Sunday, July 15, 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer : "Hush"

Season 4, Episode 10
Original Airdate: December 14, 1999
Writer/ Director/ Executive Producer: Joss Whedon
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Anthony Stewart Head

Television is supposed to be a visual medium, and yet it consistently seems like you would be hard-pressed to find a lot of support for that statement on the air. Plopped in our living rooms as a replacement for radio, during the ‘50s, many shows were originally broadcast live, meaning there was barely any camera movement or location change. Multi-camera sitcoms didn’t help matters in terms of visual invention, at least not until “Sports Night” came along. You could see the actors, sure, but the spoken word was still the key. Flash forward to today, and that still seems to be the rule. Because of budget constraints, most television shows are stuck in courtrooms, crime scenes and apartment buildings. Reality shows shake their cameras and make everyone look like a clone of Lauren Conrad by using the same filters. As a writer and lover of fantastic dialogue, this doesn’t bother me (love ‘ya, Aaron, Amy and David!), but you still have to stand up and applaud when a creator allows you to experience television storytelling in a new way.

Going into its fourth season, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” had become famous for the snappy dialogue and excellent characterization that was spearheaded by show creator Joss Whedon. Also for never being nominated for any major Emmys. Maybe Whedon was complimented one too many times on his snappy dialogue. Maybe he had just caught a Charlie Chaplin marathon on Turner Classic Movies. Or maybe he just sensed that the fourth season of his show wasn’t connecting like the others, and decided to throw out the rulebook.

“Hush” represents the peak in quality for a show that was regularly excellent. Despite doing something so off the beaten path, it still manages to completely embody the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” viewers tuned into every other week. Buffy was still Buffy and the tone and humor was in line with what we always expected. But by getting rid of dialogue, Whedon underlined that he didn’t need the banter to make the show special. It already was.

Whedon opens the episode with a dream sequence, complete with a little blonde girl who sings a song about the monster-of-the-week. When a show goes out of its way to craft a horrifying song about its creatures (called The Gentlemen) and then puts the lyrics into the mouth of the creepiest being on the planet (those with young blonde girls as children will certainly back me up here), you know that the show is going to go for the throat. I did not mean that last part to be a pun, but I’m going to go with it.

The teaser and first act are filled with all the usual witty witticisms, though purposefully a little more stale than usual. This is to underline that words can be used as a means to block communication as often as it is used to embrace it. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Riley (Marc Blucas) talk, talk, talk instead of actually admitting their feelings. Anya (Emma Caulfield) is angry with Xander (Nicholas Brendon) because he won’t put a label on their “relationship.” My beloved Tara (Amber Benson) is completely unable to speak in her Wicca group because everyone else is talking about things that don’t matter. And then the Gentlemen arrive, open up a box and everyone loses their voice.

The initial realization of the mass mutism (I think I created a word there) is brilliantly written and staged. Buffy and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) have a panicked conversation in their dorm room where you can almost…almost tell what they are trying to say by lip reading. Xander panics and tries to call Buffy, only to realize the moment she picks up the phone that neither can do anything to communicate that way. Riley is almost killed because the elevator to the military compound needs voice recognition. And there’s a fantastic beat, so simple to describe yet ingenious in execution, where a random student drops a bottle and the viewer jumps out of his seat. All of this is set to the fantastic music of Christophe Beck, who makes the affair feel like a classic Universal horror movie. There have been a few other television episodes that used a lack of dialogue as a storytelling technique (“The Twilight Zone” episode “The Invaders” comes to mind), but never like this. In fact, dare I say that no other show in the history of television could have pulled this type of storyline off successfully in the way this episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” did? I think I do dare.

Yes, there is some dialogue sprinkled into the episode, most notably when the characters watch a news program and when Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse) uses a machine that verbalizes what she types. But these beats feel like network notes more than something that creatively blossoms from the situation. But for the most part, Whedon creates a purpose for his lack of words. Buffy and Riley embrace their relationship in a way they could not do when they could speak. Xander beats up Spike (James Marsters) after misinterpreting a situation with Anya, proving that he cares about her. Tara proves stronger than expected when she connects with Willow. And all the while we get genuine belly laughs out of the situation. Buffy gets the eyebrows of her friends raised when she makes a questionable motion in her chair at the Scooby summit, and later gets angry with Giles’ drawing of her because the hips are too big. Gellar’s performance in the episode is really a revelation, able to perfectly switch gears from humor to pathos to fighter in an instant.

And did I mention the episode is genuinely frightening? Though there was a lot of suspense to be found in the best episodes of “Buffy,” it wasn’t exactly known to cause the same goosebumps and generate the same scares shows like “The X-Files” and “The Night Stalker” did. But here the Gentlemen and their straight-jacket-clad minions are scary as hell. They look like a skeleton that has grown skin, if that makes sense, and their make-up design is an obvious tip of the hat to Lon Chaney’s make-up in the original “Phantom of the Opera.” It feels like a lot of time (and the budget) went into crafting the monsters, their lair and their method of transportation (floating a few inches over the street), and the result is a villain for the ages.

After the triumph of “Hush,” which earned the only major Emmy nomination in the show’s history, for Best Writing, Whedon began experimenting much more often (usually to great success) in storytelling techniques. The fourth season finale related all the main characters’ dreams. The season five episode “The Body” remains the heart-wrenching examination of death in television (hell, for my money television and film) history. And then there’s the musical episode “Once More, With Feeling.” To be bluntly honest, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was the reason I wanted to become a television writer, and this episode changed the way I look at storytelling. Any single episode that can do that is some kind of special.

“Hush” is available on Buffy’s fourth season DVD, Amazon Prime, iTunes and Hulu Plus (ugh).

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