Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Homecoming

Competition's a wonderful thing.

It's taught to us right from the cradle. Toddlers battle it out with their siblings and with rival pipsqueaks to get noticed. Sports Day provides older kids with the opportunity to hop forward in a potato sack or carry an egg in a spoon in order to win a shiny cup.

All good preparation for the real world, in which we're constantly fighting for that job/promotion/raise (delete as applicable). In the adult world, much of competition hinges on personality. If you're likeable and popular, chances are you'll stand a better chance of grabbing the prize than Mr or Mrs Grumpyboots standing forlornly in the corner. It's a harsh fact of life that the popular ones tend to be the victors. There must be some popularity gene running through these people. Which is why this must sting for those who can be classed as the Quirky Outsider.

Buffy's finding this much to her annoyance in Homecoming. It's the annual hunt for the Homecoming Queen, and for a multitude of reasons, Buffy's decided to compete against her arch nemesis, Cordelia. The over-riding motive for this is for Buffy to rediscover her Hemery roots as the popular one. Her pesky calling as the Slayer has thrown these roots into the trash can, and what's worse, the last few weeks have been spotty at best in Buffy's life. Her own teachers can't remember her. She misses the yearbook photos thanks to Cordelia's self-absorbed quest for popularity.

The final nail in the coffin has been her break-up with Scott Hope, although even the acolytes of the First could have seen this coming. It's a relationship that's been a no-hoper from the start and one that's lasted about as long as a commercial break. Scott's faltering reason is that Buffy used to be such a force of nature, and now she's always distracted. Granted, her ex is back in town after spending Summer vacation in a hell dimension, but it seems like such a flimsy excuse to give Buffy the boot. Scott The Wet Fish naturally moves on to another blonde to take to the Homecoming Dance, although given that Faith starts going on about itching and swelling and burning, inevitably Scott loses all Hope with the laydeez from now on.

Coming back to a normal life has not been easy for Buffy, but give the girl some kudos – rather than hanging around in the doldrums like she's been doing recently, she's decided to stand against Cordelia in the race to be Homecoming Queen. This forms the main backbone of Homecoming, and while it may sound a tad cheesy, in fact, it's one of the most enjoyable episodes of Season Three.

The third season has taken stumbling starts in finding a consistent groove, but Homecoming finds that confidence and better still, heralds a long run of great Buffy episodes. Season Three's popularity is down to the fun factor – other acclaimed seasons such as the second or fifth are superb, but contain their fair share of doom and gloom. The third season instead concentrates on serving up stories that are packed full of wit, imagination and fun. Homecoming is no exception, combining the mundanity of the Homecoming contest with the latest enterprise from Mr Trick, Slayer Fest '98.

The idea of Slayer Fest '98 is a genius one, and is well in tune with Mr Trick's attempts at marketing this baddie lark. Slayer Fest '98 is a competition to take out both Buffy and Faith. The contestants are a motley crew, comprising all manner of wannabe winners. Lyle Gorch, the shouty cowboy from Bad Eggs is back, this time with his wife Candy. Hunter Jungle Bob. Scowling German twin brothers. And a walking talking pineapple thing called Kulak. All are in the games to get rid of the two Slayers, which is a stroke of genius on Trick's part in that he gets others to do his dirty work for him. To his credit, Trick's evidently done the promotional work, what with a cheesy introductory video tape (ah, the days before DVD and Blu-Ray). He's probably chipped in with some flyers, posters and a blog chronicling the efforts of each competitor. None of this works, of course, given that most competitors are dispatched in gruesome style.

But it's fun to see this menagerie of monsters go about their business: Lyle Gorch works better this time as a comedy stooge, especially his furious confrontation with Cordelia (“WIFE!!”). Kulak The Pineapple is a deadly but funny villain, bristling with pompous self-importance. Even the wheel-chaired boss is good fun, a kind of Bondian villain, basking in what he thinks is his own achievement at wiping out the Slayers.

All of this enjoyable malarkey acts as a final curtain call for Mr Trick, since he'll no longer get to be centre stage in the spotlight. Because evil is brewing at Sunnydale City Hall. This is where we finally get to meet Mayor Richard Wilkins, the shadowy enigma who's clearly been scaring the living daylights out of Snyder. Given Snyder's unusual discomfort, it's easy to picture the Mayor as some evil overlord of doom, skulking in a black pit of skeletons and tripe.

What we get instead is an entirely different proposition, and that's why the Mayor works so brilliantly as a villain. The Mayor is a genial, hygiene-obsessed fellow. He has possibly the smiliest face in Sunnydale, his features all too frequently breaking in to a big, babyish grin as he cracks a joke or wince-inducing pun. With his dapper suits and gift of the gab, the Mayor could easily pass for some 1970s game show or talk show host. He's also obsessed with cleanliness and order. The first thing we see him do is scold his quivering lackey Finch for having unclean hands. “My dear mother said 'cleanliness is next to godliness' and I believed her,” he says. “She never caught a cold.”

This is the Big Bad of Season Three?

But as we'll see, this geniality masks something much darker, and the effective contrast between the two sides of the Mayor means that he's destined for the upper echelons of Buffy villains. We'll see other facets to his character, including an unusual but well done subplot of the paternal role that he takes to a certain someone who can't be mentioned at this point. The combination of Mr Nice Guy and a smiling monster adds up to a highly memorable nasty, and it helps that the astute casting of Harry Groener pays dividends. Groener only gets less than five minutes of screen time in this one, but he commands the screen with much charisma and also likeability. Already, the intrigue's brewing.

So with Mr Trick shunted to employee second banana by the episode's end, again, it's all about competition. Which is spreading like jam everywhere else. Oz and Cordelia have some out-of-left-field competition when Xander and Willow inexplicably become closer than they could have imagined while trying on Homecoming outfits.

It's a great scene this, the two regulars reminiscing over old times and finding that under their noses, something's changed between them. It's debatable whether the two would realistically contemplate cheating on their partners, but then there's always been that underlying something in past stories. Willow's attraction to Xander was frequently mentioned in the first season, and her reaction to his liaison with Cordelia wasn't exactly full of cheer. Even in the Becoming episode, there's the scene in which Xander tells an unconscious Willow how much she means to him. The two have also gradually grown in confidence, especially Willow, and it's this confidence that Xander always seems to seek in his choice of partner (Cordelia and Anya take the notion of confidence to extremes). How this is going to pan out is a stumper, but one thing's for sure: it can't end well.

You'd think that the rivalry between Buffy and Cordy can't end well either, given that the two are back to bitching levels unseen since the first season. The Homecoming competition gives Cordelia the chance to do what she does best at this moment in time: bitch about Buffy and to use her looks and charm to get exactly what she wants. “If it was about monsters, blood and innards, then you'd be a shoo-in,” she sneers at Buffy, who then accepts the challenge of trying to win the crown.

The rivalry between the two is handled very well, frequently through musical montages of their various attempts at getting votes. Buffy's cupcakes are trounced by Cordelia's baskets of goodies (although her mother probably handled these, given her woeful attempts at cooking in the Angel ep, I've Got You Under My Skin). Buffy attempts to flirt with the jocks, while Cordy attempts to woo the nerds (“Are you kidding? I've been doing the Vulcan death grip since I was four!”). There's even a divide between the Scooby Gang, as Buffy does her level best to pry her friends away from the demanding claws of Cordelia in her campaign to win.

Despite this simmering tension, both Buffy and Cordy become uneasy allies after the two are embroiled in a chase to the death, thanks to Slayer Fest '98. The two even find that they can work together. Put two enemies in an enclosed space, and there's no other choice but to work through the problems. Cordy gets an insight as to why Buffy's competing in the contest (“For one moment, I got to live in the world, and there'd be proof – proof that I was chosen for something other than this”) and Buffy even finds out that Cordy loves Xander (“Well, he kinda grows on you – like a Chia Pet”). After stabbing vampires with spatulas and throwing wet paper towels at hitmen, Buffy and Cordelia can at least find some solace in that miraculously, they've taken one step closer to something that can be called friendship. Needless to say, neither wins the crown.

Homecoming works brilliantly. It's enormous fun, and is peppered with little touches that add to the whole experience. The early montage of Scooby yearbook photos is a hoot with Cordelia giving a brazen grin, Xander giving a cheesy “Heeeeeyyyy!” beam, Willow typically messing up her shoot and giving a half frown, and Oz looking impassive.

This is a David Greenwalt special, as he writes and directs the episode to the best of his ability. Greenwalt will concentrate his energies on the Angel spin-off, so it's a shame that this is his last regular gig on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The dialogue is snappy and funny, and it's propelled further by clever directorial techniques such as whooshing the camera from one scene to another (creating a good, fast sense of pace) and cross fading montages that tell the story economically and stylishly.

Mention of Angel also leads me to applaud the decision that the production team aren't cutting corners in returning the vampire with a soul to normality. “It hurts... less” he mutters in the pre-credits sequence, as he slowly pieces together the events of the last year. There's a telling bit in which Buffy mentions Giles, and the look on his face implies that he slowly starts to remember what he did to the Watcher with mounting horror. It's a commendable choice to show Angel going through the gradual healing process instead of returning him to normality straight away.

Homecoming is top flight Buffy. Every quarter of the Buffy team have put in their best into making 45 minutes of sheer entertainment. The acting is typically superb, especially from Sarah Michelle Gellar and Charisma Carpenter, whose loggerheaded double act is unmissable. The script and direction from David Greenwalt is first class. Christophe Beck's score caps off the experience, with some James Bond style vibes and a notable electronic pulse whistle music motif for the German assassin twins.

Homecoming begins a very strong run of Buffy The Vampire Slayer episodes, and is money-back-guaranteed fun for all the family.