Welcome back, Buffyphiles! There’s something appropriately perverse about the fact that we’ve spent the last two summers exploring a show that generally follows the academic calendar. While the characters of Buffy The Vampire Slayer are on break, we’re heading back to class.
This summer though will be a little different from the last couple. I’ll only be watching one Buffy season—Season Five—instead of my usual two. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I’ll be covering the second season of Angel side-by-side with Buffy. My plan is to write up two episodes of each, each week. The posts will be up every Friday around noonish. I’ll be taking one break, the Friday before Independence Day, but otherwise I’ll be rolling straight through, and ending in late August. Then my tentative plan is to take September off and resume the Buffy/Angel write-ups in October. (But that’s very tentative, I’ll warn you now. If the fall TV schedule turns out to be crowded with shows worth watching, I may have to alter my plans.)
I have to say, I’ve been very excited about getting back into the Buffyverse, especially since I know that both these seasons are generally well-regarded by fans. Also, we’re entering into the era of Buffy episodes about which I know very little (aside from one major tragic turn of plot that I know is coming up this season). And Angel I’ve never known much about, so I’m looking forward to being surprised. As always, feel free to talk about upcoming twists in the comment section, just please label your posts with spoiler warnings for the sake of those of us watching these shows for the first time.
Now let’s get to it.
“Buffy Vs. Dracula” & “Real Me”
After all my chatter above about the academic calendar, Buffy’s Season Five premiere “Buffy Vs. Dracula” is more of a “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” episode, from the scene of the Scoobies frolicking on the beach—where Buffy throws a football so hard she injures Riley, and Willow casts a handy fire-starting spell that inadvertently sparks a thundershower—to our heroes taking stock of where they are before starting another school year. Even with the security of a girlfriend, Xander’s still feeling like the useless “butt monkey” of the group (“who eats insets and gets the funny syphilis”), and he’s getting increasingly cranky. Giles feels like Buffy doesn’t really need him anymore, so he’s quietly making plans to move back to England. And Buffy finds herself ducking out on Riley and her mother more and more so that she can slay. She’s not just patrolling anymore to keep Sunnydale safe; she’s hunting, because she likes the thrill of the kill.
Into this heady atmosphere steps Dracula—yes, that Dracula. He’s arrived in Sunnydale because he’s heard of The Slayer and relishes the challenge of seducing and enslaving “a creature whose darkness rivals my own.” Dracula starts by turning Xander into his bug-gobbling Renfield (a conversion that occurs comically fast), then by persuading Joyce to let him into Buffy’s room, where he begins the process of enthrallment. Xander later betrays the Buffy-guarding Anya and takes Buffy to his Master (“There’s this whole deal where I get to be immortal,” he explains sheepishly), where Dracula offers Buffy a chance to understand vampires better and find her “true nature.” But when Buffy plays along, she has a vision of The First Slayer, which snaps her back to her mission. “I really think the thrall has gone out of our relationship,” she announces, before staking the elusive Dracula with a hearty shout of, “Euro-trashed!” (Then he reconstitutes and she stakes him again. And again.)
I’ve heard “Buffy Vs. Dracula” cited as a prime example of Buffy’s tendency toward weak season-openers, but I didn’t think it was so bad. Though the episode does engage in a bit of unintentional self-critique when Spike complains that to him, Dracula is just some jerk who owes him 11 pounds and whose fame is responsible for teaching the world how to kill vampires. The main problem with “Buffy Vs. Dracula” is that if you’ve ever read or seen any version of the Dracula legend before, then just about everything that happens in the episode from the moment Dracula appears is fairly predictable, and throwing the Buffy gang into the mix doesn’t make a musty old story that much fresher. That said, “Buffy Vs. Dracula” does serve the function of re-introducing all the characters (plus one!) and letting them take a few warm-up tosses, while also establishing that Buffy feels the need for Giles to step back in and be a full-time Watcher again, to help her control her raging emotions. That’s an important piece of character business, for Buffy and Giles.
Frankly, I was more befuddled by the episode that follows, “Real Me,” for reasons related to the usual problems of introducing and sustaining a new story arc. In the last few seconds of “Buffy Vs. Dracula,” we meet Dawn (played by Michelle Trachtenberg), the never-before-seen younger sister of the previously sibling-free Buffy. Then in “Real Me,” Trachtenberg shows up in the opening credits and narrates the episode in diary form, explaining how she can’t stand Buffy and the way everyone fusses over her—even though by the end of the hour Buffy will be responsible for saving Dawn’s life from Harmony’s inept new vampire gang.
“Real Me” has a tricky task: it has to introduce Dawn in such a way that the characters treat her sudden, unexplained presence as no big deal, while the show lets its audience know that’s something’s fishy (lest said audience storm the writers’ offices with pitchforks, demanding to know why they're ruining a great show with some weak attempt to appeal to a younger demographic). Writer David Fury does this at first bluntly, by having a crazy drunk on the street confront Dawn and hiss, “You don’t belong here,” and then more subtly, by having Buffy chastise Dawn for her ignorance in vampire-handling, saying, “It’s not like Dawn hasn’t grown up in this house!” Since we know that Dawn didn’t grow up in the Summers home, it’s clear—or should be—that this isn’t some clumsy retcon. (It helps too that Buffy introduced the concept of altered realities in Season Four’s “Superstar.”)
I know a little bit (but not all) about where the Dawn storyline is heading, so I wasn’t bothered by her existence in the abstract. And I enjoyed seeing her interact with Willow and Xander, who treated her as a happy fact of life, not a pest. (Since the start of Season Four, Willow and Xander haven’t shared as many meaningful scenes with Buffy as they once did, so it’s nice that they have someone new to talk to.) But I have a low threshold for petulant teens on TV, and Dawn’s brash idiocy throughout “Real Me” drove me batty, especially given that the villains of the episode weren’t exactly geniuses themselves. If Fury and company didn’t want fans to hate Dawn on sight, they could’ve made her a little more sympathetic right from the get-go, and put her in some peril that the viewer could take more seriously.
That said, there’s a keen little theme running under “Real Me,” about how group dynamics change over time. While Dawn’s being introduced as a full-fledged left-field cast member, Tara’s worrying that she’s not been fully accepted into the Scoobies. (And she has reason to worry: she’s not in the opening credits.) And while Buffy and Willow prepare to start their sophomore year of college, their go-nowhere high school chums are still hanging around and haunting them in the form of Harmony & Her Minions (and, to a lesser extent, Xander). Here’s Buffy, working hard to better herself, and here’s this group of idiots she hated as a teenager, now easily dispatched with a handy unicorn figurine.
The other big change in “Real Me” involves Giles, who takes over the Sunnydale magic shop even though the owners of that establishment “have the life expectancy of Spinal Tap drummer.” But Giles is impressed by the high profit margins and the fact that unlike his librarian job “people pay for the things they never return.” And so, in just two episodes, the Buffy writers have given Giles a new purpose and a new lair, to parallel Buffy’s new purpose and new sister. And so a new season begins.
“Judgment” & “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been”
“Judgment,” he first episode of Angel’s second season is also a bit of a “welcome back,” though it’s one that deftly expands the Angelverse and establishes where our heroes stand in it. We begin by meeting a new character, Lorne (played by Andy Hallett), the host at a demon karaoke bar called Caritas, which is Latin for “Mercy.” Lorne tells his audience about the merciless streets of Los Angeles, then sings “I Will Survive,” setting the scene for the show in the broadest way possible. Then “Judgment” narrows, showing Angel, Cordelia and Wesley banding together to prevent a ritual sacrifice from occurring at a local gym. Yes, there’s danger out there. But our TV pals are on the case, using whiteboards and computers to chart their progress in squelching evil and winning Angel back his full humanity.
Or are they? The title “Judgment” has two meanings in this episode, one of which refers to Angel’s lack thereof. When he comes across what appears to be a pregnant woman, Jo, fleeing a demon, Angel slays the demon, then finds out from Jo that the creature he killed was her protector, meant to stand up for her at a Tribunal against another demon who intends to kill her and take her baby. (That would be the second meaning of “judgment.”) So Angel has to earn Jo’s trust, track down an ancient talisman, mount a horse, and beat back the bad guy—all of which he does. But he’s still left feeling shaken by the whole experience, and in particular by Jo’s admonition that her unborn child is “my daughter, not someone’s holy mission.” At the beginning of “Judgment,” Angel is so cocky that he’s making plans to join a health club once he gets through his humanity-restoring paces. By the end, he’s realized that he needs to focus more on the paces, not the finish line. (He even takes a trip to see Faith in prison, to learn a little more about how redemption can be humbling.)
Season Two’s second episode, “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been,” is reportedly one that ranks high in Angel fan polls, and believe me, I’m not about to disparage it. This is a slick, smart hour of television: one that advances certain elements of the season’s story, while also serving as an unusual way to explore the character of the hero and his city. (And as we saw with the opening of “Judgment,” it looks like Los Angeles is going to play a bigger role in the series this year.) It begins with Angel asking Wesley and Cordelia to investigate a building he stumbled into back in “Judgment:” an abandoned hotel bearing the vestiges of old Hollywood glamor. “Are You Now” follows Wesley and Cordelia digging through old documents, while simultaneously flashing back to the ‘50s, when the Hyperion Hotel was in its heyday and a surly vampire named Angel was a resident.
“Are You Now” is structured beautifully by writer Tim Minear, who shows us the adventures of Angel in the ‘50s—sulking around a hotel where prostitutes, homosexuals, communists and other “undesirables” conduct their dirty business in secret—and then shows us Wesley and Cordelia piecing together the Hyperion legend, but only in fragments. The episode’s well-directed too by David Semel too, who evokes classic retro-L.A. movies like Chinatown and Barton Fink and L.A. Confidential, but also Alfred Hitchock and Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray. It works as an offbeat one-off, but also expands the Angel mythology, by reminding the audience how long the show’s hero has been around, and then giving him a new home at the end of the episode when he decides to move Angel Investigations’ offices to the Hyperion.
First though, Angel has to evict the one remaining tenant: a Thesulac demon who feeds on the fears and paranoia of the Hyperion’s residents. In the ‘50s, he drove guests to madness and suicide, and led one scared young woman named Judy—an African-American bank embezzler passing for white—to front an angry mob that tried to lynch Angel. Back then, an embittered Angel said to hell with humanity, and let the Thesulac feed at will. Now, he has to flush the beast out of the Hyperion, and incidentally free Judy, who’s been living with her guilt and giving the Thesulac something to dine on for 50 years.
Angel’s confrontation with the Thesulac—who makes a couple of speeches about how terrible humans are—are a hair too Twilight Zone-y, but the brilliance of the episode is, again, in its structure, which urges the audience to root for The ‘50s Angel to get his hero on and save the people at the Hyperion, even as Cordelia and Wesley are uncovering yellowed newspaper clippings that tell us he’s going to fail. The old Angel seems moved by Judy’s story of prejudice—“It’s just blood,” he tells her, referring to the insignificance of race to him—but when she turns, he re-hardens, and “just blood” takes on a different meaning, not too far removed from “just food.” In the present day though, Angel is a whole different person. Now, one human isn’t just like another. Now each has a distinct cry for help, and Angel is trying hard to be all ears.
A middling start for Buffy; a strong start for Angel. It’s interesting (to me anyway) how Buffy seems to be stalling a bit at the start of Season Five, by keeping its heroes out of the classroom so that it can set up new places to hang out and new people to hang out with. By contrast, Angel seems to be maintaining the momentum it built up at the end of the first season, reestablishing the now-well-honed premise of the show—that it’s about a be-souled vampire doing good deeds to get his humanity back—and building out the world in which that premise takes place. We get a new HQ, a new hangout in Caritas, a new character in Lorne, and an expanded role for last season’s late addition, the streetwise monster-hunter Charles Gunn. Yet between the “Dawn’s Diary” gimmick of “Real Me” and the flashbacks of “Are You Now,” it’s also clear that Buffy and Angel writers are equally willing to take chances with their storytelling, and not just coast on old shtick. This should be a fun summer.
-On the beach, Anya asserts that “exertion can lead to sweatiness,” which is no good. Willow replies, “I think we’ve just put our fingers on why we’re the sidekicks.”
-I don’t know if this counts as a “Hey, it’s the year 2000!” moment or not, but seeing Willow and Xander holding big coffee beverages when they encounter Dracula certainly struck me a sign of the times.
-Reactions to Dracula: Willow’s turned on, Tara’s jealous, and Xander mocks him with a Sesame Street reference. Anya, meanwhile, has met Dracula before, and wonders wistfully if he remembers.
-Anya doesn’t want to come back to Xander’s laundry room apartment. “It’s whites day, remember? The bleach smell makes me nauseous.”
-I liked how before Dracula nibbles on Buffy, he sees the scars that Angel left.
-Xander, trying to keep everyone from realizing that he’s in thrall to Dracula: “Like any of that’s enough to fight the dark master… bater.” (And later: “I think you’re drawing a lot of conclusions about the unholy prince… bater.”)
-Can you blame Joyce for letting Dracula into her house? At this point, how is she supposed to be able to tell who’s a legitimate threat to her immortal soul and who’s just one of her daughter’s new pals?
-Tara gets a happy little smile when Joyce talks about “giving up on men.”
-“See… that’s thrall.”
-“I’ve lived in Sunnydale a couple of years now. You know what I’ve never noticed before? A big honkin’ castle!”
-Giles has a Monty Python moment when he’s being ravished by The Three Sisters at Dracula’s castle. Riley saves him, but Giles isn’t sure he wants to be saved. (“Is that my shoe? Silly me! I’ll just pop down and…”)
-At the start of “Real Me,” Buffy is training with crystals. (Just like Spencer Pratt!)
-I can’t imagine what the fan reaction was to Dawn when “Real Me” first aired, but I do imagine that some folks were annoyed that Michelle Trachtenberg showed up in the opening credits all of a sudden while Amber Benson was still on the outs.
-Dawn is annoyed that Buffy doesn’t get her reference to Hogwarts. (That’s gotta be a “Hey, it’s the year 2000!” moment, right?)
-Riley’s sure that Joyce wouldn’t take it so well if he said, “I’m here to violate your firstborn.” (Though it’s true.)
-“Not the invasion of Normandy, but still a plan.”
-Dawn thinks Giles must be old because he uses the word “newfangled.”
-A tee-hee moment: Dawn muses in her diary that she wishes Willow and Tara would “teach me some of the things they’re doing together.”
-Anya, playing The Game Of Life with Xander and Dawn, misunderstands what success is. “I’m burdened with a husband, tiny pink children, and more cash than I can reasonably manage!” (When Xander explains that this means she’s winning, she chirps, “Can I trade in the children for more cash?”)
-Speaking of changes in the credits, Angel now has J. August Richards as Charles Gunn, even though Gunn doesn’t get to do much in the first two episodes. Also, Shawn Ryan’s now listed as a producer (fresh from his stint on Nash Bridges), which I believe is a new development.
-“Judgment” opens with one of my least favorite TV rug-pulls: the old “Why is Cordelia so upset? Oh, she’s acting.” routine. I can’t remember the last time that bit actually fooled me.
-I’m happy that Angel has a new headquarters, but I’m sorry that we won’t be spending more time hanging around Cordelia’s with Ghost Dennis.
-Cordelia’s sneezes look a lot like her visions.
-The big conflict between Angel Investigations and Wolfram & Hart doesn’t get much play at the start of Season Two, though we do get a scene in “Judgment” to remind us that the evil lawyers have brought back Darla, Angel’s sire, in hopes of getting him out of their hair. More to come, surely.
-Wesley tries to make Angel feel better about his killing Jo’s protector, reminding him that this particular demon is super-mean. “We’re supposed to believe he’d change his modus operandi overnight?” Angel, naturally, is not placated by this.
-Cordelia’s attempt to make Angel feel better: “You can’t see everything. You’re just a vampire, like everyone else. That didn’t come out right.”
-One decent bit of Gunn business in “Judgment:” the scene where a man assumes that Gunn’s crew is coming after him when they’re actually trying to save him from a vampire. It reinforces the “never presume” theme of the episode, as does the scene later where Gunn brings The Talisman to Wesley and Cordelia and they think he’s a robber.
-I like the addition of Lorne, who gets his customers to sing so that he can peer into their souls and then counsel them. (Angel sings Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” which I can’t hear any more without thinking of The Simpsons.)
-Lorne, introducing his next client to the crowd: “He’s searching for the Gorrishyn Mage who stole his power and he’s feeling just a little bit country.”
-Cordelia gets her noir-speak on in “Judgment,” saying things like, “Make with the chin music until he canaries”
-Wesley warns that mystical events can rise up in our reality whenever they please, which looks extra-weird when it happens in downtown Los Angeles.
-Angel worries that the cup of blood Cordelia gives him is starting to coagulate, but it’s actually just the sprinkle of cinnamon she added.
-In “Are You Now,” the ‘50s Angel gets information on demon-slaying from a beatnik bookshop owner named Denver—a nod to Bob Denver, who played the original TV beatnik Maynard G. Krebs.
-More references: Judy passing for white recalls Imitation Of Life, and her sack of embezzled money nods to Psycho. And when Judy talks to Angel by The Griffith Observatory, it’s a lot like Rebel Without A Cause.
-“Don’t you dare use alliteration with me, you hack!”
-Wesley doesn’t think anyone’s been calling him paranoid. (“Unless people have been saying that behind my back.”)