Sunday, May 24, 2009

Reconsidered: "Beer Bad"

For more about "Reconsidered," check this out.

"Beer Bad" has long been considered one of the worst, if not THE worst, episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's the 5th episode of season four, an underappreciated season that gets a lot of flack for the "Initiative" storyline, and Buffy's romance with white bread Captain America Riley Finn. Overarching "big bad" aside, S4 was about the transition to college, and "Beer Bad" takes on several college experiences: Buffy's emotional recovery from her experience with love and leave 'em douchebag Parker Abrams, Xander's attempt to fit in with the Scoobies even though he's not attending UC Sunnydale, and, of course, underage drinking.

The plot in a nutshell: Xander becomes a bartender at a local college pub. Four pompous dudes frequent the bar, lecturing everyone about sociological theories while quaffing pitcher after pitcher of their favorite microbew, Black Frost. Turns out, the pub owner has had it up to here with these guys and their dickish behavior, so he casts a spell on the "Black Frost" (his brother is a warlock) which causes all those who consume it to slide down the evolutionary ladder and revert, mentally and physically, to cavemen. The Buffster, seeking some laughs while attempting to get over Parker, has a few brewskis with these guys, and soon, the five of them are "questing for fire" on the campus. Violence and mayhem ensues, culminating in a big blaze in the Grotto (local coffee shop). Buffy, not quite as cro-magnoned as the four asswipes, winds up saving both Willow and Parker, who were there chatting about Parker's treatment of Buffy when the cavemen broke in, from the fire. Message? Beer Bad.

Fans of a show, particularly one as universally well regarded as Buffy, often say "even the worst episode is better than anything else on TV." Is that true here? Kind of. I'd much rather watch "Beer Bad" than Supernanny, 90210, Private Practice or Jon's Wandering Dick and His Famewhoring Wife Exploit Their Children for Fun and Profit. "Beer Bad" is still definitely one of the lesser Buffy episodes, but it's not the all time worst. (There are some season one clunkers, and "Where The Wild Things Are," that easily rate below it).

In fact, there's quite a bit to like about "Beer Bad:"

  • The season four opening credits are first rate.
  • The fight sequence that opens the episode is well done.
  • Sarah Michelle Gellar does a very fine (and funny!) job playing drunk (and playing cavewoman).
  • Some classic Whedony dialogue:
Xander: mon girlfrere. Behold (holds up a fake id) Behold.

Willow: I don't believe this is entirely on the up and up.

Xander: What gives it away?

Willow: looking at it.

Buffy: Maybe I'm in his bubble and then pretty soon he's going to
realize that he wants more than just bubble Buffy and he'll pop me out
and we'll go to dinner and it could happen right?

Willow: Buffy. And as my best friend you need to stop thinking about
Parker. He's no good. There are men, better men, wherein the mind is
stronger than the penis.

Xander: Nothing can defeat the penis! Too loud, very unseemly.

Oz: Hey. You got a table.

Willow: I had to kill a man.

Oz: Well, it's a really good table

Willow: What did you do with Buffy

Buffy: I'm suffering the afterness of a bad night of badness

Willow: You didn't. Not with Parker again.

Buffy: No, with four really smart guys.

Willow: Four? Oh. Ow. Oh Buffy, are you okay? Do you wanna talk about

Buffy: I went to see Xander. Then I saw Parker. Then came beer.

Willow: And then group sex?

Buffy: (Hits her) Gutter face. No! Just lots and lots of beer. It's
nice. Foamy. Comforting. It's just beer.

Giles: I can't believe you served Buffy that beer.

Xander: I didn't know it was evil

Giles: But you knew it was beer

Xander: well excuse Mr. “I spent the sixties in an electric Kool-Aid
funky Satan groove”.
Giles: it was the early seventies and you should know better.
  • One of the four college douchebags was an early role for Kumar, Kutner and Obama staffer, Kal Penn.
  • The beginning of Oz's attraction to the very sexy Veruca was well played here.
  • The revelation of what was behind the devolution was understated and unveiled by the pub owner in such a matter of fact manner, it added to the comedy.
  • Willow is such an empathetic figure, and so well acted by Alyson Hannigan, that you could almost go along with her falling for Parker's bullshit. How nice when she turned the tables and called him on his game (before they were both knocked out by the cavemen).
  • And finally, when Buffy (still quasi-devolved) gets the apology from Parker, she whacks him with a stick. Nice.

However, despite all the reasons to appreciate "Beer Bad," the episode still fails on a macro level because the metaphor is just so heavy handed and simple minded. Buffy is a show that worked in metaphor a great deal, and when it worked (which is often), it worked gloriously ("Suprise" / "Innocence"). But here, the messages -- underage drinking is wrong, y'all! and booze makes you stoopid! -- are so unnuanced and hamfisted that it detracts from the other fun to be had with the episode. The reality of a college campus is that underage drinking goes on all the time, and not everyone becomes Amy Winehouse after their first brewski. It's fine to want to send a message, but surely there are more subtle and effective ways to get the point across without painting in such broad strokes. In fact, "Beer Bad" does more shaded work on other "messages," like the nature of the ego, superego and id (Maggie Walsh's lecture and Parker's games) or socioeconomic class struggles (the four asswipes pre-magic beer juxtaposed with Xander's struggles to fit in).

So, at the end of the day, how is "Beer Bad" once it's Reconsidered? Not as bad as it's made out to be, and definitely worth a watch now and again. C+


  1. I used to believe fans who said "Beer Bad" was the worst of the worst, so I'd skip it. But I don't skip it anymore on marathon viewings, mostly for the reasons you listed. (I'm particularly fond of Buffy whirling herself around in the chair. It's one of the moments in the series that I really feel SMG is enjoying herself as an actress.)

    I'm with you on "Where the Wild Things Are." That shitfest has exactly two things going for it: Giles singing, and the word "poltergasm." And for some reason I've always disliked "The Dark Age." It is, overall, a solid story with some fantastic dialogue, and it's important to Giles's backstory. But this is one I DO skip most of the time. The pacing is really bad -- so much so that the episode feel interminable to me.

  2. That chair scene is cute, isn't it?

    I give more of a "pass" to S1 bad eps, since everyone (writers, actors, Joss) was finding their way with the tone and overall process of actually producing a TV show. That's what makes "Wild Things" stand out like a sore thumb: they'd been at this for 4 seasons now, and that was AWFUL. I'm not sure I could find a blog post's worth of "entertainment" value in it.

  3. The universally despised seasons 4 and 6 are actually the only ones I purchased as single sets.

    I sense a Memorial Day marathon coming on.

  4. I have all the seasons, but I'm with you on liking 4 and 6 FAR more than the average fan. Yes, a Memorial Day marathon sounds good, doesn't it?

  5. I'm mostly in agreement. I find myself watching seasons four and seven more than any others. I like the first and third parts of season six, but the middle really drags and is ridiculously depressing. Of course, I still think the four episodes from "Pangs" to "Doomed" in season four represent the strongest and most consistent and entertaining part of the series, and no one ever agrees with me on that. (Although "Choices" to "Graduation Day Part II" in season three is a close second.)