Sunday, October 22, 2006

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Season 4 Review

US Airdate on the WB: October 5th 1999 – May 23rd 2000

Changes are all the range as the Slayer makes the transition from high school to college, Willow finds herself interested in magic and girls, Oz departs, Xander hooks up with Anya, Giles struggles to find his role and Riley and Tara see Buffy and Willow with new challenges. Oh and there’s Spike, voice stealers, The Initiative and Adam to contend with.

This Certainly Wasn’t In The Brochure – After three years of the innocence of adolescence it was inevitable that the transition from high school to college to the adult world was always going to be a hard one. I don’t mean just entirely for the writers to make it feel organic but also for audiences to accept that some changes may not see the Scoobies at their best. For the most of this season, the once airtight friendship with Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles see them behaving more like strangers than friends that have been through thick and thin together. It’s a bit jarring to watch but in my opinion (and I may be in a minority of people here), Season Four is every bit as engaging to watch as ever.

The season opens with a low key opener entitled “The Freshman” where Buffy is clearly out of her depth in UC Sunnydale compared to Willow and Oz. We see the usually strong and snappy Slayer humiliated by a professor, bombarded with the roommate from hell and having the shit kicked out of her by a group of vampires, led by the nicely named Sunday. Even a Hugh Hefner dressed Giles tells Buffy she has to grow up and it isn’t until a returned Xander cheers her up in the Bronze that Buffy is able to show Campus that she isn’t a Slayer that should get on her bad side. Then the episode ends with a group of mysterious soldiers snatching a vampire. Yes, people we’ve gone from The Master, Spike/Drusilla/Angelus and The Mayor/Faith to our big bad being a group of scientists and soldiers underneath UC Sunnydale and calling themselves The Initiative as baddies. I knew they were going to be the weakest and least engaging group of big villains this show has ever faced and they are.

For the first seven episodes, The Initiative are mainly snooping around snatching demons while the Scoobies deal with personal problems such as Xander’s inability to keep a crappy job and embarking on a mostly sexual for the time being relationship with witty nymphomaniac Anya as Buffy learns the hard way that some men want sex and nothing else when she becomes involved with Parker. It also doesn’t help Buffy when Spike returns with a vamped Harmony in the third episode “The Harsh Light Of Day” and proceeds to use her sexual humiliation as a source of fun while looking for the Gem of Armara (a ring that makes vampires immune to sunlight). Willow fares no better when Oz is drawn to fellow werewolf Veruca and proceeds to sleep with her as a means to stop from hurting people in the wonderful “Wild At Heart”. Sadly it dents Willow’s ego and gives us our first major hint that magically, Willow could be problematic. The upshot is that Oz leaves Sunnydale to find a way to control his own nature and Spike gets kidnapped by The Initiative.

Our least favourites of season big baddies are brought to the fore in “The Initiative”, when we learn that they are lead by ice cool bitch Maggie Walsh and one of her top soldiers is Riley Finn. Played by Marc Blucas, Riley is a bit of a dork but any serious lover following Angel was always in for a hard time and although I didn’t ship him and Buffy as a couple, boring or not, it’s probably the most healthiest relationship she has been in when you think about. There are times when I found myself liking Riley and others when I found him to be a pain in the backside. His pursuit of Buffy is kind of cute and their flirtation in “Pangs” (a Thanksgiving episode complete with Chumash Indians, Buffy making dinner and a hiding Angel) and “Something Blue” (where Willow’s “will be done” spell makes Giles blind, Xander even more of a demon magnet and Buffy and Spike lovers), does lead to a beautiful first snog in the groundbreaking “Hush” as their identities are then revealed to the other.

Let’s talk about “Hush” shall we? For all those idiots out there who could never take this show seriously, here was a reason why you should. Can you name any adult show out there that has ever done a silent episode and actually succeeded both critically and commercially with it? I know I can’t. Also let’s add that this had some of the most creepiest villains with The Gentlemen (who needed seven hearts), some of composer Christophe Beck’s best work and introduced the wonderful Amber Benson as the wonderful Tara, a character whose presence is more than welcomed throughout the season.

The later half of the season which saw the series go into the year 2000 in an interesting manner focused on many things, one namely being Spike. Unable to hurt people due to a chip in his brain, Joss Whedon would use this as a perfect reason to keep Spike around in Sunnydale but attempting to redeem the character in a manner that would be believable was tricky as despite giving shelter to him and using him for information purposes, the Scoobies still hated his guts as well they should. Suffice to say, Spike wasn’t enamoured with them either and took great joy in taunting them.

Despite hokum episodes like “Doomed” and “A New Man”, the series further progressed the Buffy/Riley relationship and the predicted sinister side to The Initiative in “The I In Team” and “Goodbye Iowa”. Hot sex scenes aside, we saw Professor Walsh for the danger she really was and her efforts to get Buffy out of the picture resulted in the rise of part human/demon/cyborg Adam bumping her off, injuring Riley and basically escaping.

This plot then got put on hold for the wonderful return of Faith in the season’s unforgettable two parter “This Year’s Girl”/“Who Are You”. Having Eliza Dushku back for two episodes injected more excitement into this season that Adam could ever hope to achieve and the fun she and Sarah Michelle Gellar must have had while playing opposite roles you can only imagine. These two episodes are also noteworthy for the by now obvious coupling between Willow and Tara and how a complete stranger could easily tell that Buffy wasn’t herself literally after only meeting her once raised intrigue (that and the spell sabotage thing). Forget Buffy/Riley or Xander/Anya, it was Willow/Tara who was the ultimate couple of the season.

And with the return of Oz in “New Moon Rising”, the writers did tug with our emotions a lot. I mean I felt bad for Oz, Willow and Tara but I ultimately cheered when Tara got her girl. The episode also had me cheering at Buffy for telling Riley about Angel, Riley ditching The Initiative and the Spike/Adam pairing.

As a villain, Adam lacks mainly because he has no complexities in the same way that either The Mayor or Faith had the previous season. Adam simply wants to kill, kill and kill so while it may be interesting that he can be immune to reality altering spells in the excellent Jonathan showcase “Superstar” and views himself as a paradox or that he kills the painfully annoying Forrest, the character just doesn’t hold my interest.

What did were the departure and returns of old characters and their development, the individual personal Scooby stuff. This season is lighter compared to the first three, so I didn’t take the big bad seriously.

Although at Adam and Spike’s interference did get the Scoobies to briefly fall out and acknowledge their distance in “The Yoko Factor”, before the reaffirmed friends used the essence of the First Slayer to break into The Initiative and stop Adam’s wacky idea of making a race of human/demon creatures. While the Buffy/Adam scrap in the excellent “Primeval” may not have been as cool as the Buffy/Faith scraps earlier on in this season, it was definitely a killer of ending The Initiative arc and the season. Well it would have been but Joss Whedon decided to end this season on a more psychological and foreshadowing note with the intelligent “Restless”. Set mostly in dream, we see Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles’ fears and fantasies played out before us while as an audience we can draw whether or not these people have changed for the better or at all this season. Having Buffy duke it out with the First Slayer as Tara warns that “You think you know, who you are, what’s to come. You haven’t even begun”. Even if you didn’t like Season Four, that line is seductive enough to hold you for Season Five. It certainly held me.

DVD EXTRAS: Four seasons in and the extras are only getting better and better and while I wish they would stop adding the scripts and cast biographies, my love for the writers increased with brilliant commentaries for both “The Initiative” and “This Year’s Girl” by Doug Petrie, another hilarious one from Jane Espenson on the comical “Superstar”. Both David Fury and James A. Contner hold their own wonderfully for penultimate episode “Primeval” (originally intended to end the season) but Joss Whedon once again does win hands down with “Hush” and “Restless”. The other features include a heavily detailed “Season 4 Overview” and making of “Hush”. Lovers of James Marsters will enjoy “Introducing Spike” but I personally couldn’t get enough of “Buffy: Inside The Music”. There are also a couple of stills to mull over as well but overall, this is how you treat a series on DVD.


4x01: The Freshman = 8/10, 4x02: Living Conditions =6/10,
4x03: The Harsh Light Of Day = 7/10, 4x04: Fear Itself = 7/10,
4x05: Beer Bad = 8/10, 4x06: Wild At Heart =9/10,
4x07: The Initiative = 6/10, 4x08: Pangs = 9/10,
4x09: Something Blue = 8/10, 4x10: Hush = 10/10,
4x11: Doomed = 6/10, 4x12: A New Man = 7/10,
4x13: The I In Team = 8/10, 4x14: Goodbye Iowa = 7/10,
4x15: This Year’s Girl = 10/10, 4x16: Who Are You = 10/10,
4x17: Superstar = 8/10, 4x18: Where The Wild Things Are = 4/10,
4x19: New Moon Rising = 9/10, 4x20 = The Yoko Factor = 7/10,
4x21: Primeval = 9/10, 4x22: Restless = 9/10.

Season Four is currently available on both VHS and DVD.

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