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Seven deadly sins
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Well, thanks to suitboyskin, I have finally been able to see seasons four and five of Buffy, and I have found them to be very interesting, albiet quite different, from the earlier seasons. But, of course, they had to be.
My understanding is that the fourth season is the least popular, which makes a lot of sense. For one thing, what it is about (the Scoobies spend most of the season splintering and trying to figure out what the hell to do with themselves) isn't really a very pleasant topic, and the character of Riley, while innocuous at his introduction, soon becomes insufferable (I never quite got to the point Suit has, where he says he would rather his balls be scraped out from the inside by a rusty spoon than hang out with Riley, but I certainly got tired of him real fast, for the same reason one gets tired of Paladin characters). On the other hand, I loved the idea of the Initiative, and was gratified to see that it failed in exactly the way I would have predicted an actual government operation in this arena would have failed. There was also a welcome upping of the smut factor (they're not minors anymore, so they could go nuts).
That said, some of the best episodes come from season four, including the two dealing with Oz's departure, "Wild at Heart" and "New Moon Rising," the wonderfully creepy "Hush" (which contains one of Christophe Beck's best scores for the series), the Faith two-parter "This Year's Girl" and "Who Are You" (the former of which had a welcome reappearance of Harry Groener's Mayor and the latter of which featured outstanding performances from both Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku) and the wonderfully abstract "Restless," the strangest season finale I've ever seen (which also has a great Beck score).
If the overall structure of the seasons seems a bit messy, it would seem appropriate to me considering where everybody is at this stage. I didn't really have a problem with it, and I thought that Adam made a very interesting villain because he had such a disconnected, intellectual approach to his evil. The fact that the season finale was not the big battle, but instead a remarkably bizarre interior journey for each of the series original regulars, was a ballsy move that perhaps works best on DVD than on weekly broadcast television. I don't know, but I was intrigued by it*.
This season, like most of season two and all of season three, was scored completely by Beck. This connects this season aesthetically to those, which is good because of how different the series format became. While Joss Whedon has commented that he feels the Buffy/Riley love theme is more mature than the Buffy/Angel love theme, I have to say that while this is true it lacks the immediacy of that iconic piece. On the other hand, Beck continued to outdo himself in terms of dramatic scoring, and I am somewhat disappointed that there isn't a season four promo as there is for seasons two and three.
* I wonder, actually, if this show and Angel do work better on DVD, where it can be viewed at a pace set by the viewer, than in a weekly format, where episodes might be missed. I know that in the commentary of the finale of Angel season four, it was commented that much of the reason for revamping the format of the show was because of the fact that it had gotten too serial in nature, possibly turning off some viewers because of how much information they had to keep track of. This is one of the aspects of both series that I like, although it is more pronounced on Angel than on Buffy (every person I speak to about these shows admits that it is difficult to remember specific Angel episodes because the narratives all flow into one another), and it may be a problem on a television series that is weekly but not daily. It certainly was a factor in the cancelling of Twin Peaks.
Now, while I did enjoy the fourth season better than I expect most people did upon their initial viewing of it, I couldn't help feeling that the fifth season had a bit more of a "now that's more like it" feeling. The series format here abandons the "To be continued" bit at the end of certain episodes, which I feel works much to the series advantage (they're all continued, one way or another). The addition of The Magic Box to the series brings the Scoobies all into a more pronounced focus in Buffy's life, which becomes all the more important to her when certain things begin to develop over the course of the season.
For one thing, Riley can't adapt to civilian life. While his problems with Buffy are clear (and valid), I feel that much of his inability to cope comes from elsewhere, and that Buffy holding him at arm's length is just not helping. By this point, I was actively disliking the character, but I found the episode "Into the Woods" quite dramatically satisfying (not just because he left the show at the end of it). I found his coping mechanism to be quite in keeping with the history of the character.
In this season, they also figure out what to do with Spike. It was obvious that he was much more observant of people's behavior than anybody else in "Lover's Walk" and throughout season 4, and at last we see that actually resonating with the other characters in the show. "Fool For Love," which was a companion piece to the "Darla" episode of Angel, is a fantastic episode, perfectly rounding out this character (and showing him in 1977 with the whole Billy Idol thing going on was just genius, on several different levels). He tells Buffy some things she obviously does not want to hear, but I wouldn't be surprised if his opinion that there is a part of Buffy that craves death will be a major element of the next season.
However, the main reason why I think that this season works better than the last is because the issues that Buffy are facing here are more personal than they were before. A hallmark of seasons two and three (and the finale of season one as well) is that Buffy's outer conflict reflects some sort of inner conflict. While this is an aspect of season four, it doesn't cut as deeply as her previous adventures, while season five properly realigns itself in that regard. Dawn was a great addition to the series, one which managed to add another personal stake for Buffy, but one which the audience can relate to. Her addition to the series was foreshadowed way back in season three, but it is still somewhat jarring to see her there, but she quickly ingratiates herself for many reasons, including the fact that she neatly fits into the series new format and the charisma and talent of Michelle Trachtenberg.
While I initially didn't like Glorificus very much (she was way too much like what you'd expect the villain from a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be), I found that she became much more interesting once her background, and curse, became more clear. I also think that having such an over-the-top villain worked in context of how hard much of the other elements of the series were going to become. Once again, I will return to "The Body" after I've viewed the commentary.
Musically, this season was the weakest since Walter Murphy's servicable but unremarkable scores from the first season, with the unfortunately named Thomas Wanker attempting to fill Beck's rather sizeable shoes. His music isn't quite up to the level that Beck brought to the series. One of the main pleasures of watching Buffy for me was Beck's music, so while I appreciate the effort to continue that approach, I was disappointed with the results. Apparently I wasn't the only one, because the samples I've heard of Douglas Romayne Stevens' and Robert Duncan's work for the two latter seasons show a distinct improvement. There are some moments when Wanker does manage to create some nice cues, but overall it all sounds a bit too familiar. It was nice, however, to hear Beck's Angel/Buffy love theme reappear from time to time at appropriate moments.
Okay, I'll admit it. On the whole, I don't like video games, but there are times when a well-designed game will get under my skin. This one, which I was sort of forced into playing by Tim, is an example. The format is like that of Gauntlet, offering cooperative play, and because it is set in the X-Men universe, I am getting an interesting view of the history and mythology of these characters, who I am only familiar with from their cinematic incarnations (Tim gets all excited during flashback sequences because the uniforms change). It is also an interesting case of how effective surround sound can be in gameplay. Since the game is encoded in Dolby Pro-Logic II, even the stereo output of the X-Box (Tim doesn't have that adapter thing that would allow us to play the game in 5.1) has a nice 360 degree soundfield.
Perhaps I should revise my opinion. My issue with video games has less to do with the idea of a game itself, but rather how they are designed in many cases to be a sort of lifestyle choice. Furthermore, there is some sort of bizarre penis-size thing going on with video games that I really don't understand.