Slop On Pop: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1, Episode 8: I Robot, You Jane

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Slop On Pop is a brand new column starting today on Pop Modern. It’s both a critique and celebration of all things dumb in pop culture. Bad episodes of TV shows, catastrophic films, a notorious issue of a beloved comic, or even just a trashy Flash game. It’s like a book club for things that suck! The host of the week picks the content, all three editors consume it, and each offers their unique take on what they thought of it. This week, we start off with a show-stopper, aka one of the most reviled episodes of one of the seminal television shows of the last few decades.

The Host: Allen

I’ve certainly had a strange time with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After starting Season One on a whim towards the end of last summer, I brought on Magellan to watch along with me a few episodes a week, and it’s been quite the rollercoaster. The peaks and valleys in quality make it such a joy to watch with someone else, and watching the characters evolve over each season has been fascinating. However, jumping back so many years to when “I Robot, You Jane” aired, I can’t help but catch all the elements that made the show gasping for air amongst the cheesy garbage surrounding them. None of this episode stands up to scrutiny; the technology is so outdated now, the villain doesn’t seem remotely threatening, and they wasted a chance to make Willow more likable, who comes off as ignorant and shallow than anything here, completely opposite of the strong character she grew into since then. But there’s a certain aesthetic that I love about these early seasons of the show. The poor audio quality makes it sound like it was recorded on a flip phone, every character has a classic outfit style (Buffy and her crazy sunglasses, Willow with the sneakers and skirts, Xander with the…poorly-fitting shirts, Giles with all that lovely argyle), and the villain couldn’t look any more fake. But an important part of selling viewers on a universe as layered as this one is making your characters easily identifiable, so that their out of character moments hit harder later. It almost feels like “I Robot, You Jane” would be a joke episode in later seasons, with characters being thrown across rooms and generic electricity bolts being used to kill people all over the place. Just a tighter script and less reliance on hyper-contemporary technology could have made this episode resonate even today. The best scenes of the episode have to be the Calendar/Giles banter that would define their characters later, the suicide note being written by the demon on the computer, and the ending shot. It’s a poignant, darkly comedic frame that encapsulates where the characters were mentally at the time, and where they were inevitably going to be for years to come.

James: 

What Went Wrong: This episode is really dated. The emphasis on the dangers of computer to social interaction feels like a reactionary movement to an event that happened more than two decades ago. It is hard to be frightened by the internet while using it so much. Lack of understanding breeds fear and this is exactly what is going on. The old and the young have their rousing disputes but come together in the end. The story is banal now, even if it wasn’t hen and makes the show feel dated. The dialogue feels uninformed and sloppy. Everything is dumbed down to the level that somebody in the nineties could understand, which is fine for everybody who happens to still live in the nineties (I’m looking at you Australia). My favorite quote has to be: “If you’re not jacked in you’re not alive.” The main thing that bothered me though was its complete and total lack of any appreciable menace. Sure the internet is evil, so what? The robot needed to be invented purely for some actual pressing threat. It’s easy to pontificate on the devastation of the crashing stock market, but the demon feels more like a vandal than a powerful corrupter.

What Went Right: The piece feels like it could have meant something once. Perhaps in days less jaded by widespread access to the internet, I would have been frightened by the portents of the lack of human connection. There are some truths in the episode still that the internet can be a very frightening place. And the monks provided really good backdrop for the Italy scene. I’m pretty sure that they were speaking Italian and everything. What we really saw was the introduction of a new character to foil the librarian. This teacher is young, tech savy, and sexual. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the introduction of a very major character,

Takeaway: This show is so nineties.  Really. I would watch another episode because I know that the show is better than this one (so I’ve been told). I wouldn’t recommend this particular episode to a friend, unless I didn’t like them all that much. Television shows are allowed to have their off-episodes, and not everything can be as great as The Cape. (Editors note: James has a weird obsession with the cancelled superhero drama, The Cape. Pay that no mind.)

Magellan: 

What Went Wrong: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for all the praise it gets for being one of the greatest cult TV shows of all time, it’s also the show that boasts the widest gulf in quality between its great episodes and its terrible ones. To give you a little background, Allen and I are about a year in to our first viewing of the entirety of Buffy and its spin-off show, Angel. We’ve spaced out and picked apart every episode one by one; there were times when we were over the moon with excitement, and other times when we were irrationally angry at what played out on screen. Whereas most episodes sit at one end of the spectrum, “I Robot, You Jane” bungees wildly between the two. Obviously, it’s at its worst when the 90’s teenagers try to talk about the Internet (insisting on saying things like “e-letter” and “I’m jacked in,” or Buffy saying that the demon is “in every computer connected to it via modem”) and when a demon builds himself a Power Ranger villain costume. On a more egregious level, the episode attempts to give Willow some genuine character development for the first time in the series, but squanders it on this waste of an episode premise, robbing Willow of any sort of meaningful romantic agency. Couple that with two scenes that use wacky electricity as a plot device and the one where Willow is talking and typing at the same time (also, why did the demon start using text-to-speech halfway through the episode?), and it all adds up to an intrinsically skippable monster-of-the-week outing. Even more than that, though, this is the Buffy universe’s first attempt to mix magic and technology, a theme which always fills me with rage at how consistently the writers mishandle it. Forget robots and “technopagans;” stick to vampires.
What Went Right: Now, there’s plenty to hate about this episode, but somehow I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. You can most likely chalk that up to nostalgia, since the youthful vigor and innocence of the first season is refreshing for someone currently slogging through the melodramatic swamp that is Season Six. I enjoyed a lot of the camp (the overwrought “She’s the Slayer” intro for instance), if only because I knew it was an artifact of the show’s naivety rather than its potential. On my first watch of this episode I felt similarly, though tinged with the desire to finally see the show get good. This time around I wasn’t occupied with that desire, so I could enjoy its merits a bit more. All of the actors are in top form here, delivering even the stupidest lines with aplomb. Xander and Buffy are quippy and fun, and it’s great to see them almost teaming up in the face of Willow’s newfound confidence. The episode introduces Jenny Calendar, the computer teacher who plays off Giles in a hilarious (if hamfisted) way. All of their exchanges are fantastic, and it’s no wonder that she came back for more later on in the series. Alyson Hannigan does what she can with this episode, but as I said the story mishandles Willow in an unfortunate way. The opening scene is also fairly impressive, and it’s the first time that the show experimented with historical flashbacks, a device that would be used again in the future, especially as we start to learn more and more about Angel.
Takeaway: This episode isn’t bad so much as it is difficult. Anyone unfamiliar with the show will think it’s the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen, so it’s definitely not a good entry point into the series (unless you think camp is the way to win a new fan over, though the pilot episode is plenty campy on its own). You may not even enjoy it the first time you watch it in sequence, but on a second viewing you’ll be able to appreciate that the episode means well (it approaches themes still relevant to our Internet society, albeit clumsily), and you’ll be able to marvel at how far the show and its characters have come.

 

     

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