Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Whedonverse Classic #10: Buffy, the Vampire Slayer's "Witch"

Season 1 of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer's been a trendy pick to write or talk about over the summer. Actually, writing about Whedon shows have been trendy. Hell, I've been writing Whedonverse Classic the last ten weeks after the amazing success of The Avengers. Dan Fienberg and Alan Sepinwall are re-watching the season for their podcast discussion. Other websites began huge Buffy re-watches with, of course, season 1. I had to deal with season 1 eventually. I'm writing about "Witch" today.

Joss wrote a two hour pilot to re-introduce the show to its television audiences. He had the rare chance to correct the mistakes of a film that he barely had creative control over. "Witch" is the follow-up, a chance to show to the audience what Buffy will be about throughout the season. The vampire slayer will deal with witches and demons and bad professors and rude classmates and problems every teenager experiences. The budget for season 1 was small. Joss needed to work within the limits of his budget. Smartly, he knew characters and story keep people tuned in, not big fights with a 50 extras and a whole mess of prosthetic make-up. The two-part pilot is grand and adventurous. Buffy would be grand and adventurous throughout its run, but it'd also be small and contemplative like in "Witch." By season's end, Joss would show the audience his ability to blend both aspects of the show together. Grand and adventurous and small and contemplative, at the same, was the show's DNA.

Buffy, the character, just wants to make the cheerleading squad. Giles reacts like she's about to join the Freemasons. Buffy's sweetly standing still, holding pom-poms in her hands, looking up at Giles, eventually explaining to him how she'll be able to cheerlead and slay demons. Giles doesn't like it one bit. Buffy attends try-outs and witnesses a girl literally catch fire. The stand-alone mystery's introduced and the Scoobies begin figuring out what caused their classmate to catch fire. Giles feels excited by the possibilities of the Hellmouth. Not only will vampires stalk the streets, but any kind of supernatural phenomena could spring from the Hellmouth. Buffy stares at him. Giles won't apologize for viewing the glass half-full.

Amy's introduced in "Witch," the homely and harmless Amy who will later become a super bitch and a main reason why I hate the middle portion of season six. The girls, including Amy, feel like the world will end if they don't make first team cheer. Amy exposits about her mother, the lengthy training sessions, and smiles innocently whenever Buffy tells her not to put so much pressure on herself. Amy's soon perceived differently because of the exposition; she's been raised by a strict mother, who's nickname is Catherine the Great, which is a lofty nickname to have. Catherine the Great was the longest-reigning empress in Russia. She was a vital part of transforming Russia into a Great Power of Europe. A woman who earned the nickname for cheerleading in high school has to be an egomaniacal bitch, which is exactly what Catherine is.

Cheerleaders continue to get hurt after the cheerleading squad list is posted. Suspicions turn towards Amy because she's desperate to make the team. Buffy theorizes Amy's accidentally hurting the cheerleaders. The truth has a twist, though: Amy's mother switched bodies. The teenager walking around the halls of Sunnydale is a middle aged woman who's best years are behind her while her daughter sits home in her mother's body, frightened and alone. The story touches on the intense parent who vicariously lives through his or her child's life. The Scoobies save the day and reverse every spell Catherine cast. Catherine's fate is to be trapped inside a cheerleading trophy in the trophy display while Amy lives a new life with her father who has zero expectations and encourages her to do whatever makes her happy.

Buffy's the heart of the story, naturally. Initially, she envies Amy's relationship with her mother. The long training sessions and the consistent involvement of Catherine in her daughter's life makes Buffy long for a similar relationship with her mom. Joyce is a busy woman; she runs a gallery and doesn't have time to run through routines with her daughter. She's single. Mr. Summers left the girls. Buffy tries to involve her mother in her life. Joyce isn't coldly distant, just busy, and okay with her daughter's extra-curricular activities as long as she remains away from trouble. The memories of their LA exodus aren't pleasant. Buffy feels alone, though, until the truth about Amy's mother emerges.

The Buffy-Joyce daughter/mother relationship works really well because Joyce is written as a person instead of a device to give lessons to wayward youth or youths who forget to wash their hands before dinner. I'm thinking of the parents in the Leave it to Beaver as comparisons to Joyce. Joyce screws up in one scene. Buffy leaves the frame (and the house) and Joyce admonishes herself for a parental mistake. The penultimate scene is a mother-daughter scene, one which highlights my point about what made their relationship work, i.e. feel realistic. Buffy tried and fail to get her mom involved. Joyce, off-screen, thought about her daughter and ways to relate with her, but she has no idea what Buffy's thinking or how to relate, because being sixteen has changed since Joyce was sixteen. So, Buffy asks her, thinking about Amy and her mom, if she'd take the chance to be sixteen again. Joyce ponders for a moment and then answers in the negative: no, she would not choose to be sixteen again, the very notion of it is frightening, and she wouldn't go through it even if it meant understanding her daughter more. Buffy'll remain inscrutable.

"Frightening" is a terrific word to use to describe being sixteen years old. Joss wanted to tell stories about the frightening experiences of being a teenager in the late 20th century. The monsters were metaphors for the problems of everyday teenage life. Joyce was unwilling to go back to sixteen, but Joss had returned to the most frightening time of his life, when he didn't know what the hell was going on or how to deal with pain and heartache, to tell this story. Teenagers weren't going to be inscrutable anymore, not with Joss behind the keyboard.

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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.