The weird thing about watching season 1 of Buffy, particularly all in a straight shot, is that it becomes clear almost immediately that the show hasn’t yet figured out what kind of story it wants to be. Does it want to work in the procedural style of Star Trek, following a lovable core group around as they fight monsters, and leaving the central relationships strong but static (stern and extremely British mentor, nerdy introvert, wacky friend, Our Hero)? Or, does it want to be the denser, more layered story that it eventually became, in which the heroes change radically over time but the events of the early seasons still carry resonance?
More on the split narrative strategies of the neonatal Scoobies after the break.
The success or failure of hybrid episodes like “The Pack,” “Teacher’s Pet,” and [shudder] “I Robot... You Jane” hinges on how much they can separate themselves from the rest of the story. “The Pack” works because Xander becomes an entirely different character, so when the reset button is hit at the end of the hour, it doesn’t seem like a cop-out. But when Willow is so shaken by the death of three jocks in the school cafeteria in the season finale, I don’t buy it. She says, “it wasn’t our world anymore. They made it theirs,” and all I can think is how ridiculous it seems that she’s bothered by the presence of vampires now. Not when her science teacher is beheaded? Or one of her close friends is turned into a vampire in the pilot? Or when her boyfriend turns out to be an internet-demon? Or (for heaven’s sake!) when her principal is eaten? Clearly, the world has been “theirs” all along, so why is she suddenly so shocked by that fact?
Episodic narratives like procedural crime dramas tend to be seen as the lesser sibling of serials--they don't take as much effort to watch, and they tend to be seen as a "safer investment" by networks, which never gives a show credibility for critics. In a procedural, viewers can step in at any moment without worrying that they’ll find themselves floundering to keep all the plot threads and relationships straight. This is, shall we say, “less possible” with a heavily serialized show like Lost or Battlestar Galactica. What I was unprepared for in this viewing of Buffy is the narrative potential of episodic stories, and how a well-crafted procedural will trump a halfhearted serial every time.
Stand-alone episodes such as “The Puppet Show,” show us unexplored corners of the narrative universe that gain a life of their own in our imaginations. I can wonder about the past adventures of Sid the Demon-Hunting Pervert Puppet without concern over how this piece of narrative information will be accounted for in later episodes. And Marcie Ross, the invisible girl from “Out of Mind, Out of Sight,” had such a grip on readers’ imaginations (thanks in part to the awesomeness of Clea Duvall) that they’re still calling for her return in the “Season Eight” Buffy comic. Put simply, the stand-alone episodes make the narrative universe believable, even when the central characters inhabiting it seem thin.
Considering the show’s historical context (premiering in 1997), I presume that the writers were attempting to follow the structure of The X-Files in its oscillation between “Monster-of-the-Week” and “mythology” episodes. However, by season three, Buffy had all but given up on truly stand-alone episodes like “The Puppet Show” or “Out of Mind, Out of Sight.” I’m left wondering: why was the strategy that worked on The X-Files for at least four years (before it became clear to viewers that the writers didn’t have a clear endgame in mind for the government conspiracy story) so much less successful during season one of Buffy?
I think it might have to do with the kinds of questions Buffy is asking in its serialized plotline. At the end of the day, Buffy is essentially a soap—the questions driving the narrative hinge almost entirely on the shifting relationships between the characters, not on Truths that might be uncovered. Mysteries can move forward in fits and starts, but relationships need constant narrative attention in order to remain convincing. As I move forward in the show, one of the things I’ll be keeping my eye out for will be when and how these relationships become believable.
For the Buffy nuts out there, my question is this: what’s your favorite Buffy stand-alone episode? What edge of the Buffyverse has most successfully taken root in your mind?