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  • Stars: Sarah Michelle Gellar
  • Created By: Joss Whedon

"The Buffy Files: Chapter 4"

A Look Back at Buffy: The Vampire Slayer Season Four

By STEPHEN LACKEY     November 02, 2006


Buffy the Vampire Slayer - The Complete Fourth Season (1997)
© Fox

OK, let me just get this out of the way; what the hell happened?  Season one was good but not amazing, season two was fantastic, and season three was some of the best TV on DVD.  Now we get to season four and the whole thing is a big mess.  You know, I really don’t have to ask that question because I know the answer.  The creators of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer were spread thin this season and they had some growing pains.  As season four starts so does season one of the spin-off series Angel.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some great episodes and the writers do some good character things here, but overall this season just feels like a big mess. 

Season three ended with Buffy really knowing her place within her environment.  She had been given this award at the prom by her classmates as the school protector.  She had been acknowledged for what she does by those that had shunned her.  Now in season four she is small and insignificant in her new college and she is again looking for her place.  Her comfort zones were all turned upside down and she even had to deal with a new roommate on campus.  Buffy was used to falling back into her home and friends to save her from the pressures of being a slayer.  While she still has all of her friends and her mother, they are all going through their own adjustments so they aren’t just waiting for her anymore.  Seeing her deal with this new situation was a great idea but it unfortunately only lasted a few episodes.  Within those few episodes I was taken back to my own college days and the problems I had with my roommate.  The roommate storyline was great fun.  Another great episode in this season was Hush, an episode that featured no dialogue after the opening credits.  Wow this was a risky move and it really paid off.  The demons in that episode were some of the creepiest of the entire first four seasons. 

Now, let’s get to the stuff I hate about this season, and unfortunately their’s plenty.  Up to season four the series was a gothic horror comedy, but now with the “Initiative” season long story arc the series was injected with an unhealthy dose of science fiction.  All of a sudden we get a bunch of super soldiers, a Frankenstein-like cyborg, oh and laser guns or blasters if you will.  I can’t begin to tell you how badly I hated this whole storyline, so much of it was poorly written and ill fitting of the series as a whole.  This storyline also introduced Buffy’s new love interest Riley, a soldier working for the Initiative experimenting on vampires and demons.  He has so little on screen charisma; he’s just a pretty boy piece of wood.  Compared to any other character on screen he is little more than an extra.  Also, the series best bad guy, Spike, gets basically neutered in this season.  The Initiative installs a chip in his head that causes him pain if he tries to bite, or even hit, someone who isn’t a demon.  This does lead to a great scene where Spike wants to bite Willow but can’t.  Her feeling of rejection and attempts to tell him it’s alright it probably happens to every vampire at some point is hilarious. 

In season two and season three Buffy had to deal with the lose of love, first killing Angel and then having to realize that they could never be together.  This season finds Willow losing the love of her life, Oz.  Buffy had a deep and dramatic character arc with her lose and even in episodes where it wasn’t discussed her lose and her overwhelming depression played a part in her character’s decisions within the episodes.  The drama was powerful and moving.  Willow’s lose was handled so ham fisted it depressed me.  She would have an episode where she got to be upset about it, and then it seemed to be gone, then in another episode it was back again.  Her lose never had the weight it deserved.  Now I will say that when she did get to be upset it was heart wrenching.  Alyson Hannigan is a highly underrated actress and it shows in these few and far between scenes.  I know Buffy is the star of the show but Willow deserved better than this.  Now that said, Willow got quite a character change in this season’s later half.  She becomes a lesbian!  I was so afraid that this was just gonna be a bunch of fan service but it was actually handled very sweetly.  The girl she met was another witch and it all started with the two of them learning spells together.  Willow and Tara commit to each other way before they tell anyone and their scenes together are cute and sweet and don’t come off as fan service at all. 

One thing this season did is that it was able to turn me around on a few characters I hated when they first became integral to the series.  The first is the character of Anya, the ex-demon now dating Xander.  I hated her early on but by the end of the season she was cracking me up.  The other was Tara, I felt like she was just fan service and she was a bit to much like Willow.  By the end of the season I loved her with Willow and I loved how the two characters complimented each other and as I said earlier they had some really sweet scenes together.  Unfortunately as hard as they tried the writers could never make me like Riley or any of his cohorts.   

Probably the biggest misstep of the season is its lack of cohesion.  There are some great individual episodes but the episodes don’t have an emotional connection and the season long character arcs are weak and they lack the depth of those found in season two and season three.   Those two seasons defined the series and set a standard for it that just wasn’t held up in season four.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

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DarkJedi_home 11/2/2006 12:09:08 AM
This season was probably my least favorite when it was airing on the tube, mainly because of how freaking awesome Season 3 and The Mayor was... I've heard though that while the writers were stretched out with starting up Angel(as you point out, Stephen), there were also a parting of ways between certain people behind the scenes with this season. I also remember hearing that this season was basically all one big setup for Season 5...There are quite a few references in some of the shows of Season 4 where the characters hint at what's going to happen in the following season five. I'm not sure if you've seen seasons 5-7 since you're reviewing these in order so I won't get into it here.
mbeckham1 11/2/2006 9:32:33 AM
Unfortunately, I have to agree. Watching season 4 I could not help but feel that the writers just didn't know what to do with Buffy after High School. The wonderful season arcs that gave narratve and conceptual definition to seasons 2 and 3 was here, and because of that the cast and crew seemed adrift. Ideas were cast about good and bad but none of them seemed to fit together. Even after the Inititiative came into the foreground it never seemed connected to Willows breakup with Oz or her new relationship with Tarra or Xander and Giles efforts to figure out where they fit in anymore. The life stuff that whedon fits in to the action so well. Buffy's on life stuff seemed rather tame and bland compared both with those of her friends and with her earlier experiences in High School. Her breife thing with Parker was an cheep imitation of her season 2 Angel experience, and it seemed like even the characters wanted to say "Didn't we see this before and in muh more dramatic fashion" Here her heartbreak is almost a mockery of her earlier trauma. Riley's never been my favorite character, there was little or no chemistry between him and Buffy, though he does get a little more interesting in season 5, but never quite measures up to the rest of the team for personality. The most interesting emotional arc was happening to Willow and as you said, it doesn't get nearly enough attention here. Look for more Tarra season when she really comes into her own and her and Willow get some much deserved attention from the writers. And Anya becomes best the scene stealer of the series. And Fve has one standout episode you absolutely cannot miss. Six makes some very bold moves with the characters, and has one episode that should you rolling, so there are things to look forward to. This season just didn't quite have it. There are individual episodes that are great many, Hush is definitely a must see. Willow centric scenes are great when we get them, but it just didn't come together. It's tempting to blame the paradigm shift from High Scool to college, but Angel(the series) arguably had an even biggger paradigm shift in its fifth season and flourished with some of Whedon's best work to date. Indeed, Angel and his new crew had a much better post-High School year in the inagural season of his series than Buffy and "the Scoobys" in their fourth , so perhaps that was where the creative attention went. Seasons 5 and 6 were definite improvements from 4, and though season 7 had it's flaws I'd say it wasn't quite the mess 4 was.
snallygaster 11/2/2006 10:44:03 AM
I started watching Buffy at the end of Season 3, which is sort of like walking into a party where you don't know a single person. So Season 4 was the first full season I saw, and I thought it wasn't as bad as the other Buffy fans were telling me at the time because I simply had not yet seen the first three seasons. In hindsight, yes it was a weak season. I agree that Whedon and company were having the same sort of struggles with addressing college as a lot of teen shows (including non-genre) struggle with. It always seems like most shows dealing with high school teens have a "game plan" up through the graduation of the characters, after which things tend to fall to pieces in these types of shows. Many times the storylines become more contrived in order to keep the gang together. The more sci-fi angle of the Initiative and Adam also didn't fit the gothic horror/fantasy feel of the series. As much as I love a good Frankenstein story, the storyline may have worked better with more magic and less technology and guns. And no matter what, "Hush" is still one of the best episodes of the entire series and stands among the best episodes of television ever (and I generally avoid using the Comic Guy's use of "best ever" or "worst ever" except in cases which I truly believe deserve it). I look forward to the reviews of the remaining seasons. It's really interesting to see how the series holds up to somebody who has never seen it before. Will you be reviewing the seasons of Angel as well? It occurred to me that there were some cross-overs between storylines in Buffy's later seasons which may be a bit perplexing if one is not watching Angel at the same time (and vice versa).
lister 11/2/2006 11:01:34 AM
I liked this season. I had no problem with the initiative and I liked Riley. I thought he made a good match for Buffy. Plus it has Hush ('nuff said). Adam was a little lame but far more interesting than Glory. And it was the last pre-Dawn-y season... and anything is better than that!
spacekicker 11/2/2006 6:16:48 PM
Season 4 was cool! This was the beachhead for what would be some of the greatest television. This was the Stage which all the dawn, chip in the head spike, and crazy eps (ala once more with feeling), got to be prepped for take off.
karas1 11/4/2006 7:16:53 AM
Now, I liked season 4. It had some great episodes, particurlarly Hush, Superstar and A New Man wherin Giles gets turned into a demon. Heh heh heh. Though I agree that the sudden addition of secret government conspiricies to the Buffy lore was jarring. Still, I disagree that season 4 was lower in quality to the earlier seasons. It was just going in a different direction. KaraS
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