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Buffy The Vampire Slayer: "Angel" / "I, Robot... You, Jane" / "The Puppet Show"

Illustration for article titled iBuffy The Vampire Slayer/i: Angel / I, Robot... You, Jane / The Puppet Show
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In my first Buffy blog, I mistakenly referred to Angel's past (as an ancient bad-to-the-bone vampire who cleaned up his act after some gypsies cursed him with a conscience) as having been revealed in the series' second episode. I made that goof because I mixed up information I'd gleaned from one of the DVD featurettes with information I'd obtained from actually watching the show. And now I'm really regretting having watched that featurette, because it would've been so much sweeter to learn about Angel for the first time from this episode–and would've been more genuinely startling if I hadn't already seen the moment where he transforms from hunk to monster after a kiss from Buffy.

Despite the spoilers, "Angel" was still the best Season One episode I've yet seen. I've enjoyed every Buffy I've watched for this blog–with the exception of one I'll be getting to in a minute–but "Angel" is the first installment since the two-part pilot that really lives up to the series' premise. It has twists, drama, dark humor, deep sorrow, sexual tension and a subtle exploration of a significant theme. It's also well-directed by the great Scott Brazil, a former Hill Street Blues helmer who'd later help shepherd The Shield to glory (before being felled at age 50 by ALS).

We begin by meeting The Three, a trio of super-vampires tasked by The Master to take out Buffy–a job they're well on their way to completing, before Angel intervenes. The unhappy couple flees The Three and takes refuge at Buffy's house, where they share a little sexual tension, then–a day later–the kiss that stirs up Angel's evil side and terrifies our heroine. Meanwhile, determined to curry favor with The Master (who's preoccupied with prepubescent Collin, his Anointed One), hot schoolgirl Darla decides to persuade Angel to re-join her on the dark side of vampirism. Her plan? To get Buffy to turn on Angel, and then for Angel to kill Buffy. Her method? She weasels her way into Buffy's house by pretending to be a classmate, takes a bite out of Buffy's mother Joyce, then shoves Joyce into Angel's arms just before Buffy comes home.

Part of the beauty of "Angel" is the way it slyly converts a standard piece of vampire lore–the idea that vampires can only come into your home if you invite them–and uses it to illuminate some ideas about "family" in the Buffyverse. Typically, writers use the "vampires have to be invited in" idea to imply that everyone has a little wickedness in them, and that succumbing to vampires (whether they're being used as a metaphor for sex, drugs, mediocrity, or straight-up evil) is really a matter of a giving in to an impulse that's already there. In the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episodes I've seen, the good guys are outcasts who cling to a private hope that they can be normal, and maybe someday "belong." Thus Buffy invites in a vampire who's a prospective boyfriend, and Joyce invites in a vampire who looks like an ordinary schoolfriend for her daughter (for a change), and Angel is tempted to leave behind his refrigerator full of stolen blood bags to join Darla and The Master and what they both describe warmly as, yes, "family."

The rest of the beauty of "Angel" is the way it exploits the ambiguity raised by this theme to tease and bait the audience. (Kudos are due to the episode's writer, David Greenwalt, who was also responsible for last week's thematically rich "Teacher's Pet.") Having seen Sunnydale High's principal get devoured just one episode ago, we can't assume that Darla–or Angel!–won't kill Joyce, nor do we know whether Buffy will realize that the whole Angel-about-to-chow-down-on-her-mom thing is a big misunderstanding. For all we know, Buffy might just kill Angel. (That is, if we didn't already know that David Boreanz had a couple more seasons of playing Angel on Buffy ahead of him before spinning off into his own series.) Xander certainly wants Buffy to do her sworn duty as The Chosen One, because it'll eliminate a key rival for her affections, and edge him that much closer to living out his dream of "belonging."

And there are also a multitude of character touches, funny bits of dialogue, and milieu-enriching moments that make "Angel" a significant episode. I like how The Master comes off as half Proud Papa with Collin, and half sarcastic smartass. I like how Buffy's first encounter with The Three reveals her as vulnerable, really for the first time on the show. I like how Buffy's chaste (but sexually charged) sleepover with Angel involves her lying to her mom, just like any other horny teenager. I like how when Buffy asks Angel if he snores, he forlornly says, "I don't know." I like how Giles' request that Buffy learn to master the quarterstaff prompts her to complain, "I'm not going to be fighting Friar Tuck." I like how when Buffy thinks Angel has been reading her diary, she snappishly points out that when she refers to "A" she means "Ahmed, a charming foreign exchange student," and that contrary to what she may have written, Angel's eyes are "bulging, not penetrating." I even like that a good chunk of the episode takes place before, during and after The Bronze undergoes "a fumigation"–a neat nod to the business of this episode and this series.

But mostly I love that when Buffy kisses Angel goodbye, she leaves him with a cross-shaped scar on his chest. A perfect ending to pretty much a perfect episode.

Grade: A

"I Robot, You Jane"

And then we go from the sublime to the ridiculous. I knew going in–from reading your comments, mainly–that this episode and the one that follows are considered series lows by many, and having expended so much energy contemplating "Angel," I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time on "I Robot, You Jane" or "The Puppet Show." (The fact that I'm writing this while on vacation has nothing to do with my wanting to zip through the rest of this…well, almost nothing.)

I'll get into the primary problem with both of these episodes in the "Overall Thoughts" section (and offer a mild defense of "The Puppet Show" in a moment). But first, "I Robot, You Jane," in which we learn that the world of 1997 is a whole new era where people get "jacked in" and "go on line," while old fuddy-duddies like Giles with their ancient texts and disdain for the modern are in danger of becoming obsolete. And yet, consider this cautionary tale: What if Willow were to inadvertently scan a spell from one of those ancient texts into a networked computer, thereby releasing the demon Moloch into the web, where he would proceed to enslave a couple of vengeful nerds and to flirt with Willow? Well, much silliness would ensue, obviously…even before Moloch inevitably downloads himself into a robot body and gets electrocuted.

As I said, I'll get into the fundamental problem with "I Robot, You Jane" in a moment, but for now, let me point out a few things I found odd about the episode: like the sudden appearance of other students and an additional teacher in Sunnydale's library (a reasonably welcome development, given my complaints last week about the sketchiness of Sunnydale High to this point, though one that could've been handled more deftly), and the presence of stereotypical computer geeks to further confuse the issue of where Buffy, Xander and Willow rank in the high school pecking order.

What did I like? I enjoyed the brief glimpse of Buffy's transcript ("GPA: 2.8; Absences: 1"), and I loved the episode's capper scene, in which Buffy, Xander and Willow laugh mirthlessly over the shit luck all three of them have had at romance. (Praying mantis women? Hunky vampires? Tech-savvy demons? Ha ha!) Also, I suppose I liked the character of Ms. Calendar the computer science teacher as a potential romantic foil for Giles, though I don't know if I'm basing that on her appearance in this episode, or on my general awareness that she's going to reappear later in the series. (Though I don't yet know in what capacity.)

Other than that, "I Robot, You Jane" was a misfire: corny, tonally off and lacking even the illusion of depth that other slack episodes have provided in Season One.

Grade: D+

"Puppet Show"

This episode, on the other hand, I give a little latitude to, because while it too lacks depth–more on that below–and while it too is corny, it doesn't really have the tone trouble that "I Robot, You Jane" does. In fact, as a standalone episode, "The Puppet Show" is a reasonably entertaining, better-than-average piece of horror-comedy, even as it recycles the hoary old "killer dummy" routine.

Ah, but there's a twist: This ventriloquist's dummy, "Sid," only appears to be possessed by a evil demon. In actually, he's a demon hunter, consigned to a dummy body until he completes his task of slaying seven key demons known for their organ-harvesting inclinations. (In fact, he's certain that Buffy's one of those demoms, until in typical superhero fashion they overcome their mutual suspicion, join forces, and save the day.) Making the killer dummy a good guy doesn't make Sid's interactions with the non-wooden cast members any less awkward or silly-looking, but it's a neat twist regardless.

Also neat? The comic business in "Puppet Show," much of which revolves around Giles being forced by the new principal to take a more active role in Sunnydale High's campus life by commandeering the talent show. (I'll talk some about Principal Snyder next week.) So we get Cordelia mangling "The Gretest Love Of All," Buffy and her gang razzing Giles relentlessly (and amusingly), and the great stinger scene in which Giles near-decapitation takes place in front of a stunned, full Sunnydale High auditorium. ("I don't get it," someone mumbles.) The good vibe of the talent show material spills over to Xander goofing around with Sid (in non-animated form), and Buffy admitting that she's scared of dummies, but for no good reason. ("I saw a dummy, he gave me the wig…yeah, there's really not a story there.")

You know,, there's a reason why "Puppet Show" was included on the very first Buffy VHS collection. It's not Buffy at its best, but it's a fun 45 minutes, and a glimpse at the kind of show Buffy might've become if the writers had chosen to make it a more conventional monster-of-the-week genre send-up.

Grade: C+

Overall thoughts:

That said, here's the real problem with "Puppet Show:" It has nothing to offer beyond a few laughs and a few shocks. Even the relatively weak monster-of-the-week episodes from earlier in the season sported themes worth exploring. "Puppet Show" really doesn't—it's pretty straightforward. "I Robot, You Jane" is even more frustrating in its lack of extra levels, because there are so many places that episode could've gone. Like, perhaps it could've explore more of the clash between the ancient battles that Buffy and Giles are fighting and the concerns of the modern world. Or more about the fluidity of identity in online relationships. Or more about the revenge of the terminally picked-on. All those themes are right there to be ripened and plucked, yet "I Robot, You Jane" breezes by them all, in order to focus on Willow's disappointing love life. (And what a waste of Willow too, who could've used an episode as character-defining as "Teacher's Pet" was to Xander.)

But you know what? If I'd been watching Buffy back in 1997, these two episodes wouldn't have soured me on the show, because I'd still be buzzing over "Angel." That's the kind of episode that can make a person a fan for life.

Stray observations:

-I wonder how much of the season had been filmed before the opening credits sequence was cut together? Those credits feature a lot of Season One footage, including scenes from this week's episodes.

-Next week: I wrap up Buffy's first season.

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