A giant snake that likes miniature golf. A god who's too busy fussing over which designer shoes to wear. Chocolate bars that turn adults into over-excited teenagers. The list could go on for days, but I think you get my drift when I say that one of Buffy The Vampire Slayer's greatest achievements is to turn the most absurd of ideas into something approaching credible.
Somehow the fact that the above examples sound ridiculous is incidental, given that the writers combine smart dialogue and good plotting to overcome any doubts. One of the earliest examples of mixing the absurd and the dramatic is the Season One middle point, The Pack.
The Pack's plot basically concerns a small gang of high school bullies possessed by killer hyenas. Yes, really. In theory, it's the sort of idea that you could only find in a comedy skit. In practice though, The Pack does the unthinkable and converts a daft premise into something far more real and far more chilling.
It helps that writers Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkmeyer cleverly equate hyenas with the scourge of schools everywhere - bullies. As Xander says in the opening moments of this story, "Every school has 'em. So you start a new school - you get your desks, some blackboards and some mean kids." Curiously, established bully Cordelia is absent from this story - possibly, she's working furiously on a list of brand new put-downs to try out on the Scooby Gang in the future. Instead, it's left to a new gang of mini-me thugs, comprising Kyle, Rhonda, Tor and Heidi. In the first three minutes alone, they've managed to mock Buffy ("Do you ever wonder why nobody cool wants to hang out with you?"), threaten Wimp Of The Week, Lance, and break into an out of bounds sector of the local zoo. Good work, although it's debatable whether Heidi actually qualifies as a bona fide bully, given that she never says anything of note, instead making do with Michael McIntyre-style nodding and nyer-nyer-nee-nyer-nyer laughing.
Mind you, she's more of a threatening presence than the two laughable EastEnders bullies who act as if they have just landed a gig as part of Rod Hull and Emu's Pink Windmill kids troupe.
As if that's not bad enough, the pack of bullies manage to up their game by becoming possessed by a deadly new consignment of hyenas - hyenas are later described as "the schmoes of the animal kingdom", which pretty much sums up the foul stench of school bullies. One of the notable aspects of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is that it touches on common problems in life, from the day you start school through to the headaches of adult life (a common theme of Season Six). The first season alone encapsulates all of the common problems with school days: Outsiders. Parent pressure. Peer pressure. The most potent problem is of course, bullying - a disease for which there seems to be no cure. Physical or verbal, bullying isn't just exclusive to schools. In some quarters, it translates to adulthood, whether it's in the workplace, in social occasions or even online. Internet forums and social networks are perfect hangouts for bullies, given that they can freely say what they want incognito. Worse still, that pack-like mentality can manifest itself online, as wannabe bullies jump on the bandwagon to make the victim feel as small and as useless as possible. I guess with that in mind, The Pack stands out as one of the most important early Buffy episodes, since it addresses a problem that's still depressingly sticking around in the 21st century.
To add insult to injury, Xander, that champion of the underdog makes the mistake of standing on the mystical circle during the transfer of power from hyena to human. Possessed of evil hyena hatred, Xander is now a member of a gang which previously stood for everything that he despised at school. The switch from normal, goofy Xander at the start to dark, preying monster Xander is subtly but effectively done. Initially, he's joining in with Kyle's gang's jokes at the expense of the token chubby kid. Then he's taking that evil game of Dodge ball a bit too seriously. And then it's full throttle, as he turns on his two best friends.
The killer thing about this is he knows how to press Willow's and Buffy's buttons. He reduces Willow to a tearful wreck with just words alone - "I've decided to drop geometry," he sneers in the face of his best friend. "So I won't be needing your math help any more. Which means I won't have to look at your pasty face again." In the case of Buffy, he uses brute force, pinning her to the floor, because he thinks that this is how Buffy likes her men to be.
Giles is initially sceptical of Xander's change of personality. "It's devastating," he scoffs. "He's turned into a 16-year-old boy. Of course, you'll have to kill him." Quite how much of the real Xander is seen in The Pack is open to question. While he's usually the quip-throwing joker of the Scooby Gang, in the future, we'll see an occasional darker side. While for the most part he's loyal to his friends, he can still be quick to judge or he turn on them in a sixpence, such as his brutal character assassination of Buffy in Dead Man's Party or his pent-up rage at his friends in The Yoko Factor. His jealousy of potential Buffy suitors such as Angel or Owen certainly comes to the fore in this episode, as he badly misjudges what constitutes dark and brooding - combine that with the animal instinct of the hyena, and that spells danger. "It's safe to say that in his animal state, his idea of wooing doesn't involve a Yanni CD and a bottle of Chianti," says a shaken Buffy.
In a sense, as the mid-point story, The Pack sums up all of the character tensions that have been quietly bubbling under from the start of the season: Willow's infatuation with Xander. Buffy's rejection of Xander and interest in Angel. Xander's unrequited love for Buffy. All of these tensions are brought to the fore in quietly brutal fashion. Great acting from Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, and from Nicholas Brendon who impresses with his unsettling portrayal of the possessed Xander. If Teacher's Pet proved that Brendon could do comedy well, then The Pack proves that he can handle drama just as adeptly.
The mix of comedy and high drama is thankfully more equal after the unbalanced Never Kill A Boy On The First Date. One of the most disquieting things about The Pack is the brutal murder of the rotund rep of Sunnydale High School.
But enough about Herbert The Pig. The poor mascot is gobbled up by the greedy pack (including Xander, which is enough to convince him to go vegetarian at the end of the tale). Herbert's untimely end reinforces the fact that bullies always prey on the weak and the helpless. Of course, poor Herbert is just an appetiser, as the pack of bullies move on to hapless Principal Flutie for a spot of dinner. It's an audacious move - in a sense, it's completely out of the blue to kill Flutie, and for newcomers to the show, it's a hell of a shock. Which also sums up the credo of Buffy (and Angel) in that you should always expect the unexpected. Both Jesse and Dr Gregory were signposted as regulars, but were quickly bumped off. Now Flutie joins that illustrious cult in even more grisly fashion.
Again, the idea of four students eating the principal alive sounds daft on paper, but on screen, it's grim stuff. That's down to two things - the direction from Bruce Seth Green, who keeps the camera moving and creeping in at all times. Green uses quick cuts and shots to cleverly sum up the predatory nature of the hyenas. He also utilises that time-honoured classic of implying violence ather than showing it. As the pack pounces on a terrified Flutie, we hear the sounds of their feast while slowly panning in to a grinning photograph of the Principal. The scene fades to black and then fades in on Willow watching a video of hyenas pulling and ripping apart a large hunk of meat. It's a clever trick that still manages to ram home the fact that Flutie's life was ended in gruesome fashion. Ken Lerner's excellent acting is the second strike - he starts off by playing Flutie as the typical pompous authority figure ("I hae seen some sick things in my life, believe me - but this is beyond the pale!"), but gradually and subtly makes his character unsettled, confused and finally scared out of his wits. Shame that Flutie had to go so soon in the run of the show - quite how he would have handled school-stalking vampires, regressive chocolate bars and golf club-totin' Mayor Wilkins we'll never know.
The Pack is well scripted and plotted by Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkmeyer. After the double course of Herbert and Flutie, the story continues to grip, whether it's Xander trying mind games on Willow to get her to release him from the cage or whether it's the revelation that the unassuming zoo-keeper is in fact, a deadly nutjob who's trying to harness the power of the hyenas for himself. "How terribly frustrating for you that a bunch of schoolchildren could accomplish what you could not," says Giles, as he slowly realises that a zoo-keeper decked out in Masai garb and war paint is not a man to cross on a dark night. Quite what the zoo-keeper had in mind for his master-plan is left open to question. A diet of raw human flesh may have saved on grocery bills, but it would very probably have given him a gippy tummy.
I'm surprised that The Pack hasn't had a particularly good reaction from some of the fans. Admittedly, it's overshadowed by some of the season biggies such as the opening two-parter, the redefining Angel episode or the frantic last episode - but as a stand-alone drama, it still succeeds admirably. The comparison between a pack of hyenas and a pack of bullies is not subtle, but it's still well handled and also well realised on screen. The acting is generally of the highest order, with maybe the lone exception of the random Nirvana wannabe with greasy Hanson hair who gets in a pickle over his crushed lunch ("Hey," he drones at the bullies. "That is NOT. Cool."). It's more of a tense episode than of late, with the deaths of Herbert, Flutie and also the crazed zoo-keeper at the jaws of the hyenas. Best of all, it successfully takes a ridiculous idea and turns it into a taut, unsettling piece of drama. A good, mid-season episode that both surprises and points at darker things to come in the future.
Greasy Hanson Hair Guy does say that It. Is. Cool. to buy my new Doctor Who ebook which is available at Amazon, which is devoted to the era of the Third Doctor!