Friday, June 18, 2010

Buffy Season One Wrap-Up

So we're done with the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and now I have to take what's been a rather inconsistent, even schizophrenic little show, and tie it all up in a nice little bow. So what did I think? Well, obviously, you're going to have to click through to find out.

"In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer."

-Opening Narration

The first season is a time for a show to calibrate, to see what's working and what isn't. Often, by the time a show films the final episode of a given season, the writers already have some idea of the kind of success they're having on air. But Buffy was a midseason replacement, which means the show produced its first season with the expectation that it would air after other, unsuccessful shows had been taken out of the lineup. As a result, "Prophecy Girl" wrapped production well before "Welcome to the Hellmouth" even aired.

That's a pretty significant fact about the first season of Buffy. The entire season was produced without knowing what kind of time slot it would run in, or whether anyone would tune in. It was produced for The WB, a network only two years old, that had yet to find its niche in the broadcast world. In fact, it was Buffy that helped define that niche eventually. As a result, Buffy had difficulty knowing what kind of show it could be. There was apparently some considerable controversy over whether they could include the word "virgin" in "Teacher's Pet," which seems bizarre in retrospect considering some of what was allowed in later seasons (particularly after the show moved to the more permissive UPN).

The upshot of all of this is that the show is still feeling its way through deciding what it's going to be. The balance between standalone and serialized, between horror and action, between comedy and drama are all open questions at this point. The show also has to define itself in relation to the Buffy film, welcoming those who saw it as well as those who didn't, and deciding the extent to which the show should follow in that film's footsteps.

It doesn't help that the show is a bit let down by its main villain. Buffy is a show about a girl who fights vampires and other monsters, so it stands to reason that the main villain should be like the final boss in a video game level: a vampire like any other, but a whole lot tougher. But as the series felt its way through what it was becoming and gradually realized that the emphasis should be on meaningful character interaction, the conflict between Buffy and the Master lacked the emotional stakes it needed to fit into what the series had become by the end of the first season. In fact, in a lot of ways, the Master is less effective as a villain than Willow's demonic online beau Moloch, or the preying mantis Miss French, or the invisible girl Marcie, because these are characters involved in personal relationships with the characters we care about. The Master just wants to kill Buffy because he's super evil, and she's the hero. It's really the Slayer title he's after, not her.

This is something the show learns from pretty well, as we'll see in the coming seasons. Each season of Buffy has one or more "Big Bad," and of these the Master is the one who seems least connected to the arcs of the characters.* One might argue that this isn't really a good criticism of the season as a whole, because the Master appears in only six of the twelve episodes, but that's rather my point. A strong through-line is the ingredient that the series is really missing at this point, and once it develops, everything else really falls into place.

*(although, in a bizarre show of narrative symmetry, the Big Bad of Season Seven has some of the same problems in theory. But the show circumvents that in some interesting ways. I'll write more about that when I get there. In eleven months. Yikes.)

Without it, what we have is a collection of overall pretty entertaining episodes, but nothing really all that special. Buffy is a really significant and remarkable work of television, but we haven't really gotten to the point where that's apparent. Still, it's been really fun watching them again and writing about them, and even at this point it really is an enjoyable series.

I hope you'll be back next week as I dive into season two!


  1. I'll be curious to see if/when you pinpoint and episode when Buffy becomes BUFFY, as it were--when it morphs into the show that launched a thousand nerds. My money's currently on "School Hard," but maybe you'll choose "Lie to Me." Or something else all together--certainly, by the end of season 2, it's definitely BUFFY.

  2. That's a question I'll be keeping in my pocket for now, and it's likely to be a major point of consideration in my season 2 wrap-up.

  3. For me, that episode is "Halloween," definitely.

  4. Sara--

    I considered Halloween, as well--but I didn't like to pick it because the characters spend so much time as other people--except for Willow, of course, who went as a slutty ghost. :-)