Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Television on DVD: Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6

One of the odd traditions that Ninja, Jago and I have is that we get together and watch TV shows on DVD. It began with 24, where we were amazed by the odds Jack Bauer had to face with each passing hour, and astounded by his daughter Kim’s incredibly lame crises. (“Help, my head’s stuck in a banister! Call my dad at CTU!”) It soon moved on to other shows such as Monk, starring Ninja’s favourite actor Tony Shalhoub, and the shows of writer-director-fashion nightmare Joss WhedonAngel and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

I’ve seen all the seasons of Buffy, but it’s a great show and a lot of fun to watch them again. It’s particularly fun to watch them with the guys, who’ve never seen them before, especially when Ninja curls up in a ball on the couch and wraps himself up in his Crying Blanket – so named because he often shrieks like a girl and uses the blanket to muffle the sound. Over the past three weeks, we ploughed our way through the sixth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, all 22 episodes. It’s the fastest we’ve ever gone through any series, and while part of it is likely due to my prompting, I think it’s mostly because we just wanted more after every episode.

This season marked a number of major changes in the show’s direction. It was the season of the “real world”; after high school is over, responsibility can hit you like a sixteen-ton-weight on a British accountant, and Buffy, Willow, and Xander had to start growing up. It was also Buffy’s first season on UPN, and the network let the writers do pretty much whatever they wanted, no matter how controversial or over-the-top it was. The subject matter got dark, it got sexy, and it got very depressing.

To sum up: Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) comes back from the dead, and she’s miserable; to dull the pain she begins a destructive, if sexually fulfilling, relationship with Spike (James Marsters), who is becomes obsessed with her. Willow (Alyson Hannigan) starts getting addicted to black magic, sabotaging her relationship with the group, especially Tara (Amber Benson). Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) leaves for England – twice. Craving attention since everyone else is too wrapped up with his or her problems to help her with her own, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) becomes a kleptomaniac. Things seem to get better though, partly because it seems the characters start realizing they’re destroying themselves, and partly because of the only ray of sunshine in the whole show: Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Anya (Emma Caulfield)’s relationship and upcoming wedding. Then…Xander freaks out and leaves Anya, and things start heading downhill again, fast, past the point you thought they couldn’t get any worse. By the end, people are dead and some relationships are shattered, but every character that’s still standing has a new beginning. Oh, and the fan-favourite episode Once More With Feeling fits in there somewhere too.

Season 6 created a division that separated a lot of fans and critics. Many people saw it as a betrayal, a bastardization of the tone and morality of the rest of the series. Other people welcomed the change, embraced the darkness and wallowed in it. When the last episode finished, there were very few people standing in the middle of the road: you loved it or you hated it.

I fall into the loved it category. I think it’s the show’s best season – possibly second-best compared to Season 2, but it’s a tight race. It’s not perfect, mind you; it has its flaws, and I’m going to lay them out in the open. Warts and all, though, these 22 episodes got me caring about the show again after the mess that was Season 5; it’s the most technically and creatively impressive season, and it’s got powerful performances that keep me coming back.

First: the bad. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Dawn was wasted for much of the season. They didn’t have much for her to do, and she was part of the reason the middle part of the season started to drag. Michelle Trachtenberg has skills, but when you put a good actor in an underdeveloped role, there’s not much she can do with it. Willow’s unhealthy relationship with magic (read: magic = drugs), while an excellent idea, was poorly executed: much of the dialogue surrounding that topic was a little too after-school-special for my liking. Another low point was Buffy’s touch me / don’t touch me tango with Spike. Yes, it’s an unhealthy relationship, and yes, she tries to get away but keeps being pulled back in, but there is such a thing as too much. The show always had an element of soap opera, but this season went overboard.

However, the good far outweighs the bad. Many of the performances were the best they’ve ever been; when the writers put more depth and emotion on the page, the actors rose to the challenge. Anthony Stewart Head, even in a reduced role, had my eyes riveted to the screen. Amber Benson developed Tara to the point where I actually cared about her, as opposed to just Willow’s girlfriend. My two favourite actors, though, were Nick Brendon and Emma Caulfield. Reduced to comic relief for many a season, they handled both comedy and tragedy with ease. I was particularly impressed with Brendon, who I assumed was just playing himself for the first five seasons. He exceeded all of my expectations in the last third of the series, and while he’s never going to be “Five Time Emmy Award-Winner Nicholas Brendon”, I will defend him against his most violent critics.

You can’t talk about Season 6 without mentioning Once More With Feeling. On paper, “Buffy The All-Singing-All-Dancing Vampire Slayer” just doesn’t work. And it almost doesn’t: some of the performances were amateurish, and some of the songs were overly simplistic. It could be further argued that the episode was just Joss Whedon being completely self-indulgent and torturing the cast and crew. But in the end, it worked: it was more than just an exercise in what you can do on television, it was an integral part of the season. Everyone put a lot of work into it, and it shows. Not the best Buffy episode of all-time, as some might argue, but it’s a very good one.

The Trio, Season Six’s dominant villains, have been much maligned as well. Last year, Buffy fought a god, and this year, we get three Star Trek nerds? A lot of people didn’t care for them, but I think they served two important functions. Firstly, they added a lot of comic relief to a very dark season, which only underscores the point that they weren’t really the Bad Guys. Sure, they did bad things, but this season was about more than the most recent threat to Sunnydale. The Trio were just one of the many problems the group had to confront this season, not simply the “Big Bad” that kept getting bigger and badder every season. Secondly, the group – particularly Warren (Adam Busch) – showed us that human beings can be just as scary as vampires, demons, or The Government. True horror isn’t about the new monster of the week; it’s about the dark places in the souls and minds of ordinary human beings.

I end with a comment on the show’s final episode. Full of the pain of everyone in the world and unable to contain herself, Willow sets out to raise a demonic temple and save the world. Nobody who’s been touched by mystic forces can stop her, which rules out pretty much everyone – Buffy (Slayer), Giles (Quasi-Magical and Nearly Dead), Anya (Demon), Dawn (Ball of Mystic Energy), Spike (Vampire and Out of Town) – except Xander. He confronts Willow, saying that if he’s going to die it’s going to be beside his best friend, and saves the world by the power of his unconditional love.

While doing some research for this rant, I came across an article that came down on the final episode because of its obvious Christian bent: “The world was saved from destruction - from a woman bent on vengeance, from a Jewish witch - by the unconditional love of a poor carpenter.” While it’s an interesting interpretation of the episode, I honestly can’t see it that way. First of all, the show has had such a secular tone over the six seasons, and I can’t see the writers consciously plotting out a “Xander equals Jesus” storyline. Secondly, I think it’s a far too symbolic interpretation of the scene: Season 6 was about life and human nature, its dark side and its capacity for goodness. Xander embodies human frailty and human strength, and I found it very satisfying to see him have his place as an integral part of the group, showing what an ordinary guy was capable of in the face of impossible odds.

Say what you will about the soap opera, the rubber suits, and the (sometimes) obvious stunt doubles: Buffy The Vampire Slayer is excellent television, and Season Six is some of the very best the series has to offer. I can't really recommend it to anyone, because if you haven't seen Buffy, this is not the place to start. But if you have seen it, I encourage you to re-visit some of the episodes. They may not be fun-filled, laugh-a-minute slay-fests, but they show just how good broadcast television can be.

Suggested Episodes: Once More, With Feeling; Tabula Rasa; Hell's Bells; Entropy; Grave

No comments: