The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack may be massively popular all over the globe, but it's always set my teeth on edge. As it happens, I know why this is the case – it can be traced all the way back to 1994 when I'd just started university. The girl in the campus room above happened to be a fan of Rocky Horror and would play the wretched thing over and over until the tape became time warped. And to that day, whenever a Rocky Horror song has come on the radio or TV, I've mentally ground my teeth till there's nothing left but gum.
In Buffy's case, she probably does the same thing whenever Cher's campy dance yodel-fest Believe comes through on the airwaves. Following the 1960s duets with Sonny, the 1970s quirkiness of Gypsys Tramps And Thieves and the weedy Bolton-esque mullet rock era of the 1980s, Cher's chameleon-like ability to switch musical styles saw her become a '90s dance diva, reaching out to the likes of Kathy Newman, whose super-fun musical tastes knew no boundaries.
Kathy's relentless playing of Believe is just one such irritating quirk that's turning her into the room-mate from hell. And since the campus happens to be in Sunnydale, the number one haven for all things demon, this literally could be the case. Living Conditions sees Buffy continue her mission to try and settle down into college life. While it's a smoother ride than her first days in The Freshman , her growing conflict with Kathy is still making college a bit of a chore. It seems that no matter how hard she tries, Kathy just can't do right: She tags along on one of Buffy's patrols, steals one of Buffy's tops (which she spills ketchup on), homes in on a potential love interest, and writes her name in bag black magic marker ink on the contents of her fridge.
To sour the relationship further, Kathy's presence seems to be making Buffy's friends question whether the Slayer's souled out. It's certain that something's up since mysterious demonic figures are performing weird soul-sucking rituals on Buffy at night. In dreams? Or for real?
In true Buffy The Vampire Slayer style, Living Conditions deliberately twists the puzzle. We first see the demons – basically fake tanned hoodies with glowing blue eyes – enigmatically mumble in growling gibberish that “She may be the one”. Since a demon then appears at Buffy's side in an unsettling 'dream', tipping blood down Buffy's throat, putting a scorpion on her belly and sucking some sort of life essence from her mouth, it's reasonable to assume that the demons (known as the Mok'Tagar) are on the hunt for Buffy. Typically clever writing from Marti Noxon, especially when Buffy seems to become ever more paranoid and less tolerant of Kathy, who while irritating, doesn't seem to be linked to the Mok'Tagar. Or does she?
The tension between Buffy and Kathy is well conveyed, especially through the various visual and aural techniques that director David Grossman employs. We see close-ups of frowning eyes. Slow-mo shots of rolling eggs scrunching on tables and toenail clippings clattering to the floor. Slowed down noises of tapping pencils and muffled sounds of the aforementioned Believe (to represent Buffy donning a pair of ear muffs to hide the din). Both sides are at war, and Grossman's smart direction never lets up in reminding the viewers that it's battle stations at all times.
It's also worth mentioning actress Dagney Kerr's excellent performance as the annoying Kathy. It's a careful, precise star turn that gets everything right from the subtly clumsy walk through to the whiny, sing-song tone of voice. Even the over-eager facial expressions and gangly body language ensure that this is one room-mate who would sorely try the patience, and Kerr's performance brings this across very well indeed. Perhaps the only downer is that the mystery couldn't have been spun out for a little longer – other Buffy The Vampire Slayer mini arcs have taken their time in resolving strange goings on after all. I guess that several episodes of Kathy goofing around and making her way through the Divas would have been too much for viewers to take.
If Living Conditions doesn't capitalise on this plot, then it does sow some other seeds for future plot-lines. Although to be honest, most of them aren't really worth bothering with in the long run. The presence of the enigmatic commandos for the second week on the trot means that they're in this season for the long haul. Elsewhere, Oz seems to have some sort of weird mental connection with a scruffy female student who gives him the eye when she walks past. And of course, Living Conditions begins the supremely tedious sub-plot of Barker.
The unrequited love story between Buffy and a cheesy student called Parker Abrams begins here. Parker's a smarmy ladies man, and as we'll see in the next episode, this will be taken to extremes. Here, he's wooing Buffy with food-hawking techniques, which would normally only be of importance to the urchins from Oliver Twist – nevertheless, Buffy already seems to be smitten with the guy (as seen in her jealous reaction to Kathy making small talk with Parker). The thing that annoys about the Barker subplot is that it drags on for ages, a real tumbleweed of a pointless rebound relationship that was doomed from the day that Parker taught Buffy how to stuff clingfilm-wrapped ham rolls in her backpack. This subplot is mercifully only in the preliminary stages here, and so doesn't feature too long. But on the down side, we have the protracted Barker fall-out to come, which isn't exactly the most cheerful of prospects.
About the only subplot début to work is the growing isolation of the two principal male Scooby Gang members. While Oz is clearly settling into college life with Willow and Buffy, Xander is left to his own devices. He's hanging around campus like a lost puppy, and an overly eager one at that, given that he's desperate to get the Scooby Gang back in the swing and on the trail of another mystery. “You just need to get out of the basement a little more there, Xand,” teases Buffy, although judging by Xander's sour-faced reaction, this has touched a raw nerve. It's the start of a loose sub-plot that will see Xander try and make some sort of sense of his future this season.
It's a neat tack to try, and the same goes for Giles, who's similarly at a loose end. Despite his claims of a good start to the day with a brisk jog and the prospect of seeing a lost Gutenberg Demonography, it's clear that being a man of leisure isn't exactly the sort of lifestyle that Giles had in mind. Already, we're seeing that some of the Scoobies are starting to feel the isolation, and while Buffy, Willow and Oz have some sort of forward motion, Xander and Giles are mooching around in frustrated circles. It's good, grown-up stuff that keeps some of the more childish Season Four stories from getting too inconsequential.
Living Conditions itself can probably be filed under 'Light and Frothy'. With the Angel series taking on a more mature approach, it's sometimes easy to forget that Buffy The Vampire Slayer is more of a drama show for all the family. While it can produce some brilliantly adult storylines, there's still room for a more light-hearted tack. Living Conditions is a prime example of this, but it's still entertaining and well worked out. The revelation that Kathy is actually one of the Mok'Tagar is a particular 'Huh?' moment, coming in the middle of an out of control bitch fight between her and Buffy. The effects for this are very good indeed, as Buffy rips off Kathy's human face to reveal the orangey-brown visage of her real self. The Mok'Tagar are actually well designed demons, and another example of the sterling make-up and design teams that the show employs.
Marti Noxon's well plotted script keeps the revelations coming thick and fast in the final moments of this episode. It's creepy to think that Buffy's dreams were actually real, with Kathy gradually sucking out her soul to ensure that she stays at university. It's nice to see a demon race have other things in mind apart from taking over the world. All the Mok'Tagar want to do is take their whiny daughter back home (shades of Star Trek's Charlie X here), which is as good a motive as any other, I suppose.
There's enough here to satisfy the fans, with both the script and production well up to the show's usual high standards. Some choice lines to take away from this: “On the plus side, you've killed the bench, which was looking shifty”; “Skin had like a super-fake rub-on tan”; and “Good thinking, 'cause in the middle of the night those toenails could have attacked you and left little half-moon marks all over your body.” David Grossman's direction is highly assured in this one, with some niftily unnerving direction for the 'dream' sequences. The quick-intercutting of shots and the weird, ambient noise from Christophe Beck add up to a jarringly odd experience.
Living Conditions is an enjoyable 40-odd minutes (apparently, this is the shortest episode, fact fans), and is a story that packs intrigue, fun and memorable visuals into its compact time-frame.