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Complete Buffy reviews: When she was bad

REVIEWS - TV

Buffy's back, but not under the brightest star...

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Complete reviews

Summer is a Bummer? Not on your Noah and Nelly. The sun comes out. Lazy weekends sitting in the garden or the park with an ice cool beer or wine. Long, warm nights when the sun doesn't go down till 10. What could be better? For the residents of Sunnydale, however, it seems that Summer ain't all that. Xander's restless. Hank Summers is forced to cough up multiple dollar bills for his daughter's extensive shoe collection. Buffy herself is on another planet. Mentally speaking, of course. Possibly, the doom of a dormant Hellmouth subtly hypnotises people into thinking that the gloomy misery of Winter is a preferable choice to sunny, carefree days.

When she was bad sees us back for the shiny and new term at Sunnydale. You can tell that it's a new chapter in the big Buffy book, given that there's a few new subtle tweaks. Xander and Buffy have had haircuts. The incidental music's now grander and more evocative than before thanks to Christophe Beck. And Angel's now pouting away in the slightly amended titles.

This story marks the start of the longer, extended seasons. From now on, Buffy seasons will be longer in length – 22 episodes in all – with more prominent season arcs. Many of Season One's tales functioned as stand-alone stories, occasionally dipping into the plight of The Master. Season Two begins like this, but gradually promotes the obvious ongoing plot of Spike, Drusilla, and most heinously of all, Bad Angel – or Angelus, to give him his proper name. Also, in keeping with the previous season, there are deeper undercurrent arcs running under the surface. If the previous season had its roots in teen school trauma (bullying, insecurity, shyness etc), then the second season takes a cautious peek into the big, wide world of adulthood. Arguably, the main message to take away from this season is that all people are flawed.

"The first few stories of Season Two are mixed to say the least. They are either let down by bad ideas, half-baked concepts or even lacklustre, plodding scripts."

'When she was bad'  - Buffy The Vampire Slayer season 2 openerDo you remember when you were growing up, and that adults used to tell you that they knew best? It's only when kids get a bit older that they realise that maybe this isn't the case. Season Two of Buffy takes this notion and breaks many a heart over the course of a few months. Intriguingly, it's the central characters – characters who are supposed to be full of authority and trust – who are found to betray and cheat. Giles turns out to have a seedy history. Ms Calendar has a secret that costs her her friends and ultimately her life. And of course, Angel, the vampire with a soul, finds that losing his conscience isn't the same as losing a pen down the back of a sofa. This concept is neatly set up in When she was bad, in which the previously butter-wouldn't-melt Buffy spends the episode being horrible to all her friends and putting them in a dangerous situation that could have been avoided.

Mind you, the main premise of When she was bad also sums up the first few weeks of Season Two in that it doesn't half take its time finding its feet. The first few stories of Season Two are mixed to say the least. They are either let down by bad ideas, half-baked concepts or even lacklustre, plodding scripts. Even the much-revered School Hard isn't a favourite of mine by a long chalk, but I'll save that discussion for another day. When she was bad itself comprises two plots in one. The first one concerns the revival of The Master. The second one revolves around Buffy scowling a lot and being rude to her friends. The problem with the story is that the second and the less interesting of the two sub-plots swamps the action. Personally, I couldn't care less if Buffy has 'issues' with her near-death experience. It just seems a bit out of character for her to alienate everyone close to her.

If she's looking to attain Grade A Cordelia status, then Buffy's doing a bang-up job. She looks down her nose and hectors Willow on a regular basis ((“I think you can get a little more volume if you speak from the diaphragm”). She challenges a moody Angel to a quick round of Beat The Vampire. And worst of all, to make Angel feel jealous and Xander feel like a prize gooseberry, she seductively dances and then bails on her geeky friend in rapid succession (“Did I ever thank you for saving my life?” she breathes seductively. “Don't you wish I would?”). Xander's face says it all. If Hellmouth-y magic could make the ground open up and swallow Xander whole, I'm guessing he wouldn't be too bothered about it.

'When she was bad'  - Buffy The Vampire Slayer season 2 openerMind you, Cordelia isn't breaking out into rapturous applause either. In fact, she shows signs of the more compassionate Cordelia to come, most notably in her face-off outside The Bronze. “You're really campaigning for Bitch Of The Year, aren't you?” she snips, advising Buffy to drop the “Joan Collins 'tude and deal with it” before she loses her friends. It's a good bit of role reversal, and in fact, the authority figure of the Slayer is considerably brought down to Earth. Having decided that she's a one-woman band, this puts Willow, Giles, Jenny and Cordy in danger. A furious Xander quietly lets rip at Buffy (“I don't know what your problem is or what your issues are, but as of now, I officially don't care”) before warning her that he will kill her if Willow is hurt. All of these issues are thankfully laid to rest in the cathartic moment when Buffy smashes The Master's skeleton into pieces before breaking down in Angel's arms.

Don't get me wrong, Sarah Michelle Gellar is very good as this new, unlikeable Buffy, but the whole Buffy Goes Bad subplot does tend to drag a bit. Fortunately, it's not strung out for many more episodes, given that she really would have been a social leper by the third instalment. Having said that, this plot does allow for some suitably moody acting from the other regulars, most notably Nicholas Brendon and Charisma Carpenter. Perhaps the only character that doesn't quite come off as well is the perpetually pouting Angel, forever whining and mumbling away like an anxious old woman. Thankfully, David Boreanaz will get to sink his teeth into a far meatier plot later in the season, but sadly, for most of the first half, he's left pursing his lips and looking abjectly miserable. Someone tell this man a joke.

Incidentally, fact fans, that's Boreanaz as The Master in this episode. Remember that for the TV trivia portion of your next pub quiz.

The Master's resurrection is the more exciting of the two plot strands, but even then, this kind of witchy voodoo is still pretty routine stuff. Turns out that The Annoying One hasn't had a particularly exciting Summer either. Whereas most kids his age would either go skateboarding/cycling/surfing, The Annoying One has been rounding up a gaggle of vampires to help bring The Master back to life. He intends to do this by getting his minions to capture those closest to The Master when he died.

"Joss Whedon's zippy dialogue and pacy direction go a long way to making this an exciting and fun bit of TV"

'When she was bad'  - Buffy The Vampire Slayer season 2 opener (Armin Shimmerman)Mind you, The Annoying One's got his work cut out. The minions are at risk of burning their hands to crispy bacon fritters while digging up The Master's skeleton from Holy Water. They then have to seek out the inner sanctum of Buffy and then hang them upside down over the grisly remains. Amazingly, Jenny or Cordy come out of this without so much as a bloodshot eye, which is a miracle, given that they're left dangling like pendulums for what seems like aeons.

A humdrum plan then. On the up side, Absalom's a worthy addition to the august ranks of Buffy vampires, Brent Jennings going for the part with gusto – too bad he didn't live to see another day. Regrettably, he's burned to a crisp, and even more so, the wretched Annoying One lives. He's the demon equivalent of a particularly eggy fart that just will not disperse. And for some reason, he's got what appears to be an avant garde fruit bowl on his head. Or is that his haircut?

Despite these problems, When she was bad still works well. While the concepts are a little humdrum, at least Joss Whedon's zippy dialogue and pacy direction go a long way to making this an exciting and fun bit of TV. Some cool set pieces here – one of my favourites is Buffy's nightmare in which Giles turns into The Master. It's a combination of the claustrophobic and the wryly amusing. Giles throttling Buffy is an unsettling image because of its casual brutality, and its injected with black humour shots of Xander and Willow casually munching on their lunches. A good example of Whedon's sterling camera work. Another is Buffy's seduction of Xander in The Bronze, mixing moody lighting, fast camera cuts and close-ups and a strangely unsettling bit of music to great effect. And incidentally, Sugar Water by Cibo Matto rocks harder than a gaggle of Status Quo roadies.

Overall, When she was bad emerges as a triumph of style over substance. The episode has a polished, glossy look and a confident swagger. The acting (apart from The Annoying One) is first class as usual – even the minor roles for Principal Snyder and Jenny are acted to perfection by Armin Shimmerman and Robia LaMorte. Christophe Beck's first score for the show sets the pace nicely for his outstanding contributions – although I'll dock a point off for the annoying choral shrieking. Hey, Murray Gold doesn't get an easy ride for this musical faux pas, so sadly, neither does Beck. Otherwise, an atmospheric and evocative set of musical cues. Generally, it's a good season opener, but the weak central concepts of Bad Buffy and Revitalising The Master mean that it's not spectacular.

PREVIOUS: Prophecy Girl


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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