Aug 16, 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Season 3

It is time for the Senior year of Sunnydale Class of '99. But after the events in Season 2, Buffy has been expelled, and nobody even knows where she is. And even when she gets back, can things be the same again? But personal problems are the least of her worries, as another enemy rises - one that has been with the town since its creation. And on top of that, a new Slayer arrives - the rebellious Faith, whose priorities aren't even close to Buffy's.

Season 3 is a self-aware and intelligent piece of entertainment, showing beautifully how Buffy has blossomed into maturity. It lacks the emotional impact of the previous season, as the threat of the Mayor (portrayed fantastically by Harry Groener) is not nearly as personal as that of Angelus was. At the same time though, the overall quality of the episodes - and especially the stand-alones - is immensely higher. Very few episodes fall flat, and there are many brilliant examples of genius story-telling on some of which I'll focus later. The season also introduces the "Dark Slayer" Faith (Eliza Dushku, who also plays the main character in Whedon's latest TV show, Dollhouse) - a tainted but sobering mirror for Buffy, showing the ways her calling could go wrong. Other new additions to the cast are the ex-vengeance demon Anya (Emma Caulfield) who will play a major part in later seasons, as well as the new Watcher Wesley Wyndham-Price (Alexis Denisof) who is more or less a joke here, but will turn into an amazing character in Angel.

There are many themes in Season 3, but one of the most important is that of overcoming insecurity. Every character has some sort of rite of passage, and not all of them manage to get through those. Human contact is also a major theme, with the evolving relationship between Buffy and Angel, as well as the twisted father-daughter interactions of Faith and the Mayor. The topics of domestic violence, High School isolation and repressed anger also have their own episodes. Mayor Richard Wilkins III himself is one of the most brilliantly conceived bad guys in the Buffyverse. His schizophrenic jumps between a stable pillar of society and American values, and a sick maniac wishing to rule the world are both hilarious and chilling. The way he is used to actually tell the main characters all the important painful truths they keep denying is beautifully realized.

This is a season that marks the ending of a lot of staples for the show, and clearly shows that Joss Whedon is not only not afraid to shake the status quo, but actually revels in shaking it. Season 3 sees the characters graduate High School to enter a new stage in their lives. It also marks the departure of two fan-favorites - Angel and Cordelia - who were transferred to the spin-off Angel (whose first season corresponds with Buffy Season 4). Angel and Buffy's relationship had run its course and it was a smart choice for him to get his own show, but it is a surprise how much Cordelia is missed in further seasons, despite her amazing character development in Angel. In any other TV show, she would have been a cardboard cliche, a walking joke for the main cast to stamp on. Not in Buffy. Charisma Carpenter's talented acting and Whedon's inspired screen-writing turned Cordelia into a multilayered and intricate character, one that was essential for the show, and loved by virtually everyone.

Like I said earlier, Season 3 has the highest overall episode quality so far. After the ponderous prologue of Anne and the rather long-winded Dead Man's Party, the season quickly finds its pace, and by its epic ending in the two-part Graduation Day, it has soared to really impressive heights. Highlights include the amazing Band Candy that takes a cliche idea - adults acting as teenagers - to show a really disturbing side of both Giles and Buffy's mother Joice. It is a remarkable character-building piece, and insanely funny too. Lovers Walk sees practically ALL relationships suffer some sort of blow, and gives us a drunken guest-starring Spike who has been dumped by Drusila after the events of Season 2. The Wish - one of the two best episodes in Season 3 - is a genius "what if" episode that sees Sunnydale turned into a vampire play-ground where Buffy never came. It also introduces Vamp Willow - a kinky, sadistic and bi-curious creature of evil self-indulgence that Alyson Hannigan portrays with an obvious delight. The Zeppo is a masterfully crafted exercise in the mechanics of point of view, showing Xander take the spot-light while in the background the gang faces their BIGGEST CHALLENGE EVER!!!... of which we see nothing and couldn't care less. Easily the best episode in the season, it is also among the best in the entire show. The post-modern twist of plot-structure is nothing short of brilliant and while Xander's story is intricate and engaging, everybody else's problems are made to look cliched and over-the-top melodramatic. The Prom gives us Season 3's most touching moment, which - surprisingly - has nothing to do with relationships, but is instead one of recognition and appreciation as Buffy sacrifices her own happiness so that her friends may have an unforgettable Prom.

Season 3 had some problems during its original airing. Two episodes were postponed, one for a good reason, and the other - as a knee-jerk panic reaction. The former is Earshot, in which the main story-line revolves around an implied plan to commit mass murder in the school. As its airing turned out to coincide with a real High School massacre in Colorado, it was postponed. Actually, that is rather lucky, since if it were aired just a bit earlier, Buffy would have become one of the main targets in the pop-culture witch-hunt that inevitably follows every such tragedy (ironically, this tendency is touched upon in another episode of the season - Gingerbread). Still, even though it was more or less understandable, Earshot was not focused on High School violence, but on isolation and fear - the two concepts that are eating at the core of every High School student everywhere, but seem to be especially prominent in American culture. The joke is on WB though - they were so worried about Earshot and its implied student massacre, that they completely ignored The Prom that actually had a student trying to kill all his class-mates. But I guess student massacre is ok, as long as it's Hellhounds and not guns...

Graduation Day, Part II was also postponed, since it dealt with a huge and violent showdown happening in school and involving students. As many critics pointed out at the time, it was ridiculous to do that to a show such as Buffy - one of the very few TV series to actually portray teens as serious and reliable people who strive to do the right thing and are guided by a sense of integrity and responsibility. WB only managed to become a laughing stock with their fear of touching upon a sensitive subject, while everyone else saw that to postpone an episode that is all about making the right choices and facing consequences borders on the surreal.

Despite those bumps in its way though, Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a glorious piece of TV art, and the best of the first three seasons. It marks the ending of an era in the Buffyverse and is as sure-footed as a TV show could ever be in this age of censorship and sensitivity issues. And even if it lacks something of the punch of the Angelus-Buffy drama from the previous season, its overall quality is so great, that it rises head and shoulders above any competition.


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