The Not-We may conjure up images of a plastic green forest, a wizened wise woman and a mwah-hah-hah-ing baddie with stupid hair, but in actual fact, it's everywhere you look.
Take the Not-We's when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy. Your average Not-We will snort with derision and write off fans of Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars etc as loser nerds who call their pet cats Spock and go to conventions dressed in long scarves and bow ties. Mind you, sport Not-We's will wonder why people go to games decked out in silly face paint and novelty 'look-at-me' costumes. If you're not part of the unit, there's clearly no hope left.
Xander's clearly having a case of Not-We-itis today. Another Sunnydale apocalypse is brewing and while the Scoobies are busy gearing up for research and heavy duty slayage, Xander's sent to the local bakery to pick up a choice of doughnuts.
Hence the title of this episode, The Zeppo, which refers to the youngest of the Marx Brothers – seen by some as the least exceptional of the troupe due to him being the straight man rather than another funnyman. Xander's always been at a disadvantage in this regard. His best friends all have some different, unique power or gift. Buffy's the Slayer. Willow's a fast blossoming witch and a genius to boot. Giles also happens to be none too short in the brains department. Even Oz can turn into a werewolf every calendar month.
Which leaves Xander as the everyman sidekick, and he's not too happy about this. He desperately wants to be part of a cool team, even trying and failing to be involved in a ball game at the start of the episode. “It's just that it's buggin' me, this 'cool' thing,” he confesses to Oz. “I mean, what is it? How do you get it? Who doesn't have it? And who decides who doesn't have it? What is the essence of cool?” When faced with no other options, he decides to rent a car from his Uncle Rory in a vain bid to be linked with something in vogue. But don't forget – this is Sunnydale. Even renting a car brings its problems, most notably in the growling, bully boy form of Jack O'Toole. Cue a roller-coaster ride of an adventure for Xander.
The clever thing with The Zeppo is that it's running two parallel stories side by side. In most other cases, Xander's subplot would have taken a back seat to the big, dramatic driving force of the apocalypse subplot in which the Hellmouth opens its big, halitosis-afflicted jaws again. The Zeppo cleverly turns this idea on its head, and puts the Hellmouth stuff in the background. Xander's subplot is no less dangerous, as he faces a race against time to stop the evil machinations of Jack O'Toole, culminating in a countdown to blow up Sunnydale High. In this case, us humble viewers are put in the place of the Not-We, often with amusing results.
Take the big, angst-ridden speech between Buffy and Angel. It's deliberately played with a sense of melodrama, but as opposed to the dramatic shenanigans of say, Becoming or Amends, the scene is more tongue-in-cheek, especially the way in which Xander bluntly cuts through their trains of thought with an ill-timed interruption (“It's probably a bad time”). It's a sneaky, self-aware move on the part of the Buffy production team. To a casual observer, the Buffy and Angel stuff may seem a little overwrought if he or she hasn't been following the programme from the start. The Zeppo puts this in context, and shows that Buffy The Vampire Slayer is able to laugh at itself and not take things too seriously.
The usual Hellmouth battles are put on the sidelines too, with only quick shots of angry library beasts, flashes of lightning and Buffy being blown out through the doors. The real meaty stuff of this subplot is left to the imagination. The real face of the Hellmouth and Giles' brave actions can only be left to the pages of fan fiction.
Because there's already lots going on in Xander's tale. Having already incurred the wrath of psycho boy Jack by clumsily allowing a football to drop into his lunch, Xander foolishly goes and crashes his borrowed car into O'Toole's borrowed car. Not the best of moves, given that Jack's a card-carrying, Katy-totin' fruitloop. Jack's the sort of bloke who would lamp you in the face if you so much as made eye contact with him for a fraction of a second. He walks around with a knife that's more of a sword. He gives his knife a name, which isn't normal. He even goes around raising his dead buddies, having been raised from the grave himself. It would however, seem that Jack's in one of his better moods, given that Xander doesn't rat him out to a passing police officer.
As some sort of reward, he allows Xander (and his new blink 'n' miss her piece of arm candy, Lysette) to tag along in bringing his dead friends back into the world. Lysette does the sensible thing by screaming and running off into the night, but Xander typically stays as the “wheel man” for Jack and his buddies, who are now set on raising hell in the community. It's one of those situations that typically spirals out of control, as Jack and the boys plan on “baking a cake”.
Now, this isn't the sort of thing taking place on over-cooked borefest, The Great British Bake-Off, no sir. Jack's idea of cake mix includes detonators, timers and various other bomb parts nicked from the local store. And not even a hint of frosted icing. It's a scenario that again mixes the supernatural and the brutality of the real world – the undead clearly think that having a good time means blowing things to kingdom come. It's a race against time, except this time it's down to Xander to put things right, as opposed to Buffy.
If there's one thing that The Zeppo proves is that Xander's just as capable of saving the day in his own, unassuming way. He doesn't have stakes or swords at his disposal. Not even his fists, given that Jack could pummel his face like cookie dough. Instead, his weapon of choice is words, and his carefully chosen babble manages to convince Jack to stop the countdown: “Being blowed up isn't walking around and drinking with your buddies dead. It's little bits being swept up by a janitor dead, and I don't think you're ready for that.” It's the moment that Xander proves to himself that he doesn't need a “cool” thing to save the day – look at the expression on his face after Jack aborts the bomb sequence. He's evidently surprised that he's successfully averted a big disaster without the help of supernatural means or weapons.
But by the end of the experience, he's emerged a new man. He doesn't blab about last night's events to his friends (“Well, uh, gimme the quiet life”) and more crucially doesn't give in to Cordelia's taunting jibes, instead walking off with a quietly confident grin. He also loses his virginity to none other than Faith, who's been ready to pop after a tussle with some shrieking sisterhood demon types. It's a comedy moment at this point in time (especially Xander's dopey grin after he's shoved out into the cold by a non-plussed Faith), although this will have darker ramifications in a couple of episodes' time. The difference between Xander and Faith is that the former sees it as a big deal, while the latter sees this as a fun way of letting off steam.
As an experiment, The Zeppo works well. It's a fun episode that tries and succeeds in playing around with a tried and tested format. It's a good one for actor Nicholas Brendon, who hasn't had a Xander-centric episode for quite a while now. The Zeppo gives him plenty to do, and he responds very well with a likeable and amusing turn in the spotlight. Brendon's knack for comedy comes through regularly in this episode, in particular his to-camera musings in the car and his hilariously bad impersonation of Michael Jackson's Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' (“Remember that fun song?”).
Dan Vebber was a great find for the show, and like Lovers Walk, his script for The Zeppo is fast, funny and entertaining. The direction from James Whitmore Jr responds well to Vebber's script and manages to mix the comedy and the action to a very high standard. His casting is generally very good, with Channon Roe taking this episode's Best Supporting Actor for his excellent portrayal of the psychopathic Jack (culminating in some blood-curdling screaming as Jack's eaten 'alive' by a trapped Oz).
As a fast paced and amusing look at how Xander fits into Buffy's world of demons and monsters, The Zeppo scores highly. After some less sympathetic characterisation this season (his angry outbursts to Buffy or his two-timing), it's nice to see Xander get a crack at playing the hero, and doing so without any fanfare or expectant applause. Being the everyman pays off in the Scooby Gang, and just for once, The Zeppo proves that you don't need a special power or cool thing to save the day.