It’s another season in Sunnydale, and while season 4 doesn’t quite manage to match or exceed the heights reached by season 3, it’s still a solid bunch of shows with some amazing standouts thrown in. Unfortunately, there are also a few really terrible and/or irritating moments, too, which is a first. Oh well, at least they didn’t show up for three whole seasons, and are still pretty rare in this one.
Okay, on to the numbered comments:
1) At the beginning of the season, it feels like repetition has begun to set in. Just like in Seasons 2 and 3, we have yet another premiere episode in which Buffy starts out unsure of herself for some reason, then gets beaten down, finds her power again, and emerges triumphant. Granted, this is an exhilirating way to start off a season (and was completely kickass in When She Was Bad, still one of my favorite episodes of all time), but it’s starting to feel a little shopworn. Time to come up with a new premise for the season 5 premiere, I hope. Also, the whole thing with Veruca felt too much like a rehash of Faith. “Hey, we had a lot of success with a sexbomb Slayer who lures Buffy to the dark side! How about a sexbomb werewolf who lures Oz to the dark side?” Even the Parker subplot just felt like a literalization of the Angel storyline, where Buffy sleeps with somebody and they turn into a bastard afterwards. Yes, this is a reality lots of women deal with, but it worked better when portrayed on a more symbolic level.
2) Why didn’t Buffy and Willow just room together in the first place? I wish there’d been a little explanation for this. Or did I miss it?
3) I’m so bummed that Seth Green left! As I’ve said, I totally love Oz. He was one of the best parts of seasons 2 and 3, and when his name disappeared from the opening credits I felt a real sense of loss. Granted, I didn’t start pining away and casting spells with unintentionally hilarious results, but still. I was sad. Also, the story that accomplished his departure was so generally lame that it felt hastily thrown-together, so not only was he leaving, he wasn’t even leaving for any real convincing reason.
4) Speaking of boyfriends, let’s talk about Riley. Now, I try pretty assiduously to avoid reviews and such before I watch the shows, so that I won’t be burdened by preconceived opinions, but sometimes it’s tough to avoid them. For instance, The Onion called him “a pill” recently, and kansasjenny characterizes him as “a big dumb guy.” He’s certainly a big guy, and the most male-model looking of Buffy’s boyfriends, but I have to say I feel like he’s kind of underrated. Unlike Angel, he’s usually a step or two behind Buffy, and his character arc in this season was roughly parallel to Buffy’s “graduation” from the Council last season, but that doesn’t make him dumb. I felt like the Buffy/Riley relationship was a refreshing break from the unrelenting angstiness of the last two seasons with Angel. Also, it’s not like he’s just Lois Lane-style bystander — he’s quite competent in his own arena, and has the flexibility to adapt to new information, which most of his military counterparts seem to lack. Yes, he doesn’t realize it when Faith is inhabiting Buffy’s body, but he clearly knows something is awry and suppresses his instincts due to the fact that Buffy has always behaved unpredictably around him, and hasn’t always been exactly forthcoming with the truth either. Anyway, “body switching” isn’t exactly in most people’s default set of expectations, even in Sunnydale. Buffy may have recognized Giles by “his eyes” when in demon form, but I think that was one of the weaker, less believable moments of the season. I think Riley gets a bad rap, is all I’m sayin’.
5) That same Onion article claimed that “The Initiative can be a yawn”, and once again I find myself having enjoyed it a fair amount more than that. For one thing, I really appreciate it when I see signs in the Buffyverse that the world at large is able to recognize and react to all the weirdness that seems to be afoot in Sunnydale (and elsewhere), and it seems perfectly logical to me that the military would want to try weaponizing all that raw supernatural power. I liked how the scientific approach of The Inititive challenges and contrasts with the standard “arcane tomes” route to knowledge that we take for granted after three seasons of the show. I will admit that Adam’s design hasn’t aged well, particularly the 3.5″ floppy drive in his chest, but he was still an effective villain, and the overall enormity of The Initiative resonated for me. The Big Bad arc this season was overall inferior to the one from season 3, but it was still enjoyable. In addition, this season had some of the best Little Bads yet:
- Hush: What a great episode. Marvel comics ran a gimmick month a few years ago called “‘Nuff Said!”, where most of the comics published that month had no speech balloons, thought balloons, or captions. Hush reminded me of that, except that instead of being mostly confusing and/or lame, it used the gimmick for maximum effect, wringing both excellent drama and hilarious jokes from the forced silence. I also loved how its themes of silence and its opposites were so tightly woven throughout the episode, and that ending is killer. This one is on a level with When She Was Bad, and is in contention for my favorite Buffy episode ever.
- Superstar: The opening scene and credits are just a beautiful mindfuck, and the kind that could only be done by a story with a fair bit of continuity under its belt. Having watched all along, we are privy to a sense of wrongness that is completely absent from everyone else in the beginning of the story. This is a flavor of dramatic irony that doesn’t come along all that often, certainly not to this degree of strength. Superstar makes the most of it, and does a phenomenal job of set dressing. All the little Jonathan homages everywhere were just delightful, and Danny Strong makes the most of his moment in the sun. Also, Xander’s man-crush on Jonathan is very funny. The whole thing is hysterical throughout, but I particularly loved Anya’s shrimp fixation and Buffy’s impatience with it.
- Fear, Itself: I was surely influenced by the fact that I got to watch this one with kansasjenny, but it has some very fun moments, particularly Chainsaw Giles.
6) I was terribly sad for Willow when she lost Oz, and although I cheer the show for portraying a positive gay relationship for a major character, I must admit some trepidation about her new girlfriend. Like Buffy, Willow finds herself in a mentor role to a partner who is struggling through something she herself has already overcome. In this case, it’s Tara’s shyness and general social awkwardness. However, it isn’t this that makes me wary of Tara, but rather her highly suspect behavior in Goodbye, Iowa. The fact that she sabotaged a demon-revealing spell means I have to ask: is she secretly a demon? If not, what’s her deal?
7) The crossovers with Angel were inevitable, given that the spin-off launched during this season, but they mostly felt a little forced. The exception, however, was the Faith story that begins in This Year’s Girl and Who Are You?. What I appreciated most about this was the way it handled Buffy and Angel as exes. For the first time, we see a serious rift betwen them, and it’s clear that they really have parted ways emotionally. However, I like it very much that Angel returns to try to preserve their friendship, albeit at arm’s length. Anyway, more about Angel later.
8) Finally, let me just say: I love rockstar Giles! The reveal on him singing “Behind Blue Eyes” was absolutely priceless, as was the Scoobies’ range of reactions. Also, the bit in Restless where he jumps on stage and does his usual expository number in driving rock style was not only a great riff on Giles’ perpetual role, it was just a great riff, period.
- The Freshman: Vamp flunky — “Are we gonna fight, or is there just gonna be a monster sarcasm rally?”
- The Freshman: Kathy’s Celine poster. In general, the Kathy shtick (and Dagney Kerr in general) is very funny.
- Living Conditions: Kathy — “I’m 3000 years old! When are you going to stop treating me like I’m 900?”
- The Initiative: Slo-mo girl fight between Xander and Harmony.
- Fear Itself: Chainsaw Giles and the reveal on tiny demon Gachnar
- Beer Bad: Willow — “This isn’t sharing! This isn’t connecting! It’s the pleasure principle. That’s right, I got your number, id boy.”
- Wild At Heart: Spike — “The big bad is back, and this time it’s– ack! argh!” THUMP.
- Something Blue: Giles — “Stop that right now! I can hear the smacking.”
- Something Blue: Demon — “I’m sorry to hear that. Oh well, here is my talisman, if you change your mind, give us a chant.”
- Hush: The reactions to Buffy’s “How do I kill them” hand gesture
- This Year’s Girl: Willow’s characterization of Faith as a “cleavagy slut-bomb”
- This Year’s Girl: Xander — “We’re dumb”
- This Year’s Girl: Buffy, after crashing through the window: “Hi, mom.” “Hi, honey.”
- Superstar: Opening credits
- Where The Wild Things Are: Xander — “What’s the deal? Is every frat on this campus haunted? And if so, why do people keep coming to these parties? Cos it’s not the snacks.”
- Where The Wild Things Are: Giles’ tongue-lashing of the repressive orphanage director.
- New Moon Rising: The parallel between Riley’s response to Seth’s lycanthropy and Buffy’s response to Willow’s lesbianism.
- Primeval: The special effects on super-Buffy
Least favorite moments:
- Oz’s lame excuse for leaving in Wild At Heart, and his generally asinine behavior throughout that episode.
- Impotence parody in The Initiative — it’s wildly, maddeningly out of character, and it’s in the service of a joke that isn’t even that funny.
- Giles’ willingness to get drunk with Ethan in A New Man. I just didn’t believe this. I recognize it was necessary for the plot, but it needed to be set up more convincingly or done another way.
- Riley’s self-surgery in Primeval. I don’t know a whole lot about anatomy, but I can’t quite believe that you could cut into yourself and sever something that was grafted to your thoracic nerve. Even if you could, I’m pretty sure you’d be in no shape to fight afterwards.
- Fear Itself
- This Year’s Girl/Who Are You?
Up next: comments on Angel Season 1, which I watched concurrently with Buffy Season 4.