Test Pilot #30: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Debut date: March 10, 1997
Series legacy: One of the most respected and beloved series of all-time; the beginning of a great career for Joss Whedon
Welcome to 2012, friends, readers and fellow humans. Test Pilot grew into a popular (relatively speaking, of course) and personal favorite feature in 2011 and I think we have a bunch of really intriguing stuff coming up that will allow Test Pilot to trend upward into the new calendar year as well. For example, to kick things off this year, we’re doing something special: A Test Pilot theme week. Instead of tackling a new pilot within a certain theme every other week, my guests and I will be discussing them over the next four days. This is obviously a different approach and maybe it won’t work, but if it does, look for more theme weeks in the future.
For this week’s theme, I wanted to accomplish two primary goals, both of which I won’t say we officially moved away from with recent TP entries, but they were likely lacking somewhat. I wanted to bring back the veteran/newbie viewer framework – this one has definitely been missing from many recent posts – and I also wanted to chat about pilots that were more obviously linked together in some way. These are simple goals, but important ones nonetheless.
Therefore, this week, four guest co-writers and I will discuss the work of one Joss Whedon. You folks might not have heard of him, I know. But he’s the voice behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse. Although Whedon has not won nearly as many Emmys as the Davids (Chase, Simon, Milch) or someone like Matthew Weiner, he is one of the most respected and admired creative forces in television (and well, now film apparently). His work on the first two series spurred on an entire field of academic study, the third has one of, if not, the most tragic network mismanagement stories and the fourth might be looked at completely different in five or 10 years.
I have a weird relationship with Whedon and his television productions. And by that I mean I haven’t really seen a whole lot of them. Buffy started when I was nine years old and both Angel and Firefly came on at a time when I wasn’t totally interested in television. As a humanities student and makeshift television critic, I’ve been surrounded by people telling that I need to watch these series for the last six or seven years. I didn’t necessarily disagree with my peers’ assertions, but I will admit the loud and sometimes forceful nature of their assertions turned me off, ever so slightly.
And it’s not like I haven’t seen these four series at all. I’ve seen at least 10 Buffy episodes (including the first three episodes when I tried to start watching a few years back, “Hush” and “The Body”), a half-dozen Angel episodes and all of Dollhouse (yay for contemporary products!). I even wrote a term paper on Angel in a middle-level English course in college.* The only one of Whedon’s series I wasn’t that familiar with before this project was Firefly, but I have seen the pilot a few times.
*My choices were between Angel, Buffy or Veronica Mars. I don’t know why I chose Angel, but I do know the paper was about masculinity and it was well-received.
Throughout the week, I will be joined by veteran viewers of all four series and we will talk about how each of these pilots reflect larger Whedon-y (Whedonian?) traits, why they are heavily beloved and what kind of idiot I could be for not watching them sooner.
Today, we talk Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After 20th Century Fox’s film studio mishandled and mangled Whedon’s script for the film version of the story about the pretty blonde high school girl tasked to protect the world of vampires, he decided to take Buffy to the small screen and the still-developing WB Network. Buffy debuted in 1997 and started something of a revolution. Piggybacking on the fervent X-Files fans, a groundswell of support for the series and its creator was cultivated online (although it’s as if the series lacked “non-internet” fans). Almost 15 years later, Buffy remains ever-present in our collective consciousness.
Joining me to discuss Buffy today is Greg Boyd. Greg plans on beginning his undergraduate education in film and/or media studies next fall, and aspires to write about TV or film (maybe both) professionally someday. Currently, he’s an amateur critic at Screen Ramblings, where he covers a mix of shows and movies. He dislikes procedurals, love low-rated comedies, and is still waiting to see those unaired Lone Star episodes. In other words, he’s pretty much your typical serious TV lover. You can follow him on Twitter. Greg, take it away:
There may not be a classic series whose pilot less resembles what the series was all about than Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And by saying that, I don’t mean that the pilot isn’t any good. On the contrary, the one-two combination of “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “The Harvest” is a deeply entertaining, smart, and even somewhat scary episode of television. It serves as a pretty terrific introduction to this series’ universe and characters, and I loved it even more the second time around. There are also themes and ideas to be found here that the series would explore throughout its run. But at the same time, when you compare the pilot to the series’ later years there aren’t a whole lot of similarities to be found.
And perhaps that’s fitting. Buffy is (arguably more than any other series) defined by the evolution of its characters. They essentially transform into different people over the course of seven seasons, often in extremely dramatic ways. So in a way it makes sense that the series itself went through its own (equally dramatic) evolution over the first couple of seasons. Then of course there’s the more obvious and perhaps more sensible explanation, which is that this was Joss Whedon’s first series and he needed some time to figure out exactly what he wanted it to do and be.
Now I’m not suggesting that Whedon (who wrote both parts of the episode) didn’t have a single clue what he was doing at the start. If that was the case, this pilot wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is. One of the things he had an immediate grasp on was the series’ dialogue, which remains the absolute best on any series I’ve seen, aside from maybe Deadwood. “Welcome to the Hellmouth” in particular is filled with the witty one-liners, sharp quips, and hilarious exchanges that are one of the main reasons so many people love Buffy. The scenes here between Buffy and Giles are particularly terrific in that regard, most notably a sequence where they discuss the roles of Watchers vs. Slayers that is just an absolute joy to listen to.
He also displays a gift for crafting lovable characters right off the bat, although that has as much to do with the actors as it does with the writing. As played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy is a superb central heroine who’s easy to root for, and while Giles and Xander aren’t all that well-defined initially they’re also nearly impossible to dislike thanks to the talents of Anthony Stewart Head and Nicholas Brendon. And then there’s Alyson Hannigan’s Willow, easily my favorite Buffy character as well as the one who goes through perhaps the most dramatic arc when all is said and done. For me it was quite jarring to be reminded of just how different she is in this pilot compared to who she became later on, but she’s never more endearing than she is here.
What happens to Jesse is also pretty noteworthy, and it’s one of the few glimpses we get of Whedon’s grander plans for the series. He introduces Jesse as a fairly major character, establishing him in just a few short scenes as a somewhat awkward but good-natured guy (much like Xander) and letting us get to know and like him. After he gets taken by the Master’s underlings, we think we know how this will end. Buffy has to save the day, right? Nope. She does, of course, but not until after Jesse gets turned into a vampire and dusted. This isn’t quite the equivalent of the shocking and heartbreaking deaths that occur later on in Buffy and in some of Whedon’s other works, but the fact that he was willing to do something like this in a pilot is still kind of amazing.
However, it also leads me into the main point of this piece stated above. As we’ve seen, the pilot does offer some small hints at the direction the series would go starting in the middle of season two. But on the whole it doesn’t really have a lot of ambition. Jesse’s death is important and will have subtle effects on Xander that play an important role in later episodes. What it lacks is any sort of immediate emotional impact here and now. Things go back to normal pretty quickly. And while “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “The Harvest” have a few jolts (indeed, I’d say they’re both far scarier in the conventional sense than the majority of Buffy episodes are), they’re the kind that you shake off almost immediately. Nothing really stays with you.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Whedon made the conscious choice to keep the episode light-hearted, and it works. But the things that make Buffy a series worth remembering are barely present here, apart from the aforementioned dialogue and characters. There aren’t any rich themes to speak of. Instead, we get a far too obvious and only mildly clever metaphor delivered by Buffy’s mom about how teenage life always seems like a life or death situation: an unfortunate trend that will continue through much of the first season (such as the “invisible girl” who actually becomes invisible in “Out of Mind, Out of Sight”). The many different tones the series would later balance with ease are also mostly nonexistent, as it instead sticks to the effective but not particularly inventive mix of horror and comedy that a title like Buffy the Vampire Slayer would suggest (complete with predictably cheesy monsters). And it succeeds because of how fresh and fun it is.
That freshness goes away pretty quickly after the pilot. Unfortunately, Whedon and company take quite a while to figure that out. The majority of the ten season one outings that follow this solid start are rather terrible: repeating the few things that didn’t work about it (the cheesiness, inane metaphors, lack of emotion, etc.) and offering diminishing returns on the intelligence and charm front. And frankly, this is the kind of series* this two-parter is hinting at, far more so than the profound, emotionally resonant, and often very dark program Buffy wound up becoming. Indeed, if you just have the pilot to go on it’s hard to imagine this series ever delivering an episode of television as brutally powerful as “The Body” or as stunningly ambitious as “Once More, with Feeling”. It just doesn’t seem capable of that kind of depth.
But I hope I’ve also made it clear that the excellence of the pilot isn’t an anomaly. Buffy took a long time to get going, but if nothing else this episode proves that Joss Whedon knows how to tell a story, be it on a small scale or a large one. Only the former is truly on display here, but the complex character arcs, enthralling ongoing storylines, and penchant for risk taking that Whedonverse TV is justly known for arrive soon enough. And when they do, the result is some of the most awesome television ever created. It’s not The Wire, and in my opinion it’s not even Whedon’s best series (the incredibly underrated Dollhouse is my pick for that). But this series at its best is as good as anything that has ever aired, even if that fact is a bit hard to pick up on from just watching the pilot.
It’s a superb hour and a half of television nonetheless. I think so, anyway.
* I don’t mean to suggest that season one is a complete loss. It has a handful of good episodes, and “Angel” and “Prophecy Girl” (while far from perfect) are must-sees for first time viewers. But like many others, I recommend they skip some of the early episodes (particularly “Teacher’s Pet” and “I Robot, You Jane”, both of which are among the worst hours Buffy ever did) and read recaps if they’re worried about missing something important, lest they get turned off to the series before it becomes great. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
And now my newbie thoughts on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer two-part pilot episode:
If there’s one word that keeps coming to mind when I think about these Buffy efforts it has to be cheesy. Most of that stems from the dated – or as Buffy so wittingly says in reference to a fellow club-goer’s outfit, carbon-dated – outfits, musical cues, hairstyles and other aesthetic markers. But I’m not going to spend much time cutting the series down for that, because, well, it was 1997. The late 1990s were a weird time and television series about teens show their age about as much as any other kind of program on the air. These things happen and they happen quite often with this kind of story.
However, I was a smidgen surprised at how cheesy other elements of the pilot were, most notably the way Whedon’s script awkwardly tried to avoid the origin story while still providing too much exposition and the similarly poor lack of subtext in many scenes (most notably, as Greg mentioned, in the conversations between Buffy and her mother). Because I’ve heard so much about Buffy and the “high school is hell” metaphor storytelling, I almost expected Xander to just sarcastically say “Man, high school is hell” somewhere near the end of “The Harvest.” I would guess that if you went back and time and told a lot of viewers that the guy who wrote these scripts would later be one of the most beloved creative minds in Hollywood, they would laugh. Or stake you.
There’s no question that tying typical high school series rhythms and themes to supernatural mythology is a really fun and inventive idea and even in these opening episodes, you can see the purpose behind that kind of storytelling. Structurally, there isn’t much different here than any story you’ve seen about a young person coming to a new school: Buffy’s an outsider. She meets people at the top of the social food-chain and she meets people at the bottom of it. Tension sprouts up because she’s attractive enough to be the former, but would probably prefer to hang out with the latter. Then we’ve given some final act drama where she affirms bonds with the “losers” and eschews the popular folk. Something like The OC started with a fairly similar story, in the most basic sense.
That kind of approach is fine and more or less works okay in this two-parter. BUT, again, I think where the opening salvo of Buffy goes wrong is the little moments that try to hammer home the already-apparent themes and points too strongly. Again, this is an issue that many pilots have; writers (read: the studio and the network mostly) want to make sure the audience knows what’s going on at all times, especially if the story involves any “high concept” threads.
Of course, hindsight is the most fickle of observational sciences we have. It’s easy – and entirely unfair, mind you – for me or anyone else to watch the first two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and say that the series is overrated or that Whedon himself is perhaps not worth the hype. So, you know, I won’t be doing that.
Instead, I think we can look at these first two episodes as the origin story of Joss Whedon’s masterful television career. Here, like any origin story, there are moments of triumph and a fair share of missteps. Amid all the on-the-nose attempts at exploring themes and sometimes lackluster visual pallet, there is an inherent perspective and voice within “Welcome to Hellmouth” and “The Harvest.”
The characters are almost instantly relatable and most importantly, likable. Xander and Willow are adorable, Giles is the perfect combination of stuffiness and self-awareness and even Cordelia has a certain air about her that suggests much deeper complexity than simple bimbo popular girl archetype nonsense. At the center, Buffy is already complicated and compelling. Her reluctance to embrace her Slayer roots never comes off as annoying and the character displays different sides of her identity/personality throughout this opening salvo. Part of the character’s success certainly comes from Sarah Michelle Gellar’s fun performance,* but Whedon brought the character to life as well.
Everyone feels mostly real, they aren’t just ciphers for occasionally witty dialogue. This means we care about them quite quickly, despite the plot-heavy machinations of this pilot. And as Greg pointed out, this care for characters extends all the way down to Jesse, which is something 9.5/10 pilot scripts would never care or even attempt to do. Therefore, although this is a story with all these supernatural elements and typical high school drama, Buffy and Whedon ground it in individuals and their issues. From everything Whedon-related I’ve watched, this is one of his best skills as a writer (and likely why his characters remain so popular in the eyes of fans so many years later).
On a related note, in our short introduction to Sunnydale, the place feels like a relatively well-formed place. Whedon’s aforementioned work bringing smaller characters to life in quick fashion helps the school bits from being clichéd – the principal is especially fun and eccentric – and Giles’ exposition about the location’s history is some of the better exposition in the 90 minutes.
Ultimately, though the Buffy pilot has to serve a number of masters, Whedon pulls it off. Character development and plot are well-balanced and even if the thematic touchpoints are delivered in somewhat hackneyed fashion, at least they are present. This is more than we can say for many pilots.
Greg talked about how Whedon and the writers needed a whole season to really figure out what kind of story they were telling and while that might be entirely true and the second season might see a substantial increase in quality, I still get the impression that Whedon had sufficient control of what he wanted to do with theme and plot. The big problem was likely in figuring out how he would do those things. (Again, all superheroes have a primary goal as soon as they start out; it doesn’t mean they can accomplish it yet.) Many series don’t look their ultimate or “great” selves in pilots or even initial seasons. Early on, you’re trying to attract the largest, broadest audience possible and then hoping they’ll stick around when you drop more complicated stories on them later. Again, I haven’t seen much of Buffy outside of the big tentpole standalones, but it sure feels like Whedon took that kind of approach with his story here.
Plus, I’d guess that the WB wanted a certain amount of teen angst at the beginning and despite Whedon’s avoidance of a true origin story, there were plot elements to explain through exposition. So sure, these first two episodes don’t include some of the meatier, complex material that later seasons do, but they lay some very quality groundwork for what’s to come. Even if, as Greg suggested, much of the first season is drab, exploring the basic framework of “high school is hell” clearly established enough sufficient storytelling and character work to charm executives and audiences into coming back for a second season.
As we move along the week and take a look at Whedon’s subsequent work, I’m guessing my guests and I will discuss his growing confidence and assertiveness as a writer, director and storyteller and for good reason. However, while the Buffy pilot sees Whedon working in the constraints of typical network and studio notes and constraints, he does so very well. Obviously, there is tons of value in being such a unique and powerful storytelling force that mainstream audiences can’t comprehend your vision and your series fails, only to be celebrated in the aftermath for years to come. Whedon is and has been that person. But as Buffy (and I’m strongly betting, The Avengers film coming this year) suggests, Whedon is also the kind of creative storyteller who knows how to work within the industrial structures and provide a compelling, smart, moving and enjoyable product.* And I’d argue that being able to do both is what makes Whedon so great.**
*There might be a discussion to be had about the correlation between pilot simplicity and long-term longevity with Whedon’s series. This one is the “simplest,” and it’s also the series that lasted the longest. Coincidence?
**Relatedly, I’m wondering if you big Whedon fans think he should dial “it” (whatever that is) back so that a pilot could be a bit more “mainstream” (lots of air-quotes here, folks) and therefore easily consumable? I guess one could argue that he tried to do that with the second Dollhouse pilot, but FOX had already lost confidence in the series at that point, which is of course very unfortunate.
Conclusions on legacy: Not as great or really reflective of what’s to come, but still valuable