Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Four Review
The fourth year of Buffy marks quite a significant change of direction for the series. After three years of building the characters and seeing them in their final years through High school, we now get a change of pace, change of setting and a change of values for the series.
Following the catastrophic effects of the Season Three finale, Buffy (Gellar) and Willow (Hannigan) have moved on and started at Sunnydale University. Xander (Brendon) has headed off around the world, Giles (Head) is now unemployed both as a Librarian and as a Watcher and Angel has moved away to Los Angeles (and into his own TV series) accompanied by Cordelia. With a few familiar faces missing, Joss Whedon and co faced the daunting task of replacing them - some more successfully than others. Ex-Vengeance Demon, Anya (Emma Caulfield) does a fantastic job taking up Cordelia's mantle, old favourite Spike (Marsters) returns to the fray bringing with him some excellent one-liners and Riley (Marc Blucas) becomes Buffy's bland love interest for the series.
After the intensity of Faith and the Mayor in the third season, one of the main problems with the fourth season is the apparently lack of a decent villain. Instead, the start of the season sees the introduction of 'The Initiative' - a sort of crack military team formed to tackle the rising threat of demons and vampires in Sunnydale while later in the series, one of The Initiative's experiments - a super-demon called Adam is set loose and proves to be a major headache for the gang.
The lack of a focus for the first half of the season means that the episodes seem a little aimless and while there's obviously an arc, it doesn't pull you in and keep you gripped. The introduction of Adam seems rushed and the conclusion of the Adam arc is hugely disappointing. However, despite this the fourth season actually plays host to some of the best standalone episodes the series as seen, along with what many still consider to be the best Buffy episode so far - Hush. In addition, the return of Faith for a couple of episodes brings a welcome kick back to the series, and the occasional tie-ins with Angel also ensure that even though the overriding story isn't as strong there's still plenty of reason to watch.
So the good points for Season Four are the standalone episodes, the Angel tie-ins, the return of Spike and the growth of the characters in general. The bad points can be summed up as being the overall story arc, the introduction of Riley (although he isn't quite as bad as some have made out - he's just a bland character and lacks any real depth), and one particularly bad stinker of an episode - Beer Bad.
The DVD - Sound and Picture
Again, Fox manage to do the right thing - we have a wonderful anamorphic widescreen transfer that, while not without it's flaws, is far superior to any other previous Buffy releases. The increased picture area allows every scene to appear more open and relaxed - it's far less cramped and the extra picture information gives a whole new depth to the series. However, there are a few problems with the transfer - it's not as sharp as it could be and I did notice what appeared to be a few compression artefacts in the early episodes.
The sound is adequate - not really any better than previous releases. The two-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack lacks the depth of a full 5.1 channel mix, but it's good enough for a TV series and is no better or worse than you'll have heard on the original TV broadcasts. As I say in every Buffy/Angel review I've done so far, the front soundstage is nice and wide and there is enough surround activity to give just enough ambience to the series.
The DVD - Supplements
The first disc just features the script for 'Fear Itself' - there's nothing really to make it stand out - just lots of static pages of text.
Writer Doug Petrie talks about 'The Initiative'. This is quite an interesting commentary in which amongst other things he draws parallels between this season of Buffy and the TV series', The Prisoner and Star Trek. The commentary style is a little dry for my taste and falls into the trap of just telling you what's going on on-screen and some repetition... Worth dipping in and out more than listening to all the way through.
The first disc to have some real meat. A lot of the focus of the extras on this disc is on the episode 'Hush', the most important of which is a commentary by Joss Whedon and what a commentary it is. Once again it's a little dry but still engaging, and even though this is one of the best episodes Joss still manages to find little things to criticise and gives a good insight into the thinking behind an episode where no-one speaks. We also get the script for the episode and a small five-minute featurette that is worth a watch. Non-Hush extras include three more featurettes - a look at the sets used through the series, in particular the Initiative HQ, an 11-minute featurette focussing on Spike including interviews with James Marsters, finally the other extra is a look at the music used in Buffy including a bit on Christopher Beck composing music for the series, the bands that feature in The Bronze and an interview with Nerf Herder (the guys behind the series theme tune).
We also get a couple of trailers for Buffy DVD releases and some pages of cast biographies.
Another commentary by Doug Petrie, this time for 'This Years Girl'. Again it suffers the same problems as his other commentary in this box set, but as before it's worth listening to, at least in part to get an view on the ideas behind this episode.
Jane Espenson talks about the episode 'Superstar' which sees School nerd Jonathan magically becoming a cross between James Bond and some other superhero - the man everyone in Sunnydale turns to if they run into trouble. As with Petrie's commentaries, this one falls into the trap of describing too much of what's going on on-screen instead of telling you about the things you want to know. Not bad, but not really very involving. We also get the script for the excellent 'Who Are You' episode that sees Buffy swap bodies with Faith.
This disc features two commentaries. The first is by writer David Fury and director James A Contner for ‘Primeval’ that sees Buffy finally go head-to-head with Adam. The commentary is interesting but full of silences and once again manages to just commentate on the on-screen action. The other commentary is by Joss Whedon and focuses on the season finale 'Restless' which sees the Scooby Gang face their worst nightmares in their dream and Buffy meet the first ever Slayer. Joss makes use of this commentary more to reflect on the series as a whole but he still manages to make some interesting observations on the episode itself and how it ties in with the rest of the narrative.
To round of the box set there's a 35-minute overview of the season that is probably worth avoiding until you've seen all of the episodes. There are interviews with the cast and crew, but once again Alyson Hannigan and Sarah Michelle Gellar or notable by their absence. Finally there's a large selection of stills.
An excellent package with much improved picture quality and a nice comprehensive selection of extras. The standalone and Faith episodes are the ones you're most likely to enjoy most, but even though the overall story was a little weak it's still in a different league to most of the output we seem to get from the US. Worth a buy for any Buffy fan.