Season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tore apart the core group. Buffy had moved away from home to attend college, separating her from her mother, and Spike's meddling and unavoidable internal strife splintered the Scooby Gang. After regrouping to defeat the piecemealed demonic cyborg Adam, Buffy and company once again became a family, and they remain cheerfully reunited as season five begins. In fact, not only are they a sunny, happy family again, there's a new addition in their ranks. That fresh face belongs to Buffy's bratty fourteen-year-old sister Dawn (Harriet the Spy's Michelle Trachtenburg), who's startlingly new to established viewers of the series, but gratingly familiar to its central cast of characters. Season five also introduces the double-X-chromosome-fueled evil of Glory, a banished god driven insane by her quarter-century stint in our realm. Glory and her legion of bumpy-headed, adjective-spouting worshippers are in search of The Key, a mystical ball of energy reshaped into a form that she can't identify but that she's determined to hunt down regardless. The Key has been entrusted to the Slayer, and a mad god proves to be a much more formidable opponent than any she's faced before.
This DVD release of fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer spreads its twenty-two episodes across six discs. A list of the titles and brief synopses of each follow, and though I tried to go as light on spoilers as possible, pretend I inserted the requisite spoiler warning here anyway.
There are several outstanding entries this season. In some of the earlier episodes, the writers didn't seem to have a clear idea what to do with Spike, and he felt shoehorned in rather than an essential aspect of the show. Several instances arose where he'd randomly show up wherever the Scoobies happened to be, and a "Spike?! What are you doing here?" would inevitably follow. These brief appearances still often wound up being some of the most entertaining parts of those episodes, most memorably a five word explanation as to why he was lurking outside the Summers homestead. Although I didn't buy the group's continued reluctance to stake him early on, he becomes an integral part of the series with Fool for Love, my second favorite episode of the season. That extended glimpse into Spike's past not only provides some of the most impressive fight choreography of this twenty-two episode set, but a great deal of insight into what lies beneath that brash exterior, making a seasoned killer into a sympathetic character without betraying or disregarding continuity. Much of the cast has an episode that similarly shines the spotlight brightly on them -- Dawn in The Real Me, Xander in The Replacement, Riley in Out of My Mind, Tara in Family -- but their presence is weighted well throughout the season, and no one spends any time with sagging shoulders on the bench.
The Body is unspeakably brilliant, perhaps the most agonizingly emotional hour of television I've ever watched. Lesser series would have been unable to resist the temptation to devolve into a 'very special episode', drenched in weepy remembrances and syrupy music. The power of The Body lies in its stark realism. There isn't a note of music throughout, relying on exceptional performances and masterful direction to convey the heartache and sorrow. Whedon doesn't force the material on the viewer in the hopes of getting an emotional response; one of the most effective moments comes when Buffy delivers the news to Dawn. We don't discern a single syllable that's uttered, but voyeuristically watching the delivery alongside Dawn's classmates through a window is enough. It's appropriate that the first two episodes of the season to be written and directed by Joss Whedon were The Body and Family. Although surface similarities between the two are slight, the underlying message is the same: this isn't a group of friends or thrill-seeking monster hunters, but a family. The Body is not only the best of the season, it's the pinnacle of the 144 episodes that aired throughout Buffy's seven years, and it is without question one of my favorite episodes of any television series, ever.
I can't be as positive about other aspects, though, such as Marti Noxon's vampire suck-shack that's a heavy-handed precursor to her frying-pan-over-the-head "magic is like drugs!" analogy the following year. Part of what drags season five down for me is this year's girl, the crazed goddess Glory. She in some ways reminds me of the Mayor -- immeasurably more powerful than her form would suggest, overflowing with quirky and silly personality traits... The primary difference is that Glory doesn't sell 'menacing' in quite the same way as Mayor Wilkins. I get the concept -- Buffy's never faced a villain that was the least bit similar to herself, and the petite, blonde, self-involved, fashion-obsessed, immensely strong Glory bears more than a passing resemblance to what we've seen of Buffy over the years. Doting, unthreatening fanatics reaching for adjectives to best describe their adoration for her, speeches about the splendor of bubble baths and the lack of quality shopping in Sunnydale, and a finalé where she's whomped over the head with a Lane Bryant plus-sized troll hammer didn't really pull me in. Why the Mayor works for me and she doesn't, I dunno, but Glory doesn't strike me as a particularly effective villain, despite the havoc she wreaks on-screen. The sheer amount of repetition doesn't help either as so many of the scenes with Glory are virtually indistinguishable from one another: bumpy minions lavish her with praise, Glory gets miffed that she doesn't have The Key, and reiterates that she really, really wants it. The less said about the morphing, the better. The irrepressibly over-the-top Glory isn't a bad villain by any stretch, but she's not a great one either. It's to the season's credit that it still works despite a somewhat lackluster Big Bad: to make an obligatory potshot at the exceptionally dull seventh season of Buffy, this wouldn't always be the case.
My interest waned in the last couple of episodes leading up to the finalé, beginning with Spiral. First of all, the Knights of Byzantium? What a tremendously silly, ineffective idea. Although I thought portions of the gas station barricade worked well, the consistently ham-fisted acting of the knights and their horseback assault on a Winnebago failed to get the desired reaction from me. Buffy also chucks an axe into the chest of one of the Knights, and it's mentioned that a total of ten fell in that initial battle. Giles is quick to insist a couple of episodes later that Buffy could never kill an innocent human, but assuming that an edged weapon embedded in the gut tends to be fatal, I don't quite get how he (or Buffy near the end of season six) could be so sanctimonious unless he didn't get the memo. At least the knights don't show up again, despite not having accomplished their holy mission. The following episode, The Weight of the World, is near-plotless and trudges along at an excruciatingly slow pace. The penultimate episode of the season is a little late to cram in that sort of filler, and...oh, the morphing...the low-rent, excessive morphing...
Quite a number of fans point to The Gift as one of the high points of the season and the series as a whole. I'm not really one of them. I thought the way everyone in the group played a significant role in the assault was excellent, and I promise to try my best to avoid a snarky comparison to the eerily similar series finalé, Chosen. It's kind of hard to bitch excessively about some points without wading into spoiler waters, but I'll give it a shot anyway. The 'blood' substitution doesn't make any sense to me, and there isn't any support in previous episodes that would give that theory any credence. I found it interesting that a detailed ritual for bloodletting had been determined and written in detail centuries beforehand, despite the fact that there was no assurance whatsoever as to what form The Key would assume. It's possible that those prophecies are remarkably comprehensive and cover every possible contingency, but if the monks had shaped The Key into the form of a pecan log, would it too need to be annointed and draped in a ritual dress? I dunno. And then there's the suggestion that Anya, with whatever minimal magical abilities she possessed before becoming a vengeance demon, created a Troll God? Anya can, or at least could, create gods? If so, why not try to get someone with the power and resources the Scoobies possess to do the same? If not, and this is clearly outside the scope of the episode, how does a standard-issue troll elevate to deity status? Perhaps Anya's deep and abiding love for capitalism caused her to upsell the value of Olaf's hammer, or maybe I should repeat to myself that it's just a show and I should really just relax. The Gift encapsulates my feelings of the season as a whole: it boasts some genuinely wonderful parts and on the whole I'd say I liked it, but the story just didn't draw me in as much as I would've liked. Part of my lack of overly abundant enthusiasm of the episode stems from the fact that it follows so soon after The Body, an episode that has lasting consequences...finality. It's difficult to appreciate a sacrifice to the same extent when you know that the series has been renewed for two more seasons and that they're not going to continue without a certain character. Although there were consequences of this action shown in season six, the near-immediate undoing greatly minimizes its effectiveness. The Gift can serve as a series finalé for those who'd prefer to plug their ears and pretend that the UPN era never took place, and I'd imagine there's a contingent of fans whose collection of these box sets will end here.
Clearly, I spend too much time debating the minutae of Buffy on a variety of forums. This review is the longest I've written to date, and there's little need for me to have gone into such detail. More concisely distilled: if you've watched previous seasons of Buffy and enjoyed them, then you'll probably feel much the same way about season five as well. If not, then...yikes, you've wasted an impressive amount of time making it to this point in the review. The fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a largely strong collection of episodes in an excellent series, and it's deserving of a spot on the DVD shelf of any remotely enthusiastic fan.
Before tackling the technical aspects of this release, it's worth noting that many fans have been clamoring for the return of the series' "Previously on..."s for quite some time now. I suppose Fox thought that their inclusion would be superfluous, and I have to admit that I don't really have a strong preference one way or the other. Still, they would have been nice to have as a reference anyway, and there are several instances where the music that opens an episode seems abrupt without them. The Gift, which marked the 100th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, certainly suffers from that jumpy start. Even worse, though, The Gift debuted on network television with an incredibly impressive rapid-fire montage of clips from the ninety-nine episodes that preceded it, and that too has been left off of this DVD release.
Video: Season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as has been the case with the four previous seasons in region one, is presented full-frame. For those who may not be aware, Buffy is filmed in widescreen, and the flat 1.78:1 image is cropped to 1.33:1 for broadcast on television. Overseas DVD releases of Buffy, starting with its fourth season, have been in anamorphic widescreen, reproducing the entire 1.78:1 frame. When a full-frame season four was preparing to roll around stateside, there was a bit of a backlash from viewers who wanted to see the entire widescreen image. Buffy creator Joss Whedon penned an insert for the set that described his compositional intentions and that the 4x3 image best reflected his vision. Season five doesn't include a similar insert, but the same holds true. Whedon talked about the series' intended aspect ratio in an interview with IGN this past June.
"It's not a widescreen show. We shot it in a TV ratio, and I am very, very specific with the way I frame things. To arbitrarily throw - and I love widescreen, but Buffy was never a widescreen show. It was an intimate, TV-shaped show. To arbitrarily throw wider borders on it, to make it more cinematic when I very specifically framed it... See, that is not the way I framed it. That's not the way it was meant to be seen, and therefore that's not the way I shot it. I'm preserving what I shot. The DVD is there to preserve what we made, for eternity. What we made, very specifically, was a certain shape. So I'm sure there'll be widescreen copies and there'll be arguments about what's better, but I'm not interested in - and I mean, I love widescreen. I'm a widescreen fanatic, when something's wide. When it's not, then I want to see it the way it was meant to be seen."Whedon points out a specific instance in his audio commentary for The Body. Admittedly, this tired example is cited frequently on message boards, the television equivalent of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in discussions of open-matte presentations, but I'll spout it off just for the sake of being complete.
"We're actually coming up on one of my favorite shots that I ever composed, and it's very simple, which is this: very simply, it's an over where I squeezed her in the frame as much as possible so that it's like she didn't have room to maneuver... A normal over would have been her with a tiny slice of his shoulder. Instead, I let his shoulder own the frame. I took his eyes out of the frame to show the experience of literally being trapped, being blocked off from reality. It's an obvious thing, not great filmmaking, but when I did it on the day when I saw the over and thought, 'he's a little too much in the frame. Oh, keep pushing it...keep pushing. Give her less room...give her less room.' It excited me."
It's likely that there will still be debate about which aspect ratio is preferable, and there's certainly precedence to suggest that. I'll admit to not having seen Buffy in widescreen, with the obvious exception of season six's Once More With Feeling which aired letterboxed, and I accordingly can't claim to have formed a preference for one over the other through direct viewing. Still, since the series' creator prefers the 4x3 image and that's representative of how the show was originally broadcast, that's enough for me. For R1-based viewers with multi-region capability that are interested in acquiring widescreen DVDs, the overseas sets are still widely available and not particularly pricey.
I suppose I should move onto the quality of the presentation, having delved into an unnecessary amount of detail regarding its aspect ratio. It doesn't impress in quite the same way as the second season of Angel, which aired alongside this season of Buffy, but it's still very well done. Grain is pervasive to greatly varying degrees throughout, and sharpness flutters slightly as well from episode to episode. Much of Intervention, for instance, strikes me as softer than I would expect. One moderately frequent authoring issue is shimmering around certain objects, such as the first glimpse of the dining room table in Forever, the fronds of a palm tree in Intervention, the edges of some books, car grills, and shingles, and...say, every third shot with window blinds in the frame. Some aliasing also infrequently creeps in, such as the lines above the newspaper headline in Crush. Blacks are deep, and detail will occasionally slink into the inky background in some of the more dimly-lit sequences. The added clarity the DVD format offers doesn't always work to the series' benefit, making the shoddy Nintendo 64-cutscene-quality CGI and Octaman-grade snake suit in Shadow even more laughable. The overall quality of the presentation is about what I thought it would be -- good, but not particularly remarkable.
Audio: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fifth Season includes a set of Dolby Digital 2.0 surround tracks (192Kbps) in English, French, and Spanish. The matrixed monaural rears are more prominent than I recall from previous seasons. The score retains a constant presence in the surround channels, along with scattered ambiance and echoed dialogue in the more cavernous sets. Certain effects like spells and staked vampires are also spread across the soundstage. Bass response, similar to most DVD releases of television series, is nothing particularly impressive. Buffy is renowned for its dialogue, and it's presented cleanly and clearly here, with only a few moments where very light crackling crept in.
Subtitles have been included in both English and Spanish, and the set is closed captioned.
Supplements: As has been the case with previous seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this collection of the series' fifth season features an assortment of scripts, featurettes, and audio commentaries. Though the number of commentary tracks has dropped from the previous season -- four, this time, versus the seven included with season four -- what's here is, for the most part, great.
The first track accompanies "Real Me", featuring director David Grossman (who also helmed George of the Jungle 2, which co-starred Buffyverse regular Julie Benz) and writer David Fury. This commentary improves somewhat on the Primeval track last go-around, another pairing of Fury and an episode's director, but it still suffers from some of the same problems. It's laid-back and lightly chatty, offering enough meaningful conversation to make it worth a listen, but the slower pacing and sizeable silent chunks probably leave it better suited to being played in the background. I always feel obligated to rattle off some of the highlights for whatever reason, and some of 'em this time around include Mercedes McNab accidentally smearing lipstick all over a supposedly invisible barrier and Tom Lenk chiming in for a pre-Andrew role as a vampiric minion. Much of the conversation revolves around the actors, Michelle Trachtenburg in particular, and there are a few technical notes about specific camera set-ups and the motivation behind them.
Doug Petrie is one of my favorite Buffy writers, and his commentaries on previous sets -- Bad Girls and This Year's Girl -- have been among the best non-Joss tracks. He chimes in with the second commentary for season five, disc two's Fool for Love, and it's every bit as fun and informative as his earlier tracks. He talks about how quickly this episode was written, fueled by a crate of Red Bull provided by James Marsters and sneaking away for a snooze after trying out the different beds on the show's sets. Along with pointing out the innumerable sexual metaphors in what he describes as the dirtiest episode he's worked on, Petrie sneaks in references to such movies as Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs, and The French Connection. Engaging and entertaining, Petrie's commentary is well-worth checking out.
The third commentary features Jane Espenson discussing I Was Made To Love You, an episode I didn't really put much thought into before listening to the track. I just chalked it up as an entertaining, largely stand-alone episode, but Espenson's comments left me thinking about how heavily it shaped the season to follow, and how the dark events in season six would have been considerably different if a few situations had progressed slightly differently here. The writer talks quite a bit about season six, which was wrapping up as the commentary was recorded, particularly in the changes underwent by certain characters. As has been the case with Espenson's other commentaries, she's talkative and covers a lot of ground, including a plea for an award for "Best Robot Death" and having to research the craft of window repair.
Joss Whedon provides the final audio commentary, contributing his thoughts to the episode that's directly lead into from Espenson's, The Body. The best episode of the season nets the best commentary of the set, tackling most every facet of production. Whedon talks about the motivation behind the creative and technical decisions made while filming The Body, such as keeping the momentum going by using as many single takes and few cuts as possible in the more dramatic sequences. For example, there's a particularly intense uninterrupted two and a half minute shot early on where Whedon discusses the elaborate handheld camera movement. He also notes the emphasis on "what's real, what's physical", an approach I hadn't mulled over previously, including Buffy straightening out the clothing on the body and the first on-screen kiss between Willow and Tara. Among innumerable other highlights are a dinner fantasy sequence that owes its origins to opening credits that would have been inappropriate elsewhere in the episode, Alyson Hannigan's plaster allergies, the real-life inspiration behind Willow's determination to find the perfect outfit to wear, and how little resemblance funerals on televisions bear to reality.
Discs three and six don't offer any commentary tracks, but they're both teeming with featurettes. The third disc includes four featurettes, running over half an hour total. "Buffy Abroad" (4:14) has Joss Whedon, David Solomon, Jane Espenson, Doug Petrie, Amber Benson, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Stewart Head, and James Marsters speaking about the international appeal of the series. There are also some dubbed clips in a variety of languages and montages of promotional material and merchandise from around the globe. Casting director Marcia Shulman and Joss Whedon talk about "Casting Buffy" (6:51), noting the characteristics necessary for a role on Buffy and delving into varying degrees of depth of how the individual actors were cast. David Solomon, James Marsters, Michelle Trachtenburg, and Kristine Sutherland also chime in with brief comments. Jonathan Strong hosts the campy "Demonology: A Slayer's Guide" (11:26), which divides the series' night-bumping creatures into categories like "Dead Things That Aren't Really Dead Until Buffy Makes Them Dead" and "I Bet You Thought I Was Human When In Actuality I'm This Really Pissed Off, Hideous Demon". It's not the bland list of nasties I went in expecting, but a detailed look into what went into bringing these creatures to life, both in terms of concept and creation. Aside from the usual featurette mainstays, make-up effects supervisor John Vulich and writers Rebecca Rand Kirshner and Marti Noxon contribute a number of notes. "Action Heroes! The Stunts of Buffy" (11:28) puts its emphasis squarely on, as the title cheerfully suggests, the series' stunts. The featurette includes an impressive assortment of behind-the-scenes footage, both of filming and rehearsal, and it's interesting to clearly see the men and women that double for the principal actors on the show. The doubles for Buffy, Spike, and Dawn comment on their roles and the stunt process in general, alongside stunt coordinator John Medlen, Marc Blucas, David Fury, and much of the gang from the other three featurettes. The extras on disc three around rounded out by a reel featuring two minutes of pale, full-frame outtakes predominately from season three, beginning with a series of brilliantly flubbed lines and the usual on-set mishaps. The last few moments are my favorite, consisting of a montage of faux-Watcher Gwendolyn Post repeatedly whacking Giles over the head and a tiny door that offers a great deal of insight into the morbidly obese demon Balthazar.
Disc six continues with the onslaught of featurettes. "The Story of Season 5" (27:49) follows the same structure as the overviews on previous releases, with many of the writers, directors, and actors discussing the season's characters, story arcs, and specific episodes. Among the participants unique to this featurette are Clare Kramer (who turned into Reese Witherspoon in the interim, apparently), Charlie Weber, and Adam Busch. "Natural Causes" (9:19) retreads much of what was covered in Joss Whedon's audio commentary, incorporating a number of clips from the episode and notes from Whedon, David Fury, Jane Espenson, David Solomon, Marti Noxon, Doug Petrie, and two of the episode's actresses. Many of the same folks return for the appropriately titled "Spotlight on Dawn" (7:25), which, aside from a reminder of hints dropped to her arrival in previous seasons, is more of a retelling of Dawn's presence in the season as opposed anything new or insightful. A still gallery features twenty-eight or so production stills. Nothing terribly interesting. There's also a thirty-nine second letterboxed trailer for the console video game Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds, which takes place between the episodes Forever and Intervention this season. The game itself is a not-entirely-successful knock-off of the excellent Buffy XBox title and isn't recommended with any particular enthusiasm, but that's another topic entirely. Rounding out the extras on disc six is the DVD-ROM accessible "Willow's Demon Database". The note on the set-top portion of the disc claims that it's for Windows 95 only, but it supports Mac OS 9.x and OS X as well. My PC apparently wasn't in the mood to play it -- the program froze with the first letter of Willow's password the first time around and wouldn't play after that without a reboot.
Scattered throughout the six-disc set are scripts for The Replacement, Fool for Love, Into the Woods, and Checkpoint. There are no easily-accessible text files on the DVD-ROM portion of these discs, which would have been a nice alternative to having to continually whack the 'Next Chapter' button on my remote to thumb through a script's pages.
The discs' anamorphic widescreen menus boast the same sort of music, animation, and transitions seen in previous Buffy and Angel releases, this time taking on the theme of peering through a keyhole. Each episode is divided into fifteen chapter stops or so. One strange authoring decision is that on twenty-one of the set's episodes, there's a chapter stop immediately following the opening theme to make it quick and painless to skip past. Real Me is the only exception, placing the second chapter stop several minutes afterward. There is no 'Play All' feature to expedite marathon viewing either. The episodes and the discs they're on are listed on a provided insert, tucked into the same style of packaging used for the previous three seasons.
Conclusion: The last great season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season five hits DVD with a decent presentation and a solid assortment of extras, making for an essential purchase for fans of the series.
Related Reviews: Various DVD Talk reviewers have tackled the first four seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the 1992 theatrical release that preceded the television series, and the first two seasons of Angel.