The Cultural Catchup Project: Story and Scale in Hellmouth and Harvest (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.
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71 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

71 responses to “The Cultural Catchup Project: Story and Scale in Hellmouth and Harvest (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

  1. I think you honed in on some really interesting things about what Joss was trying to do by way of exposition. He set up the characters because they are most important part of the show, and you will learn the rules of the universe as you go along.

    I disagree with a couple of points you made, but I’m not even going to try to make a vague argument about them–you should be able to watch the episodes and experience for yourself how everything develops without people saying “Yeah, but soon you’ll see…”

    Looking forward to following your progress-

  2. Cartman86

    I hate those DVDs so much. They spoil stuff in the menus sometimes. Commentaries I think were made later as well so they spoil stuff from later seasons. Series is on Netflix watch instantly now isn’t it?

    • Unfortunately, Netflix Watch Instantly isn’t available in Canada, so that isn’t an option for me.

      I’m not worried about the menu spoilers, but I’m purposefully avoiding the commentaries, so that won’t be an issue.

      • Joe

        Worry about some of the menu spoilers, for real. Same thing with box spoilers. They clearly made them assuming you already watched the series.

        How one goes about avoiding these things, I don’t know.

        • Jaina

          Yeah, definitely right about the boxes. Don’t read the quotes. I watched all of them sophomore year of college with one of my best friends (she had it on dvd) There were a couple of seasons where she wouldn’t let me look at the box fold outs because of spoilers. (Season 6 was especially bad, if I remember correctly) Silly as it sounds, when necessary, I closed my eyes to pull out dvds to avoid the spoilers. Lol. Good luck!

  3. Get used to the poor production values. HBO has completely spoiled us, so I find it’s best to just ignore them entirely. I think you will also find that Whedon doesn’t care about the end of the world, it’s all about the characters and their relationships. Don’t go into Buffy expecting a well done action show.
    P.s. I hate those DVDs with a passion.

    • I didn’t mean to insist that this show isn’t about the characters and their relationships, but it’s about those character relationships in the context of the end of the world as opposed to calculus tests – Whedon doesn’t care about the end of the world, but here he uses it as part of that character process arguably more than he uses the “teen drama” side of the equation.

      But, I’m curious to see how that shifts with time, so I’m certainly keeping an open mind regardless of my early musings.

    • Lydia

      Paul – How about some of the later fight scenes? I know that Buffy is by no means aiming to be “action packed,” but I feel like the quality of the fights increases dramatically as the show goes on. I admit I am a girly girl from lacey pink girl town, but some of those fights blew my mind. I thought they were stylish, beautiful and emotional. Not to mention badass.

      However, I also wonder how the action is affected by the mood of the show. A lot of it seems to depend on what Joss is trying to get across with his current theme. For example (no real spoilers, promise, let me know if this is too much)… Season 4 uses a lot of military story, and the fight scenes now incorporate fancy pants weaponry, organized ambush tactics, etc., as well as the Scoobies reactions against such style… using magic and more “primitive” techniques as they establish themselves. Season 6 touches on a lot of issues relating to traditional masculinity and the concept of little boys playing at men. All of a sudden we have booby traps and rotating blades and jet packs.

      Again, not my strong point here, but I feel like a lot of the action on the show is very relevant to the themes.

      • I definitely agree the fights get better in the later seasons. I was referring more to the first couple of seasons than the series as a whole. And just to be clear, Buffy is one of my favorite shows of all time and I love the fights even while playing “Spot the Buffy stunt double” in the first few seasons :)

    • Paul, I would say for the budget they had at the time (1997) that the production value is pretty good and measures pretty well against other shows of the time.

      I had a little trouble with it myself, cause your brain wants to judge it against things you’ve seen since “Buffy” was on. But, once you sort of put yourself back in time, it plays quite well.

      • 11-year old me would have totally thought this looked awesome, no doubt.

      • Like I said, I blame HBO. Compared to the look of shows like Deadwood and Rome, Buffy suffers horribly. But what I was trying to say, extremely poorly I might add, is that the show doesn’t need the visuals to be excellent in order to be great television.

        • It is true, it doesn’t need the visuals to be great. I was just pointing out that it’s not really fair to compare it to things like “Deadwood” and “Rome,” as those started in 2004 and 2005 respectively and the first season of “Buffy” started in 1997.

          • Lydia

            You didn’t say it poorly, I personally am just so used to people judging Buffy for the wrong reasons (like the visuals), that I always leap to “nuh uh!!!” even if the person I’m talking to is obviously a huge Buffy nut like me and just pointing out reasonable things. Woo, defensive. I have a friend who adamantly does not care one iota about the important parts of Buffy because he is so hung up on the visuals. He legitimately can’t tell anything beyond that and in fact thinks I’m insane for thinking there is anything good about the show. Sigh.

  4. Khawaga

    I strongly disagree with what you wrote here

    “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.’”

    In fact, as Wheedon has even argued in several interviews, it’s all about high-school. High-school IS (metaphorically) hell. However, this might become clearer for you as you continue to watch the first season.

    It even seems that Buffy and friends are more comfortable fighting evil than getting through school.

    • As I sort of said above, I didn’t mean to suggest that the show is suddenly going to break out of the high school setting entirely (although, I’m sure it happens eventually, there are seven seasons after all). Rather, I’m simply suggesting that this isn’t a show that “just” about High School, and while Whedon is interested in probing the high school experience for the hellish qualities he ultimately means for it to represent something larger, and something that will be constantly encroaching and taking over the high school setting.

      Either way, the balance between the high school/demon sides of the show is one of the premiere’s downfalls: that sort of clear “high school as hell” idea isn’t really present here, and you can sense that Whedon feels burdened by the necessary exposition on the Demonic side of things, creating an imbalance that has me (clearly, based on this response) slightly misreading the show’s intentions.

      • Myles, I found in my recent re-watch that it is hard for some fans of the show to think about it in terms of where you are in the show as opposed to where they are, having seen the whole thing and everything about it.

        I had one person tell me on Twitter that she would never be able to trust my opinion on anything else, if I really didn’t like a particular episode that I had just said that I didn’t really care for. But, all her reasons for liking it were mainly because of what came after and how that episode connected to future events, which was information I did not have at the time.

        You are definitely going to have some fun with this project.

      • Jessica

        It’s true that by the first two episodes they don’t quite have the high school and the supernatural elements fully blended yet, but in future episodes try not to think of them as different sides of the show that need to be balanced.
        For each demon/magical thing that you see, there’s also a metaphor in the story that functions as a fantastical manifestation of real life problems. So while it’s true that the demons do show something larger than life, they also represent the large emotional sides of a problem. As I’m sure everyone has experienced, no matter how small a town a teenager lives in or how big their problems actually are, there’s nothing stopping them from thinking of something as ‘the end of the world’.

    • Alf

      I totally agree. Highschool is hell. Just remember the final quote by Oz at Gratuation Day pt 2.
      I think Buffy goes about life, growing (the pain of it) and plus when you have such responsabilities.
      School is used as an example of a place where lies a plurality of people with their own (inner, mostly) demons and how they fight it, but i think it’s more evident at the 3 firsts seasons

  5. ninjaraiden2k

    It is true that the visual quality is somewhat weak in the first season (there has to be a curve for budget and admiration for ambition) but the aesthetics will pick up exponentially by the third season.

    I would argue that a certain level of (endearing) cheese is a part of what makes Buffy great(as the title implies) and the budget adds to that eighties style flavor. I think that “ambition”(a word you used) is the legacy of Buffy and Angel combined. They can hit and miss, but its not for a sense of complacency.

  6. Mo_mer

    Looking forward to your next post.

    As to your comments on disassociating certain actors from characters, I have the most trouble with Eliza Dushku. I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers.

  7. The DVD menus for both Buffy and Angel are an abomination. And don’t expect consistency in terms of up-down or left-right from season to season.

    That nitpick aside, I’m curious what you thought of the teaser for “Welcome to the Hellmouth”. Did you know ahead of time that Julie Benz was playing a vampire or did the unexpected turn work the way it was intended, the way it worked on those of us who came to it before Buffy was BUFFY?

    • I knew that Benz was someone who was “on Buffy” in a sense which went beyond a brief teaser (and which was likely not “random high school student”), so I presumed that we were about to see either Benz being turned into a vampire or some form of attack. The reveal still worked for me, but the gears were definitely working in ways which they wouldn’t have been in ’97.

  8. Tausif Khan

    One thing I never got was why Giles isn’t an expert fighter himself. It would show visually why Buffy is supposed to trust him at all.

    Whedon notes that every word in the title is important to stating the mission of the show:

    Buffy- funny name comedy
    Vampire- Horror
    Slayer- Action

    and The… well you gotta have a “The”

    Powers are something that is visually confusing. I didn’t get Buffy was special until Xander says that Buffy is a superhero. I originally assumed she got lucky with the door breaking off. But the visual aspect of powers can be explained by tiny budget (which is a refrain from all Whedon shows).

  9. Tausif Khan

    Also I watched Buffy and How I Met Your Mother almost back to back. Hannigan’s performance as Willow Rosenberg and Lily Aldrin are very different helps me to understand how actors convey information through body language. Willow has labored breathing and somewhat stutter speech. Lily is commanding her presence with the group.

  10. Kat

    May I suggest you get a viewing guide that outlines which order to watch the episodes and follow that. I have found some episodes out of order on VHS and DVD. Also, it will be important when viewing the Buffy/Angel crossover episodes later.

  11. PJ

    Wow – what a project! I followed Buffy from day 1 and yes, you make some good observations but I think that it’s hard to view a late ’90s TV show (that premiered on a brand new network = limited funding) and talk about weak production values (especially after “Avatar”).

    My only advice is to remember that Joss likes to peel back the layers of his characters slowly so the viewer curiosity and they get pulled deeper and deeper into Buffy’s world until . . . [you said no spoilers, right?]

    One warning: Before you get too deep into the Hellmouth, buckle up, because when it comes to creating incredible characters, Joss is a pro . . .

  12. Jason

    I’m pretty was barely 19 during the filming of the pilot, and was 19 throughout the entire first season.

  13. Jason

    Sorry my post was mangled! I intended to write:

    I’m pretty sure SMG was barely 19 during the filming of the pilot, and also 19 for the entire first season.

  14. Chris

    Myles, thanks for posting this, it’s a very interesting and canny analysis! I consider Buffy to be one of or the greatest TV shows ever made, and it’s certainly my favorite. You’re in for a real treat in the later seasons.
    That said, the issue you mentioned about the limitations of Buffy’s powers is one of the few glaring problems of the show that never really resolves itself. Buffy is theoretically far stronger than the average human or vampire and is capable of defeating huge demons, but its never clearly defined exactly how much stronger and her capabilities fluctuate wildly. One episode she’s matching blows with a god, the next she’s struggling to throw a human off of a moving car. It gets a bit exasperating at times, but I suppose it was necessary in order to keep ALL the fights interesting…?

    • Irene

      I vaguely remember Joss Whedon addressing this on some episode commentary. He simply states that while she does have super human strength she’s still a human. So, she still has bad days, where things are a little off. And she has good days as well.

  15. AO

    “Charisma Carpenter has been playing older versions of Cordelia in pretty much every role she’s done since Buffy.”

    I do think that it’s worth mentioning that she had played practically the same character before Cordelia, when she acted in the role of Ashley Green on ‘Malibu Shores’ (1996).

    I hadn’t heard of your blog previously and came here via a link from Whedonesque, but so far I am glad that I did and will be interested to hear your thoughts on Buffy/Angel. I am someone who watched Firefly/Serenity first too, and then bought and watched all 12 Seasons together when Amazon had a particularly good sale on the Box Sets. In my case, I watched BtVS all of the way through first, and then all of Angel afterwards and am quite glad that I did so. While there are crossovers, most of them were minor (imo) and I very much preferred concentrating on one show at a time. It will be especially interesting to me to see someone taking the opposite approach. I hope that you enjoy both shows.

    • Georgia

      Myles, I absolutely agree with AO. You should watch Buffy first then Angel. My family watched Angel first and if you haven’t previously watched Buffy the character of Buffy comes off badly.

      My mother still refuses to watch Buffy because of the impression left on her by the characters of Angel. I on the other hand was curious about what had happened between Buffy and Angel in previous episodes. I quickly fell in love with the characters of Buffy (except for Buffy for which I still have negative feelings for) and continued to watch the series after Angel left.

      I must say that Buffy is a good series and it is definitely worth watching. And don’t stop watching after Angel leaves like many people I know have. There are many more surprises and twists and turns to love and enjoy.

  16. Smurf

    The whole slayer power rule thing is never fully delved into. While it is clear that she has abilities far beyond a normal human ,they are never fully measured and often conflict depending on who is writing and/or directing the episode. Without giving too much away in one episode she bends the barrel of a rifle and in another episode she has to use keys to get out of handcuffs. The same is true for the vampires of the show.

    Joss himself said that story and character always trump myth (i am paraphrasing I don’t remember his exact quote) and that if the whole powers thing is shrugged aside its because it made more sense from a storytelling standpoint. He also does things to occasionally make his heroes, who all get more progressively powerful, vulnerable.

  17. Jac

    sorry if this is a spoiler is it possible for information to not be spoilery?

    regarding Buffys’ powers i believe it isn’t revealed for a very, very long time (the shadow men) what her powers are-so to speak, where she got her powers from and what they are based on.

    The only Joss show that is excellent right of the bat is Firefly, with Buffy the ingredients are there
    and trust me it is worth the wait.

    i do the opposite to you every time, i always see the Buffy/Angel/Firefly character before the new one the actor is playing.
    Mo_mer completely agree about Eliza Dushku

    is Malibu Shores the one that also had Keri Russell?

    • Mel

      this is off topic, but I wouldn’t say Firefly was excellent right off the bat–for me personally, it was good enough that I wanted to keep watching, but I wasn’t really in love until I had watched the whole first disc and started ep 4. but its definitely his best series premiere (I came to buffy at the season 2 finale fight so didn’t even see season 1 until I was well into my buffy obsession)

    • AO

      Yeah, Keri Russell was the lead in Malibu Shores.

  18. Katie

    Pilots are not one of Joss’s strong points, in my opinion, and season one, for me, is not one of my favorites. There are some highlights, like The Pack, and overall, it does set up an excellent foundation for the even awesomer (that’s right, awesomer. You will get used to Buffy-speak soon enough) seasons to come. Get through season two before you really start to judge the series.

    Poor Joss barely got any money from the WB for this season because it was a last minute mid-season replacement. If you listen to the commentaries (later obviously, because Joss tends to be very spoilery), you can hear Joss the Boss lament about how much it actually costs to have a vampire CG dust. The special effects get better later on because the show actually became popular, so the WB was willing to give it more money.

    As for the DVD menus, I don’t find them as annoying as some people do, but that’s because I have the episode order kinda memorized. I think the menus were poorly designed but are navigable by the superfan. Find a non-spoilery listing of all the eps in order online. There are bound to be plenty out there.

    • Mel

      it’s so interesting to see what people feel are the best parts of season one–I love the mythos eps, WtoH/Harvest, Angel (despite Davids awful acting–I’m so glad he got better), Prophecy Girl– and Nightmares and parts of The Puppet Show and pretty muc h hate the rest (although I feel that they’re ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY for new viewers, except my dad and I skipped one of the Xander-centric eps because I found it so awful I knew he’d hate it a billion times worse)

      • Katie

        Oh! I forgot that I love Prophecy Girl too. Great season finale, it was. And I agree, season one is completely and absolutely necessary for anyone starting out the series.

        I don’t skip out even the bad episodes when I watch it with new people, because you have to show everyone the highs and lows of the series: People should experience as it was aired. Though I do admit to skipping some really bad episodes in season two *ciughcoughsoeassemblyrequiredcoughcough* with my boyfriend because I wanted him to get the the good part of season two faster. But showing people the lows of the series shows that A) even the lows of this series can be waaaaay better than the highs of other series, and B) that the lows make the highs seem even better in comparison.

        • Mel

          normally I’m the same way, but my dad won’t be patient through the worst eps. He practically refused to watch anymore after The Witch, I had to do some serious cajoling

    • Georgia

      A good place to go for episode listings is TvDuck.com The caps aren’t needed I just used them to separate the words and to draw attention to just how awesome a website name that is.

  19. Dawn

    When I checked out disc one of season one at our local library, the guy that checked me out asked if I had watched the series before. When told I had not, he said he envied me the ability to watch it again, fresh.

    I now pass on that envy. Though inconsistant in places, it’s a great series. I did end up buying the full series on DVD. Plus “Firefly” on Blu-Ray. Enjoy!

  20. Chiron

    I envy you. Give it time to find it’s rhythm, overlook the occasional clunker in the first season and maybe until about midway into season2. Your reward will be beyond measure.
    The “high school is hell” metaphor is only the tip of the iceberg, metaphor-wise. And of course after season3, moves well (and brilliantly) into the bigger picture that underlies even the high school seasons: That this is a show about not just growing up, but *growing*, a process that never ends. It’s really all about becoming, for all the main characters. :)
    And good luck with remaining relatively spoiler free. Fans who are used to discussing BtS, are used to doing so in the context of the full arc of the series.
    I’d suggest a friendly reminder, at the end of each of your posts. Happy discovering.

  21. Hey Myles…Can I call you Myles?

    I think your post was quite fascinating and you delve into some interesting areas about the show. As an unabashed Whedon fan I always do my best to protect everything he makes. That said, you hit upon some fairly, want-for-a-better-word, glaring issues. The cinematic property of the show for one thing. But, as many people have commented, please keep in mind that this was 1997, on the WB, a mid season replacement, and a fairly unknown writer. The budget of the show does increase as the years go on and by season three the show’s look is substantially greater (They use 35mm for one thing). But seriously, if you want cinematic brilliance the head to Angel which is not only more epic than Buffy but counts itself among the greats of cinematic TV; right up there with The X-Files and Battlestar.

    However, in the end cinematic acheivement is irrelevant compared to brilliant characterisation and emoitonal integrity which Buffy, and Joss in general, has in unparalleled spades.

    However, I loved your post and look forward to keeping up with your future Buffyverse endeavours!

  22. Kailee

    I’m very excited to see you get through the rest of the series, and your reviews seem interesting and insightful. It’s awesome hearing a new opinion about the Buffyverse from someone who hasn’t seen it 80,000 times( like me).

    I really can’t wait for you to get to Season 2 because I honestly kind of despise Season 1. The first time I saw it( 2 years ago) it seemed alright and certain things like dialogue and character kept me interested and watching, but now I can barely look at it. Every time I try to re-watch it I end up spazzing out about how horrible it is compared to the rest of the show and I skip straight to Season 2.

    To me, Season 1 is practically a different show because they really hadn’t quite discovered their footing or potential yet and so many things were still rough around the edges. And even though that’s obviously understandable since it’s only the beginning it still makes it hard for me to re-watch. I’d say the first episode of the show that I go back and watch and really enjoy is ‘School Hard’. Which is ep. 15 of the show and Season 2, ep. 3. That’s really only in retrospect though because it introduces my favorite character on the show who I had no idea I would love so much at the time.

    I think that the show really starts to hit it’s stride in Season 2 around the Surprise/Innocence two-parter, the beautifully sad and dramatic ‘Passion’ and the awesome finale ‘Becoming’. So yeah, can’t wait to see what you think. I LOVE when people start watching BTVS, I get so over-excited for them.

    P.S- Sorry for the horrible grammar in this post,I really shouldn’t type things the second I wake up.

  23. GillO

    Fascinating responses – I really enjoy reading intelligent analysis by someone new to the show. As others have said, in many ways the show very much *is* about High School – how do you find your group, integrate yourself into society, establish your role and so on. A lot of the mundane issues are echoed in the demonic stuff – how do you cope when an old friend changes completely – try to persuade him to revert, try to join him or write him out of your life completely? And then look at Jesse.

    The production values improve from S2 onwards, but the characters are engrossing almost from the start. The comedy is as important as the drama is as important as the horror is as important as the soap opera elements is as important as the action…

    I shall be following this with interest and, I expect, considerable enjoyment. And will try very hard not to spoil you for the amazing roller-coaster ride that is to come. I’m not alone in seeing this show, even over a decade on, as Whedon’s masterwork.

  24. Mel

    1. For episode order and tons of interesting insights, I use All Things Philosophical on BtVS and Angel , I’d stick to the ep index at least until you finish season one, because a lot of their stuff links to other eps–the index only shows the order, does not have synopses

    2. I, like many others, envy your experience seeing Buffy with fresh eyes that don’t know what happens later, for the first two seasons I NEVER had that, coming in for the last 10-15 minutes of the season 2 finale as I did. Enjoy!

    3. the show just keeps getting better (though my dad and several other people I know think it should have ended after season 5–the final eps of season 7 just blow me away emotionally that I forgive any and all later flaws, but my dad was into it more for the funny than the emotional stuff, and we haven’t finished 7 yet) and I look forward to reading your reactions, one of my favorite things about introducing new shows and movies I love to people is seeing how they react, though I occasionally give up that something funny or awesome is about to happen when I start watching them instead of the tv….so its great I can’t ruin it for you and I get that enjoyment!

    last thing: while buffy is about high school as hell, and all that jazz, I think even in the beginning before college and all that, Buffy is about people, and its about relationships, and its about growing up in a world where you can never get your footing for long (which, lets face it, is ours, so really its about life, only our monsters are all metaphor, generally)

  25. Wow, I’m not even sure how to comment without referring to later seasons and being spoilery! I’m sure it will be easier once you’ve advanced through the seasons.

    I just re-watched these two episodes last week with a friend who was visiting and wanted to take a trip down memory lane, and the character who had the biggest impact on me was precisely Darla!… The way she’s written in these early episodes doesn’t quite fit with… ARGH!!!! shush!

    And Giles “A Slayer slays, a Watcher watches”… ha! Wait ’till you meet Ripper… and then contrast him with Wesley… How can a Watcher just watch if he’s supposed to teach the Slayer her trade? When a slayer dies a new one is “awakened”? “activated”? Which means she’s got these “superpowers” (basically strength and agility), but someone has to teach her how to use them properly, the knowledge doesn’t just turn on in her brain!

    hmmm… I just flashed to Dollhouse and Victor with his USB skillset… would be very useful for a new slayer! ;)

    One of the things I had a hard time with was how Gilles could be so computer illiterate (which leads to some great character moments throughout the series!)! And then I remember this started in the 90s and I had to go to the Uni’s computer lab to write up my papers. How we advanced that far that fast? *shiver*

    looking forward to the next installment! :)

  26. Robert

    Interesting to read someone’s response to BUFFY after having obsessed over it for so many years. I think there were many interesting comments.

    Two things as general comments.

    First, BUFFY didn’t get really good until Season Two. I think the precise point where it went from being a good to being a great was the episode “Lie to Me.” It helped set up the extraordinary two parter “Surprise/Innocence,” which are the episodes where the show became epic. So, don’t judge the show too much by Season One.

    Second, in Season One BUFFY was a no budget show, with almost no permanent set. They only had one hallway to use for all the school scenes. The budget increased with subsequent seasons.

    So, the comment about what they conceived and what they were able to execute is an apt one. they just didn’t have the money to do what they wanted to.

    Just a general comment. Keep in mind that this is the show that pretty much invented “the body count.” Prior to BUFFY there had been some deaths on TV shows (like Deepthroat and X on THE X-FILES), but this was the first show that I know of that killed off a huge number of characters that in any other show would have been safe. So keep in mind that BUFFY set many precedents that other shows have borrowed.

  27. One of the interesting things about Whedon’s work is that he very rarely has a series where there’s a deep mythology that the characters slowly uncover after finding the tip of the iceberg. By and large, his series make up the mythology as they go along, and that’s especially true of the Buffyverse. Early seasons of Whedon shows (not Dollhouse) tend to use an approach I like to call “serialized world-building,” in that each episode is a standalone, but they are building a cohesive WORLD that will impact the series as it goes along.

    • ninjaraiden2k

      I agree. Most shows have vague and hazy roadmaps (like Lost) but I think for the most part when dealing with the realities of day to day production woes have to have flexibilities. Which is why there are plot holes and inconsistant rules involved with complicated world building. The fact that the Buffyverse and the Lostiverses work at all with exterior factors working against them is a major miracle.
      Relative consistancy seems to be the best we can hope for in television.

    • Jaina

      I love your term of serialized world-building, that is a perfect way to describe it.

  28. Mylene

    I haven’t read all the other comments, so maybe what I’m about to say has already been said.

    I really liked your comments about the pilot, and I agree with most of your opinions… but you are wrong about the end of the world, when you say Joss will never be able to show it. This is really underestimating him. Just wait, you’ll see. ;)

    • Oops! I forgot I wanted to mention the “end of the world” stuff! :)

      You’ll find out that Buffy saves the world “a lot” so be prepared for many “end of the world” scenarios. In fact, could you do us a favour and start counting them? I’ve been wondering how many there are exactly… You’ve just witnessed the first (by stopping the Harvest)… let’s see a list of “world savings” as a final post to the series when you’re done! ;)

  29. A couple of interesting things about season one.

    The first is that the entire season was done and in the can before the first episode aired. No chance to fix things or change things based on audience reaction.

    Second is that the first season does have a lower budget. Also, the show really doesn’t find its visual style until the season finale, which is the first directed by Whedon. It kicks things up a whole other notch in season.

    Third thing is that season one has the loosest arc since it’s more concerned with establishing characters. It’s a prologue for what’s to come and season two is when the show really finds its footing and begins to be Buffy as most fans fondly remember it.

  30. Sue

    Have fun with Buffy. It’s supposed to be fun.
    Origin story? Not so much.
    Whedon trying to be too clever? Yup.
    But, the first episodes introduce the characters that you’ll (no doubt) come to enjoy watching and start to pull for even when they’re at their worst.
    All the characters grow and deepen – they should in 7 seasons, but once you get the “big bad” themes the growth happens as needed.
    Giles – stiff, english, serious – yes, but has his calling just like Buffy.
    Xander, Willow, Cordy start as nerds and a mean girl, but they each serve a purpose in pushing Buffy to be what she must be.
    I came late to Buffy via Angel. I LIKE Angel, but I LOVE Buffy. Here’s hoping you find out for yourself why the Buffyverse tends to be so consuming!

  31. Jaya

    Oh god, if you disliked the production quality of the pilot, then I shudder to think about your reaction to “I Robot, You Jane”. Don’t worry, you’ll get there!

    Part of the fun of early Buffy (and of season 1 in particular) is how incredibly campy the whole thing is. Everything looks so fake, from the rubber and plastic demons, to the dollar-store prosthetics that the vampires wear (and notice how horrible Julie Benz’s lisp gets when she puts on her game face). Its utterly unbelievable, but at the same time, entirely compelling.

    While reading this review, there were just too many “oh no, you don’t get it at all!” reactions to count. Of course its unbelievable that this girl in this small inconsequential town is really at the forefront of a nightly war to save the world, but if you can swallow it, you will just fall in love with Sunnydale and the Scoobys. The show does poke fun at itself as the series progresses. Its not lost on the residents of Sunnydale that it has an unusually high death-rate… after all, most high school newspapers don’t include an obituary section.

    You’ll get a sense of perspective once you finish the whole thing.

    By the by, I’m insanely jealous of you. I would love to wipe it all from my brain and rediscover Buffy and Angel for the first time.

    • Beth

      Haha, “I Robot, You Jane” is the one episode I refuse to show people. It is unwatchable.

      That said, I echo the envious comments. You are in for a fantastic experience.

  32. Looking forward to seeing your thoughts as the seasons progress. I didn’t discover Buffy until 2005 and was so captivated, I borrowed the DVDs from a friend and watched the entire series in just under a month.

    Try not to listen to folks telling you such-and-such season is the best, so and so season is the worst. I found one of my favorite seasons is one of the seasons most people dismiss. Same with certain episodes – episodes I love are received less warmly by the Buffy community at large.

    Don’t visit my website (if you’re inclined to visit, that is – until after you’ve finished the series) as it’s COMPLETELY Spoiler-y.

    Enjoy!

  33. Bob Kat

    I didn’t start watching with the first episode but I agree with you that the real menace to the whole world in “The Harvest” isn’t made clear. As episodes roll by, you’ll see that; I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that 1-it pales compared to the later end-of-world stories 2-we’re eventually shown the results of a successful The Harvest and it remains good horror but limited in scope.

    But SMG was 19 when this was filmed and still quite dewy-looking so no problem seeing her as a 10th Grader. Sigh, miss that baby fat.

    Alyson’s own age when she started as Lily was well past what it was when she started Willow, yes, but Willow is only 3 or at most 4 years younger than Lily.

    • Mylene

      You are wrong about Willow/Lily’s age difference : Willow is 16 in the pilot, and in the first HIMYM, Lily is about 28. ;)

  34. LadyAlgerina

    Your comments are interesting but I fear you missed the most important thing the pilot does. It sets up the hellmouth as a metaphor for high school. Thereby giving every member of the audience an imediate connection with Buffy.

  35. Bob Kat

    Mylene: By the time HIMYM premiered in Fall 2005, Willow was 24.

  36. Bob Kat

    Mylene: Yes, he was, I was just clarifying what *I* was saying.

  37. Pingback: Cultural Catchup Project: “Becoming” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) « Cultural Learnings

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