“Story and Scale in Hellmouth and Harvest”
April 10th, 2010
[This is the first in a series of posts over the next few months as I catch up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel for the first time. For more information about the project, click here. You can follow along with the project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category's feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I'll be hosting a link to each installment.]
I went into Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s two-part series opener, “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “Harvest,” expecting an origin story. When it comes to mythology-heavy shows – or what I presume to be mythology-heavy shows – like Buffy, there is an expectation that they should start with an episode that tells the origins of (in this case) our eponymous heroine. Considering that I knew the show was at least marketed based on the novelty of a teenage girl slaying vampires, it seemed like those first moments of discovery and revelation would be a logical place to start.
However, as I’m sure fans are very aware, “Welcome to Hellmouth” does not start with an innocent teenager learning that it is her destiny to fight vampires. Instead, it starts with a teenager fully aware of her destiny and fairly adept at handling her superhuman skill set, skipping over the “bumbling rookie” phase and moving right onto the phase where Buffy is confident, jaded, and just wanting to move on with her life.
Perhaps this is because Joss Whedon decided that the 1992 film, despite the liberties taken with his script, had already dealt with the origin story, or perhaps it was a decision designed to help explain how Sarah Michelle Gellar (20 at the time) could pass as a 16-year old. Or, perhaps, Whedon was just very keenly aware of what kind of story would best serve as an introduction to these characters and this world: it may not be a traditional origin story, but the precision with which Whedon plots out his vision makes up an occasional lack of tension, and results in a strong introduction to just what this series means to accomplish (and what I hope it accomplishes in the coming months).
Let’s get this out of the way first: there are times in both “Welcome to the Hellmouth” (which Wikipedia does not claim is a play on the Guns ‘N’ Roses song, but I’m going to pretend it is) and “Harvest” where the show’s production values just can’t live up to the script at hand. This is not to say that the pilot doesn’t occasionally become very atmospheric, or that there was any fatal flaw in the script which led to this deficiency. There are just moments within some action sequences where the suspense just isn’t there, where there needed to be something to maintain the scene’s momentum. When Xander and Buffy are escaping from the electrical tunnel, you can see what they’re trying to accomplish (they get so close to escaping only to have Buffy’s foot grasped at the last moment), but there’s no sense of danger once they emerge to the outside world. The scene serves an expositional purpose, showing us what happens when Vampires encounter sunlight (so that the gag later in “Harvest” will make more sense), but the aesthetic value just isn’t there.
However, pilots are ultimately not about technical execution: while networks may be wowed by a well-produced pilot (or in the case of Buffy, a pilot presentation that was then extended into these episodes for the series), and viewers might be sucked in by a shiny surface, the actual effectiveness of a pilot comes down to character and story, qualities which can be built through direction or editing but which hinge more on plot and dialogue. It’s clear from the very beginning that Whedon knows who his characters are and what role they’re going to play in this universe, and so he creates a story that plays (almost too) perfectly into their strengths, their weaknesses, and their many insecurities. Xander is the guy who doesn’t want to be sitting on the sidelines, so Whedon ensures that there’s a circumstance where he stubbornly refuses to give up and ends up in the midst of the carnage; Willow is the girl who’s too terrified by life to put herself out there, so Whedon makes sure that Giles is computer illiterate so Willow’s tech skills can still play an important role in the conflict; Giles is British, and so Whedon gives him plenty of opportunities to say hilarious things that British people say (don’t worry, I’ll have something more substantial to say about Giles later).
As for Ms. Summers herself, Whedon very clearly wants to write for this character at a particular point in her journey, largely because that version of the character plays to his strengths. Buffy is confident enough in her skills as a Slayer to become just a little bit cocky, and she’s had enough experience that she becomes sarcastic and snarky about it when others demonstrate their own ignorance or question her knowledge of the subject at hand. However, while she’s able to throw out one-liners with the best of them as she battles the horde of vampires bearing down on Sunnydale, she’s also inherently vulnerable: not only is she still a teenager, with a mother who expects her gym-burning behaviour to turn around and new social circles to attempt to infiltrate, but she is still a young Slayer who has yet to learn the more complex skills that (considering the events in the premiere) are going to be quite important moving forward.
Say what you will about Sarah Michelle Gellar’s post-Buffy career, but she’s very adept at making Buffy’s over-achieving seem like second nature while being able to dial into her insecurities when the script calls for it. While the sheer speed with which Buffy drops all of her attempts to remain normal as soon as she hears the words “dead body” is almost comical, that’s sort of the point: she may talk about how she wants a normal life, and how she doesn’t want to be a slayer anymore, but deep down she wants to help people, and deep down she loves killing vampires. Whedon is so interested in this particular stage in her life because her identity as a Slayer is starting to seem less like an extra-curricular activity and more like saving the world. There’s no question here about which of Buffy’s two worlds is more important, as Whedon very quickly folds the other high schools kids into Buffy’s slaying – this is not a show about high school, and no matter what Principal Flutie tries to do there really isn’t any way that Buffy can be contained “on campus.”
This does reveal, however, the biggest challenge facing these episodes. Whedon is very adept at writing scenes which hint towards something larger, whether it’s in the dialogue between Giles and Buffy to give a sense of the Slayer/Watcher relationship or the two scenes featuring David Boreanaz as the mysterious Angel; these scenes manage to deal with a lot of exposition in ways which feel like two characters talking (yes, that’s a good thing), managing to be both stylistic and very useful. His problem, I’d argue, is trying to indicate some type of scale: Sunnydale is by definition an incredibly tiny town, and for all of the show’s interesting development of what a hellmouth is and how it operates, it still results in the “end of the world” playing out in a small-town club in the middle of nowhere. The Master was a compelling character, and I thought there was a nice balance of threat and comic relief in Darla and the other minions, but the global threat was never effectively sold. I don’t think it’s an issue of not buying the makeup, or questioning the set direction on the underground cavern of sorts – they needed something to demonstrate the Master’s power that went beyond a history lesson, something to take the effective personalization of the conflict (Eric Balfour’s Jesse getting turned into a vampire) and amp it up a notch or two. The premiere is two hours about the end of the world that are set in a small town high school, and there are moments of incongruity there which can’t be avoided.
All of this adds up to a pilot that is fun and engaging but which you can sense is even more fun and engaging in Whedon’s head. That Whedon bothers to evoke the end of the world even when he knows that he’ll never get the budget to really bring that threat to life demonstrates his vision for the series: he wants this series to be about something more than high school, and even if his budget and the limited time available in a two-hour pilot don’t allow for the perfect extension of the show’s universe he’s still going to go for it. Some of what Whedon does is very subtle: while I joke about Giles’ Britishness above, his rapport with Buffy and his combination of sage advice and worried supervision is really nicely written by Whedon, and Anthony Stewart Head captures the part beautifully. However, in other scenes, Whedon wants to go as far as he is physically able to take things, and any of the restraint from earlier scenes fades to the background.
Note, though, that it doesn’t disappear. This isn’t a schizophrenic pilot, switching back and forth between “high school student fights vampires” and “vampire slayer fights end of the world” as if they are two separate series; while Buffy’s side of the climactic fight sequence gets a little bit cute, Xander’s moment with Jesse (unable to separate his friend from the demon in front of him) is still emotional, and doesn’t feel devalued by Jesse getting accidentally staked in what’s played as a comic moment. Whedon may not have created an entirely cohesive show quite yet, but you can see these elements eventually working in harmony once he gets past the introductions and gets on to running the show. That could take a few episodes, or an entire season, but that’s the way television works, and the way that pilots tend to operate.
This is not one of television’s finest pilots: while there’s some clever dialogue, and I think it certainly did a good job of introducing the characters, it’s all a little bit rough around the edges, and the standalone story it tries to tell is more useful than necessarily compelling. But as an introduction to the series to come, or at least what I know about the series to come based on what I’ve overheard from others and what I know of Whedon’s more recent work, it feels like it captures everything Whedon wants to eventually play with. Every pilot should give some sense of the vision that the creator has for the series, and I’d argue that “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “Harvest” go one step further: they show a creator with visions both small and large welcoming us into his creative process, introducing ideas with a sense of purpose that’s sometimes audacious, sometimes subtle, and other times even a little bit experimental. It doesn’t always work perfectly, and the late 90s production values sometimes let it down, but there’s no question that the show Buffy became is evident in this pilot, regardless of what twist and turns both plot and character may take in the seasons to come.
- I was wondering whether or not I’d have any trouble with disassociating certain actors from characters they’ve played since this point, and then “that dude from CSI: New York!” and “Julie Benz from TV’s Dexter!” showed up in the teaser. Oddly, I had more trouble with guest actors (like Eric Balfour) than anyone else: Willow is far enough away from Lily in age that it never proved an issue, with Alyson Hannigan and Charisma Carpenter has been playing older versions of Cordelia in pretty much every role she’s done since Buffy.
- One thing on the “origin” side of things that was sort of missing is understanding the limits of Buffy’s powers: we see her pull open a locked door, and we see her jump over an extremely high fence, but how strong can she become, and how high can she jump? I’m fine accepting that Buffy has certain superhuman skills relating to her being the “chosen one” and all, but I guess I just want some rules (especially since the Vampires have so many as it relates to crosses, stakes, holy water, etc.).
- In terms of the series’ spiritual successors, I could see a lot of Veronica Mars in the high school scenes with Cordelia, especially with Willow in the computer lab. It’s not the best comparison for Buffy, though: more grounded by reality, VM had more at stake in the high school scenes, and so spent more time emphasizing their impact compared to Whedon, who has bigger things in mind than Cordelia’s program getting erased.
- DVD nitpick: the episodes aren’t numbered when you get to the menu screen, and it isn’t entirely clear whether they want me to go up and down or left to right – while it’s logical to read left to right, most DVD menus tend to go up and down, so some numbers would have been nice.
- I’m open to comments indicating that my presumptions about what the pilot are wrong, or that I’m not giving certain elements of the pilot enough credit, but if you could keep your comments spoiler-free I’d really appreciate it.