Rest assured, Buffy is alive and kicking on UPN. Less than five minutes into the sixth season premiere of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” star and teen icon Sarah Michelle Gellar appears in true vampire staking form. Of course, by series creator Joss Whedon’s design, nothing is ever as it seems. But even the surprises and twists should carry a modicum of reassurance for fans who have wondered how their beloved slayer will return after her much publicized death in last season’s finale. Still others ponder if moving to UPN isn’t a death sentence in itself.
Acquiring “Buffy” from the WB is a huge coup for UPN, which has had success drawing male audiences with “WWF Smackdown,” but could use a healthy dose of estrogen in its lineup. As a proven product, “Buffy” can bring in younger female viewers, but not without a fight from WB. Even though Buffy may be on the same night and time as last year, with fewer markets carrying UPN than WB, competition from Fox’s “That ’70’s Show” and “Undeclared” as well as the WB’s critical darling “Gilmore Girls” could draw some blood from the show.
Premiere seg will certainly draw a large number of curious viewers to see a show without its title character. In a special two- hour episode entitled “Bargaining,” writers Marti Noxon and David Fury pick up with the Scooby Gang (Buffy’s friends and classmates), still mourning the loss of Buffy, who took a header into a wave of mystical energy to save the world in the last episode of season five.
The gang tries to maintain the peace in Sunnydale, Calif. It’s a rough job as the town sits on a Hellmouth and draws every demon and monster imaginable.
To keep a facade of order, the gang uses the Buffy Bot, an exact replica of the slayer in mechanical form, to ward off demons. Word eventually gets out that the slayer isn’t up to protecting Sunnydale and the town is overrun with marauding biker demons.
In all of the chaos, the town gets wrecked, as does as a very delicate spell that Willow (Allison Hannigan) and the gang are casting to raise Buffy back from the dead. You see, Buffy didn’t die a natural death and is therefore not beholden to the regular laws of nature.
On the surface, it seems apparent why the Television Academy balks at nominating a show with dialogue like “Her essence could be trapped in some sort of hell dimension” along with dramas like “Law and Order” and “The Sopranos.”
But like “The X-Files” before it, “Buffy” deftly blends action and science fiction with astute writing and surprisingly impressive acting into a unique and fulfilling drama.
And while other shows have utilized the sci-fi angle as a gimmick to revive characters, Whedon isn’t one to compromise a story arc in order to please fans. Buffy may be back, but nothing is neat and tidy. In fact, debut seg sets up the departure of another key character, Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), slayer watcher and father figure to Buffy.
Over the years, Head created an endearing character in Giles, bringing maturity, comedy and poignancy to the show. His character will no doubt be missed, but as his story comes to a close, others heat up. James Marsters, as rogue vampire Spike, has steadily transformed into an ever more intriguing character. Initially a brutal and impulsive monster, Spike has become a major factor in the show’s staying power.
Similarly, Hannigan has blossomed into a fine actress, taking Willow from a computer nerd sidekick to a powerful witch and loyal friend. Her character’s evolution has come off so effortlessly that nary a fuss has been made about Willow’s ongoing lesbian relationship with Tara (Amber Benson).
Although an ensemble effort, the show still belongs to Gellar, who has disarmed detractors with her charm and versatility. Like her cast mates, she’s comfortable moving between heart-wrenching drama and goofy comedy. Gellar has added credibility to a character that could simply have been played as a live-action superhero. If she weren’t believable, the show would have never made it to its sixth season. And if the season opener is any indication, there is plenty of new territory to cover.