I remember watching “Superstar” for the first time in a university common room. The usual Buffy-crowd was there and at the end of the opening credits, there was a moment of stunned silence followed by someone muttering “what the fuck was that?” You’d think that after almost four years of consistently having our expectations thwarted that we’d have been better prepared for such a curve ball, but the subversion of “Superstar” is something new. After almost four years of genre-bending, Buffy had, inevitably, developed its own conventions. Much of season four has been about challenging these (with mixed results), but this is the first episode to actually push us out of the Buffy universe.
No, “Superstar” is not an Elseworlds tale, but it could be for most of the first half. Part of what makes the episode work is how long it takes for any of the characters to suggest that something isn’t right. Up until Adam asserts that something’s wrong with the world, we could easily have been watching some alternate-universe where Jonathan is a god. The audience isn’t really “guessing” here; it’s a safe bet that the network didn’t suddenly retool our show to add some superpower lame-o but, confident as we might be that this will all sort itself out, we’ve got no clue regarding how or when.
Playing its cards close to the vest is very much to this episode’s credit. Beyond the basic mystery, it’s a nice departure from the usual structure of such an episode. We’ve seen reality warping magics that effect the whole town before, but things always start out normal (at least for Sunnydale) before the spell gets cast. Here we’re charting strange new territory in more ways than one. Even the Scoobies, invariably the last sane group in Sunnydale, aren’t the usual source of stability. Our heroes are still clearly themselves, but they’re also thoroughly dimmed by Jonathan’s glory. Xander and Anya’s usual squabbling now has a new focus, the new best-couple-ever is obsessing over him instead of advancing their romance, and Giles is no longer the smartest guy in the room.
Then there’s Buffy. Our heroine is far from heroic throughout most of the episode, and while that’s also nothing new, her accepting this fact is. Buffy realizes that something isn’t right with the world mainly by realizing that she’s capable of more. Her finding her strength and rallying the other Scoobies around her effectively begins the transition back to Buffy-normal. Jonathan’s battle with the “monster” is really just the mystical plot-point to wrap things up and thus, a sign that this has been Buffy-normal all along. Or, perhaps, the new normal. We begin the episode with Jonathan’s spell having already changed the universe. We end with that spell being revealed to be just another part of that universe. “Superstar” reshapes Buffy for more than just a single episode. Not only do we have a new benchmark for what magic is capable of, we have a new limits to which the narrative can be stretched. This sort of departure would be repeated (and surpassed) in episodes like “Restless,” “The Body” and “Once More With Feeling,” but it started here.
Spike was probably the comedic highlight in a very funny episode. His interplay with both Jonathan and Buffy was pure gold.
Danny Strong’s awesome earnestness goes a long way to making super Jonathan work, “Let’s show these fiends they came to the wrong town.”
Need I mention the fact that Adam should’ve had significant role at this point in the season?
“I don’t care if it’s an orgy of death, there’s such a thing as a napkin”