Thursday, 6 December 2012

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 3.1 & 3.2 – 'Anne' & 'Dead Man's Party'

Thursday, 6 December 2012
Buffy: This'll probably go faster if we split up.
Lily: Can I come with you?
Buffy: Okay, where did I lose you on the whole splitting up thing?

There's a confidence that coats a television show in its third season, now the writers are certain they have an established audience of sufficient numbers to keep a network happy. You can't ever rest on your laurels in this biz, but it's only natural that a show will start taking risks in a third year... you just hope they pay off. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's season 3 premiere "ANNE" felt like a brave change of direction, with a heartbroken Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) now living under an assumed name in a bad Los Angeles neighbourhood, employed as a diner waitress pestered by morons, although Joss Whedon knew he couldn't keep this going forever. In 1998, genre TV was less experimental than it is today, because the notion of Buffy separated from her friends would have formed a four or five episode arc in 2012!

Back in Sunnydale, life goes on—although without The Slayer it's understandably difficult for Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Giles (Anthony Head), Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) and Oz (Seth Green) to keep the town's vampire population in check. Cue lots of amusing scenes with the Scooby Gang trying to stake vamps minus the super-strength, agility and clever puns that Buffy brings to the party. Plus there was more of Cordelia and Xander's self-destructive relationship, as they both still don't fully believe they're good together and could be happy if they accepted this.

But the real story was with runaway Buffy, who learned that you can change your name and move somewhere nobody knows you, but your past will always catch up with you. Here it came in the form of Lily (Julia Lee), the vampire cult member from season 2's "Lie to Me", who recognised Buffy working at the diner while eating with her boyfriend Rickie (Chad Todhunter). Unsurprisingly, Lily soon came looking for Buffy's help when Rickie went missing and, wouldn’t you just know it, helped uncover yet another demonic cult in the process. This one being a literal underbelly of the city, accessible via an oily portal controlled by pastor Ken (Carlos Jacott), whom it's revealed is a scarred demon who kidnaps people from the streets above and forces them into hellish slave labour... until they grow old and useless, only to be returned to the real world as half-crazed "homeless" people muttering to themselves.

I really liked the themes of this episode and the partial supernatural explanation for a city's hobo community. It was also a great wake-up call for despondent Buffy to be presented with a problem of this nature, which only she can possibly help with, and an adventure that plausibly saw her start valuing herself once again. I was surprised, because the first quarter-hour felt dicey (Buffy dreaming of Angel on a beach felt ripped from a saccharine Mills & Boon novel), and at that points I didn't think I'd enjoy this premiere, but once Whedon's script got down to business it became much easier to enjoy. I also continue to like how the world of BtVS is growing into a fun shape; what with the return of a fairly minor character in Lily, who here had the most screen time after Gellar! I guess Whedon just liked the actress? (I note from IMdB she'll appear in some Angel episodes, but will investigate no further.)

Overall, "Anne" was a decent start to the third season and something very different to what I was expecting. Modern taste has me wishing we'd explored Buffy's separation from her friends and family for a little longer, because she's back on her mother's (Kristine Sutherland) doorstep by the time the credits roll, but in some ways I'm glad the show will just get back to business now. By the by, great to see the opening titles updated with slicker footage and (to my ear) a slightly punchier version of the theme tune, while the scale of the demonic underworld felt indicative of BtVS being awarded a bigger budget by The WB. They've even found enough extras to make Sunnydale High feel like a thriving school, and Giles's library has students inside actually loaning books!

Giles: Unbelievable! "Do you like my mask? Isn't it pretty? It raises the dead!" Americans!

I was glad "DEAD MAN'S PARTY" didn't gloss over the repercussions of Buffy's three-month disappearance, but it was nevertheless a pretty basic episode considering the potential of BtVS tackling zombies for the first time. Buffy made her return to Sunnydale and quickly realised her friends were hurt and frustrated she ran away—particularly Willow, who missed having a best friend to discuss her relationship with Oz and sudden interest in witchcraft. So this was mainly an episode of reconciliation between the Scooby Gang, and on that level it worked well to get us back to where we left of.

The supernatural angle was of less importance, although it provided some fun. Joyce had brought a creepy Nigerian mask home with her and attached it to Buffy's wall, where it proceeded to reanimate a dead cat they found in the garage (a nod to Pet Semetary?) before starting on some of the town's fresh corpses. This all coincided with a party at the Summers household, gate-crashed by Oz's band and Sunnydale students (so Buffy is popular now?), leading to the titular melee with the undead drawn towards the mask—which belongs to zombie demon Ovu Mobani (aka Evil Eye).

Season 3's quite angst-ridden at the moment because it's tackling the fallout to last season, and I personally find it a little difficult to feel the emotions of Buffy's predicament. She seems to grumble an inordinate amount of time, and I never really understood why she'd leave her friends and family after being forced to kill boyfriend Angel last year. Aren't they exactly the people who would understand and be a great support through this situation? The quicker the show lays all that to rest and just cracks on with this season's mytharc, the better.

Overall, "Dead Man's Party" accomplished what it needed to and the climactic attack on Buffy's house, with Joyce's book club friend Pat (Nancy Lenehan) becoming possessed by Ovu Mobani, was certainly an entertaining spectacle. It's just that the supernatural hooey of this episode seemed to get in the way of the character-based stuff that was being communicated, and dragged things down somewhat.

written by Joss Whedon (3.1) & Marti Noxon (3.2) / directed by Joss Whedon (3.1) & James Whitmore Jr (3.2) / 29 September & 6 October 1998