1997 Pilots: BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
Season 1, Episode 1
Date of airing: Mar 10, 1997 (WB)
Nielsen ratings information: 4.8 million viewers, 3.4/5 in Households (numbers include 1×02, because the two episodes aired back-to-back)
It’s time for my official rewatch of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. One of the shows that accompanied me through my teenage years, and one of the rare shows that managed to accompany through my 20s as well, because I was able to never lose the magic of the show. I was able to never forget what the show meant to me when I watched seasons four through seven for the first time in German primetime television (after the first three seasons have been aired on weekend afternoons), and I was able to never forget the meaning of the stories and the intention of the writers. I was able to realize that BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was more than just one show on television, and I was able to see the bigger picture behind the show’s characters, twists and stories. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER is pretty much good for me in all ages. During my teens when I watched it for the first time, during my early 20 when I appreciated the show for its meanings I couldn’t decipher the first time around, during my mid-20s when I wanted to get into an epic and well-thought show, and now during my late-20s when I want to experience a bigger mythology. A mythology that is not only well-thought (the third season teasing stuff coming up in the fifth season, and this episode teasing stuff that will be seen at the end of the second season), but a mythology that actually makes sense (but only when you overlook the minor differences during the first few hours of “experimenting”, which seems to be the case with every genre show on television). A mythology that thankfully got continued in comic form. And here we are why I am rewatching the show now, apart from experience a grande spectacle of a mythology: I finally want to get into the whole of the comic series. I only read part of season eight, and none of season nine, and I want to do this now. But I want to get the TV show done first.
The difficulties I have with BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER are mostly within the first season: It’s just not my kind of show. Almost 20 years later, I find the Master (Mark Metcalf) to be a ridiculous villain, because for me he is a clichéd old vampire who is not able to do anything – this episode established it perfectly: His henchmen have to bring the silly victims, so he can rise, and only his henchmen can kill and drink the teens, so that the Master can break out of his “lair” and be a real villain. Yes, it’s kinda interesting that your major villain is not able to do anything during the first hours of your show (that means his character development would show how he became a dangerous foe for your heroine, when he was a weak pussy in the first hour), but for me it’s just deadly to establish your major villain with a whole shitload of weaknesses. You are supposed to make your major villain dangerous as fuck, but the only dangerous foe you bring in is the Master’s puppy dog. Furthermore, the first season is really getting old and doesn’t stand the test of time any longer. The way Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) was established in her new school and surroundings was nothing for me, because it happened so fast. With everything that happened in the script for the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER movie, you would think that Buffy is a little cautious about the people she meets and talks. But instead she jumps right into the conversation, she jumps right into the pool of new friendships, and this not only with a seemingly cool chick like Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), but also with a wallflower like Willow (Alyson Hannigan). This is a thing you can do within a few first episodes of a show, but that Buffy was able to make friends AND enemies with Cordelia WITHIN one hour seems ridiculous (and too fast) for me. The next thing I have a problem with would be the silliness of the whole episode. It might have worked in 1997, but more than a dozen years later, the first season has become campy and cheap. I know that Joss Whedon and his team had not enough money to put on “their” show, and had to take a lot of shortcuts, but the separation between light comedy moments and somewhat dark mystery is too off most of the times. At first you have a Buffy not caring about vampires on the high school campus, and not even half a second later she almost gets crushed under the weight of the world, because she suddenly knows she is dealing with vampires (again). The same in the scene with Buffy and Giles (Anthony Head) on the patio in the Bronze. Giles is all kinds of serious, and Buffy kind of listens to what Giles has to say (the establishment of the mentor role Giles will be carrying for most of his character’s run), but then Buffy has to debunk the seriousness of the situation and make a light comedy out of it. I know that this was Whedon’s effort to recreate the horror clichés and change them around, and I don’t have a problem with that, but I don’t like how the horror moments were redefined, and where Whedon drew the line between horror and comedy. The change between the two genres was anything but smooth.
Well, so much for the problems with this episode, and I’m sure I will mention many more throughout the first season, and the first half of the second season. What was actually good about the pilot was how smoothly the setup was handled. The characters’ introduction was nicely done and not in an over-the-top way. Everyone was properly introduced, both in a simple and usual television drama (everyone got a fair amount of screentime, as long as you were not the main protagonist of the show), and in a pilot for an ensemble show. Of course the main focus had to be on Buffy, but it’s great how Xander, Willow, Giles and Cordelia got enough screentime during the hour to define their characters for the first season. At least half of the pilots nowadays can’t even manage to do that. Unfortunately, Whedon’s future pilots couldn’t do that either. DOLLHOUSE had the problem of underdeveloped characters in the (original) pilot, and MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. needs more than a handful of episodes to finally get into proper character introduction. Well, at least FIREFLY kinda worked out, but that pilot was a little awkward on different levels, but more to that when I can actually go into FIREFLY, and this time for more than just four episodes. Anyway, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER worked well with its character introduction, and it worked well when it comes to the story setup. Buffy’s past (in the movie script) was put on screen well here (thanks to the energetic conversations between Giles and Buffy), and the introduction of the Hellmouth, and how it’s going to be trouble for everyone sooner or later is a nice way to fuck shit up early in the show, before shit actually gets fucked up. In addition, it was nice to see that Buffy’s vampire trouble in the first episode was not that heavy. I mean, she only fought against the Master’s little henchmen for a few seconds at the end of the episode, before getting interrupted by Luke (Brian Thompson) – considering how well pilots of the 21st century manage to get the action going twice or thrice within the first 20 minutes, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was not only classic in its genre setup, but also in a way pilots should be, even yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
But yeah, the episode is rusty, dusty, and old by now. Compared to later seasons of the show, which tend to be much fresher than the first seasons, it’s surprising how “un-well” this show has aged. I wonder what the reasons might be. Did Whedon know where to go with his show during the production of this season? Was the budget really THAT small? Was the whole first season just a field of experiments, just in case the show is a success and gets renewed for a second season? Somehow it feels that when you experiment with your show, it barely stands the test of time. Because when you experiment with what you have (a tight budget, and pretty much no audience value, because you were shooting without the opinion of the people), you tend to focus a little too much on the big things. There is a reason why most, if not all, of this season’s little things are practically forgotten with the start of the second season. 5/10