Buffy season 4 cast promo photo

I originally intended this to be a single article; I found out as I started writing that I had a lot more to say about Buffy than I originally realized after re-watching it. And maybe some things about Firefly, as well. So, I’m just going to call this a continuing series.

In the first part of the article, I discussed how the first and second season of Buffy set the stage for the show Whedon really wanted to create, not unlike the way Orson Scott Card had to go back and write “Ender’s Game” in order to be able to write “Speaker for the Dead”. These seasons, the first especially, draw some unfair heat for this; yes, season 1 was not as remarkable as later seasons, but it was still excellent genre television that was fresh and entertaining. The second season is generally viewed more favourably, in no small part because of David Boreanaz’s wickedly effective Angelus, James Marsters’s fan-favourite turn as Spike, and an incredibly exciting and emotional season finale. But it also still clearly had the flavour of a show whose conventions were imposed upon it by the network, rather than the show that would later use those conventions in an intentional manner.

Season 3 would change everything.

To begin with, as a fan I felt the cast was at its absolute peak; Boreanaz and Charisma Carpenter’s last season, Seth Green’s only full season as Oz, and the introductions of Wesley, Anya and Faith, who replaced Kendra as the “active” Slayer. It also featured the campiest Big Bad, Mayor Wilkins, whose somewhat cheesily over-the-top turn as the upbeat mayor only made his strange, Svengali relationship with Faith and moments of genuine horror all the more disturbing.

Subtly, Whedon changed the structure of the show so slightly that most of the audience, and almost certainly the WB, never noticed it happening. There was still, usually, a baddie-of-the-week. But increasingly these were related to the Big Bad in some way, or played a minor role in the given episode while the characters’ personal arcs started taking up more and more screen time each episode. By the end of the season, almost the entire latter half was concerned with the Mayor’s ascension and the imminent destruction of the school. Oh, and the world.

This is where I feel Whedon distinguished himself from the long-arc storytellers that preceded him. Perhaps the best example, Babylon 5, I’ve never watched myself, but B5 was a show developed in syndication, which is a bit apples and oranges to the development environment of a broadcast network. At the time, syndicated television was very in vogue – Star Trek: The Next Generation was nearing the end of its massive worldwide success, and Baywatch was becoming the most watched show on the planet. I don’t mention my favourite TV series of all time, the brilliant Sopranos, in the same breath as Buffy either, because developing for HBO is a completely different fruit.

Buffy was given a much greater degree of freedom on the struggling, fledgeling WB than it would have on NBC or FOX, to be certain. But they still clearly had their network concept, which was heavily based around high school drama. What Whedon was able to do was work within the confines imposed upon him and learn to use them to his advantage in new, fun ways. Maybe my favourite was using the common romantic trope of the cheated-on girlfriend (Cordelia) in order to introduce a completely different interpretation of Willow. This buried side of Willow first introduced in “The Wish” was to play a key role in her later development; whether that was intended at the time or not, Whedon and Alyson Hannigan clearly wanted to spend some time on the dark side from early on.

In dealing with this environment, Whedon didn’t have the luxury that producers like Straczynski and Chase did, with the explicit understanding that they would be allowed enough screen time to tell their story. Buffy had to live with the constant concern of ratings and cancellation hanging over its head, maintaining escape routes to give fans closure in the event the network pulls the plug – and rumblings about the ratings, combined with post-Columbine concerns about the high school-located violence in the series, first started surfacing around season 3. No producer wants his show to get the Twin Peaks treatment. Another key difference was that the WB clearly wanted young, recognizable actors in the show, so Buffy had to maintain considerable flexibility to accomodate the cast changes that rising stars like Seth Green bring with them. B5 had an ensemble cast of mature character actors who were not gracing the covers of teen magazines. He managed to start introducing open-ended, deep themes and concepts without arousing to much concern from above, and he did it in such a way that unforeseen cast changes and the like could be handled with ease.

Season 3 also introduced the concept of the “one-off” episode for the first time (to the show, not to television). These were episodes which generally stood apart in tone and content from the rest of the season, and were often the standouts. “The Zeppo”, in which we follow Xander’s comic trials and tribulations with a group of undead jocks (and the loss of his virginity to Faith) while the rest of the Scooby gang dealt with a major Hellmouth apocalypse, was the first. It’s still one of my favourite episodes, and set up the classic one-off episodes that were to come later, most especially “Once More, With Feeling”, season 6’s lauded musical episode.

“The Zeppo” is a good starting point to discuss the many character changes that occurred during the season. This was the last season of high school romance, as Xander got over his Buffycrush and started nursing a Willowcrush instead, in classic “only want what I’ve not got” John Dorian fashion. Xander and Willow’s stolen smooches were about the last of the typical high school romance moments; once Cordelia and Oz caught them together, everyone’s relationships on the series became consistently as adult and serious as Angel and Buffy’s. With typical Whedon humour, Xander’s only relationship on the show from then on would be with the vengeance demon summoned by his ex-girlfriend. Oz and Willow reconnected and had a very powerful relationship until Oz’s wolf-nature – and Seth Green’s rising star – required he make an exit the following season.

A couple of key character moments were played out in the season, especially in “Gingerbread”. The character of Amy was actually pretty big in the first few seasons, or at least I was surprised at how much of her there was when I re-watched it. One of Whedon’s best long-term gags was how the character, introduced in the second episode, would play a key role in Willow’s development throughout the whole show; a sort of Palpatine-like character, who would, of course, spend half of her time on the show as a rat in a cage. “Gingerbread” was a key episode in the season not just for Amy, but Joyce Summers as well. Having been fully initiated into the know at the beginning of the season, this episode was about her acceptance of Buffy’s destiny and her inability to do anything about it. Joyce is an under-rated character, not so much for what she ever did or said, but for how Buffy saw herself through her eyes. She is also the catalyst for the greatest episode of the series, but that’s for another time.

Buffy’s coming-of-age test at the hands of the Watcher’s Council and subsequent defection is one of both her and Giles’s defining moments. The Watcher’s Council never played a significant role in the show again, providing some mediocre intelligence in one episode of season 5, then getting itself destroyed completely just at the moment they decide to get off their asses and do something about The First. Even the first Watchers, whom Buffy meets in season 7, are basically told to get bent. Buffy’s independence from the patriarchal organization that created and controlled the Slayers since the beginning is arguably her most defining and important trait. It was strongly contrasted with Faith’s rejection of the Watchers and subsequent decline: Faith rejected the Watchers for irresponsible and selfish reasons; Buffy rejected them as antiquated obstacles in the path of her destiny.

A last note about season 3; it was hilarious. The character-based humour of the show came to full fruition after 2 seasons of character development. “The Zeppo”. “Doppelgangland”. “Band Candy”, with its delicious payoff two-thirds of the season later when Anthony Stewart Head walks into a tree in “Earshot”. The strong characters led to some incredibly emotional moments in the season as well; Buffy’s Class Protector award, the sight of the entire graduating class turning into an army, and the thrill when you realize Angel has been pulling a con in “Enemies”.

I’ve talked a little more about how Whedon really started to stretch his wings in this season under the umbrella of the high school drama, the complexity that he began layering into the storylines, and the exciting directions he began to take characters in. In next Monday’s Part 3, I’ll look at how Whedon overcame with ease the most difficult of obstacles to anyone making a drama about teenagers: College.

Joss Whedon’s past and the future of “Dollhouse”: