Buffy Bites Back
by Ken Tucker
Sarah Michelle Gellar overcomes death -- and a network change -- in a funny, scary two-hour season premiere on UPN.
EW GRADE: A
You knew she'd be back, didn't you?
I'm not just talking about the return of "Buffy the Vampire
Slayer" the show. I mean Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle
Gellar), the vampire slayer who sacrificed herself to save her
sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), at the end of last
season and the end of this series' stay at The WB. In making
a business move over to UPN, this remarkable creation by
writer-producer-director Joss Whedon -- a work of resonant
fantasy unequaled in television -- has come up with a
ripsnorting two-hour season premiere.
I'm not going to spoil the plot mechanism that returns Buffy
to action (it's not giving anything away to repeat: You knew
she'd be back, right?). But other mechanisms deserve their
due, one of them being Gellar's witty performance as the
"Buffybot" -- the robot Buffy who was used as comic relief in
a few episodes last season. In the first hour of the "Buffy"
premiere, written with slicing wit by executive producer Marti
Noxon, the series that had turned morosely bleak regains its
stubborn humor, as Buffy's pals -- Willow (Alyson Hannigan),
Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Spike (James Marsters), Giles
(Anthony Stewart Head), Tara (Amber Benson), and Anya
(Emma Caulfield) -- crank up the Buffybot as a
temporary-replacement slayer until they can figure out how
to raise Buffy from the dead. "We need the world and the
underworld to think that Buffy is alive," says Giles -- the
underworld being that universe of vicious creatures who
forever threaten the heroes' small town of Sunnydale, site of
the demon-spawning Hellmouth. (Just explaining the "Buffy"
mythology after five seasons is both tricky and a testament
to the richness of the world Whedon and company have
Anyway, Gellar-as-Buffybot is chipper, literal-minded, and,
literally, mindless: Her whirring motor "brain" works overtime
during what Willow calls the bot's "most dangerous challenge
ever" -- which proves to be passing herself off as human at
the local school's Parent-Teacher Day. Noxon's script glides
smoothly from this humor to some hard-boiled action scenes.
Hannigan is terrifically commanding in the opening sequence
as a witch-power-enhanced Willow who beams out telepathic
orders to her friends -- she'll remind comic-book fans (of
whom Whedon is one, big time) of the telepath Jean Grey in
The show's first hour -- again, I'm not giving anything away
that hasn't been previously announced -- paves the way for
Giles' exit from the series; Buffy's Watcher (her trainer,
counselor, and confidant) is returning to his native England,
where in real life Head will head up his own new
Whedon-created series for Brit telly. As usual in "Buffy,"
tender moments such as Giles' leave-taking are handled with
a sorrowful delicacy as touching as any show on the small
"Buffy"'s second hour revs up the plot. This section is written
by coexecutive producer David Fury, and its more serious,
scary-movie elements pay homage to a couple of films by
director Brian De Palma, specifically "Carrie" and (lesser
known but befitting the teleplay author's name) "The Fury."
I'm leery of divulging specific moments, but the closing hour
features demon bikers, a few brief scenes that confirm the
producers aren't going to shy away from the ongoing
romance between Willow and Tara, plus Xander's first use of
the musical-comedy theater as metaphor ("We got trouble,
right here in Hellmouth city," he says, a Music Man of
mayhem). This is perhaps a winking prelude to the musical
episode Whedon has vowed to do later this season; reserve
your seats now.
The final hour rewards fans with a renewal of dramatic
energy for the series and, at the same time, enables new
viewers to catch up on what amounts to a fresh start for the
show. Taken together, the two hours unfold like a legend
being told for the first time. Who'd have thought that lowly
UPN, so blessed to be the new home of "Buffy," can now hold
its head high and boast that it can go toe-to-toe with HBO?
It's got a series with as much emotional punch as "The
Sopranos" (yeah, go ahead, the snobs among you, sneer)
and one whose scarifying coffin scene alone gives new
menace to the phrase "Six Feet Under."