Dead Man's Party continues to sort out the mess left behind by Buffy at the end of Season Two. It's by no means an easy process, neither for Buffy, or to be honest, this reviewer. Maybe Anne wasn't the opening season hullapalooza that it could have been, but in comparison to Dead Man's Party, it's an almighty classic.
At its simplest, Dead Man's Party is a bog-standard zombie takeover movie. It's the sort of thing you may catch on Channel 5 at about 1am in the morning, a real straight-to-video sort of deal. The crux of the plot involves an ugly mask that somehow has the power of a demon called Mobani to animate corpses and then summon the walking dead to put the mask on and become the demon incarnate. Even a dead, mangy cat found in the cellar comes back to life of its own accord and proves that in Sunnydale, kids won't be crying for too long over their late, lamented pets.
There's nothing especially wrong with the plot. By Buffy The Vampire Slayer's standards, it's routine fare, but in theory, this episode could have been a passable 45 minute popcorn fest that wouldn't have been particularly offensive.
Regrettably, the zombie stuff takes a back seat to lots of hand-wringing, tedious domestic dramas between Buffy and her friends and mother. The worst part of all of this is that hardly any of them seem to be in character. Joyce, Xander and even Willow seem hell-bent on ganging up on Buffy and humiliating her in front of a pack of strangers. Nothing says welcome home like a bit of verbal public abuse – the biggest issue I have is that the characterisation is completely off beam. It's poorly written and contrived to make Buffy feel as little as possible.
The writer responsible for this nonsense is Marti Noxon, who had proven to be one of the real writing finds of the previous season, turning in greats such as Surprise and I Only Have Eyes For You. On occasion, however, Noxon falls into the trap of forcing the characterisation to meet the requirements of the plot – a bit like wedging a square peg into a round hole with a pair of rusty pliers. It's the sort of problem that blights stories such as Wild At Heart and Wrecked, in which series regulars act wildly out of character in order to fit in with the direction of the story.
Dead Man's Party is arguably the worst example of this – the normally likeable regulars have evidently been spirited away temporarily to be replaced by a clutch of judgemental, holier-than-thou bullies. Maybe the Mobani demon's been working its mojo in secret.
It doesn't help that the gang choose to welcome Buffy back with a great big party – or hootenanny as Oz calls it. Instead of working through problems over a quiet dinner, the Scoobies, for no good reason, decide to invite an army of nobodies that wouldn't know Buffy from Adam. Some random stoner guy takes a puff on a joint and grunts “This party? Heard it was for some chick that just got out of rehab” when asked by his friend who the shindig's for.
Buffy can't even communicate with her friends, since she's battling against the ungodly din of the ubiquitous Dingoes Ate My Baby, Sunnydale's very own bargain basement version of Third Eye Blind. All in all, Giles' suggestion of a smelly cheese gathering would make for a far more enjoyable time, despite the putrid whiff of unwashed socks.
What rankles about this episode is two things. One is the fact that no one behaves in character. Fair enough, Xander's sometimes prone to immature outbursts, but here he's pompously throwing insults and judgements around like Frisbees. “You stop acting like an idiot, I'll stop annoying you!” he bellows before Oz steps in like the referee at a boxing match. Joyce, meanwhile, elects to get drunk and chooses the worst possible moment to confront her daughter. While Joyce has a point (“Buffy, you didn't give me time. You just dumped this thing on me and you expected me to get it. Well, guess what? Mom's not perfect, OK? I handled it badly.”), the way in which she verbally browbeats Buffy in front of a big audience isn't the way in which she'd normally go about things – surely her dignified talk in Passion would have been a better template?
And then there's Willow. Or not, as the case may be. Conveniently missing an appointment for a bit of shopping or mishearing at the party, it's impossible to reconcile the usually sympathetic Willow with the whiny, self-absorbed imposter that we get in Dead Man's Party. “I'm having all sorts of...,” she bleats. “I'm dating, I'm having serious dating with a werewolf, a-and I'm studying witchcraft and killing vampires, and I didn't have anyone to talk to about all this scary life stuff. And you were my best friend.” Instead of sitting down with her best friend, Willow spends the whole party in denial and then accuses Buffy of being a bad friend. While Buffy isn't the innocent party by any means, it's out of character for Willow to not even give her the opportunity to explain herself.
The other thing that rankles is the sudden swing in mood. One minute, her friends are all “It's great to have the Buffster back”, the next minute they're ripping Buffy to shreds. And then all of a sudden, they're working in perfect harmony as soon as a group of grunting zombies gatecrash the party. The tone of the piece jars wildly every few minutes – by the end of the story, the Scoobies are all hugging and kissing and making up just like that. I guess it's amazing what a masked demon can do for fragile friendships.
On that note, the Demon Of The Week isn't the most memorable. On the up side, it takes on the form of Joyce's annoying friend Pat, a woman who has a neat line in patronising put-downs and clothes that look like they should belong in a curtain shop from 1972. It's a good thing Pat was never made a regular – she would have sorely tried the patience of even the toughest Buffy viewer, turning up every alternate week with a box full of half-cooked empadas and a voice box full of belittling baby talk.
Pat the Mobani demon is reasonably well achieved, with a good, creepy mask face and a deep horror movie announcer voice. Her death is appropriately grim as Buffy plunges a great big spade through her eyes and into her skull. What is it with eyes on Buffy? The opticians would have a field day in Sunnydale. Plus, as a neat prelude to Xander's grisly fate in Dirty Girls, Buffy even comments: “Didn't anyone ever warn you about playing with pointy sticks? It's all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.” Maybe it's belated payback for the way in which Xander treats Buffy this episode.
It's a shame, since normally the regulars are some of the most likeable, witty and entertaining characters you'll ever find on TV. About the only one to emerge with some small scrap of dignity this time around is Giles. His reaction to Buffy's return is wonderfully handled – while Buffy's friends talk with her in his lounge, Giles quietly slips into the kitchen and momentarily breaks into what looks like a teary smile of pure relief before composing himself and heading back to join the others. See? That's the way to treat your characters, and also his wonderful quip of “'Do you like my mask? Isn't it pretty? It raises the dead(!) Americans!” earns the Line Of The Episode Award.
Giles also gets to play the hero at the end by taking on a smug Snyder who's still insisting that he has grounds for expelling Buffy. “You're powerful in local circles, but I believe I can make life very difficult for you, professionally speaking,” he says with a touch of Ripper in his manner. “And Buffy will be allowed back in.” Again, Giles is taking on more of a parental role, something that will be seen again more than once this season in stories like Faith Hope And Trick and Helpless.
To their credit, all the regular cast manage gamely with some of the off-kilter dialogue thrown their way. The direction isn't too bad, especially for the zombies coming back to life outside police cars or on operating tables. Christophe Beck's score is quite atmospheric too, although the melodramatic choral gurning doesn't work at all.
One of the weaker Buffy episodes, Dead Man's Party proves that without good characterisation, all you're left with is bog-standard melodrama and a sour aftertaste. Marti Noxon's script contains flashes of inspiration (“In fact, I noticed as I came in this morning that Hot Dog on a Stick is hiring. You will look so cute in that hat!”), but overall, it's one of her weaker efforts. The regular characters are made to become unlikeable just for the sake of driving forward the plot of Buffy's return – and with little consistency, come to that. The zombie plot isn't interesting or original enough to compensate for this, and while it's well made and acted, Dead Man's Party only contains fleeting glimpses of the freewheeling inspiration that most Buffy episodes possess in spades.
Fortunately, better things lurk around the corner.