Unless you’ve been living under the Hellmouth for the past few years, you will have noticed there’s been a certain fascination with vampires going on in pop culture for some time now. True Blood. The Vampire Diaries. The God-awful Hemlock Grove. Ask any teenager what kickstarted this craze and chances are they’ll roll their eyes and go: “Twilight, duh!”. But those of us who were born before 1995 know all too well that it was a different, almightier beast that proved to be the true source of inspiration not just to Stephanie Meyer and the titles listed above, but also TV shows in general.
Because it was conceived in the 90s (a decade where comedies fared decidedly better than drama, whether it was of the SF or supernatural kind) there is something almost cheesy in a vintage sort of way about the premise behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which can be crudely summed up as “blonde bimbo fights forces of evil with the help of her high school friends”. But dig deeper behind the dodgy monster prosthetics and you’ll see that the series is actually a subversion of the “final girl” trope often found in horrors and thrillers. The question that show creator Joss Whedon so cunningly puts forward is “what if the girl we’re accustomed to seeing killed off by psycho killers is actually a heroine that has both the strength and the kick-ass wit to take down her assailants?”. Seen under this light, Buffy can be read as a clever text on female empowerment, among many other things.
Seasons 1 and 2 dealt with this notion brilliantly, as we see Sarah Michelle Gellar’s titular character battle demons, die, return from the dead and save the world, all whilst having to also deal with the issues frequently plaguing regular teenagers, such as homework, fitting in at school and dating a 244 year old vampire (ok, maybe not the last one). By the time season 3 ended with a literal bang, both the stakes and the list of characters had been upped considerably, leaving the show creators with the challenging task to better what had come before.
Clockwise from centre: Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Spike (James Marsters), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Oz (Seth Green), Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) and Riley (Marc Blucas).
As it turns out, season 4 is arguably the best of the show’s seven year run. Sure, there are arguments that can be made for the equally impressive seasons 5 and 6, but when it comes to making an overall assessment there’s not much that can top Buffy’s freshman year in college.
With a change of scene and cast re-shuffle, season 4 is something of a transition year for Buffy and more often than not, change comes with an amount of excitement. By relocating the action from high school to the fictional UC Sunnydale, there’s plenty of scope for frat parties and new relationships, which adds a degree of lightheartedness that is largely absent from most of the other seasons. So while Xander starts dating cooky ex-demon Anya and Willow begins exploring her new sexuality with fellow wiccan Tara, Buffy gets a new boyfriend in the form of Riley Finn, a more gallant and refreshingly human counterpoint to the brooding Angel, but with a military background not unlike Marvel’s Captain America.
However, the real stroke of genius is the re-invention of Spike as a comedic sidekick. Introduced as a wicked cockney-accented villain and portrayed in later seasons as a redeemed man, here he’s on wacky neighbour duties, as he’s fitted with a chip that shocks him whenever he tries to attack humans, meaning he has little other choice than to side with the good guys. It’s an ingenious plot twist and a hudely entertaining one too – the scenes in which he’s shacking up with Giles or Xander provide some of the funniest moments in the entire series.
BTVS has always thrived on the strength of its chief antagonists and the big bad of this season, Adam, doesn’t disappoint either. A 21st century Frankenstein monster made up of human, demon and cyborg parts, he may not be the most rounded and compelling villain (we’ll leave that honour to Caleb or Mayor Wilkins), but certainly the most visually striking.
To top it all off, season 4 boasts some of the best episodes in the entire series: “Who are you”, in which Buffy unwittingly trades bodies with evil slayer Faith; “The Yoko Factor”, which sees the epic battle of the boyfriends, Riley vs Angel; and “Restless”, the ethereal dream-set season finale that eschews the former template by ditching the customary battle with the big bad and allows Joss Whedon to experiment with unconventional filming techniques. But the standout is the Emmy-nominated “Hush”, which features 27 minutes of dialogue-free scenes and the creepiest antagonists to ever appear in BTVS. It is episodes like this that make you realize that not many of today’s writers are as bold and daring as Whedon. More importantly, it makes you understand why so many shows are trying to fill that gaping Buffy-shaped hole in our lives.