“If the apocalypse comes, beep me.”
I recently re-watched the first season of Buffy. I am not sure it makes much sense to review a show everyone has seen already, but I’ll do it anyway for the sake of completeness.
Re-booting his idea of the vampire-slaying teen-girl heroine after the somewhat disappointing 1992 film, Joss Whedon managed to keep control over the franchise as a show-runner this time around. And over the course of seven seasons and 144 episodes (not counting the five season, 110-episode Angel spin-off), he created one of the most famous and enduring shows of its time.
Buffy features many a famous line of dialogue, as well as actors and characters that for the most part have gone on to become household names. The core cast consists of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan (How I Met Your Mother), Nicholas Brendon, and Anthony Head. In season 1, they are supported by David Boreanaz (Bones), Charisma Carpenter, Kristine Sutherland, and Robia Scott.
Season 1 contains 12 episodes, the first two of which are a two-part story and basically form an introductory TV-movie when watched back-to-back.
After the events of the film, which are sort-of semi-canon for the show, Buffy Summers got kicked out of her school in L. A., a fact which contributed to the breakdown of her parents’ already shaky marriage. Now she has moved with her mother to the small Californian town of Sunnydale for a fresh start: a new school, a new life. The problem is that Sunnydale is situated on top of a mystical spot called the Hellmouth, which tends to attract all sorts of demons and other beasties. And her new “watcher” is already expecting Buffy at the school in order to continue her vampire slayer training. This is not the “fresh start” Buffy had been looking for…
This first season holds up well, even the cheap visual effects (which had never bothered me in the first place no matter what year I watched or re-watched the episodes). What I noticed this time, though, is that the performances in the early episodes are often a bit wobbly. It is as if the actors, the writers, and the directors where still trying to figure out the characters, still calibrating the minutiae, if you will.
Hence, while the writing is generally good, the dialogue and the delivery have not yet that air of light-footed perfection that you would find in later seasons.
Thematically, the first season (like seasons 2&3, I believe,) sticks rather close to the “high school experience”. The question how a sixteen-year-old girl is supposed to fulfil her slayer duties while doing all the usual high school chores and activities, and how she is supposed to have a private life on top of that as well, is a continuous undercurrent. And many episodes have heir own high-school or teenage related topics, such as bullying, dating, cheerleading, over-ambitious parents, the dangers of the internet, etc. And this is what made Buffy such a successful show in the first place: the fact that it went beyond narrow confines of genre. This was a show that a multitude of people could watch and enjoy. Not some gothic horror-show, but a high-school drama which happened to have vampires in it.
One aspect that I noticed during my re-watch is a specific form of “open-endedness” in two of the episodes that I would ascribe to an X-Files influence. It is the one stylistic element that put me off X-Files, and so I am not a fan of seeing it creeping up in Buffy.
When it comes to “favourites”, most people probably put episode 7 (“Angel”) near the top of their list, because it sets up the dramatic love-story that would dominate the following two seasons and finally spawn the Angel spin-off. For me, the stand-out episodes of the first season are 3 (“Witch”), 9 (“The Puppet Show”) and 11 (“Out of Mind, Out of Sight”). While “Witch” has its fair share of problems, including plot-holes, it establishes the show’s continued commitment to the high-school environment and high-school themes following on from the two introductory episodes. “Out of Mind, Out of Sight”, equally firmly rooted in the high-school environment, is a very inventive episode, and it does – although certainly not deliberately – foreshadow season 4 which I (unlike most other people) rather enjoyed. “The Puppet Show” is the highlight of the season, with its absurd and surrealist tendencies, its creation of a “gothic-noir puppet genre” and its absolute commitment to stick to that genre’s tone and style, and finally the introduction of Armin Shimerman as Principal Snyder.
I also like the two-part season-opening (“Welcome to the Hellmouth” / “The Harvest”) in particular, because it is well written and well paced, is good at introducing the characters and the show, and – as mentioned above – basically works as a stand-alone film.
I am less enamoured with the finale (ep. 12, “Prophecy Girl”), because – while this episode packs a lot of punch – a number of things could and should have been set up better. I believe that the themes and the plot of this episode should have been re-packaged and written for two back-to-back episodes, just like the season-opener. That being said, “Prophecy Girl” sees some seriously good acting from everyone, especially Gellar, Hannigan, and Brendon. Somehow it feels like everyone was putting in extra effort because they knew how important the episode was. And so I wonder if they might have kept additional shooting days in the schedule for this one, in order to have the time to re-do certain scenes several times and give everyone the chance to get it really perfect.
All that is left for me to say is that season 1 has a really nice self-contained arc, and so it works rather well as a 12-part story in its own right. Which means it would be possible to show this to someone who has not seen the show as a representation of early Buffy, without the immediate need to show them more. It also means that you could show season 1 to a 10- or 11-year-old, and then hold off for a number of years before showing them season 2 (which is much darker and more mature).
On average, I would give season 1 a combined rating of 7.5 out of 10.