The previous episode Witch was an attempt to do Buffy-by-numbers that pretty much landed. It demonstrates a Buffy-specific approach to self-contained stories that will hold for seven seasons.
Teacher’s Pet is another shot at Buffy-by-numbers, but this one doesn’t work out. As far as I can tell, the popular opinion on this ep is that it’s just a dumb misfire, the kind of thing that every show does when it’s just finding its feet. I think that’s part-way right. In Teacher’s Pet I think you have an episode that actually hits its marks perfectly, but still ends up feeling wrong. Everything in this episode follows on logically and sensibly from the pitch and concept. In a sense it’s a glimpse of a different way to do Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The core problem, of course, is the monster of the week. Miss French is a substitute teacher at the school, but it turns out she’s actually a giant praying mantis in disguise, and she likes to lure virginal high school boys into her basement to mate with them and then kill them. That’s… a pretty broad sort of concept for your monster.
She is unexplained. She’s just a giant praying mantis who can disguise herself as a human woman, no further explanation needed. At this stage of the show’s development, that was just fine, but it is jarring in comparison to the show’s future. Soon, most monsters of the week will be identified as demons giving the show the appearance of a consistent mystical ecology. But Miss French is not a demon. She’s a mantis. It’s weird, and cartoonish, and it feels off.
She is thematically askew. The pitch for Buffy famously suggests that it uses monsters to represent and explore the ordinary horrors of teenage/high school life, and you don’t have to stretch far to make this fit: it’s about the uncontrollable lusts and inappropriate fantasies of teenage boys, or it’s about sexual exploitation and manipulation of teenagers by adults. Except neither of these is really a strong fit for the metaphorical storytelling the show is aiming at. It’s your second regular episode and the best teenage problem you can come up with is “horny teenage boys can get themselves into trouble with older women”? That’s the universal experience you want to explore here? Lusting after a hot teacher is not really part of the horrors of adolescence, guys.
She is icky as hell. She’s a sexual predator who explicitly rapes her victims to death. This is not neutral stuff – this is over-the-line weirdness and it’s a black mark against the show that they’d go there, and in such a casual way. Sexual violence is actually a strong recurring theme in Buffy, but (although there’s one other bit of nastiness in season 1) it comes to be handled with much more maturity and sensitivity pretty damn soon.
That’s enough to make my point – Miss French is just not a good Buffy monster. But, and here’s the crucial thing, if you just heard the pitch from Whedon that gave this show a green light? You would think she’d fit perfectly. The trick is in the details. Nailing down the show’s theme, working out how to incorporate sexual threat into your narratives, building a coherent mythos – that stuff is too precise to get written down in the show bible (Buffy didn’t actually have one of those anyway, but bear with me). They had to try these things to see how they felt on the screen, and each misstep helped them find a better path in future.
It was up to the showrunner (and of course the network) to decide what was a misstep, and what would be a better path. Buffy became the show it did because of Whedon’s sensibility about storytelling details like this, and a different showrunner could have – would have – made different choices. If Whedon had somehow fallen into disfavour and been fired from his fledgling show (1), his replacement might well have seen in this episode a perfectly acceptable way forward. This episode is a glimpse at an alternate reality Buffy, where the monsters are broadly sketched and the metaphors don’t focus on emotional trauma but instead on any old thing that was part of the high school experience. It would be a simpler show, like Eerie, Indiana a little grown up, and it would not have inspired the cult following Buffy enjoys. But it would have still worked for a season. Maybe even two.
So, those details were important. Over the weeks to come I guess I’ll be trying to pay some attention to them…
* There’s also a vampire running around for Buffy to work her slayage on. Again, it’s obviously early days here from the design of the vamp – he’s a scary biker with a big fork, or something. Featured vamps in the future have a lot more personality, and many fewer forks.
* Angel returns! It’s time to get that big romance arc underway, so he gives Buffy his jacket. Such babe.
* Xander gets a lot of focus this episode, and he does a lot of dumb stuff. For now I’m just inclined to shrug and say “grow up Xander”. Others might find him a bit more annoying, and that’s totally understandable.
* The end-of-episode sting, a reveal that OMG THERE ARE EGGS IN THE BUILDING, is straight out of the Twilight Zone playbook. It is totally understandable that an alternate version of Buffy would go for this highly-traditional storytelling move. The Buffy we ended up with, however, had a bunch of different moves to try out, and a finish like this would be almost instantly subverted.
(1) Yup, much of my thinking here was informed by Community season 4, a.k.a. the gas-leak year.