Friday, June 29, 2012

Buffy Blog: "The Freshman"

It’s a new beginning on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As Buffy has aged, the show has grown more and more complex. As Buffy’s characters have grown older (remember when Buffy told Joyce that she felt older on her birthday in “Surprise”/”Innocence”, 2:13 and 2:14?) so has the series.

At the end of season three our Scoobies went through that important rite of passage that virtually all young people in the West go through, they graduated from high school. In season four our Scoobies experience a number of rites of passage associated with growing up. In the first episode of season four, “The Freshman” that rite of passage is, at least for Buffy, Willow, and Oz, the ritual of going to college, a ritual many Western teenagers go through every year.

“The Freshman”, written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon, really kicks the bildungsroman or growing up aspect of Buffy into high gear. The major theme of “The Freshman” is transitions. Willow, Oz, Giles, Xander, and Buffy are all in transition. Willow and Oz are in their element as freshman at the University of California Sunnydale. Willow is almost in orgiastic ecstasy at the prospect of spurty knowledge being thrust into her. Oz, whose band has played at fraternity parties on the UC Sunnydale campus for years, knows the campus well and knows a number of upperclassman at UC Sunnydale making his return to the UC Sunnydale campus, this time as a student, feel a little like coming home. Xander’s on the road to see America car trip got as far as Oxnard where he washed dishes and apparently did the occasional dancing at a male strip joint in that coastal California city near Los Angeles.

Buffy is feeling lost. She is having difficulty choosing classes beyond the one Willow wants her to take with her, Introduction to Psychology. Psychology is Willow’s major, a major, Buffy teasingly says, Willow chose in play group after Willow chides the Slayer for being slow in choosing her fall term classes. Buffy is having difficulty getting her bearings on the, compared to Sunnydale High School, much larger UC Sunnydale campus, as the mise-en-scene in the first scene after the often hilarious teaser full of patented Buffy word play, makes clear. Buffy, trying to find the building she needs to go to to register, walks alone through crowds of other students who seem to know what they are doing and where they are going, students who offer Buffy opportunities for political activism, joining a religious group, and, this being a college campus, partying. The camera follows Buffy as she walks through a crowd larger than we have ever seen her walk through before alone and lonely only kind of getting her bearings once again when she runs into Willow and eventually Oz. The power of Scooby friendship.

One of the other themes of “The Freshman”, and one of the major themes of Buffy in general, is friendship. In “The Freshman” the old Scooby gang from high school is imploding. Willow is caught up in her dream become real, going to college. Oz is Oz, stoic and comfortable despite the change of venue. Giles, no longer Buffy’s Watcher, has become a slacker man of leisure and has a woman friend, Olivia (Phina Oruche). Xander, at the beginning of the episode, is still on his road trip to discover America.

After Buffy meets and then loses another of the college lost, Eddie, who she fears may have been killed by a vampire herd on campus, Buffy goes to Giles for a little Watcher help. What Giles gives Buffy instead, however, is a lesson in self-reliance. Giles gives the Buffster a little pep talk about how she doesn’t need him to help her figure out what has happened to Eddie.

Buffy takes Giles’s words and his lesson in Slayer self reliance but not necessarily the pep talk to heart and begins the nighttime hunt for a vampire herd possibly working the UC Sunnydale campus to thin weak freshman from the UC Sunnydale herd. She sees Eddie, follows him, discovers that he has been turned into a vampire, and stakes him.

But Eddie is not alone. Following behind him is the vampire herd led by the very self-confident Sunday (nicely played by Katharine Towne) that turned him. Buffy is still, at this point, somewhat self-confident as her somewhat diminished punning during the monster sarcasm rally between her and Sunday indicates. Buffy’s punning is a sign of her self-confidence, as the show has made clear from the very beginning. Sunday, however, wipes the floor with a Buffy whose self-confidence takes even more of a tumble than it already has. The fight between Buffy and Sunday ends with Buffy fleeing from Sunday and her lackeys with an injured arm to survive and perhaps to fight another day.

With her self-confidence even more diminished than before Buffy returns home to find her room turned into a storage room full of crates and a mother who didn’t expect her home for weeks. Even the phone seems to be rebelling against the Buffster. When she answers the phone there seems to be no one on the other side of the line. It is actually Angel calling as we find out in the first episode of the Buffy spin-off Angel, the Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt penned and Whedon directed “City Of”. Even he, it seems, won’t help her.

Finally Buffy heads to one of those home away from homes of her high school past, the Bronze. Once again it is Xander to the rescue. Xander who is becoming ever more the sensitive heart of the Scooby gang movingly tells Buffy, right before his moving speech is undercut by one of those patented Whedon and Company self-deprecating humour moves, about how she is his hero, about how when he is scared and alone he asks himself, “[w]hat would Buffy do”. It is Xander who urges Buffy to assemble the avengers (a reference to the Marvel Comics superhero league, a superhero league Whedon went on to make a movie about in 2012) and off these two avengers go to do research on Sunday and her vamp gang so they can find them, defeat them, and get the belongings Sunday and her lackeys have taken from the Buffster back.

It is interesting to compare “Becoming" (2:21 and 2:22), where all Buffy had left was herself, with “The Freshman” where Buffy has, for much of the episode, no one but herself and that is not enough. In “The Freshman” Buffy needs more than herself to defeat Sunday and her gang. By the end of the episode Buffy has defeated Sunday, with a little help from the anger the Buffster told Kendra made them, slayers, stronger which reawakes when Sunday breaks the award for class protector Buffy received from her Sunnydale High graduating class ("The Prom", 3:20) and a little help from the avengers assembled at “The Freshman’s" end.

Welcome to the Hellmouth: "The Freshman" sees the first appearance of Riley (Marc Blucas), UC Sunnydale graduate student and TA for Professor Walsh, who Buffy gets tongue devolved around when she and Willow first meet him in the UC Sunnydale Bookstore, yet another marker of Buffy's failing self-confidence that has resulted due to her arrival as a freshman on the UC Sunnydale campus, and Psychology professor and hero to Psych major Willow, Dr. Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse). "The Freshman" also introduces viewers to Buffy's Stevenson Hall dorm room and her roommate Kathy Newman (Dagney Kerr).

Majors and Minors: We learn that Willow is a Psychology major. Buffy somewhat jokingly and somewhat seriously tells Willow that she, Willow, chose her major as early as "playgroup" after Willow chides Buffy for being too slow in choosing what classes she is going to take in the fall. In terms of majors, Buffy still seems undecided. She doesn't seem to be majoring in Law Enforcement as it was suggested she should by the career test Buffy, along with the other Scoobies, took in high school in "What's My Line" (2:9 and 2:10).

Nasty Blue Meanies: The professor who meanly kicks Buffy out of his Images of Pop Culture class. I have met pretentious full of self academic gits like Professor Reigert. Scary, really scary.

Artsy Fartsy: The hilarious contest between Klimt versus Monet posters Sunday and her vampires are monitoring in their frat house lair. Sunday and her lacking lackeys raid the dorm rooms of weak freshman they have culled from the UC Sunnydale herd leaving notes behind purportedly from those they have killed or turned saying they just couldn't handle college life and so they have left. One of things Sunday and her gang take from the dorm rooms of the freshman they cull are the posters decorating their dorm room walls. When Sunday and her lackeys get back to their dormant Psi-Theta lair after taking Eddie's belongings from his dorm room "Rookie", a surfer dude vampire, records on a sheet on the wall whether the poster belongs to Team Klimt or Team Monet. Team Monet, as "Rookie" notes, is leading but Team Klimt, is coming from behind. I have met many guys and gals who have put these cliched Klimt and Monet posters on their dorm room walls as freshman and sophomores. Hilarious.

Academia Where for Art Thou?: The hilarious exchange between Buffy and Willow in the teaser in which Buffy learns that you can take courses on such “questionably” academic things as film, television, and even commercials in college. I have met people who think that pop culture is the worst thing that ever happened to academic life and dismiss it entirely and I have met people who turn popular culture into a mirror of academic culture's trendy ideological "delights". Scary.

Mise-en-scene: Exterior scenes at UC Sunnydale and in the library were shot at the UCLA campus in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles.

The Metaphor: You may have been a big fish in your high school pond but your high school pond was a small one. Now, freshman, you are swimming in a bigger pond and the question is are you going to be able to adapt to it and survive? College as the survival of the fit.

Shapes of Things to Come?: There is tonnes/tons of foreshadowing, well perhaps foreshadowing, in “The Freshman”. There’s Kathy’s snoring and her Celine Dion poster which, well we will see what this means in the next episode. There’s that sneaking feeling that the Scoobies aren’t on the same page which, well we will see what this means throughout season four. Xander is back home and living in the basement which means, well we will see throughout season four and season five. There's Dr. Maggie Walsh's reference to what her TA's call her when they think she's not listening, the "Evil Bitch Monster of Death". Is she? Only season four can tell. And there’s the black op military types who capture a vampire in the final scene of “The Freshman which, well we will see what this means again in season four.

The Chorus: An enjoyable first episode of the season that typically for Buffy season premieres begins to develop themes, story, and character developments that will play out in episodes to come and which play off of themes, stories, and character developments in episodes past. And away we go.

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