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To Hell and Back

by Jeff Jensen

Neither mind-sucking goddesses, bean-counting corporate demons, nor a ratings-damned new network can keep Buffy the Vampire Slayer down. Here's a peek inside the new season.

The witching hour is drawing nigh on this August evening in the fields of L.A.'s fabled Griffith Park. A full moon shines brightly, the brisk air is deadly sitll - it's absolutely perfect weather for a resurrection. At the foot of a neatly tended grave kneels the winsome sorceress Willow, her cheeks daubed with blood. Flanking her with burning black candles are her buddies: witchy girlfriend Tara, bitchy demoness Anya, and twitchy normal guy Xander. Willow invokes the dread power of the dark deity Osiris. Her body convulses with black magic. Her anxious pals watch with I-just-peed-my-pants terror. And there's something moving in the bushes...

Out pops Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But there's something slightly off about her. The eyes are cold. The emotions a tad forced. The movements almost mechanical. And just as you begin to wonder if Willow's spell has gone wildly zombie-wrong, demons on motorcycles come roaring in, the gang scatters, and Buffy screams, "Willow! I need service!"

Drat, they fooled us again: That isn't Buffy at all, it's her android counterpart, Buffybot, which in the drama's two-hour season premiere (airing Oct. 2) attempts to substitute for its presently deceased doppelgänger. When the Slayer was last seen, she had sacrificed her life to save her teenage sister Dawn from being killed by a universe-annihilating goddes named Glory. So will the real Buffy stand up again? Please. "I hear that I will be on the show in some form this year," says Sarah Michelle Gellar during a break in shooting, a prosthesis of wiry Buffybot entrails visible under her demon-shredded blouse. "But I can't tell you anything. Sorry."

Not to worry. There's still plenty of intriguing Buffy miscellany left to chew over. Like the bitter and extraordinarily public behind-the-scenes battle between its creator, Joss Whedon, and its long-time network, The WB. Or the subsequent move to UPN, home to pro wrestling and Star Trek, a place that until now was most likely regarded as a ring in pop-culture hell to Buffy's female devotees. Or the show's latest Emmy snub (despite widespread critical acclaim, Buffy has never garnered any acting nods and has earned just one writing nomination in its history), an affront that has enraged both rabid fans and staffers alike.

Despite those spirit-deadening turns of recent events, resurrection is still the buzzword on the set. The UPN move? "It's put a little firecracker under everyone's ass," says Alyson Hannigan (Willow). The Emmy middle finger? "It's totally invigorated us," says James Marsters, who plays the Billy Idol-lookin' vampire Spike. "There's a little bit of a chip on our shoulders. We feel like we have something to prove."

No one embodies this fighting-back ethos more than the Slayer herself. Take this unsolicited rant against Parents Television Council, a watchdog group that recently ranked Buffy the third worst show on TV, right behind its new UPN stablemate, WWF Smackdown! "We're like the most religious show out there! We're more religious than 7th Heaven!" she rages. "We're Greek mythology - we answer the big questions! They just make me laugh so hard. I say, 'Come debate me. I want to see you bring your arguments to my face. Because you will lose - so quickly.'"

Hell hath no fury like Buffy scorned.

Sarah Michelle Gellar was living in a solar-powered house with no phone on an island off the coast of Australia shooting Scooby Doo last spring when she read about the network-warming gift from her new home, UPN. "All I lived by were magazines that were airlifted to us," says Gellar, who plays dishy, miniskirted Daphne in the film, premiering next summer. "I opened one of them one day, and I learned, 'Oh! I have a Gucci jacket waiting for me at home. How nice."

How Gellar came to receive that Gucci jacket is one of those Hollywood stories marked by egos, power struggles, and massive amounts of money. It's also really, really boring, driven by complicated television economics and studio politics. But here's stab at a brief recap: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show produced by Twentieth Century Fox Television based on Whedon's screenplay for the 1992 box office flop of the same name. Since its midseason debut in 1997 on The WB, Buffy has amassed a demographically attractive cult following, garnered widespread critical acclaim, propelled Gellar to teeny-bopper superstardom, and inspired a spin-off show (Angel, starring David Boreanaz). Problem: by the 2000-01 season, Buffy was costing Fox over $2 million per episode, but only getting about $1 million per from The WB. With its original deal up for renewal, Fox wanted more money. Asking price: $2 million. The WB balked, saying the show's 4.4 million viewers were only worth their weight in ad revenue: about $1.6 million. Bitter bickering ensued.

And as it did, Buffy's cast and crew were wondering what the Hellmouth was going on. "I'd pick up a Hollywood Reporter on the set and see - yep, still fighting," says Hannigan. "Occasionally, I would ask Joss, 'Are we going to have a job next year?" And he'd go, 'You will. Don't worry.'" Whedon himself wasn't worried - just deeply hurt that The WB was now judging one of its flagship shows solely in terms of dollars and cents. "I was just so turned around by the whole thing," says Whedon, who adds that only once did his emotions boil over: While directing the season finale - the series' 100th episode - the very network that seemed prepared to drop the show wanted to toast its longevity by bringing press on set for cake and photo opportunities. "The whole thing made me so angry, I had to stop shooting," says Whedon. "I was like, 'Shut it down! I just can't be here right now!'"

In the end, The WB offered $2 million per episode, but hitched the cash to a TNT syndication deal for Angel. Instead, Fox took UPN's no-strings-attached $2.3 million. Fox execs say the hefty raise (combined with ancillary revenues) will now make Buffy profitable for the studio. However, taking UPN's dough could mean that Buffy will be seen by slightly fewer people, since The WB has historically had greater national distribution than its rival. (UPN is contracted to agressively promote the show where it does air; look for bloodred "Buffy Lives" billboards to start popping up soon.) And there has since been speculation that Fox never actually intended to renew with The WB; Fox parent News Corp. owns several of UPN's largest affiliates, and reportedly has been considering a larger investment in the netlet - an investment that would be far more enticing if UPN were home to, say, a certain network-establishing demon desiccator. UPN and Fox execs deny any corporate-mandated shenanigans. So why did UPN bet so big on Buffy? To burnish its image, lure women to its mostly male airwaves, and drive ad sales across its schedule, says UPN prez Dean Valentine. Though he concedes "we're probably going to lose a little money on it," Valentine belives those benefits more than make up for it. "Maybe we can't say it was home run for us," he says, "but it's triple at least, and there was never a second's hesitation whether it was the right move."

But there was some hesitation on Buffy's part. During the negotiations, Gellar sparked controversy by telling E! Online that she would leave the show before leaving The WB - momentarily forgetting, apparently, that she was under contract to Twentieth Century Fox for two more years. There's even been scuttlebutt that she had to be financially enticed to appear at the preseason press tour in July. "I love this drama!" says Gellar, 24, denying the rumor. "Of course, I had loyalties to The WB. Look at what they've done for me and the show. So of course my first reaction was 'You don't want to go anywhere.' You want to be where home is. People ask me if I regret the comment." She shakes her head. "You can't regret the way you feel. Change is scary. But sometimes, change can be for the better."

And a new Gucci jacket doesn't hurt either. In fact, there were welcoming gifts for everybody: a 19th-century edition of the collected works of Shakespeare for Whedon, Cartier watches for the supporting cast. The gesture was definitely appreciated; as one cast member says of The WB: "I don't think they realized there was anyone else on the show but Sarah and David."

So what has $2.3 million per episode bought Buffy that it didn't already have? "A great big huge trailer," says Marsters. "Better craft service," says Gellar. "More whores," says Nicholas Brendon, who plays Xander: "Many, many, many more whores."

And raises for all of the cast, according to Twentieth Century Fox execs - though if you ask the actors, they maintain they haven't seen any of that UPN money. (Or maybe that's just their polite way of saying None of your business.) But there is one thing Buffy openly covets that all its newfound riches can't buy: respect, particularly in the form of one of those shiny gold Emmys. "I don't suppose it's like the political thing to say," says Emma Caulfield (Anya). "I'm supposed to say, 'We're really happy to be doing our jobs.' Yeah, whatever. If any one of us goes out and says, 'It's not a big deal,' we'd be lying."

The consensus feeling is that last year marked a return to greatness after a slightly miscalculated season 4. Gellar says the show was "really flying" by last February's "The Body," which had Buffy and her sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) dealing with the death of their single mother. "That was probably the most awful experience of my life - and I mean that in the best way," says Gellar, who herself was raised by a single mother. "It was gut-wrenching for me, and though it cut to the heart of the character and the show, I never want to do it again." Whedon, who wrote and directed episode, admits he was hoping Emmy would take notice, especially after getting a writing nomination the year before. "It's my own fault for getting my hopes up," says Whedon. "Every now and then, I'll go, 'Damn.' But if I wanted Emmy nominations, all my characters would be doctors."

Still, look for Whedon to swing for the fences again with an episode he's spent the entire summer toiling on: a musical - scheduled to air in November - which will crystallize the season's major plotlines. This year's Big Theme, says Whedon, will be "Oh, grow up!" That encompasses Buffy's transition back to the mortal coil, which won't be easy (Gellar's opening number in the musical: "Going Through the Motions"), and Xander and Anya's walk to the altar. As for the other future plotlines, they're being kept completely hush-hush, including who the year's bad guy will be. But what's this we hear about Willow being tempted to the dark side? And a possible pruning of the cast? "With Buffy, you just never know," says Amber Benson (Tara). "You're always scared here. But it's always what's best for the show." There is one casualty that we can report: Toodle-oo to Anthony Stewart Head, who plays the Slayer's tweedy British mentor, Giles. After spending the last five years working in Los Angeles while his girlfriend and their two daughters lived in England, Head finally grew weary of "missing them all horribly." Fittingly, Head (who promises to make occasional appearances on Buffy) exchanged his Cartier for a woman's size and gave it to his significant other: "I thought it was the very, very least I could do."

The show will also have to persevere without the day-by-day leadership of Whedon, who is focusing on a Buffy animated series, developing a BBC spin-off that will star Head, and making his film directing debut (project undetermined). Guiding the troops through their UPN debut will be Marti Noxon, a veteran Buffy scribe who's been elevated to exec producer. She plans to rule the Buffyverse by one simple edict. "What would Whedon do?" she says. "That's what I'm trying to do: Live inside the big freaky alien head of Joss Whedon."

Back on the set, Gellar does the math on all that's happened and comes to this conclusion: "Everything's the same. Nothing's changed. Yeah, there's a bit of added pressure, but our job is the same: We just need to make a good show." Unlike last spring, when she was commuting between Australia and the U.S. every two weeks to shoot Scooby Doo, her only Buffy distraction at present is planning a wedding to her Scooby Doo costar, Freddie Prinze Jr. (Gellar brushes off that topic by joking: "It happened last week. Didn't you read about it? It was a joint ceremony with me and Freddie and Drew Barrymore and Tom Green. No comment.")

As for all this talk of Emmys and respect, leave it to the gal whom her colleagues admiringly call "the little pro" to bottom-line it. "You have to remember: We don't make the show for Emmy voters," says Gellar. "We make the show because it's cool. We make the show because it means so much to so many people. There's a character for everybody here. Someone to connect with. Someone who might be them. That's what makes the show so special."

At which point Emma Caulfield interrupts to pay Gellar a compliment. "I just wanted to say - your ass looks great in those jeans."

"Thank you! So does yours!" laughs Gellar. "You know what - that's what it's really all about. Forget story lines. Forget actors. This show has great asses." She smiles. "Flattery will get you everywhere around here."

That, and $2.3 million.

The Usual
The Usual

Random Quotage:

Oh, please! If every vampire who said he was at the crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock... I was actually at Woodstock. That was a weird gig. I fed off a flowerperson, and I spent the next six hours watchin' my hand move.
-Spike (School Hard)

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