Buffy Season 1 Imperfect, but Lays the Foundation Nicely
By Kristin Battestella
It’s been a long time since I’ve watched Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When the series first premiered in 1997, I didn’t care for this season and only returned to the beginning after seeing Seasons Three and Four in syndication. Though short and imperfect with typical storylines and high school clichés, Season 1 establishes the mythos of the Buffyverse in fine form.
After burning down her previous high school’s gym, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her divorced mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland, Honey I Shrunk the Kids) look for a fresh start in Sunnydale. Buffy’s past rubs her new teachers and the suspicious Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman, Deep Space Nine) the wrong way, but she quickly makes friends with goofy Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) and nerdy Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan). Bitchy Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) warns Buffy these friendships are popularity suicide-but Buffy has bigger problems than cheerleading and boys like the older, mysterious Angel (David Boreanaz). She’s the Vampire Slayer; the chosen warrior against vampires, demons, evils, and whatever else comes out of the Hellmouth underneath the not so sunny Sunnydale. Despite her reluctance, watcher and school librarian Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) never lets Buffy forget her true calling against the local demons-including an ancient, ugly and power vampire called The Master (Mark Metcalf, Animal House).
Not many in today’s Hollywood would be able to reclaim their ideas after the lackluster comedy performance of the 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Kristy Swanson (Early Edition, Skating with Celebrities) in the titular role. Joss Whedon (Firefly, Dollhouse) however, has done it. Whedon’s direction, writing, and storylines are allowed their proper expression in the less constrained television format; and his attention to character, detail, and wit shines through Season 1’s introductory growing pains. The series’ universe, vampire mythos, and foundation are laid early, and the seeds of returning players and events are established here. Some of the storylines are indeed a little juvenile or too obviously teen metaphors, such as Episode 3 ‘Witch’ or Number 5 ‘Never Kill a Boy on the First Date’. However, spooky twists and mystery, reversals of typical horror stereotypes, and good old vampire fun go a long way in these episodes –as well as the opening and closing battles against the Master in ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’, ‘The Harvest’, and ‘Prophecy Girl’.
It may seem strange to say, but there isn’t really a perfect standout episode here in Season 1. Some are better than others are; but it’s all just neat, cool, or somewhat entertaining. Unlike subsequent seasons, nothing here leaves you thinking, ‘this is a damn fine show’. Perhaps this is due to the mid-season replacement-styled limit of 12 episodes and their relatively uncomplex or straightforwardness- again unlike later interweaved and full length story arcs. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Buffy tests the waters with familiar, relatable storylines and kooky fun, attracting commitment-free viewers. If you miss one of these shows, it’s no big deal. The introductory narration before each episode gets you up to speed, for onscreen time is better spent on character development here. Even if you think a particular episode is sub par, the cast is fun, fresh, and likeable enough to bring you back to Buffy.
Sarah Michelle Gellar (I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Grudge, Scooby Doo) takes the eponymous Buffy and makes the character her own. We like the Slayer-because of and also despite her superhero strength and blonde good looks. Gellar keeps Buffy light hearted, witty, and endearing in the face of some potentially preposterous evils. She has her troubles with boys and grades thanks to her calling-but she isn’t afraid to hug with her mom if need be. We believe Buffy could be the awkward new girl in town, just as we relate to geeky Willow and goofy Xander. Alyson Hannigan (How I Met Your Mother, Veronica Mars, American Pie) starts out more nerdy before being toned down a bit, but her charm and innocence wins out against the stereotypes. Nicholas Brendon (Kitchen Confidential, Criminal Minds) also perfectly represents that awkward teenage boy phase between keeping girls as his best friends and liking the new Slayer at school. The core dynamics between this leading trio holds fast here and lasts through the rest of the series. It’s also nice to see fine supporting players here at the gate that go on to later prominence on Buffy– including Julie Benz (Dexter) as vampire Darla, Mercedes McNab (Addams Family Values) as snotty blonde Harmony, and Elizabeth Anne Allen (Bull) as future naughty witch Amy. And wow, does everyone look so young or what?
Pre-Twilight lovers of vampire romance and ‘vamp with a soul’ Angel fans will notice David Boreanaz (Bones, Valentine) isn’t the spin off star just yet in Buffy’s first season. Not listed in the regular credits, Boreanaz makes the most of his selective appearances as the brooding and mysterious vampire Angel-and the bulk of this comes in his titular Episode 7. Personally, I have never cared for Buffy and Angel’s budding and tragic romance-it’s just a little too sappy and pedophile-ish this season. Thankfully, the relationship really heats up-for better and for worse- in Year 2. Likewise, Charisma Carpenter (also later of the Angel spin off and Veronica Mars) doesn’t appear as much as the other billed cast members this go around. It’s understandable that there isn’t always room for the snobby girl to scream, but it gives the impression that’s all there is to Cordelia-something we would later find out isn’t always the case. Her eye candy style and snotty dialogue are great fun, and her supporting antagonism creates great quips for the rest of the ‘Scooby Gang’- especially in Episode 11, ‘Out of Mind, Out of Sight’. Anthony Stewart Head (Merlin, Little Britain) is also wonderful as the mature figure of the group. The chemistry between Head and his charges is, in many ways, what makes Buffy, well, Buffy. His upper crust Brit attitude is tough when needed but not above a touch of sardonic wit and slapstick humor. Giles’ opposites-attract bumbling with computer sciences teacher Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) in ‘I Robot, You Jane’ is also delightful and will lead to major events next season.
Ironically, some of the things that made Buffy such a hit in its day have dated some of these earlier episodes. Not all the mid nineties music featured prominently through the onscreen guest bands has stood the decade, nor has the then-in fashions and ‘Rachel’ haircuts. Yes, this was a fictional representation of a hip-and richy thanks to Cordelia- California high school; but my goodness, I can’t believe young girls actually dressed like that back then! Did we really wear such short skirts with knee-high socks, mini backpacks, and tiny tank tops? The costumes make me think of two things: Clueless and jailbait. Some of Buffy’s tight plaid pants are seriously laughable through modern eyes, as are some of the obvious school facades that we’ve seen in every nineties high school show- from Beverly Hills 90210 (the first one, folks!) to She’s All That. Though many ‘Whedonisms’ are now part of our cultural lexicon, some of the colloquial slang and slightly Valley speech might actually make Season 1 tough to understand for the uninitiated. The vampire dusting effects and facial makeup are neat, but some of the graphics and featured creatures might make a CGI spoiled viewer cringe, too. Overall, the production seems a little small and poorly lit-understandable, of course, but noticeable compared to the colorful and stylized later seasons. Do these factors deter from repeat viewings and promise for next season and beyond? Absolutely not.
Thankfully, all seven seasons of Buffy are available online at sites like Hulu and are available for rent or streaming at Netflix. Reruns can also be found on Logo and occasionally MTV-but beware the usual cuts for those precious commercials. It’s also frustrating that the credits are rolled over the final scene on Logo-no nothing critical is going to happen, no not at all. Fortunately, used DVD sets of Season 1 can be found fairly cheap. However, do your research before deciding to purchase- as the original DVD sets, slim releases, and the complete series box sets do not always have all the same features, Easter eggs, and bonuses. Subtitles, fortunately, go a long way in confirming spoken layers and those aforementioned Whedonisms. (I’m sorry, but I have to say, ‘You want to come with?’ annoys me to know end! Just say the ‘me’, please?)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1 suffers from its share of introductory season syndrome, yes. However, the cast gems and the series mythology are firmly established here. New fans can certainly begin at the beginning, and old fans feeling nostalgic can go back and enjoy. Obviously, this season is the youngest in tone, so tweens or younger viewers growing out of Twilight and the like can relate here at Buffy’s debut-there are no potentially scary, inappropriate, or super dark and mature themes yet. Go back to high school with Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer any time of year.