I Really Like Buffy Season 4
By Kristin Battestella
Despite some of my uneven misgivings on Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s third season; for the most part, Year 4 twists the pains of college, Scooby dissention, and monster military corruptions just right.
Slayer Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her best friend Willow (Alyson Hannigan) brave the new and bright halls of UC Sunnydale despite the usual vampires, demons, and evils above the Hellmouth. Pal Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and former watcher Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), however, can’t quite find themselves without Buffy. Of course, she’s too busy potentially romancing Riley Finn (Marc Blucas), psychology Professor Maggie Walsh’s (Lindsay Crouse) seemingly All-American teaching assistant. Unfortunately, back in town vampire Spike (James Marsters) is captured by The Initiative, a secretive and possibly nefarious military unit also hunting demons on campus.
Joss Whedon hits the ground running with “The Freshman,” the 1999 debut of Season 4, and remains solid and filler free straight thru to the brilliant finale “Restless.” So, college changes life for the slayer, who knew? Buffy’s shell shock amid continually fighting the forces of evil, battling “Beer Bad,” sleeping with bad boyfriends, and turning on scary roommates is all balanced wonderfully with Willow’s academic happiness and Xander’s ho-hum basement living. College experimentations on sex, alcohol, and well, experimentation works this season- the real life issues mixing with monsters and demonic government interference put the supernatural angst a step above the rest. Individual episodes range the spectrum on all our emotions and players superbly, from “Fear, Itself” and “Something Blue” to “Pangs” and “Superstar.” The three-fold finale with “The Yoko Factor” and “Primeval” wraps everything delightfully. Of course, I could spend an entire thesis talking about the near silent gem “Hush,” too, so I’ll just stop there!
Well well, four years in and come to find out, Buffy isn’t perfect. Having our superhero suck at the college lifestyle is sweet. Her mistakes are just so realistically superb in how un-heroic they are. The mid-season two-parter “This Year’s Girl” and “Who Are You” also gets the Faith antithesis angle done right this time- and the reflection on Buffy is dynamite. So, bad slayer Faith would really like to be Buffy and gets very used to walking in the do-gooder shoes of The Blonde One. After seeing Buffy deal with so much crap, it’s delightful to see someone else think her life is so grand. Toss in the ongoing theme that she is still superior in demonology compared to The Initiative and yet can’t deal without her core support group is just…well, it’s so dang real. I love it when science fiction, fantasy, and speculative genre make such great true to life allegories!
Naturally, Willow makes the biggest strides this season. Firstly, her relationship with Seth Green’s Oz comes to a hairy and angsty head in “Wild at Heart.” In his departing storyline, Oz is finally given something to do and this pushes Willow into her full-fledged witchcraft. “New Moon Rising” and the brief return of Oz again do more than all his episodes combined. Instead of the hey, wolf okay, no big from Season 3- his affliction causes conflict in his person and his relationship with Willow. Awesome. Where high school held her back in many ways, UC Sunnydale gives Willow room to bloom- both in positive and heartbreaking ways. Fellow Wicca Tara’s introduction in “Hush” is also just lovely. Yes, the gay and magic exploration amalgams are a tad obvious thanks to stupid network censorships substituting the latter for the former. However, overall the feeling between the ladies is developed nicely in honest, personal, realistic ways. What’s more telling than the network innuendo is that Willow doesn’t share her new friendship with Tara right away. Not only is the awkwardness great when Oz and Tara meet, but it’s juicy when everything comes into the open. The situation is understandably askew and shows us so much about everyone. Buffy’s reaction to Willow’s relationship with Tara is also handled wonderfully- although it is ironic that Faith saw it coming a mile away yet the Scoobies didn’t even notice. This romance works for Buffy because it strengthens all the characters involved and isn’t played for the sake of some lesbian gimmick- and props also to Amber Benson (The Crush) for being beautiful, real, and not super Hollywood thin. Africkinmen.
It’s actually a little ironic that both Xander- in a post high school crisis- and Giles- in a mid life limbo- struggle to find their place in Season 4. We would never think these characters are so similar, but the parallels work nicely. Xander’s run around with jobs and back and forth with sex addicted Anya seem so youthfully aimless against Giles’ fears of uselessness. His different sides of the same view similarities with the wonderfully crotchety Lindsay Crouse (Slap Shot, Places in the Heart) as Maggie Walsh cast further doubts, too; Professor Walsh’s even demeans Giles’ endearing and fatherly way with Buffy. Ouch! Ethan Rayne’s (Robin Sachs) taunts of the dark side in “A New Man” are great as well. There’s just so much subterfuge with significant life changes, isn’t there? Unlike the mismatched presentation in Season 3, “The I in Team” captures the division of the Scoobies and The Initiative perfectly. All this crap and there’s still a Big Bad to handle!
And no, the Big Bad of Year 4 is not, despite what many viewers may think, Buffy’s new dreamboat Riley Finn. Coming off the favored boyfriend Angel, Riley has not been popular, to say the least. While we do need the good guy possibilities for more Buffy angst, Riley seems a little incomplete as an independent character. His first half of the season recurring status with Forrest (Leonard Roberts, Heroes) and Graham (Bailey Chase, Saving Grace) seems like a more interesting triumvirate, rightly or wrongly asking demonic questions and debating military strategy! Riley’s a homeboy do-gooder- but he can’t compete or fit into Buffy’s world and it destroys him. Even clouding his image doesn’t make Riley any more intriguing, and the audience doesn’t like it when Buffy is with someone just because she thinks she should be. It’s a little too depressing and real world to be likeable. And excuse me, it’s also unfair that Riley just shows up and becomes a regular in the span of a few episodes. The far more significant Anya and Tara must wait several seasons for their opening credits and storyline dues. The apparently too good to be Riley is thrust upon us too soon, his relationship with Buffy never goes anywhere, and in the end, he is kind of a big waste. At best, he should have been recurring and, well, briefer. Swap him and Oz and maybe things would have been a-okay. I didn’t think I hated Riley, but I do find myself zoning out during his screen time. Perhaps that is more telling?
By contrast, it’s about damn time Spike stuck around. Even when he doesn’t have much to do- at first it seems like the writing team didn’t really know what to do with Spike- his great antagonism and sardonic humor do far more than googly eyes Riley. There’s certainly more history with Spike, we’ve at least grown to love him or hate him over several seasons. We know his style and the audience needs someone to tell it like it is. His outside the gang perspective also adds some fun and innuendo. Where the censors didn’t like lesbians really being lesbians onscreen, Spike’s Brit bits, gestures, and witticisms escape the radar. His expressions in “Hush” are classic, and his need to cause petty trouble is just so dang human. We all know a wannabe follower who thinks he’s something that he’s not, and we wouldn’t expect this layered flaw in a previously ruthless vampire. Spike is “formerly dangerous and currently annoying” as Buffy says, and it’s bloody refreshing!
Not to be out done, guests and recurring players add to Season 4’s fun and angst. Former classmates Mercedes McNabb as the dimwitted vampire foil Harmony and Danny Strong as Jonathan have some delightful moments, as does our old spin-off friend David Boreanaz in “Pangs.” I do however, wish we saw more of Phina Oruche (Footballer’s Wives) as Giles’ visiting girlfriend Olivia. Emma Caulfield is also wonderful in distinguishing her sardonic style from the departed Cordelia. George Hertzberg (Friday Night Lights) as Adam is a little dry and wooden in his delivery, sure, but he’s a mixed bionic Frankensteinion demon dude, we shouldn’t expect so much. At least his effects and design look good. The styles are actually catching up now on Buffy- except for some of the weird patterned pants and boho long skirts. Those fashions were a little too brief even then! Guest werewolf Veruca (Paige Moss, Beverly Hills 90210), however, gets a minus in the music department.
Although it is risky when a series does a big lifestyle or location change, Season 4’s new UC Sunnydale college design works better than the now seemingly dark and small high school library of Seasons 1-3. Of course, that library was sweet at the time, but the big and bright campus is both a refreshing step up and yet new and overwhelming. The kick up of sexual relationships, unfortunately, may be a bit much for super young folks. Though Anya’s sexual comments are pretty funny and all of it’s probably tame now, maybe “Where the Wild Things Are” is an episode you might want to clarify with the kids before watching. Some of the crossover episodes and storyline references may also be a little confusing to some newer viewers if they aren’t also watching Buffy’s spin-off Angel. However, most of that is explained in the Previouslies when needed; and fans who still can’t get enough can always tune in for double the fun. Actually, now that we’re rolling along in Season 4, there’s nothing to stop you from watching Buffy. Go, shoo!