Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on February 21, 2003, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

“It’s so funny to look at them back in high school—it seems like a long time ago,” says writer Jane Espenson on her audio commentary for the “Earshot” episode in Fox’s latest Buffy the Vampire Slayer boxed set. This longtime viewer can only agree—it is strange to revisit today the third, standout season of the series, back when the gang were still teenagers, Angel was still hanging around Sunnydale and Willow was still—well, straight. Indeed, one of the most fun things about this new DVD package is watching “Wish” and “Doppelgangland” again, picking out the clues to both Willow’s dark side (one key line of dialogue in particular) and her changeable sexuality.

This group of episodes found creator/executive producer/occasional writer and director Joss Whedon and his collaborators firmly planted on creative ground, confident in their abilities and willing to experiment with offbeat storytelling, all while allowing the characters to guide the overall plot arc. (Espenson even admits that at the time they filmed the late-in-the-season “Earshot,” the team didn’t know exactly how everything was going to end.) The series also benefitted in its third go-round from being shot on 35mm for the first time, and it shows in the much-improved transfers here. Gone (for the most part) are the murk and grain that afflicted the previous Buffy boxes; the colors are richer and the pictures sharper, gracing the episodes with a feature film-quality veneer. The Dolby 2.0 Surround audio is fairly limited in comparison to big-screen product, but gets the job done clearly and well.

As on the other Buffy discs so far, the audio commentaries date back a couple of years; on “Helpless,” writer David Fury refers to recording it during the fifth season and muses, “Hopefully someday we’ll de-rat Amy,” a character cured of that affliction some time ago. Fury, Espenson and “Bad Girls” scripter Doug Petrie each offer valuable observations on their respective episodes, though Petrie shares by far the most interesting stuff, describes the joy of seeing his name in the credits and conveys the thrill of his continuing work on the show. One thing the scribes have in common here is noting that Whedon made sometimes significant changes to their work, yet they each sound grateful for, rather than disgruntled by, the alterations.

Whedon’s influence on all facets of his show can also be detected in Buffy cinematographer Michael Gershman’s commentary for “Consequences,” one of the episodes he also helmed. When it comes to the series’ style, he largely talks a lot of basics, like a journeyman director—suggesting that perhaps one can’t bring too much personality to a show that reflects one creator’s overriding vision. Still, Gershman has worthwhile things to say about other areas—explaining how a car accident that killed an overtired crew member on another show led to the TV industry restricting the length of set days, and admitting that the mediocre Buffy movie gave him initial pause about coming on board the series.

Whedon himself is conspicuous by his absence from the commentaries; his own observations would have added much to this set. He does appear in six brief on-camera interview segments—er, make that three, each of which is used to supplement two episodes (“Bad Girls” and “Consequences,” “Enemies” and “Earshot” and the two parts of “Graduation Day”). These talks reflect the importance of those pairs in the season development, though their brief lengths add to the frustration of Whedon’s not being a stronger overall presence.

More ground is covered in the “Season 3 Overview,” which runs about 22 minutes and hits many of the key bases—most notably the change in villainous emphasis from Mr. Trick to the Mayor and Faith. Here, as in Espenson’s commentary, the serious treatment of the subject of school violence in “Earshot” is discussed; the delay in the episode’s airing following the Columbine shootings is addressed, albeit only briefly (and nowhere in the supplements is it pointed out that “Graduation Day, Part 2” was also postponed for the same reason). Brief featurettes on “Wardrobe,” “Weapons” (noting that these props are used as shorthand for the seriousness of the threats against the characters), “Special Effects” (with neat step-by-step demonstrations) and makeup FX artist John Vulich (who made the spider legs eaten by the Mayor out of Tootsie Rolls) add texture to the overall package.

Then there’s “Buffy Speak,” in which the writers explain the process of coming up with all the show’s hip dialogue—a good deal of which, they say, is based on how Whedon talks. What goes unacknowledged, however, is a quality that helps Buffy stand tall among its youth-horror competition, big-screen and small: For all the clever turns of phrase and wisecracks, it’s the lines (as well as the actions) that grow out of the characters and their situations that make it memorable. One of my all-time favorite Buffy punchlines is spoken in this season’s “Enemies”—Giles’ “I introduced him to his wife”—and that one’s only funny in context.

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