"Is this a penis metaphor?"
It's been a long time, I know.
Thing is, I actually watched The Zeppo weeks ago, but I could only eke out a few sentences worth of commentary. So I watched it again with a little more success, only most of what I wrote read like, "And then Buffy says this, and then Xander says this, and then Angel looks at Buffy like this, and I can't explain it but it's soooo funny y'all!"
The problem is that I love The Zeppo and I want to do it justice. From discussions with other fans, I've also surmised that I am alone in loving The Zeppo as much as I do. Considering that it is "the Xander episode," my affection for it is nothing short of a small miracle.
But The Zeppo accomplishes an impressive feat; it's a parody of the series that propels the season forward while lovingly poking fun at what came before. The episode starts to trim the fat that will need to be cut off completely by the end of the season. It works to tell the viewer, "We know how ridiculous we're being, too. Don't worry."
This episode is also the show's most compelling argument for the importance of Xander as a character, tho it pains me to say anything remotely positive about this douche. Xander may act like a moron 99% of the time, but I never wonder why he is on the show, and for most of the series' run, I tolerate him. Most of my goodwill toward the character, however, comes from Nicholas Brendon. While he is not a good actor in the strictest sense of the term, he is awfully endearing. And in The Zeppo, the writers give him plenty of opportunity to flail about and make a complete idiot of himself in the most pathetic way possible. Xander only truly makes sense to me when he's portrayed as pathetic but generally well-intentioned. And Brendon has the comedic chops to pull it off.
The episode opens with old-school demon slaying in a cave, where Buffy and Faith get some help from the Scoobies. Giles stands around spookily in the mist half-heartedly throwing punches, and Willow casts some sort of spell on the demons. (And hey, remember Faith??) The vampires are dust, and everyone played a part. Except for Xander, who emerges pathetically from the rubble, terrified and bruised. The Scoobies wonder if he might not be better off "fray-adjacent."
At school, Xander leaps around wildly to a jangly 90s guitar, begging some jocks to throw him a pass. When they finally appease him, the football sails right past him and into the lap of Jack O'Toole. Now, we've never seen Jack before, and he appears to have been held back about ten or fifteen years, but he's dutiful as the thin, menacing bully in a leather jacket. Shades of a psychopathic Shane West. Or Shawn Hunter.
Needless to say, Jack is not pleased by Xander's ineptitude with a football. Xander scurries away before Jack can follow through with his threat to "kick your ass until it's a new shape," but doesn't avoid Cordelia, who saw the whole shameful exchange. Xander is embarrassed that he's faced vampires and demons and still can't face a common bully, to which Cordelia replies, "because Jack actually noticed you were there...Xander, you're the useless part of the group. You're the zeppo."
Thus the rest of this episode. What function does a pathetic, unintelligent mortal have on this show? Too obnoxious to be an everyman or a romantic interest, how will he stay relevant?
Xander faces this question head-on, asking Oz for tips on how to be cool. Xander determines that he needs to find his "thing"--a quirk that will set him apart and make him cool. He ultimately decides upon a powder blue convertible.
At the library, Giles tells Buffy that the big bad vamps from the beginning of the episode are the Sisterhood of Jhe, who have come to Sunnydale to reopen the Hellmouth and commence the apocalypse. Sinister church music plays in the background. Oz turns into a werewolf.
Due to his zeppo status, Xander's role in the impending apocalypse is to get donuts for the Scoobies. A cute car enthusiast blonde shows at the donut shop and hits on Xander, who can't believe his luck. They drive to The Bronze, where clutz Xander rear ends Jack's car. Jack threatens Xander with his fancy knife, Katie, and asks, "Don't you feel pathetic?" to which Xander responds, "Mostly I feel Katie." Jack insists that the only difference between the two of them is that regardless of who holds the knife, Xander has the most fear.
The cops show up just in time for Xander and Katie to get acquainted. When Xander doesn't narc on Jack, he is unwittingly inducted into Jack's gang as the driver. They drive around to pick up Jack's buddies, who turn out to all be dead. Jack raises them from the ground with a spell he learned from Grandpappy, and boy, let me tell you, the Scoobies are gonna wish they wrote that spell down come Season 6.
Jack's pals banter about picking up some chicks at Taco Bell and watching Walker, Texas Ranger, but eventually decide they want to bake a cake. They then try to officially induct Xander into their gang by killing him--as it turns out, all of them are dead, including Jack.
Xander escapes in his car and takes a look at the "cake" ingredients.
He realizes that Jack's gang were actually planning on building a bomb.
The rest of the episode consists of Xander driving Jack and his buddies around town and occasionally running into the Scoobies. At each turn, Xander begs the Scoobies to let him help them with the apocalypse without revealing that he's really trying to get away from his new undead gang of pals.
The episode ends at Sunnydale High, location of both the Hellmouth and the bomb. Xander runs around the school frantically avoiding Jack and co. and trying to find the bomb, with hilarious scenes of the rest of the Scoobies attacking the Hellmouth monster with hatchets.
In the end, Xander and Jack have a faceoff over the bomb. It's clear that Xander won't be able to diffuse it, but he stays calm in the face of imminent death, telling Jack, "I like the quiet." At the last second, Jack diffuses the bomb, not wanting to spend the rest of his undead life in tiny pieces.
The next morning, the Scoobies reflect on the events of last night to the tune of sinister church music. They share such thoughts as, "Even when the Hellmouth closed, I could still hear it screaming," and mention Angel having a brush with death. Buffy describes something Giles did as "the bravest thing I've ever seen," though we never find out what. Xander opts not to tell them about his adventure, which was just as instrumental in preventing the apocalypse. This is possibly the only glimmer of maturity we ever see in Xander. He's confident enough in his role as the zeppo that he offers to get the Scoobies snacks without shame, and when Cordelia confronts him about his patheticness, he walks away with a knowing smile.
Why It's Hilarious
The Zeppo both builds up and undermines each character and each plot device developed by the show this far. All of our favorite characters get their moment to shine; even Faith and Oz, who have been conspicuously absent, are reaffirmed as slightly unhinged/overtly sexual and cool as a cucumber/werewolf, respectively. But here, the foundation of each character is portrayed with a big wink.
I'll give an example. We cut from one crisis to the other--Willow and Buffy read up on the Sisterhood of Jhe in the library. Buffy reads that the vamps celebrate victory by eating their foes and remarks, "Couldn't they just pour Gatorade on each other?" Giles announces his plan to go ask the spirit guides for help because the fate of the world rests on their shoulders, but gets distracted when he sees that Buffy and Giles ate all the jelly donuts.
"I'm always the one who says, 'Let's have a jelly in the mix!'"
Giles reverts to his familiar mumbling, fretting, frantically researching Watcher persona, but his musings on the apocalypse are undermined when he throws a small temper tantrum over donuts. This suggests a whole range of interactions between the Scoobies that would remain "offscreen" in any other episode, but add an essential element of humanity and ridiculousness to the more fantastical plot lines.
These characterizations are heightened by the fact that the Sisterhood of Jhe present the worst threat to the Scoobies [b]ever[/b], a point driven home over and over by each character. In the face of crisis, they are forced to act as their truest selves. Giles researches. Buffy, Angel, and Willow make preparations to contribute to the battle in their own special way. Faith fights like a maniac and has sex. And Oz turns into a werewolf.
Most important, however, is Xander. Because he has no role in the proceedings, and in most episodes is relegated to making snide comments and lurking around in the background uselessly, he is the perfect character to disrupt the more-or-less conventional A plot.
Back to what I said about the formal devices of the episode. First of all, the framework focuses on the B plot (Xander and Jack) which throws the balance of the episode off from the get-go. Upping the stakes of the A plot only adds to the absurdity, as the viewer knows (and is constantly reminded) that the apocalypse is nigh but sees very little of it.
The episode makes the argument that the goofier, meandering, character-driven B plot is as essential to the fight against evil as the A plot. Jack's bomb is set to go off right underneath the Hellmouth; if Xander did not stop the bomb, all of the Scoobies would have died, and the Hellmouth would have opened. And Xander is arguably the best (or only) character to face down Jack in the end. He doesn't fight Jack or cast a spell. In fact, he does nothing, which is all he can do. His refusal to try to stop the bomb convinces Jack that Xander is fearless.
But that's not the funny part.
The funny part emerges from the musical cues, the transitions between scenes, and the way that no plot line, line of dialogue, or character action is safe from being undermined. The music that plays during the A plot is more often than not spooky church music with organ and a creepy choir. The B plot scenes are scored by goofy upbeat caper music. Both sets of music are exaggerated reflections of the content of the two intersecting plots, and the way they quickly switch back and forth makes them seem ridiculous.
A particularly funny scene involving music comes after Xander escapes from Jack and co. He happens upon Faith, and rescues her from one of the Jhe sisters. Faith is all wound up after fighting the vamp without killing her, and needs Xander's help with an itch she just can't scratch. Again, the musical score adds most of the humor here, as we watch them get it on to a 70s porn groove, watch them cuddle to some romantic strings, and watch Faith kick him out without his pants to silence.
The Zeppo also makes use of a certain kind of transition that probably has a formal name but I'm too stupid to know it. The second scene answers a question posed by the last scene, and in some cases even finishes the last sentence of the first scene. For example, Buffy finds the bartender Willy beaten within an inch of his life by the Sisterhood. He tells her that he doesn't feel there's any use in trying to defeat them, and urges her to go to Angel, saying, "think about how you want to spend your last night on earth." Cut to one of Jack's buddies shouting in Xander’s convertible, "LET'S GET SOME BEER!"
But the episode is most successful at undermining some of the elements of the show that have become tired at this point. Vampires are no longer scary, and the show will struggle to muster up an apocalypse threatening enough to actually involve the viewer. The Zeppo doesn’t even try. The A plot does not read as ridiculous for Buffy—in fact, it plays straight 99% of the time. The reason that Xander spends much of the episode pathetically interrupting the other characters is that his mere presence undermines their emotional weight.
And Xander is 100% goofball. He plays at being a tough guy and integral part of the Scoobies to hilarious effect. Toward the end of the episode, Xander runs into Jack and co. in his car and grabs one of them by the collar, dragging him down the street forcing him to reveal the whereabouts of the bomb. Proud of his quick thinking, he fancies himself a bit of a Bruce Willis and says, "Now I'm gonna ask you this once, and you better pray you get the answer right! How do I..."
But he doesn't get to finish his sentence, as the zombie gets decapitated by a mailbox.
Later at the school, he faces down one of Jack’s friends and says, “Should’ve learned by now. If you’re gonna play with fire, you gotta expect sooner or later...” and then the zombie runs off. Even his tone of voice in these scenes—deep, gritty, full of importance—is just hilarious. And it says more about Xander and his concept of “real masculinity” than 100 temper tantrums ever could.
His goofiness plays against the Scoobies’ “seriousness” and “importance.” When Xander rushes around the school trying to find the bomb, he intermittently comes across the Scoobies fighting the Hellmouth monster and screaming such dramatic things as, “FAITH, GO FOR THE HEART!”
In Season One, this was the scariest thing ever to happen. But here, it’s hilarious.
But by far my favorite example of this comes in the middle of the episode when Xander tries to go to Buffy for help. Buffy is in Angel's lair tearfully arguing that he should go to safety and let her fight the Hellmouth. Lit by firelight, they tell one another that they can't bear to lose each other again, and this is the worst threat to their lives they've ever faced. Cue Xander, who quickly realizes he's caught them at a bad time.
Even the composition of the shot does a total 180. The first time I saw this episode, the scene did not read as ridiculous until Xander turned up. His interruption allowed me to pause and realize how many times I had seen Buffy and Angel have this exact conversation, how overwrought that conversation is, and how inessential it is to the season. In my opinion, this scene is pretty much the final word on the Buffy/Angel romance, as his interruption exposes the scene as irrelevant and tired. And it does that in about ten seconds.
The few opinions I've come across criticize this episode for being too Xander-y or for being mean-spirited. And yeah, fair enough. On a bad day, I might agree with either criticism. But I'll just say this. Laugh at the show while you still can. It won't give you reasons to laugh for much longer.