But a new trio of dweebish villains will be no match for the Slayer, says Jeff Jensen

Giles’ return ticks off Willow on ”Buffy”

And so, the waiting begins. Call it ”Waiting for Denouement.”

The first two episodes in the UPN era of ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” were intensely personal and psychological, casting the characters against a broad sweep of Big Themes: growing up, personal responsibility, corrupting power, even a whole ”Waiting for Godot”/human-alienation-in-a-metaphysical-universe type of deal. Heady junk for a show about a quippy hot blonde who dusts demons and bloodsuckers. But Big Themes are part of what makes ”Buffy” truly brilliant, truly transcendent enough to earn the appreciation of those who find its fantasy genre trappings one big geeky turn-off.

And yet, what also makes ”Buffy” great is that it IS a genre show, a sort of all-in-one superhero/horror/fantasy genre show, and a very good one at that. And ”Buffy”’s Oct. 16 episode, titled ”Flooded,” was all about being a genre show: With the season’s Big Themes firmly established, it’s time to wind up the genre plots and watch them whir toward their conclusions. And so Buffy Summers, still emotionally zapped after being resurrected from the dead (you would be too if you were plucked from heaven), once again tries to balance a normal life and her all-consuming, pro bono superheroism.

We now have villains, in the form of a geeky trio (a sort of Loser Legion of Doom to Buffy’s Super Friends), whose ”mission statement” is to take over Sunnydale, mostly because they’re bored playing D&D. Of course, they’ll have to defeat Slayer to be successful, so gird yourself for several weeks more of these guys hiring some new demon to battle our poor (literally), beleaguered heroine.

My guess is that this measly Trio of Evil is merely an appetizer before a main course of villainy, and all signs are pointing once-winsome Willow (Alyson Hannigan), who’s blossoming into a much too powerful witch. Anyone who knows their ”X-Men” lore (oft said to be a huge influence on ”Buffy” creator Joss Whedon) will recognize where this arc is going (or SEEMS to be going); her tiff with Giles (Anthony Stewart Head, now appearing only periodically), in which the Watcher blasts this ”stupid girl” for ”arrogantly” attempting to wield powers beyond her control, saw Willow bite back with a threat not to ”piss me off” — total shades of a Dark Phoenix emerging.

More so than any year, you get the sense that ”Buffy”’s writers have a grand design to the whole season, with each storyline interacting and affecting each other. I love how Buffy’s decision not to tell her friends that they ”rescued” her from heaven because she doesn’t want them to feel guilty has only encouraged Willow to plunge deeper into the dark arts. Talk about unintended consequences.

My concern is that some of these storylines seem bound for inevitable conclusions, rendering the ride rather suspenseless. Obvious case in point: Will Xander (Nicholas Branden) please hurry up and announce his engagement to Anya (Emma Caulfield) and get cold feet already? Sheesh. Here’s hoping as we settle into our ”waiting for denouement” phase, ”Buffy”’s writers have loads of surprises up their sleeves.

P.S.: As for ”Flooded”’s ”Angel”-related cliffhanger…what a tease. I’ll believe it when I see it.

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