Saturday, 1 September 2012

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 1.3 & 1.4 - 'Witch' & 'Teacher's Pet'

Saturday, 1 September 2012
Xander: What do you mean? We're a team. Aren't we a team?  Willow: (to Buffy) Yeah, you're the Slayer, and we're, like, the Slayerettes.

The two-part pilot may have had more monsters and action, but "WITCH" works as a better indicator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's raison d'être. It takes supernatural standards and uses them to embellish themes of adolescent life and the US high school experience. Here, Buffy's (Sarah Michelle Gellar) auditioning to become a cheerleader (more an effort to fit in than a desire to shake pom-poms in a pleated skirt), and realises someone's using witchcraft to eliminate the competition. The investigation soon focuses on Amy Madison (Elizabeth Anne Allen), a girl under pressure to make the school team by her strident mother (Robin Riker), an erstwhile cheerleading superstar.

"Witch" offered a look at the pressure of teenagers having to live up to parental expectations, and also explored the notion of parents trying to relive their youth through their children (literally, as it turns out). The story also enabled welcome scenes between Buffy and her mum (Kristine Sutherland), which is a dynamic I'm less knowledgeable about through pop-culture osmosis. It all felt like a nice introduction to what the show can accomplish, away from the default appeal of watching a sexy blonde ram stakes through vampire chests every week. The majority of this episode was grounded in character and story, peppered with the occasion fright (a cheerleader's hands burst into flames, a girl's mouth is sealed close with skin, there's random blindness), and despite a cheesy Roald Dahl-style parting sting, "Witch" was a neat episode.

Buffy: "No, I'm not saying she craned her neck; we are talking full-on Exorcist twist."

"TEACHER'S PET" marks the moment I bailed from Buffy back when the show first aired in the UK. I have a distinct memory of finding the giant praying mantis creature so laughable that I just couldn't continue. I obviously had superficial taste as a teenager, because the rubber-insect didn't bother me too much the second time around. Instead, I found it crude but charming in some ways, and was anyway more focused on the story and theme.

Following the disappearance of kindly biology teacher Dr Gregory (William Monaghan), sexy substitute Natalie French (Mussetta Vander, who later returned to similar material in Syfy's Mansquito) gets Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and the other boys hot under the collar in class, but Buffy's suspicious this new teacher's hiding a dark secret... and comes to the conclusion, with the help of Giles, that Ms French is actually a man-sized praying mantis who needs virgin males to procreate with before killing them. Yeah, that old chestnut. Unfortunately, convincing infatuated Xander he's in mortal danger proves trickier than expected...

Putting the awful creature effects aside, and the poor decision to swap Vander's performance for a papier-mâché monster towards the end, "Teacher's Pet" was awful but slightly more bearable than I remembered. It was good to see Xander take the spotlight, and he's proving to be quite amusing with his Chandler-from-Friends delivery. (Was Matthew Perry a definite influence, or do they just have similar tics?) This episode also continued the idea Xander's secretly in love with Buffy (particularly through a dream sequence of him rescuing her from a vampire before continuing a guitar solo), and fleshed him out as a sexually-frustrated and inexperience guy who doesn't want to lose face around his peers. His bumbling scene with Ms French in a little black dress and two martinis was priceless, reminding me of a similar moment in Wayne's World 2 between Dana Carvey and Kim Basinger.

The biggest problem with "Teacher's Pet" was how excruciatingly predictable the story was, every step of the way. From the moment Mr Gregory's killed by something with green claws in the teaser, and Ms French arrives as his replacement the next morning (eating bug-filled sandwiches), the mystery was all but solved. The episode had a tedious narrative, and the semblance of a good idea about teenage libidos and older sexual predators didn't take hold.

written by Stephen Cragg (1.3) & David Greenwalt (1.4) / directed by Dana Reston (1.3) & Bruce Seth Green (1.4) / 17 & 24 March 1997 / The WB