In One Sitting, we review the experience of binge-watching a TV show. Lately, avowed Buffy devotee Stephanie Garrison has been re-re-re-re-re-watching (we’re really not sure how many times we should use re here) Buffy the Vampire Slayer with her husband (she wrote about his reactions here). She decided to see if she could condense its first season into one sitting.
Buffy, Season One
…the episodes that helped make Joss Whedon a storytelling legend.
In the early ‘90s, Joss Whedon had a vision: to take the classic horror image of a girl being stalked by something big and scary and flip it on its head, to have the damsel in supposed distress get the upper hand and kick some ass. Whedon fought hard to make this dream a reality. In 1992, the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer hit screens.
And completely flopped. Miserably.
To be fair, this wasn’t Whedon’s doing. By the time the studio got to the film, most of the script Whedon had in mind had been so horribly altered it barely resembled his original vision. But Whedon wasn’t deterred. Five years later, something amazing happened. Something probably even he didn’t expect.
For me, 1997 was an odd and awkward year. Not only was I fourteen, which, let’s face it, is no one’s ideal age, but I was in eighth grade, and I’ll admit, not exactly popular. I was mousey, quiet, and, well, honestly, I don’t like thinking about that year too much.
What I do remember is that in 1997 I was into my horror phase, particularly stories that involved vampires. I honestly think that’s what made my dad tape the premiere of the show and hand me the tape the next morning. It allowed me to be one of the privileged to see the clip that’s above (which only ever aired the one time).
What made Buffy the Vampire Slayer last beyond its twelve episode mid-season filler fate was the same reason the show appealed to my overlooked fourteen year-old self: it understood high school.
The first three seasons of Buffy are the strongest because the metaphor that Whedon establishes in the beginning is the most concrete. Quite simply: High school is hell. Boom. That was all it took for Whedon to get the cult following that kept Buffy in the air for seven seasons (yes, I’m deliberately mixing shows with my references, so sue me).
Specifically, what makes the first season so great to watch is to see the lengths Whedon went to keep that metaphor afloat. Some of the details, like hosting the library in a dark and foreboding room, are a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the point always gets across. I’d be lying if I said I was always aware of the metaphor while watching, but that’s the other great thing about Whedon’s series, it’s just fun to watch without having to worry about a hidden agenda. The metaphors surrounding high school become more apparent when that stage of your life is over and done with and while rewatching Buffy’s premiere season, it becomes fun to find out what Whedon was trying to say about that awkward sophomore year, when the freshmen bond of middle school finally goes by the wayside.
Although it goes without saying, what separates BTVS from all the other high school drama shows is the additions of vampires. Or as Giles says, “Zombies, werewolves, incubi, succubi, everything you ever dreaded was under your bed, but told yourself couldn’t be by the light of day. They’re all real.” Very much a traditionalist, Whedon gives us vampires (not these pseudo-glitter fairies): they burn in the daylight, a stake through the heart can kill them, and the majority of them are cold-blooded killers. Two interesting stamps that Whedon gives to his vamps are the face contortions when in feed-mode and the turning into dust when stake. Even Whedon admits the dusting choice was more for practicality than showy effects (after all, it would become hard for Buffy to continually bury bodies), but it does add a level of creativity to what could have been a tired out device.
First seasons are always tricky ones because of their unique demands. You not only have to create a world from the ground up, you also have to be able to create likeable characters and build plausible momentum to carry the action and make us (and the network) want to come back next year. When you have the additional stress of being a mid-season filler, and only twelve episodes to do all of this instead of twenty-two, well the show better be good.
Thankfully, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s first season, although not without some bumps, was enough to allow for a second season (but that’s another article for another time). As the series goes on, we can see the evolution of Joss Whedon’s talents that later allow him to create Firefy and Cabin in the Woods and direct the popular Avengers. For now, we see a man who has talent, who has an understanding of dialogue, and who also has a trick or two up his sleeve, even if he’s not completely aware of how to control them. Not yet, anyway.
The show’s title sums up the first season perfectly. Whedon himself even said in an interview that every word was needed. The title, like the show, balances the use of camp, comedy, and horror. Even if in the early stages the horror element wasn’t truly there, the rest of the elements were. The show is one of the first I remember to move beyond the standard “one-shot” episodes and really try for the “arc.”
WELCOME TO THE HELLMOUTH/THE HARVEST (Episodes 1 and 2)
Kind of a gimme, using the pilot, but there is no better way to get invested in the world. Sadly, it’s next to impossible to see the pilot as it was originally intended (re: the promo clip), but from the twist at the beginning to the quip from Giles at the end (“The world is doomed”), this episode embodies the tone of the series. The episode is also great in that it quickly sets up and defines the main characters as well as add in the season’s clock or Major Dramatic Question (re: Will the Master become free?).
In terms of pilots, it does a nice job setting up the rules of Whedon’s world, both metaphorical and supernatural. We have the awkward situation of being the new kid at school as well as get the basics of how the vampires operate.
THE WITCH (Episode 3)
Perhaps not one of the better episodes of the first season, as the series is, at this point, still trying to find its footing. However, what the second episode does do is quickly establish how the “Scoobie gang” will be encountering more than just vampires. It’s the first of many episodes where Buffy tries to have that oh so elusive “normal life” and the consequences that come with it, in this case, placing our protagonist in danger, leaving the sidekicks to piece the puzzle together and save the day. In terms of the metaphor, on first viewing it gets buried, but “The Witch” actually talks of the dangers of parents who try to relive their glory days through their kids. The method taken is an interesting one that can be appreciated on a second viewing. Finally, as mentioned before, Buffy provides for a lot of callbacks and recurring characters. “The Witch” is the first episode where we meet Amy, who figures greatly in later seasons.
THE PACK (Episode 6)
Probably the first strong episode in terms of pacing and urgency. “The Pack” makes one of the main characters not necessarily as a victim, but as a villain. We see Xander being cruel and the effects this has on those around him. Not only does this cement certain relationships within the show, not in the least the one between Willow and Xander, but it’s also one of the stronger metaphors that Whedon gives us in the first season: the fact that high school boys can turn on a dime and friends can become disinterested and cruel. If nothing else, it’s the first episode my husband labeled as better than “cute.”
ANGEL (Episode 7)
Probably one of the major turning points of the season if not the series, revealing Angel – fast becoming a love interest for Buffy – as a vampire. This episode provides the foundation for a lot of the backstory that will come for Angel’s character, even alluding to the Angelus story that becomes a big fixture in season two. The ending scene as Buffy leaves a scar from a crucifix (a gift Angel gave to her in the pilot) on his chest is a perfect summary of their star-crossed relationship.
OUT OF MIND, OUT OF SIGHT (Episode 11)
Perhaps it’s not an actual “arc” story, but again, it does implement the nice extended metaphor that Whedon employs in his first three seasons. In this case, the metaphor is how years of fading into the background of a high school takes its toll. For this reason, I’m placing OOMOOS above “Nightmares”, which while a great episode, does not have the same metaphor that this one has. The other aspect of this episode that warrants its inclusion is the subtle growth of Cordelia’s character. In season two, we see Cordelia integrate herself with the core group a lot more, and this episode serves as the corner piece for that evolution. As the target of Marcie’s revenge, it allows Cordelia to realize the nightmares are real in Sunnydale and Buffy is usually the force to stop them. The other highlight? It’s the first time we see Whedon’s perchance for shifty men in suits.
PROPHECY GIRL (Episode 12)
The season’s finale was a tentative one as it wasn’t official that Buffy would be returning for a second season. Because of such uncertainties, Whedon made sure that episode 12 would serve as both season and series finale. Another well-structured episode, it neatly wraps up a lot of the questions and conflicts the show hinted to get answered (i.e. Xander finally asks Buffy out — the answer is no). It also highlights the two themes a lot of sci-fi, horror, fantasy-based shows seem to address at one point or another: those of fate and sacrifice. Before we ever had Harry Potter face off against Voldemort, we had a totally different powerful but still scared sixteen year old coping with the idea of her own mortality.
Because of its then-uncertain fate, Buffy’s first season can very well stand on its own.
For its time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a risk for the — then — WB network, a network that primarily (then and now) focuses on teen dramas, such as Dawson’s Creek, which premiered around the same time as BTVS. What Buffy ended up doing for the network was giving it a unique twist for the supernatural which paved the way for other series down the line (i.e Smallville, Supernatural, and The Vampire Dairies, to name a few).
Are there problems? Of course! Some of the special effects are a bit laughable and cringeworthy on repeated viewings. Some of the dialogue is a bit forced or seems out of touch. Xander’s outfits…dear God, I’m glad that fashion hasn’t repeated itself… yet. But these are first season problems, and mostly they’re hammered, tweaked, and polished by the end of season three.
I know at least one person who might disagree with the episodes I’ve laid out (I’m looking at you, Jess), but the truth is I could make a case for just about any of the initial twelve episodes (except “Teacher’s Pet”. I love you Joss, but what the hell were you thinking with that one?). The season gives us a nice layout, answering what needed to be answered, but also letting a few of the smaller things go unsaid, leaving room for growth if given the chance. Thankfully, it was and the episodes that would follow would be legendary and genre-changing.