Our reviews of Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete First Season (published February 5th, 2002), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Third Season (published January 27th, 2003), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fourth Season (published August 10th, 2004), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fifth Season (published January 5th, 2004), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Sixth Season (published November 10th, 2004), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Seventh Season (published December 8th, 2004), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season 8 (Blu-Ray) (published January 17th, 2011), and Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992) (published September 4th, 2001) are also available.
Giles: "You mean life?"
Welcome back to the Hellmouth. That's right, it's season two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; which, in the opinion of many, is the best season of the best hour on television. Join Buffy, Angel, Giles, and all the Scooby gang as they navigate their way through demons, robots, and a couple scene-stealing vampires named Spike and Drucilla. Once again, Fox has released the series in box set form and once again, there are problems.
Facts of the Case
• "When She Was Bad"
• "Some Assembly Required"
• "School Hard"
• "Inca Mummy Girl"
• "Reptile Boy"
• "Lie To Me"
• "The Dark Age"
• "What's My Line Part 1"
• "What's My Line Part 2"
• "Bad Eggs"
• "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered"
• "Killed By Death"
• "I Only Have Eyes For You"
• "Go Fish"
• "Becoming Part 1"
• "Becoming Part 2"
In the wasteland that is the average Hollywood movie, good writing is often watered down by the marketing driven mandates of the studio suits, tailored to meet the fleeting needs of the egotistical acting flavor-of-the-moment or undermined by the insecure control freaks who usually have a film credit that begins with "A Film By." So with that in mind, is it any wonder that some of Hollywood's best and brightest creators have escaped to the sanctuary that is network and cable television? Granted, the actors still make more money and the suits want to play it safe, but the form has become a writer driven medium and one where the writer/creator is able to exert maximum control over the finished product.
In this world of writer-as-king, few have produced as many consistent hours of quality television as has Joss Whedon and Team Buffy. When firing on all thrusters, Buffy the Vampire Slayer manages to be witty, fantastic, creepy, and painfully true. It is a remarkable achievement, and while the Television Academy continues with simple minded ignorance to shun Buffy, the show's legions of fans know that it is truly something special.
The first season of Buffy was a 13-episode affair that featured its share of clunkers and misfires, but even in its early stages the show exhibited a charm and a sense of danger uncommon in a lot of what was on the air. Still, it was with its second and first complete season that the show began to spread its wings. Season one showed that Whedon was unafraid to attack the status quo while killing off recurring characters, but with season two, Team Whedon raised those stakes to an almost unthinkable level.
The season begins with Buffy still dealing with the aftershocks of death and rebirth at the hands of The Master. Slowly through the first few episodes, it seems that the show is growing into a familiar pattern. On a weekly basis, the stable inner circle bravely deals with all the evil threats presented to it and the show starts to feel comfortable. It is with this cocoon of stability that Whedon lulls his characters and indeed his audience into the typical television comfort zone. Thus, when Buffy and Angel arrive at the point that the show has been building towards since its inception, it would seem that a happier status quo for our lovers is being presented. To Whedon's credit, he takes a different, more interesting and much more painful route. Instead of morning-after bliss, an ancient gypsy curse is triggered and Angel loses his soul becoming Angelus, season two's very big bad. Turn of events defined the show and proved with incredible clarity what Buffy the Vampire Slayer could be. Bearing that in mind, I don't think it's a leap to say that "Innocence" is simply the best hour that Buffy has produced to date. It is a masterful episode that is brilliantly written and directed by Whedon and features a performance by Sarah Michelle Geller that proves she is an actress of the first order. It is the episode that showed that this was no mere teen-horror series. It takes characters that we have come to care about and puts them into an elevated sense of conflict. It shows that no matter how strong someone is, we are all working through life without an owner's manual. "Innocence" shows how uncertain, frightening, and painful life and love can be. It forces Buffy on a journey through the torment that sometimes comes with first love and making rash decisions in a fit of passion. It is in fact, the most crystal clear evidence of Whedon's gift. It proves that Team Buffy can take the most of fantastical of situations and events and infuse them with the reactions that we all make every day. They humanize the horror and hold up a mirror so we can all look and understand. While few of us has ever had to drive-a-sword-through-the- heart-of-our-lover-to-save-the-world-from-turning-into-a-hell-on-Earth, we all are able to understand the point—life is often cold and uncaring and breaking up with someone we love is very, very hard to do. It's simple. It's elegant. It's just damn good writing.
If season two fleshed out its main character allowing Sarah Michelle Geller to prove she was one of the best actresses on TV, then the show's supporting cast was also given room to grow while new players were introduced. First and foremost, Alyson Hannigan is simply incapable of turning in a bad performance. As the show enters its seventh season, Hannigan has shown tremendous growth. The character we saw in season one is still very much there today, but very different. Few performers are able to make me laugh while also breaking my heart in the same moment. Hannigan is one of those actors.
I wrote in my season one review that several characters were little more than witty cardboard cutouts and with season two these stock characters became more fully realized people. Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), went from being the show's bitch to showing real emotion, all the while remaining the butt of most of the show's jokes and if you think that is an easy feat, you're wrong. Nicholas Brendan's Xander went from being a well meaning joke to a decent and strong young man unafraid to admit he was scared while the show took Anthony Head and made him a father figure we all wish we could have. The writer's sharpened the simple stereotypical image of the stuffy British librarian and while keeping the basic stereotype, brushed him up, filled his character out and made him complex. Of the returning cast David Boreanaz turned in his best work ever as Angel in Buffy's second season. I have always found the brooding, cursed nature of Angel to be a bit much and it was nice to see Boreanaz able to let loose and be very much the bad guy.
Then there are the new characters. First off, Dr. Evil's son Scott, Seth Green, enters the scene as Oz, werewolf of Willow's dreams. He turns in the same dry, sardonic performance that he seems to do with all of his roles, but in the world of Whedonspeak, it's a match made in heaven. If there is an observation to be made, chances are Green is underplaying it to marvelous effect.
Juliet Landau creates one of the craziest characters ever as Drucilla. Seems Drucilla was a girl of uncommon purity and virtue that Angelus drove crazy and then turned into a vampire. This relationship typifies just how complex the world of vampires in the Buffyverse is. Drucilla often refers to Angel as daddy and that sets up a bizarre love triangle between her, Angel, and Spike. Ah, Spike. I'm sure the writers had no idea how much gold they had struck when they created the character and hired James Marsters to play him. Spike is everything we don't associate a vampire to be. He may be a ruthless killer, but he really isn't that bad a bloke. Few "villains" are as likable and charming as Spike. I've thought for a couple of years now that when they spun off a show about a vampire, they gave the series to the wrong vampire. As the show enters its seventh, and supposedly final season, no character has gone through as much fundamental change as Spike. One of the main joys of watching season two, and a big part of arm wrestling my way to this review, was to spend time watching and writing about Spike or William the Bloody.
Another one of the joys of watching the entire second season over a couple of days was trying to get a sense of where the second go-round sits in the overall Buffy picture. There are constant arguments on the Buffy message boards as to what season was the show's best. The consensus is split among seasons two and three. Going into this review, I always gave my nod to season two. Now I'm not so sure. I think season two has more powerful moments and carries a greater degree of resonance, but season three seems to have a stronger narrative thrust. There is less filler like "Ted" or "Inca Mummy Girl" in season three to slow things down. Once Buffy's status quo for the season is setup, the show is a runaway train that leads to the most satisfying of all the season climaxes. Yes, I know I have too much time on my hands.
Moving on to the box set, we find that the sound offered is a very serviceable 2.0 Dolby Surround mix. It's generally a clean sounding mix that is well mixed but featuring little in the way of bells and whistles. Dialogue is easily heard and that is the most important thing but don't go expecting a mix to show off your equipment with. The best thing I can say is it gets the job done.
Video is your standard 4:3 full frame and you can look for my comments about that in the section below.
On the extras front, things are a little better than last time, but not by a whole lot. First off, there are the usual array of TV spots, cast bios, and a still gallery. There are three featurettes that range in length from 15 to about 30 minutes. Designing Buffy deals with the production ends of the series while Beauty and the Beasts talks about the make-up design for all the various demons and vampires. The longer of the three segments is A Buffy Bestiary, and it's a pretty good overview of the villains Buffy has gone against over the years. If the feature has a downside, it is that it's not season two specific. All of the pieces are good if not great looks at behind the scenes.
The set features three commentary tracks. Writer/director David Greenwalt contributes one for "Reptile Boy," co-writer Marti Noxon discusses parts 1 and 2 of "What's My Line," and creator Joss Whedon sits down for "Innocence." Of the three, Whedon's is easily the best and serves as a good example of what commentary tracks should be. Informative, witty, and full of details, Whedon seems to be totally in control. The track features few gaps but the ones there are intentional. There really are certain parts of movies that are best left to be heard to help underscore what is being discussed. It's an excellent track and a must listen for Buffy fans.
I understand that these box sets are major undertakings and issues of disc space are of major concern, but I was rather let down by the lack of DVD-ROM features. It would seem to me that the Internet is a great way to offer up Buffy fans all the in-depth information they crave and what better way to take care of that thirst than to offer up a portal to the fans who popped down major bank for these box sets. Rant over.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In my previous review of season one, I mentioned that while it was great to have Buffy on the shelf ready, willing, and able to be viewed whenever the moment was right, the set was somewhat of a letdown. Unfortunately, the same thing applies to this box set of season two. Foremost in the minus column is, once more, the transfers. Now, I know that Buffy was shot on less than ideal film stocks with an eye towards putting every penny on the screen. I also know that to go back and really redo the series would mean returning to all of the post production materials from scratch. Still, I went back and watched some season two episodes on VHS tapes that were recorded from their original airings—tapes that, I should note, have been watched a lot. I then went back and looked at the DVDs. I'm sorry to report that the discs are not an improvement and in some cases, I found my old VHS copies looked better. Some of the episodes look so bad that a person could think that they were viewing a tape that had been copied over and over again. Start with the fact that the second season was shot on 16mm, so right off the bat a number of scenes are going to look grainy, fuzzy, washed out, and with little in the way of shadow detail. Then you combine that with the digital compression on these discs and you are left with an overall image that leaves a great deal to be desired. As much as I hate to admit it, but maybe Paramount had the right idea with the way they produced the original episodes of Star Trek. Those discs had only two episodes per disc and they looked great. I know I would be willing to pay a little more for more discs with fewer episodes of Buffy on them. The only thing I can wish for is that as Buffy became more popular and the show's budget increased enough for the switch to 35 mm film, future box sets will reflect the improved video quality. Furthermore, whenever the forth season is released, I hope that Fox makes my investment in these box sets worthwhile by letting the world look at Buffy in glorious anamorphic widescreen.
After several years of listening to commentary tracks and writing about them, I have come to the conclusion that no commentary option is better than a bad audio track. To prove my point all anyone has to do is listen to David Greenwalt's for "Reptile Boy." Basically a recap of what you are viewing on the screen, only done in a flat, slightly smug tone of voice, this is one of the worst commentaries I've ever had to endure. Marti Noxon's commentaries for "What's My Line Parts 1 & 2" fare a little better. Noxon is a more engaging speaker and she at least relays some trivia and behind-the-scenes information. Still, she also falls into the "and here is the part where such-n-such does…" syndrome. I'm not saying it's easy to do these things but if they are going to be done, I wish they would at least be done well.
As a show, there are some problem installments, but in the course of any series you are going to have episodes that simply get a viewer over the hump until the next humdinger rolls around. To be fair, the stinkers of season two don't seem as tired or trite as the low points of season one and that has to count for something.
With all due respect to The Sopranos, Law & Order, 24, and the other great shows out there, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the best hour on television and its second season possesses many of its greatest moments. This second season proved that Whedon was willing to break all of the conventional rules of episodic television in order to create something really special. It was from this template that fans of the show have come to expect the unexpected. Whedon and Team Buffy have continued to uphold this level of quality on a yearly basis. It's the main reason I'm still sitting here raving about the series. While there are serious issues with the video transfers, let there be no doubt—this is still a box set that any fan of the show has to own.
Innocent! Buffy is free to prowl the Hellmouth while the court only wishes that things are a little nicer to look at with season three. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentaries: "Reptile Boy" (Writer / Director David Greenwalt), "What's My Line Parts 1 & 2" (Co-Writer Marti Noxon), "Innocence" (Writer / Director Joss Whedon)
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