Fox // 1999 // 990 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // August 10th, 2004
Buffy: "This is not your business. It's mine. You, the Initiative, the boys at the Pentagon, you're all in way over your heads. You're all messing with primeval forces you have no comprehension of."
Colonel McNamara: "And you do."
Buffy: "I'm the Slayer."
Buffy is magic! She's descended from a long line of female demon fighters, and she's got the power to take on the demons and the vampires. Also, the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer is magic of the most rare kind: a perfect marriage of actors, writers, technical artists, and directors, all putting together one of the best fantasy shows ever!
Season Four has been hotly debated. Was it the best or the worst? The show was at a crossroads -- the high school (the main setting for the first three seasons) was blown up, two main characters had left for Los Angeles, the entire Scooby gang had graduated, and the Watcher's Council had fired Giles, who was also librarian to the now bombed-out school. This is the season that bridges the two halves of the whole journey that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Joss Whedon himself describes the season as "chaotic" and "incoherent" by turns, but ultimately it's still a brilliant collection of episodes. And Fox gives it a lot of oomph in DVD terms.
Season Four of Buffy concerns the clashing of two worlds: science versus magic. College is a place steeped in academia -- science and reason. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) feels she doesn't belong...until she learns that, just as in high school, monsters and demons are lurking in the shadows of UC Sunnydale. Little does she know that both her new boyfriend, Riley Finn (Marc Blucas), and her favorite new teacher, Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse), are both embroiled in the struggle of academic science to understand and control primeval magic. So Buffy finds herself in a world where she does not belong -- academia and science -- and those around her find that her world of terrible supernatural forces is about to take over theirs.
This six-disc DVD collection comprises the following episodes and special features:
Disc One: "The Freshman," "Living Conditions," "The Harsh Light Of Day," and "Fear Itself"
Disc Two: "Beer Bad," "Wild at Heart" (featuring group commentary with Seth Green [Oz], series creator Joss Whedon, and producer Marti Noxon), "The Initiative" (featuring commentary by writer Doug Petrie), and "Pangs"
Disc Three: "Something Blue," "Hush" (featuring commentary by creator Joss Whedon), "Doomed," and featurettes on the "Hush" episode, the sets, Spike, the music, and Oz
Disc Four: "A New Man," "The I in Team," "Goodbye Iowa," and "This Year's Girl" (featuring commentary with writer Doug Petrie)
Disc Five: "Who Are You?," "Superstar" (featuring commentary with writer Jane Espenson), "Where the Wild Things Are," and "New Moon Rising"
Disc Six: "The Yoko Factor," "Primeval" (featuring commentary with writer David Fury and director James Conter), "Restless" (featuring commentary by Joss Whedon), and season overview featurette
Rather than rehashing the episodes one at a time or trying to discern the season's place among the hierarchy of "best" or "worst," let's look at the big picture with Season Four. It was a hard time for Team Buffy because all the players had to redefine what the show was. Seasons One through Three had dealt with the torment of high school -- a logical place for the intrusion of metaphorical monsters and demons. College establishes a new metaphor because it is a period of freedom and the beginning of striking out on your own. You have to become more self-reliant and define your identity away from the norms established in the confines of high school by friends and parents. So this set of episodes takes each character on his or her own journey and then allows each to rejoin the others to form a new team by the end. That may be why it feels disjointed at times. The story arc is not as singular or clean as what came before or afterward. College is about experimenting, and Season Four was all about the experimentation. Look at the main plot -- an experiment gone wrong. The writers, actors, and directors were all heading to darker places, and Buffy would never be the same.
The rest of this review will not be spoiler free! Major plot points will be revealed! If you have never seen these shows but instead are slogging through episodes one DVD set at a time and want to remain spoiler free...log back on when you finish the season. But if you've seen this season or are not averse to spoilage...
Buffy heads off to college, and everything seems normal for a little while. She falls for a hunky teaching assistant named Riley Finn, who she meets in Professor Maggie Walsh's psychology class. She wonders if such a nice sweet guy could love her once he knows her secret. But Riley isn't all he appears -- or, rather, he's much more than that. He's a government operative for a team called The Initiative, whose sole purpose is to find and capture demons and vampires. They use high-tech weaponry and contain the "hostiles" in holding tanks underneath the university for study and research. Worse than that...remember Professor Walsh? Well...she's the leader of this team, and conducting her own experiments. She wants to create a super-soldier out of machine, man, and demon -- an unstoppable foe and the ultimate weapon. His name is Adam (George Hertzberg). Soon things go terribly, terribly wrong! And who can stop Dr. Walsh's monster as well as the government? Buffy, but not without a little help from her friends.
But where are her friends? Willow (Alyson Hannigan) takes to college like a fish to water until her boyfriend Oz (Seth Green) departs suddenly to deal with his werewolf side. Her magic seems to be growing, and she meets a shy witch named Tara (Amber Benson). They become romantically involved in a twist on Willow's sexual identity. She tries to hide this from the group for a while. Xander (Nicholas Brendon) finds himself adrift without much direction. He's not going to college and is barely holding on to his sense of place in the group. As if that weren't enough, the equally lost ex-demon Anya (Emma Caulfield) shows up to take over as the woman in his life. And Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) is unemployed and hitting a midlife crisis. He has casual sex with a friend from England, watches TV, and begins doing astonishing things like singing in a coffee bar. As if this weren't enough, Spike (James Marsters) shows up with Harmony (Mercedes McNab) in tow but gets captured and "neutered" by the Initiative. Faith (Eliza Dushku) comes out of her coma to exact some revenge. Jonathan (Danny Strong) casts a spell that alters reality. And all sorts of mayhem ensues! Oh yeah, all this and a full course load.
Some of the finest moments of Buffy are here in this volume. The sterling example is the silent movie fairy tale that is "Hush," which garnered an Emmy nomination for the show. It had the creepiest villains ever to grace the slayer's town -- the silent and lethal Gentlemen. The season finale, "Primeval," contains one of the most exciting sequences in the series when the Scooby Gang literally becomes one! And the last episode, "Restless," delivers a tone poem and homage to David Lynch that still has viewers arguing and debating its meaning. Its fever dream imagery contains clues to the next season and beyond.
Fans rage and debate Riley Finn as an anticlimactic love interest for this season. Let me risk life and limb by stating he may be the sanest and most caring man she ever met. Riley was good for Buffy, but the audience seems happiest when her love life is tortured. Angel and Buffy could not have sex because of the curse on Angel, so their love could never be expressed. They were emotional wrecks the whole time they were together. Spike was all about sex and heat, but he could not be an emotional rock given his past and his misguided and unwelcome advances on Buffy. They never could seem to reach a common emotional ground. In Riley Buffy had a man who loved her and could deal with her profession (at least at first, and in this season). Maybe they didn't have the onscreen chemistry that Buffy and Angel had, but I still find Riley a suitable paramour for Buffy. And Blucas acquits himself well as the all-American Iowa boy the writers give him to play. Riley never gets enough respect in my book!
And what of the now-lesbian Willow? Joss Whedon says he was planning on having either Xander or Willow come out as homosexual at some point in the series. He set this up with Willow with her vampire other self in Season Three's "Doppelgangland." But he had also planted some possibilities for Xander...anybody remember Larry from Season Two confessing to Xander that he was gay because he felt they were kindred? Seth Green (Oz) had to leave the show earlier than planned to pursue movie projects, and this sealed Willow's fate. Also, it was too cool to have lipstick lesbians doing magic spells together! It didn't hurt that Amber Benson is a talented and bright actress who brought much to the role of Tara. But the sudden switch jarred some fans and riled others. As brave a move as it was, there were still longings for Willow to return to her boyfriend, especially when Oz appeared again for one final episode. Was Willow going through a phase? Experimenting in college? It became a life choice for Willow in the end, but we had no warning other than the previous appearance of the vampire Willow, who seemed a little bit gay. Was it proof Joss was willing to go anywhere, or was it just a way to titillate the audience with a shocking twist?
Some say Adam was a weak Big Bad, but I beg to differ. He was given short shrift since he did not appear until halfway through the season, but he was effective. I think he kills more people onscreen than most of the series villains, and he does it in creatively disturbing ways. And he may not be the central villain when you look closer. Science is the real big bad of season four. Maggie Walsh and the coolly rational calculations of the Initiative are the true evil of the plot -- Adam is just the result of their misguided visions and wrongheaded experiments. And these story lines provided a chance to break from the Gothic tone of previous seasons. Instead of creepy castles and crypts, we had super-clean underground bunkers filled with computers. James Bond would have been right at home! It's high-tech Buffy for a change, something we didn't see very much in any other seasons.
Fox provides a ton of commentaries -- three of them featuring Joss Whedon, who always makes commentary an art. Writers, producers, and directors all appear, not to mention Seth Green -- the only Buffy actor ever to contribute commentary to any of the sets that are available at this time -- who provides insight into "Wild At Heart." The short pieces on Spike, Oz, the sets, the music, the "Hush" episode, and the season as a whole are all quality work. This is a gem of a set, and a fan's dream come true.
But what about the widescreen?! The Region Two edition of Season Four was released in widescreen, but Joss Whedon wanted the shows to be in standard television format of 4x3 for this edition. You get a personal note from him with this set saying that this is what he intended all along. Like it or not -- it's full screen. And the transfer? Well...grain still pops up in some of the night scenes. And the colors vary from episode to episode, almost as if there were no standard set for saturation levels. But with the full frame format you get no edge enhancement. Audio remains the standard 2.0 bass-heavy mix we have come to expect. Someday maybe they will remix all of this, but it's standard to the broadcast and gets the job done. What can you really do? As much as we wish Buffy could look and sound cinematic, it was made for television and had the constraints of a television budget. Despite the economic constraints, however, Buffy has two super weapons in her arsenal -- composer Christophe Beck and the entire team of photographers working on the show. The music is epic, and it takes center stage in "Hush." The entire body of Beck's work over the seven seasons is just amazing, but in Season Four we get all the groovy John Carpenter–type electronic themes suited to the Initiative plot. Also, the camera work in this season really shines! Long tracking and beautifully composed wide shots make it lusher than most television. "Where the Wild Things Are" may be a weak plot, but the camera work alone saves it.
At times Season Four seems directionless -- searching for itself as much as its characters struggle to find new identities. The whole college experience faded quickly in subsequent seasons. Did the writers feel lost at UC Sunnydale, or was it just too much for Buffy herself to stay any longer than she did? You do have some questionable episodes like "Beer Bad," which was produced in conjunction with an edict from the WB to do "message" stories aimed at teens. Yet even at its worst Buffy remained better than anything around it on the television schedule. A second look at "Beer Bad" reveals Gellar's immaculate comic timing if nothing else! I don't think it was as strong as Seasons Two or Three, and Season Five seemed to surpass it as well. But few episodes in any of the seasons could match the elegant horror of "Hush" or even approach the Dada stylings of "Restless." In the end it still satisfies!
Despite any flaws in single episodes, Buffy remains one of the strongest shows ever to have been on television. Season Four certainly didn't lack for drama or surprise, and Fox really delivers a lot of bang for your buck with the extras this time around. And the "Barbie in space" image on the cover of the box is just amazing. How can you resist?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fourth Season is free to go because Buffy kicks butt no matter what; plus it was wildly inventive and gave us thrills, chills, and spills galore. Fox continues to make each set better and better -- they do TV right! Court is in recess until we analyze "Restless" one more time.
Review content copyright © 2004 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 990 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Creator Joss Whedon on "Hush" and "Restless"
* Commentary by Joss Whedon, Producer Marti Noxon, and Actor Seth Green on on "Wild at Heart"
* Commentary by Writer Doug Petrie on "The Initiative" and "This Year's Girl"
* Commentary by Writer Jane Espenson on "Superstar"
* Season Four Overview
* Featurettes: "Hush," "Spike Me," "Oz Revelations: A Full Moon," "Buffy: Inside the Music," and "The Sets of Sunnydale"
* Original Scripts for "Fear Itself," "Hush," "Who Are You?," and "Restless"
* Cast Bios
* Still Gallery
* DVD Verdict review: Season Five
* DVD Verdict review: Season Three
* DVD Verdict review: Season Two
* DVD Verdict review: Season One
* Buffy Trivia Guide