Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Act-out analysis - Buffy season 3

In my last post, I outlined every single act-out from Buffy season 3. To catch up on what an act-out is and how they work, what their purpose is etc, see the last post. Today I thought we'd take a look at some of the best (and worst) act-outs of the season. Why are they good? How do they make the viewer stay watching through the adverts? What about the crappy ones - would you turn off? Could they do more to keep you hooked?


3.02 - "Dead Man's Party" (Marti Noxon)
Buffy returns home, only to find that Principal Snyder won't let her back in school, Willow seems to be ignoring her, and her mother is thinking of sending her to a private girls' school. It isn't until Buffy saves them all from an invasion of zombies that things get back to "normal."
Act-out 1 - The gang see Buffy back in Sunnydale after the Slayer had spent the whole summer MIA.
Act-out 2 - A scary mask brings a dead cat back to life.
Act-out 3 - Dozens of zombies make their way to Buffy's house party.

The first act-out gives us and the characters an emotional cliffhanger - Buffy has returned from her exile in LA and while we, as viewers, aren't so much concerned with what she's been up to, we are anxious to see how her friends react.

The second act-out focuses more on the episodic nature of the show. With the mask bringing a dead cat back to life, the audience spends all of the adverts thinking "ooooh...what else can it do?!"

The final act-out bumps things up a lot, showing zombies inbound. So naturally we're going to stick around to see how our characters fight their way out of the situation.

The key to why this works so well is that a) we're given a balance between the emotional heart of the show - Buffy and her friends - and b) there is a clear tension jump from a dead cat walking around compared to an army of zombies!

3.09 - "The Wish" (Marti Noxon)
Cordelia finds out you must be careful what you wish for. When she tells her new friend that Buffy is to blame for all her problems, Cordelia unleashes a demon that only Buffy can save her from.
Act-out 1 - Cordelia's wish is granted by Anya, who is revealed to be a demon.
Act-out 2 - Giles watches on helplessly as Cordelia is killed by Vamp Xander & Willow.
Act-out 3 - Buffy saves Giles - she's arrived in Sunnydale looking all badass.

The first act-out sets up the episode perfectly - it's the "trigger". Cordy's wish of Buffy never coming to Sunnydale has been approved, so the audience sticks around to see how things have changed.

Act-out 2 has Cordelia (a long-standing character) die! Yes, this is in alternate world, but she's still dead. And with Giles watching on, no less! And with no Buffy around, how ever will things possibly go back to normal? This is probably the most effective act-out in all of season 3 (brought to you by the awesome Marti Noxon). Note the emotional impact this has when you watch it.

The final act-out isn't so much a "OMG how will we survive" (as was the case with episode 2), but rather a "Whoa - Buffy's here and sporting a badass scar on her face!" So knowing Buffy as we do, we want to see how she's changed in this new world. We've already established that anything is possible, so what else has changed? On a side-note, this episode throws another curve ball by having the Master actually kill Buffy (he snaps her little neck) in the finale. A brave move.

3.18 - "Earshot" (Jane Espenson)
After a vicious fight with a couple of demons, glowing demon ooze seeps into Buffy's skin. At first she is not pleased to learn what has happened, until she starts to have fun with her new-found powers.
Act-out 1 - Buffy discovers she can read minds?!
Act-out 2 - Buffy hears someone thinking they are going to kill everyone in the school.
Act-out 3 - Jonathan readies his rifle to unleash hell.

Act-out 1 has the focus on the possibilities of the second act. We are going to stay tuned to see how Buffy reacts to being able to read minds. Fun will ensue!

The second cliffhanger makes things very serious and the episode goes from funny and comical to dark and deadly. Who is going to kill everyone? This shift in drama and mood is enough to keep the episode fresh and interesting, because eventually, everyone gets bored with watching Buffy hear what teenage boys think about all day. *cough* sex *cough*

The final act-out reveals who is going to go postal. This switches our expectations to little Jonathan (all previous suspicion lied with another character). Will Buffy stop Jonathan in time? Again, things become even more serious, keeping the audience on their toes.

Btw - to save poor Jonathan's reputation, he wasn't planning on killing everyone, only himself. It was in fact the dinner lady, in the kitchen, with the rat poison! Psych!

So, having looked at the best act-outs season 3 has to offer, what can we tell? Well, the most important thing is that they all make us want to tune in again. We're not budging one inch after those tension-filled cliffhangers! Also, each act-out raises the bar. The first one sets things up, making us want to see how things develop. The second almost always takes a more serious turn, shifting the mood and tone to keep us on our toes. And the third changes up yet another gear to even more anticipation, promising a massive clash.

So from this we can see the importance of making things better and better as we go. While you might save your best fight scene or best jokes for the end, save your best act-out for the last act.


3.04 - "Beauty and the Beasts" (Marti Noxon)
When Willow lets Xander watch Oz, who is in full werewolf form and locked in the library, things get a little hairy... Xander falls asleep on duty and a friend of Oz's is found mauled. Did Oz do it... or did Angel, who's back and in a feral state?
Act-out 1 - Buffy sees Angel - now a feral beast after returning from Hell.
Act-out 2 - The psychiatrist is dead. Possible killers: Oz, Boyfriend Demon, Angel.
Act-out 3 - Oz squares off against the Boyfriend Demon.

Ok, so Angel coming back is huge, but we already knew that. Buffy, on the other hand, did not. So while we're interested so see how she responds, the tension isn't quite all there. That said, however, there is a huge emotional cliffhanger - how will they react to each other?

Next we are given a death and act 2 has presented us with a world of possible culprits. So in fairness, we will spend the adverts trying to work things out.

The final act-out doesn't really boost things up a gear. It also doesn't focus on our main character. Instead, we are given a fight for Oz. Yes, the episode might be about him, but we really care more about Buffy and her battles. So this episode might have been better had the focus been more on Buffy's story for the act-outs. Again, though, all Buffy and no Oz make Neil happy but a little bored.

3.08 - "Lover's Walk" (Dan Vebber)
Love casts its magic spell and leaves a trails of broken hearts in Sunnydale. Spike blames Angel when Drusilla breaks up with him. Cordelia and Oz catch Xander and Willow kissing, and Buffy decides it's time she stops seeing Angel.
Act-out 1 - Spike kills shop assistant - he is going to do a spell.
Act-out 2 - Spike turns up at Buffy's house and confronts Joyce.
Act-out 3 - Buffy, Angel & Spike surrounded by vampires.

It's no surprise that Spike kills someone. Also, the thought of Spike being even remotely dangerous with magic is laughable. So there's no real threat. However, maybe the 'get em to tune back in' ploy here is that it could be really funny when Spike fucks up?

Again, Spike isn't really a threat to Joyce. Yes, he's a killer, but season 2 saw them bond on a strange level. As Spike notes in season 5 - "she was a nice lady." So do we ever think Spike will harm Buffy's mum? Again, this could be there for comical promises.

So Spike, Angel and Buffy are surrounded by vampires. These are our three toughest characters and it's going to take a shitload of vampires to cause them any trouble! So do we ever doubt they won't make light work of their foes? Now, had the vampires surrounded Xander, Willow and Cordelia, then we'd have worried!

So there we have it. It's pretty self-explanatory really. t seems harsh that I slagged off those two episodes - they are actually very good, but their act-outs aren't the best out of season 3.

So take from all this what you will. I'll revisit act-outs in a few months when I've re-watched Buffy season 4 and Angel season 1. If you have any comments or questions you think I can help with, don't hesitate to leave a comment or email me (contact details on the right at the top).

Stay shiny!


Anonymous said...

The interesting thing about "The Wish" is that how much Buffy became Faith in her characterization of the slayer "from Cleveland" that, like Faith, apparently had no watcher in the the alternate universe.

She has all of Faith's tough girl mannerisms (including spit-wiping her boot!) And, she recklessly wades right into the action and gets killed without her friends and watcher to guide and support her. said...

Interesting topic. However, after browsing quickly through, I saw this complaint: "It also doesn't focus on our main character. Instead, we are given a fight for Oz. Yes, the episode might be about him, but we really care more about Buffy and her battles. So this episode might have been better had the focus been more on Buffy's story for the act-outs."

Sorry, but you're completely wrong about this. Buffy is an ensemble show, especially after Season 1. Time and time gain, fans and casual viewers alike voice their favorite character as being someone other than Buffy.

This is blatantly wrong. Also, another section called the show "episodic", which is stopped being after Season 1. Buffy is densely serial.

I'm done reading this. Better luck next time.

Neil said...

@Anon - Good points! I've not really thought about it that way before but you're right; Faith and Wish Buffy would get on quite well methinks - until they got each other killed, that is!

@MutantCritic - By "main character", I obviously mean Buffy. Rather than criticise anything in the episode, I was merely pointing out one possible alternative to the focus being on Oz. Naturally, however, if every episode was Buffy-this and Buffy-that, we'd soon become very bored. So the episode is perfectly good, of course; I was just pointing out that the focus COULD have been on Buffy, as that episode was about them both - you'll notice how every single Buffy ep has a storyline for the Slayer, even when she isn't the central character that week.

I have to disagree with you RE: Buffy not being episodic. Yes it has more episodic tropes in season 1, which slowly fade away throughout the show, but the show remains essentially episodic, as opposed to a serial such as The Wire or a Soap. Season 7 in particular had a very strong serial aspect to it which couldn't be avoided, but we were still offered episodic storylines. Yes, Buffy is densely serial, even from season to season, however, that is achieved by balancing season-long storylines (the year's Big Bad, Willow's sexuality, Spike's soul etc) with the Monster of the Week format.

Buffy, and a lot of other supernatural-esque shows, follow that very basic formula of:

- Monster appears
- Causes chaos
- Heroes save the day
- Catharsis (monster gone)

So while I respect what you're saying about Buffy being serial throughout, I'd argue that this is balanced (as it is in almost every TV show) with the episodic nature of the show.

All the best,

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