OK, so this was where it really all started.
3rd May 1996 (according to the fuzzy titlecard) and Joss Whedon has re-visited his movie concept and made it into a pilot for a TV series. As with the movie, I spent a fair amount of time on the net defending this back in my full-on fan days. Unlike the movie, my opinion of it hasn’t faded over time.
So what this not is a ‘normal’ TV quality production. What it is is a 25 minute mini-episode in order to show off the idea to networks to see if they want to sign up to airing the show. In other words it’s a pilot in the Pulp Fiction sense rather than the first-show-broadcast sense that sometime gets used. What this means, apart from being shorter, is that this is a little rough around the edges: the titles are not in that pseudo-gothic font we know and love, Nerf Herder’s theme is missing and replaced by some random grunge and the special effects are basically ‘place-markers’ – they give the idea of what’s intended without spending much money. For extra roughness, seeing as how this was never meant to make it to anyone’s eyes but network execs, the copy that finally made it out onto the net wasn’t particularly great. Looks like someone got hold of a VHS copy and possibly we had a couple of copy-of-copy generations before someone thought to capture it in digital form. The combination of VHS technology, NTSC TV format (which isn’t kind to colours) and repeated copying means what I watched tonight was blurry, fuzzy with strange mixed, washed out colours.
But that all can be, legitimately in my view, be excused. It was never meant for broadcast, so it’s unfair to compare it with broadcast quality production values. To assess its strengths and weaknesses we have to look at what, presumably, the network execs looked at: acting, casting, story, action, dialogue. Fortunately in all these areas the story gets much better.
The un-aired pilot story-wise is a cut-down version of “Welcome to the Hellmouth”, the first aired episode. As such, I’m not going to spend much time on it here. I will mention that the writing is up to the standard we’d expect from the show – it’s Joss after all – and there are some jokes and one-liners that are fun:
Buffy: Film Club
Xander: They spend their time deciding that every movie is an existential meditation on Freudian sexuality.
Buffy: Even “Muppets Take Manhattan”?
Xander: Especially “Muppets Take Manhattan”!
Buffy: (on discovering there’s more than one vampire) I don’t suppose you’d be sweeties and attack me one at a time?
Vampire: You watch too many movies.
Buffy: You can never (kicks him) watch too many (kick) movies!
Well said Buffy.
So the writing’s there and so I’m pleased to say is the acting. All the usual gang are there and all performing well. Nick Brendon in particular deserves praise I feel because this was his first acting job, and he’s great. And the casting – in terms of fitting the parts and the chemistry between them – is great. With one important exception: Willow.
Willow is played by a dumpy looking girl called Riff Regan. I don’t want to be harsh – I am after all a dumpy looking boy – but she’s not up to the task, and she’s definitely not Alison Hannigan. I can see why they might have gone for her, she’s supposed to be geeky and she looks the part. She can actually act, despite what some say, but what she gives us is one-dimensional. She gives us shy, geeky, un-self-confident Willow but she never gives us more than that. Joss talks about Tony Head getting the part of Giles based on giving not just the stuffy English librarian, but the stuffy English librarian with a hint that there might be more going on underneath. There’s no underneath to Regan’s Willow. You get the feeling she’s going to always be a bit shy and diffident and that makes you feel a little sad for her.
By contrast Hanngian’s Willow’s shy geekiness is somehow and endearing and even from the first show there’s an edge underlying her lack of confidence. Oh but there’ll be plenty of time to expound on my love for Willow (which is great) as we go through the series.
Finally whilst we’re on acting I’ll quickly mention Stephen Tobolowsky as Principal Flutie. He’s excellent. He brings the funny, much as Stephen Root does in the movie. In fact, as we’ll see, all 5 Principals have been great in various ways.
Towards the end there’s a little action scene where Buffy rescues Willow from some vampires and we get to see fights done properly i.e. with some energy and something at stake. I was slightly surprised to realise that both Xander and Willow get to have a little slaying success of their own: Xander rather deftly passes Buffy a broom and Willow uses a cross to dispatch Darla. In the show itself it would be into the second series at least before we start to really see them have any ‘moves’ as it were. Perhaps this is the difference between making a pilot and a show – you need to show something of what the characters’ potential is straight away when you’re trying to get picked up, but once you are, you can relax and let them develop at a more leisurely pace.
So, to the same question I asked myself of the movie: if I’d seen this back in ’96, would it have convinced me to watch the TV series. I 95% certain the answer is yes. It’s funny and likeable and promises fantasy horror genre intrigue – just the kind of thing I’d enjoy. The 5% remains only because of what actually happened when I watched the actual show – but I’ll tell that story in its proper place.
 “Well, the way they make shows is, they make one show. That show’s called a pilot. Then they show that show to the people who make shows, and on the strength of that one show they decide if they’re going to make more shows. Some pilots get picked and become television programs. Some don’t, become nothing. She starred in one of the ones that became nothing.”
sounds like a bloke from a 70s British cop show doesn’t it?