Thursday, March 29, 2007

Some Real Greatness Overlooked...

Thanks to the amazingness that is Netflix, Mira and I have spent the past couple of months making our way through all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, for those who have not experienced the greatness of this show, I know what you must be thinking ... come, on, a showed called Buffy --the vampire slayer???

When I was a little one of around eight years old, I first saw the cinematic version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry and David Arquette. I watched it about a kazillion times. My younger brother Matt and I used to act out vampire slaying scenes; I even named my hamster Buffy. Then around 1996 or 1997 I heard it was to be made into a TV series. Recalling my fondness of the movie (which looking back on it now, was not exactly high class cinema...) I scoffed at this notion. But I did watch it on and off. I watched most of the second and third seasons, which would have been when I was in 7th and 8th grade. Through high school I didn't keep up too religiously. But I think it's only now, as an adult, that I can fully appreciate how incredible this show is.

The show's creator Joss Whedon didn't really have experience doing TV when he began Buffy, so he says that the show was created in a cinematic fashion. Not only are there some amazingly artistically done episodes, the character development is beyond compare in
my opinion. First off, watching all seven seasons, one can really see how the individuals of the show have grown and developed. But it is never uncharacteristic or "out there." Some shows that I have recently watched have characters doing total 180s from season to season, there are plot flaws and holes left and right, and sometimes I wonder exactly what agenda the writers have. Never in Buffy. The range and depth of human emotion that is portrayed in this television series is astounding to me. Sometimes while we are watching I just have to turn to Mira and comment on how stunning it is that they were able to develop these characters in a one hour television show.

In addition to the incredible cinematography and character development, the writing of the show is fabulous. The dialogue amongst the characters is always entertaining, but not in a slapstick, Friends or Will & Grace sort of way. The episodes are always creative and manage to insert humor even when devastatingly sad things are happening. In addition, the storylines and the plot is so well-developed that the writers have things more or less worked out a year in advance. This provides for some excellent foreshadowing opportunities. For example, Buffy's little sister Dawn doesn't show up until the beginning of Season 5 (she was created by some monks out of mystical energy that needed to be protected). About mid-way through Season 4, Buffy has a dream in which she is making a bed with the other slayer, Faith. Faith mentions how Buffy has to be getting ready for "little sister." In the Season 4 finale, Buffy looks in on the same room during her dream sequence and mentions how her and Faith just made that bed. Tara then appears, telling Buffy, "You think you know ... what's to come ... what you are. You haven't even begun." She then tells Buffy to "be back before dawn." Foreshadowing? I think so! The last scene of the episode is a voiceover of Tara repeating this and Buffy staring at the darkened room (which is soon to become Dawn's room). The show is so well-crafted, it's really quite remarkable.

Besides all of this, there is the s
eries idea itself. You have Buffy, a normal high school girl who has been chosen to be the slayer. Its an incredible message about female empowerment in a culture where there are few female "superheros." Since Buffy's inception, there have been a variety of other shows with powerful lead females fighting evil or crime (Charmed, Alias, etc.) But Buffy was really the first aimed towards an audience of young women, and Joss Whedon created the show for that reason -- because he felt that there needed to be positive female role models on television. It was also groundbreaking in its positive portrayal of a lesbian relationship between Willow, one of Buffy's closest friends, and Tara in the 4th-6th seasons. The show came under some criticism for having that relationship be in some what of it's own special little universe, never exploring the difficult life for gays and lesbians. For me, this comes out as a strength of the show. When Willow falls in love with Tara, she just sort of accepts it. She goes through some difficulties with telling Buffy and with worrying that her friends are uncomfortable around her now. But Tara and her are treated as these two people who are really in love, and any type of political statement is left out. It's treated in the way a lesbian relationship would be in a world where it wasn't seen as some type of political statement or alternative lifestyle. Then, even after Willow and Tara were no longer together, the show did not follow the lead of many other shows who will treat one lesbian relationship as an experiment. In the 7th season Willow began a relationship with Kennedy, and the two of them shared the very first lesbian sex scene on network television (albeit quite tame, because, you know, network television). My only complaint is the lack of diversity in the main cast. In the 2nd season we get a slayer guest star from Jamaica or somewhere in the Caribbean. Season 7 has two potentials who are women of color: Kennedy is played by a Latina actress and Rona is African American. And that just about sums up the women of color on the show.

Buffy has a huge following and always scored well with the critics. However, I don't think it ever got the recognition it deserved as a truly remarkable series. Throughout its seven years, one episode was nominated for an Emmy. It was also nominated a few times for special effects, etc. But never was it nominated for best series (except for some Science Fiction award ceremony), never were any of the actors nominated for anything ... Yet I would assert that there are few other shows that are as skillfully crafted as this one was. Needless to say I was astonished when I discovered the lack of explicit praise that this show received. However, after I thought about it, I realized that it probably was related in large part to the genre of the show. Science fiction or fantasy is not taken very seriously in the United States for some reason, although Lord of the Rings may be an exception to that rule. It's a shame because really well done science fiction is rarely over the top or even unbelievable. The way that this show was created was such that the evil and the fantastical served as metaphors for human evil, rage, lust, and more. For example, when Willow & Tara (the two Wiccans) first began their relationship, magic was often used as a metaphor for their feelings and their sexuality.
One of the other things I like best about this show is that the characters are so well crafted that even the obnoxious, ridiculous ones are completely endearing (Anya, Andrew...) and you find yourself feeling sympathetic towards the "bad" characters (Faith, Spike, for example). Just so good!

I think that we shouldn't judge a show based on its genre, or even its title. Very amazing things can be wrapped in quite unassuming packages :) Anyway, for those who have not checked out this show, I would highly recommend it. However, I have to say, you probably shouldn't start with the first season, which is a lot more hokey than the following ones. If you begin with Season 1, you'll probably think I was either lying about all this or just have terrible taste. I would recommend starting with Season 3 then maybe going back to the first two seasons later. Season 2 is pretty good too actually, but a bit more along the lines of a teen drama with all its romance.

For your viewing pleasure, I went to Youtube to search out some clips that I could use to illustrate all that I have been spouting out. I might have gone a little crazy, so there's sort of a lot. But I will provide short descriptions so you can decide if it sounds interesting to watch! Be careful though because some of these contain major spoilers. These ones will be marked with asteriks.

Ok, so this first clip is actually a behind the scenes look at what some consider one of the best Buffy episodes. I don't know if I agree with that, but it is pretty good. It is called "Hush" and is from the 4th season. This episode was nominated for an Emmy. Almost the entire thing is silent.

Now here is my very favorite scene from the episode "Hush." Amazing how the characters are able to completely maintain their personas even without words. In this clip, Giles (Buffy's Watcher -- aka teacher) is explaining to the gang why they have all lost their voices.

This next clip highlights a little bit of the actual fighting in the show. It's not with vampires or anything though ... none of that was really my favorite parts. This is from the 3rd season finale and shows a major encounter between Buffy and Faith, the "rogue" vampire slayer, who turned over to the "dark side" and who Buffy has a bit of a history with. Unfortunately, it is a "music video" so you can't hear any of the actual dialogue (although it doesn't matter much after the first 15 seconds or so)

Ok, next up we have some light hearted wonderfulness in the form of this season six episode "Once More With Feeling." The story behind this episode is that the cast members apparently used to get together at Joss Whedon's house and do Shakespeare readings. Once night Joss started playing on the piano and people were all singing, etc. when he realized what a beautiful voice Amber Benson (the actress who played Tara) had. Joss, in all his brilliance, decided to make a musical episode of Buffy. Here is an abridged version of the classic episode:

Here is another condensed episode, the season four finale "Restless." This is one of my favorites. In this episode, all the main characters are haunted in their dreams by the spirit of the first slayer. This is a great example of the artfulness of the show. I was astounded by their ability to capture the human dream state. I really wanted to find a video with clips of the dream sequences, but the only one I could find was with them in the form of a music video. Nevertheless, it still does a pretty good job of capturing the episode. Some people have criticized this episode for being racist because the first slayer is black, with her face painted and seems somewhat "savage." Plus, having her pitted against Buffy, the very blond, very white petite little slayer, seems to accentuate this dichotomy. However, the Slayer was supposed to have originated when human civilization began. Since many think that this started in Africa, I'm not really sure how else they would have portrayed the First slayer. It's important to keep these things in mind.

***Now for some of the serious side of the show. As I mentioned, I am so impressed with how they were able to portray human emotions. This is from the season five episode "The Body" after Buffy's mother Joyce passes away -- this episode is perhaps one of the most moving of the series (it upset Mira so much that she refuses to watch it ever again). The whole episode was shot without any music, adding to the effect. The video I have chosen is a fan-made "episodic" of the episode, so it includes some music and various clips.***

***Now, from the season five finale "The Gift." This was Buffy's last episode airing on the WB. Season 6 and 7 aired on UPN. In this shocking finale, a hell goddess named Glory has taken Dawn (who was created out of mystical energy that has the power to break down the walls between dimensions) and is preparing to use her in a blood-letting ceremony in order to open up her hell dimension. However, if the portal is opened, it will also open the portals to all other dimensions, causing chaos. The only way for it to be closed is when the blood stops flowing (AKA when Dawn dies.) In this clip, Buffy decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to save Dawn and the world.***

***Ok, not done yet! Haha, I said that I went slightly overboard. As I was gathering the clips I realized just how many fabulous ones I had to share. So the next one is from season six, episode six. In the first episode of the season, Buffy has been dead for the entire summer, but her friends decide to bring her back. They believe that she was trapped in some sort of hell dimension. In this clip, Buffy reveals to Spike (a vampire who because of a chip the government put in his head cannot harm humans) that she was actually in heaven. You can pretty much disregard the second half of this video, which is a music fan video. I just wanted to show the clip at the beginning.***

Here is a sweet clip showcasing the Tara and Willow relationship. The first one is from season five episode "Family" where Tara tells Willow a story about their cat Miss Kitty Fantastico. I think this clip really shows the sweetness of their relationship. The Buffy creators have stated that Tara and Willow really had the sort of "soulmate", perfect love relationship. There were other great relationships on the show (Anya and Xander, Buffy and Angel, etc.) but theirs was like the safe space where everything was always happy and wonderful. Following this clip is an overview of the Willow/Tara relationship.

***Ok so in the episode "Seeing Red", the group's main enemy of the season, Warren, comes to Buffy's house, pulls out a gun and shoots at her. A stray bullet goes through the upstairs window, hitting and killing Tara. Tara's death pushes Willow over the edge and she falls hardcore into the dark magicks, becoming "evil Willow." In the first clip Evil Willow is talking with Dawn and Buffy. Later on, Giles comes and does a spell that makes Willow feel all the world's pain. So she decides to destroy the world. In the 2nd clip, Xander is able to stop Willow's rampage.***

***Here is some happy Willowness from the seventh season episode "Touched." In Season 7, the First Evil is looking to start a war and is slowly killing off the line of slayers. So Buffy and the gang bring all the potential slayers to Sunnydale to train them for the final battle. One of these potential slayers is Kennedy, who ends up dating Willow. So, she ends up getting some happiness after all!***

My very final (yes, final) two clips are from season seven. The first is from the episode "Storyteller." In this episode, Andrew (the obnoxiously endearing "hostage" of the gang) does a hilarious rendition of Masterpiece Theatre and gives his own perspective on the events of the season. The second clip is a compilation of Andrew moments!

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