Sunday, March 2, 2008

Why Buffy Matters

I recently finished reading Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a collection of critical essays on Joss Whedon's hit television series, written by Buffy scholar Rhonda Wilcox. In what was the most entertaining, consistent, and accessible Buffy essay collection I've read so far, Wilcox focuses on the psychology of the series (perhaps overreaching a bit with all of the so-called Freudian phallic representations) and on the show's various cycles through the Campbellian hero myth paradigm. But what I found most interesting about Wilcox's approach to the series was the time spent on the "art" part - from analyzing the lighting to the diegetic and non-diegetic sound cues, to the many other artistic nuances that Joss Whedon's creative team brought to the series, making it more than just a run-of-the-mill cult phenomenon.

Along with dissecting the "broad patterns" in the series, Wilcox spends six chapters on seven of the episodes that most completely represent the artistic, emotional, and thematic merit of the series - season two's "Surprise/Innocence" (love and loss), season three's "The Zeppo" (comedy), season four's "Hush" (fear - the only Emmy-nominated episode) and "Restless" (poetry), season five's "The Body" (death), and season six's "Once More, With Feeling" (song - the famed musical episode). These episodes are widely considered the best of the series and were amply dissected by Wilcox, though she made it clear that there was much more that could be said about the episodes, and as a reader hungry for more Buffy (can one ever be truly satiated?), I would have been happy to read another hundred pages on the subject.

Why DOES Buffy Matter?

I was a fan of Buffy from the very first episode which I watched at the age of eleven in March of 1997. A month later, after experiencing a personal tragedy , I felt terribly guilty as I tuned into season one's "The Pack"; I knew that watching Buffy would make me happy, and I wasn't sure that I was allowed to feel that way.

For seven years I was moved, excited, and inspired by the series, although it wasn't until college, a full year after the series ended, that I fully embraced my fandom when I discovered that thousands of grownups, scholars, and college students like me loved Buffy too - and that was okay. There hasn't been another series before or since that I have fallen in love with so thoroughly, and at least part of the reason is that I only had one childhood, and that childhood was dedicated to Buffy, a kick-ass heroine, and the gal every girl secretly wishes she could be, assuming that imminent death and the complex business of being responsible for the fate of the world were not always getting in the way.

Long before I began listening to the director's commentaries and reading essays on the greatness of Buffy, I had my own list of episodes that moved me the most (to laughter or to tears), and along with the seven Wilcox discussed, these are the episodes that I eagerly awaited to see in syndication during the series' run and the episodes that I watched the most frequently in my Buffy DVD series box set.

  • Welcome to the Hellmouth / The Harvest - I was hooked from the beginning. When Buffy outsmarts the Vessel to save the day, it just sets the pace for all of the sassy quips and near-apocalypses to follow.
  • The Witch - Buffy may have super strength, but she's vulnerable too, and this is the first episode where we really see that her friends, the "normal" folk, are invaluable sidekicks in the Slayer's mission.
  • Nightmares - As if living on the Hellmouth wasn't bad enough, imagine how terrifying it is when your personal nightmares are roaming free. What is it that frightens a slayer the most? Becoming the very evil that she is charged with exterminating.
  • Prophecy Girl - Buffy is sympathetic and vulnerable again when she learns that, at sixteen years old, she is destined to die. But only Buffy could turn the tables to make a prophecy where she dies work in her favor.
  • Halloween - Okay, so I was a fan of the vulnerable Buffy episodes. But how great was it seeing Xander taking command, Willow walking with confidence, and Buffy slipping free of her wig and kicking Spike's ass?
  • What's My Line, Part One and Two - The cliffhanger ending of Part One reveals that there is another slayer (wtf?!!), inspiring every girl between the ages of 9 and 19 to spend hours daydreaming about becoming the next chosen one - until Part Two aired and we discovered it was just a fluke. And oh yeah, Xander and Cordelia hook up!
  • Passion - Joss Whedon likes to kill off beloved characters, right when things are starting to look up for them. Low blow, Joss. Low blow.
  • Becoming, Part One and Two - Packing the most emotional punch of any of the episodes prior to the major deaths in season five, Buffy sacrifices her lover to save the world, and this second season finale is still the best of them all.
  • Homecoming - Buffy and Cordelia battle it out, but it is Cordelia that emerges the victor, in true slayerette fashion.
  • Lovers Walk - Can no relationship work out in this series? Why do you torment us so?
  • The Wish - What if Buffy never came to Sunnydale? This alternate reality is truly horrifying, giving the Gentlemen in "Hush"a run for their money.
  • Enemies - Angel pretending to lose is soul is just as traumatizing as Angel really losing his soul. It's in this episode that we realize to our great dismay that there's too much standing in the way of Buffy and Angel's happily ever after.
  • The Harsh Light of Day - Mega baddie Spike is back with a vengeance and, fortunately, he's here to stay.
  • Who Are You - Faith switches bodies with Buffy and has more fun pretending to be the "good" slayer than Buffy seems to have most of the time.
  • Fool For Love - Spike's past as a serial slayer killer is intriguing, and he adds another piece to the puzzle that is the Slayer. Along with "haven't even begun" to knowing who she is, apparently Buffy also has a "death wish".
  • The Gift - Another great season finale where Buffy must make a truly difficult choice, the consequences of which last longer (in days) than her previous finale sacrifices.
  • Bargaining, Part One and Two - Who would have thought bringing a slayer back to life would have so many severe consequences for all involved? Especially the cute forest critters.
  • Life Serial - As wacky as their torture-Buffy inventions are, the Trio just aren't as intimidating as the big-bads of the past.
  • Tabula Rasa - A hilarious episode with bizarre shark-headed loan sharks, forgotten identities, and the most powerful musical performance to not be included on a Buffy soundtrack (Michelle Branch's "Goodbye to You" - the Willow/Tara breakup song).
  • Normal Again - Are Buffy's adventures in Sunnydale really just one epic hallucination of a mentally-ill young woman in an institution? This episode aired four months after the Charmed episode with a suspiciously similar plotline (Buffy's was better).
  • Seeing Red - Seriously, Whedon? You set us up for yet another happy ending and then rip our still-beating hearts from our bodies as tragedy ensues?
  • Selfless - Anya's 1000 year-old past is revealed and we are treated to yet another wonderful song from the "Once More, With Feeling" era. If only it made it on to the soundtrack.
  • Conversations With Dead People - Dawn is terrorized in her home by an unseen force, Willow turns on the waterworks, and Buffy is psycho-analyzed by a vampire who tells her that she has an inferiority complex about her superiority complex. Reminds me of my own self-diagnosed procrastinating perfectionism.
  • Potential - Dawn's not a potential slayer! And the world rejoices. Although most of the potentials were unlovable whiners, the potential plotline was full of exciting possibilities that reminded me of my favorite Buffy book - Spike and Dru: Pretty Maids All in a Row by Christopher Golden.
  • Chosen - Despite a rocky seventh season, the finale was a satisfying conclusion to the series and a welcome addition to the Buffyverse mythology. And Whedon, bless his heart, set it up so the show could live on through more than just our memories, as the eighth season is now in comic form.
7 + 29. Am I allowed to have 36 favorite episodes?

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