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Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Bargaining (2001)

This two-episode season opener was spliced together into feature-length for airing in the UK, which means I'm arbitrarily classing it as a TV movie - previous two-parters were sometimes screened as double bills but still played as separate episodes. As such, it's a disappointment: the plot covers material important for the main characters but there's nothing approaching a satisfying standalone story. A fairly unfearsome gang of semi-Cenobite demon bikers are the almost-irrelevant menace, taking a backseat as the script copes with the sub-plot departure of regular Anthony Stewart Head as he hies off to England and a spin-off show that never happened and worries around the necessary business of bringing Buffy - killed at the end of the last season - back to life. For the first part, Sarah Michelle Gellar is on hand as a robot version of herself, whose perky literalism is actually more appealing than the glum, traumatised character the real Buffy has become after several years of tragedy and misery. For once, Gellar - who must have been fed up with becoming the series' resident wet blanket - gets the skewed-view lines usually handed out to supporting characters. She even manages more poignance as a not-quite-real woman than she does when she claws her way out of the grave at the end of Part One and wanders disoriented throughout Part Two only to get her mind back in a clinch with her sister at the top of the tower from the season closer. To my mind, the show would have been better off bumping Michelle Trachtenberg's Dawn to the lead and letting Gellar get on with her big screen career.

As usual, there's a deal of foreshadowing - Alyson Hannigan's Willow, more prominent in the credits, brings Buffy back via a ritual which involves black magic (ie: killing Bambi) and is therefore doomed to go bad and become the season menace - but it'd be nicer if we were given presents now rather than promised some later. The show's strengths are still there: unobtrusively good character work from the support cast, strong dialogue ('did you see your whole life flash before you?' Spike asks Giles, 'cup of tea, cup of tea, nearly had a shag, cup of tea'). A problem is the cartoony way the monsters are treated, which makes them less fearsome: demons rampage through the streets and no one even calls the cops, and the vampires on view are all fools. The soap stuff about character interaction continues (a significant plot point is Xander putting off the announcement of his engagement to Anya for no reason other than to keep a thread running) but without the high school or even college background of earlier seasons, let alone a credible family (the milieu seems to be a semi-lesbian Wiccan feminist house of women), the story feels as if it's taking place in a vacuum. Remember when two-part stories from TV series could be released as stand-alone films? New readers shouldn't begin here.

First published in this form here.

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