Before I start this review I feel like I owe an apology to Martha Brady, who donated to Joanna all the way back in 2015 and requested this review. And the truth is, I think I may have put this one off a little too long. I would have been a happier mouse if I had not lived to see the day when I posted that I was going to be reviewing Once More With Feeling, possibly the most beloved episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a significant number of readers had not responded with:
No no no.
You bloody millenials with your avocado toast and your auto-tune and your trigger warnings GET OFF MY LAWN! HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW WHO BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER IS? WHAT YEAR IS THIS?! HOW OLD AM I?! WHO’S PRESIDENT NOW?!
Alright, sit your asses down while I explain some things to you. You like TV? Well, it used to be crap. And then Buffy the Vampire Slayer came along and now it’s good. That sounds like hyperbole but..it’s kinda…not? Buffy, a never hugely successful (in ratings at least) TV spin-off of a pretty terrible movie on an also-ran network with no name actors was an unlikely avatar of the current television Golden Age ™. But in terms of impact on how TV is made, written and discussed it’s probably one of the all time most influential shows. It inspired a generation of TV writers, begat a slew of imitators, began a slow and steady move towards female-led drama in network series, turned Joss Whedon into a bona fide geek God, birthed the “actually this is a real goddamn thing” academic field of “Buffy studies” and helped move nerd culture firmly into the mainstream. Apart from the Simpsons, it’s hard to think of a show that has had a bigger impact on how dialogue is written for TV, with the show’s snarky, pop-culture laden patois instantly setting it apart from the pack when it premiered. And it is responsible for a website so dear to my heart, with TV Tropes actually beginning its existence as a Buffy fansite. The premise is this: You know the blonde cheerleader who gets killed by the monster in every horror movie ever? Well, what if she was actually the latest in an ancient line of demon hunting warrior women? Buffy Summers, outwardly an ordinary if not particularly popular California high school student, battles the forces of evil in her home town of Sunnydale. She is aided by her mentor and “Watcher”, Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), sweet-natured nerd/witch Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Xander Harris (Nicholas Brandon) whom Wikipedia describes as “a classmate of Buffy’s with no particular skills or abilities”. Which, firstly, harsh. Secondly, incorrect.
In its early years, Buffy‘s central gimmick was literalising the expression “high school is hell”, putting a supernatural spin on the trials and tortures of trying to get through your teenage education in one piece. The girl who nobody notices becomes literally invisible, a teacher who preys sexually on her students is actually a giant praying mantis, the foreign exchange student is actually an evil mummy instead of just an evil foreign exchange student. That kinda thing. As the series progressed it started delving deeper into Slayer lore and fleshing out its world to tell an epic tale of good versus evil. It also got increasingly experimental, with episodes with almost no dialogue, or music, or even basic narrative logic.
And undoubtedly the most ambitious episode the show ever did was Once More With Feeling, an extra-long episode that was a comedy horror…musical. Now, Buffy was not the first or last show to do a musical episode. Ally McBeal, The Cosby Show, Xena, hell, I Love Lucy did one all the way back in 1956. But they rarely go this “all in”. This is not simply an episode of a TV show where the characters sing a few songs, this is a fully scored musical with over a dozen original songs and fully choreographed dance numbers which the cast had to learn and rehearse while also making every other episode of the TV series. It was, by all accounts, an absolute ordeal. But did Whedon’s ambition overshoot his talent? Was this musical a Hamilton or a Spider-man: Turn off the Dark?
Let’s take a look.
So the episode begins with the usual “Previously on Buffy” montage and, since this episode took place in the middle of the sixth season of a twenty year old show that apparently none of you little zygotes even remember, I guess I have to do one too. So. *adopts sexy British accent* Previously on Buffy:
Buffy Summers was the Slayer and she died at the end of Season 5 saving her sister Dawn who wasn’t really her sister but actually an interdimensional key who’d been retconned into her life by a group of magic monks (yeah, Season 5 was…yeah) but Buffy’s friends weren’t happy about that and so they used magic to bring her back to life but ever since she’s been back she’s been listless and depressed because what Buffy’s friends don’t know is that she was actually in heaven and the only one she’s told is her former arch-enemy the vampire Spike who’s had a chip put in his brain that means he can only harm other demons and not human beings and while all that’s going on Dawn has been feeling neglected and has been acting out by shop lifting from the magic shop which Giles has been running ever since he lost his job as a librarian when the local high school was destroyed by a giant snake back in season three (Season 3 was the shit, yo) all while Willow and her girlfriend Tara are having domestic troubles because of her continued overuse of magic and Xander is getting ready to marry Anya, his girlfriend who used to be a demon but now is not. Meanwhile, the Dowager Countess is concerned that the lack of a male heir and the moral laxity of the modern era will lead the Grantham Estate to ruin.
Got all that? Good, cos we ain’t stoppin’. The episode begins with a brief musical overture of all the characters going about their daily doings before we see Buffy on patrol in a graveyard and we get our first song; Going Through the Motions. Now, if we’re being honest, Joss Whedon is an excellent writer but only an average-to-good song-writer and this is not even his best musical.
But Going Through The Motions is definitely one of the stronger ones and a good choice as an opener. Sarah Michelle Gellar, despite being terrified of singing all through the rehearsal process, acquits herself perfectly well and it never fails to get a chuckle from me when the vampires join in (“She does very well/With fiends from hell/But lately we can tell”). The point is clear, Buffy can still slay vampires and save beautiful blonde himbos in distress but her heart’s just not it in. After she slays the last vampire she belts that she just wants to be “alive”.
The next day Buffy shows up at the magic shop and asks the rest of the Scooby Gang if they happened to just burst into spontaneous song as you do. Oh, the “Scooby Gang” or “The Scoobies” is what Buffy and her fellow monster fighters call themselves and even as a kid I was conflicted about following the adventures of characters with such appallingly bad taste in cartoons.
Everyone starts excitedly recalling the songs they sang and Giles asks Buffy what she sung about and Buffy says she doesn’t remember. This leads us into I’ve Got A Theory where each member of the gang spitballs what might be behind the genre shift. Giles thinks it’s a demon, Willow thinks that they might be trapped in somebody’s dream, Xander suggests that it’s some evil witches and then immediately retracts that when Willow and Tara glare at him because obviously the idea of a witch being evil is just ridiculous…
…Anya thinks it’s some evil bunnies because she’s terrified of rabbits and actually switches the song to a hard rock anthem to get her point across. The whole thing about Anya being afraid of rabbits was just a random joke that snow-balled into one of her defining character traits and never explained in the show. But I think it’s obvious why she’s scared of rabbits when you remember that Anya was born in medieval Europe.
Buffy’s theory is that fuck it, who cares, they’ll deal with it whatever it is, or maybe die, who gives a shit anyway? Besides, she’s already died and come back to life.
When the song’s over, Buffy asks Giles what he thinks is causing it and he says he thought she didn’t care and Buffy replies “Well, I’m not exactly quaking in my stylish yet affordable boots, but there’s definitely something unnatural going on here and that doesn’t usually lead to hugs and puppies.”
Tara and Willow suggest going back to their place and checking on the “volume, the text” and Giles says “What text?” and Willow says “the volumey text” and Giles is all “Fuck this, I’m done, I’m going back to the UK where people don’t torture English to death on an hourly basis”. Anyway, Willow and Tara actually just want to cut out so they can wander in the park and be disgustingly adorable. This leads us to I’m Under Your Spell, a sappy Disney Princess style ballad where Tara serenades Willow and tells her how much she loves her. The problem is that love songs are almost always duets. Amber Benson, who played Tara, actually sang in a band and has a very good singing voice. But Alysson Hannigan, who plays Willow, had very little confidence in her singing voice and specifically asked to be given as few lines as possible. The result is that you have a long song where one of the lovers is singing their heart out to the other who’s just looking at her silently as if to say “Oh. That’s nice.” It’s a little off-putting. Anyway, they arrive home and tumble into bed and Tara starts levitating while she sings.
Back at the magic shop, Dawn has arrived back from school (ugh, Dawn) and when she finds out that they’re trying to stop the musical she’s all “Music and dancing, what’s the harm in that?”. Dawn, it should not surprise you to know, is wrong. We cut to a darkened alley way where an anonymous business man is tap-dancing like a banker in front of a tribunal while a shadowy figure watches. The business man dances faster and faster until finally he bursts into flames and keels over dead. And the shadowy figure simply says “Now that’s entertainment.”
The next day, Xander and Anya wake up and start singing I’ll Never Tell, a comedic little ditty where they sing to each other about all the little secrets that they’ll never…tell…each other. Whoops. This song is honestly pretty great. Comedic songs need witty wordplay but not necessarily big, epic, music which puts this kind of song right in Joss Whedon’s comfort zone. Plus, all the props in the world for rhyming “she eats these skeezy cheeses that I can’t describe” with “his penis got diseases from the Chumash tribe”. That is the rhyming equivalent of bagging womp rats in Beggar’s canyon, back home.
Later, Xander and Anya walk with Giles through Sunnydale. Xander is upset because of the terrifying implications of having your deepest darkest secrets blurted out against your will and Anya is upset because their song was a retro pastiche that’ll never be a breakaway pop hit (hey, priorities).
Deep breath, deep breath, kill Latin America later okay I’m good.
Giles tells them that charred bodies have started to show up and that it could be linked to the singing and dancing. He tells them that Buffy’s doing her usual thing of punching demons in the stomach until somebody pukes some exposition but he can tell that her heart’s just not in it anymore and he’s getting increasingly worried about her. Xander says that it’s not surprising that she’s kinda been spaced out since they pulled her out of an evil hell dimension. Yeah, this always struck me as weird. The Scoobies just assumed that Buffy was in Hell, it was one of the reasons they raised her again. But…why? That’s kinda insulting to Buffy, isn’t it? “Remember Buffy? Wow, such a great friend. Tireless defender of the innocent. Gave her life to save the entire world. Almost certainly burning in the fires of hell.” Who are these guys, the Westboro Baptist Church?
Later that night Buffy visits Spike…
Settle down, settle down.
Seriously, what is wrong with you? You shouldn’t find Spike sexy. He’s a sociopathic, mass-murdering, abusive…I’m just just kidding oh my God he is so dreamy let’s look at pictures of him with his shirt off.
So Buffy, despite being someone who usually stakes vampires with long hard pieces of wood, was not entirely adverse to a bit of role reversal every now and then. Much of the first three seasons was built around her relationship with Angel (David Boreanaz) a brooding, soulful creature of the night struggling to atone for his past sins who’d go evil if you so much as touched his peepee. And honestly, I could write a paper on how much the first few seasons of Buffy read like an incisive deconstruction of Twilight. It really is like someone took Twilight and worked methodically to fix every one of its problems despite the fact that it only came out nearly ten years after Buffy. Sometimes I think Joss Whedon has access to a time machine, read Twilight in 2005 and then sent the scripts for Buffy into the past like a frickin’ Terminator.
Spike, on the other hand, was a Sid Vicious-esque bad boy who was introduced as the main villain of Season 2 and was such a hit with the fans that, instead of killing him off the writers kept him around, first as a recurring villain before finally integrating him into the main cast as a reluctant ally/hate-bonker for Buffy. Now at around this point Spike has actually fallen in love with Buffy and has confessed this to her but she’s only into guys who’ve murdered hundreds of people but feel really bad about it. Spike curtly tells Buffy that he doesn’t know anything about the…okay, I gotta come up with a word for what’s happening here. The Musicalysm? Meh, it’ll do. Anyway, he tells her to leave and she notices that’s something’s up. Suddenly he launches into Rest in Peace, a growling rock song where Spike tells Buffy to either love him or leave him the hell alone. Marsters really sells this song, his voice isn’t phenomenal or anything but he’s got so much charisma that it really doesn’t matter. He follows Buffy through the graveyard, singing all the time and then attacking a funeral.
Back at Buffy’s house Tara tells Dawn that Giles has discovered the cause of the Musicalysm.
Tara says that Willow’s on the case and she’ll find a way to reverse it. Dawn says that she’s glad that Tara and Willow have made up and Tara has no idea what she’s talking about because, oh yeah, Willow has been wiping her memory with magic every time they have a fight. Yeesh that’s creepy.
Tara remembers a flower that she found under her pillow that morning and rushes off the magic shop. Alone in the house, Dawn takes a pendant that she stole from the magic shop and wears it while singing Dawn’s Lament, a sad…lament about how no one notices her that gets abruptly cut short when she’s kidnapped by a trio of weird ventriloquist looking guys. They take her to one of the abandoned warehouses that make up around ninety percent of all property in Sunnydale (recession hit this place hard). And Dawn finds herself face to face with Sweet, (Hinton Battle, best name ever). Sweet performs What You Feel, a smoky jazz number complete with tap-dancing. Unlike the rest of the cast, Hinton Battle is an actual, bone-fide Broadway star and God damn it shows. Like, you watch the other actors singing and dancing and you might think “Huh, they’re pretty good.” and then Battle shows up and is all “Nah, sit down son.” The guy moves like a puma who spent five years at Julliard. He is effortlessly cool.
Sweet explains that he was summoned by the amulet that Dawn stole so now she has to come back with with him to his kingdom to be his queen. Dawn is all “um, I’m fifteen, and this ain’t Texas” and tells him that her sister is the Slayer. Now, Sweet has always wanted to see a Slayer dance until she bursts into flames (ah, the old bucket list classic) so he tells his henchmen to tell Buffy what’s the haps.
Back at the magic shop Buffy trains while Giles sings Wish I Could Stay, where Anthony Stewart Head soulfully croons that he’s taught Buffy everything he can and now he has to leave because he’s holding her back from achieving her full potential. Oh, and he takes his glasses off.
Settle down, settle down.
While that’s going on, Tara researches the flower in the magic shop and finally knows for certain that Willow has been manipulating her memory. She launches into a sad reprise of I’m Under Your Spell (ohhhhhhhhhh I geddit) which dovetails beautifully into Wish I could Stay, where Giles comes out and he and Tara watch Buffy and Willow from a distance, the two that they love but must leave. Of the regular cast, Head and Shoulders are head and benson…
Of the regular cast, Head and Benson are head and shoulders above the rest in terms of singing ability and this is the one moment in the whole episode that actually hits with the emotional punch that all great musicals need. The rest of the songs can be witty and funny and clever or even catchy but here Whedon actually hits something epic and moving.
Spike pops in with a captured puppet minion who tells Buffy that Sweet has Dawn. Buffy doesn’t even seem that upset and Giles has finally had enough. He tells Buffy that she has to save Dawn alone and that this time, her friends can’t help her. Spike says that’s stupid and tells Buffy he’ll come with her but his constant bitching about being nemesis-zoned is starting to grate on her so she tells him to screw off. Buffy heads into the night alone to save Dawn, and this takes us to Walk Through the Fire, our big ensemble show stopper.
While Buffy sings about feeling numb and dead inside ever since her resurrection, Giles worries that he’s putting Dawn in danger just on the slim hope that Buffy will snap out her funk. And then he realises that, holy shit, that’s exactly what he’s doing and he and the Scoobies head out after her, along with Spike who just can’t stay away.
Buffy arrives at the warehouse and confronts Sweet, telling him that if she can’t kill him, she’ll go to hell with him in Dawn’s place. Sweet asks “What if I kill you?” and Buffy replies “Trust me, won’t help.”
She then sings Give Me Something To Sing About, a deceptively poppy little number concealing a core of pure, black misery. And I feel like Sarah Michelle Gellar does not get enough props as an actor because the sheer, breaking-point, thousand-yard stare despair she unleashes here is kind of terrifying.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer started out as a metaphor for high school life, and then college life before finally becoming about the horrors of young adulthood. Losing your parents. Drifting away from your friends. Financial instability. Low paying service jobs. And of course, this: Once More With Feeling is that most unintuitive of things, a musical about depression. Buffy is alive but feels dead and apathetic, like there’s something wrong with her. She struggles to muster enthusiasm for her old routine, for friends, for family. And all the while, everyone is telling her to be happy. To smile. To dance. To sing. Depression is like being trapped in a musical against your will. And all Buffy can say is “Then give me something to sing about.”
As her friends arrive to help Buffy reveals the truth that she’s been concealing this whole time. They pulled her out of heaven. She was happier, and more at peace than she ever believed possible, and they took that away from her. And she is broken.
I know I’ve been kind of dismissive of the music so let me give Whedon some credit here, he does something very effective here. The words “heaven” and “living” are deliberately sung out of tune, conveying the queasy wrongness of Buffy’s situation. She’s out of tune with the world around her, unable to harmonise. Buffy starts dancing furiously, trying to burn herself up but Spike catches her and tells her that she has to keep on living. And Buffy stops.
Sweet announces that it’s time for him to head off with his new bride but Dawn insists she never summoned him. Giles says that since the amulet was from the magic shop one of them had to have summoned Sweet.
Xander says that he just thought the spell would just be a bit of harmless fun (WHEN HAS THAT EVER, EVER, EVER HAPPENED) and nervously asks Sweet if that means he has to be his bride.
Sweet’s a hard pass.
Sweet vanishes in a puff of awesome and the gang sings Where do We Go From Here?, a bitter sweet number where they ask where they go from…you’re all smart, I’m sure you can figure it out. After botching the choreography Spike leaves in disgust and Buffy runs after him. He tells her to go back to her friends and she says she don’t wanna. Then she sings Walk Through the Fire at him, he sings Let Me Rest In Peace at her and then they just start eating each other’s faces.
Once More With Feeling presents a diffcult challenge to the reviewer. Do I judge it as a musical, in which case it’s just fine? Or do I judge it as a musical written by a first-time writer starring mostly untrained singers and dancers done on a TV show budget in between four other episodes of that TV show in which case it’s a goddamn masterpiece? In the end, I have to say…
NEXT UPDATE: 20th July 2017
NEXT TIME: I respect a man who drives a hard bargain.
(Huge thanks to my awesomely talented brother Dónal Sharpson for help with the song and for voicing Sarcastic Map of Europe. Check out the rest of his music here.)