When we last left Buffy and the rest of the Scooby Gang, Mayor Wilkins had ascended to the form of a giant snake and was subsequently defeated, leaving Sunnydale High leveled to the ground. As Angel and Cordelia moved shop to L.A., Buffy and her friends each had a little piece of paper declaring them high school graduates. Where to go from there but college? The fourth season of the critically-adored Buffy the Vampire Slayer follows their transition to adulthood and how that next step in their lives affected their relationships with one another. This six-disc set compiles the following twenty-two episodes:
Season four is more scattershot than the one that preceded it, consisting of a number of excellent episodes, but lacking the consistency and the strong arc offered previously. The highs are stellar, particularly "Hush", which easily ranks among the best of the entire series, as well as Faith's two-part return. Some of the season's other memorable episodes are "The Harsh Light of Day", "Fear, Itself", and "A New Man". However, the lows are pretty dismal. I'd be hard-pressed to think of an episode I hated more than "Beer Bad", and "Where the Wild Things Are" is only incrementally less embarrassing. The Big Bad this time around is Adam, a cybernetic warrior culled from the remains of a fallen soldier and warmed-over demon parts. He's not a bad villain -- at least he's seen wreaking havoc on-screen instead of remaining a meaningless threat like the First Evil in the seventh season -- but Adam doesn't stack up particularly well when placed alongside the likes of Angelus, Mayor Wilkins, or the Master.
My favorite supporting character, Oz, was absent for much of the season, and Tara and Riley leapt in to fill the void. Neither of the newly-introduced love interests have much chemistry with the established characters who are supposed to fawn over them. Riley was introduced as a romantic contrast to the brooding Angel and the exploitive Parker, but he was a "nice guy" to the point of being insufferably dull. He could've been an interesting character, but the season focused on the wrong aspects. We're told Riley loves Buffy a great deal, and they certainly aren't timid about expressing their affection on-screen. There just never seems to be much of a relationship outside of screwing or fighting. He lacked any depth, and his character remains unexplored for the entire season. Riley's a bore in season four, and my disinterest devolved into outright annoyance by the time the fifth season rolled around. On the other hand, Tara was used more effectively as the series went on, and she genuinely felt like part of the group from season five and on. She's somewhat squandered here, though, and Amber Benson looked kind of stoned for the duration. The third regular love interest, the reintroduced former vengeance demon Anya, is a welcome addition to the regular cast, quite possibly my favorite character that's currently on the show, and is actually used effectively throughout season four.
Fox Home Entertainment passed along the first and final discs of this six-DVD set for review. Though I didn't get the opportunity to revisit the bulk of the season or check out the majority of the supplements as a result, I greatly enjoyed this two-disc sampler, and I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of June 10th so I can round out the set.
Video: In a decision that inspired several heated debates on various message boards, the fourth season of Buffy has been presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The previously released box sets from other regions boasted 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentations, which, as far as I can tell, were largely well-received. However, Joss Whedon has gone on record with his preference that Buffy remain more or less square in appearance. I'm not going to argue for either side. "Once More, With Feeling" aside, I haven't seen an episode of Buffy in widescreen, but I have to admit to not being particularly bothered by the idea of seeing these episodes as I first experienced them three years ago.
So, that aside, these episodes look wonderful, offering a significant improvement over previous seasons. Though not offering the level of crispness and clarity as a glossy, big-budget motion picture, the image is substantially sharper than I'd expect from the broadcast of a TV series. The palette is also much more vivid, with lush hues and deep, inky blacks. There is some scattered softness, and film grain appears to greatly varying degrees throughout, but neither is particularly unexpected for a television production. Very nicely done, and given the comparatively lousy image I catch on UPN every Tuesday night, I'm hoping future seasons offer a similar improvement over their broadcast counterparts.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround tracks are comparable to those of previous seasons. Surround use and ambiance are fair, and dialogue remains clear and discernable throughout. There's a healthy low-end kick, primarily from Christophe Beck's score and assorted music incorporated into the episodes. Explosions and the like don't resonate to quite the same extent. The audio isn't likely to be mistaken for a full-blown 5.1 treatment, but what's provided here is more than adequate.
The discs' other audio options include stereo surround dubs in French and Spanish, subtitles in English and Spanish, and closed captions.
Supplements: This fourth season set includes more commentaries than any Buffy box to date, with nearly a third of the episodes including comments from the cast and crew. The sixth disc features a pair of commentaries, beginning with writer David Fury and director James A. Contner on "Primeval". The bulk of their chat is spent merely restating what's happening on-screen or the thoughts bubbling in the characters' minds. A couple of informative nuggets are tossed out, though, such as the difficulty directing a virtually-blind Lindsay Crouse, acknowledging the innumerable nods to The Matrix, and using Spike to sneak out of a certain corner the staff had written themselves into. Along with brief comments about the production design and music are a handful of technical notes, such as how the 360° pan for the adjoining spell was implemented. It's a pretty dull, slow-moving commentary, and I wouldn't recommend it with any great enthusiasm.
If any episode during the entire seven season run of Buffy warranted a commentary, it's "Restless", the trippy season finale. Writer/director Joss Whedon contributes his third commentary of the set to this episode, and everything that disappointed during the track on "Primeval" is done correctly here. Joss recognizes the difference between speaking about something and merely speaking. When he discusses what's going in a character's head, it's more thoughtful and complex than the four or five word summaries found in the previous episode. He delves into the surreal imagery and its meaning (or the lack of meaning, in the case of the legendary Cheese Man), also noting the influence of The Limey as well as the roles of gender and sexuality. Joss isn't timid about getting technical, speaking at length about the particular lenses and equipment used to acquire certain shots. Also of interest is a story about how Michelle Trachtenburg visited Sarah Michelle Gellar on the Buffy set, coincidentally on the day when Dawn was first mentioned. This was well before Michelle would go on to read for and subsequently land that role.
Five other commentaries have also been gingerly distributed throughout the six disc set, four of which -- "The Initiative" and "This Year's Girl" with Doug Petrie, "Hush" with Joss Whedon, and "Superstar" with Jane Espenson -- were previously available on foreign releases. New to this set is "Wild at Heart", recorded with Seth Green, Marti Noxon, and Joss Whedon. Unfortunately, as I was only sent the first and sixth discs of this box set to review, I'm unable to comment on those for the time being.
A number of featurettes are provided on disc three, and combined, they teeter on the length of an actual episode. Among them are "Hush", "Spike Me", "Oz Revelations: A Full Moon", and "Buffy - Inside the Sets of Sunnydale". Lacking this disc, I can't comment on the content, but the titles seem reasonably descriptive. The only featurette available for this review is an overview of the fourth season (36:52) provided on the sixth and final disc. It's a detailed run through the season, consisting largely of thoughtful comments from the talent involved as well as the expected clips from various episodes.
There are two sets of still galleries, spread across the third and sixth discs. The gallery on disc six consists of fifty-seven promotional stills and production photos, presented in an orb in the center of a 16x9-enhanced menu. Rounding out the extras are scripts for "Fear, Itself", "Hush", "Who Are You?", and "Restless". The scripts are displayed in plain text on a colorful background, navigable with a DVD remote.
Each episode has been divided into fifteen chapters. Though this batch of episodes isn't enhanced for widescreen displays, the DVDs' menus are. The orientation of the titles on these menus may prove to be mildly confusing, as they're arranged in columns rather than rows. For viewers sifting through multiple episodes in a single sitting, this shouldn't present a problem as the menus pleasantly direct viewers from one episode to the next, but for those who take their Buffy in bite-sized chunks, keep an eye out to make sure that these aren't viewed in the wrong order.
Conclusion: For established fans of the series, recommending Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fourth Season should be a no-brainer. Though the season lacks the consistency of the phenomenal season that preceded it, there are far more high points than lows, and I have a much greater appreciation for it now that I've waded through the mediocrity of Buffy's stint on UPN. For the uninitiated, however, I wouldn't suggest using this box as a starting point. The episodes look and sound great, and the limited taste I had of the set's extras is certainly promising. Highly Recommended.
Random Notes: I've seen several message board posts expressing disappointment that previous releases didn't include the "Previously On..." recaps. Though the overseas DVD releases incorporated these recaps into the beginning of each episode, there were not any present on either of the two discs I was sent to review.
Related Reviews: Various DVD Talk reviewers have tackled the first three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as the 1992 theatrical release that preceded it.