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.