The musical episode is an upbeat surprise
The heavily-hyped Nov. 6 musical episode of ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was entitled ”Once More, With Feeling,” though an equally appropriate title would have been ”Hey, Look At Me! I’m A Freakin’ Genius! (Part Three)”. I tack on the ‘Part Three’ because for the third year in a row, ”Buffy” creator Joss Whedon used an episode of his series to audaciously push the envelope. Two seasons ago, it was ”Hush,” a nearly silent outing about voice-robbing demons. Last season, it was ”The Body,” which inventively observed the immediate reactions to the death of Buffy’s mother. And now, ”Once More,” which proved to be yet one more self-conscious stab at bravura storytelling — and dammit if Whedon didn’t succeed magnificently.
I’m no aficionado of the musical, so I couldn’t begin to assess Whedon’s work on a Sondheim scale. All I know is the dozen-or-so songs Whedon wrote were funny and smart and catchy enough to be still looping through my internal stereo system. I also know enough to know that a few of ”Buffy’s” actors should refrain from adding ”Can carry a tune” to their resumes. But, of course, that misses the point. In ”Once More,” a demonic Music Man infected Sunnydale with a bad case of the singing-and-dancings, and folks with no business doing either found themselves forced to do just that.
Another consequence of this spell (apropos of the musical genre) had the characters expressing their innermost feelings and darkest secrets via their impromptu showstoppers. And so Xander and Anya revealed their respective anxieties over their upcoming marriage (kudos to Nicholas Brendon and Emma Caulfield for tackling their number with unabashed gusto); Giles (Anthony Stewart Head, demonstrating his professional singing chops) discloses he can’t play father figure anymore to Buffy; and Tara (Amber Benson, in a winning performance that should finally win over her detractors) poured out her heart full of love to Willow in ”I’m Under Your Spell,” only to have the song perversely backfire on her when she learned how literally true it was. Curious how Willow had no songs of her own. Perhaps this was due to the fact that Alyson Hannigan can’t sing; but given that her character is a powerful witch harboring dark and powerful forces in her heart, was Whedon trying to reveal something about Willow by NOT giving her a number?
Of course, the biggest revelations came from Buffy herself — not the least of which is that the criminally underrated Sarah Michelle Gellar may be capable of doing anything she’s asked as an actress, and do it very, very well. In the sprawling number that ended the show, she finally told her friends that they had plucked her from heaven when Willow cast her resurrection spell in the season opener. In a chilling twist, she turned the line ”Give me something to sing about” into a plea for her own death — better that than living here in misery, outside the blissful fields of heaven. Of course, the shocker was when Buffy revealed to the one-time villain vampire Spike that yes, she does have feelings for him; he’s the only one that can understand her living dead existence. Their passionate kiss, no doubt, will have repercussions, as will all of the episode’s disclosures.
In the end, what I loved most about ”Once More” were two things: that Whedon had created something truly special for the fans (I’m sure newcomers had no idea what was going on); and that Whedon had dared, once again, to be brilliant. Debate how well he succeeded, but ”Once More” pulsed with more imagination and passion than any hour of television I’ve seen so far this year. And that’s definitely something worth singing about.