Buffy and her friends are out in the graveyard, where vampirekind is having a party night: they’ve got numbers on their side, a snack in the larder, and the Slayer seems a little off her game. On the upside, she’s got extra-crinkly hair and an uber-girly coat, so when she concludes that five is simply too many vamps for her to kill—well, somehow it’s deeply kittenish.
Off they all scamper to the Mansion that Magic Built, in which we find an enchanted creature: the one, the only, the totally amazing Jonathan Levinson! This is, you understand, how it has always been. And how it always will be. We’re so happy to see you, Jonathan! You look good! Be in the credits, please.
Yay, he is! The show’s still called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that’s a formality: we know who this is all about. Jonathan, Jonathan, we love you so!
Written by Jane Espenson, “Superstar” creates another alternate Buffyverse. It’s the warm sunny day that serves as a counterpoint to the dark and woeful badness of “The Wish.” Put another way: it’s simply fun.
As we fen mull over the fact that there’s clearly something mystical afoot, the gang grabs Jonathan and heads for Chez Giles, where a plan is duly hatched. It’s all very cheery. Giles adores getting beaten at chess. Willow accepts getting out-thought by Jonathan, and Buffy learns a valuable lesson about punching the left-handed. Then they jolly their way off to the crypt, where the score is Jonathan three, Buffy two, vampires ka-poof! Buffy is disconsolate because she missed a vamp; Jonathan tries to cheer her up. She knows she could do better, but nobody really cares.
Next we have a run in with Spike. He’s still evil and still chipped. He and Jonathan snarl at each other like old enemies. In Spike’s eyes, Buffy is just a wacky sidekick named Betty. Everyone’s cool with this except Buffy and her growing inferiority complex.
A little passes. We cut to Tara’s apartment, where she and Willow are making up their very own sexy Jonathan stalker shrine and talking about how Buffy and Riley are dealing with the weirdness of last week’s events. Being reduced to a Scooby within her own gang hasn’t saved Buffy from Faith’s having stolen her body. Jonathan might be amazing, simply amazing, but he didn’t stop Faith from deceptively boinking Buffy’s InitiaBeau.
What’s the point of an alternate universe if it can’t save you from mystical pseudo-adultery?
And how is the reconciliation going? Hmmm, looks awkward. Riley’s gentle and affectionate; Buffy’s running away.
Fortunately, she has a well-clad Jonathan shoulder to cry on. Among his other many amazing talents, the man has a doctorate from Freud on Jung School of Superhero Relationship Therapy. He tells Buffy how she’s feeling, sticks her with the coffee bill and then—because a hero’s work is never done—rushes off to brief the Initiative on some Adam stuff he’s been studying. From this we learn that Adam can’t be beheaded because he runs on uranium. (Gee, Dead Scientist Maggie, why couldn’t you have given him a nickel-cad battery and a USB charger like everyone else?)
Riley, naturally enough, also needs relationship counseling. Jonathan tells him that since Faith has mad sex skillz and Buffy’s two steps removed from a virgin, there’s maybe some jealousy going on there. Riley’s all: “Buh! But I like Buffy! I’m not comparing! Honest!”
I believe him. You probably do too. Because, you know, Riley. Honest as the day is long. But hey—where’s Jonathan? Isn’t he the point here?
Karen, one of his biggest fans, agrees. She’s watching his mansion and hoping for a glimpse. Instead she gets attacked by a moderately scary looking demon.
Where is Jonathan as this is happening? Not home saving Karen, I’ll tell you that much. Talk therapy will only get a couple so far, and he’s taken it into his head to heal our two wounded bunnies’ hearts with a song and dance number. In other words, the whole gang is at the Bronze, being fannish, while Jonathan sings a love ballad just for BuffRiley.
This makes it all so much better. They dance, and it’s nice . . . at least it’s nice until Karen shows up, all bleedy and needy, and the gang has to swing back into action.
(I don’t mean to be unsympathetic, Karen. Go you for surviving the demon attack!)
Karen’s description of the beast casts an aura of furtive guilt over Jonathan. Buffy’s slayersense starts tingling, but even she doesn’t really question it when he says he can take care of the problem himself. He is, after all, Jonathan!
Adam has by now also noticed Jonathan . . . and dismissed him. He’s somehow filled with a bizarre idea that Jonathan isn’t the greatest thing since full-fiber Wonder bread. His vampire minions shake their heads in astonishment but, wisely, don’t argue.
Since Jonathan didn’t actually kill the monster as promised, it attacks Tara. Ow, poor Tara!! You are kind of villainbait, aren’t you? First the Gentlemen and now this. And we all know what’s coming. Now I am sad.
Still tingling with awful suspicions, Buffy goes over to Xander’s place to ponder his collection of Jonathanobilia. She quizzes Anya about alternate realities and wishes and shrimp, and what she learns is so serious that she calls for a Scooby meeting to air her concerns.
The group isn’t buying in. Jonathan is, after all, perfect. Jeez, Buffy, come on! Riley goes so far as to say it all sounds like nonsense before expressing his total faith in her. They should consult the books. No, wait, they should consult Giles’s copy of the Jonathan Swimsuit Calendar. Ermagerd, he’s got the same mark as the monster!
Luckily, there’s a logical explanation for everything, and that explanation is the monster confuses Jonathan. That’s its power. Whew! Nobody wanted to contemplate the alternative. Buffy, enjoying her new stubborn streak, uses the tiny bit of cred she earned by being right to oblige Jonathan to go after the thing with her. They bully Spike into telling them where it is; Buffy starts to come into her own in this scene, to discover a bit of confidence. It’s pretty wonderful.
While they hunt, the Scoobies, left out of the fun, go looking for the mark on Jonathan’s shoulder. It turns out, much to their distress, that he’s done an augmentation spell. On himself! He’s not so much Jonathan! as he is Jonathan. Or maybe... jonathan:(. The demon is his not-so-awesome opposite, a side-effect of the spell.
This means maybe Jonathan can keep things the way they are . . . if he kills Betty. I mean Buffy.
But here’s the thing: he’s not that bad a guy. Lonely, desperate for affection, yes. Slayercidal . . . no way!
So the Slayer slays the demon and Jonathan reverts to his earlier state, alone and unloved, giving up his sharply tailored suits for an incredibly unattractive yellow striped t-shirt. Buffy gives him a much-deserved lecture about treating people like sock puppets—I feel betrayed by his deception, don’t you?—and life being work. He counters by telling her he was right about Riley, back when he was all wise and stuff.
“Superstar” is yet another funny episode that serves as a palate cleanser, washing away the angst generated by the two-episode return of Faith. It gives Buffy and Riley a chance to hash out their weird sex stuff in a way that makes the reconciliation funny and sweet rather than jangly, tedious and difficult. We get a little time to see Tara assimilating into the group, and learn a few things about Adam: that he alone sees through Jonathan’s spell, for example, is pretty interesting.
It is also, some would argue, a clear sign that the Scoobies are transitioning into a permanent state of being enviably cool. When BtVS began, lip service was paid to the idea that our main teens were outsiders, remember? Buffy had her violent school-burning ways and a bad reputation. Willow was a socially awkward genius, what with the hacking and her penchant for wearing toques, and Xander was an ill-dressed poor kid. We were meant to ignore their telegenic good looks and buy into the idea of them as social outcasts, downtrodden near-freaks.
But at the prom we saw public acceptance, at Sunnydale High, of Buffy’s role as the class savior. In “Graduation Day,” she capitalized on that acceptance by leading the big battle against the Mayor. The pretence that the slaying operation wasn’t a totally amazing thing was eroding; and by now, it’s pretty much gone. Hello—the five of them are better at it than the whole U.S. Army. That’s extreme cool.
Though their profile isn’t as high with the campus population as it was with their graduating class, Buffy and the gang are nevertheless evolving into their own little clique of cool and powerful adults. Willow is especially sensitive to the group’s boundaries and membership—she often and openly wishes to exclude Anya, and we see her struggling to introduce Tara to the gang in a way that’s comfortable for everyone. Now in “Superstar” we see Jonathan, who feels out and out excluded. He sees the Scoobies for what they are and he wants to be part of them.
The sensible thing for him to do, probably, would have been to try to get himself included by contributing to the fight against evil. This is what Riley and Tara and even Anya do. Jonathan’s a decent mage; he’s not useless. He could help. But contributing’s not what he’s after. He takes the shortcut by making himself the leader of their merry crew.
I have seen it argued that shows about bands of social rejects always make this transition—that the characters become insiders, in some sense, and that when they do the shows lose their edge. I’m pondering whether I agree. What do you all think?
A.M. Dellamonica has three novelettes up here on Tor.com. Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales.