”Buffy”’s heroine copes with death and its aftermath
Tuesday’s anxiously awaited return of ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Tuesdays, 8 p.m., the WB) was entitled ”Forever,” which was painfully appropriate — it’s seemed like forever since the series’ last new episode aired back in February. For fans, going without ”Buffy” these past weeks has been a bit like Dracula being forced to forgo neck nibbling; the wait for our next feeding has totally sucked.
In February’s ”The Body,” Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) came home to find her ailing mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland), dead (from natural causes, ironically enough) — and the episode may have been the best hour of TV the WB has ever aired, boasting award-baiting turns from Gellar and writer/ director (and series creator) Joss Whedon. A stake to Emmy’s heart if both are ignored this year.
So it was probably to be expected that the April 17 follow-up was a letdown. Though for viewers in Los Angeles, the biggest disappointment was that they didn’t get to see it at all, since ”Buffy” was preempted by a baseball game. Being one of those affected Angelenos, I prevailed upon the show’s publicist to send me a tape, though the one I got lacked music and sound effects. This proved especially distracting during Spike’s fight with a three-headed, sewer dwelling Grog monster, which, as a result, sounded just as rubbery as it looked without the score muffling things up. (How can a fantasy series this good have special effects that blow so bad?)
”Forever” found Buffy and her Scooby gang of friends coming to grips with Joyce’s death. Even Spike, Buffy’s Billy Idolish vampire nemesis/ admirer, brought flowers. He never got to deliver them, though, since he was stopped at the door by Buffy’s boy Friday, Xander. (Spike’s unrequited crush on Buffy has been one of the season’s most inspired twists.) Quipped Xander: ”Unbelievable! The guy thinks he can put on a big show and con Buffy to be his sex monkey!”
But there was one vampire who came close to making some animal magic with Buffy. Angel, that beefcake bloodsucker (and emphasis on the beefy, by the way), winged in from L.A. to offer his grieving ex-lover just the kind of ”moral support” you’d expect from an ex-boyfriend who suddenly pops back into your life when you’re at your most emotionally vulnerable. Still, their embrace in the cemetery was enough to make ”Buffy” fans long for the days when Angel was still a hauntingly effective supporting cast member, not the star of a woefully inferior companion series (”Angel,” Tuesdays, 9 p.m., the WB). ”I can stay as long as you need,” Angel told Buffy. If only that were true.
Despite the much hyped ”Buffy”/ ”Angel” crossover, the focus was on the heroine’s little sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) who actually isn’t Buffy’s sister, but — ready for this? — the incarnation of a mystical key, hidden in our universe by monks trying to keep it from its owner, a deranged, demigoddess diva named Glory (the flame haired Clare Kramer). I think.
Still, however ”not real” she may be, Dawn’s grief over her mother’s death is unbearably real. With the unwitting aid of Buffy’s Wiccan pal Willow (Alyson Hannigan), and the direct assistance of a bitter Spike and a guest starring Joel Grey, Dawn cast a spell that brought Joyce back to life, if only in zombie form — and possibly like the ghastly soulless revenants of Stephen King’s ”Pet Sematary.”
We never found out. Dawn came to her senses in time to reverse the spell and spare herself and her sister the sight of Mommy as a rotting mummy. That final sequence was suspenseful and emotionally engrossing, and the episode could have used a few more of them. Whereas ”The Body” dealt with death in a fresh way, ”Forever” trafficked in too many ”we must find meaning in the midst of death” clichés. That it managed to have the emotional wallop that it did anyway is a testimony to its talented cast — none more so than Gellar. You’d be hard pressed to find a better five minutes of acting anywhere than her final scene last night, as she boldly, bravely bared Buffy’s grief. But what’s really grievous is that most of those L.A. based Emmy voters got a Dodgers game instead.