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Tuesday 22 January 2002

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete First Season (DVD)
Twentieth Century Fox; 540 minutes + special features
Broadcast: 1997 / DVD: 2002

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

The humourless packaging of the DVD box set Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete First Season is aimed at the Anne Rice/goth crowd, but, as is often the case with this peculiar TV show, appearances are deceiving.

From the first time that I read the title "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on the poster announcing the upcoming release of the 1992 movie that would introduce the pop-culture icon to be, I was tickled and intrigued by its dissonance. I knew I had to see this film, if only to find out if it would fully embrace its sardonic potential. I was not disappointed. Equal parts bizarre valley-girl comedy, horror adventure, and pop-culture artefact, Buffy the Vampire Slayer blended genres with flair, intelligence, and an appropriately biting wit.

The film didn't make a big splash, however, and I thought I'd never hear about Buffy again. When, in 1997, I saw a listing for the premiere of a new TV show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, how could I resist watching it?

This time, my expectations were low. This was television, right? — the all too appropriately named idiot box. I planned to watch the first show just to see how badly the producers would translate the material, how much of the concept's attitude would be lost, how everything would be dumbed down.

The show opened with a standard 1980s horror-film cliché. Late at night, a couple of college kids — a guy and a girl — break into a high school. The guy's coaxing the girl, eager to have sex. It's dark and creepy. She's nervous. We all know what happens next, right? Well, no. We don't. In one shot, my cynical expectations were shattered, and I was hooked. The scene's unexpected conclusion (I won't spoil it for those who have yet to see it) was only the first of many narrative perversions that have come to define the style of this TV series.

So the two-part pilot was good. Fine. After that, it was bound to go downhill. How could it not? They'd set up the premise, and the show would turn into a menace-of-the-week formula. Still, after such a good start, the show more than merited a second look.

Episode 3, "Witch", followed the two-part premiere. And, indeed, all the formula elements appeared to come together: Buffy and her friends discover and investigate a supernatural menace. The resolution seemed very obvious — in fact, I though I could smell the cop-out coming. But, once again, the show defeated my cynicism. The episode followed through with the consequences of its premise — a teenage girl abusively oppressed by her mother — with brutal honesty. Clearly, this show refused to bend to TV conventions and morality. Now, I was really hooked. And when, in episode 6, "The Pack" (a story already jam-packed with jaw-dropping rule-breaking), a major supporting character got killed — eaten alive, in fact — the audience learned that the menaces meant business. Even better, the show managed to keep a sardonic edge that never undermined the drama.

In its TV incarnation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has become a cult hit and pop-culture icon. It not only failed to dilute the original concept (as I'd feared) but improved it, twisted it in unpredictable ways, and refused to ever conveniently fit into any prefabricated TV category. Drama, teen, horror, action, comedy, soap opera... Buffy the Vampire Slayer embraces, transcends, and perverts all of these.

Considering the continuity-heavy nature of the series, it's fascinating to revisit the first season in this three-DVD box set... and notice that (unlike, say, The X-Files), this series is a coherent whole in which it pays to notice little details. In fact, rewatching these early episodes in full knowledge of the events to come in future seasons, is an entirely different experience from watching them the first time, one that gives renewed insight into the evolution of the show's cast.

Collecting a whole season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a set makes a lot of sense. The way the show is written, each season tells one big story (although some episodes are less central to the metastory than others). So far, every season has ended with a fundamental change in the status quo, thus paving the way for a new season, a new context, and a new story.

The twelve-episode first season (not twenty-four, as the sticker on the DVD package mistakenly asserts) is a sequel of sorts to the film, although it becomes rapidly clear that the film is not canonical, that the TV show's Buffy lived through an alternate version of the events related in the film.

In the first episode, sixteen-year-old Buffy and her mother move to the small town of Sunnydale, California, as a result of Buffy being kicked out of her high school in LA for burning down the gym (fire being a good way to kill vampires). Her mother is ignorant of Buffy's powers and reluctant role as her generation's vampire slayer. We are introduced to the cast: Xander Harris, an awkward teenager who is more resourceful than he realizes and who falls in (unrequited) love with Buffy; his best friend, Willow Rosenberg, an ultra-smart computer geek who pines for Xander and whose clothes are still picked by her mother; Cordelia Chase, a glamorous, beautiful, egocentric, mean, and rich spoiled brat who finds herself continuously embroiled in Buffy's world of supernatural danger; and Rupert Giles, the school librarian and a member of the Watchers, an old order of occult scholars who have taken it upon themselves to train and control the slayers.

Sunnydale rests on top of the Hellmouth, a dangerous centre of mystical convergence. Years ago, the Master, a powerful vampire king, attempted to open the Hellmouth. He failed and found himself trapped in the portal between worlds. From his mystical cage deep beneath Sunnydale, he controls an army of vampires, manipulating events in order to make ancient prophecies come true, thus freeing himself and loosing Hell on Earth. That is the season's storyline. In the process, Buffy will meet a mysterious ally with an angelic face; come to grips with her role as the vampire slayer, which prevents her from living a normal teenage life; learn of a prophecy that foretells her death at the hands of the Master; and forge bonds with Xander, Willow, and Giles, who will, in time, become the foundations of her true family.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn't satisfy itself with defying genre rules and TV conventions. It also pushes the envelope politically. Included in these episodes are a vampiric, homoerotic inversion of the Eucharist; an off-hand dismissal of the Biblical creation story as "popular mythology"; and several sequences championing children's rights (most notably, in the aforementioned "Witch" and in episode 10, "Nightmares"). These early Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes set up the heart of the show: a rejection of Christian morality, an emphasis on emotional rather than blood family, a genre-bending approach, a relentless perversion of narrative expectations, a distrust of authority, a will to empower children and teens, an unshakeable sense of sardonic fun, and the creation of stories that matter, that make the characters change, evolve, and sometimes even die. (It's important also to note that, unlike in most teen shows, the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ages in real time, and the scripts don't shy away from the implications of growing older.)

In this package that preserves the integrity of a whole season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as one story, it's delightful to watch these shows without commercial interruptions and without the movement distortion that mars many broadcasts. Like many DVDs, this release also comes with a number of special features. Sadly, these are slight.

The interview with David Boreanaz (the actor who plays Angel) is nothing but short promo fluff. There is also an interview with creator Joss Whedon, unfortunately broken into short mini-interviews and further cut into promo sound bytes. Even more frustrating, a few times, just as Whedon seemed like he was about to launch into a longer speech about the show's ideology, he was cut mid-sentence. Nevertheless, he does manage to squeeze in some interesting tidbits, including that "Witch" — an episode that I particularly loved — was intended as a statement of purpose. Also missing out completely on the show's attitude are dead-serious and boring cast and character biographies and a surprisingly dull photo gallery.

More interesting are the script for the first episode on the first disc and the Joss Whedon commentary track that runs through the two-part premiere, "Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "The Harvest." In it, Whedon reveals some behind-the-scenes info about the making and creation of Buffy. Still, I couldn't help but feel that he was restricted by various forces, and that the commentary was not all that it could have been.

The most notable problem with this DVD set is the navigation. The menus are oddly configured. For one thing, the location of the special features is counter-intuitive. When I first put in the DVDs, I spent a lot of time trying to find the interviews, until I stumbled on them by accident; they're hidden in the sub-menus for every episode. Even worse is that the episodes are not numbered in the menus and that the way they appear on screen does not intuitively reveal the order. For example, you can't skip directly from episode 2 to episode 3 — the cursor has to either backtrack over episode 1 or skip over episode 4. Only by reading the accompanying booklet can you be sure of the episode order. And considering the narrative style of this show — that character- and status quo-altering events are par for the course — episode order is extremely important.

So the special features are not so special, the packaging is somewhat cheesy, and the menu design is sloppy. Nevertheless, what counts most is the show itself: the first 12 episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer recorded with great picture quality and no ads; the first season presented as one big story, a serialized postmodern pulp novel; one of TV's most daring shows preserved so that its every detail can be savoured time and again.

Claude Lalumière — a freelance writer whose criticism has appeared in The Montreal Gazette, The National Post, January Magazine, Black Gate, and others — was a bookseller for 12 years. He's the editor of the upcoming anthology Telling Stories: New English Fiction from Québec (Spring 2002). His website features news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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