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Every so often, purveyors of popular culture feel the weight of responsibility. They realize the mass consumption of their content provides a unique platform from which to take a stand, and take advantage of that soapbox. Marvel Comics did it earlier this week, with a free comic promoting suicide prevention services. Most frequently, though, the life advice comes from television. I’ve always known these as “after-school specials:” television programs that teach a valuable lesson within the established confines of their program. One program almost guaranteed to offer at least one Very Special Episode per year was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I loved this show, but it was the tropiest show since tropes came to Tropetown, and the after-school specials were plentiful. Here are three of my favorites, and an assessment of how well they addressed the episode’s central concern.

“Beauty and the Beasts,” Season 3, Episode 4

The horrors of abusive relationships are absolutely something to address, and “Beauty and the Beasts” did its best. New-as-of-this-episode characters Pete and Debbie look like your typical teenagers in love, sneaking all over school to make out, etc. In a revelation that I fervently hope is atypical, we find that Pete is controlling and abusive. Pete beats Debbie, she forgives him, she makes excuses for her bruises, he blames her for his anger and looks upon her every interaction as a betrayal. Debbie winds up dead at Pete’s hands, despite her attempts to please and appease. The story is made all the more tragic for its disgusting foothold in reality.

The problem with Beauty and the Beasts is that Pete isn’t your average teenager. His rage stems from his use of a steroid-like chemical. Pete himself is likened to a Bruce Banner or Dr. Jekyll, with his murderous jealousy standing in for his Hulk or Hyde. This is in keeping with the supernatural nature of things in Sunnydale, but does a bit of a disservice to the episode’s standing as an after-school special. Often, situations like this will be handled in metaphor, in a way that is obvious but seldom misleading. Blaming Pete’s issues partially on the chemical gives him a crutch, an excuse to wipe away the horrors of his abusive nature. Some of the manipulation and jealousy is attributed to his character, but the physical abuse is accompanied by a transformation of sorts, which removes the human face from the equation.

“Beauty and the Beasts” does an decent job addressing its central social issue, but weakens the message by introducing a supernatural element. Relationship abuse and battery is all too real, and can come from the most unexpected source. People don’t have to look like monsters to be monstrous, and “Beauty and the Beasts” loses a few points for failing to explore this unfortunate reality.

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“Earshot,” Season 3, Episode 18

“Earshot” is actually one of my favorite Buffy episodes, with an attention-grabbing, if not revolutionary, premise and an unexpected sincerity. Through a supernatural series of events, Buffy gains the temporary ability to read the thoughts of others around her. It’s mostly played for laughs until, in the packed high school cafeteria, Buffy hears someone thinking, “By this time tomorrow, I’ll kill you all.” Her search to find the would-be mass-murderer leads her to the clock tower, where she finds tertiary character Jonathan assembling a rifle. Not so fast, though: Jonathan’s not the killer. He’s in the clock tower with the intention of killing himself. Buffy talks him into giving up the gun:

You know what? I was wrong. You are an idiot. My life happens to, on occasion, suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it’s not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they’re too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening.

Her amateur psychology works on Jonathan, and the episode moves on from the teen’s pain to humorously address the real threat to the school: the lunch lady, pouring poison into the students’ food. The real anguish that might drive someone into a tower with a rifle is not addressed, but as Jonathan’s character is not as integral to the plot as it will be in later seasons, this may not have been a top priority.

The episode belies its cheery beginning once Buffy and the Scoobies set out to find a high school killer. Much of the tension one feels when watching this episode comes from hindsight: Earshot was scheduled to air one week after the massacre at Columbine High School. Subsequently, the episode was pushed back five months in the United States.

The issue of suicide is not given as much weight as it might have been had the anguished teen been a more central character, and the genuine threat of school violence was not quite realized when this episode was filmed. While Earshot doesn’t provide an extensive exploration into either issue, it does address two serious problems in a way that both provokes thought and furthers the series.

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Most of Season 6 (particularly Episodes 6, 9, and 10: “All the Way,” “Smashed,” and “Wrecked”)

The villainous story arc of Season 6 rests on a metaphor for drug abuse, and finds one of our most beloved protagonists in the clutches of a dangerous addiction. Willow, who has become quite the accomplished witch, is addicted to magic. The series takes its time drawing out each step of the “let’s talk about addiction” process. “All the Way” finds Willow’s girlfriend Tara first suggesting that Willow has a problem, and Willow vehemently denies that there’s anything wrong with her magic use. Willow’s veracity begins to slip, as she lies to Tara about her magic use, ultimately altering her girlfriend’s mind to erase the memory of their arguments on the subject. The manipulation is discovered, the pair breaks up, and Willow begins experimenting with harder magic, ultimately putting another character in harm’s way while “high.” She vows to change, she and Tara get back together, everything seems hunky dory. Until an unimaginable tragedy occurs, and Willow gives in to the magic inside her, killing people and threatening the world. It gets intense.

This is the best example of a Buffy-based after-school special, because the show took its time addressing the issue. This allows the parallels to unfold in a more believable time frame, and the metaphor was strengthened as a result. As Willow, Alyson Hannigan “uses” too much, changes as a person, lies, manipulates, crashes, repents, and relapses just as a drug addict might, and the reaction to those surrounding her shifts from disbelief to disappointment to despair with similar verisimilitude. The metaphor is strong, but not so strong as to seem forced. The best part about this arc as an after-school special is that the consequences are real. Far from bringing everything is back to normal at the end of the episode, this arc committed to what it had begun. Season 7 of Buffy opens with Willow in rehab, and the events of the magic-addiction arc inform her character through the end of the show.

A plausible metaphor, a patient story arc, and a willingness to show consequence: Season 6 of Buffy was an after-school special at its best.

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