Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Charles Martin Smith
Original Airdate: 10th March, 1997
The supernatural and the paranormal were everywhere by 1997. The X-Files had become one the most pop culturally defining television shows of the era and every American television network, and even some British ones, were looking to get in on the action and any potential commercial success that came from monsters, ghosts, ghouls and, in some cases, aliens.
It was this environment that Buffy the Vampire Slayer returned to in 1997. The first season consisted of twelve episodes that were all completed by the time ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ made its premiere on the 10th of March 1997 on The WB Network.
While the now-gone network (it merged with UPN to form The CW) is most famous for its output of dramas and comedies centrered around teens, it was a reputation that came about because of Buffy, and later Dawson’s Creek. There is something apt that two of the most era-defining teen shows should come from the network that would become famous for similar shows, but also from two writers who had or were dabbling in horror and whose work was formed by a knowledge and consumption of pop culture with smart characters capable of delivering incredibly witty one liners and dialogue.
It’s safe to say that not much was expected from Buffy when it made its television debut, not least that television shows based on films have always had a mixed track record. M*A*S*H has always been one of the highest profile examples of a television series based on a movie eclipsing the source in terms of commercial success. Ask anyone what M*A*S*H is and chances are they’ll tell you it’s a TV series starring Alan Alda, as opposed to a Robert Altman-directed film.
The 90s had also given audiences a successful Clueless television series, but also the monstrosity that was Robocop: The Series, while recent years have seen surprisingly brilliant masterworks such as Friday Night Lights and Dear White People make the move to a television setting and deliver a tremendous run of episodes that have taken the main plot and themes of those movies in ever increasingly complex and brilliant directions.
It had been five years since the premiere of Buffy’s modestly successful feature film and the not so stellar reviews that greeted it, but the possibilities afforded by television such as longer form storytelling, and the fact that narratives centrered around teen characters made for massively entertaining television series, made it something that had the potential to be a commercial hit, and with Whedon now being given the reign to do what he had wanted to do with the concept, it’s no surprise that it became the cult smash that it did.
Not for nothing did Whedon describe the series in interviews as My So-Called Life meets The X-Files.
If one needs to see the intentions behind Buffy, it’s all there in the opening scene. If the stereotypical blonde girl fighting back was the main drive behind the idea of the movie, Whedon takes things even further with the opening scene for the television series. The very first thing we glimpse is Sunnydale High School, our setting for the next three seasons, and a guy and a girl on a date breaking in.
She’s timid and scared, he’s confident and full of bravado. Either he’s going to kill her, or they’re both going to die, and yet the rug is pulled from under us and the guy in question (future CSI: NY star Carmine Givonazzo) when it turns out she is a vampire and kills him.
It’s a lovely subversion of every “lover’s lane” type of cliché seen in the horror genre, being both a gentle shock and also funny when one looks back on it, and how wonderful that our first glimpse of any major Buffy/Angel-verse character happens to be Darla and Julie Benz’s joyously psychotic (at this stage) performance, what with a preppy demeanour, blonde hair and frightened nature playing into the type of cliché that the entire concept of the show was wanting to subvert before going even further with it.
It hints at the unpredictable nature of the storytelling that would become a major factor in Buffy and Angel.
Before we know it, we’re in the title sequence backed by that Nerf Herder theme song, all heavy metal guitar strings, and it may only be the first episode, but Buffy has arrived in near perfect shape. Yes, the first season is a little rough around the edges, but ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ never has that pilot episode feel, something that comes down to it not technically being a pilot, the latter of which was a twenty five minute presentation that Joss Whedon has said will never be officially released, although if you look around it’s probably somewhere on You Tube.
The series is clearly working on a lower budget than it would in later seasons, but Whedon has always been a blissfully confident writer, especially in terms of how to handle genre tropes and utilise smart dialogue and a lot the things that we think of in his writing is all there. The world building across this first forty-five minutes (and the next episode, ‘The Harvest’ which was edited together with ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ in some territories and released onto VHS in the UK which I pretty much wore out through constantly rewatching it) is tight and knowing, almost as if the four to five years that Buffy was thought off as a failed film led to Whedon thinking of how to do it more correctly.
While he was a little dismayed at the upping of the humour from his darker script, a sense of comedy is retained, albeit in a more controlled way. One year away from Dawson’s Creek, the late 90’s was all about know-it-all teens who were the first generation to have access to so much pop culture and history that allowed them to be wittier and more intelligent than most adults. Scream in 1996, the premiere of Buffy in 1997 and Dawson’s Creek the following year said a lot about how adult script writers saw teenagers, and honestly, as someone who grew up a teenager during that time, I wished we all were, but at least we got to live vicariously though those characters.
The introductions to each of the core cast is wonderful, and like the world building, Willow, Cordelia, Xander and Giles are all introduced in a way that makes them feel perfectly formed right away. Character development will become a major factor in what makes Buffy and Angel so wonderful, with characters changing and developing in a way that feels genuine as opposed to changing for the sake of changing, and yet one gets the sense that these characters had lives and existed before they are introduced here.
Willow and Xander’s friendship feels genuine, while the social hierarchy of the school and Cordelia’s place in it manages to be both threatening and funny at the same time. Then there’s Giles. If the elder male/younger female dynamic in the movie felt weird, and maybe not intentionally, there is a stern father/daughter dynamic built into the relationship here that makes it feel more natural and less strained than what was going on between Kristy Swanson and Donald Sutherland in the ’92 film.
It helps that the wonderful Anthony Stewart Head plays Giles with an abundance of British charm. Previously famous for appearing in romantic comedy commercials for instant coffee on both sides of the Atlantic, he has that clumsy yet dashing Hugh Grant type thing that everyone was going nuts for in the 90s, particularly in American productions, while never pushing it too far into the realm of British quirk.
Of the supporting cast, the only character and performance that feels off is David Boreanaz as Angel who is more cocky and less brooding here than what we’d come to expect from the character in later episodes and seasons, plus it’s always strange to see him wearing white as opposed to all-dark colours.
Then there’s Sarah Michelle Gellar. This may not be a character that she originated, but her seven-season run in the role is the most iconic. Her performance and the character will become one of the most fascinating and brilliant in television, and a lot of it is there right from the moment we meet her. This may not be a direct sequel to the movie, making references to events that were written but not incorporated, but there are dimensions to the character and Gellar’s portrayal, and her desperation to be a girl not owned by a pre-ordained destiny and wanting to have a normal life is subtly and well done, and sold completely and brilliantly by Gellar throughout, her performance combining charm, humour and determined grit magnificently.
It’s a massively entertaining forty five minutes that is recognizably Buffy and while there are some episodes in this first season that are hit or miss (I’m looking at you ‘Teacher’s Pet’), there is so much to engage with here, and so much that is smart and clever in a manner that one always thinks of when thinking of this show that it really gets it fangs into you and I’m not sorry at all for finishing this review with an obvious joke.