Shiny Shelf

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Once More, With Feeling

By Jim Smith on 03 May 2003

Reacted to with puzzlement by some of the more hardcore of hardcore ‘Buffy’ fans this mass-market edition of one of the series most marketable and very best episodes is an obvious, and very welcome DVD release. There are, I kid you not, a lot of people who like the series and would like to own some of it but who aren’t prepared to shell out the best part of £100 to buy an entire season. There are a fair few people, including some Shiny Shelf correspondents, for whom this individual release is a welcome opportunity to get some shiny disc Slayer action without bankrupting themselves in the process.

‘Once More, With Feeling’ was, to those of you not paying attention, the series insanely ambitious, over-length musical episode produced in the centre of the show’s dark, dank and dour sixth year on air. An emotionally complex, moody and very weird piece, direct comparisons with other TV series musical episodes, even the successful ones (such as those in ‘Ally McBeal’, ‘Xena:Warrior Princess’) are spectacularly misplaced to the point of being actually ignorant.

What ‘Once More, With Feeling’ achieves, and what it clearly sets out to achieve, is a more a deconstruction of the musical genre than an individual musical per se. Not only do we journey through just every conceivable style of sing-a-long-a-drama during this hour, we find ourselves in a situation where the very nasty, bleak nature of the drama actually undercuts the fact that the musical is, almost by definition, the dramatic form which took the ‘weight’ out of lightweight.

Thus the opening number is a jaunty Steven Sondheim pastiche about wanting to die and the loves songs are damaged, even as we enjoy singing along to them, by the knowledge of their inevitable consequences. The imposition of Broadway logic on this darkest part of the series run is ironic in the traditional sense. We know that once the strings and chords fade these broken people will have to pick the pieces up within a dramatic aesthetic where such things as doubts about your marriage, bad choices and betraying your lover matter far more than they did in ‘Half a Sixpence’.

The subversion of the inevitable romantic ending of a musical (‘The curtains close/On a kiss/God Knows’) with a kiss between two people for whom a future can never exist, spurred on by one character’s self hatred and the other’s desperation is the episode’s conceptual heart, and a really nasty twisting of a particularly jagged dramatic knife. The music and the drama pull in opposite directions; the lives of these characters and the songs they’re being forced to sing just don’t function in the same way. This gap in meaning could, in lesser hands, be a disaster – here it’s an astonishing dramatic strength. ‘Don’t give me songs’ begs a visibly exhausted and openly suicidal Buffy, ‘Give me something to sing about. Please, give me something to sing about…’

A bleak and brutal conceptual joke which ends with a denial of a catharsis and leaves you feeling beaten and bowed, ‘Once More, With Feeling’ is, from its coldly punning title (‘Say you’re happy now, once more, with feeling’) bona fide classic television by any standard, probably the best hour of American TV since David Lynch hung up his boots in Snowqualie and called time on ‘Twin Peaks’.

This nice package contains several special features dealing with the series and its musical elements, and trailers for the rest of the show on DVD. Rather nicely there’s no ‘exclusive’ material here, nothing to try and force those who are already committed to buying the sixth season box set to buy this too. Thanks Fox, for not being New Line about this. Inexplicably the disc also contains an interview with Jessica Alba, star of ‘Dark Angel’, which appears to have been cut from the press pack for that distinctly under whelming show. It’s the only part of this package that you won’t want to experience again and again.

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