It's a match made in, well, not heaven. Among the most riveting developments last season on UPN's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was the odd pairing of just-back-from-the-dead Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the drop-deadly handsome and ageless, platinum-blond bloodsucker Spike (James Marsters).
Television has rarely seen anything like the passionate, sometimes violent and abusive relationship between these longtime adversaries, reluctant allies and, in the series' sixth season, haunted lovers.
It's a long way from the '60s innocence of "Bewitched," on which sweet witch Samantha had a joyful relationship with mortal husband Darrin. As recently as the late '80s series "Beauty and the Beast," Catherine Chandler managed to find true love in the tunnels of New York with feline-faced man-beast Vincent.
Heck, Buffy herself spent her first two seasons in puppy love with Angel (David Boreanaz), the mopey vampire with a soul who eventually went all evil, was re-redeemed and moved on to his own series.
This was a challenging season for "Buffy," one of television's most insightful dramas about growing up and female empowerment, with demons and vampires and the evil they conjure serving as metaphors for life's many trials.
It wasn't simply because the series moved from the WB to UPN. Buffy was still reeling from the death of her mother, as well as her own death at the end of the fifth season.
Resurrected by Wiccan Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and reluctantly alive, she spent much of the season in a depression, unable to enjoy life after being ripped out of what she called "heaven" by her friends.
Many critics, and even some longtime fans, thought last season was too dark for too long, and series creator-executive producer Joss Whedon has conceded that two of his goals were to have the increasingly solitary Buffy face the inner demons that accompany maturity and explore the dark side of her power. The show also toyed with the notion of its human characters confronting their demon aspects and demons like Spike and 1,120-year-old vengeance demon Anya (Emma Caulfield) developing their humanity.
In exploring the morally complex relationship between Buffy and Spike, Whedon and co-producer Marti Noxon were able to touch darker, edgier and more sexually oriented story lines. In fact, its volatility, including steamy and surprisingly graphic sex scenes, was a constant topic on the multitude of Buffy-related Internet sites.
Spike has been called the most creative villain on television, and he's one of the most striking: a stylish-in-black night stalker with a killer smile and cheekbones to die for. He also has a bitingly sarcastic wit (the writers seem to give him many of the best lines), delivered in a roguish British accent that gave way to a more homespun Northern California accent (the actor grew up in Modesto) when Marsters appeared recently as the star attraction at Shore-Leave, the annual sci-fi fan convention in Baltimore.
Marsters, 29, spent two afternoons signing autographs and fielding questions from an adoring throng of mostly female admirers who conceded that Spike may be a psychopathic killer with two Slayers already under his belt but who believe that he's also incredibly sensitive and romantic and that maybe, just maybe, Whedon should let him be redeemed. Already, Spike has gone from loathsome on arrival in Sunnydale to likable to lovable.
"The thing is that Spike has been used in different ways," Marsters noted. "He's had different jobs on the show: as disposable villain, hapless wreck for comedic purposes, wacky neighbor by design and then love interest."
The actor is thankful that the show's writers "have been forced to explore the character so Spike would fit into these different roles."
Last year's darker themes were somewhat facilitated by the move to UPN, Marsters said. "There were a lot of things we couldn't do at the WB, while UPN gave Marti and Joss a very long leash to explore. It's an interesting synergy. At the time when Marti was really taking the reins, we moved to UPN. It seems that Joss' crucible of experience, the thing that he draws from, is his adolescence, and Buffy is no longer an adolescent. Marti's crucible seems to have been in her mid-20s and it's just perfect: Now we have someone who wants to explore herself with this metaphor. So we get a new head writer and a new network, all of which facilitates exploring Buffy as a young adult, plus UPN didn't have so much of a need for us to quell the darker side."
As last season ended, Spike apparently sought to rid himself of the implanted pain chip that had neutralized him as a vampire while leaving him free to kick demon tail. To the audience's, and possibly to Spike's, surprise, his soul was reinstated in the last episode.
Consequences of that action--whether Buffy will be able to love Spike-with-a-soul, whether Spike will hate himself after feeling guilt for centuries of death and torture--will probably be major plot lines this year.