On the surface of it, a TV series franchise stemming from a so-so movie about a teenage girl who stakes vampires doesn't inspire much confidence. In 1992, the film, Buffy The Vampire Slayer pitted Kristy Swanson as the eponymous heroine against a mean old vampire king called Lothos and his motley crew of blood-sucking fiends. The movie didn't exactly set the world ablaze, staked by lukewarm reviews and moderate box office takings.
Writer Joss Whedon was nothing if not persistent though. Translating the original concept to the small screen was something of a gamble, given the tepid reactions to the preceding film. How could it possibly work?
And yet, 20 years later, Buffy is still a huge phenomenon. Seven seasons were produced. It spawned a spin-off series which I'll also be rambling on about in the future. It influenced subsequent cult TV programmes, most notably the hugely popular revival of Doctor Who (Russell T Davies cited the programme as an influence on his vision for the show). You can apparently even study the programme at college if you wish. It's still going strong in the form of a comic book series that's continuing and developing the myth. Not too bad for a programme with a name that sounds like a cheesy kid's storybook.
So what's the secret of its success? Well, you can find many of the answers in the début story, a two-part piledriver called Welcome To The Hellmouth/The Harvest (or Hellmouth Harvest to make things easier). All the ingredients of what made the two iconic Joss Whedon shows so huge are set out in this excellent two-parter.
The first notable key ingredient is unpredictability. Whatever you think you know, you don't. In the worlds of Buffy and Angel, all bets are off. Take the opening sequence of Welcome To The Hellmouth which pays homage to many a cheesy B-movie. You've probably seen this sort of thing before. Teenage boy takes teenage girl into a dark building for a discreet spot of canoodling. In this sort of horror movie cliché scenario, the boy turns out to be a scary monster, killing the girl who departs this mortal coil with a series of screams so shrill, they'd reduce the building to a pile of stones.
In fact, in this opening sequence, all of that's turned on its head. Random Redshirt guy (an early appearance from CSI New York's Carmine Giovinazzo) finds out to his horror that his Darla date tends to be a bit heavy-handed with the teeth when kissing. It's a neat trick that playfully throws the vampire cliché rulebook out the window. The first of many cunning examples of the sleight of hand that both Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel revel in producing.
Another key element of Buffy The Vampire Slayer's and Angel's appeal is one that may or may not strike a chord with viewers – the championing of the outsider. Cordelia's ominous mantra of “You wanna fit in here – the first rule is: Know Your Losers”, on the face of it, doesn't bode well, but in fact, it's the so-called losers who prove to be the true champions. When it comes down to it, virtually all of Buffy and Angel's main characters are square pegs in round holes. Buffy's true calling as a vampire slayer means that an ordinary life's out of the question. Xander's the typical well-meaning loser. Willow starts out as the painfully shy, unpopular geek. Giles is a spluttering British fish out of water, far happier with a good book and a steaming mug of Bovril. Angel's soul means he can't be a proper vampiric killing machine (unless that soul is snatched from him in a moment of true happiness), and just as bad, can't ever lead a normal life in the daytime for fear of turning into smoking dust. Even the aforementioned Cordelia will prove to be an outsider in the future, in episodes such as The Wish. It's a refreshing change of tack to make your heroes quirky, unconventional outsiders, and that's a core part of both series' appeal.
Characterisation is evidently Whedon's forte. By the time these first two episodes are through, it feels like we've known the main characters for some time. It's small details that add to the bigger picture. For example, Cordelia's instant coolness test in which she grills Buffy for her views on James Spader, John Tesh and Frappaccinos tells you everything you need to know about her obsession with being in the clique. Giles' various fish-out-of-water comments (his appalled visit to the local club, The Bronze or his description of a computer as a “dread machine”) sum up the pompous side of Buffy's new Watcher, but his eager chinwag with Buffy also spotlights his boyish enthusiasm for all things supernatural. Xander's frustration at not being able to properly help out reveals the insecurities beneath his flippant wisecracks (“I'm inadequate. That's fine. I'm less than a man”). Willow, of course, is the shy, retiring computer geek, at this point a target for Cordelia's acidic putdowns, but with a sly genius under the unassuming surface (in the scene in which Cordy declaims Willow as “boring”, Willow still tricks Ms Chase into deleting all her computer work by saying that “deliver” is the right key to press). Buffy herself is frustrated at failing to make a new start and live an ordinary life, but at the same time, proves to be a rock solid friend – the charming introductory scene with Willow is a good example (“Why don't we start with 'Hi, I'm Buffy' and uh, then let's segue directly into me asking you for a favour”).
One of the most impressive things about the Buffy and Angel series is the complex, intelligent character development. The above examples are just tips of the icebergs, which take the main characters into brand new avenues. The medium of TV allows a good writer the scope to flesh out characters and work on their backgrounds and motivations. Again, what you may think you know about Buffy and Angel characters on the surface, you don't. Cordelia grows into a mature, capable woman by the time she ends up in the City of Angels. Giles has a darker side to him (seen in The Dark Age or Passion, for example). Willow grows in confidence in the next few seasons, even to the point of over-confidence by Season Six, during which she turns to the dark side of magic. Even future characters such as Faith, Wesley and Spike go on long, evolving journeys that flip initial assumptions about who they are on their head. That's the sign of a talented creative force, and both Buffy and Angel have this in spades.
Of course, Hellmouth Harvest also happens to be a cracking good adventure in its own right. Structurally, it's an interesting one. Part One is more of a wave hello to this new set of characters, while keeping the mystery of the vampire attacks and the mysterious Harvest in the background. Part Two brings the mysteries to the surface and properly introduces the dreaded Big Bad of the season – The Master.
No, not that Master. There's not a tissue compression eliminator or a “Heh heh heh” to be found anywhere in those dingy caverns. The Master is, in fact, an ancient old vampire, trapped like a cork in a bottle in a portal “between this reality and the next”. He looks like a cross between a prototype Ood and the lead singer of The Smashing Pumpkins. He's also one hell of a crabby so and so, growling furiously about scraps of human meat and being stuck for 60 years in “this house of... worship!” Perhaps the only problem with The Master is that he never really gets to do anything this season, apart from howl impotent threats at The Slayer. Because he's trapped in his portal until the season finale, he only becomes a serious threat in one episode (mind you, he's up and running in Season Three's The Wish in a parallel universe scenario). Despite this, The Master is still one of the most memorable Big Bads in the show, due in part to a wry sense of humour (“You've got something in your eye!” he sneers at his hapless lackey after sticking his grubby index finger in the poor chap's eye socket) and also to a strong performance from actor Mark Metcalf that combines brittle menace and dry wit.
His lackeys are memorable too – Darla, I'll talk more about in the Angel episode, but already Julie Benz makes an immediate impression. There's also vessel Luke – basically The Master's Minion through which The Master draws power from sucking the blood out of hapless victims in The Bronze. Well played by actor Brian Thompson, again, this is a vampire with a good line in ironic humour (“Ladies and gentlemen, there is no cause for alarm. Actually, there is cause for alarm – it just won't do any good”) - regrettably, he's tricked and staked before the story's through, although Thompson will play another part, The Judge in the Surprise/Innocence epic the following season.
Then there's new recruit Jesse, also played well by Eric Balfour. Jesse was apparently supposed to be in the opening titles, so as to surprise the viewer of his later conversion to vampire and untimely demise. Which would have been a neat bit of misdirection as to who would make up the regular Scooby Gang. Poor old Jesse – ironically, becoming a vampire gives him that much needed confidence boost that he was seeking for so long (“Jesse was an excruciating loser who couldn't get a date with anyone in the sighted community”), only to accidentally end up on the pointy end of a stake. Joss Whedon would later get his wish with the cruel addition of Amber Benson to the opening credits in the Seeing Red episode, only to... well, I'll save that story for another time.
Visually, Hellmouth Harvest benefits from some classy direction and interesting visuals. The two directors, Charles Martin Smith and John T Kretchmer, live up to the promise of the fast paced story with much flair. At this point, Buffy doesn't have the biggest budget on the globe, but it makes up for it with some well chosen shots such as the close-up of the spinning globe, the harsh blue lighting at the climax inside The Bronze, and even that cheesy introductory dream sequence superimposed over a mildly traumatised Buffy. If there's any quibble to make, and it's an annoyingly slight one at that, then it's that when Buffy goes on about a vampire's fashions being “carbon dated” it's a case of pot, kettle and black. Maybe random vampire guy looks like DeBarge, but then we also have Xander's curtain cut bowl hair, Angel's Travolta-esque shirt collar, and even Buffy's outfits which kind of look like she's taking time out from doing a spot of background dancing for Debbie Gibson in a 1988 promo video. Even some of the dialogue is SO over: “I am not OK on an epic scale!” “What's the sitch?” “I'm WAAAAYYYY sure.” That's the casualty of the times – in 15 years from now, the youth of 2028 will be snickering at today's media muppets bleating “O.M.G.” on a constant basis.
Stupid dating grumbling aside, there's little to fault this two-parter. The lead actors, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Anthony Head and Charisma Carpenter already have their characters down to a tee. The supporting artistes are just as good, and they include Kristine Sutherland as Joyce, the unassuming mum, and Ken Lerner as the blustering but oddly likeable Principal Flutie (“All the kids are free to call me Bob...But they don't”). The script is packed full of witty lines (“I mean yesterday my life's uh-oh, pop quiz; today it's Rain Of Toads”) and a snappy, economical method of dealing with plot exposition (e.g.: the cutting back and forth between Buffy et al in the library and The Master and his minions discussing the Slayer). It well and truly puts the Buffy franchise on the map, and promises great things to come.
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