Saturday, July 25, 2009

Buffy: The first third of Season 3

Being home with the proto-flu has given me a chance to watch about a third of Buffy Season 3.

Buffy is the show that really started my second phase of thinking about how to write for television. Working on my own show was really like boot camp for TV script-writing. Watching Team Whedon, on the other hand, gave me an opportunity to reflect on a completely different approach. Most notably:
  • a strong focus on using the act breaks to twist or invert the situation
  • using the main story to develop and comment on a character's emotions
  • telling a coherent season-long story almost totally inside the subtext of the episodes; it's a story that's invisible to a person who watches just one episode, but cumulatively it's quite epic in scale and makes a season of Buffy feel like a novel.
What's been most impressive about these early episodes is how they take their time to really explore difficult emotional terrain for the characters - in particular, the cost of keeping secrets from people.

These first seven episodes have played like an overture to the season, gradually moving sub-plots into place - and when I say "gradually", I mean they're not afraid to let crucial characters drop out of entire episodes while they establish other stuff that's going on. That other stuff includes:
  • Willow and Xander develop feelings for each other
  • Angel returns from several hundred years being tortured in a hell dimension;he's in a bestial state
  • Faith, another slayer, arrives in Sunnydale and develops a complicated relationship with Buffy
  • The Mayor is slowly (very slowly) introduced as a character (*).
(*) The Mayor's been hinted at as far back as ... episode 3 of Season 2 (the one where Spike takes over the school).

It's amazing that by the end of episode 7, the heart of Season 3 has yet to be even hinted at. Sure, Buffy and Faith have had a bit of a well-motivated smackdown in Revelations, but Faith's descent into the dark side? The Mayor's paternal relationship with her?

The characterisations have established that these could be plausible, but even so, they're not even a possibility yet.

The first episode of Season 3 focuses on Buffy's new life after running away from Sunnydale. The central question is 'What will it take to make Buffy go back home?'. Watching Whedon escalate the pressure on Buffy (to the point of trapping her in a hell dimension, just as Angel was) is fun. And the episode totally delivers on its two obligatory emotional beats: (i) Buffy embracing the fact that she can't run away from being a slayer, and (ii) her reunion with her Mum.

Dead Man's Party
An unusual episode, explicitly dealing with the gang having to reknit itself, and learn to trust each other again, after Buffy's long absence.

This one felt far less solid to me - in fact, I stopped watching it at one point (when Buffy's friends start planning something for her during an emotionally difficult time, without asking her if it's something she'd like). Sure, I could interpret that moment as the friends trying to ignore the fact that the situation is emotionally difficult. Unfortunately, it really felt like "Full House Syndrome" - the inability of characters to learn and grow during the course of a TV series.

Faith, Hope and Trick
A really complicated episode developing several subplots, including Buffy moving on from her relationship with Angel, and ending with the kick of a major character returning to Sunnydale.

Beauty and the Beasts
Man, this episode totally features my favourite shot ever of Oz in werewolf form - I love the way he bounds through the halls of the school; it feels genuinely inhuman.

By this point, the show is firmly re-establishing its style of using the A-plots of each episode to advance the bigger picture plot. This is what I mean when I talk about Joss Whedon's voice - not the phrasings he uses for writing dialogue, but the idea that episodes aren't about beating the monster, or even about facing what the monster represents. Episodes are incidents in the broader 'novel' of the season, and the plot of that novel is moving relentlessly forward, sometimes extremely subtly with each episode.

Weird to describe an episode that features a competition called "Slayerfest 98" and a rocket launcher as more of a character piece, but there you go. Great to see Cordelia get a hero moment.

Band Candy
Way more fun that I remembered - I was actually a bit nervous about rewatching this one (much like the upcoming 'Amends'). Sets up a great little run of character moments in future episodes between Joyce and Giles, and outs the Mayor as a bad guy with supernatural connections - but that's really a minor part of this episode, and I'd say it's not totally clear what his status as a recurring villain is at this point

A great episode that deals with bringing the news that Angel is 'alive' to the group: news which puts Faith and Buffy into real conflict for the first time. I like episodes like this - where characters who like each other are strongly opposed, and that opposition comes from well-motivated reasons that have been developing for a while.

Yes, I like drama.

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