By PATRICK MCCRAY
Covered -- Season 2, episodes 1-12
John God Bless ‘Em Ritter.
If even one of the Buffians had told me that this was the kind of show that would cast John Ritter as a religiously-inclined killer android, I would have watched every episode decades ago. Yes, in the episode, “Ted,” it happens, and it’s just a sight to behold. My acting teacher hated John Ritter’s style, and I think it was because John secretly beat him out for the part of Jack Tripper. Well, the script marvelously creates an opportunity for Ritter to key up his nice guy image and then smash it with results almost as disturbing as John Lithgow on DEXTER. More evidence that Ritter was a finer actor than most realized, and seeing him here is a chance to celebrate that. For me, “Ted” is a personal highlight of the first half of this season.
(And a trip to the woodshed for any Whedonian friends who pitched the show to me without mentioning this. We have met, right?)
After the first episode, in which the show seems mired in the worst of its own cliches, things pick up. In some ways, the characterizations, especially Willow and Giles, are sliding into predictable cartoons that betray the nuance of the first season. Xander, however, continues to round out, as does Cordelia, and I’m both happy and baffled to see them together as a couple. This is in counterpoint to Buffy and Angel. Buffy is on a downward slide into becoming a dour and moody bully, and Angel has a flatness that induces yawns of considerable magnitude. Hardly winning anchors for the series, and I’m thankful to Xander and Cordelia for, surprisesurprise, delighting with their playful and unpredictable contributions to the show. It’s almost as if there’s a law of conservation of characterization, and Buffy, Angel, Giles, and Willow are sacrificed to spend wit and time on the vibrant newcomers, Oz, Spike, and Drusilla. These are dynamic, bright, intensely interesting characters, and it’s in them that we see the really clever writing: the crafting of characters who rise above tropes and cliches and stand out as “human,” even if two of them are not. They’re not just breaths of fresh air; they are sea-changing typhoons. Seth Green goes for miles with very little to work with. James Marsters knows precisely what he’s doing with a villain obviously crafted with room to grow. And Juliet Landau? I was largely familiar with her from ED WOOD, where she played a dislikable ditz, and was made up and lit to showcase the most unlikely of her parents’ features. On BUFFY, not only is she an unparalleled knockout, but she also believably inhabits one of the truly and wholly unique characters in TV. As a wan, psychic, mad-as-a-hatter vampire princess, she is by turns pitiful, frightening, and profoundly sexy.
Giles is a mess, however. A character who started out with some dignity has very little at this point, and I’m growing tired of the rut that the writers have cast him into. That’s ironic, because “his” episode, “The Dark Age,” is nonetheless a favorite of mine. Although I don’t like where the character seems to be going, he goes there with appreciable depth, and I like how they justify his present through his past. It gives us a chance to see him as something other than an exposition engine or a chance to go “ha-ha-look-how-square-grownups-are,” which seems to be where they’re sticking him. Let’s hope for more as the series goes on. I feel for him as he deals with the acrimony from Ms. Calendar. Look, you’re a “cyber-pagan.” You took the chance of getting possessed when you put on that uniform.
The look and feel of the show have scads more polish than in season 1, and I assume it has to do with more money in the budget. Authorially, the episodes feel as if I’m watching life unfold between dealing with the monster of the week than watching a monster of the week with life unfolding in the background. At the midseason point, Spike is down, Drusilla is up, and I suspect both will be keen to cause our heroes maximum trouble tomorrow. I can say that in the space of a day, I’m far more eager to see what happens.