Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: School Hard

Spice Up Your Life may have been one insufferable pop confection from a carefully assembled marketing exercise with loud voices, but there's no denying that the message of the song holds water.

A spice-less curry makes for a bland eating experience. Flavour-free chewing gum is the equivalent of swishing an elastic band in your mouth. Some even say that Parmesan cheese adds that all important zing to a pasta dish, although I'd dispute that claim, given that A, it looks like dandruff and B, melting cheese tastes like a sweaty flip flop.

This point also got me thinking when musing on the latest Buffy episode called School Hard. The episode is generally very popular among the Buffy cognoscenti, primarily because it Spikes Up Your Life.

Yes, the long-running thorn in Buffy's side crashes into town with a razor sharp wit and the swagger of Mick Jagger at Glastonbury, complete with his mad old beau Drusilla in tow. Spike also goes by the names of William The Bloody (his true moniker) and Spoick (as always pronounced by his “Uncle Tom” sire, Angel).

And yet, I was thinking, would this episode be as highly regarded if Spike had been replaced by your bog standard vampire, or worse still, The Annoying One? This is possibly the cause of my bafflement with School Hard's popularity. Take the witty lines and the magnificent additions of Spike and Drusilla out of the equation and you're left with a run-of-the-mill trudge around school corridors.

Is it possible to provide an enjoyable 45 minutes that rely on good lines alone? School Hard proves that such an idea can work, but for me personally, it's such a pity that the basic plot is so humdrum. Basically, Buffy's latest Snyder hoop of the week involves her ensuring that Parent Teacher Night is a smooth operation, or else she faces the boot from school.

Buffy's competing against a spaced-out kid called Sheila, one of the lesser creations to grace Sunnydale High's corridors. She's either staring with barely concealed boredom into the air, or is forced to spout textbook stoner chick gibberish along the lines of “Hey meatpie” or “I'm craaaaaazy about a Cad.” Mercifully, she's turned into a vampire, but she proves to be so forgettable that she isn't even given an inevitable dusting. The last we see of Sheila is her running away into the night, presumably to turn unwashed, hairy bikers into pong-worthy servants of the undead.

That's pretty much it, and to be honest, the main plot of Spike gatecrashing Sunnydale Parent Teacher Night didn't really get me hooked. Possibly because it's too obvious a riff on the Die Hard movie, possibly because aimlessly running around school corridors isn't that exciting. School Hard does prove to be the best out of a decidedly mixed first batch of Season Two episodes, but this is down to the great one-liners and characterisation rather than the pedestrian plot.

At least School Hard manages to achieve that sense of fun. If When She Was Bad was a somewhat morose season opener and Some Assembly Required was a tired rehash of old horror movie cliches, then School Hard sets out to have a good time.

Spike is the walking embodiment of this credo, a deadly vampire who nevertheless has a neat line in funny one-liners and a complete disregard for rules and regulations. The moment he strolls into The Annoying One's lair, he's laughing in the face of vampire pomp and circumstance. While recent vampires have pretentiously been addressed as “The...”, the new kid in town just bluntly introduces himself as Spike. He refers to a stuffy vampire lackey as a “Nancy Boy” and doesn't take The Annoying One too seriously at all. By the story's conclusion, he's gained tons of Brownie Points by shoving the odious little runt into a cage and flinging him up into the scorching rays of the sun. No doubt many fists were punched into the air at that particular moment. “From now on, we're gonna have a little less ritual and a little more fun around here!” crows Spike, finally putting a lid on the final hangover of Season One.

There's a lot more to Spike than offing irritating vampire brats though. Spike's failure to destroy Buffy is a good example of this season's loose theme of how fallible grown-ups are only human after all. Spike chuckles while confessing to the Annoying One that he made a complete hash of getting rid of Buffy, and furthermore, would do it all again! It's a more mature path to take with the series by admitting that adults can make mistakes, and instead of dwelling on them, the best solution is to learn from them and move on. The show itself is presenting a more mature take on life and proving that life isn't all black and white, more murky shades of grey.

It's possible though that Spike's failure to bring down Buffy can be attributed to his lurve for the Slayer. This will be an ongoing theme in later series as Spike realises with abject horror that he's falling in love with someone who's supposed to be his bitterest enemy. In School Hard, instead of plunging in straight for the kill, he sizes Buffy up from a darkened corner of The Bronze. It's possible that he sees many parallels between himself and Buffy – as we'll learn, the original William The Bloody was an outsider, a shy, bumbling poet. And like Spike, Buffy never plays by the rules – she marches to the beat of her own drum. They're two peas in a pod – war and peas perhaps, but the future Buffy and Spike pairing maybe isn't quite a surprise as you might think.

For the moment though, he's paired off with Drusilla, a wacky dame who's madder than a house full of frogs. It's interesting to see how Drusilla's presence brings out another side of the vicious Spike. For example, he morphs into human face when she first walks into the den of The Annoying One, suggesting that he's happy just to be himself with Drusilla rather than putting up a front. He puts his jacket round Drusilla's shoulders and later promises her that Hellmouth energy will restore her to better health after a near fatal incident in Prague.

This is why Spike and Drusilla are popular, iconic characters. Instead of being presented with two cardboard cut-outs, the viewers get multi-layered characters, two vampires who are deadly killers on the one hand, and on the other, a couple who are (at this moment in time) in love and are looking out for each other. Drusilla's off-kilter speech and eyeless dolls only add another wacky layer to this new vampire, and make her just that bit more unhinged.

We also get a bit more insight into Angel's dark past. It turns out that he sired Spike, and this revelation paves the way for the later dark turn that this season will take. For the moment though, Angel's soul seems to be the thing that angers Spike the most in this episode. “You were my sire, man!” he yells. “My Yoda!” It's a kick in the fangs to Spike, who can't quite believe that the guy who made him into a vampire has become a fluffy kitten in a leather jacket.

Characterisation's one thing, but you need the right acting talent to bring them to life. James Marsters and Juliet Landau were perfect choices for this gruesome twosome, and even their English accents had me fooled. Landau brings an ethereal, off-worldly presence as Drusilla, combining the lost little girl and the creature from your worst nightmares.

Marsters on the other hand, achieves that rare balance of genuine threat and laugh-out-loud comic timing. Spike gets all the best lines (“Who am I kidding? I love to brag!” or “Use your head” are just two of the many quotable dialogue morsels) and Marsters eats these up with relish.

While Spike and Drusilla tend to overshadow this episode, Buffy still gets a fair bit to do. It's her usual dilemma of spinning too many life plates at once. Just one slip and there's broken china everywhere, and with her domestic and slaying lives about to collide, she's in danger of hearing crashing sounds from here to Prague. To her credit, she manages to save the day and redeem herself in her mother's eyes. Despite an earlier wobble at Parent Teacher Night, Joyce comes to realise that her daughter is brave, resourceful and puts others first in a crisis. And when it comes down to it, that means more than scoring a Grade A in Home Economics. It's a good one for both Sarah Michelle Gellar and Kristine Sutherland, especially since Joyce gets a good slice of the action and manages to save the day by hitting Spike on the head with an axe (“Nobody lays a hand on my little girl!”).

Judging by some of the dialogue, it looks like there's more to the loathsome Snyder than meets the eye. Covering up a vampire attack with a half-baked story involving gangs and PCP suggests that something shifty is going on...

For me, School Hard works as a very funny comedy piece. It not only contains enough wit to fill a bumper-sized jokebook, it also contains some great sight gags as well, such as Xander rooting through Buffy's bag and his priceless expression at finding a tampon. The plot may be too slight for my liking, but David Greenwalt keeps the genius lines coming at a rate of knots (“I fed off a flowerperson and I spent the next six hours watching my hand move” or “Do you know what I find works real good with Slayers? Killing them!” are two more samples).

It's also well lensed by John T Kretchmer and well performed by the regulars, although to be honest, I'm not overwhelmed by the first of the Clement/Murray scores which, to my cloth ears, mainly sound like someone hitting a piano with a very large bat.

It's a shame that the plot just lacked that bit of Ooomph for me. Running around school corridors for a good portion of the story meant that School Hard didn't quite attain Grade A status in my book. It's spiced up considerably be oodles of good lines and the presence of Spike and Drusilla, but it's a B+ grade from me, and no more.