Television Thunderdome: Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel
Series Overview: Two horror/fantasy series created by Joss Whedon before he was known as the man who gave us The Avengers, which use supernatural elements to tell some of the most human stories on television. Beginning as a show exposing the horrors of teenage life, Buffy expanded into an epic about what it means to be alive. The show examined first love, adapting to new settings (first when the characters transitioned from high school to college, then from college into the workforce), what it means to be family, and, in one of the most devastating hours ever committed to film, the finality of death. The spin-off series Angel, starting when the Buffy characters were in college, was the first to examine the horrors of adult life. Its first season looked at what can go wrong when buying your first house, the unpredictability of raising children, and making it through a job that wasn’t your first choice, but is something that is, for better or for worse, inescapable. From there, Angel opened up to larger themes, including the horrible things people can do to each other when they are scared, the nature of evil, and, most importantly, what constitutes redemption. Along the way, both series see their fair share of hope and heartbreak as the characters learn, grow, succeed, and, just as often, fail miserably.
What Makes It Worth Watching: Joss Whedon is a master of humor, sadness, and pivoting from one to the other without warning. The characters who populate his worlds are both very witty and have very human reactions to the events around them. The characters are the crux of a Joss Whedon show; big events happen, but it is the characters’ actions which drive the story. And, with very few exceptions, these characters are well-developed and act how you would expect them to based on what you know of them. This is not to say that their actions are always foreseeable or that they don’t grow. Many times, characters’ actions are unexpected despite being perfectly within character. Everyone on the show is flawed, and sometimes, their stronger qualities win out, while other times, they succumb to their flaws. And as for growth, no one is exactly who they were at the series’ beginnings, but the changes always make sense. In fact, Angel has a character who, at the end of the series, is almost unrecognizable from who he was when he was introduced. And yet, the changes were so gradual and organic that they are almost impossible to notice until you see a flashback to who he was and realize how much hell his trials and tribulations have put him through.
Beyond the characters, the stories told are exciting, touching, and at times, delightfully weird. Buffy especially was willing to go weird with its storytelling, featuring a musical episode, an episode that was nearly dialogue-free (and, ironically, was the only episode to be nominated for a non-make-up Emmy… in the category of Best Writing), and an episode that takes place entirely in an alternate universe, with no exposition at the top explaining why things are different.
Caveats: Together, there are 254 episodes, which is a huge commitment. And unfortunately, neither show hits the ground running. Angel’s first season is by far its weakest, and includes the two worst episodes of the series. It also has some episodes that merit mention among the series’ best, and overall, it is a good season, but the show takes a while to find it’s footing. Buffy’s first season has similar problems, but is even more awkward. The make-up and effects were laughably bad (they never become spectacular, but they at least become passable), the “high school is hell” metaphor stories are not as seamlessly integrated as they become in future seasons, and the characters are a bit rough around the edges. They are not “out of character,” but they are not as well-defined as they will come to be, as the show uses the first season to sort out everyone’s relationship.
I’m reluctant to suggest skipping episodes, as even the worst episodes have something to offer, whether it be characterization or, in the case of “She,” Angel’s worst episode, very funny moments. All I can say is that you have to go in knowing that the first few episodes are going to be silly and being ready to make a few MST3K-style quips. But stick with it, and in no time at all, the show will become one of the most rewarding and moving television experiences you will ever have.
Suggested Episodes If You Aren’t Immediately Sold: “Prophecy Girl,” (Buffy 1x12), “School Hard” (Buffy 2x03), “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Angel 1x14), “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” (Angel 2x02)