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Musical 'Buffy' will slay you by Robert Bianco of USA Today

For the truly talented, big risks can lead to big rewards. You won't find many people in TV more gifted than Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon. And you won't find many TV risks more audacious than what he has taken on tonight: a Buffy song-and-dance spectacular for which he supplied the music, lyrics, script and direction.

The possibilities for embarrassing failure are nearly endless, and yet Whedon has pulled it off brilliantly, with an ingenious, fully integrated hour-plus that makes perfect sense in the universe Buffy occupies. The episode even moves the season-long story forward and does it so well that it's hard to imagine a more effective solution.

The plot device Whedon has chosen is impressively simple: The characters sing and dance because they're under a spell. (As Giles says, "That would explain the huge backing orchestra I couldn't see and the synchronized dancing.") And they sing a lot so often, in fact, the show will run about eight minutes over, in case you're setting your VCR.

But the numbers are more than a diverting stunt. Whedon has taken the old structural rule for placing songs in book musicals that when emotions become too intense to be expressed by words, they burst forth in music and given it literal life. Each song, sung in character by the actors themselves, reveals some secret or feeling the singer has been trying to keep hidden.

Of course, the secrets don't spill out all at once. As often happens on Buffy, the show starts with a funny fantasy idea and digs deeper to reveal the psychological underpinnings beneath our myths and fairy tales. In the end, this isn't a happy musical and yet I can't think of a TV hour this year that has brought me any more pleasure.

Whedon's melodies are not always as strong as his lyrics, but the songs are unfailingly clever and surprisingly varied. The highlights include a Disney-style opening number for Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a lovely ballad for Tara (Amber Benson) and a funny Sondheimish patter song for Xander and Anya (Nicholas Brendon and Emma Caulfield) who complains that "clearly our number is a retro pastiche. It's never going to be a breakaway pop hit."

With the exception of Anthony Stewart Head, the cast members aren't exactly singers, but they do well enough in this context. Whedon is smart enough to give the biggest numbers to the stronger voices and to give Spike the evening's moral: "Life's not a song. Life isn't bliss. Life is just this: It's living."

All told, Whedon's achievement is so impressive that it may even serve as a much-needed wake-up call for Emmys. Trust me: If this episode doesn't garner Whedon a nomination, it's going to reflect more poorly on the voters' judgment than on his efforts and it's going to make the Emmys look even more hidebound and out of it than they do today.

Haven't we heard that song enough?

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