Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Complete First Season (Original run 1996, Twentieth Century Fox Home Video, 2002)

To anyone who has never seen an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: I won't give away any major plot points in the first season. But I warn you, in my reviews of the next seasons, all's fair. Read this, decide if you want to try the show, and if you like it as much as I do, watch the first five seasons. They form a coherent unit, building in quality through the first three seasons, then sliding slightly in seasons four and five, though those seasons include many of BtVS's finest moments.

I haven't decided whether I'll cover the sixth or seventh seasons. They have their moments, but they disappointed me for reasons I covered in an overview of all seven seasons: Learning from the Dead: the Buffy Lessons. If you start the sixth season and it's not to your taste, watch the musical ("Once More With Feeling") and the seventh season finale ("Chosen") and quit.

This is where the story of Buffy Summers begins. What's that, you say? Wasn't there a movie first? Yes, there was, but that's apocrypha, not the Buffy who is loved by millions. Joss Whedon modified his concept when he brought the character to the small screen; if you want to see the movie, wait until you've seen the first season of the show.

Whedon wrote the first two episodes, "Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "The Harvest." They tell a single story: a sixteen-year-old named Buffy Summers moves with her mom from Los Angeles to Sunnydale, California, Home of the Hellmouth. (Okay, that's not on a sign at the edge of town. The Hellmouth, a literal portal to Hell, is a secret. It lies below Sunnydale, and all the world's supernatural forces are attracted to it -- including Buffy, a girl who never asked for her fate; to be the Vampire Slayer, humanity's greatest champion.)

In these two episodes, the Scooby Gang forms: Buffy meets Rupert Giles, ostensibly the school librarian but actually a member of the Watcher's Council who has been sent to be her mentor, whether she likes it or not. And she makes two good friends, both social outcasts at school: Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Anthony Stewart Head, the more experienced actors, walk into their first scenes as the Buffy and Giles we love. Nicholas Brendon and Allison Hannigan are a little more tentative here, as though they or the writers haven't quite defined who these people are -- but within a few episodes, their characters are as crisp as Gellar's and Head's. Add to them Charisma Carpenter as Cordelia Chase, the high school beauty queen that everyone loves to hate, and David Boreanaz as the brooding, mysterious Angel, and a great ensemble forms.

These episodes set up the first season arcs: an ancient and powerful vampire known as The Master is trapped in the Hellmouth, and his minions are working to free him, which will also open the gates of Hell and bring about Armageddon. Willow is attracted to Xander, and Xander is attracted to Buffy, but Buffy is attracted to Angel. Giles wants Buffy to do what he says, because a Slayer is supposed to obey her Watcher, but Buffy wants to be a sixteen-year-old girl with a normal life. Angel wants to stay in the shadows and do as little as possible to involve himself in Buffy's war with the supernatural world -- but despite his wish, he sometimes provides the Scoobies with information or a useful artifact.

If you don't like these two episodes, Buffy is not for you. If you do like them, be glad; the exploration of horror and high school gets better as the writers learn to use the tropes of horror as metaphors for real life. That learning is, at first, tentative and a little formulaic as the writers pursue the classic television model of making most episodes essentially self-contained, while other episodes develop the show's mythos, the story of the evolution of Buffy and the people she loves. But this season firmly establishes the overarching theme of the show's first three years: High School is Hell. There's a very good reason why so many of the creepy moments of this season happen in the locker rooms.

In Dana Reston's "Witch," someone is using witchcraft to get a girl onto the cheerleading squad. The handling of witchcraft comes from Hollywoodlore, not folklore or Wicca -- the writers will grow more sophisticated when they touch on the subject again. In David Greenwalt's "Teacher's Pet," a beautiful substitute teacher has a powerfully seductive effect on men. The ideas of both shows could have been explored on any horror show, but BtVS writers and actors take them in unique ways.

Rob Des Hotel & Dean Batali's "Never Kill A Boy on the First Date" makes a small step forward in the mythos. Buffy goes on her first date, the Master makes another bid for freedom as he seeks to create the Anointed One who will help him kill the Slayer and escape his prison, and Buffy learns a little more about the price of responsibility. The episode continues what Whedon did with the premiere episodes: it's funny, frightening, and touching without ever pausing to preach.

The next show is a standalone: In Matt Kiene & Joe Reinkemeyer's "The Pack," Xander and a clique of Sunnydale's coolest, cruelest kids are possessed by the spirit of a demonic hyena. Well, there is one big change in Buffy's universe, as an underappreciated member of the cast departs.

But did I say that those shows were essentially self-contained? On BtVS, even the self-contained shows have elements of the season's main arcs. One of those is the question of who Angel really is. The mythos takes a major step forward in David Greenwalt's "Angel." The truth is revealed, and a brilliant romantic dynamic is established.

Then it's back to the standalones: In Ashley Gable & Thomas A. Swyden's "I Robot...You Jane," a demon is transfered into the Internet, and Ms. Calendar, the school's computer science teacher, makes her first appearance. In Batali & Des Hotel's "The Puppet Show," a ventriloquist's dummy is alive in Sunnydale High's talent show. In Whedon and Greenwalt's "Nightmares," dreams come true, and the Scoobies' greatest fears are revealed. In Whedon's "Out of Mind, Out of Sight," an invisible attacker stalks the school.

But these standalones are more complex than the earlier ones as the writers come into their own. They explore the consequences of the revelation in "Angel." Giles falls for someone. And Cordelia Chase reveals that she's smarter and more perceptive than we thought -- yet she's still hilariously shallow. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the first season from a writer's perspective is the way that these characters manage to simultaneously stay true to their stock adventure story roles -- the good-hearted hero, the slightly stuffy mentor, the book-smart but clueless companion, and the simple-minded but dependable companion -- while becoming complex characters within those roles.

It all comes to a head in "Prophecy Girl," the first episode both written and directed by Whedon. Buffy learns that if she faces the Master, she will die. It's a great conclusion to a fine first season.

Why isn't it a great season? The standalone episodes generally aren't as strong as the ones that are crucial to the conflict between Buffy and the Master. And the Master himself is a limited character. Whedon has said that the Master made a good villain because he was so much more powerful than Buffy, but he couldn't face her so long as he was trapped in the Hellmouth. There's truth in that, but that's also the key to his shortcoming. He can only act through his vampire minions, and because of that, he can only threaten Buffy with force. He stays an external and distant menace, not an intimate one whose corruption directly touches Buffy's innermost circle of Mom and the Scoobs.

And the Anointed One never quite achieves his potential. Maybe it was a limit of the actor's ability, maybe the network overruled something Whedon had planned, maybe the writers just got caught up in other aspects of the story. In any case, the Anointed One is given little to do but listen, which means the Master is given little to do but give monologues until he finally begins to break free.

That's a minor quibble. The Master and the Anointed One do their job as foils for Buffy. They suffer primarily by comparison to the antagonists who follow them. Buffy seasons can be judged by their villains -- not so much for their effectiveness as a threat within the plot, but as a metaphor for Buffy's own rites of passage. She's learning her limits and gathering her strength for bigger challenges ahead -- just like any high school sophomore.

These twelve episodes tell the first part of the hero's journey, the story of Buffy accepting her role as hero. In some ways, the entire BtVS series exists in microcosm in these twelve chapters.

But don't stop here. The next sequence is even better.

Two afterthoughts:

The BtVS theme song may be the greatest TV theme song ever.

The DVD set does have cool extras, like interviews and audio commentary; check the package or product reviews for the full list. My only complaint with the first season DVDs is that the episode titles are arranged in two rows, left-right, left-right, rather than in a column, so the proper sequence to play them isn't instantly clear. It's a minor quibble.

[Will Shetterly]