One of the things that mark out both Buffy's fourth season and Angel's first is the cross-over episode.
Even miles apart, it's inevitable that the paths of the former lovers will somehow cross, and the first instance of this comes only three episodes into the new run. Bridging the link between the two are a shiny bauble of vampire immortality, Oz, and a returning Spike, who's naturally on the hunt for this piece of valuable bling.
It's interesting to look at these two episodes again, back to back. Despite containing some of the familiar Buffy characters, monsters and perilous situations, it's clear that Angel's pitching towards a slightly older audience. Whereas Buffy The Vampire Slayer stays on the slower path and continues its gradual look at the perils of growing up, Angel impatiently leapfrogs the latter teenage years, headlong into the 20s. The Buffy episode focuses on the ongoing problems that older teens face. The Gem of Amara is really no more than a fun sideshow to the real message of The Harsh Light Of Day, which is Sex = Confusion.
On the face of it, the wanton coitus of The Harsh Light Of Day is enough to rattle the chains of the ghost of Mary Whitehouse. Not one, but three sets of couples hop into the sack during this episode. There's man boobs and dropped dresses and fumbling, moving sheets ahoy. There's even a classic sight gag in which Xander reacts to a naked Anya by squirting cran apple juice into the air. It's enough to make the American Pie movie look like an episode of Sister Wendy's Guide To Tea And Cakes.
And yet, despite all this, Buffy, Anya and a newly fanged Harmony trudge off at the end of the episode in forlorn misery. For them, bedroom shenanigans have only left them disillusioned and miserable. Take Harmony, for example – we last saw her getting bitten at the end of Graduation Day, so it's a clever move to bring her back as a deadly if somewhat ditzy vampire. Somewhere along the way, she's met Spike and has accompanied him back to Sunnydale. Problem is, she's more invested in the relationship than he is – Spike's just using Harmony for rebound sex while hurling every insult under the sun. Not only that, but her constant nagging causes him to snap and plunge a stake into her chest – fortunately, she's wearing the Ring of Amara at the time. Not that it's any comfort, since Spike's relentless criticising and abuse has done more damage to her heart than a stake ever could.
In Anya's case, she's still in the early days of sussing out relationships. Despite wreaking vengeance on many a cheater, Anya has little clue about what actually makes a relationship work. Despite upping sticks and fleeing the attempted union of the Mayor snake, Anya still thinks that she and Xander are still together. Xander's evidently surprised by this turn of events – maybe Anya's experiencing some form of selective amnesia. This is possibly down to her new, rather odd looking, ill-fitting wig, which is presumably sucking the memory slowly but surely out of her brain.
Anya's way of thinking is that in order to get over Xander, she needs to have sex with him. Which she suggests with typical bluntness by dropping her dress and bringing along condoms. A flabbergasted Xander still muses that Anya's somewhat unorthodox proposition is still more romantic than Faith's idea of a quiet night in. But for Anya, the sex only leads to further confusion. She evidently still has feelings for Xander and storms off in a huff when he doesn't really know what to say the morning after. It's a turbulent start for one of the show's most interesting and funny relationships – fortunately, the next episode will turn things around, and better still, Emma Caulfield's evidently in this show for the long haul.
Unlike Parker Abrams, who's looking to treat Buffy mean and keep her keen. We've already seen Parker in Living Conditions, a vaguely likeable if vaguely boring sort who has a natty line in chat-up lines for the girls of Sunnydale University. On the other hand, by the end of The Harsh Light Of Day, you'll probably want to give the TV a good kick every time his smarmy visage leers into view. Parker, at this point, is not looking for a serious relationship, instead making do with rapidly adding to the notches on his bed post. What's annoying about this is the way in which he slyly manipulates each of his victims into thinking that he actually wants a long-term deal, going all maudlin about his late pop and living for now. Ironically, he says that he can't stand dark, broody sorts who manipulate girls into falling in love with them. Yes, really.
The most irritating thing about this is while anyone with half a brain watching at home can see this a mile off, the usually clued-up Buffy can't. I can see what the producers were trying to do here. After her relationship with Angel finally came to an end, it's logical that Buffy's trying to find a normal guy to get to know and maybe even fall in love with. So when smarmy Parker comes along, Buffy thinks that he could be the new “One”.
It's too bad though that Buffy can't see beyond Parker's emotional manipulation to get a quick hop in the sack. Worse, this subplot will be dragged out for what seems like aeons. It's the plot where time stands still, an oasis of silent, howling winds and tumbleweed drifting past in slow motion. It'll take another four episodes to finally get rid of Parker, and so stories like Fear Itself and Beer Bad drag their heels to try and wake Buffy out of her moping. I guess that's a key issue that I have with The Harsh Light Of Day. The Barker love affair that never was dominates the episode like a bad smell that won't go away. It's annoying and a little out of character for Buffy to take so long to see Parker for who he really is.
The fantasy aspect of the episode tends to take a back seat as a result, and maybe that's why this Gem or Ring or Bling of Amara doesn't quite inspire as much as it could have done. The end sequence in which Spike momentarily becomes invincible can only end one way, and Spike's foolish boasting about his new accessory of immortality only results in Buffy taking the ring off his finger. Poor old Spike – the guy can't catch a break. It's good to have James Marsters back though, who slips into Spike's Doc Martens as if he'd never been away.
Honourable mentions also go to Mercedes McNab, who adds a new dimension to Harmony. Never before has the viewer felt a shred of sorrow for the bitchy airhead, but here, she invites your sympathy as she crouches all alone and rejected on the dusty ground in the crypt. Harmony's presented as more of a sad outcast from this moment on, always trying to find a new bloke or social group to cling on to. It's the ultimate slap in the face for Harmony, who used to be one of the Queen Bees of Sunnydale High. As the girl says herself, “Being a vampire sucks”.
If some of the plotting's a bit askew in The Harsh Light Of Day, then at least writer Jane Espenson brings her reliable suitcase of wit, which on this occasion is near bursting at the seams with great lines. From Buffy's snarky comment on the irony of Vampire Harmony dying without her reflection through to the Scooby Gang's aghast discovery of Giles' TV (“He's shallow – like us!” grins Xander, while Oz admits to being “A little disappointed” - Giles can only cluck in protest like a cross between Hugh Grant and a chicken with hiccups), Espenson's script is frequently well observed and funny. Even little details like Oz being impressed by Giles' eclectic record collection work well – amusingly, the first track on Loaded by The Velvet Underground (the LP that Oz fishes out) is called Who Loves The Sun. Clever stuff.
The other big plus point in The Harsh Light Of Day's favour is James A Contner's dependably good direction. The production values remain high, and Contner leafs through The Director's Handbook Of Neat Production Tricks like no tomorrow. Musical montage to quickly and succinctly propel the plot? Affirmative. Appropriately dizzy direction for Buffy's first campus party? Yes again (complete with scary looking woman on vocal duties). Well-executed climatic fight scene? You got it. Although, it's a little unclear as to why no one actually bothers to raise campus security, given that Buffy and Spike are pummelling each other to paste. Four seasons in, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer continues to make each episode look a million dollars.
With Spike temporarily defeated, there's only one thing left to do with the Ring of Amara. Oz is due to head off to LA for a gig, and plans to call in on Angel and his buddies. I'm sure that there won't be any follow-through from Spike on getting this legendary trinket back. Will there? The Harsh Light Of Day wins out with its collection of pithy lines, jokes and whatnots. The regulars continue to be on fine form, even if some of the material is either too thin on the ground (Willow, Oz and Giles don't get an awful lot to do this week) or a bit out of character (and even then, Sarah Michelle Gellar conveys Buffy's vulnerability superbly).
It's too bad that the tedious Parker subplot drags things down a little, and that the potentially interesting Gem of Amara plot strand is sidelined as a result. Even so, the story still provides a fair degree of entertainment, and with some returning characters, the show not only returns to familiar ground, it also paves the way for things to come later on this season.