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Good Grief

"Buffy"'s stars excel during a tragic plotline. The loss of the WB's heroine's mom was more than a sweeps month stunt, says Ken Tucker

Last Tuesday, President George W. Bush gave a prime time address to the nation that, according to the Nielsen ratings, helped boost viewership for the networks that didn't carry his speech; ratings were up, for example, for the WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I can't imagine what people who'd never seen the show before may have thought if they were idly channel surfing and came across that remarkable Feb. 27 episode, "The Body," in which Buffy's mother, played by Kristine Sutherland, died of a brain aneurysm.

Even if you'd heard that there was a quality show lurking beneath its intentionally flip series title, this "Buffy" broke with its own conventions. "The Body," written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon, was at once a departure from and a culmination of everything the show has been, and the fact that the Mar. 6 episode is a rerun of "Family" (which revealed Tara's unhappy origins) may just be giving its regular viewers a good chance to collect their thoughts about it.

In "The Body," Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy came upon her mother, Joyce, lying on the living room sofa, dead. As I noted above, her life wasn't taken by the show's usual culprit -- some sort of supernatural evil force -- but that made Joyce's death by natural causes all the more shocking. Whedon signaled his serious intentions by giving the episode a strict construction: no background music; each segment returned from its commercial break with a shot of Joyce's corpse laid out in calm repose.

While there were more subdued versions of the joking that goes on between Buffy's friends Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Tara (Amber Benson), and Anya (Emma Caulfield), the humor was drenched in grief. The scene in which Buffy goes to the school of her younger sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) to tell her the awful news was cunning.

Coming out of a commercial, it began with Dawn in tears -- we at first assumed she already knew. Then Whedon made it clear that Dawn was bawling because she'd been the victim of a classmate's teasing, so when Buffy appeared, we realized, with renewed dread, that Dawn had something far more serious to be upset about, which made her crying all the more poignant.

Gellar's performance reached beyond what she'd ever been called upon to do before in "Buffy." She expressed shock, shame (that she hadn't been able to save her mother, the way she saves every other character in the cast from demonic threats), disbelief, acceptance, and exhaustion with equal subtlety.

If you're a fan of the show, you'll understand what I'm going to say next; if you don't watch regularly -- sorry. I hope Joyce is truly dead; that is, that this isn't part of the Dawn as The Key subplot, that Joyce will somehow be resurrected or even found to be living in some alternate universe in which Dawn (a new addition to the show this season) does not exist.

Because Joyce's death was so effective in rattling the souls of not just every character in the show but of every viewer who gave him or herself over to it, that to make it a mere sweeps stunt would be a betrayal of Whedon's audience. And I don't think he's the kind of artist who'd do that.

The Usual
The Usual

Random Quotage:

And remember, if you hurt her, I will beat you to death with a shovel. A vague disclaimer is nobody's friend. Have fun!
-Willow (The Initiative)

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