Whedon succeeds in portraying three different emotions about one's entry into college. Buffy feels overwhelmed by the size of the campus, the people, and the classes. Willow feels excited about the size of the campus, the people, and the classes. Oz feels normal about the size of the campus, the people, and the classes. My university sent out a pamphlet advising parents to encourage their son or daughter to stay in a dorm for a month so as to adapt better to his or her new surroundings. Buffy goes home within three days of starting school, having already been kicked out of a class and publicly insulted by a professor of pop culture. Buffy's feelings are the most relatable. Some people have experiences like Willow and Oz, but many feel how Buffy feels: lost, alienated, out of sorts, and unprepared. I attended community college for two years after high school and moved into a university dorm my third year and it took time for me to adjust and adapt to the university lifestyle. Of course, I moved into a chaotic floor in a run-down dormitory. The building didn't last a year after I arrived. Now, my old college is populated with state-of-the-art apartment complexes and dormitories. I would've adjusted more quickly if my entire floor didn't behave and sound like the Philadelphia Zoo.
Anyway, he first act revolves around Buffy's difficult transition from high school to college. She misses the library and the old gang. Sunnydale High and the neighboring streets were familiar, the cemetery was familiar, the vampires and demons were familiar. Buffy fit in well, had her friends and Giles by her side always, but now Willow and Oz do their own thing on campus, Xander went away on a cross country vision quest, and Giles became a gentleman-of-leisure with a lady friend who shares his flat. Buffy can't even find the hall where she's supposed to get her ID card, let alone feel comfortable in her new home. Buffy's so out of place that she becomes 'Willow's friend". In high school, people knew Willow as "Buffy's friend". Riley, her future boyfriend, forgets her name and existence almost immediately. As Buffy walks the campus, people hand her flyer after flyer for churches, frat parties, and activism. Buffy watches angry liberals protest something because angry liberals always protest something on college campuses. I couldn't walk from building to building without being handed a flyer about a feminist bake sales, church fundraisers, student union events, or graphic anti-abortion protests. That's college.
All of the images and flyers and Buffy's sense of confusion and displacement in the first act is pitch-perfect. Joss Whedon plants the audience back into those days and makes the experience seem as scary as high school. College isn't always scary, though, and it's not like high school. Buffy's campus strolls reveals a wide variety individuals, interests and causes. It's free and open. College is a new world. College is a better world. Buffy doesn't learn this until the end of the episode, but Willow knows these truths. Willow was the outcast in high school; in college, she's confident and comfortable. College feels like home in a way Sunnydale never did. Girls picked on her for dressing different, wearing her hair long, and looking like a loser. A common narrative of college is that the experience allows people to be who they truly are or want to be, and it's true. Joss embraces the idea.
Buffy's not there yet, but she will be.
Buffy's always most vulnerable when she lacks confidence or feels as if she's lost her core. Sunday, the vampire villain of the week, is an uninspired Spike-lite character who's not much more than a mean girl fit for the fringes of the Cordettes. Sunday and her vampire friends kidnap and kill freshmen, including Buffy's new friend, and then they take every item from the victim's room and leave a note that makes it seem like the student couldn't handle school and fled. Sunday's more of a threat to Buffy because of Buffy's vulnerability and self-doubt brought on by her first week in college. For example, Sunday throws the slayer off with an insult about her wardrobe. Buffy's plea to Giles to assemble the old gang falls on deaf ears, though. Buffy's left alone to beat Sunday and her friends. Her lowest point occurs when she flees from Sunday. Buffy never runs away.
Alone and sad, Buffy returns to The Bronze where she runs into Xander, the heart of the Scoobies. Xander's tale of cross country enlightenment is sad and anti-climatic; he neither went cross-country nor left the state of California and now finds himself living in his parents’ basement paying rent. Xander stayed away from his friends because he thought they were having the time of their lives in college. Buffy quickly opens up to her friend about her feelings. Xander stops her and reminds her that she's Buffy, a hero, the coolest girl he knows, the slayer, the person he thinks of when he's scared and unsure of what to do. Buff's going to let a little college and a little vampire get her down and make her think she's less than others? Not if Xander can prevent it. Xander and Buffy mobilize research, find the lair, and kick ass. By this point, Willow's so guilt-ridden that she has blamed herself for Buffy's abandoned and empty room (courtesy of Sunday).
With her self-esteem restored, thanks to Xander, Buffy defeats Sunday and her crew. Buffy gets her swagger back, as well as all of her possessions. Giles runs in late with weapons to assist the Scoobies. He helps her by taking a box back to Buffy's dorm. The lesson Buffy learns, besides the importance of believing in herself, isn't revelatory or new, but, rather, is a reminder of the general familiarity of life. Buffy remarks she'll handle college better because it's not too different from high school. Vampires continue to prey on innocent students, so she'll continue preying on evil vampires who prey on innocent students. Of course, the final scene features men in military gear kidnapping one of the vampires fleeing the lair. So, no, it's not exactly, the same, but it's close enough.
"The Freshman" isn't a popular Joss Whedon episode. I wonder whether people remember Joss wrote and directed it. His other season four credits belong to "Hush" and "Restless"--both all-time classics. The season premiere highlights his skill as a storyteller and ability to tell smaller, more quiet episodes like he did with "Lie To Me" and "Anne". The scope is small, but he nails the tiny details like Buffy's disbelief that her mom would use her room as storage, or Buffy's reactions to the flyer people, and the size of the library, and how how everything is larger in college, and how Buffy connects with Eddie over the way they feel about college, and the security blankets they have to keep them from running off campus in fear of the unknown. Buffy's an iconic character because she's a super-heroine who took back the night and destroyed conventions and expectations. But she's full of human insecurities and fears; she feels like a friend.
I've tried to highlight an aspect of the episode that separates Buffy and ANGEL from many other shows. Joss Whedon's magic in "The Freshman" is his ability to transform college into a scary and imposing prospect for Buffy. Buffy fought a giant snake at high school graduation, sent her boyfriend to hell, and defeated a centuries old vampire, but college scares her more than that stuff. That's why Buffy worked. The little things, like your first week at college or wanting to impress a girl of boy or being kind to people in pain or fitting in at high school, were as important as the Big Epic things like saving the world.