Jan 30 2012 2:00pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Scoobies Assemble!

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The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was promising, entertaining, exciting, fast-paced and funny... but not the show’s finest hour. (Not the show’s finest twelve hours, actually, but who’s counting?) I can say this the more confidently because I’ve just rewatched the whole thing, every frame, praying mantises, invisible girls and all. I had a great time, but I also knew the best had yet to come.

This is a good thing. It would have been terrible if the show had peaked early. But it does mean that S1 of BtVS doesn’t merit a full-on, loving, episode-by-episode examination.

What does command the attention—what about S1 is blog-worthy? First and foremost, I’d say, is the heart of its alternate family, the pivotal characters who became the core of what would be known, in time, as the Scooby Gang. Xander, Willow and Giles were there at the beginning, and they saw the slayage through to the series finale, “Chosen.”

(There’s also the first important phase of the Buffy / Angel romance, and I’ll talk about that next. Finally, there’s the big arc against the S1 Big Bad: Buffy versus the Master, in other words.)

But for now, the First Scoobies: 

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Let’s open with Rupert Giles. He was on the job, in his way, before Buffy was called, before she was born, really — as a kid he’d already been training as a Watcher, like his father and grandmother before him. It’s an odd sort of calling to imagine: all that prep and schooling, and no guarantee you’ll get the gig. Buffy represents many things for Giles, and one of them is a big chance to realize his destiny. (Remember, in S1 we don’t know yet about his misspent youth as Ripper.)

Season 1 Giles is an authority figure, not quite a stand-in for Buffy’s mostly absent father, not yet someone she can trust. Though the Watcher’s Council hasn’t yet made a formal appearance in the Buffyverse, it is obvious his allegiance often lies more with the job than the girl. The stuffy librarian element of his character is cranked to the max. He’s about tradition and procedure and doing things in the time-honored way.

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Fortunately, Giles isn’t unrealistic or entirely hard-assed, even in his early days. We see real flashes of growing affection for Buffy in Giles. In “Witch,” when she’s dying, his concern for her goes bone deep. In “Nightmares,” when they find Buffy’s grave, he confesses that this terrible dream is his. (Talk about your work-themed anxiety dreams! Puts a little perspective on that recurring bad-day-at-the office nightmare, hmmm?)

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The first deep crack in Giles’ identity as a loyal, dutiful and above-all obedient Watcher appears in “Prophecy Girl.” Buffy’s understandable fear of her prophesied death touches him; he finds he’s not equipped to send someone he loves to her end, that he’d rather sacrifice himself. For a dad figure, this is a natural response; for a Watcher, it could — and in time would — be argued, this shows catastrophic weakness.

But BtVS is all about the group being stronger than the sum of its parts — about Buffy surviving to fight another day because she’s not alone. Giles quickly begins to shed his Watcher’s detachment and thereby discovers a deeper commitment to the cause. By caring more about his three mentees and less about the rules he’s been raised to obey, he creates the basis for a more equal partnership between them.

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Year One Willow, on the other hand, is barely a glimmer of everything she will become. She’s a geekly computer girl, supersmart, shy, and frequently adorable. Alyson Hannigan’s combination of quirkiness and sweetness of character  make a nice balance to Buffy’s necessary toughness, and she is the  perfect confidante. She’s also a handy target for Cordelia’s nastiness. Willow isn’t quite neglected in the initial season, but her chances to shine come comparatively rarely — the Willow ep in S1 is “I Robot... You Jane,” a lightweight story where she ends up cyberdating a demon.

When we meet Willow, of course, she’s completely hung up on Xander, and the long, painful process of letting go of this crush is an essential part of her growth into a force of nature. She takes a first, crucial baby step in “Prophecy Girl” when she refuses to go to a dance with him, after Buffy has also turned him down. It’s a nice moment, but it is, in a sense, just prelude.

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Xander, of course, is nursing a crush too, and it is his unrequited love for Buffy that leads to the key role he plays in the events of “Prophecy Girl.” Loyal, noble, true, hopelessly in love with Buffy despite her obvious interest in Angel, Xander is spotlighted in two S1 episodes: “Teacher’s Pet” — which is about as compelling as “I Robot... You Jane,” alas — and the darker and more intriguing possession episode, “The Pack.”

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What is striking about Xander in S1 is that he’s uncluttered by the concerns that hamper Giles and Angel, both of whom are ready, at various points, to surrender Buffy to the necessity of keeping the Master from opening the Hellmouth. Xander doesn’t give a crap that the Codex prophecies are immutable. He’s not all hung up on trying not to love a mortal girl. When he’s possessed, part of him sees it as an exciting opportunity to finally capture the Slayer’s interest. When she’s fated to die, he does everything he can to help her. It’s simple, it’s risky, and ultimately it’s what saves not only Buffy but the world.

As for the other Scoobies... Cordelia and Angel hover on the periphery of season one, and we get a couple glimpses of Jenny Calendar. But in this first story arc Buffy, Giles, Willow and Xander — the “core four,” as they’re sometimes called — create the foundation of a slaying career that expands to encompass so much more than Buffy’s body count. Without any one of them, Sunnydale would have succumbed to at least a couple of its annual apocalypses. And one of the nicest things about season one, perhaps, is the chance we get to see them come together, without all the other admittedly intriguing and often delightful latecomers who join them in subsequent years.

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Feel free to post your favorite S1 moments in comments, though, or argue with me!


A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on — an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010.

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aaron thompson
1. trench
As much as "I robot you Jane" sucked. It does have one good thing about it. At the end Giles gives a speech to Ms. Calander about why he hates computers. I love that speech, when someone tries to get me to read an ebook I start quoting it.
Zayne Forehand
2. ShiningArmor
Sorry, I'm a little confused by the following line:
"For a dad figure, this is a natural response; for a Watcher, it could —
and in time would — be argued, this shows catastrophic weakness."

Are you saying Giles' love for Buffy was argued as a catastrophic weakness for the show? The wording confused me a little.
3. wiredog
There's a later episode where the council argues that. Causes serious problems for the Buffy/Giles relationship when he betrays her on Council orders.

I liked that the first episode of the season killed off someone who was, to all appearances, a core Scooby Gang member and the last episode killed off (temporarily) Buffy. Season 1 of BtVS was better than any season of most TV shows.
john mullen
4. johntheirishmongol
Although there was a lot of messing around with Xander the first year, you could see the characters grow from ep to ep. They all grow into adults right before our eyes. However, in almost all the episodes there is still a sense of fun amidst the horror of everyday life.
Alyx Dellamonica
5. AMDellamonica
ShiningArmor--Sorry about that. As Wired says, I'm referencing the times other characters in BtVS argue, in various ways, that Giles loves/coddles Buffy too much, when he should be detached.

Johntheir - I agree. There's something great and fun in all the episodes.
Ian Tregillis
6. ITregillis
Terrific post! The heart of the show, to me, was always about family and relationships, so the genesis of the Scooby Gang seems like the perfect place to begin a retrospective.

Wiredog@3: I always got a kick out of that, too.
Ilan Lerman
7. Ilan
Despite some of its shortcomings, the 1st season holds a special place in my heart. Rewatching it with the knowledge of what happens to all of these characters makes it a different experience. I remember when I first discovered the show, thinking it had something quite special going on with the core-four relationship. Every one of them was eminently watchable from the start, and the chemistry between them on screen was infectious.

Favourite moments from S1 - Nightmares (Xander finding the chocolate bars) - The Pack (The slo-mo walk of the hyena gang through the schoool grounds) - Angel (when he vamps out right after they kiss for the first time - classic horror moment, and the first sign, for me, of the potential of the future seasons) - Prophecy Girl (when Willow and Cordy find the AV club slaughtered, one of the darkest scenes of the season).
8. Dr. Thanatos
I liked first season a lot. Not because of the slow emergence of the real Willow; not because of Evil Cordy; but because of the individual episodes that struck chords from high school. The Invisible Girl; the Witchy Mother living through her daughter; the Pack of Wild Kids. The vamps weren't the fully developed critters they would start to be with the appearance of Spikesilla (or Spikezilla, if you prefer); they still took themselves way too seriously. But if I look at which season had the most individual episodes that, standing alone, stuck with me, I'd have to say it was the First ...
Alyx Dellamonica
9. AMDellamonica
Spikezilla!! I love that!

I've heard people dismiss the first season outright, and I can't go there: as you're all saying, it was lovable from the start, and never more so than when there was Scooby interaction. But I'd have to go with S2 or S3 for standalone episodes that stuck. Still, every single thing you mention here, Thanatos, was a thing I loved about S1.
Jack Flynn
10. JackofMidworld
Fave part from Season 1? Best part or not, the first thing that pops into my head (well, the second, after the bit in the finale where the Buffy Theme plays while she's walking in her fancy dress & leather jacket with Scoobies behind her) is from Nightmares, when she's living Giles's dream and says they "better hurry...cuz I'm getting hungry."
Tomas Gerst
11. IamnotSpam
All the scoobies are cool but it was the Xander character that was identifiable for me. Willow was great but other then telling the Cordett's to use the Delete key to "Deliver" I could not relate as well to her as I could to Xander. Later shows and seasons not withstanding what made me start watching the show was the relationship between Xander and Buffy. Later I liked watching the show with my daughter so she could see that a girl could kick butt too.
Skip the first season how else are you going to know what Xander means when he's tired of dating the monster girls, getting the funny diseases and being a butt monkey it all starts here.
12. JSKaterfan
I, also, just finished re-watching Season 1 and I would argue that it is much better on re-watch than on the initial viewing. Returning to "Welcome to the Hellmouth" and seeing Buffy Summers before most of the show's tragedies have befallen her is practically heartbreaking.
Xander, as well, is in his prime in the early years, as after Season 3, Joss wasn't entirely sure where to take the character.
And Willow, with one of the most complex character journeys in any Whedon show, asides from perhaps Wesley or Spike…Seeing her in Season 1, still as a shy computer nerd with her "major Xander crushage" in place, shocks me every time I return to this season.
For Cordelia, with an equally large arc ahead of her, watching her in Season 1 is nearly as mind blowing as Willow.
Angel is mostly the "Buffy's boyfriend" role throughout the course of BtVS, and asides from the second half of next season, plays a somewhat stereotypical role until his own show. Still, watching his interactions with Giles and their near friendship is another strong spot for this season.
And I caught the Scoobies' performance during the end of "The Puppet Show" for the first time. Makes episodes like "Teacher's Pet" seem almost worthwhile.
Robert Evans
13. bobsandiego
Favorite Moments from Season one:
Synder: "It's that sort of fuzzy-headed liberal thinking that gets you eaten."
Whe we see the schoold for invisible assassins. I loved that the creators were willing to really ope the consquences of their plots. The world was more than just Sunnydale.
14. JohnnyMac
I think you make a valid point about Season 1 not being up to the same high level as some of the later ones. However, could later episodes reached so high without the foundations laid in the first season? For example, Season 1 builds up the character of Giles (one of my very favorites in the whole cast) as a comically fussy, pedantic, rulebound librarian (all qualities amplified and made even more comic for an American audience by the fact that he is British). Yes it tends toward the one dimensional but without it we would not have the drama of later revelations that Giles is not just the Uber Librarian Geek but the man who grows to love Buffy like a father, a man of great courage and one who is, at need, a very hard man indeed.

I agree with IamnotSpam above @11 that Xander was a very easy to identify with character for me. The whole "nice guy who winds up not getting the girl" was all too familiar from my HS experience. I liked the way in which his character was shown as valuable not because he had powers, he was not a computer hacker or a warlock or a ninja, but because he was brave and loyal to the end.
Michael Green
15. greenazoth
Season One is especially interesting because you can see them learning -- there are raw edges to everything -- but they kept consistently making the right choices.

For example, while I think you are correct in calling out "I Robot . . . You, Jane" and "Teacher's Pet" as "lightweight" (I would say the weakest of the season) they still had the good instinct to try to hurt Xander/Willow as much as they could. That kind of willingness to emotionally devastate a character is something that pleases me greatly.

As for favorite moments, I think "Nightmares" has to be my favorite individual episode of the season, and the Master quoting Cinderella my favorite moment of that episode. The delivery is just priceless.
john mullen
16. johntheirishmongol
@14 Johnnymac
I think you are forgetting a couple of things about Giles. One is his other history, not just the prep school boy, but also Ripper. (one of my fave episodes) And while he started a bit milquetoasty, he definately toughened up as the series went on
17. hohmeisw
Favorites of Season 1
Nightmares is the most uncomfortable episode I remember. What the coach did to that kid is just... I remember thinking when the kid first appeared "oh, he's a ghost, they'll banish him or whatever." Nope!

The dummy episode (which you have a picture of, but I can't remember the title) is my favorite. The dummy character is great, and it's interesting to see he and Buffy work together, even if most of the dummy's lines are half sexual harassment.
Anthony Pero
18. anthonypero
S1 suffered from what a lot of 90s shows suffered from for some reason... the actors and writers spent about 10 episodes finding the character voices. The notable exception was Xander, who was pitch perfect from scene 1. I always felt that Xander was the heart of the show, and the most important peice of the Scooby Gang puzzle. He was the only character that from Day 1 through the end of S7 always, without fail, had Buffy's best interests in mind. It was evident in season 1 and never changed/ Xander epitomized the old saying: "The man is just the boy grown tall"... in both good ways and bad ways.
Tomas Gerst
19. IamnotSpam
Cogitated some more about Xanders appeal vs. Buffy's and I decided that this was one of the first shows where it wasn't the lead character that I identified. I mean when I watched the show I did not want to be Buffy I wanted to be that guy who had her back that had that friendship and loyalty for someone. Xander was the “everyman” from the beginning. Willow grew to be the everywoman/ or person however you want to read it, but from the first season it was Xander who was the most approachable character. Xander was a fallible, hormone driven mess but then most of us were at that age. So I guess part of that is remembering all the insanity of high school and Xander wraps that picture all up in one package. Ok I am thru cogitating for now, sorry if I am beating a dead horse. Ok have to say it one more time, buttmonkey.
Anthony Pero
20. anthonypero
lol... yea, I was also the same age as Xander's character, so watching that while in high school... It was spot on.
Alyx Dellamonica
21. AMDellamonica
Absolutely, JohnnyMac--S1 laid an amazing foundation for S2 and everything that followed. The fact that BtVS only got better in no way diminishes the strong start, in my opinion.

I am glad to see so much "Yay! Xander!" in this thread. Something else that I think was really brave and terrific about the show was the steadfast refusal to tinker with him, to give him the kind of power that Willow grows into.
22. Gardner Dozois
When asked why he didn't get rid of Pogo, who many considered to be the dullest character in the strip, with all the others getting the funny lines, Walt Kelly used to say, "He's the glue." In a way, Xander was the glue on BUFFY. It always amazed me how little respect/credit he got from the other characters, even several seasons in, when without him the world would have been destroyed at least four or five times. Even when he doesn't directly save the world, as he does by bringing Buffy back to life at the end of Season 1 (interestingly, it just occurrs to me, the only time he ever "kisses" Buffy, to breathe life back into her), he often comes up with the key insight that helps the others save it. Later they lost the character, as with the ill-advised refusing-to-marry-Anna arc, but he's vital to the first four seasons.

As is, of course, Giles, as became obvious once he left. I always really regretted that it didn't turn out that he somehow WAS Jack the Ripper, magically perserved and reformed, perhaps serving as a Watcher for penance. When Ethan says, "I know what you're capable of, Ripper," it seemed to hint at something a lot darker than being a soccer holighan, even one who dabbled in the Dark Arts. I also always liked to see Giles acting as a genuine wizard and performing magic, which he didn't do very often.
Jared Mills
23. JaredMills
I actually find it difficult to watch season 1, but not because I think it's bad. Rather, it hurts my heart to watch all these characters so young, naive and full of life, knowing the horrible, terrible things that will befall each of them. The heartache, the loss, the disappointments--all of it stark and vivid to the omniscient viewer, but the Scooby Gang is blissfully unaware. I get all teary even thinking about it!
Maybe it's just me...
Anthony Pero
24. anthonypero
No, it's not just you... I felt the same way when I re-watched them two years ago withmy wife, who had never seen them.

I felt the same way watching a Bones re-run the other day, from an early season, with Eric Milligan's character Zach Addy.
25. JohnnyMac
@16 johntheirishmongol,
Well, yes that is what I was saying: that in S1 Giles starts out as Mr. Milquetoast and then is developed into a much more formidable and interesting character. We are really on the same page here, as I see it.
Jack Flynn
26. JackofMidworld
In a lot of shows/movies with "super" heroes, it seems that the best character is the non-supe. Han Solo, Samwise Gamgee, Donna Noble, Xander...they're not there because of some kind of destiny or because "nobody else can do it." They are there because they want to be there, because their friends need them to be there, and that makes them awesome.
Alyx Dellamonica
27. AMDellamonica

With you all the way--I'm a big Xander fan. The show couldn't have done without an ordinary person. He's like magnetic north: he's us. And I never found him dull.

Not Marrying Anya I blame on a magic spell loosed on our world, whose effect is that ALL TV CHARACTERS WILL HAVE STUPIDLY MOTIVATED BREAKUPS.
28. Gardner Dozois
Since Xander was not the main character, and so it didn't matter if he was romantically involved as long as Buffy remained available to be embroiled in whatever relationship the scriptwriters came up with, you'd think they could have let him and Anya get married and actually be happy, without losing any flexibility for the show. Whedon sometimes seem to have a neurotic need to break up all the romantic relationships on his shows in as tragic a way as possible, as witness Willow and Tara. Yes, I know, it makes for good drama to keep the characters unhappy. But it's become predictable with Whedon, which I think lessens the impact. You KNOW that nobody's relationship is going to last. Xander and Anya had the potential to be a useful exception.
Anthony Pero
29. anthonypero
Xander and Anya were really, really not healthy. Breaking them up and allowing Xander (and Anya) to come to grips with some things was a smart play by the writer's, in my estimation.
Ilan Lerman
30. Ilan
@anthonypero I agree. Xander and Anya never seemed to me to be in a relationship that suggested longevity, and prior to the breakup in S6 they seem to be moving apart significantly. When you look at how they come to be together, with Anya practically forcing herself on him, and Xander going along for the ride. Even though Xander professes love for her and has a couple of moving speeches about his feelings for her, I always felt as though he was carried along as a passenger. And it does strengthen Xander's character and allows him to finally grow into a man by the end of the series.
Alyx Dellamonica
31. AMDellamonica
Gardner: Yes! Also part of the Joss Doom Cycle: they break up, they make up, and then Kazaam! Tragedy strikes! If Firefly had lasted, I'm sure Wash would have been newly back with Zoe when he got skewered.
Tomas Gerst
32. IamnotSpam
Whoa we really got way off of season one. But who cares, there were plenty of regrets on my part with how Xanders and Anya's relationship went but I liked that Joss kept Xander's problems with his own family important in his continuing character development. Xander's greatest fear was always about becoming like his parents esp, his father. He hung onto his teens as hard as he could to keep from having to make choices that might lead to being that man. I forget exactly (time to rewatch) but there were many times he referenced his dad and mom as abusive and alcoholics. No wonder he found hanging out with witches, werewolves and slayers in graveyards as very preferable to a night at home. When the guy who gave him the head trip before his wedding showed him the worst outcomes of his pending nuptial bliss, no wonder he headed for the hills. That and her hairy toes. uggg
33. Gardner Dozois
That was part of the whole Joss perspective that made BUFFY so enjoyable, up until they graduated high school, at least. The vampires are going to attack, but Buffy is considerably more worried about what the Principle will say to her mother on Parent-Teacher Night. In the last Mayor episode, Oz tells them to take a moment and reflect that they survived--not the apocalyptic battle, but high school.

Once they graduated high school, the show began to thrash around a bit trying to find a new direction, although there were many good episodes to come, particularly "Hush," "Once More With Feeling," "Tabula Rasa," and most of the whole Glory arc. At least the show was brave enough to let them graduate after four years, rather than keeping them in high school forever--that really would have been Hell! (GLEE is going to face the same problem this year; better to face the problem, though, than to have a Korean War that lasted for ten years, like in M*A*S*H*.)
34. BarbaraSchwartz
I think we are all looking at Season One through the lens of Season Seven. But I do believe that Xander holds up as the exemplar of unconditional love. He raised Buffy from the dead in Season One, stopped Willow from destroying the world in Season Six, and was able to forgive Anya and work along side her in Season Seven. Plus, he represented all of us who didn't have the mad skills or the magic--just the love and loyalty
35. Gardner Dozois
Considering that he DIDN'T have any superpowers or magical abilities, I would think that charging into the situations that he charged into, knowing that he couldn't really defend himself adequately, would actually take MORE courage than the others showed. How many ordinary high-school kids do you know who would willingly fight vampires and demons, let alone voluntarily and literally walk into Hell to save the girl they loved? One thing Xander never lacked for was courage.
Anthony Pero
36. anthonypero
But he thought he did, which made him even more endearing.
37. JohnnyMac
One of the key things I liked about Xander was that he showed us that you do not have to be a superhero to be a hero.

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