Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Buffy: Welcome to the Hellmouth (1.1)

I was a '90s kid. As a result, I have this affection for pretty much everything from the latter part of that decade, from the bubblegum pop music to the Freddie Prinze Jr movies that littered movie theaters. I bring this up because Buffy the Vampire Slayer was sort of like my awakening in terms of television. Before I went behind my mom's back and secretly watched this little TV show with the goofy title that was considered by my parents as being a little too adult for such an impressionable little kid, I was all about kid's TV. Sabrina, Dexter's Laboratory, Hey Arnold!, Batman, Sister Sister, Clarissa - they were my shit! Buffy, with that title, appeared to my young eyes like another show of that variety. High school, monsters, teenage girls fighting evil: awesomeness. At the time, I had no idea that Buffy would not only demonstrate to me how powerful television can be, it also introduced the concept of strong, flawed, hilarious, dark characters, all written with knowing dialogue and relatability. Buffy is my favorite ever show, not only because it was so wonderful as a series, but for opening my eyes to both TV and film, as well as crafting so much of what makes me who I am as a person.

It's pretty eye-opening how close this pilot is to what the show became. Ordinarily with the pilots of long-running shows, there's a host of things that are a little off when watching in retrospect, from the characterization to the sets or the dialogue, all of which that become so familiar to us through the rest of the series.

Buffy is a wonderful protagonist. She's resourceful, kind and a little bratty, desperate to fit in but not automatically with the popular kids, more than anything just wanting to move on from her chaotic experiences at her old school. Sarah Michelle Gellar has a breezy confidence here, taking charge of the series with a relaxed, naturalistic quality that has a dash of the Cher Horowitz but without turning Buffy into a bimbo cartoon. Sure, some of her quippery towards the end feels a little forced at points, but that's obviously a rare instance of Joss being a little over-zealous with the humor.

Xander and Willow, the latter more evolved here, are great. Xander is a typical horny teen with an attractive awkwardness in regards to women, while Willow is a barell of self-doubt and nerves, somebody who automatically assumes that Buffy's running away from her when she tells her she'll be right back while at the Bronze, and has that sweet little crush on her best friend. Both are wonderful and sweetly naïve at this point. Giles is even more British than normal, but it works, especially when his (at this point) stuffy exposition character is given the same knowing treatment as everybody else (like the TimeLife reference).

Then there's Cordelia, who is literally perfect in terms of characterization. She's capable of being sweet to the right people with just a hint of being equally as disingenuous, is also blatantly cruel to those lower on the social scale (or plain off of it), and acts like the quintessential mean girl. I also love at this point how she slowly begins to think that Buffy is a complete freak, with the asking about graphic murder details and attacking her with a stake. Poor Buffy, she does come off like a complete nutcase to those without a clue.

It's only actually the vampires that are a little spotty here. Angel is an arrogant son-of-a-gun and majorly annoying, while rent-a-meanie Brian Thompson is completely phoning it in. Julie Benz, who insanely looks exactly the same here as she does in 2011, is a little stiff, but I guess nobody really knew what tone to strike at this point in the show's duration. But what was up with all the velvet and open-collar shirts all the vamps wore? Ick.

Welcome to the Hellmouth puts character before action (something a lot of modern pilots seem to have forgot about), and it totally works. Sure, some of the references are a little dated (James Spader, "Neg! Pos!"), but there's a beautiful confidence to the show even at this point, with a clear sense of direction and an obvious understanding of each of the characters and how they affect the show as a whole. It's easy to write off the show's first season as a little hammy and melodramatic, but that's just so, so wrong. Sure, it never reaches the lofty heights of seasons two through five or whatever, but it's a truly great beginning to the show. And that dialogue is already genius. A-

Guest stars Mark Metcalf (The Master); Brian Thompson (Luke); David Boreanaz (Angel); Ken Lerner (Principal Bob Flutie); Kristine Sutherland (Joyce Summers); Julie Benz (Darla); J. Patrick Lawlor (Thomas); Eric Balfour (Jesse McNally)
Writer Joss Whedon Director Charles Martin Smith


  1. I stumbled on this site the other day, and when I noticed that the title of the page was ‘unwelcome’ commentary, thought that maybe it was someone writing about why they don’t like Buffy. I love hearing about perspectives that differ from mine, so bookmarked these reviews to read later. How disappointing to learn that you weren’t picking on it at all. That your opinion is pretty much the same as mine, just worded better. I plan on reading all of the reviews of Buffy and Angel, and hopefully we’ll disagree on some points, but at this stage just wanted to say thanks for your eloquent review of Welcome to the Hellmouth. I’m glad it wasn’t as cut and dry as, ‘Fire bad, Buffy pretty’ or gushy and childish and ‘OMG Buffy and / or Angel is so hot and that’s why I love this show and that’s why I’ll forget all about it when the next new hot thing comes out.’

  2. Thanks, Chantarelle (Buffy reference? Heh)

    Yeah, the blog title is more a comment on how nobody really needs to review these shows anymore, because they've probably been written about far too much already. But it's really great reading comments that seem to validate my work, and thanks for reading and sharing your own opinions. It's always great getting comments on my Buffy/Angel work.