Complete Buffy reviews: Teacher's Pet
|REVIEWS - TV|
There's a hot new teacher who's making a meal of her job...
Years ago, before the days of scrolling through 1093 movie channels on a small telly box, folks could enjoy the experience of going to the cinema. A particular favourite of sci-fi fans in the good old days was what was known as the B Movie. Normally, a sci-fi B Movie would consist of a hokey plot, squeaky over-acting and a cardboard monster. Despite this less than formidable reputation, the B Movie still brought the punters back for more. Less choice means that you take what you can get, and in the days before DVDs and Digiboxes were on tap, the B Movie was about the best that you could have.
I guess that's what the Buffy production team were aiming to pay homage to when it came to creating Teacher's Pet, the latest wacky escapade of Season One. Vampires? Bah! Witches? Pah! When you're on a Hellmouth, even a Preying Mantis can come to town to home in on a clutch of gibbering teenage boy fools.
One of which includes poor old Xander. Still lovestruck over Buffy, the opening scene sees Xander dreaming of a night in The Bronze in which he seduces the Slayer with a spot of guitar playing that would leave Brian May and Jimi Hendrix shaking in their shoes. Wisely, he chooses to bypass the Slayer back catalogue, since this is a tad obvious, instead settling on some generic quickfire guitar yodelling. Naturally, he's brought back down to Earth while drooling in Dr Gregory's class. Reality hurts, and over the next few days, he'll find that real life's delivering him hard and fast punches.
One of which manifests itself in the grunting form of Blayne Mall, the first in a long line of bragging, posturing dullards to grace the corridors of Sunnydale High School. Blayne is a ham-headed poltroon. A crushing bore. A bragging ladies' man. He spends his time boasting about how many chicks he's been with in the last month or week or day. Every line he blurts comprises cheesy, macho gibberish. When asked about his latest tally in the Bronze, he smarms: "Seven, including Cheryl! I'll tell you though, her sister was looking to make it eight!" Yeah, dig that Blayne, irresistible to females, including new teacher on the block, Natalie French, who just so happens to have replaced a mysteriously AWOL Dr Gregory. Naturally, Blayne becomes first choice for a visit to Ms French's house for a spot of extra curricular heaven knows what, and he wastes no time in lording this fact over a smarting Xander: "You came in second, I came in first - guess that's what they call natural selection!"
"it's refreshing to see that Buffy The Vampire Slayer looks at all elements of growing pains for both girls and boys"
One of the redeeming aspects of Teacher's Pet is the revelation is that all of Blayne's boasting happens to be lies. In his mind, he's Hugh Hefner, when in fact, it's more a matter of Hugh Cares. Blayne is ultimately revealed to have scored a big fat zero when it comes to experience with girls - even The Master's probably had more luck with the opposite sex. Blayne's bragging does reflect a depressing trend among some teenagers who boast about how many partners they have scored, like it's some sort of competition. What Teacher's Pet spotlights is male insecurity - whether it's Blayne's over-compensating boasting or more directly, Xander's lack of confidence, it's refreshing to see that Buffy The Vampire Slayer looks at all elements of growing pains for both girls and boys.
The problem is though, the main baddie/monster of the week is painfully obvious. The great thing about Witch was that it kept you guessing as to who was behind the witchy attacks on cheerleaders. In Teacher's Pet, from the moment that Natalie struts in slow-mo Baywatch style before a drooling Xander, it doesn't take much stretch of the imagination to work out that she's somehow involved in the mystery of the AWOL Dr Gregory. It's then spelt out in big, bold capital letters during her first science lesson while discussing the preying mantis. "There is nothing ugly about these unique creatures!" she huffs after verbal slayage from Buffy. "It's the way nature designed them - noble, solitary and prolific." After Dr Gregory is found to have lost his head, there is some vague attempt at double crossing the viewers by introducing a random creature called... Fork Guy. Yes, he's that significant to the plot that Angel, the Sudoku Puzzle With Fangs, leads Buffy to christen him with a name that's so inane that you might as well have called him Arthur. It's like calling Norman Bates "Knife Guy" - he could do a good double act with Fork Guy to overwhelming success.
Anyway, the problem with Fork Guy, despite boasting an impressive set of hand shears, is that he's out of the running after a cool, calm and collected Ms French scares him out of his wits. So there's no real sense of surprise that she's somehow a deadly She Mantis, an assumption cemented by her odd taste in sandwiches. Hmmmmm. Insect Sangers... Quite how Natalie (not actually her real name, since she's assumed the identity of an old biddy who last taught back in 1972) was roped in to teach so quickly is never explained. I suppose that Principal Flutie was won over by her looks rather than concrete proof of teaching qualifications and credible references. And don't forget that this is Flutie that we're talking about - the guy's so genteel that he orders a compulsory round of crisis counselling to anyone who witnessed Gregory's grisly remains ("Heal!"). It's kind of a shame that we'll only get to see Flutie one more time - Ken Lerner gives another amusing performance, making the most of his limited screen time.
Teacher's Pet is, on the surface, more light hearted than the first two stories. The She Mantis, both in humanoid and oversized bug form, is more of an over-exaggerated threat rather than a menacing, convincing one. Take the scene in which Xander goes round to Ms French's abode for a spot of papier mache construction and is instead met with a glass of wine and a tight dress. It's played more for laughs with Xander burbling away ten to the dozen about his middle name (LaVelle) and Greek food. But then maybe the scene's played for laughs, since at the story's core is something very dark indeed. Let me put it this way - Imagine if it was Willow who had been swayed by some brand new teacher who invites her to his house: he then greets Willow in a flashy suit and a gold medallion and then dopes her with drugged wine before locking her in a cage in the cellar. Questionable taste to say the least, and I guess that Teacher's Pet was written with a more comedic tone so as to sugarcoat this.
"Brendon has both the acting chops and perfect comic timing to make Xander an amusing, likeable character"
Both the tone and the monster lead me back to those B Movie comparisons. The realisation of the She Mantis at the end is not the best, a lumbering, unconvincing lump of what looks like papier mache and assorted bits of Blake's 7 Monster Bling. Wisely, director Bruce Seth Green does his level best to shroud the thing in shadow and keep its on-screen appearance to a minimum. Sadly, though, while the She Mantis is evocative of old B Movie monsters, it doesn't convince in the least - despite the best efforts of Nicholas Brendon, who's working overtime to sell the threat.
In fact, Brendon is one of the saving graces of the story. It would have been easy to turn Xander into an annoying doofus, but Brendon has both the acting chops and perfect comic timing to make him an amusing, likeable character. His awkward swaggering in front of Blayne at The Bronze while pretending to 'score' with Buffy and Willow is particularly amusing. There are also some nice examples of character interplay. The short-lived Dr Gregory would have made for a good, interesting character if he hadn't been bumped off in the prologue. It's nice to see a teacher who isn't furiously having a go at Buffy for the "homework thing". "Please don't listen to the principal or anyone else's negative opinion about you," he says while imploring the Slayer to not be sorry but to be smart. Perhaps Gregory would have made for a second confidante in addition to Giles, but on the more mundane aspects of school such as homework and bullying. Alas, it wasn't to be, and Buffy's quiet, dignified return of Gregory's discarded glasses at the end is a nice touch.
Teacher's Pet isn't as strong as its predecessors. Certain aspects of the plot are a little dubious. And it has a rubbish monster. But for all that it's still entertaining enough with good performances from the regulars (especially Nicholas Brendon) and funny lines ("Don't say dead! Or decapitated. Or decomposing. I'd stay away from 'D' words altogether!"). As a 1990s homage to the good old fashioned B Movie, it may well be just the ticket for fans of this genre.
Check out John Bensalhia's Complete Doctor Who Reviews, now available via Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and W.H. Smith.
John Bensalhia limbered up for his Shadowlocked writing with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work here. His Twitter feed is @JohnBensalhia.
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