Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Ted

Ted Buchanan, on the face of it, is a multi-tasking genius. He's a master at selling computer software, out-performing his colleagues at work. “Nobody beats The Machine,” frowns downcast walrus-moustached colleague Neal. “Guy's a genius.” He's a whizz at mini golf. He's also a dab hand in the kitchen, conjuring all sorts of culinary treats such as buns, cookies and mini pizzas.

Remember, cooking kids, use a cast iron skillet to fry pizzas in herbs and olive oil. “No room for compromise there!”

So why is Buffy so down on poor old Ted? Granted, he has a dubious mullet that makes him look a bit like a soft rock star from 1977, but beyond this, there's no reason for all this Buchanan Bile. Well, apart from the fact that he's made some fast moves on her mother, Joyce. Having met her at the gallery, Ted has swept Joyce off her feet with his cooking, compliments and cheesy smile. With typical Ted efficiency, he's even set a date for the wedding.

Naturally, Buffy's not best pleased, given that Ted has taken the father figure slot away from her own dad. What's worse is that Ted has a sinister hidden agenda that's about to potentially land Buffy in a lot of trouble.

Sandwiched between the game-changing two-parters of the second season, this story and Bad Eggs are comparatively stand-alone tales. Curiously, both stories look at parenting issues with varying degrees of success. Ted is the better of the two, addressing the problems of the substitute parent. It's a common issue for kids who have experienced divorce. Having got used to the mother or father, it must be a shock when the other parent falls in love with someone else. How can the child adjust to someone who's stepping into the mother or father's shoes? As Willow comments, it's “Separation anxiety – the mother figure being taken away, conflict with the father figure.” With her own dad out of the family home, Buffy is shocked and gradually appalled that Ted is stepping into Hank's shoes way too fast. “I don't stand for that kind of malarkey in my house!” he bellows at Buffy, only days within meeting.

This is actually mild behaviour for Ted, who's shaping up to be a terrifying control freak of the lowest order. He turns a simple game of miniature golf into an intense debate of what constitutes right and wrong. He sneaks into Buffy's bedroom to pry into her belongings and diary. He's also got a mean – literally – way with threats: either of the passive aggressive verbal kind in which he promises to tell everyone that Buffy's a deluded nutcase, or of the aggressive aggressive kind in which he shockingly thumps Buffy across the head.

Ted tends to be one of the forgotten stories of Season Two, given that the Spike/Drusilla/Angelus shenanigans tend to dominate. In its own quiet way, though, Ted is still bold, compelling drama. It typically takes a familiar theme of growing up and puts a Buffy spin on it.

Curiously, for the most part, Ted lacks that supernatural element. Up until the fourth act, it looks like it's a story that examines the consequences of taking a human life. Naturally, Buffy doesn't take too well to Ted's attack, and so fights back with all her might to the point where he ends up falling down the stairs, apparently dead. Up until now, Buffy has slain many a bad vamp, but a human? That's a whole different ballgame.

The third act of this story takes a stark look at the consequences of Buffy's actions. She's taken into the local police station to be grilled by a sceptical Max Branning lookalike on the night's events. Incredibly, the local Sunnydale rag super-efficiently lands the story into next day's issue, which – take it from me – is an editorial miracle.

Word has also got around the school, earning Buffy countless “That's her” looks and whispers and gossips. Curiously, Cordelia or even Harmony aren't queuing up to bitch behind Buffy's back which is an even bigger miracle than the speedy Sunnydale Times. In fact, Cordy defends Buffy's corner in the way that only Cordy can. “She's like this Superman. Shouldn't there be different rules for her?” But as ever, it's Giles who hits the nail on the head: “She's taken a human life,” he ponders. “The guilt – it's pretty hard to bear and it won't go away soon.”

While next season's Consequences takes this theme and runs with it until the bitter end, Ted chickens out by bringing the eponymous monster back from the dead to have another go at integrating himself into the Summers house. Turns out that Ted's a robot, a great lump of metal who was created by the original article in the '50s in order to bring back his wife who had run off. He's been adding more captive wives to his collection as Xander finds to his horror while checking for literal skeletons in Ted's cupboards.

Is it a cop out? It's a bit of a cheesy pay off, but in a sense, all the clues were there from the start. “I'm not wired that way,” is an oft-repeated catchphrase. Ted bangs his leg with the golf putt and evidently feels no pain. And of course, he knows everything about computers – do the math, and you get a robotic force to be reckoned with.

The old fashioned family values are more subtle. Ted's dialogue is crammed full of old school phrases and sentences, whether he calls Buffy “Little lady” or constantly says “Beg to differ”. He says grace before eating. His whole geniality reeks of the old fashioned patriarch that you would have found in the good old days.

All of this is pulled off with great panache by guest star John Ritter, who provides an outstanding turn as the father figure from hell. Ritter successfully alternates between beaming amiability and terrifying menace. His twitchy, out of control performance as the malfunctioning heap of metal (“Want a little gravy with that?”) is a joy to behold. In a sense, Ted kind of acts as a dummy run for Mayor Wilkins the following season, another man who can turn all that homely geniality on its head with murky evil.

Ted also carries on the loose theme of how authority figures can't always be trusted. Ted is the ultimate in authority figures – he probably wrote the handbook on strict authority, but this time it's a mask for a dying “sickly loser”, a stunted control freak who killed when he didn't get his own way. You can forgive poor old Joyce for kowtowing to Ted, given that she's been chowing down on his drug-infested food. Turns out that Ted's culinary delights have contained a tranquilliser drug similar to Ecstasy.

Nevertheless, Joyce cuts a sad figure on the porch swing at the end of the episode, contemplating a terrible mistake and the thought of comfort video in the form of Thelma And Louise. Kristine Sutherland does very well in this story – her muted reaction to Ted's “death” and Buffy's violent outburst is far more convincing than OTT histrionics, which a lesser actress may have resorted to. Sarah Michelle Gellar naturally turns in a bravura performance as the spurned daughter, and portrays Buffy with more vulnerability than of late – it's a hugely effective performance that again relies on subtle nuances such as her withdrawn, almost Fugue State condition in the aftermath of her “fatal” attack on Ted. Top marks.

With the action mainly concentrating on Ted and Buffy and Joyce, the others don't get so much to do – although it's nice to see Giles and Jenny kiss and make up. Unfortunately for Giles, getting an arrow in the back isn't the most romantic way to reconcile, although layers of tweed do soften the blow. Xander, Willow and Cordy play detective for this episode, and they make for a formidable team, investigating cookies and breaking into Ted's creepy abode. They could have had their own spin-off show if Buffy had faded into the ether after the second season.

With even lesser known episodes like Ted providing quality TV, this would never have happened though. This is an unsung little gem, with solid acting across the board, a cracking little story boasting great lines such as “He's a clean clown!… I have my own fun!”, and top production from Bruce Seth Green's excellent direction through to Christophe Beck's memorable score. The haunting crescendo of noise that accompanies the end of the second and third acts is particularly striking. The sterling make-up job for Ted's partially robotic face is superb, and the final, sparking demise for Ted is a memorable image, as is the close up shot of his wide-eyed, deactivated face.

Ted may not be programmed to fit in with the season arc, but as a stand-alone, well produced drama that successfully addresses topical themes, it's wired all the way.