Friday, June 4, 2010

Buffy 1x03 - "Witch"

This week it's "business as usual" for Buffy and friends. But don't for a second think that means I won't write extensively on it. Perhaps someday I'll settle into the paragraph-length reviews I originally intended, but today is not that day. More after the jump.

"Yeah, you're the Slayer, and we're like the Slayer-ettes."

- Willow

During the first season of any show, inconsistencies are natural as the show struggles to define what it wants to be. Particularly notable is often the transition between the premiere (ie, the first two episodes in this case) and what follows. See also Firefly for some examples of a bumpy transition. This show doesn't run into as many problems, but there are a couple: for instance, Willow's outfit is an important shift from the pilot, as is Cordelia's attitude toward the main characters and Willow in particular. Perhaps we should postulate that there's a connection: now that Willow's clothing is a bit less drab, Cordelia is actually willing to engage her in conversation... at cheerleading tryouts. This probably comes down to a desire to make Cordelia seem less cruel than simply petty, which is sensible: a character who won't even talk to our protagonists isn't very useful.

Likewise, the characterization of Buffy's mother is a little less broad. Whereas in the previous episode she was the butt of jokes about how ignorant she was of what was going on under her own nose, here that same problem is taken more seriously as a vehicle for drama. As it should be.

Notably, this episode sets Buffy up as a potential cheerleader and then ultimately rejects it. For those who are familiar with the movie, this constitutes a rejection of what Buffy once was, and a positioning of Cordelia in that role instead. Which is why Cordelia's character exists initially--a reminder of what Buffy was but is no longer. To the viewer who hasn't seen the movie (and let's face it: the movie has faded from cultural memory but the show hasn't, so anyone approaching the show now is likely not to be familiar with it) this might seem unremarkable and even a bit out of character for Gellar's version of Buffy.

Overall, this episode provides some really solid drama and the "monster of the week" is handled like a really good procedural drama with a couple of red herrings. The big reveal, that Amy's mother body-swapped, is genuinely surprising but becomes obvious in retrospect, which is the mark of a clever and well-told mystery. The episode also provides some great material for Willow and Xander, while leaving recurring characters Angel and the Master out entirely.

And that might be a problem for some contemporary viewers. I know, it's weird to think of Buffy The Vampire Slayer as something other than contemporary, but the television landscape is so different now from how it was in 1997 that this is clearly a product of an era now gone (and its 4:3 aspect ratio will be our constant reminder of this). Nowadays genre TV fans expect even episodic "standalone" dramas like Fringe or Warehouse 13 to have a season arc woven into each episode, and that's more or less absent here. If that's a barrier to enjoyment for you, then there's nothing I can say to that, except that I hope you can break out of that mindset or else it's going to prevent you from enjoying some really fine early episodes of Buffy.

As always, I'll end with some random observations:
  • That final shot is a bit much, isn't it? A close-up on the statue with ominous music would have gotten the point across, I think.
  • This is Amy's first appearance. [HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILERS] She would go on to appear at least once in every season (except season five).
  • It's interesting how quickly a show with "Vampire Slayer" in the title involves a non-vampire threat--but that was always part of Joss's conception of the show.
  • This is the first appearance of witchcraft in the series. [SPOILERS] Of course, witchcraft becomes an important part of the series, particularly for Willow. Because of this, there are some scenes in this episode which have accrued some unintentional irony.
  • The Buffy/Xander/Willow triangle, only really hinted at previously, begins to develop here.
    [SPOILERS]Obviously, the writers seem to really think that the Buffy/Xander pairing is going places, but by early next season we'll have more or less left that behind. Xander/Willow will stick around a bit longer, but ultimately this triangle is just a bunch of dead ends. Not that they won't provide some interesting drama for the series's early years, but none of them will ever go very far and that's probably for the better.


  1. This is me being nitpicky: The actress Elizabeth Anne Allen doesn't appear in season 5, but TECHNICALLY Amy does...

  2. @Sara She's otherwise presented for all of that season, isn't she? (Hard to ask that question without spoiling a majorly fun point.)