townie somehow managed to snag a job.
Look! Look at the screengrab of Sarah Michelle Gellar from this episode! She can do A LOT of things very well, but here even she looks embarrassed by this episode's shenanigans. And she has to say lines like:
- to a jukebox: "Want more singing. Want more... beer."
- to a TV: "Want more people. Where people go?"
- to Xander: "Boy smell nice."
And because the effect of the beer (it had been poisoned by the owner of the campus pub, whose brother-in-law was a warlock) would wear off after a day or so, there are no real stakes or danger. The episode tries, though... by leaving some students, including Willow and Parker, unconscious in a basement that's on fire. Cave-Buffy shows up, and... very... slowly... figures out a way out of the basement. It's just... stupid.
And I personally don't like watching Buffy still mooning over Parker the Giant Asshat like this. I mean, we've all been there, but it's not fun to watch. (But that will come up again, moreso, when we get to season 6.) "Beer Bad" is not aggressively, offensively, bad; it's just a bad idea that's executed completely flaccidly. Which is, for me, a greater sin.
Most of "Fear, Itself" seems like a retread of season 1's "Nightmares" (in which the gang's fears are made real), combined with the haunted house aspect of the extraordinary "Helpless" (Buffy's Little Red Riding Hood costume doesn't help). However, the episode is redeemed by the brilliant punchline: we discover that the physical manifestation of the fear demon is the size of a Smurf. (Willow: "He's so cute!" Xander: "Who's a little fear demon?") "Fear, Itself" also introduces Anya's fear of bunnies, which is a recurring gag the show will use brilliantly for the rest of its run.
If I gave you a one sentence summary of the relationship drama of "Wild At Heart" (Oz and Willow break up, and Oz leaves town, after his encounter with a female werewolf), you could probably tell it was written by Marti Noxon. But damned if it isn't completely effective. (Alyson Hannigan and Seth Green are both terrific, so that probably helps.) I know that Oz leaving was required because Seth Green wanted to leave the show (though I can't wait to see Oz again, later this season), but it also facilitates the next steps in Willow's growth.
Six episodes in, and it hasn't really been a great start to season 4. We haven't really been introduced to season 4's big storyline (though we have seen military guys with an interest in capturing vampires - including Spike!). But there are some great stand-alone episodes coming soon, so it's about to get so much better.
"Fear, Itself": B
"Beer Bad": F
"Wild At Heart": B+