“Ted” and “Bad Eggs” are the kind of episodes that should have their own Jonathan Coulton anthems, don’t you think? (Actually, The Future Soon would almost do it for “Ted.” Is there a candidate for “Bad Eggs”?) They’re the stuff of classic campy horror; “Bad Eggs,” in particular, draws on the rich tradition that includes things like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.
What these episodes have in common is they’re about responsibility, specifically parenting.
“Ted” is all about the Daddy action. Buffy’s mom starts dating a decent-seeming if retro guy, played with fluffy-haired evil brilliance by John Ritter. Buffy’s not so keen on the prospect of Mom having anyone in her life who isn’t her biofather. This is hardly surprising, and it doesn’t help that Xander and Willow are only too happy to climb aboard the Ted-Wagon of fun and homemade pizzas for a round of mini-golf.
Soon it turns out that Ted’s friendly guy persona is just a latex mask; when Joyce has her back turned, he’s whipping out an authoritative bad dad rap, going so far as to threaten to slap Buffy silly. He’s folding Buffy out of the pictures of Joyce on his desk at work. He’s turning up in her room, reading her diary. Oh, and there’s the little matter of the drugs he’s putting in the food he’s giving everyone in Buffy’s life. (Except Principal Snyder, which seems arbitrary and unfair.)
The intersection here of real-world teen experience and a berserker robot stepdad wannabe is genius stuff. When Ted does lash out, Buffy reacts to the threat as any Slayer would, with total commitment of her considerable resources. This is the moment when she could easily have become Faith, but for one lucky break: in the end, Ted’s a) not some human guy after all; and b) he’s probably a serial killer-o-matic. I guess that’s two lucky breaks, isn’t it?
In “Bad Eggs,” we move from evil dadding to more of a momster. It’s that week at school where you have to Srsly Consider Teen Pregnancy, by coddling an egg for a week. (Buffy, in an echo of Joyce’s situation, gets an egg and no partner.) Sunnydale being Sunnydale, it turns out that the eggs are full of mind-controlling... aliens? demons? Cthulu-esque? baby monsters called Bezoar, or perhaps Bezoars, who want the kids to get an A in Health so they can dig up their big momma monster in the basement.
Also in “Bad Eggs,” Angel and Buffy talk reproduction; the upshot is vampires are sterile and doomed to childlessness, a claim he should have checked out with a paranormal fertily expert, but anyway Buffy still loves him. Joyce, meanwhile, is on a tear to teach her beloved offspring the rudiments of being a responsible proto-adult. And, just when things couldn’t get any weirder at the mall, a couple vampires named Gorch have come to town to see if they can knock Slayer-killing off their Bloody Bucket list.
There are a lot of caretaker roles jammed into this pair of episodes. Ted is an old-fashioned Poppa Bear type, exuding masculine authority and seratonin uptake inhibitors in his quest to bring Joyce and Buffy to heel, all for their own good. The elder cowpoke vampire, Lyle Gorch, is a parent-figure to his not-so-bright younger brother. The kids have their eggs to raise, and then of course they’re possessed by a one-eyed purple Ubermom of Death.
This leads them all to the Sunnydale High Official Mining Equipment Closet (Seriously. Watch it again. Angel can’t have babies and S.H.S. has a room full of pick-axes and sledgehammers!) so they can check out the equipment they need to free their mother.
In “Bad Eggs,” interestingly, it’s the crummy parents who carry the day: Buffy kills her hatchling before it can suck the life and free will out of her. Xander boils and almost eats his young, which I find oddly endearing.
(Before this makes you worry, it’s cool—I have no human kids.)
So. Two episodes about parenting. It’s little surprise that they showcase Joyce... and she’s at her best and worst written in this pair.
First, let me say: Kristine Sutherland rocks. Whatever she gets in terms of script, she works it. She’s a great performer and does a terrific job as Joyce, always. But Buffy’s the point of BtVS, and in shows focused on teens who fight demons or crime or each other or curfews, sometimes the Mom role, thankless though it is, is to be an arbitrary hardass.
TV parents tend to be a means to an end, in other words, and that end is being unfair to show that life is unfair. (Or, more succinctly, ramping up conflict.) It’s always interesting when the adults in a show about teens get to be more. The Keith Mars/Veronica Mars relationship was a complex tangle of pride, love, partnership and protectiveness. These days I’m loving Burt Hummell, on Glee.
(Hmmm, maybe TV Dads get more latitude to not suck. Who are the rocking TV moms, folks? There’s Sarah Connor... but John’s not really the point of that show, is he? Who else? And Amy Pond doesn’t get to truly be a mom. Kind of like Angel doesn’t truly get to be a dad.)
(Also, now that I’m well off on a tangent, I’ll note that Glee’s a bit exceptional—the kids seem to be the point, but it’s obvious, especially from what’s happening this season, that they’re meant to come and go. We’re not following Rachel, Kurt and the gang to college, are we? The school, the adults in it and the idea of Glee Club competitions are the things that are going to endure as that first round of singer/dancers graduates this year.)
My point—I did have one—is that despite the many moments of awesome in her years on BtVS, Joyce Summers also had many moments of being a kneejerk, platitude-spouting authority figure.
In “Ted,” she rocks. She’s in pursuit of romance and personal fulfillment—she’s getting a life—and she’s doing her best to introduce New Boyfriend to Daughter in a sensitive way. She’s not giving up being a parent, and she’s not being a martyr to it either. Okay, she defers to Ted a lot too much, but in her defense she is stoned. If someone was lacing your sugary treats with Ecstasy, you’d be easier to get along with too. (Bon-bon?)
But when violence breaks out, when Ted ends up dead at the bottom of the staircase and the cops ask what happened, despite the fact that she’s so horribly upset, Joyce’s instinct is to protect Buffy—even if it means lying.
I love that.
I love it even more when she isn’t a saint, either, and can’t deal with Buffy once they’re home together. That’s the Joyce stuff I love. She’s a people, not a curfew dispenser. It’s solid gold characterization.
In “Bad Eggs,” for me, all that nuance is gone. Yes, Buffy forgot her dry cleaning and seemed to be breaking some rules. I get that these are grounding-worthy offenses. But Joyce going on about responsibility, responsibility, responsibility—it all bounces off me, dramatic irony and all. Her lectures never really resonate. She’s been flattened, ironed down to Parent as Plot Obstacle, and in those moments I have to work not to actively dislike her.
Because I have such fondness for “Ted,” I’d remembered it as good and remembered “Bad Eggs” as well, bad. On review, they come together somewhere in the middle. “Ted” has flaws, most notably the deus ex oh-he’s-a-machine resolution.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of fun in “Bad Eggs.” Possessed Willow and Cordelia knocking out Buffy and Xander. Zombie Giles pretending everything’s business as usual. Jonathan’s screaming run through the corridors of Sunnydale High is hilarious, more so once we know he’s Jonathan, Superstar! Even the Gorches are fun.
Also? Buffy kicks serious monster butt. The Aliens homage in this is very fine indeed.
Even so, I am partial. The first time I saw S1 of BtVS, it was all at a shot, at a friend’s house in Texas, just after the season had aired. I’d (mistakenly) thought the show wasn’t airing in Canada and hadn’t paid its existence much mind; Snuffy insisted.
I’d liked what I’d seen, liked it a lot, enough to figure out when S2 was on at home. Let’s be friends, BtVS, was my thought.
“Ted” was the moment when I fell in love. That yawning gulf between mother and daughter, the high cost of Buffy’s secret ID—it got to me. Joyce lying to the cops and Buffy stepping up to tell the truth, and most of all the scene the next day at school, when she admits to Xander and Willow that she lost control and killed (as far as she knows) a normal guy, for normal teen reasons... wow.
“I had no right to hit him that hard,” she says, taking responsibility despite the cosmic unfairness of it all... right there, something clicked for me. I realized that Joss and Company understood exactly how crummy a superhero’s life can be. My level of involvement in the show increased, exponentially, in that instant.
That was the point when I started making people watch taped episodes (do you all remember videotapes?) at my place. “Ted,” for me, was where my serious like for the show was transformed to mad fannish devotion.
Hey, when was yours?
And all this parental nurturing happened when? Why, just in time for Buffy’s birthday. What could be better?
A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on Tor.com — an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. She also has a second story up here called “Among the Silvering Herd.”