Sarah
Buffy

The Complete Series

By John V. Brennan
September 2011
With Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Anthony Stewart Head

Also with Charisma Carpenter (S1-3), David Boreanaz (S1-3), Kristine Sutherland (S1-5), Robia La Morte (S2-3), Armin Shimerman (S1-3), Seth Green (S2-4), James Marsters (S2, S4-7), Juliette Landau (S2), Eliza Dushku (S3, S7), Alexis Denisof (S3), Emma Caulfield (S3-7), Marc Blucas (S4-5), Amber Benson (S4-6), Michelle Trachtenberg (S5-7), DB Woodside (S7), Tom Lenk (S6-7), Iyari Lymon (S7)
Created by Joss Whedon
Reviewed by JB

    Considered one of the greatest cult TV shows ever, in the company of Dr. Who, Star Trek and The X-Files, Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its genre-exploding mix of comedy, drama, horror, romance and action, remains a guilty pleasure of many fans young and old. 

Season One

     Buffy Anne Summers was TV's most unlikely action hero. She was pretty and "girly" - Joss Whedon's own description, and an accurate one, especially for that first season's Buffy, and Sarah Michelle Gellar, the actress who played her. Buffy was not book-smart, and weighed no more than 100 pounds, yet she was supernaturally capable of kicking ass on a regular basis. Gellar, who had some previous fame from her role on All My Chlldren, proved repeatedly through seven seasons how able she was of handling comedy and drama. Gellar got tremendous support from the entire cast, especially Nicholas Brendon and Alyson Hannigan who played her instantly lovable sidekicks Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg.Anthony Stewart Head, whose claim to fame before the series was as the romantic lead in a series of coffee commercials made for the UK and the States, played school librarian Rupert Giles, Buffy's reserved, very British mentor, and Kristine Sutherland portrayed Joyce Summers, one of the coolest TV moms ever. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Charisma Carpenter as Cordelia, the queen bitch of Sunnydale High and David Boreanaz, who started out kind of awkward and amateurish but wound up being so excellent as Angel, the tortured vampire with a soul, he got his own series.

    The show's initial premise - high school as a metaphor for hell - resonated not only with teens but also adults, who tuned in to discover that Buffy, with its faux slang and smartly written dialogue, was one of the most quotable shows on the air. 

     Don't let the cheesy monsters of the 12-episode first season bother you - just sit back and enjoy the dialogue, the freshness of the then-unknown cast, and the sometimes satirically derivative stories, which feature, among other things, a ventriloquist dummy suspected of eviscerating students, a pack of students possessed by hyenas, a destructive demon inhabiting the Internet, and an ancient vampire called The Master looking to unleash Hell on Earth, if only he could get rid of that damned ex-cheerleader with a crossbow standing in his way. After the first dozen episodes, you will either get it or you won't. If you do get it, go onto Seasons Two and Three, when Buffy the Vampire Slayer matures into one of the finest, most imaginative programs ever offered on free TV.

Season Two

     A mixture of fun stand-alone episodes (Buffy meets demon, Buffy and pals research, Buffy kills demon) and a season-long tale of the doomed love affair between Buffy and  Angel makes the sophomore season of this cult favorite one of its most memorable. The show expands its scope and takes a quantum leap in maturity without losing any of the charm and promise of the inaugural year. The main cast is augmented by several new faces, including Seth Green as a taciturn guitarist and potential love interest for Hannigan's lovelorn Willow, and James Marsters and Juliet Landau as Spike and Drusilla, two new bad-ass vampires in town. 

     Halfway through the season, things kick into high gear with David Boreanaz's amazing turnaround performance as Angelus, the evil version of his goody-two shoes Angel.  It all leads to the choicest Buffy episode ever, the two-part finale, "Becoming", in which Buffy must choose between saving her boyfriend Angel or saving the world. Filled with flashbacks relating the 200-year moral journey of Angel from drunken layabout to history's most evil vampire to reluctant undead hero, and containing several unexpected moments in its main story, "Becoming" is layered and thought-provoking, with outstanding performances from the entire main cast, especially Gellar, Boreanaz and Marsters.

     Season Two, more emotionally compelling than you may expect from a show titled Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is the season that hooked many fans for the remainder of the series. ½

Season Three

     I sometimes think that Buffy, Season Three, in which Buffy faces high school graduation and the end of the world, may be the greatest single season of television ever, but then I remember the Classic 39 season of The Honeymooners. Nevertheless, in this season of Buffy, an already super cast only gets better with the addition of sexy Eliza Dusku as Faith the Vampire Slayer, the hilarious Harry Groener as Mayor Wilkens (the greatest Buffy villain, and a human to boot!), and several appearances by vengeance demon Anya, played by Emma Caulfield, who would join the cast on a permanent basis in the fourth season. 

     As is usual for this show, the funniest episodes are often the deepest, revealing much about the characters, and the darkest episodes inevitably contain several laugh-out-loud moments. Highlights out of a season of highlights include two episodes that showcase the two MVPs of the show: "The Zeppo", in which Nick Brendon's hapless Xander gets to save the high school all by himself (while the rest of the gang are out saving the world), and "Doppelgangland", in which Alyson Hannigan's comic talents shine brightly in a dual role as the cute, shy Willow and a leather-clad, sleazy vampire Willow. There is also "Earshot", a clever, compelling episode which addresses student violence in American high school, and was originally pulled from the air due to the Colombine tragedy. These are only three out of about a dozen from this season that I would rank among my all-time favorite episodes from any program. Okay, so "The Classic 39" is better. But then again, did Ralph Kramden ever have a "Welcome Home" party ruined by a horde of zombies? I don't think so.

Season Four

    The difficult fourth season, in which Buffy and pals move on to college.  James Marsters is back as Buffy's arch-nemesis Spike the Vampire, and the beautiful Emma Caulfield returns as former demon Anya, pain in the ass extraordinaire. They fill the void left by David Boreanaz and Charisma Carpenter, who moved to the equally entertaining spinoff Angel. There is also Eliza Dushku, returning as Faith (the rogue slayer), who gets plenty of opportunity to strut her stuff in a four-episode crossover tale that begins Buffy and concludes on Angel.

     But the show still lost more than two excellent cast members and a set when it moved on from high school; it also lost some of its emotional resonance. Of course, the cast and characters were getting older and could not play high school kids forever, so the march toward adulthood was inevitable, but the show would never be quite as charming as it was in the first three years. 

     Nevertheless, the fourth season features the usual excellent work by the entire cast and a handful of the show's best episodes, including Hush, considered by many to be the best, funniest and most frightening Buffy episode, in which no dialogue is spoken for nearly half the episode. The off-the-wall season finale, Restless, in which the four main characters (Buffy, Xander, Willow, Giles) reveal their inner fears via some potentially deadly dreams, is also a fan favorite, though I, for one, do not get why. Many other episodes offer quality entertainment in the usual Buffy style, but the season as a whole lacks consistency. For the first time, several blah or downright bad episodes of Buffy rear their heads - understandable in a transitional year.

     Oh, and did I mention Willow was now gay? No. Okay. Willow is now gay. Still adorable though.  ½

Season Five

    When it was announced that the too cute for words Michelle Trachtenberg (she of Disney's HARRIET THE SPY and INSPECTOR GADGET) was coming to play Buffy's previously unheard-of little sister Dawn in Season Five, some fans pictured Fonzie from Happy Days jumping his motorcycle over a tank full of sharks and assumed that Buffy was officially on its way downhill.

    Not so. Joss Whedon and his crew de-emphasized the college setting of the previous year and moved much of the central action to the superb new Magic Shop set.They gave Buffy two separate missions - protecting her kid sister from several sets of potential killers and rededicating herself to discover the true nature of being a Slayer - infusing the season with a sense of purpose the previous season lacked. Claire Kramer was cast as evil bombshell redhead Glory, playing the part with the delicious campiness of a baddie from the old Batman TV series. Emma Caulfield stepped up to prove herself not only a superb comedienne but a wonderful dramatic actress as well. Best of all, the young and talented Trachtenberg fit into the show as if she had always been there, making the mysterious "Dawn" story (in which all the characters initially believe she had always been there) much easier to accept. In short, Season Five of the now veteran horror-comedy was a triumphant return to the consistency and quality of the high school years.

     Along the way, there are sexy robots, mysterious monks, butt-ugly minions, evil twins, Count Dracula himself and a band of Knights who focus all their time and energy on the task of killing a cute little girl named Dawn Summers, who just may bring about the end of the world. What more could you ask for in a TV show? If you say Joel Grey, a big fat troll with a dangerous hammer, a slimy creature from outer space and several shocking deaths, well, you've got those too.

Season Six

     There are some fans of the show who believe that Season Six was the greatest of them all. They are almost always nice people, and I have nothing personally against them. But they are clearly insane and probably should not be allowed access to sharp objects. 

     The theme of the season was "Oh Grow up!", as Joss Whedon and his writers attempted to show Buffy and company struggling to make it to true adulthood. But instead, they turn beloved funny and heroic characters into unsympathetic, whining babies who gripe about their lives constantly. The season also offers the show's weakest villains yet, a trio of nerds who taunt Buffy for no reason other than boredom. Stir in a mishandled "Willow as a 'magic' addict" storyline and a graphic, mutually abusive sexual relation between Spike and Buffy, and you've got all the ingredients for a once-great show gone awry.

     This is not to say the sixth season was a complete loss. The outstanding and tuneful musical episode Once More With Feeling is one of the series' Top Five episodes, and certainly the most danceable. Other episodes hit the mark or at least contain some unforgettable scenes, and there is a rousing, if somewhat forced, "apocalypty" finale. But you have to sit through many indifferent and bad episodes just to get to these highlights.  ½

Season Seven

     Buffy creator Joss Whedon, responding to fans and critics alike who decried the depressing sixth season, promised Season Seven would be a lighter "back to the beginning" year. For the first third of the season, that promised is fulfilled. The show returns to high school (Buffy as counseler, Dawn as student) with comedy emphasized over drama. If some of these episodes seem derivative, reaching back to the first three seasons for story inspiration, they have enough twists and turns to make them fresh new variations rather than carbon copies. 

     After those initial episodes, the show shifts into a jumbled story-arc that focuses on Buffy, Spike and dozens of new, extraneous characters, leaving the rest of the cast with less to do than many fans would have liked. Yet the entire season works well, and even in below-average episodes, there are often one or two exceptional scenes that serve to remind why the show lasted seven years.  he writers continue to bring fresh novelty to the show, with creative individual episodes and unexpected character pairings. In the end, the seventh season is an often frustrating but ultimately engaging one that brings the story of Buffy Summers to an imperfect but valid conclusion after 144 episodes. Not bad for a show not expected to last past its status as a 12-episode time-filler filler on the WB. ½ - JB

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