Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Buffy 1x01 - "Welcome to the Hellmouth"

If you've watched the earliest episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer just to see what all the fuss is about and you're unimpressed, then I urge you to keep with it because, in the opinion of a lot of people I know, the first season is not very good. So, stick with it. It gets good later.

That's their take on the first season of Buffy, and I encourage you to follow their guidance, because it may well by your take on it as well. But it's not mine. While the first season of Buffy is hardly the show at its best (see the latter half of season two for when that starts to kick in), I really do like the first season, and I think the premiere is a particularly strong moment for the show."Welcome to the Hellmouth" provides a great introduction to these characters and this world. More after the jump.

"Okay, what's the sitch?"


I could do without the horrendously cheesy opening monologue ("SHE IS THE SLAYERRRRR") and I eagerly await the day the show drops it (early season two, if I recall). But the opening sequence of the first episode is a wonderful introduction to the "genre-busting" mission statement of the show (see my preliminary remarks on Buffy for more on that). The spooky shots of the high school are appropriate, setting up the horror theme of the show quite effectively.... only to subvert it moments later, when it turns out Julie Benz is the vampire, not the victim. That threw me for a loop the first time I watched this episode, coming into the series mostly blind. It's a great scene: rather than deflating the tension, the subversion actually adds to it. It's this that prevents the genre-busting aspect of Buffy from being too clumsy or heavy-handed. Usually.

The opening titles of the show embody this genre-busting pretty well, starting with the spooky organ melody and then responding to that with the same melody, this time as an aggressively upbeat guitar riff. Initially, I found the theme rather cheesy and off-putting (perhaps in part because it was ten years later that I first heard it) but I've come to love the Buffy theme. It grew on me gradually, and it helped when it was replaced by a better-sounding recording later in the show's run.

Our first introduction to Buffy is through her nightmares. Make of that what you will, but overall the scene doesn't work too well for me. Joss explains that he wanted the series to be accessible to people who hadn't seen the movie without retreading the same ground (ie, her earliest encounter with vampires) and the nightmares appear to be little more than an attempt to establsih continuity with the movie (y'know, back when they cared about that).

The high school environment is realized much more effectively here than in the movie. While the clothing and music has dated pretty badly, the stilted valley-speak is confined to a couple of isolated scenes and that's appreciated. More importantly, instead of focusing on the Grease-like world of the social elite (cheerleaders, athletes and bad boys), the show finds its center in the outcasts like Xander and Willow. Even Cordelia, while cartoonish and sterotypical at this point, is more human than any of Buffy's friends from the film. Even when using his characters for humor, Joss takes them seriously as people and that's one of the ways in which the show instantly distinguishes itself from the film.

Sarah Michelle Gellar instantly surpasses Kristy Swanson in terms of likability and emotional range as Buffy. She's quite adept at acting with her face, which is important as she confronts and reacts to her new home in Sunnydale: it's largely Buffy's attitude toward the horror aspects of the show that drives the genre-busting. While her line delivery is occasionally a bit off in places, it's overall a great performance (and one that only gets better over the next seven years). She has some great moments with Alyson Hannigan as Willow, who also stands out. The unaired pilot shows us how easy it is to make Willow boring rather than quirky. Buffy depends so heavily on its cast: in the audio commentary, Joss mentions that many of the actors who auditioned for Giles played him as a stuffy old man, and only Tony Head played him as with youth and energy. An episode of television (and Buffy especially) works because the strength of its script, but we can't forget how easily the same script could have been diminished if handled by lesser performers.

There's a lot more that could be said about the episode: I haven't even mentioned Angel, the Master, Jesse, or Joyce (Buffy's mother). But this review is already much longer than I intended, so I'm going to leave comments on those characters and actors for another post. So much of this episode is setup for the second part that follows, so perhaps I'll cover some of them tomorrow. All I really want to say at the moment is that wow, Angel looks young and wow, David Boreanaz is bad in this scene (by the time he's the star of his own show, he's grown a lot, physically and as an actor).

Random thoughts:
  • One of my favorite scenes is the argument between Buffy and Giles. Well, both arguments between them, the one in the library and at the Bronze ("But you didn't hone" is classic).
  • Speaking of which, because Buffy was ordered as a midseason replacement, the entire first season was produced before a single episode aired. As a result, Whedon had the opportunity to tinker with this episode after the rest of the season was over, including re-shooting some of Buffy's dialogue in the library with Giles as well as her scene with Angel. In both scenes, Buffy came off as too hostile and angry, so her delivery was toned down a bit. Joss also took the opportunity to add footage to Buffy's nightmare by taking it from future episodes.
  • Xander skateboarding to school against a background of upbeat generic rock music is laying it on a bit thick, in terms of establishing the tone for the school scenes. Apparently it was a nightmare to shoot, so Xander never rides it again. I'm fine with that.
  • Just a warning, if you or someone you know is watching Buffy for the first time: The audio commentary on this episode contains spoilers for other episodes this season.
Wow, this review is a lot longer than I was intending. My original idea was that each episode would get a paragraph or two. Maybe that will be the norm after I settle into the routine and stop feeling the need to discuss the show so broadly. Anyway, see you tomorrow, for Buffy 1x02 - "The Harvest."


  1. Great piece! I think you'll find that some episodes will indeed get rather short blurbs (the fairly enjoyable, but repetitive, monster of the week episodes that come later)--while others will go rather long ("Hush," "The Body," "Once More With Feeling"). Still, it's going to be fun!

    P.S.--When you talk about Jesse, I hope you get the chance to address Eric Balfour's reputation as a show-killer.

  2. I'm actually completely in love with the opening monologue. But I might be rather lonely in that opinion.

    I'm glad to find someone who didn't hate the first season. I, too, think that the pilot isn't nearly as bad as everyone makes it out to be.

    Those audio commentaries always piss me off. I love them to pieces, but there are ALWAYS spoilers in there!

  3. @Erik

    Glad you enjoyed it. I'd never heard of Balfour having that reputation, but now that I look at his track record I see you're right... I guess it's for the best that he didn't last past "The Harvest" on Buffy.

  4. @mierke

    I don't have a very good memory for things like this, but at some point, didn't they have Anthony Stewart Head doing the opening monologue bit instead?

    I have to admit I'm not really a part of the Buffy fan community, so I'm not really in the know with regard to what's well-liked and what people don't like much.

    The audio commentaries are great fun, but first-time viewers need to be quite careful. Listening to the commentary on season four's "Restless" spoiled a major plot point of season five for me.

  5. Yeah, that's true. And I agree that it was better when ASH did it. It made more sense, plus, he just has a great voice.

    I made sure that I had seen everything before listening to the audio commentaries, so I could avoid those spoilers. I haven't heard every one of them yet, but I can see why the Restless commentary would have big spoilers.