Thursday, 4 October 2012

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 2.3 & 2.4 – 'School Hard' & 'Inca Mummy Girl'

Thursday, 4 October 2012
Drusilla: Do you like daisies? I plant them, but they always die. Everything I put in the ground withers and dies.

Fan-favourite and Billy Idol-alike Spike (James Marsters) makes his debut in "SCHOOL HARD", arriving in Sunnydale with inamorata Drusilla (Juliet Landau) to kill the Slayer for the approval of the Anointed One (Andrew J. Ferchland). Elsewhere, it's the annual Parent-Teacher Night; an event Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and fellow troublemaker Sheila (Alexandra Johnes) have been put in charge of by Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman) to teach them responsibility. I understand Buffy committed arson in her previous school and has apparrntly been caught fighting around Sunnydale High, but I still have a tough time accepting she's anywhere close to being a nightmare student. It was also unfortunate that, due to BtVS's relatively low budget, the aforementioned Parent-Teacher event was only attended by the regular cast and Buffy's mother Joyce (Kristin Sutherland).

Accepting these flaws, "School Hard" was a fairly good slice of BtVS, but I also found it hollow and too contrived at times. The show has a reputation for great dialogue, but beyond the occasional good line I've yet to feel that's true. More often than not, lines intended to be amusing come across as flat, obvious, and unnatural. Still, I can't deny Spike made a big impression as this week's villain (a character I'm fully aware becomes recurring), even if he edges close to a lazy English caricature at times. This is doubly true of Drusilla, with Juliet Landau (yes, daughter of Martin!) on the edge of breaking into a rendition of Oliver!'s "As Long As He Needs Me". But Spike and Drusilla are easily the most personable vampires we've seen on BtVS (arguably more so than Angel right now), and the potential behind two twisted romantics is positively bursting.

As the title alludes, this was ultimately a riff on Die Hard—which, even 15 years since this episode aired, is still a very common inspiration for inexpensive US TV shows. (I recall Chuck doing a version once.) All you need to film on are your standing sets, after all. There just weren't enough actors available to do justice to the event that would befall a well-attended Student-Teacher Night, so we instead had to make do with Buffy and the gang keeping the uninitiated safe and oblivious their school is under attack from vicious vampires. It was good fun to see Snyder and Joyce embroiled in events, even if they mistook them for a gang high on the drug PCP (although there was an unexpectedly cool suggestion that Snyder's aware of the supernatural goings-on, and is involved in a conspiracy with the police to keep it a secret).

"School Hard" wasn't a great episode, but it introduced two encouraging characters and rattled along with a strong pace. Gellar even punched and kicked herself on-screen, briefly, to give her stunt-double a break. A part of me wishes they'd cast an actress who could handle the physical side of things a lot better, but hopefully SMG improves as the series goes on. If nothing else, I was overjoyed this episode ended with Spike killing the Anointed One to become undead numero uno, because that character was very ill-conceived and the hole left by The Master's death should have been filled in the premiere.

Xander: Typical museum trick: promise human sacrifice, deliver old pots and pans.

The most enjoyable episode in awhile was, against all expectations, "INCA MUMMY GIRL". This being a romantic story for Xander (Nicholas Brendon), memories of the atrocious "Teacher's Pet" came flooding back (that story even got referenced), but this was an altogether more appealing hour. It took some contortions to get things set-up plausibly (a field trip to a museum and a cultural exchange programme), but after some early awkwardness "Inca Mummy Girl" got better and better. This was essentially BtVS's take on the reanimated mummy trope, but with modernist touches. I liked that the villain, Inca Princess Ampata (Ara Celi), wasn't a mindless zombie going around killing people; more a young Egyptian girl whose life was tragically cut short, determined to keep herself youthful by literally snogging the life out of various men. There was also a nice parallel to Buffy's ongoing issues as a "Chosen One", which echoed the Princess' own past as someone predestined to watch ordinary life pass her by.

I had my doubts the story would work once Ampata was introduced to smitten Xander (posing as a Buffy's visiting foreign student), but the two actors had enough chemistry to make it work. There were no real surprises in this plot, but as these things go it was nicely handled. It's just a shame so many episodes of BtVS allow the audience to be several steps ahead of the characters, because watching them slowly put things together is wearisome. We were also introduced to "Dingoes Ate My Baby" guitarist Oz (a pre-Austin Powers Seth Green), who will become a series regular, and it's a relief to know BtVS is going to drop the feeble idea that Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Xander are soul mates, and instead offer Willow a more suitable prospective boyfriend.

written by David Greenwalt (story by David Greenwalt & Joss Whedon) (2.3) & Matt Kiene & Joe Reinkemeter (2.4) / directed by John T. Kretchmer (2.3) & Ellen S. Pressman (2.4) / 29 September & 6 October 1997 / The WB