[Review by Mike Marinaro]
Welcome to the Hellmouth, everyone! Analyzing Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an interesting endeavor. It’s obvious that the show Buffy becomes later on very much evolves out of the trial and error that is persistent throughout this inaugural season. What sticks out the most is a lot of innocence and charm that try their hardest to mask the season’s more unsavory elements. These charms work their magic in helping me give the season a bit more leeway, but I still can’t ignore its critical mistakes. Even the most flawed seasons to come (i.e. 4 and 7) have incredible strengths to help balance out their flaws. Season 1 has no such level of strengths and even more severe flaws, which is why it is without any doubt the weakest season of them all. All is not lost, though, as some depth can definitely be found here.
The basic underlying theme of the show, at least in its early years, can best be described by the phrase ‘high school is hell.’ The show wants us to look at the struggles of high school, and of adolescence, through a supernatural lens. This is a decent thesis for the show’s early years, but how much it will resonate really depends entirely on how well it’s presented. Where Season 2 and Season 3 expand on this thesis in great detail, letting the basic theme informing but not taking over the stories, Season 1 seems all-too content to let this thesis stand on its own in what manifests in a large number of simplistic ‘monster of the week’ metaphor episodes. It realizes its primary theme – detailing Buffy’s transition from childhood to adolescence – quite well, if sparingly, but it doesn’t aim for much more than that, particularly on an episode-to-episode basis.
The assumption here might be the lack of a serialized narrative (although I do generally prefer them), but that’s not exactly the problem. Rather, the underlying issue is the overall lack of serialized character development. Seasons 2 and 3 have an abundance of slowly building character development while Season 1 settles for metaphors that generally only run as deep as the plot they’re in, thereby lacking that all-important emotional resonance. If the metaphors aren’t channeled into something memorable enough for the characters to hold onto, why should I be expected to care?
Despite the numerous issues plaguing this season — its cheesiness and shoddy production values being the most explicit – there are some moments when it breaks free from its self-constructed storytelling prison. This is best reflected in the journey Buffy goes through in a handful of key episodes. I also appreciate the stark contrast Season 1 has with the rest of the show, particularly the later seasons. The characters are truly children here, true to its theme, with only the seeds of their strengths and flaws evident. There’s a certain sense of glee in seeing them so completely free of the burdens they will come to bear as they grow into the murkier years of adolescence (starting in Season 2) and the often even more harrowing years of young adulthood (starting in Season 6). This contrast, however, is one of the reasons why the material to come is so powerful. Conversely, how dark things get down the road help me appreciate things now all that much more. Both ends of the show complement each other extremely well.
Some of the staples Buffy is known for are present right from the beginning. This includes episodes that utilize underlying themes to service the story and, occasionally (for this season), the characters as well. Also there is the show’s refreshingly clever use of language; the dialogue on Buffy is one of its biggest strengths right from the get-go, although like everything else it gets even better later. The acting from most of the main players is fairly strong out of the gate, particularly with Sarah Michelle Gellar getting the opportunity to show her stuff on several occasions — never more prominently than in the finale, “Prophecy Girl” [1×12].
I’ve noticed that some fans like to give Season 1 a ‘free pass’ in terms of evaluating it critically. I don’t feel this is a wise maneuver, as it dilutes the comparative analysis of the seasons to come. Let’s not sugar-coat Season 1: it’s a flawed collection of episodes. I do understand where the kind sentiment comes from though, as the characters try their best to charm away those flaws. The season has its temperate ups and its frigid downs, but one thing I can safely say about it is that it’s a lightweight, fun, and often charming group of episodes, with the occasional splash of long-term character building and thematic relevance. Season 1 leaves us with a show that has learned from most of its mistakes and is ready to step it up a notch the next time around. Season 1 may be a little unformed, but it’s definitely an important part of the show.
- Limited episodic character relevance; little character growth and insight.
- Several extremely flawed episodes, but no brilliant ones to provide balance.
- Little plot momentum and relevance; the villains aren’t well connected with the protagonists.
- Music! Sound! Directing! Production values! Cheese! Ow!
Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer often gets excused by its admirers and slammed by its detractors. What’s reality here? Well, as is often the case, it’s somewhere in the middle. This is not a great season of television, but a slightly above-average one. Its strengths are to be recognized, but its flaws too large to ignore. This is easily the weakest season of Buffy and represents its most unformed stage. The largest single factor truly dragging the season down is the lack of character relevance in its numerous stand-alone episodes. Whereas later seasons used its stories as a springboard for serialized character development, even within the context of stand-alone plots, the stories here are just that: isolated stories that offer little value to the whole of the show outside of the occasional thematic nugget.
Episodes that are separate from the primary narrative can still offer what I crave: smart character development and/or insight. A great example I like to use to illustrate this point is the Season 5 episode “I Was Made to Love You” [5×15]. This is unquestionably a stand-alone in that it has absolutely no direct connection to the season’s narrative surrounding Glory and Dawn. Yet this episode still manages to provide critical growth for Buffy that helps drives her arc in the season, and show, forward. Television at its best, in this viewer’s judgment, has at least some serialized narrative elements but, much more importantly, has consistent serialized character development. As I pointed out in the introduction, later seasons will accomplish this at an unparalleled level, but Season 1 falls short.
An episode lacking character relevance can still have varying levels of quality, and Season 1 gives us several examples to choose from in this regard; just look to the differences between “Witch” [1×03], “I Robot, You Jane” [1×08], and “The Puppet Show” [1×09]. The first of these gives us a modestly clever story with a relatable metaphor that largely works within the confines of itself. The second of these has something it’s trying to say, but completely fails at delivering it in a convincing fashion. The last of these has next to nothing to say at all – it doesn’t even really try. In all three of these examples there is almost zero character development, yet they are all still of vastly varying quality. This season not only has limited character relevance, but also inconsistent story quality and a weak larger plot/villain in the Master and his lame followers.
One final con that cannot be overlooked, as it is fused to every episode, is the very poor production values and general overload of cheesiness. This includes the music (score), sound effects, special effects, directing, and overall film quality. I understand that Whedon’s trying to use this to his advantage to riff on B-Horror movies, cheesy effects and all, but it really doesn’t work for me – the emotional resonance gets lost in a sea of cheese. I will admit that this aspect may come across as more playful and inventive for fans of B-Horror, of which I’m generally not.
Season 1 is littered with problems, but it’s clear that they are all put to good use in the evolution of the show. Season 2, right from the beginning, displays a new confidence in several of the areas that were previously lacking. By the time “Innocence” [2×14] rolls around, we’re looking at a completely different quality of show, albeit one that was built out of the success and failure of before.
- Fun, innocence, and charm.
- Clever dialogue!
- Decent insight and character growth for Buffy.
- Thematic relevance.
When I watched Buffy for the very first time, the first thing that jumped out at me was how delightful the tone of the show was when it kept its goofy side at bay. The show and, by extension, the characters had this wonderful sense of innocence about them. The characters all had their hearts in the right place, yet simultaneously demonstrated the seeds of flaws that were open to future exploration.
It is to the show’s strength that watching Season 1 multiple times does not dilute this feeling in the slightest; rather, it enhances it! Knowing the wonders and tragedies on the horizon makes me treasure how relatively quaint this season is. What’s intriguing is how this virtue actually makes the wonders and tragedies of the future so, well, wondrous and tragic. It’s the circle of life, the light/dark contrast, and the mark of a well-constructed show.
These feelings are manifested in several different ways. One of them is in how Whedon outlines all the central characters as being very likeable, well-intentioned (sans Cordelia) kids (sans Giles). Having so many pleasant characters to spend some time with is a fabulous way to get viewers onboard the ride to complexity, confusion, and tragedy. Another way comes from character interplay, which highlights Whedon’s gift for linguistics. The dialogue on Buffy, while not fully refined in Season 1, is still witty, snappy, clever, and endlessly fun to listen to. Having otherwise uninteresting conversations transformed into a delicacy for the ears is quite the treat, and something I rarely get to experience — to this day — in television and film. It’s a pleasure simply listening to the characters talk to each other, which cannot be understated, giving the show tremendous rewatchability.
Despite how enjoyable to watch Season 1 often is, I’d still be hesitant to give it an overall positive evaluation if it had a complete deficit of substance. Fortunately – as I’ll get into in much greater detail soon – Buffy’s character arc comes together as a coherent collection of writing. From Buffy’s total reluctance of her duty in the premiere to the difficulties in trying to accommodate a double life in “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” [1×05] to the insight, and thematic lessons, she learns about others in “Witch” [1×03], “Angel” [1×07], and “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” [1×11] to the crushing reality of the sacrifices demanded of her in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12], the season is surprisingly solid in establishing Buffy as a unique three-dimensional character with complex strengths and flaws. I can only applaud it for accomplishing all of this – it’s the season’s backbone.
Only Buffy gets treated as a fully realized character, but Season 1 does at least throw the other characters a bone every now and then. We see some of Xander’s flaws exposed, Willow’s insecurity and intense curiosity highlighted, Giles’ approach to the mission, and to Buffy, evolved, Angel’s backstory, and, although it took ages, Cordelia actually becoming something other than a walking caricature. I wouldn’t call any of that remotely adequate for what I’m looking for out of the core supporting characters, but I still appreciate those baby steps towards more complex character writing.
Season 1, while not the deepest season, does at least fit nicely into the larger picture of the show. It not only introduces its use of subversion to surprise us, but it also has a clear idea of where its characters – particularly Buffy – are at, and where they’re headed. Several episodes and individual moments provide hints that everything happening represents a transitional period for the characters – that transition being the end of childhood and the beginning of adolescence. At the end of the day, that’s what Buffy’s prophetic nightmares are really about.
Season 1 may be lacking the brilliant episodes and complex character development we will come to expect from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it’s got just enough charm, just enough innocence, just enough wittiness, and just enough Buffy to be a fun and worthwhile introduction of what’s to come. These feelings don’t excuse the season’s mistakes, but they do help make those mistakes less glaring than they otherwise would be.
Buffy is my favorite fictional character in any medium, and I think that she’s one of the most deceptively complex characters written in television history. This may sound like an extreme statement, but it is my hope that by the end of my analysis of the entire show you’ll come to understand why I feel this way. Even within the confines of Buffy the show, the character is rarely anywhere near the top of peoples’ favorites list. If anything, I often see her near the bottom of that list. Most fans I’ve run into seem to find her extremely selfish, childish, and whiny. Is there any truth to this? Well, sure! At times, Buffy is selfish, childish, and/or whiny. You know what she also is, particularly in Season 1? A kid!
Children, adolescents, and even young adults are all generally very prone to short-sidedness, emotions-over-brains, ideological opinions, and overwhelming selfishness. To criticize Buffy for these flaws is to criticize oneself at that age. Let’s also remember that Buffy is only, I believe, 22 years old when “Chosen” [7×22] closes out the whole show, and that the underlying theme of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is growing up.
While Buffy may act like a – shock – kid sometimes, that shouldn’t stop us, the viewers, from looking at the character as adults. That means trying to keep an open mind, looking at both her weaknesses and her strengths, and putting ourselves in her shoes in a way that means understanding her life experience rather than imposing our own experiences and opinions onto her. What do we see when we actually do this? Clearly we see a girl who may have her flaws, and may very well act her age at times, but is also quite extraordinary; it’s a girl who is struggling to find balance between a sacrificial ‘duty’ to save peoples’ lives, and her own wants, needs, and desires. When objectively thinking about her life, I see a person who is far less selfish than most, regardless of age.
I mean, think about it: if Buffy doesn’t routinely go out to slay demons, risking her life, other people will die. That’s a heck of a burden. Add to that that most slayers don’t even make it past 18, let alone in their 20s, and it paints a pretty bleak picture for Buffy’s life. How would you handle that, at 16 years old no less? With this is mind, Buffy begins to look even more special. Despite how impressive a person she is – and will become — I love that she’s still a human being through it all, and isn’t always giving and selfless; I love Buffy because she’s not Kendra and not Faith – extremes at either end. Buffy is the one striving for that healthy balance in between. To cap it off, it doesn’t hurt that Buffy’s quirky, complex, beautiful, fun to spend time with, and possesses tremendous heart and moral clarity. All in all, Buffy Summers is quite a remarkable girl.
Season 1 actually does a surprisingly solid job of establishing Buffy as a likeable, realistic, and complex character – all traits which are developed and explored significantly as Buffy progresses. There’s the backstory involving the discovery of her slayer-hood and how that tore apart her old life – and she worries, in part, her parents’ marriage — in Los Angeles. There are also concerns about how much her dad really cares about her – concerns which turn out to be incredibly, painfully well founded. These fears, some of which were brought to life in “Nightmares” [1×10], go far beyond superficial characterization. Rather, they significantly color many of Buffy’s decisions and feelings throughout the entire show, particularly in regard to her relationships. Buffy’s story can be generically described as a coming-of-age story. The problem with that description, though, is how much it short-changes the specific issues and complexities present within it. There’s nothing generic at all about Buffy Summers.
The history that Buffy brings with her from L.A. isn’t the only kind of history that plagues her either. Very early on it is established that Buffy even struggles with the subject of history itself, which carries some subtext. In “Angel” [1×07], Giles tells Joyce that Buffy lives “very much in the ‘now.'” This response is as metaphorical as it is literal, and can be construed as both a positive and a negative.
Buffy often uses modern sensibilities to her advantage, such as when she is able to detect a vampire at the Bronze in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] by using her fashion sense rather than the traditional slayer ability to, as Giles puts it, “hone” her supernatural sense. Buffy’s subversion of traditional sensibilities is often to her benefit, but she is wise to also learn from the traditions that made sense too. This is why, as the show progresses, Buffy not only uses her modern instincts but also utilizes her slayer abilities to their fullest, in no small part thanks to Giles’ training and assistance. History is an important part of the character, as much as Buffy would hate to admit it, and I like that Season 1 dips its toes into the subject.
One of the more noticeable recurring elements in Season 1 is Buffy’s growing romantic involvement with Angel. This relationship completely exposes Buffy’s romantic naiveté and innocence, which are both traits that one can hardly fault her for at 16 years old. While her infatuation and raw excitement over the mysterious and brooding Angel are entirely normal, these feelings don’t necessarily lead to good decision-making; it takes a clear mind and a strong will to recognize this. It’s great that Buffy gives Angel a chance after finding out he’s a vampire with a soul, but he’s much older than her and there’s a whole lot she doesn’t know about him. Despite these warning signs Buffy pushes onward with her romantic involvement with him. All of this danger and emotion swirling around is handled with a pretty decent amount of subtlety, and is a slowly building endeavor in Season 1 which will pay off big time in Season 2.
Despite Buffy’s growing romantic investment in Angel being arguably more noticeable, the big themes that relate to her are those of responsibility and sacrifice. The Buffy/Giles library scene in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] sets the stage for Buffy’s initial struggles. Buffy says, “Prepare me for what? For getting kicked out of school? For losing all of my friends? For having to spend all of my time fighting for my life and never getting to tell anyone because I might endanger them? Go ahead! Prepare me!”
When you boil it down, all Buffy wants is what any good kid subconsciously wants: happy, caring, understanding, and unified parents, and just enough freedom to explore and enjoy their burgeoning adolescence, within healthy limits. Between being called as the Slayer and the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, Buffy arrives in Sunnydale wanting to escape the trauma of her recent past only to see a near immediate return of all her old problems, amplified. Giles reminds her of the responsibilities expected of her, but as the season progresses Buffy comes to recognize all on her own why she is responsible, and what that really means for both her and those around her.
In “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” [1×05] Buffy goes out with what turns out to be “danger guy” (Owen) who, in Buffy’s world, would meet a quick, gruesome death if he continued to tag along. While she’s on a date with him, Giles gets isolated by a group of vampires with no help in sight. Buffy comes to recognize that saving lives and helping others is something she has the power to do, and it isn’t something she can easily turn away from just because she wants to live a more normal life.
As “Prophecy Girl” [1×12] clearly highlights, sacrifice is rarely fun and not something we’re initially inclined to volunteer for, but to not do what one can to help is to let evil surround the world around you without a fight and eventually consume not only you, but also all those who you hold dear. When Buffy learns she’s prophesized to die, her reaction is nothing but entirely human.
As I stated in the review of “Prophecy Girl” [1×12], “After talking with her mom and learning about vampires encroaching further onto school grounds (from a frightened Willow), Buffy finally accepts the purpose her role serves in this world, even if she doesn’t like it. Buffy is beginning to realize (but still has a long ways to go) that being the Slayer isn’t the distraction — it’s those ever-present risky personal temptations that are the real distractions” and “With only an adamant and noble Giles, who understands the stakes well, in the way, Buffy punches him out and picks up her cross, thus signifying her acceptance of what that symbol means.”
It’s at this moment when Buffy takes the very first step in accepting a kind of ownership of this massive burden. Buffy chooses to fight not because she has to, but because she knows it’s the right thing to do. Personally, I quite admire her courage and conviction in the face of her struggles and flaws, and strive to work towards the same. When Buffy goes to face the Master, all the basic elements that define her are symbolized: her strength in the leather jacket and the crossbow, her innocence (both sexually and otherwise) in the white dress, and her courage, selflessness, and sacrificial burden in the cross.
As I pointed out in the “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] review, the Hellmouth itself metaphorically functions as an “obstacle generator” – obstacles which are there to stunt Buffy’s growth into an adult. All the lessons Buffy has learned and villains she has beaten thus far are, respectively, warnings and roadblocks to her personal growth. The moment Buffy stops running from these things – to instead face them head on — the show makes a stark change in writing, music, and visual style. The entire season slowly builds to this transition. “Prophecy Girl” [1×12] finally puts Buffy into a corner, and forces her to decide between remaining a child at the expense of those around her, or to move on to adolescence. Painful as it was, she made the right choice.
Much appreciation has to go out to Sarah Michelle Gellar for knocking this role out of the park from episode one. Gellar performs Buffy in a way that is intimate, dynamic, and extremely palpable, ranging from her inner struggles to her nascent sexuality to her emotional lows to her ability in bringing Whedon’s language to life to her comedic timing to her occasional bursts of unbridled excitement. Extremely emotive facial expressions seem to be one of her specialties, and it does wonders for this role. I can’t say enough how perfect she is as Buffy, as it’s always a pleasure watching her do her thing. The few people out there who call her a poor performer have a very foreign sense of acting ability from what I know.
Buffy’s Season 1 arc isn’t something that consistently pops up in the season, but there are a handful of episodes that almost completely make up for this and add up to a cohesive whole. Buffy heads into Season 2 a different person than when she arrived in Sunnydale in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01]. Drowning at the hands of the Master in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12] leaves a psychological scar that haunts her all summer, and is brought to the surface in the underrated Season 2 opener, “When She Was Bad” [2×01]. Buffy is a vibrant, wonderfully complex character. I feel Season 1 does a great job at establishing what she’s all about.
It’s clear that Joss Whedon had thought about Buffy’s journey quite a bit coming into the show, as the character comes across as really formed right from the start. Willow, on the other hand, doesn’t get a lot to do in Season 1 beyond being incredibly adorable. Alyson Hannigan milks the role for all it’s worth and brings Willow to life in a way that, I’m sad to say, the writing this season does not do justice. As we get beyond this season, though, Willow becomes a complex character in her own right. Season 1 barely scratches the surface of what’s going on inside her head.
From “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] we know right away that Willow’s an intelligent girl who has far too little self-confidence, and is walked on by Cordelia and the like in the way a shark might circle wounded prey. We will come to know that she has a desire to shed herself of this shy, introverted persona – to actually become a different person than she is today rather than cultivate her best qualities and work on her flaws. Willow has a very curious mind that occasionally leads her to explore things that are dangerous, exemplified in Season 1 by her encounter with the demon Moloch in “I Robot, You Jane” [1×08]. On the more positive side, though, she is shown to immediately want to help Buffy out, and through the course of the season becomes more courageous for it.
The only real hint of Willow’s future struggles with power and control, and how they will come to mask these initial insecurities, show up in the form of her technology skills. This is her only real ‘power’ at this point in the show (setting aside adorableness for the moment); even so, consider how casually she is willing to do illegal things with these skills as long as it’s for a good cause. This, of course, primes us for the way this personality trait will handle increasing levels of magic use. These seeds begin to be cultivated in Season 2, but I can’t help but wish more could have been done with Willow here in Season 1. It doesn’t help that the only episode to give her the spotlight, “I Robot, You Jane” [1×08], is quite poor and partially allows Willow off the hook for her behavior due to a case of Demon’s Thrall [TM].
Considering how much depth Buffy has right out of the gate, it’s just unfortunate Willow doesn’t get more to do this season. I enjoy the tantalizing little seeds that have been planted, and the initial bits of strength she shows (such as in “The Pack” [1×06] and in not being Xander’s castoff date in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12]), but Willow deserved a lot more than this. Thankfully, she’ll start to get it in Season 2.
Xander, in the early seasons, is a character I love to dislike (‘hate’ would be far too strong). He’s the kind of guy that’s fun to have around most of the time, but harbors some deep-seated jealousies and overt selfishness. I think he’s generally written pretty well and is well-intentioned, although he occasionally gets consumed by his flaws. Xander doesn’t come to have nearly as much depth as characters like Buffy and Willow do as the show progresses, but he always remains an important part of the group. Season 1 actually gives him a tad more to work with that it does for Willow, which is somewhat surprising in retrospect. He’s established as a nerdy outcast of the school and, as Season 1 develops, we begin to see his crush on Buffy intensify only to learn that her romantic pursuits lie elsewhere. This heats up the more unsavory aspects of his nature.
This part of Xander begins to become noticeable in “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” [1×05] and comes up again in relation to all things Angel, despite Buffy making it fairly obvious that she has no interest in him as early on as “Witch” [1×03]. A part of me wonders if Xander would even bother standing by Buffy in the fight against evil had he not been extremely attracted to her, which certainly doesn’t speak well of his character. Nor does what we see of Xander’s desires in “Teacher’s Pet” [1×04], such as dreaming up Buffy to be a weak and scared girl as a way for him to feel desirable and strong. This general selfishness defines many of his actions in the early seasons (the infamous “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] “kick his ass” line being a prime example), but it is also something the show, and Buffy (see “Revelations” [3×07]), fortunately don’t push under the rug. Even knowing all of this, I still feel sorry for the guy when Buffy shuts him down after he asks her out in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12]. It’s a rough moment for any young teen with a massive crush.
Xander gets decently sketched in Season 1, but it’s largely his negative qualities that are underlined. One of Xander’s better qualities to shine this season is his sense of humor. The season leans on this quality heavily so that he doesn’t just come off as a dick all the time. The humor – which is often quite amusing — does a good job at masking his underlying flaws most of the time, which is why he is generally a pleasant presence on the show. I can’t help but feel how nice it would have been to have an episode focused on Xander that wasn’t so horribly flawed (I’m looking at you “Teacher’s Pet” [1×04]). Then again, it’s not like Willow got any better (thy brow furrows thusly, “I Robot, You Jane” [1×08]).
Despite some of my personal issues with Xander, I genuinely appreciate how his personality is played against the other characters. I love what he brings to the dynamic of the show, and I can accredit Season 1 for doing a decent job at bringing that out. It’s probably important to emphasize that he’s not some terrible person or anything, just often transparently selfish in these high school years. The great part about this is how well these flaws will be used in the seasons to come. Xander becomes far more interesting, and a much better person, with time and growth. By the end of Season 3, I even start to consistently like the guy.
“I’m Mr. Giles. The librarian,” says the Watcher in one of his very first lines of the show. Giles starts off a bit of a caricature of a stuffy old British guy, which isn’t exactly endearing. It doesn’t help that he serves as ‘exposition guy’ in almost every episode. Fortunately, through his ever-growing fatherly bond with Buffy he begins to emerge from this pattern an interesting character in his own right.
The journey Giles goes through is inexorably tied to Buffy, particularly in the high school years. This is why it is so important to make note of how the foundation of their relationship is built. “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” [1×05] is really the first time Giles is able to seriously connect with Buffy, human-to-human. Giles’ sympathy towards her struggles trying to balance slayer responsibilities with a personal life is something he actually understands, despite how hard he tends to be on her. He goes to say, “I have volumes of lore, of prophecies, of predictions. But I don’t have an instruction manual. We feel our way as we go along.”
When it’s revealed that Angel’s a vampire and that Buffy has real feelings for him in “Angel” [1×07], Giles proves that he’s very level-headed and doesn’t make any rash initial judgments (unlike a certain Xander) – he simply states the facts as he knows them. When he later learns about Angel’s soul, Giles even calls their relationship “rather poetic, in a maudlin sort of way.” While the bond between Buffy and Giles isn’t what I’d call a big part of the season, the accumulation of what is there becomes strikingly clear in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12].
Giles is a wreck trying to figure a way out of the prophecy that Buffy is to die at the hands of the Master. When Buffy overhears him and lashes out, his anguish over his helplessness is palpable. Giles desperately wants to help her and, later in the episode, attempts to do just that. Even after she decides to accept her fate, Giles pushes back saying, “Buffy, I’m not going to send you out there to die. Now, you were right. I’ve waded around in these old books for so long; I’ve forgotten what the real world is like. It’s time I found out.” It’s to his credit that Buffy has to punch him out to prevent him from taking her place.
The effort by Giles in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12] only strengthens their bond – a bond which will be tested in various ways in the seasons ahead. Giles should have gotten more attention in Season 1, particularly in regard to his turbulent history (which we do get a hint of at the end of “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” [1×05]), but I can’t deny how charming he is by the end of the season, which is a nice turn-around from his stuffy introduction. It’s no wonder Jenny Calendar shows immediate interest in him. The good news for us is that Season 2 will give Giles all that he can handle… and then some.
Cordelia was never one of the more complex characters on Buffy, but in time it became believable for her to say something like “what? I can’t have layers?” (“Band Candy” [3×06]), and have it actually mean something. In Season 1, though, Cordelia’s one-dimensionality is at an all-time high. Her presence is often entertaining, but also incredibly superficial and unrewarding. If this was all there was to say about Cordelia this season there wouldn’t even be a section on her, and I’d be one sad cookie.
Fortunately for everyone involved, “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” [1×11] came along and made Cordelia someone to look more closely at. Through the story of a girl who has become completely invisible, ever popular Cordelia reveals that she actually understands that kind of loneliness, saying, “I can be surrounded by people and be completely alone. It’s not like any of them really know me. I don’t even know if they like me half the time. People just want to be in a popular zone. Sometimes when I talk, everyone’s so busy agreeing with me, they don’t hear a word I say.” Now, despite Cordelia having a nice moment of self-reflection, that certainly doesn’t excuse how she often ridicules those who don’t place the same priorities in life that she does. The statement also kind of comes out of nowhere, so it’ll be a while before we actually buy into this version of Cordelia.
Between being saved by Buffy in “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” [1×11] and seeing the carnage wrought by vampires on school grounds in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12] (her boyfriend among them), Cordelia begins to really wake up to the danger that surrounds her, and to the importance of Buffy’s work. This not only warms her up to Buffy a bit, but Xander and Willow by proxy. Thankfully we don’t see a complete turn-around of her attitude towards them or anything that trite, but we do see her being fairer in the midst of her usual derision.
In a general sense, Cordelia is also useful as a visage of what Buffy may have become had she not been called as the Slayer (i.e. to grow up). As I mentioned in the “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] review, “Cordelia is used to show us what Buffy used to be like, and what she can again become if she chooses to be too vain and self-serving,” which puts “Cordelia in a unique position to give us insight into Buffy that no one else can.” What may seem like a funny throwaway comment may actually be something metaphorically relevant about Buffy. We’ll see this in action more often going forward, including in “When She Was Bad” [2×01].
Season 1 gives Cordelia some good material towards the end of the season, and is a good superficial reflection of Buffy, but it ends up being a case of too little, too late for me to fully applaud it. I would have liked to have seen a more nuanced take, and seen it a whole lot sooner. At least the season is able to position her to where an interest in Xander (“Some Assembly Required” [2×02]) isn’t completely implausible. I’m more than happy to leave Season 1 Cordelia behind though.
Angel has the unfortunate fate of being relegated to Buffy’s love interest in Season 1, and not a whole lot more. In the first several episodes he doesn’t even have that going for him and serves only one purpose: being the mysterious brooding-exposition guy. This purpose isn’t even portrayed all that well due to some initially terrible acting from David Boreanaz. Thankfully his acting gradually improves throughout Season 1, and then gets tremendously better during Season 2.
The end of “Teacher’s Pet” [1×04], what with the leather jacket transfer-of-love and all, gives Angel some additional intrigue by tacking on the seeds of romance with Buffy. It’s not until “Angel” [1×07] when the guy gets a real backstory. Even here, though, most of this backstory is told in a fairly exposition-y manner. But the whole vampire-with-a-soul complication does add a nice layer to the character. As I pointed out in that review, “We can see that while Buffy’s trying to balance slaying, school, and romance, Angel’s juggling with his demonic nature, desire for amends, and becoming romantically invested in someone for likely the very first time in his soul-having existence. Right now the thing both Buffy and Angel have in common is their mutual attraction and newfound investment in each other.”
A more subtle element I appreciated was the little connection Angel has with Giles towards the end of the season (see “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” [1×11]). They both have one striking thing in common – besides, of course, their desire to fight the forces of evil – and that is that both of their journeys as characters are strongly linked to Buffy for the next couple years. With Angel, though, it’s a romantic link more than anything else. This connection between Angel and Giles is particularly awesome considering how it will be turned on its head when Angelus is unleashed on the world next season (see “Passion” [2×17]).
Overall I’m not too impressed with what Season 1 did for Angel. There’s simply not a lot there beyond a basic backstory, some light romance, and some exposition. Thankfully things get much more interesting going forward.
The Master is a mediocre villain, at best, and there’s no real way around that. He has some nice moments, mostly in the form of comedy, but overall I found him to be pretty underwhelming and at times a tad overly goofy. I only ever found him remotely threatening during Buffy’s living nightmare in, well, “Nightmares” [1×10], and in the mid parts of “Prophecy Girl” [1×12]. It certainly didn’t help that the quality of his makeup was so inconsistent.
Despite being an underwritten character, he does offer some thematic synergy with what the show’s all about. From the review of “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01]: “The Master and his followers – while admittedly pretty corny – very much represent ‘the old.’ You see, this group of vampires – the Order of Aurelius – is trying to instigate the return of the old ones. While they wait for their moment, they live below ground and only go up to feed or make more of their kind. Buffy, as a character and as a show, relish reexamining and questioning the validity of the outdated and the old in the myriad of forms they might appear. This is why Buffy will defeat the Master in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12], and why Spike will gloriously scorch the Anointed One in “School Hard” [2×03] with a proclamation about less ritual and more fun.” While it’s nice that the Master serves a light thematic purpose and isn’t just the token villain to be killed, his value sadly goes no further.
I haven’t really talked about the Anointed One because, well, there’s really nothing to talk about. He stands around a lot, learns about fear a bit, and leads Buffy down to the Master’s lair. That’s about it. He does at least serve a thematic purpose, representing the danger of eternal childhood. But after Buffy overcomes her grief in “When She Was Bad” [2×01], he no longer serves a purpose in the show. This is why it will be such a joy to hear him pissed off by Buffy and to see him scorched by Spike, all in early Season 2.
Season 1’s central theme is that high school is hell, literally. It has a whole bunch of completely stand-alone episodes that do very little for the characters. These episodes tell overall decent little stories, usually with a metaphor at the center of them that serve as lessons for Buffy, but many of them are not very subtle in their execution. The season also sports fairly awful effects, abysmal music (score), and overall shoddy production values. While all of these flaws seem pretty damning, all is not lost!
The character work that is present largely focuses on Buffy, who ends up forming the foundation for the season to stand on and is the primary reason it resonates for me at all. The themes surrounding her – primarily those of responsibility and sacrifice, and the larger one of growing up — are all very consistently sewn into the tapestry of the show, and will provide many returns as it moves forward. Buffy — the character — also stands in for the show’s wonderfully whimsical attitude towards subverting many old horror tropes.
Beyond the big stuff, there are also some intangibles that really help make viewing this season much more pleasurable than it otherwise would be. These include the inventive use of language, the largely loveable characters, and the show’s wonderful sense of humor. The fact it utilizes all these positive traits with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness certainly doesn’t hurt. Even with all the flaws plaguing the season, it’s still pretty fun to watch most of the time. It’s just that Season 1 is a lot more care-free and consequence-free than all the seasons the come after it, which can be viewed as both a positive and a negative – I admittedly lean more towards the negative.
As for how the show fares going forward? Well, think about it this way: Season 2 alleviates a lot of Season 1’s biggest problems. Some examples include the poor production values, the terrible music, the limited character development, and the complete lack of any truly brilliant episodes. I think it’s safe to say that Whedon learned from both what worked and what failed miserably in this inaugural season. Although Buffy the Vampire Slayer starts out a bit rough, it’s still a lot of fun and doesn’t really dilute the next six often brilliant seasons of what this humble reviewer can still say, without hesitation, is the best television show he has ever seen.