In its final season, Buffy the Vampire Slayer issued a mission statement you might not expect from a series that's been on the air for seven years: go back to the beginning. After a foray at college and a year spent toiling away in the working world, Buffy's going back to high school. Several years after its destruction at the hands...or giant coiled tail, whatever...of the ascended Mayor Wilkins, Sunnydale High has been rebuilt from the ground up. The Hellmouth beneath the school happens to lurk directly below the office of Principal Robin Wood (D.B. Woodside), who's harboring some sort of dark secret that may or may not work to Buffy's favor. Anyway, Wood continually stumbles upon Buffy as she spirits Dawn off to her first day of school as a freshman (complete with a duel against restless, vengeful spirits, natch), and ensuring both Summers girls make the most of the lovingly-crafted Sunnydale High set, Wood offers Buffy a job as a part-time counselor. Holed up in the bowels of Sunnydale High is Spike, who's been driven mad by a combination of his newly-acquired soul and an entity that's been haunting him, one that's soon going to expand its grasp to the rest of the Scooby Gang and the world at large...
These early episodes really do capture the feel of the first few seasons of the series, a very welcome change after the grim year that came before it. This is one of the stronger opening salvos of Buffy; it typically seems to take the writers a few episodes to regain their footing, but I really like all of the episodes on the first couple of discs in this set. "Him" is played pretty much for laughs, revolving around a football player whose letter jacket makes him irresistable to the fairer sex, compelling Dawn, Buffy, Willow, and Anya to take drastic and wholly over-the-top measures to win his complete adoration. Three of the season's best episodes run back-to-back. "Same Time, Same Place" follows Willow's return to the group, still reeling from the near-apocalyptic events of the previous year and further disheartened when she's apparently abandoned by her friends. Buffy and company really are there for Willow, but the problem is that there are kind of two separate and distinct "there"s. The cannibalistic Gnarl is one of the most effectively creepy creatures of the show's entire run, and his confrontation with Willow is unsettling and horrifying...and I mean that in the best possible way. "Help" quickly follows, chronicling Buffy's quest to save the life of an awkward, introverted poet who foretells her own death.
Although I really like all of the first batch of episodes, this season has two particularly strong stand-outs. Following the excellent "Same Time, Same Place" and "Help" is "Selfless", which features Anya returning to form as a mass-murdering vengeance demon, a decision that awes her demonic coworkers and conflicts her former friends as Buffy must make a difficult decision. The episode makes use of flashbacks from several vastly different time periods and juggles drastically different tones. We see what led young Aud to become the vengeful Anyanka in a hysterical glimpse back at her life with her wench-drenched, troll-hating brute of a husband, Olaf. There's also a flashback to "Once More, With Feeling", complete with a new musical number, followed by a brutal, brilliant cut to the present. The other standout is "Conversations with Dead People", an inventively structured episode penned by four different writers. The title is a decent enough synopsis, as a number of characters communicate in varying forms with the dearly departed. Buffy allows herself to be psychoanalyzed by a recently-risen Psych major, Dawn is haunted by a poltergeist that takes on a shockingly familiar image, Willow is delivered a message from a lost love one, Spike goes out on the town, and the remnants of last year's nerdy Troika return to Sunnydale. "Conversations with Dead People", the seventh episode, is where the season peaks, and it's all downhill from there. The decline in quality is particularly noticeable by the time "Bring on the Night" rolls around, a tailspin from which the season never really recovers. I'm about to drone on for, I dunno, a dozen paragraphs about why that is, so if you're up to the challenge, grab a cheese sandwich and ready your mouse's scroll button.
The season's shape-shifting, incorporeal Big Bad talks incessantly about how evil it is. Buffy prattles on endlessly about how evil it is. Everyone and everything Buffy comes in contact with does the same. That's one of the fundamental problems with this season -- as frequently as we're told that this is a primordial evil...the stuff that makes garden-variety evil cower in its bedsheets...I never really felt any sense of dread. Buffy's pitted against something that's not corporeal, its plans are largely ineffective, and its ultimate goal is poorly defined. I would have liked to see the villain...y'know...do something. It's all talk, no show. I get that they were trying to take more of a psychological approach, but the execution flounders.
Season seven also expands upon the concept of 'Potentials' hinted at in previous years...Slayers in waiting...scores of girls who may take the mantle of the Slayer when the current one falls. The basic idea dates back to season two, where Kendra was said to have been raised by a Watcher years before she was ever called as a Slayer. As with most everything in this main arc, the execution is tremendously poor for a number of reasons. For starters, the cast is bloated. There are too many supporting characters for any of them to get much individual face time (well over thirty at one point), and for a character-driven show like Buffy, this isn't a particularly good thing. It's odd that the Slayerettes as a group are given so much screentime, yet hardly any of them are fleshed out with much of a personality. Second, many of the actresses chosen to portray these Slayerettes really just aren't that great. To lend a sense of scope to the situation, these girls were shuttled to Sunnydale from all corners of the globe, and to try to convey that, most of them have accents...accents that are far, far more terrifying than any of the demons or beasties in this season. They're cardboard cutouts that are boring and ineptly used, and everytime they're on-screen (especially their Faux Metal Jacket training sequence), I found myself stifling a groan. Although I can't stomach any of the Potentials, to the point where the mere mention of the word "potentials" makes me froth at the mouth and convulse uncontrollably, the worst of the lot is Kennedy. She almost seems like a Mary Sue character in some dreadful fan-fic hosted on Angelfire.com or something. The bratty, intrusive Kennedy's tight integration into the main group seems entirely undeserved, and despite Joss Whedon's claims to the contrary, she has zero chemistry with Willow.
In general, season seven feels like Joss Whedon and company had a clear beginning, a clear ending, and a few key plot points scattered along the way. What they hadn't bothered to sketch out in advance is how to navigate across those points, and especially near the middle of the season, everything feels muddled and unnecessarily prolonged. There isn't much of a distinction between episodes, which is rare for the series, and by the end, it's all just an indistinguishable blur. There are too many expanses where nothing happens, and in the last five episodes, the writers rush to cram in an overwhelmingly large number of concepts and ideas. It's clear that this season of Buffy wasn't shepherded by a strong showrunner.
Plot points are introduced and then quickly dropped or outright bungled. There's a tremendously significant event with Dawn in "Conversations with Dead People" that's later dismissed with an explanation that doesn't jive with what we've learned by that point. An "is he or isn't he?" question revolving around Giles is extended for far too many episodes for the sake of a fairly lame joke. A disruption in the Slayer line is ominously pointed at as the impetus for the havoc, but that's immediately forgotten. Buffy insists the line runs through her, even though it's been firmly established previously that this is not the case. She's shown to have extensive resources at her disposal, but she rarely takes advantage unless it in some way directly involves Spike. Come on, the fate of the world is in your hands -- instead of griping about the tiny size of your army, call in for reinforcements. One recurring creature is shown as being virtually indestructible, bringing Buffy to the brink of death. Later in the season, an army of these beasts are unleashed on Sunnydale (and no, not by the season's villain), and even ordinary people like Dawn and Anya are knocking them off without breaking a sweat. The evil force claims to have plans for Spike and seems to have gone to great lengths to manipulate him, and...to what end? No idea. This being is shown as taking the form of Buffy and Spike around various monsters, but this seemingly obvious stab at psychological torture is rarely directed towards any of Buffy's friends or soldiers. (Then again, torture isn't exactly its strong suit since this is the same entity that tried to drown a vampire. Yeah, drowning a creature that doesn't breathe. Brilliant.) If this force has an army of minions willing to do its bidding to the death, why assign someone as ineffective and unproven as Andrew a key murderous task? Next to nothing is resolved until the season finale, and what few threads are wrapped up seem unsatisfying.
I get the sense that the writers were making it up as they went along, as the season lacks a strong sense of flow from one episode to the next, probably because the staff was too busy lining up their next jobs to direct any effort towards their current gig. The trademark sparkle of Buffy's dialogue is gone. The series finale makes use of multiple deus ex machinas, one of which was introduced on a series on a different network. Once the story gets underway, all semblances of personalities for the central characters fade away. Something about having characters quip about having butchered people just doesn't ring true. Characterization doesn't seem to be a concern at all this year -- it's all about furthering the arc, only there isn't enough substance to that story to run for the bulk of a season. The end result is having uninteresting characters do uninteresting things to service a bland story and to pad out a 22-episode order.
Andrew is shoehorned in for comic relief -- the same reason Anya's given any screentime once the main arc is underway -- but he's unbearably grating. I inexplicably thought he was funny the first time through, and although my opinions of the season were incrementally more positive with a second look, Andrew became excruciating. Too bad it couldn't be Jonathan, a character who at least has some history with the series, in his place. In a season where so many established characters are glossed over, Andrew somehow manages to snag an episode virtually all to himself. "Storyteller", which was largely shot on video from Andrew's perspective as an amateur documentarian, manages to be intermittently funny, particularly when it flashes back to the previous year's dweeby Troika. Since the central arc is wholly unable to be good for any length of time, "Storyteller" predictably fumbles with an eye-rollingly corny finale.
The writers did eventually clue in that it might be a good idea to give Buffy something to hit in a season revolving around an incorporeal entity. Enter Caleb, a misogynistic mass-murdering preacher who isn't creepy, unsettling, or the least bit interesting, no matter how much of a body count he racks up or how much I may like the actor portraying him. I refuse to talk about Ashanti's guest-starring role this season, and in typing that, I've already wasted more time on the subject than it deserves.
The central characters don't fare much better. Sarah Michelle Gellar seems wholly disinterested once the primordial evil story lurches into second gear, reduced to a frigid, self-righteous bitch who's an incredibly poor leader yet demands everyone march in lockstep. Everyone recognizes what an inept leader Buffy is except for herself and Spike, apparently unaware that the writers have decided that Buffy is always right, even if her decisions fly in the face of all logic. Buffy's idea of leadership is prattling on for hours at a time with extended speeches. There's a certain homogeneity to her speeches -- "People will die. Girls will die. I'm a girl and a person, therefore, I'm doubly at risk of dying." You could cut the season's runtime by a full episode if Buffy had been a little more terse with her rambling speeches. Willow, Giles, Anya, and Xander are all wasted, with the dull, lifeless Willow suffering the most. Xander only seems to be present to fix windows and drive people around, Giles is reserved mostly as a setup for a single joke, and Anya doesn't even get a chance to offer much comic relief since that's now Andrew's department. Despite being incomprehensibly powerful (or, yeah, I know, because of it), Willow's now regressed to a point where she's even less confident than she was seven years earlier. Without treading too far into spoiler territory, when a character from the past returns this season, she winds up spouting off gems like "Dude, I've got mad skills." Remember when IM away messages and message board signatures used to be peppered with quotes from the series? Season seven doesn't give fans much to work with. Basically, anyone who's not Buffy or Spike is shoved deep into the background, and only a couple of writers seem to have any clue how these characters should act or talk. That strong sense of friendship from years past has been dissolved, and their pre-apocalypse chat in the season finale -- one of the only times they seem to speak to each other outside of rousing speeches -- feels completely wooden and stilted.
Despite having ranted at length about the season already, there are a few other things I feel obligated to gripe about. First, think about the different settings where the Scoobies had once met. The high school library, Giles' home, The Magic Box were all impressive, almost ominous sets. Where does most of season seven take place? Buffy's boring living room, which characters rarely seem to stray from unless they're heading to a cave, a basement, or faceless back alley. Then there's the matter of bland fight choreography, which is frequently obscured by quick cuts or low lighting, turning the Slayer mythology into a rape metaphor, and serving up numerous female empowerment angles that make the Spice Girls' chants of "girl power!" seem subtle by comparison. All enthusiasm I had for Buffy was sapped away by the time the series finale rolled around. The plan for the final battle makes no measure of sense, considering how little Buffy knew about Deux Ex Machina Mark Deux (well, admittedly, it did come with an instruction manual), and events seem to unfold in the wrong order. The final sacrifice, which consists of little more than standing around as a quasi-human jewelry rack, would quickly be undermined the following year in Buffy's sister...errr...brother series on the WB.
Season seven, although it still suffers from a number of fundamental flaws, plays better on DVD than it did when originally aired. UPN's scattershot scheduling hampered the pace even further than the shoddy work of the staff writers, and the story works better when viewed in a more compressed period of time. This is the weakest of Buffy's seven season run, but it's not unredeemably, unwatchably bad, and there are enough episodes I like that I'd still recommend it as a purchase for fans of the series.
Video: As has been the case for all of the domestically released Buffy sets, these episodes are presented as they aired, which would be at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 preferred by series creator Joss Whedon. The quality is variable, but on the whole, it's fairly typical of the way the past couple of seasons have looked, with some steeper peaks and valleys. Sometimes it looks incredible, such as the footage of Willow and Giles in pastoral England, which is some of the best-looking footage from the entire run of the show. On the other end of the spectrum are episodes like "Selfless", which doesn't seem as well-defined as most of the rest of the set. Long stretches of "Showtime" seem artificially sharpened, and "Potential" looks less like a shiny, newly-minted DVD and more like it should have a TNT bug in the lower-right hand corner. "The Killer In Me" somehow manages to run that entire gamut, mixing in some impressive looking footage, some noisy, dismal dreck, and some parts that look like Mutant Enemy whipped out an old Bell & Howell Super-8 camera. Generally, the image is decently sharp and often fairly grainy, similar to the way these episodes looked when they originally aired, though still substantially improved over my murky UPN affiliate.
Audio: Buffy is presented with a set of solid Dolby Digital stereo surround tracks, encoded at the usual bitrate of 192Kbps. The rears get a decent if unremarkable amount of use, and the subwoofer nicely accentuates the numerous punches and kicks throughout the season. Dialogue generally comes through well, and there are no concerns with intelligibility throughout. The real highlight of the soundtrack is the score by Robert Duncan, who's kindly made selections from his work available for download on his website. Each episode also includes dubs in French and Spanish, subtitles in English and Spanish, and closed captions.
Supplements: Each of the six discs in this set includes some sort of extra material. The first disc features an audio commentary with writer Joss Whedon and director/co-executive producer David Solomon for "Lessons", the season premiere. Like most of the commentaries in this set, it's very laid-back, chatty, and funny, and they talk about shooting the English countryside scenes on Anthony Steward Head's lawn, keeping all sorts of nefarious chunks of information secret while casting, and, hey!, complaining about the overuse of the Summers house throughout the season. Also tacked on is an updated version of Willow's demon guide on the DVD-ROM portion of the disc.
Disc two sports a pair of commentaries, and perhaps not coincidentally, they're on my two favorite episodes of the season. David Solomon returns for "Selfless" and is joined by writer Drew Goddard. They discuss the origins of Aud's name, penning six pages of D'Hoffryn gabbing about a bathroom, and the process of guilt-tripping an exhausted Joss Whedon into writing another song. Goddard is featured again on the second commentary on this DVD, alongside writer/co-executive producer Jane Espenson, director Nick Marck, and actors Danny Strong and Tom Lenk. Their notes include an opening song written by Joss Whedon and Angie Stone, the semi-chaotic process of cobbling together an episode written by four people with minimal prep time, explaining the lack of Amber Benson in this episode, and elements dropped from earlier drafts of the script. Espenson also clarifies the ambiguous re-appearance of one character, even though I don't think her explanation is supported by what's shown on-screen.
The third disc doesn't offer any audio commentaries, but it does include the four-and-a-half minute featurette "Buffy: It's Always Been About The Fans". The fandom-centric featurette includes comments from Joss Whedon, Jane Espenson, James Marsters, Buffy fan mag writer Abbie Bernstein, the hosts of the Succubus Club radio show, and, of course, numerous Buffy fans from the 2003 Posting Board party.
Disc four's "The Killer In Me" serves up audio commentary by David Solomon and writer Drew Z. Greenberg, who note the orchid-growing side business of Nerf Herder's frontman and also mock Iyari Limon, who was originally slated to appear on this track but had to bow out after it was rescheduled. Although all but one of the commentaries on this set are frequently played for laughs, this is the most joke-y and least informative of the bunch, but it's enough of a blast to listen to that I don't really mind.
Drew Goddard appears in both of the audio commentaries on disc five. He's joined on "Lies My Parents Told Me" by director David Fury and actors James Marsters and D.B. Woodside. This is the most serious and most subdued commentary on the set, and some of the highlights include cleaning up some unconvincing digital rain and trying to shoot around helicopters and a mariachi band. Goddard's again joined by a cast member in "Dirty Girls", where he's paired with Nicholas Brendon. Nick rattles off his favorite episodes of Buffy, and they chat about how the girls in the fantasy sequence were named after relatives of Goddard's, shooting one scene with a spinoff in mind, and discussing aborted plans for the death of one extremely major character.
The sixth and final disc of the set features the bulk of the extras. The last commentary is, appropriately enough, for the final episode of the series. Writer/director Joss Whedon comments on "Chosen" with his trademark dry sense of humor, quipping about fan reception to the relationships in Buffy's life, admitting the numerous conveniences of the plot, pointing out a menstrual metaphor, and noting the difficulties in shooting the epic battle sequence.
Disc six is packed with several different featurettes. "Season 7 Overview - Buffy: Full Circle" runs right at thirty-six minutes, including comments from Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, Rebecca Rand Kirshner, David Fury, Drew Goddard, David Solomon, Drew Z. Greenberg, Douglas Petrie, Alyson Hannigan, James Marsters, Michelle Trachtenberg, Tom Lenk, Anthony Stewart Head, and D.B. Woodside. Like the season six set, this overview strays from the usual episode-by-episode assault and examines specific characters and plots. I still don't really get what the point of these overviews is supposed to be, though, since they don't really ever seem to offer anything you can't glean from watching the episodes.
In "Buffy 101: Studying the Slayer" (13:56), TV Guide's Matt Roush, UCLA's Vivian Sobchack, and USA Today's Robert Bianco apply a critical eye to the themes of the series. The featurette is too short and too riddled with lengthy clips from the series to be really insightful, but it's handled decently enough. "Generation S" (8:22) focuses on the Slayerettes, offering brief interviews with several of the actresses behind these characters. Interspersed between notes from Felicia Day, Iyari Limon, Indigo, and Sarah Hagan are additional comments by Jane Espenson, Joss Whedon, and David Solomon. In "The Last Sundown" (8:44), Joss Whedon runs down some of his favorite episodes and comments on the series as a whole.
A three minute outtake reel features the usual flubbed lines, uncontrollable bursts of laughter, and random goofing around. Finally, there's five minutes of footage from the series' wrap party, mostly brief comments about the show and gushing over the brilliance of Joss Whedon. Interviewed are Whedon himself, Marti Noxon, Alyson Hannigan, James Marsters, Anthony Stewart Head, Alexis Denisof, Michelle Trachtenberg, Julie Benz, Juliet Landau, Nicholas Brendon, and Emma Caulfield.
If you've been waiting for this DVD set to watch these episodes for the first time, hold off on the extras until you've made it all the way through, and try to avoid glancing at the spoiler-riddled menus and packaging as much as you can. If you own any of the past five Buffy sets, you know what to expect from the menus, packaging, and presentation, so I won't bother to rehash that same info again.
As has been the case on the R1 sets for quite a while now, the 'Previously...'s have once again been lopped off. In Fox's overeagerness to remove those segments, they excised an explosion that opens one episode. Whoops! I don't get what the tremendously big deal would be in including those portions and offering a chapter stop afterward, but whatever. The 'Previously...' from season five's "The Gift" is presented as an anamorphic widescreen Easter Egg, available by selecting the 'B' icon to the left of "The Last Sundown" on the featurette submenu.
Conclusion: The final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer features a lot of interesting ideas, but weak storytelling, poor characterization, and an overall lack of focus make this what I'd consider the most disappointing of the series' seven season run. Although around half of the episodes in this set range from mediocre to excruciatingly dull, I like the other half enough to recommend this DVD set to Buffy fans, especially considering how entertaining the audio commentaries are. Recommended.