Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Earshot

Perhaps the only real problem with Earshot is that it misses a blindingly obvious trick. On today of all days, Buffy – having been infected by some demon mind-reading gunk – can't mentally earwig on the thoughts of the Mayor and Faith. She could don one of her brilliant disguises (as seen in I Robot...You Jane) and then show up to the Mayor's pristine office while camouflaged as a postie or a pizza delivery girl or a double glazing sales rep. It's odd that Buffy doesn't attempt this, given that it could be the ideal opportunity to throw some more light on this Ascension business. But then that would end the season too soon, and with four more episodes to fill up after this one, maybe it's just as well that Buffy's contenting herself with reading the minds of her nearest and dearest.

It's the centre plot of another superb Season Three episode, which again uses a simple idea and then turns it into something else along the way. The plot device of Buffy's mystery infection alone contains more twists than a Chubby Checker world tour. No sooner has the demon's blood found its way into Buffy's skin, she's initially freaked out about what could happen. This then turns into surprise, glee, smug superiority, alienation, glumness and finally, catatonia. That's all in the space of about 30 minutes, given that the end of the episode wraps up the additional element of a whodunnit. This is a supreme example of multi-tasking, and kudos to Jane Espenson who has weaved together a cracking bit of drama that combines mystery, humour, drama and lots of things to say about the state of the human mind.

The mind-reading staple's another cliché of stock fantasy and sci-fi, but what Earshot does is to carefully look at the up and down sides of this condition. It's an extra sense that I bet people would think about having. It's the sort of thing that would have come in handy on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? as contestants could simply narrow their eyes and look full of concentration while mentally homing in on Tarrant's or Clarkson's subconscious pondering on the real answer.

In class, it's a godsend for Buffy, who finds that her new ability can send her to the top of Miss Murray's class. She manages not only to leapfrog a bemused Willow, she also mentally sprints ahead of sullen teacher's pet, Nancy. More importantly, reading minds is a great boon in the ongoing war against the slew of baddies that Buffy faces. “You could anticipate your opponent's every move,” says Giles. “Turn his plans against him”.

But as Buffy finds out, taking on this new gift is akin to landing a big lottery win. So many prospects at first, but then there's the possibility of losing friends, everyone wanting a slice of the cash... As time gradually goes on, Buffy finds that she too is in danger of losing her friends, given that they can't be around her. Buffy now has a front door key to each and every one of her friend's minds, and their innermost personal thoughts are now on display for the Slayer to browse through at her leisure.

The other more serious problem is that everyone's thoughts are relayed to Buffy's brain as the power gets stronger. What started out as a jokey insight into the musical tastes of unlikely Bangles fan Principal Snyder has become something deadly. It's another example of how the show doesn't allow the viewer to take anything for granted. The third act becomes a race against time to save Buffy from losing her own mind in a sea of thoughts.

On that point, Earshot is expertly structured. Each act drives the plot forward to its logical and well-thought-out conclusion. It begins by Buffy figuring out the mystery of what her new demon aspect will be. The second act largely explores the fun possibilities of Buffy's mind-reading capabilities before ending in a far darker place with a mystery mind promising the death of everyone in the school. The third carries on the darkness as Buffy is in danger of losing her own mind. And then the fourth tracks down the culprit, while dodging the fallout from a troubled red herring.

Jean-Paul Sartre once claimed that “Hell is other people” and Earshot looks at this bold claim from all angles. In particular, it's looking at how the isolated seem to either be resentful of and/or mentally crushed by the outside world. The apparently amiable Mr Beech actually has little time for his students. Teacher's pet Nancy doesn't want lesser mortals such as Buffy stealing her clever crown.

Perhaps the funniest example is the editor of the school paper, Freddy Iverson. Freddy is the walking, talking embodiment of cynicism – he uses his status as editor to deliver biting, caustic put-downs of his students (“Big game draws mindless brain-dead mob” or “The pep rally is a place for pseudo-prostitutes to provoke men into a sexual frenzy which, when thwarted, results in pointless athletic competition”). My personal favourite of Freddy's insults is “Dingoes Ate My Baby play their instruments as if they have plump polish sausages taped to their fingers” (amusingly, Oz actually states that it's a fair point!).

But while Freddy's dry cynicism never fails to raise a chuckle, again, there's a serious side to all this alienation – primarily with poor old Jonathan Levinson. Jonathan is quite possibly the most luckless kid in Sunnydale High. He's the diminutive whipping boy of the school, a shy, gawky, date-proof nerd. Even the slightest example of female physical contact is the equivalent of first base in Jonathan's world. “She touched me!” he mentally gasps, as a confused Buffy grabs hold of him while attempting to figure out a mystery wannabe killer in the canteen. Jonathan's isolation from the others leads him to drastic measures. It's a clever sleight of hand, again, in that we're led to think that Jonathan's the culprit. “You all think I'm an idiot!” he wails at Buffy. “A short idiot!”

It's easy to assume that Jonathan's the possible bad egg, given that there's so many times that a nerd can be pushed around, bullied and laughed at. It's as if Jonathan has his own set of Sunnydale High voices inside his head – the Jocks dunking his head inside icy water, or the Harmonies cackling at him from the sidelines. Like Buffy, Jonathan's been mentally pushed to the brink – but the final poignant pay-off of this is that he only wanted to end his own life. It's rare for a programme to develop a previously side-lined character like this, but Buffy The Vampire Slayer never really plays by conventional rules. Both the writing and Danny Strong's excellent performance add up to a convincing portrayal of a quietly complex kid whose isolation from the others has pushed him to the edge.

School's a forbidding place at the best of times for those who aren't confident or popular or attractive, and this show pulls no punches in examining the mindsets of the outsiders. But as Buffy herself says, it's not as clear cut as Bully vs Bullied. Most of the time, the popular ones and the bullying ones are so wrapped up in their own lives that they don't have time to think about the Jonathans of this world all the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For a fun TV show about fighting vampires, this is commendably deep stuff.

Maybe that's why the ultimate reveal of the baddie is so throwaway. It turns out that it's the dinner lady who's the criminal mastermind, a rotund scowl of a woman, who's blatantly pouring rat poison into a big steel pot. The box actually says RAT POISON in big, bold letters. Xander's jaw hangs open like Wile E Coyote in the aftermath of receiving a cartoon anvil on the bonce. It's a cartoony reveal, but then anything else would have been a bit too much to take. As it is, such lines about shootings “bordering on trendy” were too raw in the wake of the terrible Columbine tragedy in April 1999, and it's no surprise that this episode was postponed from the planned April spot until the September of that year.

Following its eventual broadcast, Earshot quickly won over the fans. It's one of the highly regarded episodes from the third season, with everything coming together to make it a real classic. The script from Jane Espenson is one of her best, treading a thin line between drama and humour. She provides good material for all the regulars – while the action revolves around Buffy, Espenson makes sure that all of the Scooby Gang get their slice of the cake too. Willow's growing confidence is seen in the way in which she leads the investigations (“Today, people!”), although it's nicely tempered by her self-doubt when she thinks that Buffy's super-human power may mean that she's redundant as a friend. Oz's thoughts are typically reflective and quietly mysterious. Xander typically can't stop thinking about sex, while Giles' Band Candy smooching with Joyce is finally brought out into the open, much to the pair's embarrassment (the final shot of Giles walking into a tree is comedy gold).

Regis Kimble's direction lives up to the promise of the script with carefully chosen shots such as Buffy's dizzying collapse in the school canteen. The camera goes haywire, spinning around from Buffy's POV as the voices inside her head overpower her. Buffy's later ascent to the clock tower is also well filmed with some impressive climbing and back-flipping from Sarah Michelle Gellar's stunt double.

Season Three certainly isn't slouching in its later days. Earshot's highly inventive script is matched by high standards of production and acting (Keram Malicki-Sanchez's droll turn as Freddy Iverson is worth a mention in addition to Danny Strong's tortured Jonathan). The story's well paced and contains plenty of strong material and intelligent discourse. It manages to be both fun and mature, and stands up well to repeated viewings. Mind-bogglingly good.