Is ”Buffy” veering from course?
Will it be that when all is said and done with ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” this season will be remembered as the love-hate year among fans? By now, it’s clear the show has indeed broken with its successful ”Big Bad” rubric: a demonic menace plotting apocalyptic doom all season long before finally being defeated by Slayer and friends.
Instead, Buffy’s been-there, done-that writers have taken a more thematic approach to the formula; the ”Big Bad” isn’t an entity, but choices — big bad ones — that have compounding consequences over time. Another Buffy hallmark — the supernatural as metaphor for ‘growing up’ — has been rebooted, too, but the opposite way. This season’s deeper concern — ‘finding yourself in your 20s’ — isn’t the subtext, it’s totally the text.
Take the Jan. 29 episode, the very ”X-Files”-esque ”Doublemeat Palace,” in which a cash-strapped Buffy takes a burger-flipping job at the scrumptuously named establishment of the title. The skewering of the fast food biz was rich, barbed, and only sometimes obvious, from the cheesy, quease-inducing instructional video, to the astute observations of combo meal assembly, to the depiction of brain-fried young employees.
Soon (and because this is a fantasy/horror genre show, at least technically), Buffy began harboring some suspicions of her employer’s meat content. That this ended up a red herring was smart; the Soylent Green thing has been done to death. But I’m not sure about the show’s true villain, a coffee-drinking, cherry pie-eating granny who houses a teen-eating demon under her wig. Okay, yes, I’m laughing — but old-folk bashing seems beneath ”Buffy.”
”Doublemeat Palace” also gave us another helping of push-the-limits-of-suggestive sex between Buffy and Spike — though this new serving wasn’t as super-sized as others. For those who’ve insisted that this relationship is some kind of ”Great Romance,” the utterly dead look in Buffy’s eyes should finally convince you otherwise. This is sad sex, where one person (Spike) is too blinded by lust (and yes, love) to see that the other (Buffy) is only using him; more sad is how Buffy — damaged and depressed — can’t see it, either. It’s brilliant how ”Buffy” has nailed the emotional truth of these kind of relationships. I mean, not that I would know, but, um, anyway…
Other season-long subplots got a little watering. Willow, still recovering from black magic addiction, severed her relationship with bad influence Amy (Alyson Hannigan was in top form, especially in subtly revealing Willow’s frustrations with sobreity; you just know this is going to blow up again before season’s end). Meanwhile, Xander and Anya inched closer to their inevitably disastrous wedding day, with the latter getting a visit from a fellow vengeance demon, who hilariously illuminated for Anya cracks in her relationship she never saw before.
So did I like ”Doublemeat Palace?” Well… I don’t know. I continue to remain in awe of the ingenuity and emotional depth of Buffy’s writing. But as we get deeper into this New Coke season, I’m realizing I’m more of a Classic Coke kinda guy. Watching Buffy try to negotiate the perils of fast food last night, I kept wondering: Where is the heroine who has saved the world from apocalypse four times over? Buffy’s new job is even more mundane in light of her past, but either the writing or Sarah Michelle Gellar’s chirpy comic performance seemed to miss that, and it contributed to a larger worry that perhaps Buffy has broken too radically from its time-proven formula. My jury’s still out. But as the home stretch of the season nears, here’s the question I’m asking: If it wasn’t broke, why did they fix it?