Friday, September 09, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 9: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Once More With Feeling"

When I consider the ten best hours of TV ever produced (not just genre programming, but in general), I think of the final episode of The Fugitive, Star Trek's "City on the Edge of Forever," the M*A*S*H series finale, and last but certainly not least, a sixth season episode of Joss Whedon's brilliantly post-modern horror/superhero series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although there are many outstanding episodes of Buffy (including "Hush," "The Gift," "Conversations with Dead People," "The Prom," and "Earshot"), it is "Once More With Feeling," the all-singing, all-dancing musical episode, that shines today as something truly amazing, and transcends the both its genre and the medium. Critic David Klein called it "absolutely captivating," and "like nothing" he'd seen on regular series television, which he's watched and written about for more than twenty years. (Electronic Media, July 9, 2002, page 6.) He's spot-on.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer has been called a "post-feminist parable on the challenge of balancing one's personal and work life," (Time Magazine, December 29, 1997, page 137), and a "literal scream and always a hoot," (TV Guide, January 2-8, 1999, page 23). "Just about the best horror show on television" according to Cinefantasique (October 1997, page 137), Buffy has also been praised for the fact that "no other show balances so many elements as deftly, without a trace of corniness or melodrama" (Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly: "Oujia Broads," November 6, 1998). "Once More With Feeling" boasts all those strengths, and more.

For its sixth season, Buffy the Vampire Slayer moved from its long-time home at the WB to UPN. In the fifth season finale, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) had died while saving the world from an evil God named Glory, and for the sixth season she was resurrected by her friends (including Willow and Xander), but something went terribly wrong. Our stalwart slayer had been pulled out of a heavenly after-life - not a hell dimension, as her friends feared - and now our mortal coil was all pain and suffering for Buffy. She felt disconnected, alone, out-of-touch, but the gallant Chosen One just couldn't express these emotions to her friends, and so she felt the pain in silence and isolation. Until "Once More with Feeling," a musical treatise about communication, about the songs we sing to ourselves, about the secrets we hide and yearn to share.

"Once More With Feeling" aired on November 5, 2001. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, the episode also featured original music and lyrics by this artist, with songs produced and arranged by Jesse Tobias and Christopher Beck. Choreographer Adam Shankman was responsible for not just fight scenes in graveyards, but dance numbers too.

The episode's action starts when a demon called Sweet (Hinton Battle) arrives in Sunnydale, summoned by someone close to Buffy. He casts a spell on the town that makes every inhabitant sing and dance about their innermost emotional issues. That doesn't sound so bad, except that the urge to release the singin' and dancin' also happens to cause murderous spontaneous combustion, and consequently townies are dropping like flies. Buffy and her friends - including the lovelorn vampire Spike (James Marsters) - investigate the crisis, but all the while sing their own tunes. Spike sings "Rest in Peace," imploring Buffy to stop toying with his emotions, or leave him alone. Buffy sings "Going Through the Motions," about her detachment from the world. Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) croons about holding Buffy back ("Standing"), and Xander and Anya sing a duet, a 1930s-style "pastiche" called "I'll Never Tell," that reveals their fears about their romantic relationship and marriage plans. In the end, Buffy's secrets are revealed in the final confrontation with Sweet, and her friends know, at last, what is up with the Slayer. The honesty and hurt evidenced in this crescendo is practically jaw-dropping. It's devastating, but in the style of the old-fashioned movie musical, the episode climaxes with a kiss and curtain dropping. "Where do we go from here?" The cast sings, and as viewers of this fascinating series, we are aware that - again - the the characters are headed to new and dangerous places. Nothing on Buffy remains static; everything changes, and "Once More with Feeling" is a turning point.

"The thing about musicals," Joss Whedon told me in an interview for my new book, Singing a New Tune: The Re-birth of the Modern Film Musical (which features a chapter on "Once More with Feeling"), "is you sing what you can't say. In the same way as shutting up [in "Hush"] caused everybody to open up in ways they hadn't before, singing did the same thing...The heart of the matter - what the person is feeling, what the person needs to communicate, the great revelation, the denouement, whatever it is - all of this should be expressed through song."

Buffy The Vampire Slayer has always concerned language, and how characters use it to conceal, dissemble, reveal, lie, deny or express love. How the Scoobies sometimes look at Buffy (as a superhero) and themselves (as sidekicks) in dialogue ("Avengers Assemble!" Xander quips in one episode) is one of the perpetual joys of the show and "Once More With Feeling" takes the characters in exciting new directions and lays bare their emotions in another manner of communication - not psychologically-adroit patter, but the simplicity and elegance of song. It's a bit amazing that a show this good - boasting a dozen full-fledged musical numbers - could be made on a TV budget and within TV time limitations, but every single song in "Once More with Feeling" brings out new facets of the characters, and gives the series a wind behind its back for the remainder of the sixth season; one of my personal favorites.

The musical is a form that's perpetually out of fashion lately, but Joss Whedon did the seemingly impossible here. He made the artificial, theatrical form not just palatable to an increasingly "reality" obsessed world - but actually irresistible - especially to genre fan boys like myself. In fact, I credit this episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and Baz Luhrmann's dazzling Moulin Rouge) - both from 2001 - with sparking my research and love affair with movie musicals. "Once More with Feeling" is not only the finest and most involving episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it's one of the great hours in TV history, with a brilliant soundtrack to match the action on screen.

"It's such an alchemy,"
Whedon notes. "It's so hard to get it right, but if a musical really does hit people, they'll love it more than any damn thing in the world. Because music speaks to people more than anything else does...When you put in exciting lyrics, characters you love and all that good stuff, everything heightens. It takes you to another level of existence."

"Once More With Feeling" proves Whedon's thesis in spades. It is an installment of Buffy (and genre television...) that transcends standard episodic television, and just about everything else out there too.


  1. Thinking of the best Buffy episode - in terms of the best 10 hours of TV ever - man, I can't even think. It's a long list. A lot of people would probably mention Hush (which you did mention). The joy of being a fan (as opposed to a respected critic) is I don't have to explain my choices with anything more than a "because", lol. Looking with a narrow perspective (mine!), I think about response, namely how I responded to a given event or episode. And that episode would be season 3's "Enemies." Most cringe when I say that. What about "The Wish" or "Earshot" or one of the 'better' episodes of that season. Nope. It's perspective. As a Buffy fan, we watched Buffy's long drawn out agony with Angel to Angelus and her having to off him at the end (that episode did figure in my short list)... but... season 3 came and she was moving on and Angel (not Angelus) was back. Then the Mayor and Faith decide an evil Angelus would be a better choice for their plans. It just happened so quickly, like an emotional roller coaster ride, that could not help but push the buttons of the die hard fan. At the time, because we did not know better, we thought that Angelus was really back and our collectibve hearts (well, mine at any rate) agonized for poor Buffy. And then the declaration of who really is the best actor. Wow. So much impact in so little time. I don't understand those who called the episode slow. It's like calling Hush quiet. You have to get into the characters and what they are feeling.

  2. Maybe you hate musicals, John, but I never really did-I once saw, and brought the soundtrack from, Fiddler On The Roof, and I enjoyed it immensely. I also enjoyed West Side Story when I heard it as a soundtrack album. Granted, I was a kid of eight, but well, you know, that was my upbringing.

    Anyhoo, I can deal with musicals, and so I was able to deal with this one-and this one is frakking amazing! I love both Giles's and Spike's songs ('Standing In The Way ' and 'Rest In Peace' respectively) and I really wish that this episiode had cleaned up at the Emmys, but you know how the 'Cacademy' (yes, the spelling is deliberate because the idiots in charge of the Emmys are full of that material) looks on genre shows like Buffy. All in all, a great review on your part.