Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Two Review
Reading The DVD Forums reveals there are two distinct camps of visitors - those who are Buffy fans, and those who don't know what all the fuss is about. The former wouldn't miss a single episode of the series, the latter are more likely to go out of their way to avoid it at all costs. The premise isn't that promising - it's a teen-focused American High School series which just happens to have an element of the supernatural as it's core plot focus. The feeling you get when hearing it described that way is most likely 'that won't work' - but oddly for the most part it does.
Buffy Summers is your usual American high school student - she misses classes, worries about homework and all of the other things you'd associate with school-life. However, she also has an almost secret second life which few people actually know about - she is the 'Slayer'. Balancing her school work, her own life and her duties as the slayer has quite often been the focus of the series and of the writers - all three elements have to gel in order for the idea to work and while sometimes they may miss the spot, the writers generally seem to have a strong grip on where the series is heading.
After the successful first half-season, the executives at Fox obviously knew they were onto a good thing and left well alone when renewing the contract for the second year. Instantly there was a change of focus - now that the principal characters had been introduced, Joss Whedon and co set about building their relationships up. That's what this season is mainly about - the core characters of Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles all form relationships outside of the group - with Buffy it's the Vampire, Angel, Willow starts dating 'Dingo's Ate My Baby' band-member Oz, Xander and Cordelia manage to form an unlikely partnership and Giles gets a love interest in the form of fellow teacher, Jenny Calendar.
I hope I don't give too much away when I say that most people remember this as the season where Angel turns bad - he once again loses his soul and starts to run riot in Sunnydale. Boreanaz puts in a stunning performance as both Angel and Angelus in the latter half of the season and there are some genuinely shocking and emotional moments which are tackled with skill. Season two also introduces Angel's old acquaintances Spike and slightly nutty Drusilla - Spike (James Marsters) in particular becoming one of the most interesting and genuinely funny characters in the 'Buffy-verse' during the later seasons.
After a slow start, the second year of Buffy soon becomes a rollercoaster ride with so many twists and turns you're not sure quite what is likely to happen next. Out of the five series so far made, this is still probably the strongest as not only does it keep you tied to the screen it also lays much of the groundwork of what is to follow further down the line.
The DVD boxset contains all twenty-two episodes of the second series. Given that this was a fairly low-budget series there are obviously limitations with the source material so this should certainly be considered when watching.
I'd like to start with the packaging. At first glance it's very nice indeed - it's certainly a lot smaller than I expected. What we have is a fairly sturdy cardboard case in the form of a book contained within another sturdy cardboard slipcase. Full marks for the presentation then! The problem comes when you try to get the discs out - there's a very real risk of causing permanent scratches due to the very nature of the way they are stored. There is very little room for movement and there is permanent contact with the playing surface when removing the discs from their sleeves. Not the best way of ensuring the durability of these discs, that's for sure.
One other fairly bad flaw - and that's the nicest thing to call it considering it's obviously been premeditated by Fox - is the fact that all of the 'Previously on Buffy The Vampire Slayer' segments have been chopped off of each episode. This may not sound that bad, but consider the fact that these segments are scored as part of the episode and you'll instantly see that there's a problem. In some cases this is particularly noticeable - especially with the season opener 'When She Was Bad' and also in 'Becoming: Part One'. These segments were included on the VHS release, so why aren't they here?
Now, let's get down to the nitty-gritty disc reviews. As usual I'll kick off with a look a the picture quality baring in mind my comment above. First things first - the menus are beautifully animated and presented in pin-sharp anamorphic widescreen.
The episodes themselves are something of a disappointment. As with the first season, the second season was shot on 16mm film and this unfortunately results in fairly low detail levels and noticeable amounts of grain. This is unfortunate given that due to the high black-levels this means that many of the scenes suffer greatly with an obvious lack of detail in the shadowy areas. It's obvious that the MPEG encoding also has had some trouble coping with the source material and there is quite a bit of noticeable digital smearing during some of the lighter scenes.
Colourwise I get the impression that things are a little too dark - in fact I had to adjust my brightness and contrast settings to get the best out of it. In terms of colour reproduction - again things are slightly off with skin tones looking a little pastel-like most of the time.
If you've seen the Season One boxset, this is along the same sort of lines as far as picture quality is concerned. I'm not totally convinced that the picture is as good as the original BBC and Sky broadcasts, but there's no way of checking that now and the DVD does offer the best long-term picture quality you can expect.
The picture is presented non-anamorphically in the original 4:3 aspect ratio - later seasons were filmed in widescreen, this wasn't one of them.
We have two soundtracks - one English Dolby Digital 2.0 Pro Logic track and one in French. For the most part there's nothing to complain about here - although I did notice one or two lip-sync issues in the first episode. The soundtrack is fairly involving with plenty of (mono) rear speaker action and the occasional meaty LFE output. This is pretty much on-par with the TV broadcasts with no major issues.
Now onto the extras. Once again Fox have done a stirling job in sourcing extra material for the boxset - including four specially recorded commentary tracks. I'll cover them briefly here, but suffice to say that they're all worth a listen for different reasons.
The first is on the episode 'Reptile Boy' - this was actually the first ever episode of Buffy I watched, so I was looking forward to listening to what writer David Greenwalt had to say. Unfortunately this was probably the weakest of the three commentaries as Greenwalt does little more than describe what's happening on screen or things that we pick up on anyway. There are some useful insights but these are few and far between.
The next episode to feature a commentary is actually the two-part 'What's My Line'. This is another writer's eye view, this time by Marti Noxon. She seems to have a bit more of a grip on the sorts of things we want to hear from a commentary! Not only do we get detail on what Marti thought about the characters she was writing for but even some of the more technical aspects on the shooting on various sets and the fact that a lot of the series was shot in a real high-school.
Finally series creator Joss Whedon gets to flex his vocal chords in a commentary for 'Innocence' - possibly one of the most important episodes of the season for a number of reasons. The episode is actually the second of a two-part story, dealing with the aftermath of what has come before. Whedon is very open about the show - he's well aware that it's fiction and that it's nothing more than escapist entertainment - he's not one of these people who tries to read in too much. Therefore, it's doubly suprising that he's behind episodes such as Innocence which really does deal with important teenage issues - in this case sex and the possible consequences. Of course being Buffy these consequences are a little more intense and paranormal than real-life!
If I had a choice, I'd personally like to have a commentary on the final two episodes of the season as well. The last episode of the two is probably one of the most emotionally charged episodes ever filmed for a TV series.
The four commentary-featuring episodes also feature on-screen scripts which can be stepped through with the remote control. I always think these sorts of things would be better as DVD-ROM material which can be printed out.
The three featurettes appear to have been shot especially for this DVD release. 'Designing Buffy' looks at all work that went into the various set designs and the way they have developed. It runs for about thirteen minutes. A lot of the focus is on Buffy's house and we get a full tour.
'The Buffy Bestiary' has a look a the various vampires and demons that inhabit the Buffy-verse. This one runs for about half-an-hour or so and has interviews with both the actor's behind the characters and some of the writers. It's worth watching just for James Marster's real American accent which really does sound bizarre once you're used to his fake English accent.
Finally, 'Beauty and the Beasts' is more of a general look at the series - more of the background thinking behind the thought-process that brought the series to the screen. The focus is actually on the women of Buffy and their characters but there's quite a bit more to it than that. This one runs to around twenty minutes.
The biographies have been updated for this release and cover all of the main cast and recurring actors for the second season. Finally we have the trailers and TV Spots which cover the various VHS, DVD and TV outings of the second season (and the first season of Angel).
All in all in terms of content this is a package that sets the standard. Unfortunately there have been better-looking presentations of TV programs but most, if not all of the problems can be attributed to the low-budget nature of the first couple of seasons and the source material in question. The main issue I have (other than the packaging) is the removal of the recap segments.
If you're a Buffy fan then this set is well worth getting hold of. If you're not then the second season is probably the one which would do the best job of converting you so it may be worth an investment on that score.