As pilots go, Welcome to the Hellmouth is decent. The best pilot episodes I’ve ever seen include Serenity (Firefly), the LOST pilot (titled, appropriately enough, Pilot), and Fire in the Hole (Justified). Welcome to the Hellmouth doesn’t come close to any of those, but it has enough going for it that I was at the very least drawn in and curious to see where things went next the first time I saw it.
Here’s what Welcome to the Hellmouth does well:
The pilot establishes Joss’s overreaching intent, which is to flip horror tropes on their heads and give the girls more to do than just scream and hide behind the boys who have come to save them.
This episode also clearly establishes the smart combination of humor and horror that became one of the show’s most popular elements. It contains a number of classic-Whedon lines of dialogue.
Buffy approaching and befriending Willow is a nicely crafted “save the cat” moment.
And, most importantly, character introductions are outstanding.
The Buffy-Joyce relationship is not too sweet or too oppressive. Buffy and her mother are not BFFs, but there’s no heavy, angsty stuff going on either.
Joyce is trying to be a good mother, but she has what she sees as an unruly teen on her hands. She doesn’t want to be a hard-ass, but she also feels responsible for making sure Buffy doesn’t turn into a delinquent. In just a few minutes of screen time, this heavy burden Joyce carries, along with her loving but concerned nature, are clearly defined.
Willow’s character is delightfully charming and sympathetic. I adore every little thing about Alyson Hannigan’s performance. She was, without question, the right casting choice.
Xander comes across as lovable rather than obnoxious. Joss walked this fine line with Xander throughout, making him one of my favorite characters (and his arc one of my favorite character arcs of all time . . . right after Wesley’s) ever.
And Cordelia … well, Cordelia is just awful. Which I love because Joss doesn’t write two-dimensional characters. Of course, I didn’t know that when I watched the episode for the first time – I just knew she was a wonderful non-supernatural source of conflict.
And then there is Giles. Did I love Giles when he first appeared? I don’t think so. Because here is what Welcome to the Hellmouth does not do well:
In the pilot episode, Giles serves solely as an explainer. Buffy accuses him of being like a textbook with arms, and he really is.
He’s still Tony Head, so he’s adorable and British, but we don’t really get to see much of him, and when we do, awkward exposition ensues.
The scene in the library after Buffy examines the dead body and explains to Giles (for no reason other than “sharing information with the audience”) how she knows he won’t rise again (which, frankly, she could not possibly know) is cringe-worthy.
Joss does his best to infuse said exposition with lightness (“Did you send away for the Time-Life series?”), but it still feels heavy and imposing. If there is anything about the first episode that I desperately want to assure people will get better, it is this aspect of the show.
Fortunately, after watching Welcome to the Hellmouth, my friend was ready to watch The Harvest, so she wasn’t scared away yet.