"Someone should take a stake to the script" - what the critics thought of Buffy back in 1997

It’s easy to look back and love Buffy the Vampire Slayer now, comfortable in the knowledge that it changed TV forever. But what would you have made of the first episode, Welcome to the Hellmouth, when it first aired in 1997? Well, you’d probably have loved it, because you’re handsome and have excellent taste, but that’s hardly the point. Back then, not all TV critics we so sure. 

I’ve dug deep into internet history, like a dog-chewed version of Giles researching some obscure demon. Instead of using dusty grimoires and libraries I’ve just used Google and the Wayback Machine, so you can see who got it right, and who got it horribly wrong. Consider this a lesson, Orlando Sentinel. The internet never forgets. NEVER.

"Plays like an uneasy cross between The X-Files and Clueless"

The Variety review isn’t damning, but it reads more like an episode synopsis than an examination of its quality. Perhaps that’s fair enough, since the idea of a teenage vampire hunter with high school problems might be tricky for their target demographic to parse. When they do get critical, it’s pretty lukewarm: 

"All of the young men and women — even the wallflowers and nerds — are attractive, except when some of them slip into grotesque “special makeup effects” credited to John Vulich.

Direction by Charles Martin Smith and John T. Kretchmer is OK; if story sags a bit in the second half, it’s a script problem (feature ran a trim 85 minutes). Series has potential for early-teen viewing, though a second episode viewed was far less amusing than show’s original seg."

One of the most pleasing aspects of the review comes from a throwaway mention of Angel, if only because of the ‘confused uncle’ description of an edgy vamp in a black coat:

"A mysterious fellow who pops up unexpectedly from time to time to assist Buffy and who calls himself “Angel” (David Boreanaz)."

‘Mysterious fellow’, indeed.

"In tone, it's sort of Clueless meets Dracula"

The Hollywood Reporter continues the theme of not being able to describe Buffy without saying it’s like one thing, plus another thing, but it’s a warmer writeup that makes more of the characters: 

"[Buffy] encounters a hipper-than-thou campus queen played by Charisma Carpenter (Malibu Shores), who immediately quizzes the new arrival on fashion rules.

Buffy also meets new pals Nicholas Brendon and Alyson Hannigan, both appealing sorts. Anthony Stewart Head lends some arch, dignified humor to the proceedings as Buffy’s adult mentor."

Anyone who says nice things about Anthony Stewart Head is obviously alright with me, but they lose points for not mentioning his stellar previous work as Sophisticated Instant Coffee Man this Gold Blend advert. Elsewhere, they pick out all the smart stuff the show does well: 

"This supernatural series has fast, raucous music, attractive heroes and heroines, and nifty morphing effects for the vampires. Hip dialogue and humorously self-conscious asides clue us in that the players are aware of how wacko the situation is.

Enough attention is paid to dating frustrations and campus rivalries to draw in a younger audience, and there’s marital arts [sic] and vampire activity aplenty to please the genre fans. The witty wisecracks make it easy to buy into the frolic of kids and their teacher mentor secretly fighting the forces of the undead."

Marital arts, though? Sounds saucy. 

"Someone should take a stake to the script"

The Orlando Sentinel gave the first episode three starts - an ‘average’ rating, according to their rankings - but doesn’t let that get in the way of some glib writing:

"There's no excuse for the awkwardness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a new WB series based on the 1992 film. A supernatural Beverly Hills, 90210, the cartoonish show tries to mix campy humor, grim stories, lighthearted violence and the heroine's Valley Girl attitude. The results are mighty ragged in the series opener. The show takes strange shifts in tone, the dialogue isn't campy enough, and the violence grows tiresome."

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It’s not all bad. At least they manage to point out Stewart Head’s prestigious history as a man from commercial breaks. The reviewer also warms to future episodes, and Sarah Michelle Gellar: 

"''We're at the center of mystical convergence here,'' warns Buffy's mentor, the school librarian (Anthony Stewart Head of the Taster's Choice commercials). Maybe they are. A later episode about cheerleading and parental pressure was far snappier. Gellar, an Emmy winner for playing Erica Kane's daughter on All My Children, has attitude to spare."

Overall though, it’s summed up by this brutally dismissive outro:

"A little Valley-speak goes a long way. The dialogue is riddled with phrases like ''totally dead,'' ''morbid much'' and ''way extracurricular.'' Someone should take a stake to the script."

Get used to it, Orlando Sentinel...

"The cast—including Anthony Stewart Head as school librarian—is as smooth an ensemble as you could wish"

It’s a short, positive review from People, who seem sold on the ideas and execution: 

"Once a generation—or so goes the premise of this flip, funny new series, based on the 1992 movie—one girl in all the world is born to wage war against vampires. 

Sarah Michelle Gellar plays the part (originated by Kristy Swanson in the movie version) with the right degree of put-upon resentment, and the cast—including Anthony Stewart Head as school librarian—is as smooth an ensemble as you could wish in an hourlong series. The vampires, presided over by a king bloodsucker (Mark Metcalf) who looks like an albino rat in a leather bar, are the only disappointment. Because of his fangs, Metcalf slurps his lines. But, all in all, this looks like one of the brightest new shows of the season."

Extra points for ‘albino rat in a leather bar’, too.

"Dialogue that sounds more faux-clever than actually clever, and an overall flatness to the action/horror sequences"

It’s a bright, insightful B+ breakdown from the Onion A.V. club, which praises the pace with which the episode establishes all the important stuff, but is less sold on the pithy dialogue and fighting.

"There are a few kinks with Welcome To The Hellmouth, including some dialogue that sounds more faux-clever than actually clever, and an overall flatness to the action/horror sequences that will carry over into Episode Two 

Despite this, they do a great job of spotting where the episode soars, making out Angel as much more than just a mysterious fellow:

"But there are some poignant moments too, like when Buffy first meets Angel, the mysterious stranger who we'll learn in The Harvest is a vampire tortured by a conscience… And I especially liked the scene where Buffy prepares to go clubbing and mutters to herself, "I used to be so good at this," already mourning the normal teenage life she's lost for good.

So, all in all, a good introduction to the show, establishing the characters and the premise quickly and cleanly, before ending on a cliffhanger…"

Good job you enjoyed the cliffhangers, Onion. There will be many, many more. 

Matt Elliott
Matt is GamesRadar's senior commissioning editor. His ideal game would be a turn-based beat 'em up set in Lordran, starring Professor Layton and Nico from Broken Sword. There would also be catapults and romance.