00:00 – 15:00
This is the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the television series. As most of you are no doubt aware, it was preceded by a motion picture of the same name. The 1992 film is not the same as the series, and it’s not necessary for you to watch it in order to enjoy the series. A different Buffy (Kristy Swanson) and a different tone, in my opinion. But, it does include Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer, Hilary Swank, Luke Perry and Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Reubens, plus Ben Affleck (uncredited) as Basketball Player #10 and Seth Green (uncredited) as a vampire. The movie may be worth watching just to see younger versions of all of these stars and David Arquette.
This episode is the first half of the Buffy premiere, which was originally broadcast with what we now consider to be the second episode, “The Harvest.” This episode was directed by Charles Martin Smith, an actor-director you would recognize from his roles in American Graffiti, The Untouchables, and television appearances too numerous to list (he has 88 acting credits on IMDb).
On this same day in 1997, the Palm Pilot was released. It was the first massively popular personal digital assistant, paving the way for the future release of the iPhone. For a short interim, PDA meant something besides “public displays of affection.” Since I am, at heart, a Luddite, I never owned one.
The day before—Sunday, March 9—the Notorious B.I.G. was murdered.
The day after—Tuesday, March 11—former Beatle Paul McCartney was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
It was a good week for the Spice Girls. The #1 song in the US was “Wannabe.” In the UK, the #1 song was “Mama,” also by the Spice Girls.
The #1 movie in the US was Private Parts, based upon Howard Stern’s autobiography of the same name. The movie was, in large part, a love letter to his wife, whom he later divorced to swap for a younger model.
Bill Clinton was still President of the United States.
A little later in 1997, I would leave my job with Hills Department Stores to join my first (and only, so far) national retail chain, the Target Corporation (technically still the Dayton Hudson Corporation at the time, but that would soon change—Target was their breadwinner). This would necessitate an eventual move from Virginia to Arkansas. I never watched Buffy while it was on the air, so it was around 2004 when I watched this episode, after I moved to Arkansas the second time and married my real wife (as opposed to my starter wife). That was the year I helped open a new Target here in the central Arkansas town where I live still.
This episode begins with a preamble we will soon get used to:
In every generation there is a chosen one.
She alone will stand against the vampires,
the demons and the forces of darkness.
She is the Slayer.
I know it’s a short statement, but later developments in the series will cast some doubt on parts of it. It’s the words “every generation” and “alone” that I feel like are problematic.
A teaser (or cold open), according to the infalliable internet, and tvtropes.org, is a one-to-five-minute mini-act, sometimes before the opening credits, that sets up the episode and catches the audience’s attention. It’s like the hook in a song, generally found in popular music. The opening Keith Richards riff in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” by the Rolling Stones, for instance. Most modern television shows have a cold open of some sort. At least, the ones I watch do.
The first teaser in this series tells us a lot about what we should expect, going forward. It’s no accident that our first scene is set inside Sunnydale High School, because that is our main location in the series, at least for the first years. The first two characters shown are apparently teenagers who broke into the school because the boy wants to take the girl to the top of the gym, from where you can see the entire town. He probably has more in mind that sight-seeing. The empty school at night is atmospheric and creepy, and the girl seems nervous. Only after the boy convinces her that there’s no one else around, she is revealed to be a vampire. Her face wrinkles up in what will become known as “vamp face,” and she kills the boy.
From the first episode, Joss Whedon and team have warned the viewer that this show is going to subvert expectations. The young blonde is usually a victim in horror movies and television shows. This one was the vampire.
[side note — lest you think I live with my head in the sand and haven’t read the complaints about Whedon that date back to this series, I’ll admit that I’ve heard them. Moreover, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that there is truth to the accusations, which certainly makes me feel rotten. However, Whedon’s work features strong, independent females and doesn’t reflect his reported actions behind the scenes. Separating the art from the artist isn’t always easy to do. It’s why I can admit that I have admired Kevin Spacey as an actor, but haven’t been able to watch any of his movies since Anthony Rapp’s allegations came to light. Not talking about this series because of Whedon would be doing a disservice to all the other actors, writers and directors involved.]
A wolf howls. Some creepy pipe organ music begins before morphing into that rocking theme music by the band Nerf Herder. Alyson Hannigan, who plays Willow, reportedly brought the band to Joss Whedon’s attention. The credits roll.
Then, we’re into Act I. It is morning, and we’re in Buffy Summers’s bedroom. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Geller) is asleep and in the throes of a prophetic dream, with lots of horror movie images. Buffy suddenly wakes. Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland), Buffy’s mother, says—off-camera—that she doesn’t want to be late on her first day. That, and all the still-unopened moving boxes in Buffy’s room, informs the viewer that the Summers family must have just moved into this house.
In the next scene, a car pulls to a stop in front of Sunnydale High School. Joyce is driving Buffy to school. Joyce says a few positive mom-things before asking her daughter to try not to get kicked out. Buffy promises.
Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) rolls up to the high school on a skateboard. He notices Buffy right away and promptly crashes. Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) is standing nearby. When he notices her, Xander says she’s just the person he wanted to see. He’s having trouble with math and wants Willow to be his “study buddy.” Willow asks if he has Theories in Trig, which I assume is a textbook. She tells Xander that he should check out the book at the library, where the books live.
As Xander and Willow enter the school building, they run into Jesse McNally (Eric Balfour). Jesse and Xander both talk about the “new girl,” who Xander says is “pretty much a hottie.” Willow says she had heard a student was transferring. Otherwise, they seem to know less about Buffy than we do. I mean, we know she’s a vampire slayer from the title of the series, right?
In order to get to know Buffy better, we cut to the office of Principal Bob Flutie (Ken Lerner), who is looking over Buffy’s transcripts while introducing himself to her. Buffy is a sophomore, transferring from Hemery High in Los Angeles. He calls her records “interesting,” and tears it into four pieces. He welcomes her to Sunnydale High School and announces that she has a clean slate here, even if her records say—
As he reads the paper, he actually says, “Whoa,” and begins taping the torn sections back together. Buffy admits her transcripts are a little “colorful.” Principal Flutie wonders if “colorful” is the correct word to use. He suggests “dismal” may be more accurate. When Buffy insists they weren’t that bad, Flutie reminds her that she burned down the gym. Buffy starts to tell him that the gym was full of vampires, but changes “vampires” to “asbestos” mid-syllable. A flustered Flutie puts the semi-repaired transcript back in Buffy’s file after telling the new student that other schools would tell her to “watch her step” or “we’ll be watching you,” but that’s not the Sunnydale way (although by saying it, he is warning her). Still, Principal Flutie seems like a nice guy.
This was a genuinely funny scene that also dropped some necessary exposition on the viewer. Buffy had trouble at her previous school, burning down the gymnasium, which seems to confirm my fuzzy memories of the movie. It also explains why Joyce asked her daughter to try not to get kicked out. Just enough information; not too much.
In the hallway outside of the principal’s office, Buffy is jostled by another student. She drops her handbag and the contents spill out on the floor. Xander is there immediately, to help her pick her stuff up. He is as eager as a puppy-dog.
They introduce themselves to each other. Xander continues to seem awkward and socially-challenged, but funny—his default setting. You get the impression that humor is a defense mechanism for Xander. Joss Whedon has said that Xander was the character he most identified with in the series, and I have to admit that’s true for me as well. Tongue-tied around pretty females, awkward and nerdy. I bet a lot of fans of the series feel the same way. Xander was one of my favorite characters in the series (except for when he wasn’t—more on that later).
After this meet-cute moment, Buffy continues down the hallway. Xander notices that she left something behind on the floor. A wooden stake.
Next, we are in history class with Buffy. The teacher has written the words “Black Death” on the chalkboard and is talking about the bubonic plague. As the camera pans, we notice Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) sitting next to Buffy, but the character hasn’t been properly introduced. Cordelia shares her textbook with Buffy, who hasn’t gotten hers yet. I guess she’ll need to go to the library, where the books live, to get her copy.
After the bell rings, Cordelia and Buffy introduce themselves to each other, and Cordelia offers to show her where the library is. Cordelia already knows a lot about Buffy, it seems. Cordelia is impressed that Buffy transferred from L.A. She seems nice at first, even though her more materialistic side rears its ugly head a bit during their conversation. She tests Buffy’s coolness factor. James Spader was considered hot by teenage California girls in 1997, but John Tesh was the Devil. Frappacinos are trendy but tasty, and vamp nail polish (whatever that may be) is so over.
Buffy is pronounced cool, and it seems she’s on her way to making new friends.
Then, Cordy reveals her dark side by humiliating Willow at the water fountain, referring to Willow’s clothes as “the softer side of Sears.” Willow has a puppy-dog-getting-scolded look that makes your heart immediately go out to her. And this is how we find out that Cordelia is a Mean Girl. From the look on Buffy’s face, this doesn’t seem to sit well with her either.
I realize that I just compared both Xander and Willow to puppies. It’s accurate, so I’m leaving it as is.
Cordy tells Buffy that if she wants to fit in, the first rule is: Know your losers. She’s referring to Willow again. Mean. But, Cordy has a bit more worldbuilding to do. She tells Buffy about the Bronze, the only club worth going to in town. She says they’ll let anybody in, but it’s still the scene. Also, it’s located in the bad part of town, which is only half a block from the good part of town. If you’ve ever watched Buffy, you know that the Bronze becomes one of our main settings throughout the series.
The girls arrive at the library. Cordy is still friendly to Buffy, but we’re already suspecting that this will end soon.
The Library. Another important set on the series. Buffy is there for textbooks. She notices a newspaper with a story headline about local boys who are missing. Then, she meets librarian Rupert Giles (Anthony Head) for the first time. When Buffy confirms who she is, he says he knows exactly what book she’s looking for. He drops a huge old book with VAMPYR written in gold leaf on the cover in front of Buffy.
Buffy says, “That’s not what I’m looking for.” This seems to surprise Mr. Giles—hereafter known as just Giles—and he returns the VAMPYR book under the counter. Before he can get the textbook she needs, Buffy has left the library. Buffy’s first encounter with her new Watcher leaves Giles puzzled.
The next scene is in the girls locker room. Two female students we don’t know are gossiping about Buffy, the new student. One of the young women opens a locker and a body falls out. One of the missing boys, no doubt. Here is a good place for an act break.
Act II begins with an exterior shot on the Sunnydale High School quad, which has a beautiful fountain. Buffy and Willow officially meet. Willow warns Buffy that she can’t “legally” hang out with both her and Cordelia. Buffy needs help getting caught up, academically speaking, and she heard that Willow was the one to talk to. Willow says if Buffy has sixth period free, they could meet up in the library. Buffy is reluctant to go back to the library. She claims that the place gives her the “wiggins.”
It’s Willow Rosenberg’s turn to drop some exposition on the rest of us. She tells Buffy that the librarian is new, and used to be a curator at some British museum, or perhaps “The” British Museum. He brought a lot of historical volumes and biographies with him.
Xander and Jesse show up, uninvited, in the middle of Willow and Buffy’s conversation. After tripping over his tongue a bit more, Xander returns the wooden stake to Buffy. She claims the stake was for self defense; it’s all the rage in L.A.
Here’s where we reach our 15-minute mark, just past the beginning of the second act. Join me next time on this DeepWatch for Part 2 of “Welcome to the Hellmouth”