An Expectational Course Correction
April 11th, 2010
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup 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 posting a link to each installment.
First off, I to thank everyone for the great comments and responses over the past few days – this is an exciting project, and I’m glad that so many seem to be along for the ride. It’s unfortunate, then, that my immediate progress is more or less on hold as a result of some other life commitments, along with a pileup of new television (the Glee premiere, new Lost, the Treme premiere, the Life Unexpected finale, etc.); as a result, those anxious for me to get beyond the first season and into the second will have to wait a while longer (although I intend on trying to get through S1 by next weekend).
However, in an effort to keep up some momentum, I did watch the remainder of the first disc of Season One, and I started to better understand some of the responses to yesterday’s piece. It’s not that I was surprised to see people point out that I was fairly ignorant of certain parts of the series’ future, but rather that it seemed the premiere was saying one thing when many comments insisted that it was saying quite another.
And after watching “Witch” and “Teacher’s Pet,” I think I’m going to go with the commenters on this one, as the episodes have definitely inspired an expectational course correction (but not necessarily a bad one).
This is going to be fairly brief, as the real life commitments are going to take over in a few hours, but there was definitely no illusions in these episodes on the “High School is Hell” front. Both episodes are the kind of stories which offer supernatural explanations for human behaviour, whether it’s the overbearing mother as witch or the seductive substitute teacher as praying mantis. Combine with the focus on high school cheerleading and Buffy’s troubles in Biology class, and you’ve got some episodes that play off of the “Sunnydale is sitting on a Hellmouth, so anything is possible” idea as opposed to any of the larger supernatural plans and plots which the premiere seemed to lean towards.
While I read the pilot the opposite way, seeing what I was pretty sure Whedon does eventually as opposed to what he necessarily does in the short term, I want to be clear that this isn’t some sort of problem. Sure, the stories are pretty procedural, but the show is working its way through Xander’s sexual attraction to Buffy and Willow’s crush on Xander in the process, and so long as those developments continue to tell us more about there’s characters there’s nothing wrong with this strategy. While Buffy only slays a single vampire in the two episodes, it tells us a lot more about her character, and both “Witch” and “Teacher’s Pet” take some run twists and turns along the way, and the slightly campy nature of both stories feels like a better fit for the show’s production style (which I realize is fine for 97) than did the sort of epic scale Vampire invasion featured in the premiere.
It’s not really a big deal, for me at least: I like a good procedural story, and this set of characters seems like a fun group to get involved with. While I might prefer serialized drama, and I’ll probably (as many have noted) enjoy the show even more when it gets closer to that stage in its development, the procedural stories had some fun stuff around the edges (the varsity jock turning out to be a virgin, Giles calling his crazy former colleague, etc.) which helps to keep me engaged. And the story does well to bring back Angel in “Teacher’s Pet” to remind us that the world of the Vampires still threatens Sunnydale, and having Buffy use the Vampire’s fear in order to “solve” the case was actually some really effective plot development on a procedural level. Throw in a leather jacket and some serious smoldering stares from Boreanaz, and you’ve got the sort of material that starts to build a fanbase, even with the show’s serialization still pretty buried.
I realize after writing that paragraph that it’s more or less all about “Teacher’s Pet,” which indicates I preferred it to “Witch.” I think my reasoning is that the show used “Buffy is sick and dying” as a plot point, which is both lazy and a little bit silly. It’s one thing to test Buffy or put her in dangerous situations that she can’t easily get out of, but to have her just lying there helpless waiting for Giles to save her was a false sense of tension, and it seemed unnecessary when the threat of what Amy’s mother could do next seems like it would inspire a similar urgency and result in a nearly identical conclusion. I liked the body-switching twist, as it kept the episode from being a straight demonification of jealousy and competition gone too far, but I think there’s a difference between placing Xander in danger (which still shouldn’t be overdone) and pretending that Buffy is actually going to die. It’s easier than building new characters for us to relate to, and it’s convenient at this early stage, but it isn’t something the show can do too often without ruining whatever tension it offers.
Ultimately, the episodes sort of shift my expectations: they do not make them lower overall, perhaps, but they confirm that it’s going to be a while before those expectations will really kick in. I’ve seen too much hype about the show not to jump to the conclusions I did during the pilot, but I’ve now seen enough from these early episodes to indicate that there’s some groundwork to be done. I was just writing the other day about the value of gradual serialization in FX’s Justified, which is starting out with some procedural cases, so I’m completely understanding and patient regarding where Whedon is choosing to take the show at this early stage in its development, and I look forward to continuing the season on Thursday.
- I am going to presume that one of the reasons Whedon later shoehorns a previously unmentioned sister (yes, I know enough about the show to know about Dawn) into the show is because he’s run placing the other characters in peril into the ground and needs a fresh face to fill the role?
- There was no reason for it to be Cordelia who stumbled onto Dr. Gregory’s body, but Charisma Carpenter has a mighty fine scream of terror, so I can’t blame them for getting her in there.
- While these pieces may not read “fan” quite yet, I’m really enjoying the show – I might not be ready to write a treatise on the genius of Xander, but scenes like his colour commentary on Angel’s mysterious arrival are certainly sending me in that direction.