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Buffy The Vampire Slayer: "When She Was Bad" / "Some Assembly Required" / "School Hard"

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"When She Was Bad"

You guys warned me last week that the Season Two opener was a rough one, and man you weren't lyin'. In theory, "When She Was Bad" has a fine premise: Buffy comes back from spending summer in L.A. with her dad, and she's still troubled by the events at the end of Season One. In practice though, having Buffy literally clean up some old business–namely the destruction of The Master's bones, which his old clan are planning to use to resurrect Him–feels too much like a show that's stuck in place and unsure how to proceed. And while having Buffy be standoffish and, yes, bitchy for most of this episode pays off both thematically and dramatically by the end, it's not exactly fun to watch.

But let's not think about that just yet. Instead, let's celebrate what's good about "When She Was Bad," starting with one corker of an opening scene. As Xander and Willow walk through the park quizzing each other on movie quotes, the banter brings them closer together, until Xander puts some ice cream on Willow's nose and seems ready to lean in and kiss it off. Then a vampire appears, followed closely by Buffy, who saves the day and reminds the Xander-and-Willow-rooters at home just whose name is in the show's title. I yearned, I jumped, I smiled…it was a perfect way to start the season.

Also good: Buffy's stylish new haircut, the addition of Cordelia, Angel and Miss Calendar as a kind of Legion Of Substitute Slayerettes, Xander's quippiness (especially his explanation that he's one of Buffy's bosom friends because he's "a friend…to your bosom"), Buffy's anxiety over the fact that the vampires return to Sunnydale when she does, and the character of Absalom, the evangelical black vampire who touts the Anointed One and makes vampirism sound in every way superior to being human. ("Where they bleed, we drink," Absalom preaches.)

On the bummer side…Absalom gets slain! After one episode! What does Joss Whedon have against awesome vampires like The Three and Absalom that he has to knock them off so quickly? (Answer: Nothing. He's just got a better Awesome Vampire in mind, as we'll see two episodes from now.)

But the bigger bummer to me was how erratically Whedon–this episode's writer and director–integrated the myriad dangers and emotions our heroes are grappling with. Absalom and the Anointed One have Miss Calendar and Cordelia kidnapped as a way of baiting Buffy, but they leave both ladies alive, for no reason I could discern. (Unless I missed something.) Xander and Willow almost kiss and are almost killed, yet once Buffy saves the day, they're happily asking about Buffy's summer as if nothing happened between them five minutes ago. (I get that Xander and Willow have become adept at appearing relatively unrattled by the supernatural, but they usually at least acknowledge their feelings in some way.) Ultimately, Whedon derives more tension from Buffy's cruel (and fairly inexplicable) dance of seduction for Xander at The Bronze than he does from any of the Master-revival-thwarting.

All of that said, I didn't dislike "When She Was Bad," for two reasons: First, that opening scene. Second, the closing scene, in which a newly humbled Buffy walks into class, unsure if her friends will want to talk to her, until Willow pipes up to say, "We saved you a seat." It wasn't a major theme of this episode, but there was definitely something here about the universal awkwardness of reunions. We're often excited to see old friends, but that initial adrenaline can cause us to say or do stupid things; and then to feel regretful and alienated once the adrenaline wears off. Eventually though, we tend to fall back into a familiar groove.

Sort of like how it goes with the annual return of our favorite TV shows.

"Some Assembly Required"

Of course, sometimes our favorite TV shows don't just fall back into a familiar groove; they find a deeper groove.

I wouldn't say that "Some Assembly Required" was a flawless episode, but it clicks in a way that "When She Was Bad" does only in its first and last scenes (and clicks in a way that few Season One episodes ever do). It's a monster-of-the-week piece with a genuinely surprising monster–well, I didn't see it coming, anyway–and an impressive amount of thematic unity. This is a story about romantic obsession that filters down from the extreme to the mundane.

First, the extreme: Two Sunnydale science geeks, Chris and Eric, have been robbing the graves of recently killed teenage girls, so that they can use their parts to construct a kind of Franken-woman. The twist? They're not building this lady for their own, uh, "use," but to be the bride of Chris' brother Daryl, a former Sunnydale football star who died in a car accident and was himself reconstructed and revived by Chris. And in a further twist, The Bride Of FrankenDaryl lacks a head, and since the procedure only works if that noggin is relatively fresh, the monster demands that Chris and Eric bring him the head of Cordelia Chase.

Now, the mundane: While the A-story plays out, "Some Assembly Required" offers a pair of B-stories that echo the main action. In one, Giles agonizes over how to ask Miss Calendar out on a date. (When the gang walks in on him practicing his woo-pitch to an empty chair, Xander cracks, "I guess we never realized how much you liked that chair.") In the other, Angel chastises Buffy for dancing with Xander in "When She Was Bad," and the two bicker about his unexpected jealousy. (Ultimately, Angel owns up to his feelings, admitting that he's bothered that Xander "gets to see you in sunlight.")

As for Xander, his own frustrations with Buffy manifest in one terrific scene, where he tries to explain to her why teenage boys might try to make a girl rather than asking a real one out by saying, "People don't fall in love with what's right in front of them." And when she ignores what he's getting at and walks on to class, Xander has a pained, exasperated expression that director Bruce Seth Green doesn't try to oversell with a close-up. It's just there as one element in the frame, as Buffy, Willow and Xander keep moving. A nice, graceful touch.

But then, "Some Assembly Required" is packed with nice touches. There's Buffy's coquettish response to Angel sneaking up on her in the graveyard: "You [should] make noise when you walk. You stomp. Or yodel." There's Angel explaining to Buffy how the newly born vampire she's hunting will be feeling as he wakes up. There's Buffy falling comically into an open grave. There's Giles' prim pick-up lines–"I hate to be indecorous, but if you're amenable…"–and Buffy's insistence that the native Englishman, "Speak English." There's researcher Willow observing that, "I'm probably the only girl in school who has the coroner's office bookmarked." There's Cordelia being stalked in the school parking lot by Angel, in a well-structured, well-shot suspense scene; and Cordelia being abducted by Daryl at a football game, screaming just when the crowd starts to cheer. (I could analyze that moment for what it has to say about violence against women as a spectator sport, but I don't think the show's really trying to make that point, so I'll leave it alone.) And there's Daryl skulking under the bleachers and watching the action on the field, more nostalgic about the way the players casually goof around on the sidelines than he is about anything athletic.

My only qualm about this episode? The plot structure parallels Season One's "The Witch," in that we're led to believe we know who the bad guy is, only to find out that the bad guy is actually a relative of our prime suspect. Unlike "The Witch" though, "Some Assembly Required" peaks about 10 minutes before it's over, and much of the climactic action feels like padding–and isn't particularly thrilling.

Still, the episode ends perfectly, with a shot of the headstone of the newly re-buried Daryl. It's a subtle reminder of why Giles and Jenny, Angel and Buffy, and Daryl and Raggedy Ann all strive to meet and mate. Because we're all going to die, and a combination of human need and evolutionary biology compels us to find companionship, and maybe even to propagate the species. Or as Buffy puts it more succinctly, "Love makes you do the wacky."

"School Hard"

After burning through The Three and Absalom, Buffy The Vampire Slayer finally lets a charismatic villain survive an episode. Let's give a warm welcome to Spike, a.k.a. "William The Bloody," an old friend (and, apparently, victim) of Angel who arrives in Sunnydale with his spacey girlfriend Drusilla by his side, boasting of his centuries of success at slaying Slayers. The first time he meets Buffy in "School Hard," he baits her into killing another vampire so that he can watch her technique, and then flippantly tells her, "See you Saturday." When she asks what happens on Saturday, Spike replies, "I kill you."

"School Hard" is yet another strong episode, though again it doesn't deliver a final act as exciting as its set-up. ThAt set-up is sublime, though. While Spike is hanging around the Anointed One and making his presence known in the Sunnydale underworld, Buffy is dealing with Principal Snyder's vigorous "let's expel the troublemaker" campaign. Snyder puts her and another bad seed in charge of decorations and refreshments for Parents Night, where he plans to have a long talk with Buffy's mother. As for Joyce, she's anxious to find out whether Buffy is misbehaving again, and she suggests that Buffy do more normal teenage things, like getting a part-time job. ("I have a job," Buffy mumbles to herself.)

When Spike decides to launch a surprise attack on Buffy during Parents Night, Buffy has to decide whether to protect her secret identity of take charge of the situation. And while she doesn't exactly announce that she's The Slayer, Buffy doesn't hesitate to start ordering Snyder and her mom around, before crawling into the ceiling to try to get the drop on Spike.

Here are my problems with "School Hard:" Buffy gets lucky way too often, Joyce doesn't seem properly shocked or curious about the fact that her daughter is fighting off vampires, and the whole scenario–which in some ways is more tense and action-packed than most TV shows' finales–resolves too quickly and neatly. I'm with the Anointed One here: I thought Spike was too impatient, and attacked too soon. I would've preferred more build-up, and more complication. This episode could almost have been a two-parter. (Although looking ahead, it seems that we have three proper two-parters coming up this season, which means I'm going to have to adjust this blog's weekly episode capacity slightly when the time comes.)

Here's what I liked about "School Hard:" Three episodes into the new season, and we're already in it up to our necks. As I said, this is the kind of all-in plot that most shows save until the end of the year, yet Whedon and company bring it right at the start, indicating just how high the pressure is going to be this season. Here's what else I liked: Xander's desperate attempt to find a weapon in Buffy's purse (after pulling out a yo-yo and a tampon); Buffy clocking a vampire with a plastic cafeteria chair; and Spike mocking Angel's "vampire with a conscience" shtick by scoffing, "People still fall for that Anne Rice routine?"

Mainly though, I just like Spike, and the way he establishes that he's going to be a different kind of villain. After The Three failed to slay Buffy, they offered up their lives to The Master, who had them killed. After Spike fails, he not only fails to do penance to the Anointed One, he destroys the kid. Prophecy, shmophecy. Let's eat!

Overall thoughts:

If there was one significant flaw with Season One–well, actually there was more than one, but go with me here for a minute–it's that by and large, the episodes felt disconnected from each other. Until that too-rushed finale, there seemed not enough carryover from one installment to the next: characters appear for one episode then disappear, major events go unacknowledged by the community at large, and so on.

There's definitely a different vibe to these first three Season Two episodes–even given the misfire that is Episode One. The expansion of the Slayer team allows for more camaraderie, and a broader stage for the action, which makes the stories seem fuller, and even richer. The characters interact more, and are better integrated into their environment. I'm even getting some of that high school color I was looking for in Season One. Little touches like the science fair in "Some Assembly Required"–and having the character of Chris be a friend of Willow's and the brother of one of Cordelia's former crushes–gives the impression that Sunnydale High is a real community, with a complicated pre-Buffy life. And the scene at the end of "School Hard" when Principal Snyder and the chief of police agree to blame Spike's siege on "gangs" and "PCP" offers the kind of quick-but-plausible explanation for Sunnydale High's continued existence that Season One could've used. (This ties in to what I was saying last week about how publication and feedback are crucial to a writer's improvement; obviously Whedon gained perspective on what was missing from Season One once those episodes aired.)

I also thought the action scenes were a lot better in these first three episodes, even though it's a little distracting playing "spot the body double" whenever Buffy has to do some really athletic ass-kicking. (There's also a laughably adult-looking double in the "School Hard" scene where Spike murders the Anointed One.)

One thing still nags me though. Buffy ended Season One's coming-back-from-death experience saying she felt "different," and Season Two's bitchier Buffy seemed to be following up on that mysterious remark. And then…nothing. I probably shouldn't ask this question, lest I get spoilers in return, but was that line just a throwaway?

Stray observations:

-I had my first Buffy-related dream last night. I found out my wife was having an affair with a pirate vampire who had previously captured and tortured me. I was understandably irked.

-Hey Cibo Matto played The Bronze! As did…Nickel? I know a lot about music, and I'd never heard of Nickel. Yet they were clearly an actual band, with a single to promote and everything. Huh.

-Is it me, or is the video quality even shittier on this season's DVDs?

-You guys also warned me about the Season Two animated menus, and yeah, I pretty much hate them too. Just take me to the screen I asked for already! Does no one in DVD production think about how something that's cute once can become a nuisance if you have to sit through it some 20-odd times?

Program note: So…notice anything missing from this Season Two blog? I'm trying out something new: Posting reviews without grades. My reasoning is this: I see a number of comments quibbling with the grade instead of talking about the episodes, as well as comments along the lines of, "You're going to regret these grades when you see what's coming up." I'm not fussing at y'all about it, because it's human nature to fixate on rankings, and generally speaking, I think grades can be useful. They can clarify an opinion (like, "I know I wrote a bunch of negative stuff about that episode, but I still think it's 'B'-worthy"), and when it comes to reviews on our new release pages, they can provide a hierarchy (as in, "If you have to choose between Kung Fu Panda and WALL*E, you might pick the one that's half-a-grade higher.") But to be honest, even when I write my regular TV Club blogs, I don't think too hard about the grade. There's permanence to movie, record or book grades, but TV grades are more along the lines of, "Here's my immediate impression." Because of the serialized nature of a lot of TV, it's hard to fairly assess an individual episode, since I don't always know how that episode is going to pay off–or fail to–later on. So all I can do is give a rough sense of how I felt after watching. Ultimately though, I'll leave it up to you guys. Do you want grades or not on these Buffy posts? I don't mind providing them, so long as you don't hold me to them. If most of you want the grades back, I can even go back and tack them onto this post. I know what grades I'd give these three episodes. It's….