on June 5, 2004
Couples are central to BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER throughout its seven-year run, so how might one pair the seasons themselves?
If Seasons One and Two of BUFFY are Origin Years-- establishing the show's mythos in Season One, then stretching and deepening them in year Two-- then Seasons Three and Four are definitely Years of Consolidation, playing with, clarifying and reorganizing the show's fictional universe and strengthening the bond between show and viewer before diving into the darker, riskier events of Seasons Five and Six (which we might call Years of Daring and Yearning). (What about Season Seven, you ask? Well, let's just leave it standing alone in the corner, looking at its shoes and crying because no one wants to hang with it (and can you blame them?).
"Consolidation" has a compromised tone to it, but that's not what I mean. Seasons Three and Four are excellent. It's not a question of quality, which on Buffy was almost always high, but tone-- these are more playful seasons than those that precede and follow, and there's a wittiness to the way in which series creator/auteur Joss Whedon puts his characters through their paces. Season Three, in particular-- from "Band Candy" and "Homecoming" through "The Zeppo" and the mayor's speech in "Graduation Day"-- is full of humor.
The brightness extends to the show's look-- Buffy switches from darker 16mm stock to 35mm, giving the show a brighter look. We see more of Sunnydale, here too-- coffee shops, town streets, and the glowing green sign of the Sunnydale cinema. Darkness doesn't disappear-- the show, particularly in the first half of the season, is forced to grapple with the events of the season that preceeded it-- but this is certainly Buffy's most optimistic season, and that optimism may account for its popularity with fans. Season Three was the highest-rated of any Buffy year in the Nielsens, and this year and the next were the height of the show's media buzz.
It speaks volumes about how Buffy juggles tones that I can write the above with absolute conviction and then turn around and tell you that the show grapples, in its first four episodes alone, with teen suicide, homelessness, broken families, the dark underbelly of fundamentalism, the return of a murderer, the arrival of a rival slayer, and a mayor who has cheerfully sold his soul to demonic forces. To say nothing of such Buffy staples as the horror of high school, the mendacity of teenage cliques and the glorious pain of doomed love.
So, ok, "optimism" and "wit" are relative terms. There are moments in Season Three that are heartbreaking, times when characters must grapple with fear, loss, betrayal and disappointment. The genius of Joss Whedon and his writers is that they give the fans exactly what they want...exactly when they *don't* want it. Whedon is not a moralist (a type that almost always comes in for criticism and mockery on his shows), but his work does have an ethics to it-- there are consequences to actions, and every moment, good or bad, always contains an element of its opposite. Ambiguity reigns in the BuffyVerse, and Season Three, for all its humor, contains moments when even the most seemingly "innocent" of Buffy folk are held up for sympathetic scrutiny.
Still, moreso than any other season, Season Three ultimately grants its characters a level of grace and closure unusual for this normally open-ended show. Even the "villains" are more sympathetic than usual, and far more out in the open. It normally takes the show several eps to establish what fans refer to as "the big bad" for the year, but here, in keeping with the lighter, open tone, it's established early on (by the third episode) that the season's uber-villain is the Mayor, a deceptively young-looking family man who was granted eternal life and great power by demonic forces. The mayor is my favorite of all of the program's "big bads," a testament both to the ability of the writers to throw curve-balls at their audience and to the great humor and geniality that Harry Groener brings to the role. Whether he's expounding on the genius of the FAMILY CIRCUS ("That PJ!") or telling hard truths to Buffy and Angel, Groener always makes his villainy charming, almost incidental-- you *like* him, and he, like every one on the show, is granted moments of humanity and understanding rare in television characterizations (incidentally, it's been mentioned in interviews that the Mayor is based on series writer/producer (and later ANGEL co-creator) David Greenwalt, and once you know this, it is impossible to watch one of the many greenwalt interviews on the Buffy/Angel sets without laughing).
I don't want to give away any plot twists, but I do want to make brief mention of: the arrival of Wesley-Windam Price, a character who will become more important in the program's spinoff, ANGEL; the real-world arrival to the show of writer Jane Espenson, who will write more great Buffy eps over the remaining seasons than anyone aside from Joss Whedon; the wonderfully expanded role of Buffy's mom, played by the fabulous Kristine Sutherland, who has more good moments here than in any other year; the rough charm and deep passion Eliza Dushku brings to Faith, the rival vamp slayer; and the usual outstanding work of series regulars Sarah Michelle Gellar, Charisma Carpenter, David Boreanez, Seth Green, Nicholas Brendan, Alyson Hannigan, and the always amazing Anthony Stewart Head.
The other way to divide the history of the show, of course, is between high school and post-high school seasons. Season Three marks the dividing line between these two periods, and had the show ended here, it would have been logical and fulfilling, if also deeply disappointing. The remaining seasons of Buffy find the characters shifting, growing, regressing, and hitting new depths (and the show, new heights). Challenges lay ahead, for both characters and fans, but that was good-- after all, no one wants to be happy *all* the time.