Please Note: Despite being tagged for spoilers, this review makes reference to significant plot developments from Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Three.
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The transition to college life and more adult-focused storytelling is very often the downfall of programmes with teenage characters, as the youthful zest and spark that usually mark such shows have a tendency to vanish. Fortunately, the fourth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer proves that its possible to make such a transformation and do it with grace and skill. Despite a few bumps along the way, the year racks up even more successes for the shows impressively talented writers, actors and directors.
(Highlights in bold, lowlights in italics)
1) The Freshman; 2) Living Conditions; 3) The Harsh Light of Day; 4) Fear, Itself; 5) Beer Bad; 6) Wild At Heart; 7) The Initiative; 8) Pangs; 9) Something Blue; 10) Hush; 11) Doomed; 12) A New Man; 13) The I In Team; 14) Goodbye, Iowa; 15) This Years Girl; 16) Who Are You?; 17) Superstar; 18) Where The Wild Things Are; 19) New Moon Rising; 20) The Yoko Factor; 21) Primeval; 22) Restless
Coming after the stellar first three seasons of Buffy, its hard not to feel a bit of disappointment when the fourth year rolls around. As the characters adapt to life post-high school, they discover that things only get more complex, as demonstrated by the appearance of government agency The Initiative and numerous personal explorations and developments. However, despite its promise, season four serves up a surprisingly limp main story that proves a letdown after the strength of the shows previous arcs. Fortunately, its main flaws stem more from its lack of emotional connection to the viewer than bad writing, and the Initiative proves important in expanding the shows mythology.
Elsewhere, a large number of impressive one-off episodes more than make up for the central tales problems, including several of the series most creative and original ideas (Hush;Restless), some of its most humorous moments (Something Blue), and great character development for almost everyone. As such, season four is the shy child of the Buffy family, seeming flat and inert at first but displaying great intricacy and depth upon further exploration: as such, I dub it the thoughtful season. It wont stun an audience in the way that previous years of the show did, but it grows on the viewer rather than off, which is always a good thing. I wouldnt start a Buffy viewing experience here, but season four remains better than almost all other television, and is thus a worthy addition to anyones DVD collection.
The senior year of high school was an adventurous one for members of the self-proclaimed Scooby Gang. While Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) was left patching up her life after her break-up with long-term love Angel (David Boreanaz), graduation saw the gang bidding goodbye to friend Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), who moved to LA (as did Angel, setting up his eponymous spin-off series). Not only that, but Buffy had to deal with the psychotic Slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku), and the Sunnydale Mayors attempt to eat half of his townsfolk. Meanwhile, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) furthered her exploration of magic, while Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) were left with uncertain futures, with Sunnydale High being gone for good.
Considering that the show lost two of its prominent characters at the end of season three, the fourth year does an impressive job of regrouping the gang, also seeing the long-term returns of old favourites such as the cocky vampire Spike (James Marsters) and blunt-talking ex-demon Anya (Emma Caulfield). The Freshman opens things nicely with Buffy and Willow beginning at Sunnydale University, while Giles and Xander puzzle over their futures. The episode accurately captures the uncertainty that accompanies such big life changes, with Buffy struggling painfully until she manages to regain her confidence. However, scars remain from her past experiences and she soon finds herself falling prey to a smooth-talking Casanova (the equally tragic and comedic The Harsh Light of Day), as well as dealing with her massive fears of abandonment (Halloween episode Fear, Itself). These two episodes prove the highlights of the early season, telling convincing and cohesive stories that entertain while excellently developing the characters.
Thats not to say there arent stumbles, though. Second episode Living Conditions trades intelligence and depth for obvious slapstick gags, while Beer Bad forces Xander into a pointless job only to give an embarrassing send-up of the teen alcohol is bad cliche. The plot device of beer turning its drinkers into cavemen is cringe inducing in its utter stupidity, and with the exception of one or two scenes, the laughs are more from pained disbelief than mirth. Likewise, the Thanksgiving-themed Pangs tries to make a point about the oppression of the Native Americans, but does so by turning Willow, Giles and Buffy into ridiculous caricatures of themselves. It ends up being one of the first episodes to really mess up characterisation, but this is thankfully a fairly isolated incident.
Other episodes cover deeper ground more skilfully. Wild At Heart is an interesting look at the dynamics of infidelity with great roles for Willow and Oz (Seth Green), leading to a hugely sad and emotional climax. It works nicely paired with arc episode The Initiative, which charmingly deals with Buffys burgeoning relationship with Riley Finn (Marc Blucas), a corn-fed Iowa boy who seems to have all of the normality and stability she craves. Unfortunately for her, hes actually a soldier for the Initiative; a top-secret, government-funded program that researches demons and desires to use them for military purposes. The episode also sees a major change for Spike, who is captured by the Initiative and ends up developing a rather surprising impediment.
Elsewhere, the hilarious Something Blue sees a do my will spell cast by a grieving Willow producing bizarre effects, such as Buffy falling in love with Spike and Giles going blind. It provides a large number of witty laughs, with most of the characters getting great lines and contributing to an hour of fluffy fun. However, the absolute star of the season is Hush, which features almost half an hour without dialogue. The plot sees incredibly creepy monsters known as the Gentlemen coming to Sunnydale and stealing peoples voices, and proves both frightening and incredibly compelling. The episode is thematically excellent, examining how talk often impairs communication and that actions are far more articulate. The developing relationship between Xander and Anya gives plenty of laughs, and the introduction of the painfully shy witch Tara (Amber Benson) provides the start of a major story for Willow.
The second half of the year adds further quality episodes. A New Man is full of humour and shows excellent character development for the underused Giles, while This Years Girl and Who Are You? see the return of Faith with a complex story, amazing exploration of her psyche, and a brilliantly measured performance from Sarah Michelle Gellar. The big arc episodes The I In Team and Goodbye, Iowa pale in comparison, but introduce the years real villain nicely and provide Riley with a little more depth beyond his fairly simple beginnings. Format risks abound with the ambitious and well-handled Superstar, and even complete throwaways like the one-dimensional Where The Wild Things Are are entertaining.
As the season goes on, the main characters slowly move further apart, accurately reflecting the college drift that comes between old high school friends. While Buffy becomes more involved with Riley, Willow spends time with Tara and the two develop a powerful bond. Friendship subtly blossoms into romance, and Willow is faced with a major decision about her new relationship in New Moon Rising. The episode is handled very well, providing lovely character development for Willow as we see her strength and maturity, as well as showing the depth of Taras feelings when she reveals her sole concern is Willows happiness. Its interesting to note that the audience is never shown any physical affection between the two women, but despite the obvious network interference, the barriers on what could be shown really forced the writers to develop the relationship, as opposed to going for an easy ratings grab. Consequently, its very easy to understand and be drawn into what is going on, and the ending of the episode is incredibly beautiful and heart-warming.
The last few episodes of season four provide a strong close. The Yoko Factor sees the tensions between the gang escalating to breaking point, while Primeval sees the Initiative arc closing perfectly and the wounds between the characters being healed. Restless provides the finale, being a near psychedelic, non-linear episode that is probably the best dream story Ive seen. Its David Lynch-style bizarreness is spot-on in emulating real-life dreams, and the insights we are shown into the characters are among the most succinct and thoughtful of the entire show. In fact, Xanders fifteen-minutes give him more exploration and depth than the remaining three seasons of the programme, and the episode manages to stand up to multiple watches you almost have to view it more than once, as so many layers exist its almost impossible to fathom in one sitting. Now thats good writing!
The usual array of commentaries and featurettes are found through the box sets six discs. The discussions of Restless and Hush are especially worth your time, and the mini-documentaries exploring the making of Hush, the return of Spike, and the overall seasonal concept are interesting too. A couple of episodes also have their original scripts included, which allows for fun comparison between final write and final shoot. Happily, the set has more bonuses than its three predecessors did, and theyre all nice inclusions although it should be noted that the main focus here is clearly on the qualities of the individual episodes.
Overall, season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a well-written set of 22 episodes that engages and enthrals the viewer. Although there are more obvious missteps than the three high school Buffy years, most of what is included is relevant and necessary. Fans often criticise the year, but developments such as the Initiative and Buffys moving on romantically were absolutely necessary, developing important aspects of the universe (what the government was doing about the demon problem) as well as continuing to layer and explore the characters. A few rough edges could have been smoothed over (Beer Bad; Pangs;Goodbye, Iowa), but season four remains an ambitious and successful collection of episodes. The final classic Buffy season, its definitely worth picking up, and has plenty to ensure and reward multiple viewings.
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