Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Anne

If Becoming made an almighty mess at the end of Season Two of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, then Anne begins the clean-up process.

It's the all-new third season of the show, and as with most returning TV programmes, there's a slew of minor changes. The theme music has been reworked to great effect – a punchier arrangement that doesn't stumble over the final drum crescendo at the end like the original theme did. The titles have been revamped and boast a new logo, all-new clips and Seth Green as a regular. Elsewhere, Willow's had her hair cut, Giles has new glasses and Joyce's hair has mysteriously seemed to have grown by twice its size.

Season Three of Buffy is widely acclaimed by many as one of the best. While it lacks the ominous gloom of Season Two's second half of stories, it does have many things going for it. A top-class recurring villain in the form of the Mayor. The Faith sub-plot. A superior run of high quality stories that ensure that Season Three is one of the most consistent. It may lack the addictive devastation of its predecessor, but if nothing else, the third season is great fun. The writers will run riot with their imaginations this year, providing evil Willow doppelgängers, problematic chocolate, a new, prissy Watcher and a Graduation Day to remember.

It's curious then that Anne (Buffy's middle name provides the inspiration for the title) is so low-key. It's a common trend in both Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel that the season opener doesn't create a big noise. Anne is a notable example. Its main agenda is to start to sort out the problem of Buffy going AWOL and leaving her friends and family in the lurch.

The situation is looked at from three angles. There's Joyce as the concerned and angry mother and Giles taking on the father figure. There's Buffy's friends, taking on her role as best as they can. And then there's Buffy herself, slumming it in a greasy dive while working as a waitress in an LA café. At first it looks like Buffy has somehow reunited with her beloved Angel, walking along a beach while the sun goes down. Obviously this is too good to be true for Buffy, and sure enough, her dream fades into reality as she gets up and looks out of her window at a dirty, noisy locale. It's a bit odd the way that this episode and the Angel series don't exactly promote LA in the best light. In this episode alone, it doesn't look like the sort of place you'd want to spend your holiday. Homeless people living on the streets. Unkempt strangers looking for money. Greasy cafés full of sexist, buttock-slapping redneck types.

It's a far cry from Sunnydale, and Buffy's in appropriately sullen mood for most of the story. Going by the name of Anne, she co-incidentally runs into Chanterelle again from the Lie To Me story. Chanterelle's now going by the name of Lily – at least for this episode, since she seems to change her name at least every other week. Lily manages to entangle Buffy in a new mystery for her to reluctantly serve. Her partner Ricky has mysteriously vanished, only to turn up again as a wrinkled old codger, dead and abandoned.

All small-time stuff by the series' standards. It turns out that a local square called Ken is recruiting the unloved nobodies to join his workforce in some parallel dimension in which time moves at a different speed. Ken initially dupes the small-time losers by adopting the persona of an unassuming religious type. With his hand full of do-gooding leaflets and head full of bowl hair, Ken's so crafty you could sell him as a cheese slice. You'd never think that he's the leader of a hellish workforce. In reality, he has a head that looks like an overcooked spud and a voice that miraculously changes from normal everyday guy to what can only be described as Snagglepuss the cartoon cat.

It's a sub-plot that doesn't quite work. For one thing, it seems too rushed. It's generally crammed in to the fourth and final act, and mainly comprises Buffy jumping about in a great big industrial warehouse. It's assumed that this is hell. As Ken puts it: “What is hell but the total absence of hope? The substance, the tactile proof of despair.” With that in mind, it's no wonder that Buffy's ended up in this dark dimension. “I know you... 'Anne',” gloats Ken. “So afraid. So pathetically determined to run away from whatever it is you used to be. To disappear. Congratulations. You got your wish.” The hell subplot seems to be there only to give Buffy a reason to fight again. When the workforce leader (of the Scourge, no less!) growls at the minions that they are “no one”, it sparks the previously downtrodden Buffy into life again. The moment that she proclaims “I'm Buffy. The Vampire Slayer. And you are?” is the moment that she finds her cause again.

While it's not particularly original or dramatic, there's no doubt that this subplot is beautifully shot. Joss Whedon directs these sequences superbly. The action is shot from every angle that you can think of: Up high; down below; slanting; close-up. He makes the most of an impressive set – it's huge, and one of the most detailed interiors supplied to date in the series. With a whole army of extras in sackcloths and in football head masks clambering about, this is high budget stuff, the sort of thing you'd catch on the big screen. It's good to see Buffy finding her mojo again after spending the episode moping about. She not only gets to hurt Ken twice (trapping his leg in a portcullis and then destroying his potato head with an axe), she also gets to do it with a typical quip. “Wanna see my impression of Gandhi?” does suggest, however, that her punning needs a little bit of work.

While Buffy finds her place in the world again (and so does Lily, who will go on to appear as an occasional guest in Angel), it's interesting to see how the other players deal with her absence. For Joyce, there's bitter resentment growing. Her daughter's been gone for months, and worse, she's only recently found out that she's been involved in all sorts of supernatural shenanigans. Naturally, she chooses to lash out at the man who's taken on the fatherly role for Buffy. “You've been this huge influence on her, guiding her,” she says to a flabbergasted Giles. “You had this whole relationship with her behind my back. I feel like you've taken her away from me.” Although it's something of an over-reaction, it's understandable that Joyce feels this way. She's been out of the loop for a key part of Buffy's life and feels betrayed.

At least Giles has been proactively doing something about Buffy's absence, flying around the world to chase up potential leads. Giles is the substitute father, doing everything he can to find Buffy – it's a set-up that will change the Slayer/Watcher dynamic later in the season when he is confronted with the choice of putting his career or Buffy first.

Season Three revolves around choices. Buffy and her friends are reaching that point in their lives when they must choose what to do for their future. They are faced with choosing which university to attend or which career path to follow. Not only that, there are many choices to be made this season for the characters' personal lives. Season Three looks at these and the consequences of these choices, such as the Buffy and Angel relationship, Faith's betrayal and Xander's ill-advised two-timing.

Anne puts this theme under the microscope, as Buffy is forced to re-evaluate her life path. Does she choose to keep running away or does she choose to return to face her family, friends and mess? “These things happen all the time,” she explains to Lily. “You can't just... close your eyes and hope that they're gonna go away.” Although Buffy may as well be talking to her reflection in a mirror – in the end, she takes the difficult path, and as the next episode proves, returning to her previous life isn't a matter of hugs and instant forgiveness.

It's fun seeing the Scooby Gang trying to slay vampires though. Their techniques need some considerable work, as do Willow's puns. “The, uh, second problem I'm having...” says an incredulous Xander. “'Come and get it, Big Boy'?” Even Oz's “This time it's personal” lacks that certain something. For their second shot at slaying this episode, the Scoobies choose to rope in Cordelia as bait. At the moment, this seems to be the only thing that Xander needs Cordelia for, given that they've said about five words to each other following summer holidays. It's a sign that the two don't have that much in common, and despite the subsequent smooching this episode, in the long-term, their relationship will face turbulent times.

Even if Anne is too low-key to make a lasting impression, there's plenty to like. Apart from the high-budget feel of the hell dimension sequences, there are some great directing tricks at play. Take the opening school sequence, which is one long, magnificent tracking shot. It's immaculately achieved, as the camera pans back and forth between Willow and Giles, then Willow and Oz, Willow and Cordelia, Xander, Larry, the beardy “Be sombre teacher”... brilliant stuff. The LA night scenes add a touch of grit to the usual locales of Sunnydale, with Bellylove's “Find My Way Back To Freedom” providing a suitably downcast soundtrack.

Lots of strong dialogue to enjoy throughout the episode. “I don't want any trouble,” frowns Buffy to the blood bank woman. “I just want to be alone and quiet in a room with a chair and a fireplace and a tea cosy. I don't even know what a tea cosy is, but I want one.” There's also Oz's optimistic “rhythm” acknowledgement of the Scoobies' slayage and Xander's amusing reasoning behind Cordelia acting as bait: “The vampire kills you. We watch. We rejoice.”

Not the most high-powered of episodes, Anne at least does succeed in putting the pieces of the series back where they belong. What Anne lacks in occasion, it offers impressive direction and a good script. It's the start of Buffy's return to normality – as far as a life in Sunnydale is normal any road – but even with Joyce hugging her daughter like there's no tomorrow at the end, there's still a lot of damage to undo.

Cue Dead Man's Party...