Friday, October 28, 2011

2003 Hugo Dramatic Presentation Short Form – “Conversations with Dead People,” BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

Hey, I managed to wrangle a relatively Halloween-appropriate post out of this blog for once.

I think it’s fair to suggest that this brand new Hugo category (my first since dramatic presentation debuted in 1958) wouldn’t exist without this show.  For better or for worse, most of the vampire/monster-centric trends in the last decade of sf probably wouldn’t exist either.  Buffy started in 1997, and offered a grab-bag of monsters, demons, superhero and fantasy elements in a groundbreaking, serialized, hilarious hour-long television show.  The show offered brilliant culminations of long-running storylines in episodes like “The Becoming,” “Graduation Day,” and “The Gift,” as well as brilliant one-off episodes like the dream-centered “Restless,” the silent “Hush,” the flashback-heavy “Fool for Love,” and “The Body,” the best examination of death in the history of television.  I don’t know exactly why the “short form” category was created, but I have to think that everyone watching the excellent musical episode “Once More with Feeling” inevitably lose to The Fellowship of the Ring in Dramatic Presentation had to have something to do with it. The proliferation of sf tv (in part inspired by Buffy) also played a significant role, although the great age of the space opera tv show (the ‘90s) had already passed for the most part (though I'm sure no one realized that at the time).

I think pretty much everyone knows about the show’s quality and influence now, though I also know that many people avoided it for years because of the silly title, or due to a general, irrational fear of gothic fiction, vampire fiction, and/or "girl cooties."  If you did miss it a) shame on you.  It’s on Netflix streaming.  Go watch it now, and bear with it through that rough first season and a half, and b) it’s the story of a teenage girl granted superhuman powers to fight vampires and demons.  She gets a Watcher, who has access to knowledge of the supernatural world, and she enlists various friends, who, over the series’ seven season, get their own superpowers.

This episode is from the final season, which is the weakest since the first, but, hey, the series is innovative, hugely influential, and deserves some recognition before it ends.  This is probably the most experimental in the generally-restrained season seven (though the previous episode “Him” does some fun comedic stuff).  It follows four separate storylines, told more-or-less in real time, of the main characters encountering dead people.  Buffy (Sarah Michelle Geller) meets a vampiric version of a high school acquaintance and chats with him.  Buffy’s sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), is haunted by what appears to be the ghost of her mother.  Buffy’s witch friend Willow (Allyson Hannigan), communicates with her dead girlfriend through a ghost.  And, two of Buffy’s enemies from the previous season are lured into demonic acts by a manifestation of their dead friend.  All of this leads to some great character moments – we get to see how other high schoolers saw the Buffy of the first few seasons, and we get to mourn some of the major character deaths of the previous two seasons – while also advancing the plot and forwarding the “Big Bad” of this season.
It’s also a nice actor’s spotlight.  Geller always made a tough role look easy, and both she and Hannigan are very underrated.  Trachtenberg is the only one who struggles, but she was only sixteen, and the writers always had her screaming about something, which has to be tough.  The episode was written by Jane Espensen, the series’ most consistent scribe besides creator/geek icon Joss Whedon, and this script displays her customary wit and grasp of character.

The episode represents the great blend of action, fantasy, horror, comedy, and character that made the series so great, and it probably is the best episode of the final season.

Grade: A-

Grade for the series: A

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