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This “Season Four” review is going to seem all over the place – and it is – for two reason: First, the season itself was all over the place tonally, thematically, and from a quality standpoint. Second, It took me four years to get through the season, which ain’t great for the ol’ memory databanks, if you know what I mean. So if it seems disjointed or lacking, sue me – I’m a human being. ANYway!

“Buffy: The College Years” is exactly like any high schooler entering college’s life; full of change, reflection, self-discovery, new challenges, and obtaining independence. All of the major players from last season (minus Angel and Cordelia for obvious reason) go through a ton this season. Change for Buffy comes out swinging in the very first episode, “The Freshman” when a low-level vampire takes her out due to her own self-inflated ego, and then in “Living Conditions” when having to deal with the inclusion of someone else into her life that doesn’t fit, namely her roommate, Cathy. Xander deal with not going to college by having a multitude of jobs (bartender, ice cream truck driver, construction guy, candy bar salesman, etc.) and also having the most stable relationship of his core friends with ex-demon Anya. Giles is no longer employed or a Watcher, Willow gets a chance to just stop being the nerd and change her image entirely, and even smaller players like Oz and Spike have major changes.

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Many of these changes bring newfound obstacles or complications, such as Oz cheating, Willow becoming a lesbian, Buffy dating someone and sleeping with them like a stupid girl, or Joyce Summers fading into the background. These are all analogous to the daunting reality of “college preparing you for ‘real life'” – this is a theme Season 4 tries to hammer home very early and struggles with very quickly. “Living Conditions” and “Harsh Light of Day” do a solid job of this, showing various darker aspects to adjusting to ‘adult’ life. But then “Beer Bad” happens and its all so over-the-head. And its not just the early episodes, either: “Where the Wild Things Are” is an episode completely dedicated to the topic of having too much young, college sex and letting it ruin your life. This could be handled well, but, well, it isn’t. At all. This kind of back-and-forth is rampant all season long.

The new players, though, offer a mixed bag as well. Riley, Maggie Walsh, and the Initiative – as well as “Big Bad” Adam – are hit-or-miss. Conceptually, all of these new factors are engaging. WAAAAY back in “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” we saw that the government had knowledge of the supernatural and though Marcie has yet to show up (still not in the comics, I don’t think) here we see further reaching implications of that knowledge. And again, whether it works or not is mostly episode-to-episode, with Riley and the boys being effective plot points or otherwise being a joke. The other characters, aside from Riley (who, while being a huge doof, is still mostly a fun, human character and a good opposing side of the ‘Buffy’s Boyfriend’ coin from Angel), are mostly blah. Forrest sucks. His boner for Riley gets in the way of compelling characterization. Walsh is OK until right before she dies when the plot needs Adam to show up and she just becomes a stock mad scientist/super villain. The General that shows up is OK, but one-note. And Adam? What to say about Adam?

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Adam first shows up in “The I In Team” but really arrived in “Goodbye, Iowa” — and then he’s not really seen doing much but monologue-ing and standing around in bad makeup for the rest of the season, until “The Yoko Effect” when we first get a whiff of his plan. Compare this to The Master, The Mayor, or Spike & Dru who are menacing throughout their respective seasons, or at least seen doing stuff. Adam is mostly talked about while off camera and then dispatched with relative ease thanks to a spell that CHANGED EVERYTHING FOREVER YOU GUYS. Its a missed opportunity because we learn a bit this season but more later that a Slayer in the fusion of “man and demon” and the parallel between him and Buffy could have made for interesting TV. Instead, we got what we go. Oh well.

There’s some fantastic comedy (“A New Man”, for example) and some damned good heartbreak (“Wild at Heart”) and the lore building, particularly in the epic, multi-faceted finale “Restless”, is beyond a doubt the best the series has had to offer thus far, and in some ways, ever will offer. Its long-lasting stuff that effects the remainder of the television show for years to come, most notably in the following season. And the character growth all feels natural. As a long-time supporter of Willow+Oz, watching the relationship with Tara start coming into fruition was a treat and an interesting moment of revelation. It never feels forced and feels completely earned. Ditto with Xander’s building feelings of worthlessness and Giles’ sense of self-worth diminishing. Its all natural and never against character. Even if things get tied up too neatly by the end of “Primeval” in that elevator shaft.

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The fights are more brutal (check Faith vs Buffy in “This Year’s Girl” or the massive beating Spike gives Buffy in “The Harsh Light of Day”), the effects are getting really good (spells have lighting and transformations are smoother) and aside from Adam, the make-up work is much better, such as Giles’ demon form. Hell, even the music is getting better. “Hush” has a soundtrack that is through the roof. Also, that episode is amazing, but I don’t have to tell you that. You know that its a great episode. Its why I haven’t mentioned it much, here. There is no reason.

Despite this, the overall feeling of the season is one of lackluster emotion and blah-blah narratives. I just don’t care about much of this season. It has some real good stuff going for it, and the show’s overall quality is increasing in various ways throughout the 22 episodes. But the main bad guy is lame, the Initiative is lame, keeping Buffy’s mom off screen is lame, some unexplained plots (where does Giles get the money to maintain his lifestyle?) are lame, its themes are lame, and even the crossovers – minus Angel beating and taunting Riley in “The Yoko Factor” – are lame. Its all… it’s all lame. You could argue that the letdown is harsh and cruel, just like life can be, but shut up. This is a TV show. I escape the shitty life I have with TV. I don’t need to be reminded of it, there. Season 4 is the roughest the series gets, not counting the first (since it was getting its legs and displayed so much joyous innocense). But it wasn’t all bad and, hey, its over! Wahoo! On to Glory and… and…

…Dawn.

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Average Episode Rating: 84.5
Season Rating: 78

Favorite Episode: “Restless”
Best Episode: Tie: “Restless” and “Who Are You”
Worst Episode: “Where the Wild Things Are”

Best Character: Last three seasons it was the “Big Bad” – not gonna happen here. Here, I’m going to go ahead and give it to Buffy. It IS her show, but the way they display her changes and her acceptance of her new, ‘adult’ life are well done and she gets the most growth of all the characters without becoming completely new people: Willow and Xander change dramatically, Buffy is more subtle. I can dig it.

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