When bad things happen to good shows
I’ve been playing TV shows when I get home, catching up on stuff I’ve been meaning to see as I do laundry or clean. First there was Deadwood, an obviously terrific series I couldn’t quite get into. Next was the infamous sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I’d bought on DVD a month ago and only barely poked through in the time since.

For the first six or eight episodes, I felt that a jackpot had been struck. This stuff was actually pretty good! The writing was only slightly less tight than before, and at least three episodes (“Life Serial,” “Once More With Feeling,” “Tabula Rasa”) were total classics.

Tonight I finally spotted the shark and the proverbial jumping of same. Episode 10, “Wrecked.” It was completely ruinous, and I can explain why.

We open with the crew recovering from a night of wild abandon. Buffy has slept with Spike (a truly great sequence where the twos’ canoodling destroys a house) and Amy, newly freed from a spell that turned her into a rat, has taken Willow out for a night of fucking people over magically. This development made perfect sense. Since Season 4, and arguably Season 2, Willow’s use of magic has borne destructive overtones. Why wouldn’t it? Here’s a total high school loser, a computer geek, who was transparently bitter about the way she’d been excluded. She’d tapped into power that could remake reality – why not use that to feel superior or actually wreak some vengence? In Season 4, we’d seen her seriously consider using magic to kill a cheating boyfriend, and following it up by casting a spell to make her will be done when she spoke it. All of this came to a head in the beginning of Season 6, after her girlfriend discovers that Willow manipulated her brain to erase the memory of a tiff. The girlfriend dumps her – Willow is crushed. This is good stuff.

And it goes to hell. Amy speaks excitedly of a guy who “knows spells that will last for days. The burn-out factor is like, nothing.” Right there, we have a hideously transparent metaphor – something the show really has been excellent at making, well, NOT transparent. This is the first we’ve ever heard that magic has some finite quality, or that you get burned out using it. It hasn’t been a problem before. All of a sudden it’s a problem … because the writers want to do a drug show. And to hammer the point home they take us to … Rack! He owns a hidden den that “moves around a lot” and crawls with twitchy young people who beg him for “a turn.” A turn at what? At him magically making them high by shooting red cgi at them.

So now magic means being buzzed by strange people and floating on the ceiling. Willow has some strange, dark hallucinations, then wanders out in need of another fix. Hanging out with Dawn, she brings the 15-year old to this obvious den of sin and gets high again! Because she can’t stop, get it! On the way out the two are pursued by a demon and Willow crashes a car (which she’s driving magically!) by being high and goofing off. Dawn is mangled a bit, but has time to give Willow a weak slap on the way out.

Willow collapses in a heap and cries in that inimitable Alyson Hannigan way. “No, Dawnie! I’m s–sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” She continues in this fashion until Buffy takes her home and allows her to convalesce on her bed, shaking like … well, a junkie.

Now, why did this suck? Couple reasons.

1.)The writing took a 90 degree nosedive, which is probably due to the premise. The witty nerds who write this show, and do it so well, really didn’t know how to convey loss and addiction.

2.)The “magic as dope” element came out of the blue, making it strange even before it was revealed to be silly. We couldn’t really process this new concept – when we did, it wasn’t worth it.

3.)The drug plot, as it is, is beyond hackneyed. A girl hangs out with her baaaad friend and does drugs? And almost kills someone in the ensuing haze? Oh, that’s “very special episode” crap. Buffy doesn’t do very special episodes.

4.)Corrollary to reason #1 – I really think the writing team declined during the sixth season and never recovered. Compare the wrenching, mature way they handed unexpected natural death in Season 5’s “The Body” to the cliched way it’s handled in Season 7’s “Help.” And compare this deathly straightforward treatment of addiction to the way it had been treated in every episode up to this point. We’d seen, in episodes like Season 4’s “Something Blue,” the way that seeking false solace during hard times was always faulty and doomed. Why is that theme handled so humorlessly here?

I’m seeing where and how the series went into its tailspin. Ah, well.

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