Sunday, 20 January 2019

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 1

Into every generation is born a girl with the power to stand against the forces of darkness: the Slayer. In the late 1990s, the Slayer is Buffy Summers, a 16-year-old California girl who tries to balance schoolwork, dating and friends with vampire slaying. Having recently moved to the town of Sunnydale to escape her destiny, Buffy instead finds it enhanced: Sunnydale sits on the Hellmouth, a mystical convergence with draws vampires, demons and trouble to it. Buffy is going to have her work cut out for air.

Originally airing in 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's first season can charitably be called "a little rough." Joss Whedon had originally come up with the concept for a 1992 movie starring Kristy Swanson and Donald Sutherland, but the movie had gone in a campier direction than he'd planned. Offered the chance to revisit the concept, he accepted with alacrity and reworked the premise into a darker and more interesting story.

In this updated version of the premise, Buffy (played with immediate charisma by Sarah Michelle Gellar) moves from Los Angeles to Sunnydale in the hope of getting away from her destiny. Unfortunately, this backfires when she discovers that Sunnydale sits on top of a gateway into hell. This gives the series its best conceit: that demons, ghosts, vampires, werewolves and all sorts of supernatural creatures are attracted to the Hellmouth, explaining why Buffy is fighting a new threat every week.

Buffy is advised and mentored by a Watcher, a stuffy British expert on the paranormal called Rupert Giles (played with veritable aplomb by Anthony Stewart Head). She also makes two friends who quickly discover her secret: Xander (Nicholas Brendon, who shows more enthusiasm than skill in early episodes before becomes a stronger player in later episodes) and Willow (the infectiously joyous Alyson Hannigan). There's also a handsome stranger named Angel (the magnificently broody David Boreanaz) who keeps showing up at the oddest moments and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), Buffy's would-be high school nemesis who eventually discovers Buffy's secret and becomes another ally.

To be frank, at least in the early going, Joss Whedon and his team should be forever grateful that their casting team hit the ball out of the park for virtually every regular and recurring castmember. The core cast are all well-played and keep the show going even when the individual episode concept falters (particularly during the astronomically terrible Teacher's Pet). The script quality is seriously uneven for the first few episodes, but somewhere around the seventh episode, Angel, when we get the tortured backstory of the mysterious character, things start clicking into a higher gear. This culminates in the season finale, Prophecy Girl, where Whedon both writes and directs for the first time and completely lifts the show onto another level of scripting, directing and dialogue. If you ever wonder why Joss Whedon was A Thing for so long, this is the episode that shows why.

There's still a lot of slow going in these early episodes, which are further hamstrung by budget restrictions (Buffy was picked up as a mid-season replacement, with no time or money to build more than a couple of sets or have more than a few CG vampire dustings in the whole season), but the heart of the show asserts itself early on, as does the show's tendency to get really, really dark and brutal unexpectedly. This was key to Buffy's success: the goofy name and premise put as many people off from watching it as hooked them in, but its ruthless attitude to its characters, its surprisingly high mortality rate and its increasingly complex worldbuilding (moreso in later seasons) added grit and depth to the concept that made it more compelling.

Watching Buffy in 2019, almost 22 years after I originally saw the first season, is also an interesting experience. In some key areas the show has dated badly, but in others (such as Giles's concerns over the Internet as an eroding force on civil human relationships and the metaphors employed for male characters desiring female ones even after being turned down) it feels quite fresh. More of an issue is the show's visual quality: Buffy's first two seasons were shot on 16mm film and definitely feel a bit blurry, especially on larger TVs. Whilst Fox did organise a HD remaster of Buffy, they messed it up by using very odd cropping choices, using widescreen masters featuring boom mikes, light stands and crewmembers standing visibly in shot, over-use of DNR (leading to uncanny valley-looking smooth human faces) and a myriad other problems which, several years on, remain resolutely unfixed. For now, I'd advise skipping the remaster and going back to the DVDs (which at least can be upscaled a bit by running them through a Blu-Ray player).

The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (***, apart from the final episode which is a strong *****) is rough around the edges but it takes a while for the show to bed in, but when it does it becomes a compelling and enjoyable watch which sets the scene for the almost infinitely superior second year. The season is available now as part of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box set (UK, USA).

1 comment:

Wastrel said...

I've always had a soft spot for the first season, because I think in some ways its the most interesting - it's the truest to the original concept of combining the imagery of comforting high school soap operas with outright horror. After that first season, I don't think they ever went that dark again (thematically or, of course, in terms of set lighting...) - The Pack, for instance, where people are ripped apart and eaten alive. Or, for example, the bits in the finale that deal with massacre in the school and the trauma Willow feels, which feel much more raw than they'd have been in later years. Later seasons progressively neutered the show, softening it out, which resulted in more consistent quality, but also removed some of the unease.

I think the bad episodes are terrible, but the good episodes are great. In addition to the finale, I'd particularly single out The Puppet Show, which is one of my favourite episodes from the whole run - it's as hilarious as Buffy gets, as exciting in its twists and horror-thrills, and still has time for psychological insight and social satire. Plus the introduction of and best lines for Snyder.

In some ways, when I rewatched the series, I thought that the reason "Hush" was so successful and popular was that it was basically a season 1 episode given season 4 production values...