New Beginnings in “The Freshman” and “City Of”
June 19th, 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.
It’s only fitting that, as Buffy and Angel’s paths diverge into two separate series, the Cultural Catchup Project forces them back together for the sake of analysis.
There is no plot-based connection between “The Freshman,” Buffy’s fourth season premiere, and “City Of,” Angel’s “pilot” of sorts which started off its first season: while there is a brief moment shared between the two episodes, it is an easter egg more than a substantial development. However, both episodes tell more or less the same story: our protagonist moves onto a new stage in their life in an unfamiliar location and struggles to reconcile their past life with their present situation.
In that sense, both episodes serve the function of a pilot: while “The Freshman” isn’t debuting a new series, it is ushering in a new era for Buffy, as she heads down the road to UC Sunnydale and discovers that it is truly a “whole new world” in more ways than she bargained for. And “City Of,” while unique in that Buffy viewers have a greater understanding of Angel and Cordelia’s characters than those tuning in for the first time, still needs to introduce Angel’s current goals and set up just what kind of show Angel wants to be.
And while both episodes were entertaining, I’m going to make the argument that neither of them were actually that successful when considered as the beginning of their respective seasons.
“The Freshman” is a fun episode of television, but it’s also a little bit derivative of Season Three’s “Anne:” Buffy struggles to fit into a new environment on her own, refusing to ask others for help as she wants to be able to handle things independently. Of course, the eventual message is very different from “Anne,” as there Buffy rediscovered her Slayer identity on her own, while here she gets her mojo back only once she meets up with Xander and the whole gang gets back together. If “Anne” told Buffy that she was meant to be the Slayer, then “The Freshman” told Buffy that she was meant to be surrounded by people who care about her (Willow, Giles, Xander, etc.). As compared with “Anne,” I think this premiere is more enjoyable in general terms: Sunday is an engaging villainess, and since I always prefer my evildoers to have a sense of humour I thought their dorm raids (in particular their Klimt/Monet competition) were a neat bit of colour for the episode. In fact, I was sort of disappointed they were (mostly) killed off at episode’s end, as I sort of liked the idea that Buffy would have to take a bit more time to uproot this particular gang before moving onto bigger fish.
However, I think “The Freshman” could have done more to engage with its new setting beyond Buffy’s integration. Sure, we meet Riley (who I vaguely recall from the bits and pieces I’ve seen of later seasons), and we get the final shot of the technologically-advanced vampire hunters to indicate where the season might be heading, but I don’t like the notion that the character dynamics won’t actually change in any capacity. For better or for worse, the show is moving onto college, which is a great opportunity to shake things up a bit. It’s charming for Xander to return having spent his summer washing dishes at a strip club, and it’s delightful to see Giles so apologetic towards Buffy as he arrives with weapons in tow to attempt to assist her, but I think it’s a mistake to end the episode (even falsely) with Buffy believing that her support system is still safely in place. I don’t mean that Whedon needed to kill anyone or that some sort of major event needed to go down, but I simply believe that the premiere could have brought Buffy and the gang back together without having them tackle their problems at the same time. There’s a “How Buffy Got Her Groove Back” vibe to the episode which we’re meant to juxtapose with the unexplained dudes with assault rifles and tasers, but considering that Angel is now gone from the series, leaving a big hole in the mythology, I think I wanted a bit more than a brief little tag at the end of the episode.
Of course, “The Freshman” isn’t actually a pilot, so perhaps it’s unfair to expect it to set things up quite so clearly; however, with Angel departing for another series, and Whedon splitting his time, there is no question that Buffy is going to be a different show, and I think the episode spends too much time trying to tell us that it isn’t a different show at all. Moving to college, but not actually leaving Sunnydale, means that the show’s location is technically the same even if our perspective on that location is entirely different: it’s an interesting juxtaposition, and I think I was hoping for the show to embrace its different potential beyond “classes are really hard” within the premiere. I get that Buffy doesn’t want to turn her back on her past, which is why she is (rightfully) so angry when Sunday breaks the umbrella she received as Class Protector in “The Prom,” but I think my advance knowledge of the shift to come made me expect Whedon to show a bit more of the fire that he’s about to throw Buffy into. It doesn’t make this a poor episode, and I’m certainly intrigued to see where things go from here, but if we look at it as the launch of something new then it could have done more to set things up.
By comparison, it’s entirely fair to judge “City Of” as the start of a new series considering that it is, in fact, the start of a new series. What’s strange about Angel is that it’s impossible to really tell you how this works as a standalone pilot: as someone who knows Angel’s character quite well (and who therefore found Doyle’s expositional trip through Buffy highly unnecessary), and as someone who completely understands how far Cordelia has fallen to be stealing food from cocktail parties and trying to will herself away from hunger, I think “City Of” was pretty effective, but separate from that I don’t know if it did as much as it could have to establish the show’s premise. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the show’s premise remains frustratingly elusive: as far as I can tell, some shadowy figure told Doyle in a dream to find Angel to convince him to become a vampiric Michael Westen who helps out those in danger of being preyed on by vampires and demons and the like. That sounds like a pretty cool show, but it’s also a very vague show, and coming from the growing mythology of Buffy it’s a bit strange to stumble into something quite so undefined.
When I chose to watch Angel simultaneously to Buffy, I wanted to be able to experience it as fans of Buffy would when the show first premiered, and I’m curious to hear how others fans responded. For me, I find that the show and I are operating on a different level in “City Of,” as I know so much about the characters that there’s no surprise when it’s Cordelia who Angel saves from the evil Russell, or when Cordelia doesn’t go for the whole damsel in distress gig and quickly figures out Russell is a vampire. It creates an odd circumstance where it feels like I’m one step ahead of the narrative and yet I don’t know where things are ultimately headed. This isn’t really a huge problem, but I think it contributed to the sense that the show doesn’t have a particular direction at the moment: while Buffy, when it started, was able to draw on the ready-made conflicts of high school in order to tell its stories, Angel is operating without a net beyond our pre-existing knowledge of the characters. And so a lot hinges on how this first case establishes Angel’s character, and Doyle and Cordelia as supporting characters, which is where the show is both successful and unsuccessful.
It’s successful in the fact that Tina’s death is, like most of Whedon’s deaths, quite effective: it tells us that Los Angeles is perhaps more “realistic” than Sunnydale, its threats somewhat more organized and ruthless than the random vampires which either lacked organization or go for theatrics over cold-blooded murder, and it shows us how Angel responds when someone hurts someone he cares about as we saw with his superhuman feats rescuing Cordelia and eventually murdering Russell in dramatic fashion. I don’t think Tina’s ghost is going to hang over the entire series or anything, but it’s much like Jesse in Buffy’s pilot: the character exists entirely to demonstrate that Buffy’s world is about to change, to make her quest to stop the Master something more than saving the world by reminding her that she’s protecting the rest of the student population from ending up like Jesse. Here, Tina becomes the prodigal client, the one which launches the series forward to…
And there’s where it’s somewhat unsuccessful, as the show didn’t do a whole lot to extend beyond this particular case. The final scene is a bit painful, as Cordelia exposits some logical reasons they would take on some cases but none of it really feels like it stems naturally from the episode itself. A lot of this is a result of how thinly drawn Doyle is at this particular moment: while I know Whedon enjoys mysterious helper figures (as we saw with Whistler’s brief stint in a similar role with Angel in the past), there’s a point where the mystery doesn’t work in your favour, as Doyle remains a blank slate who could go in any multitude of directions, and that sort of sheer potential needs to be contextualized at least a bit at this stage of the game. It’s especially problematic for those of us who know the other two characters so well: we understand why Angel is doing this (his innate goodness), and why Cordelia is getting involved (having enjoyed her taste of vampire slaying and desperate to stay afloat in Hollywood), and so Doyle seems even more confounding for us. He’s some sort of demon, and the show is obviously using him for some comic relief (logical since Boreanaz, at least here, sticks to his straight man role), but I don’t know who he really is, and “it’s a mystery” isn’t going to cut it.
These likely sound like fairly critical judgments of these early episodes, and you’d be right to point out that this is a little unfair: every show takes time to grow into either its early episodes or a new era in its development, and we can’t forget that Whedon was running them simultaneously. However, I think we also have to remember that “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “Harvest” were big episodes which fully introduced Buffy’s reality and the large-scale threat in the Master; by comparison, “City Of” sort of takes that for granted, introducing us to a bureaucratic face of evil (law firm Wolfram & Hart) but just sort of gesturing towards their evil. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s hard (and, arguably, impossible) to separate Angel from Buffy. While the two shows are heading down different paths, both deliver episodes which show their protagonist struggling to adjust to life apart from one another, and in many ways the real test of these episodes is not whether they represent the perfect start to a season or series and rather whether they define their own identity, charting a course for a different (if somewhat shared) future than the one Buffy had within its third season.
And on that front, they are successful: I’m curious about where Buffy is going, and I’m interested in seeing how Angel develops as a series, and I feel like those are two separate foci. One of my concerns about watching both at the same time was that one would be inherently more interesting than the other, but they’re about even at this point: my intellectual curiosity about Angel’s search for an identity as its own series has me intrigued by the vagueness surrounding the show’s premise, while my long-term commitment to Buffy has me curious to see how they reconcile the change of venue in future installments. And, so as to not make me sound like a soulless automaton, I’m also engaged with the characters: it was nice to see Willow so confident in her new environment, and to spend more time with Cordelia in her “struggling, but putting on a brave face” mode that remained in the background on Buffy, and so in that sense it’s like the best of both worlds. Both shows have characters arcs I’m invested in, and each show has its own structural and thematic adjustments to make in the future that will be rife for analysis, although likely separately beyond the aforementioned crossovers.
- One complaint I have with “The Freshman” is that Willow seems so disconnected from Slayer life: it’s necessary for the story, but she is a witch, so it’s not like she herself has no connection with the supernatural. It’s one thing for Giles (no longer officially Buffy’s watcher) to take a bit of a break, but Willow should be living in that culture, and her level of intellectual distraction is understandable but still a bit odd.
- I noticed that Spike and Anya were both featured in the credits without actually being listed in the credits, so I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that they’ll be back in a big way this season, which excites me.
- Don’t know if it was intentional, but knowing what’s coming up in a few seasons Xander’s “Once more with even less feeling” line is a fun bit of foreshadowing.
- Not sure how much we’ll be seeing of Kathy the roommate, but it’s entertaining to see how much Celine Dion was seen as the ultimate sign of her lack of cool at the turn of the century – sometimes we forget about just how overbearing “My Heart Will Go On” became.
- I seemed to note above that Angel doesn’t have a sense of humour, which ignores scenes like Angel jumping into the wrong car to start the car chase in the parking garage: Boreanaz is certainly capable of being funny, but he’s more or less kept in brooding mode beyond that scene, so it stood out a bit more as a result.
- Josh Holloway! He looked awfully young in the Lost pilot (perhaps the most distractingly young upon looking back at it, and comparing it with Flash Sideways Sawyer), but here he looks even younger.
- As I was warned, Angel tried going for a slightly different makeup style early on – glad to hear they eventually course correct, as it looks pretty bad.
- I am curious, though, whether the bizarre flash edits stick around: I get that it allows the show to quickly transition from place to place, and since L.A. is larger than Sunnydale is helps justify a quick pace to avoid showing Angel traveling and the like. However, I thought the technique was just too annoying for me to feel comfortable with, so I’m hopeful that is, at the very least, toned down.