They see dead people! (Ouija board optional)

As I mentioned recently, I’m currently watching both the first and the last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – season 1 has replaced our previous Sunday morning show, Six Feet Under (there seems to be a distinct funereal vibe to our Sunday mornings…), but since I was watching Buffy before, I didn’t want to wait for two or three years until we caught up with where I’d previously been.

Season 1 is fun, but damn, is it cheesy… It’s goofy to an extreme and somewhat difficult to go back to after the last few seasons of the series. It also allows me to see how much the series has grown up with its main character – it has changed a lot in terms of tone and depth. Lots of fans would say that it turned into rubbish in seasons 6 and 7 – but I must say, I don’t see it. Yes, there’s less of the careless fun of dusting vamps, partying at the Bronze and pining after tall, dark, mysterious Angel. But the development the characters have gone through makes sense.

Yes, some episodes of seasons 6 and 7 are rather meandering, but that happens with most US series that run for 22 episodes each season. Practically any of those series would have benefitted from tightening to, say, 16 episodes per season. (Yes, Lost, this is a not-so-subtle jab in your direction. Don’t screw up now!) But then again, there are some episodes there that a) are among the handful of best episodes and b) wouldn’t have been possible in earlier episodes. The development that Buffy, Willow, Xander & Co have gone through is what makes an episode like “Conversations with Dead People” possible.

I was surprised when I read that four writers worked on “Conversations with Dead People”, because it’s one of the tightest episodes of the entire run of Buffy in terms of its writing. Everything fits together. It was in “Conversations” that I felt most strongly: this series was made by the people who created Firefly. It has the same astute mix of humour, drama and action as the best episodes of that sadly-missed sci-fi series. The episode manages to tell five stories in its 42 minutes: Buffy fights, and is psychoanalysed, by a vampire she went to school with (much funner and less corny than it sounds), Dawn is visited by what may or may not be the ghost of her mother, Willow gets a message from her dead girlfriend (or does she? – you get the gist), the nerdtastic duo Andrew and Jonathan return to their erstwhile stomping grounds, Sunnydale High, and Spike goes in for a little non-verbal Blonde-on-Blonde action.

What this shortest of summaries doesn’t reveal is the subtletly with which “Conversations” shifts its tone from witty to scary (for a horror-themed series, Buffy rarely had genuinely frightening moments, but this episode more than manages) to poignant. Like so often, the Big Bad in the series is at its most effective when what it says is largely true, but the kind of truth that the characters don’t like to face up to.

Okay, anyone who sat through all of this stuff on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer must be desperately bored or a fan of the series. In either case, here’s a little reward for you sitting this out. Enjoy!

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