You don't always want your lead characters to be as squeaky clean as the Osmonds. In the pantheon of what some peoples call Cult TV, many a lead character chooses sourpuss grumpy face over being likeable. Doctors One, Three, Six and Twelve have frequently scowled and grumbled their way through their adventures. Avon isn't exactly Mr Nice Guy, double-crossing and snarking at every known man and woman in the cosmos.
And now, in the Season Two opener, chalk up Sunnydale's Vampire Slayer-supreme, Buffy Summers to add to that list.
In the aptly-named When She Was Bad, Buffy returns from her school holidays in a major funk. She's been aloof with her father, resulting in some big-scale over-compensating shoe shopping and a maxed out credit card. She's short with her two best buddies, Willow and Xander. She even makes the moves on Xander as a mean-spirited way of making Angel jealous.
It's nothing that a good psychiatrist session couldn't cure, but then Buffy doesn't do things the normal way. Because everyone's favourite Vampire Slayer decides that everyone should feel as troubled as her. Funny what a brush with death and close contact with a walking, talking, shrivelled grape can do for your state of mind, but in terms of season openers, it's a brave bid to start off by trying to make your lead character as unlikeable as possible. In terms of likeability, Buffy's only marginally more approachable than a dinner party line-up of Davros, Voldemort and that creepy Rees-Mogg bloke who looks like a monocle-twirling villain from the Tintin books.
Season openers do tend to be a problem for both Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. Rather than opening the season with a bang, the chosen adventures tend to be rather muted by comparison. Possibly, this is because the series is quietly biding its time before the big fireworks later in a season. Or maybe because the season opener tends to tie up the loose ends from the previous batch of adventures before reaffirming the status quo for the rest of the year.
When She Was Bad does, in some ways, feel like a hangover from Season One. It tackles the fall-out of the Master by presenting the alarming concept of bringing him back from the dead. Deeper-voiced Callum from Neighbours wannabe, the Annoying One is back in town, and has rounded up a gaggle of vampire minions to dig up the Master's bones for a ritual to bring him back to life. Mix in some upside-down Scoobies (who were present at the Master's death) and you've got enough voodoo oodja to render the process successful.
As well as this, other Season One issues are returned to, including Xander's infatuation with Buffy, Willow's unrequited love of Xander, and the Ballad of Buffy and Angel, which will be sung many a time over Season Two. Because of this, When She Was Bad isn't rushing to kick start the new season into gear, serving as a coda to that all-important first year.
Style-wise, there is more of a difference. When She Was Bad feels more confident in its approach. Superficially, Buffy and Xander have both had haircuts, Cordy is gradually being brought into the fold (when Cordelia is seen as the voice of reason, telling Buffy to wise up, things must be changing) and David Boreanaz is now a part of the opening titles.
There's also a darker feel to the season already. The dream sequences are more subtle and as a result, more unnerving. The scene in which Giles calmly attacks Buffy in front of a nonchalant Willow and Xander is a classic example – its casual banter turning into horror movie territory as Buffy paws at Giles' face to reveal the face of the Master. By the way, that's actually David Boreanaz donning the Master mask – if ever you get asked this question on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, remember, you read it here first. Just a couple of hundred grand would be gratefully received.
The sequence in which Buffy seduces Xander in the Bronze is also more sinister in tone. That's down to three things: the moody lighting, the swooping, rapidly cut camera shots of an uncomprehending Xander and Willow (and a smooching Buffy), and also the eerie soundtrack of Sugar Water by Cibo Matto (including son of John Lennon, Sean).
It's a neat appetiser for some of the darker stories to come, which are being told with greater confidence and skill. The direction from Joss Whedon is a very classy deal in this episode, making great use of atmospheric lighting and ominous horror movie homages – the Master's skull leers up out of the ground as if to say “I'm back!” at one point.
Summer holidays have come and gone, but the regular team still haven't lost the knack of skilful acting. Sarah Michelle Gellar acts the bitchy side of Buffy very well, and she's also very good at blubbing convincingly – a CV talent that she'll need in regular supply this season. Nicholas Brendon and Alyson Hannigan bring out the betrayal of Xander and Willow well, Brendon bringing a nicely subtle fury to his rage at Buffy in the wake of his friends' kidnap. Out of the guest stars, Brent Jennings steals the show as Absalom, preaching to the converted with great gusto. It's a shame he's toast by the end of the episode – he would have made a far worthier opponent than the Annoying One, who's left to skulk uselessly around like a kid lost in Hampton Court Maze.
Even the music has come on leaps and bounds. Christophe Beck is the best of the Buffy composers, using a full orchestra to replace the tinny Casio keyboard sounds of the previous season. While the awful choral shrieking lets the side down, Beck's other cues raise the drama considerably, such as the brash brass (try saying that 10 times fast) for the dream sequence of Giles Master attacking Buffy, and some big, bold drama for the final fight sequence.
Although it's a hangover from the previous season, at least there is some kind of closure as Buffy hammers the Master's skeleton with a formidable-looking axe before bursting into tears on the shoulder of Angel. While it isn't the best of the season, When She Was Bad does make an impact with its stylistic choices. Clearing the decks for a new term, it promises greater things to come with plenty of twists and turns and thrills and spills to be had along the way...