1.5 Never Kill a Boy on the First Date
1.6 The Pack
Week 1 of the Buffy Rewatch was off to a great start; there were lots of comments, and I think we got the whole spoiler vs non-spoiler thing squared away for now (if you’re watching BtVS for the first time, stick with this post and put your comments under it; if you’re rewatching Buffy, you can read this post, then jump down to the next one below it where you’ll find the spoilery stuff, and you can post in that forum instead). I’m just so thrilled to be watching BtVS again!
This week we begin some character-building... mostly with Xander. Poor, poor Xander. (Don’t worry, first-time watchers... for anyone who’s thinking Xander’s having it a little hard, we’ll eventually get to see things from his perspective in one of the best episodes of the series.) Joss Whedon often said that Xander was the character he identified with the most, which is probably why he’s the most well-rounded character right from the beginning. And Nicholas Brendon puts in a brilliant performance week after week.
This week we watched “Teacher’s Pet” (Xander is about to be used to harvest eggs for a giant praying mantis), “Never Kill a Boy on a First Date” (Buffy and Owen sittin’ in a tree... er... S-L-A-Y-I-N-G), and “The Pack” (Xander is possessed by a hyena). “The Pack” is considered by many fans to be the first truly great episode of the series. I remember the first time I watched it I was immensely uncomfortable... the way Xander looks at Buffy, the way he humiliates Willow (if you listen closely, you can actually hear her heart break), the way he attempts to dominate Buffy to show his manhood. It’s frightening. And brilliant. “Teacher’s Pet” is a little monster-of-the-weeky and not a strong S1 episode. “Never Kill a Boy” has some of the sharpest dialogue in season 1, and features that excellent library scene, where Giles is suddenly reminded that other students are supposed to take out books, too. And now I’m about to ruin Dickinson for you (or, depending on your perspective, make it far more entertaining, which was my reaction when I heard this): When I was taking American Lit in university, my prof told us that you can sing almost any Emily Dickinson to the tune of the theme song from Gilligan’s Island. Try it:
A poor torn heart, a tattered heart,
That sat it down to rest,
Nor noticed that the ebbing day
Flowed silver to the west,
Nor noticed night did soft descend
Nor constellation burn,
Intent upon the vision
Of latitudes unknown.
Heehee!!!!! And failing that, he said you should try setting them to “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.”
This week's guest post is by David Lavery (my observations will follow after). I first met David when I was working on a chapter called “Buffy Goes to College” for my Angel companion guide, because David, along with Rhonda Wilcox, had put together one of the first great books of academic essays on BtVS, Fighting the Forces. He is the co-organizer of the biennial Slayage conference that I attended in 2008 and 2010, and he is also the co-organizer of the upcoming Lost conference I’ve yammered on about a lot on here (now scheduled for October 6-8, 2011, in New Orleans... more on that to come). I worked with him on his Heroes book, “Saving the World,” and he asked me to contribute a chapter on Heroes to his book, “The Essential Cult Television Reader” and then asked me to write the chapter on Lost in his upcoming book on TV Finales. Dr. Lavery has been a Professor of English at MTSU since 1993. The author of over 120 published essays, chapters, and reviews, he is author / co-author / editor / co-editor of 23 books on Lost, Buffy, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, Deadwood, and many more. He is the founding co-editor of the journals Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies and Critical Studies in Television, and has lectured around the world on the subject of television (Australia, Turkey, the UK, Portugal, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany). He blogs here.
Now that we have two forums in which to discuss Buffy in a spoilery way and a non-spoilery one, I’ll put David’s spoilery comments in white here if you’re a first-time watcher (there aren't very many here at all; simply highlight them to read them if you’d like... if you noticed a weird white space, that's probably where I've removed a phrase). If you’re a rewatcher, move to the next post and you can read it in its entirety. And now, take it away, David!
“Can I just say one thing? HEEEELLLLP! HEEEELLLLP!”
— Xander to Mrs. French (the she-mantis) in “Teacher’s Pet”
When the episodes I’ve just rewatched originally aired, I was paying no attention. (You can read a brief account of my “coming-to-Buffy” in Season 4 experience here.) Nor have I ever been a big fan of BtVS S1. I have even been known to discourage potential future adherents to skip the entire season and begin their Buffy immersion with S2 (in the hope such a navigation of the verse would more likely lead to love/addiction).
My critical opinion of two of my three rewatchables was, nevertheless, high: I’ve long considered “Never” and “Pack” among the strongest from Buffy’s rookie season. “Teacher’s Pet,” on the other hand, I had filed away in my memory as a BBF (Buffy Bottom Feeder), an episode every bit as lame as, say, “Inca Mummy Girl” or “Beer Bad.” (I know, I know: judging television episodes is an exercise in critical relativity, and the worst Buffy may still be pretty good television.) I am happy to report that while “Never” and “Pack” remain worthy, “Pet” has improved with age.
That Joss Whedon half-expected Buffy to be canceled after only one season is well known. The series’ signature “flexi-narrative” formula (the term is Robin Nelson’s) — one season = the struggle with and defeat of a singular Big Bad, punctuated with “Monster of the Week” episodes — was a fortunate side-effect. Like most initial seasons of long-running series, Season 1 BtVS shows Whedon and company uncertain about a number of other matters as well, still calibrating, if you will, its most basic assumptions. In my three episodes the calibration is almost audible.
For example, Buffy’s Summers’ IQ is still in doubt. Though her verbal kicks are as quick and accurate as her physical ones, the young woman who will later earn an SAT score good enough to gain admission to Northwestern does not always seem the sharpest tool in the shed. Consider the entrance of Owen Thurman into the library in “Never”:
Owen: I lost my Emily. Dickinson. It's dumb, but I like her around. Kind of a security blanket.
Buffy: (awkwardly) I have something like that. Well, it's an actual blanket. Uh, and I don't really carry it around anymore . . . So! Emily Dickens, huh? She's great!
Buffy: She's good also.
Even allowing for her smittenness with Owen’s Owenocity in this scene, this level of dumb seems incompatible with the intelligence Buffy exhibits in her smack down of a vamp in the episode’s teaser:
We haven't been properly introduced. (pulls out a stake) I'm Buffy, and you're history!
or later in the same episode in the following exchange with her Watcher:
Giles: If your identity as the Slayer is revealed it could put you and all those around you in grave danger.
Buffy: Well, in that case I won't wear my button that says, “I'm a Slayer. Ask me how!”
Nor have Whedon and Company, or David Boreanaz for that matter (who shows little evidence of acting ability until Season 2), yet figured out Angel. Though it is abundantly clear (as Xander notes in “Pet”) that he is “a very attractive man,” radiating “salty goodness” (Cordelia in “Never”), it is by no means certain yet that he is a hero. Angel in my rewatchables reminded me — nota bene: odd comparison ahead — of Kramer in the first two partial seasons of Seinfeld — before Seinfeld, David, and Richards realized the character’s potential as a “hipster doofus.”
Nor is the continuity precisely calibrated yet. When Giles tells his charge (in “Never”) that he always wanted to be a fighter pilot, the confession seems a bit odd coming from the Ripper of “The Dark Age,” and his insistence that he has no instruction manual is of course contradicted by Kendra’s knowledge of one (“What’s My Line,” Parts I and II). And what’s with the vampire look? All vampires at this point seem to be Master lookalikes. Later, John Vulich and company will go lighter on the latex.
On the other hand, Xander and Cordelia are already fully and completely themselves. It is revealing, is it not, that two of my three rewatchables (“Pet,” “Pack”) — from the middle of Season 1 — are Xandercentric. I suspect so much Xander so early in BtVS reflects a great deal of comfort in the writers room with both Mr. Harris and Nicholas Brendon’s portrayal of him.
I had entirely forgotten till this rewatch that “Pet” begins with a “Superstary” dream sequence in which, like Jonathan Levinson in Season 4, our beloved Zeppo takes over the narrative and becomes the Slayer’s savior, kicking a vampire’s butt, and then, in a “Restlessy” moment mounting the stage in the Bronze to perform. (When Buffy awakes him from his biology class nap with the words “You're drooling,” the omniscient among us can’t help but flash forward to Buffy’s own “minimal drool” in “Hush.”)
If Brendon excels as dream-Xander, he shines as well as the virgin about to be the recipient of Mrs. French’s eggs in the final scene of “Pet” and, even more significantly, as the Hyena-possessed bad boy of “The Pack.” (Like Boreanaz, the dark side serves for Brendon as a performance enhancer.) I find “The Pack” difficult to watch, genuinely scary.
And what are we to say about Charisma Carpenter’s role as the poster child for meanness? Consider her Principal Flutie ordered (“Heal!” “Heel!”) meeting with a grief counselor (after finding Dr. Gregory’s corpse):
I don't know what to say, it was really, I mean, one minute you're in your normal life, and then who's in the fridge? It really gets to you, a thing like that. It was . . . let's just say I haven't been able to eat a thing since yesterday. I think I lost, like, seven and a half ounces? Way swifter than that so-called diet that quack put me on. Oh, I'm not saying that we should kill a teacher every day just so I can lose weight, I'm just saying bright side. You know?
I am sure I am not alone in identifying this kind of black humor one of the things I love most about Buffy and no one brings it better than Queen C.
Giles, too, with the exception of his possibly inconsistent backstory, is recognizably Giles. Consider, for example, this wonderful exchange with Buffy in “Never”:
Giles: Alright, I-I'll just jump in my time machine, go back to the twelfth century and ask the vampires to postpone their ancient prophecy for a few days while you take in dinner and a show.
Buffy: Okay, at this point you're abusing sarcasm.
Gilesish to the max.
Thanks to this rewatch I don’t think I will be recommending “go directly to Season 2” in the future. “Teacher’s Pet,” “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” and “The Pack” may not be my favortist Buffys, but they remain inescapable — like puberty.
Miscellaneous Notes, Queries, and Observations
• Buffy will give us several mean teachers over its run, but “Pet” give us perhaps its nicest, Dr. Gregory (“one of the few teachers who don’t think Buffy’s a felon”—as Willow observes) and then, in classic Whedon fashion, immediately kills him. It will come as no surprise in “The Prom” (3.20).
• Will we ever again see Xander as one of the girls (as he is in “Never”)? Take note, in a further act of emasculation, Xander (in the epilogue of “Never”) sips on a juice box in a very Andrew-like manner.
• In her attempted extrication from Owen’s interest in the life of danger at the end of “Never,” Buffy insists “It’s not you, it’s me.” Has Buffy been watching Seinfeld and fallen under the influence of George Costanza?
• In “Never,” we get the following exact duplication of lines (both, of course, describing Buffy):
Giles: She is the strangest girl!• In case you did not know: Musetta Vander, the South African actress who plays Natalie French in “Pet,” would later play one of the Sirens in Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother Where Art Thou? (Nikki note: She also played an Amazon on Xena among many other small roles in genre TV.)
Owen: (to Angel) She's the strangest girl!
• I had forgotten that key School of Whedonite David Greenwalt (an essential Angel contributor as well) wrote “Pet.”
• When the vampire (with a giant claw) runs in terror from Natalie French, did anyone else hear?
• Xander: Generally speaking, when scary things get scared: not good. (“Dead Man’s Party,” 3.2)
• In “Restless” (4.22), Xander tells Apocalypse-Now-Principal-Snyder “how glad I was you were eaten by a snake.” On the other hand, I was really, really sorry to see Flutie eaten by The Pack. Wonderful character, played by Ken Lerner, the brother of Michael Lerner, the actor (yes, another Coen Bros. reference) who gave us mogul Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink.
• Some very nice indie music at the Bronze in all three episodes — a Buffy trademark.
• Perhaps it’s just me, but I would lose the “to be continued” ending of “Pet.”
• Television directors tend to be invisible. (Whedon would not himself direct an episode until the Season 1 finale, “Prophecy Girl.”) Two of my three episodes were directed by Bruce Seth Green, a twenty year industry veteran, who came to Buffy with an impressive resume that included assignments on the following TV series: Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, American Gothic, Xena: Warrior Princess, Babylon 5, Law & Order, I'll Fly Away, Swamp Thing, Doogie Howser, M.D., Baywatch, MacGyver, T.J. Hooker, V, Knight Rider, Magnum, P.I. After Season Two (in which Green helmed “Some Assembly Required,” “Nightmares,” “Halloween,” “The Dark Age,” “Ted,” and “Phases”), he would never work for the series again.
• On the DVDs, activation of each episode is accompanied by a Buffy witticism. When you play “Pet,” Buffy announces “We’re talking full-on Exorcist twist.” With “Never” we hear “If the apocalypse comes, beep me.” Nice.
Thank you, David! He'll be watching the comments, so if you wanted to ask him anything specific, I'm sure he'll be happy to answer. Right, David? David?
And now a few more observations from me:
• “Teacher’s Pet”: Xander’s guitar solo. That makes me laugh every time (especially the moment where it cuts into it midway through the episode) and makes me think of a certain guitarist who will appear in S2.
• Principal Flutie telling Buffy to “HEAL!” and making it sound like he’s ordering a dog to sit. (And then, in a sad ironic twist, is eaten by dogs, in a sense.) That’s probably my favourite Flutie line.
• “Never Kill a Boy”: Giles: “She’s quite a good poet for...” Buffy: “A girl?” Giles: “An American.”
• Giles: “While you checking out a book should be grounds for a national holiday...”
• One of my all-time FAVOURITE Xander quotes: “So, Buffy... how did the slaying go last night? I... mean... how did the LAYING go? No I didn’t mean that either.”
• “I’m a slayer, ask me how!” (I have that button, by the way... thanks, Cynthea!)
• Xander’s Tweety watch!!!
• The debut of the Gilesmobile. Oh how I ♥ that car.
• "If the Apocalypse comes, beep me." Yep, Buffy has a beeper. I half expected Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock to pop up and ask her if she was waiting for 1983 to call. It also made me wonder, what would the line be now? "If the Apocalypse comes, tweet it?"
• Buffy: "Bite me." Me: "YEEEESSSSSS!!!!"
• The Pack: Willow on zebras mating: “It’s like the Heimlich... with stripes!”
• Giles reacting to Buffy’s news that Xander has become mean: “It’s terrible... he’s turned into a 16-year-old boy. Of course you’ll have to kill him.”
Did You Notice?
• David Boreanaz is listed as a guest star, which is such a shock to see!
• When Flutie was killed in this episode, fans were shocked and we realized Joss could take out anyone if he wanted to. I realize Flutie certainly isn’t a Scoob or anything, but he was major enough that his death was a surprise. It doesn’t seem so shocking now, but at the time, characters who were killed off TV shows were still mostly redshirts who had been introduced to one episode solely for the purpose of killing them off.
• I was recently watching a S1 episode of Supernatural where Sam was in a cage next to another guy, and it made me think of “Teacher’s Pet.”
• Willow saying that Owen can brood for 40 minutes is foreshadowing what Angel will become best known for.