Buffy the Vampire Slayer / Angel

by John G. Nettles


Regular airtime: Mondays, 8:30 pm EST (CBS)
Executive Producers: Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt
Cast: David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter, Alexis Denisof, J. August Richards

by John G. Nettles
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The Altogether Ooky

cover art

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Director: Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon
Creator: Marti Noxon
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Amber Benson, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, Nicholas Brendan, James Marsters, Anthony Head
Regular airtime: Tuesday, 8pm EST


Review [18.Jun.2002]
Review [10.Jun.2002]
Review [4.Jun.2002]
Review [1.Jan.1995]

It’s a dangerous world out there for young people. Constantly bombarded by the threats of drugs and alcohol, violence, sexual predation, and abuse or neglect from loved ones, a young person’s life is a miasma of confusion and betrayal. You can’t count on your parents because they’re never around, or they’re in some kind of alcoholic stupor, or they’re too distracted by their hot new wives to notice you’ve cleaned out the liquor cabinet and swiped the keys to the Jag in a fit of adolescent self-destruction. In the end, the only people you can trust are your friends — your good-looking, hair-moussed, Abercrombie-&-Fitch-wearing, white-boy-rap-listening friends. Your real family. Sure, they’ll occasionally sleep with your girlfriend, coerce you into cheating on the big exam, show up drunk at the prom and get you all suspended from school, and occasionally get you mixed up with psychotic drug smugglers, but if you stand by each other, these things will pass quickly, a series of “very special episodes” in your life.

This is what I have learned about teenagers over the last ten years from watching television, and now I regret not having grown up in California.

The stultifying homogeneity of televised product for teenagers makes me wonder just how the hell Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt managed to get Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, now in their fifth and second seasons, respectively, on the tube in the first place. Vampires, ex-demons, witches, psychic debutantes, hunky commandos, and Old Navy-wearing superheroines, they’re still healthier characters and — I’ll say it — role models, than the self-absorbed mutants and bloodsuckers inhabiting Aaron Spelling’s side of Wilshire Boulevard, and at least in Joss Whedon’s California, black people exist.

The enduring appeal of Buffy, the adventures of a teenaged girl who discovers she is the preordained, superpowered, serious-butt-kicking Slayer of vampires and demons, and its spinoff Angel, about a vampire seeking to reclaim his soul by championing the helpless, is their keen sense of self-awareness. Smack-dab in the middle of the WB’s weekly schedule, which would appear to have been programmed by the readership of Cosmo Girl, these two shows understand that they’re fantasy fodder for teenagers (though adults are welcome), but rather than subscribe to the overinflated yet underinformed seriousness that usually marks such programs — only a juvenile’s concepts of “work” and “sex” would have every character on Melrose Place working for, renting from, and/or sleeping with Heather Locklear — Whedon’s shows acknowledge that they’re ridiculous and run with it. Granted, the storylines have occasionally been heavy, and there was real tragedy in last year’s killing-off of Angel’s assistant Doyle in mid-season (and real guts in keeping him dead), but these are offset by a persistent self-referential playfulness that keeps both shows fresh.

Buffy appears to have hit the new season running, pitting the Slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her allies against Dracula (Rudolf Martin) himself in the opening episode. The next episode’s villain is the undead ditz Harmony (Mercedes McNab), to lighten things up: the best exchange so far has Harmony and her ex, Spike (James Marsters, as a British-punk vampire and hands-down this show’s best recurring villain) facing off, wherein she introduces her “minions” and proclaims herself a threat and Spike snaps, “What, you’ve been reading Evil for Dummies?” After a couple of seasons spent waffling between her wish for a normal post-adolescent life and her responsibilities as the chosen protector of humanity, Buffy has resolved to take her job more seriously. Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Buffy’s hapless would-be protege, has moved out of his abusive parents’ basement. The Slayer’s Watcher (teacher) — and the father-figure of Buffy’s ersatz family — Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) has bought the local magic shop, despite Buffy’s concern that every one of the last few owners has been killed at the hands/claws/fangs of some evil beastie. Anya (Emma Caulfield), a former demon both elevated and reduced to humanity, and Xander’s girlfriend, continues to struggle with the concept of human ethics — in the third episode Xander has been split into two bodies, to the dismay of everyone except Anya, who views it as an opportunity to double her pleasure. Best of all, it would appear that Riley, the former paramilitary captain of a monster-hunting cabal of mad scientists, and Buffy’s current boyfriend, is on his way out, realizing that his love for Buffy is not reciprocated. The show requires Buffy’s romantic interest to bear the burden of token gravitas (her last relationship was with the vampire Angel, until he “spun off” for his own series), but Marc Blucas is just leaden in the part.

Or it may simply be that as much a badass as Riley is, he is only human, and this crowd tends to jump fences to find its romances. This is especially evident in Buffy’s subtlest yet most daring storyline, the blossoming relationship between the neophyte witches Willow (Alyson Hannigan, a fan favorite) and Tara (Amber Benson). Joss Whedon, like several of the producers of the WB’s teen-oriented programs, is interested in raising the visibility of gay and lesbian teens on television. The Willow-Tara relationship is a bold move, especially on a network as relatively new as the WB, with a viewership who are mostly living — and watching — with their parents. Buffy has always drawn fire from parents’ groups concerning its violence, and two seasons ago the network chose not to air an episode in which a misfit student threatens to go on a shooting spree at the gang’s high school, for fear of being seen as insensitive to the Columbine incident (the episode was aired last season but with network disclaimers attached). So it will be interesting to see if Willow and Tara’s romance plays in Peoria, or more specifically, if Middle America is ready for interspecies sex but not yet for gay teenagers in relationships.

Whether intentionally or not on the producers’ part, however, Willow has been given two escape routes should the network lose its nerve, and both are disturbing. One is the number of last season’s episodes devoted to Willow’s despondency over her breakup with the cynical Oz (Seth Green, now on NBC’s Tucker), so Willow’s foray into girl-girl relations can be explained away as a rebound thing. The other out is the relative lack of development of Tara as a character thus far. Introduced as lonely and needy but powerful, all of which drew her to Willow in the first place, there is ample setup for Tara to be revealed as something evil. Here’s hoping that neither will be the case.

Thus far the season’s sole sour note is the addition of Michelle Trachtenberg to the cast as Buffy’s younger sister, Dawn. While bringing her in may be a cagey acknowledgement of the show’s shifting demographics — Nickelodeon kids with a new bedtime — TV history tells us that the introduction of a Cute Kid is a sign that a show is getting tired. And Trachtenberg is Cute in spades. Expect many storylines in which Dawn will get in the way, attempt to emulate Buffy, discover boys, run away, and be captured by bad guys over and over again. Given the show’s track record for playing with conventions, there may be hope for Dawn Summers on the horizon, but as of now she is definitely the Scrappy-Doo of the Scooby Gang.

On the other hand, the presence of J. August Richards in the cast of Angel looks very promising. Richards’ character Charles Gunn is a self-appointed street guardian, a benevolent protector of inner-city innocents from the depredations of thugs and gang-bangers. As such, he is Angel’s diurnal opposite number, turning to Our Hero for help against more otherworldly threats but otherwise his own man. Richards is an appealing actor, putting as much gusto into his Angry Black Man as he can, considering his surroundings — this is a WB show, remember, so Gunn’s ‘hood is substantially sanitized for the viewers’ protection — and considering that the writers have saddled him with the utterly whitebread Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter, another transplant from Buffy), who has taken it upon herself to soften Gunn’s edges. As there is no indication that Carpenter is going anywhere, we can only hope that Gunn humanizes the airheaded, materialistic Cordelia as well. While Angel exists in the same world as Buffy, its tone is much darker, often referencing classic film noir, and Cordelia’s bubbly schemer bit tends to distract more than contribute.

David Boreanaz continues to give a tastefully understated performance in the show’s title role. It’s not easy to muster a good brood — the best Luke Perry ever managed was James Dean with the trots — but Boreanaz seems to have polished his pensiveness to such a degree that his existential angst finally appears to be about weightier issues than his hair. In this season’s second episode, dubbed “an Angel event” by the network for some reason, Angel flashes back to the fifties, when he lived in an Ellroyesque Hollywood hotel haunted by a demon that creates and feeds on despair. After the hotel’s residents are driven to attack Angel, he leaves them to the demon’s appetites with such wonderful coldness and disgust, evidence of the cynicism and despite that endless years in the shadow of humanity must surely breed, that his present-day remorse is also believable. Since his introduction on Buffy I have always had a problem with the role’s “vampire with a soul” business, which seemed oxymoronic — isn’t the lack of a soul the reason vampires are vampires in the first place? — and little more than a wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if idea, but Boreanaz is starting to sell me on it. It helps a lot to have the rest of the cast there, a smaller family than Buffy‘s but nonetheless emotional foils that force Angel to examine their humanity — and his own — from other than the stunted perspective of the vampire, the eternal orphan.

It’s been said that if you look at all of the various family units on television over the years, from the Andersons of Father Knows Best to the Huxtables of The Cosby Show, the healthiest by far were the Addams Family. After all, the Addamses communicated, expressed affection openly, supported each other’s ambitions, defended each other from outside aggressors, and Mom and Dad definitely had an active sex life — no twin beds there. The TV families that exemplify “family values” in the rhetoric of politicians seem diseased by comparison — no wonder Kitten became a junkie and Denise married (and divorced) Lenny Kravitz. The same may be said for television’s one-color spectrum of teenaged pseudo-families who help each other into and out of self-created messes, mouthing empty platitudes about sticking by your friends, bro. Easy enough to do when you’re young, good-looking, and have no real problems. It’s Buffy and Angel and their cronies — brothers and sisters in arms — who demonstrate real and healthy group unities when actual stakes are involved. Perhaps it’s the altogether ooky that just brings out the best in people.

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//Mixed media