Complete Buffy reviews: What's My Line?
|REVIEWS - TV|
Season Two's first two-parter puts into motion plenty of significant story elements...
What did you want to be when you were a kid? Spaceman? Lollipop lady? James Bond? Wonder Woman? A multitude of choices all waiting to be explored without the burdens of grown-up red tape and crushing rejection.
For Buffy, however, employment options are more limited than the average Jo. Due to her pesky calling as the Slayer, filling in a multiple choice employment questionnaire is more arduous than it should be. “Unless hell freezes over and every vampire in Sunnydale puts in for early retirement, I'd say my future is pretty much sealed,” she frowns. Could it be though that another Slayer in town can offer a way out of her destiny and into a life full of wage slips and tax woes?
That's just one of the many questions thrown up in the bumper two-parter What's My Line?. It's the first double whammy since the début story, and it's appropriately stuffed to the gills with many game-changing elements: The concept of a new Slayer; Drusilla's cure; the first proper Oz and Willow meeting; and of course, Xander and Cordelia's romantic shenanigans – well, as romantic as locking lips in a broom cupboard sounds, any road. Needless to say, it's an unmissable 90 minutes for all of these reasons, but is it actually any good?
With such a lot going on in this story, curiously, What's My Line? takes an age to actually kick into gear. Much of the first part concerns Buffy bemoaning her lack of a normal life. Again. “I'm bored,” she pouts. “I'm constricted. I never get to shop and my fingernails still continue to grow.” It doesn't help that Giles is in super-efficient mode. With the events of The Dark Age still fresh in his mind, and a notable lack of Calendar dates, Giles is over-compensating in the efficiency department, lecturing and chiding Buffy over her lack of concern at a bookish vampire's grave-robbing habits. Admittedly, Buffy does have a point – while her friends are contemplating employment options, her career's been chosen for her. A lifetime of pointy sticks and heinous demons doesn't come with a wage slip and a pension plan either. “What am I supposed to do,” scowls Buffy. “Carve stakes for a nursery?”
"The Order Of Taraka may sound like a takeaway bag of goodies from the local Sunnydale curry house, but in fact they're...well, to be brutally honest, they're not actually much cop"
Problem is, there's only so much you can say about the lack of a normal life without repetition. Perhaps it would have been better if stuff like Reptile Boy had been chopped in favour of a story that didn't look at the downsides of Buffy's Slayer duties. While Buffy has a point about her calling getting in the way of her future, we've seen it all before, and worse still, it's dragged out for pretty much the first half of the first part, which slows events to a crawl. About the only good thing to come of this is Buffy's admission that she wanted to be an ice skater when she was younger. Having built the Dorothy Hamill shrine, bought the Dorothy Hamill memorabilia and worn the Dorothy Hamill hair, Buffy's since confined the skates to the back of her closet. So it's nice that Angel convinces her to put the skates back on and go to the ice rink for a hot date. Or cold date, you get my drift. A career on ice skates could still await Buffy if she ever decides to give up the Slayage for good. If the actual ice skating doesn't appeal, then a stint as a Dancing On Ice judge could still prove lucrative, staking celebrity wannabes' hopes with feverish relish.
Even a date at the Sunnydale Ice Rink proves problematic. Buffy's old arch nemesis, Spike, is working on a cure to restore Drusilla back to health. Knowing full well that Buffy will try and stop this fiendish deed somehow, he decides to use delaying tactics by employing a fearsome group of deadly assassins to bump her off. The Order Of Taraka may sound like a takeaway bag of goodies from the local Sunnydale curry house, but in fact they're...well, to be brutally honest, they're not actually much cop. They are built up with suitably dramatic awe and terror, sending Giles into a near meltdown of panic. “You can kill as many of them as you like, it won't make any difference,” he warns Buffy. “Where there's one, there will be another...and another...”
Reality paints a far less scary picture, however. There only seems to be three of these wretched bounty hunters. One of them strikes at the ice rink, and looks like he's on his way to perform at a Bon Jovi tribute gig. Despite packing a mean punch and a snarl, the Jovi dude is defeated with consummate ease by a nasty nick across the throat from Buffy's skate. Amazingly, there's not much in the way of blood, which pretty much sums up the fighting spirit of the Order of Taraka. The big showdown at the end seems to include about two or three of them, including a butch policewoman who clumsily stomps around as if she is wearing lead boots.
"Possibly, a lot of the assassins have gone on holiday. Or their marketing team has gone into overdrive, bigging up supposedly deadly assassins that are easily defeated, when it comes down to it"
About the only effective Tarakan assassin is the creepy bug guy, Norman Pfister. On the surface, he's a nerdy-looking salesman who's been whisked forward in time from 1953. Offering free cosmetic samples, naturally he's invited into Buffy's neighbour's house where she rapidly becomes mealworm food. The realisation of mealworm man is very well done, dissolving from human form into a mass of writhing, slimy bugs. It's brilliant horror movie stuff, right to the point where the disassembled Pfister lands on a screaming Cordelia. If only we could have had more of these horrifying monsters in The Order Of Taraka – one out of three ain't exactly ramping up their reputation. Possibly, a lot of the assassins have gone on holiday. Or their marketing team has gone into overdrive, bigging up supposedly deadly assassins that are easily defeated, when it comes down to it. Even mealworm man is brought down by a big tub of glue and stamping feet. And in the next adventure, it turns out that they've given up! Society of Deadly Assassins, my arse.
At least Buffy has help in the form of another Vampire Slayer. It's a clever move, this. There's a well-shot sequence in the first part, establishing the Tarakan assassins – at this point, it's easy to assume that the moody-looking girl on the plane is part of their number, an assumption that's heightened when she starts kicking the crap out of Buffy at the end of the episode. The real revelation that she's a vampire slayer is a great “Huh?” moment and makes for a great cliffhanger.
Turns out that when a Slayer's number is up, a new one is called into play. The Watchers' Council evidently didn't factor in the chance that the dead Slayer could have come back to life with a bit of mouth to mouth. Still, two heads are better than one, although Buffy's questioning this point throughout, given that Kendra comes across as a humourless, charisma-free swot. Kendra is constantly on Buffy's case, referring to the Slayer Handbook (available from all good bookshops and is now out in Kindle form for any wannabe stakers), chiding her for having friends and getting at her for daring to have emotions. Kendra is the Spock to Buffy's Kirk. Although compared to Kendra, Spock's a booze-guzzling party animal.
Much as Kendra's a notable innovation on paper, on screen, she doesn't really work. A lot of this is down to Bianca Lawson's eccentric delivery. Her accent is jarringly weird, a veritable pot-pourri of what seems to be every nationality on God's Green Earth. There's a bit of Jamaican, a hint of Scottish, a twist of American, a dash of Irish, Welsh, Dutch, Mexican... She sounds like a malfunctioning toy doll. Or a speeded up Tryst from Doctor Who's Nightmare Of Eden story. Apparently, Lawson was directed to speak this way rather than use her normal accent, which raises the question of why. It doesn't help either that Lawson over-exaggerates and enunciates every single syllable to the point of infinity, like elastic bands. It's a shame – Becoming proves that Lawson's capable of delivering a good performance (her OTT accent's notably toned down in the season finale), but here, the over-exaggerated accent obstructs Lawson's acting talents. Good advice was evidently lacking that day on the production team's part.
"Kendra is the Spock to Buffy's Kirk. Although compared to Kendra, Spock's a booze-guzzling party animal."
Talking of production, the direction's not quite as hot as it has been in the past few episodes. The fight sequences are competently shot, as opposed to dynamically shot. The climatic battle actually seems to drag on for yonks, and it's shot without any real verve or pizzazz or whatever clichéd action word you want to use. The Clement/Murray score is too tinny for my liking, and in the battle scenes, it's actually a pesky nuisance, with lots of thudding piano – a bit like Richard Clayderman breaking the world record for speedy keyboard work. There's also a strange lone choral score for when Angel's locked up in the cage in the early stages of daylight. While Angel's feverishly fretting about the oncoming scorching rays, a choral guy is busy yodelling “Eeeeeeeuuuuuugggghhhh” in the background. Possibly, Willy The Snitch has tied him up in a trunk in the cage for not paying his tab.
Mention of Willy The Snitch does remind me that there are good things to say about What's My Line?. The character moments stand out from the humdrum drama and Kendra's voice. Willy The Snitch is a great addition to the show, a sleazy, double crossing barman, who's serving and double-dealing demons in his local bar. Saverio Guerra provides great comic timing, whether he's trading with Spike in the sewers or offering Buffy and Kendra the chance to earn money by posing for pervy photoshoots.
It's all hotting up for several of the Buffy regulars. Oz finally meets the enigmatic girl that's been intriguing him since Inca Mummy Girl. Having both been chosen to meet with the head recruiter for the world's leading software concern, Willow and Oz come face to face over a dish of canapés. Oz instantly proves his worth to Willow by taking a bullet from the mannish Tarakan policewoman, and does so in typically laconic fashion: “I, uh, I'm shot. Y'know – wow! It's odd. And painful.” The banter between these two flows like wine into a glass, and it's brilliant stuff, especially at the end, when Oz casually drops a compliment into his train of thought: “The monkey's the only cookie animal that gets to wear clothes, you know that? You have the sweetest smile I've ever seen...” It's the early stages for one of the best-loved partnerships in Buffy, a combination of on-the-ball script writing and stellar performances from Alyson Hannigan and Seth Green.
It may be premature for them to spend money on cards and roses, but it's somewhat inevitable that Xander and Cordy begin their strange relationship. Mainly because their volley of insults is harder and faster in this story than ever before. “Motivational speaker?” begins Xander at the start of the story. “On what? '10 Ways To A More Annoying You?'” Later, Cordelia responds to Xander's claim that she's the witless foil by saying that Xander is “the lameness” to Buffy's “super chick”. By the time that they've trapped themselves in Buffy's mother's cellar to escape from Pfister, the squabble-ometer has gone into overdrive. “Coward!” screeches Cordelia. “Moron!” bellows Xander. “I hate you!” crows Cordelia. “I hate you!” yells Xander. Cue slushy music, eye contact and locking of lips. It shouldn't work, but it does like a charm. Again, that's down to the plucky scripting and the perfectly delivered performances from Charisma Carpenter and Nicholas Brendon.
It's moments like these that prop up What's My Line?. It's a funny mix of a story. The dramatic elements generally leave a lot to be desired, although there's some neat foreshadowing of the tension between Angel and Spike over Drusilla. After enduring hours of Holy Water, Angel still taunts Spike by suggesting that Drusilla's looking to get her kicks elsewhere. “The way she touched me just now? I can tell when she's not satisfied!” This tension will come to a head later on in the season when Angel...ah, you'll have to wait and see. But the Spike and Drusilla saga moves to the next level as the tables are turned. The Du Lac decoder thing works a treat as it heals Drusilla and restores her to full health, carrying an injured Spike out of the ruins at the story's end.
Generally, What's My Line? is an enjoyable two-parter. It lacks the dramatic edge of other Season Two monsters such as Surprise/Innocence and Becoming, the Order Of Taraka is disappointing and Kendra's voice is both baffling and irritating in equal measures, but the tale is still peppered with much wit, great character moments and notable goal shifts for the future.
Previous: The Dark Age
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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