Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Buffy Unaired Pilot

You can't watch the unaired Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot legally. There are bootlegs, which I won't link to. It's not very difficult to find if you want to (I found it fairly easily). In 2003, IGN Movies (or, as it was drolly called back then, IGN FilmForce) did an interview with Joss in which they discussed the possibility of it ever being released:
IGNFF: Is the [pilot] presentation ever going to make it to DVD?
WHEDON: Not while there is strength in these bones.
Well, I mean, it's one of the most heavily bootlegged things on the Internet...
Yeah. It sucks on ass.
Yeah, it does, but it's sort of that archival, historical perspective...
Yeah, I've got your historical perspective ...
It would take it off the bootleg market...
Ah, I don't – what are you going to do?
Put it on the DVD.
Not me.
But does the pilot really deserve this reputation? I'll weigh in after the jump.

"Come back tomorrow, I'll have that devastating comeback ready."


In fact, the pilot isn't really all that bad. I know I said that about the movie (which is an unpopular opinion), but this time by not bad I mean pretty dang good. I think the pilot is genuinely about 80% of where Buffy was by the time it made it to air. Most importantly for me, it contains all of the sparkling Joss dialogue you'd expect, and even a few gems that never made it to air (which I'll let you experience for yourself). Granted, I think the line "What's the Sitch" is spoken a few too many times (I know this was used in the show a few times, but I don't remember it being said quite so often).

The episode is only twenty-five minutes long, and much of that material is similar to what made it into 1x01 - Welcome to the Hellmouth, so my comments on that material I'll save for that review. Jesse, the Master, Angel, and Buffy's mother, all present in Welcome to the Hellmouth, are absent here, and the story focuses solely on Buffy's first day at Sunnydale High (or Berryman High as it's called here). The plot diverges from Welcome to the Hellmouth in that Buffy never makes it into the Bronze, because while in line she hears from Xander that Willow is with a vampire back at the high school. Then Buffy and Xander run to the school, Buffy dispatches the vamps and saves the day.

The most obvious and well-known difference is that Alyson Hannigan had not yet been cast as Willow, and the unfortunately named Riff Regan plays the role here. She's not bad, but she's not particularly interesting. Regan's Willow seems to be an outcast because she's just plain unhip, while Hanngian's Willow (while unhip) is an outcast because she's strange, an important distinction. It's Alyson's unconventional vocal quality, in particular, that makes her so immediately interesting, even though the character herself isn't particularly complex when we meet her: she's the shy unpopular girl, and that's all there is to it. Recasting was definitely the right choice.

Another notable absence is that of budget: the Bronze exterior is shown but the interior is withheld, leading me to believe it wasn't built yet. The "dusting" effect on the vampires is a bit rudimentary, with the vampires crumbling rather than going "poof." And the final showdown takes place on the high school drama program's unfinished sets, which I imagine was a clever way to keep the budget down.

So no, it's not as good as the real first episode of Buffy. But it's good enough that it would have hooked me anyway. I'm not entirely sure why Whedon is so reluctant to release this when the movie (which, while I enjoy it, is frankly much more deserving of his ire) is out and about anyway.

I'll end on some casting observations:
  • The other major recasting was that of Principal Flutie, who's played here by Stephen Tobolowsky, a rather well-regarded comedic and character actor. I like Tobolowsky, but I'm not sure how he measures up against Ken Lerner's version of Flutie since it's been such a long time, so that's a call I'll have to make after getting another look at the "real" Flutie.
  • This episode features Julie Benz as an unnamed vampire who dies at the end. The scene she's in at the start of the episode is considerably shorter in Welcome to the Hellmouth, but as consolation her character (Darla) survives the episode and goes on to reappear later in Buffy and Angel.
  • Also, Mercedes McNabb appears in this episode as Harmony Kendall. [HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILER] This makes her the only character to appear in the Buffy pilot and the Angel series finale, bookending the televised Buffyverse.
  • Danny Strong, who initially auditioned for the character of Xander, appears as an unnamed student. This unnamed student would appear recurring throughout season two and eventually become known as Jonathan. Jonathan later becomes quite an important minor character.

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