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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Sarah Vowell revisits ’Ted’

By Sarah Vowell

Tuesday 23 September 2003, by Webmaster

J O H N R I T T E R , G R E A T E S T M O M - K I S S I N G , T R A N Q I L I Z E R - L A C E D - C O O K I E - B A K I N G , S E R I A L K I L L E R R O B O T I N T V H I S T O R Y , D E A D A T 5 4 .

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"Ted" was a great episode. It was Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s second (and best) season. When Buffy met Ted, the computer software salesman played by John Ritter, he was making out with her mother in the kitchen. Talk about horror! (The scoring music was especially funny when Buffy walked in on Mom and Ted mid-mash - violins on loan from Psycho.)

Buffy was about three weeks away from losing her virginity to the good vampire Angel, who, thanks to a gypsy curse that would take away his soul if he ever achieved perfect happiness (i.e., sleeping with Buffy), would lose his soul and revert to demon form. So Angel turned evil, tormenting Buffy and trying to kill her. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he started smoking. Thus, in one of the show’s many grand allegories, in which real life emotional traumas are accurately represented by fanciful monsters: girl has sex with nice boy, nice boy wakes up the next morning all weird and distant and mean.

Anyway, Ted. Casting Ritter as Ted was genius - he was doughy and pleasant and wonderfully innocuous. The delight of this episode is that Ritter is so game. Clearly, the man had a dark streak. Ted has won over Buffy’s mother and her best friends by plying them with homemade cookies and platitudes. Sounding squeaky clean, he puts on his best Oprah, telling Buffy, "I know you’re the most important person in [your mother’s] life and, well, gosh, that makes you pretty important to me too." Ritter nails that "gosh." Plus, Ted, whose cooking is drooled over by everyone but Buffy, stands at the stove making what might be the most emasculated food item since the arrival of the hideous neologism "veggie"; something called a "mini-pizza."

Buffy, who has seen more than her share of bad guys, sees this mommy-kisser for who he is: evil, telling her friends, "So far, all I see is someone who apparently has a good job, seems nice and polite and my mother really likes him."

"What kind of a monster is he?" cracks Xander, one of her sidekicks.

The kind of monster, it turns out, who laces his cooking with tranquilizers and a pinch of ecstasy, drugging anyone who eats his handiwork into a shiny happy Ted-worshipping lull. (Buffy’s immune to his charms because she hates him so much for horning in on her mom that she refuses to eat his food, dropping a pharmaceutically enhanced sticky bun she was about to put into her mouth when her mother brightly proclaims that Ted baked it.) Ted is the kind of monster who turned himself into a robot-human hybrid in the 1950s, married four women and then stashed their skeletons Bluebeard-like in a closet in his basement, hoping to turn Buffy’s mom into number five.

The metaphor here is as obvious as it is effective. Every child of divorce must suspect that the interloper dating her parent is a serial killer straight out of science fiction. Buffy was always doing this on the sly. Remember when Buffy’s mom grounded her, sighing that the world wasn’t going to end if Buffy didn’t go out with her friends that night? But the world really was going to end! Buffy had to sneak out her bedroom window to go put a stop to the apocalypse.

In Ted’s scenes alone with Buffy, Ritter was a hoot. Taking the gang out for a wholesome game of miniature golf, Ted threatens Buffy, seething that he’s going to "slap that smart mouth of yours." Then, in the same breath, he senses the presence of Buffy’s mom and friend and turns around chirping, "Who’s up for dessert? I made chocolate chip cookies!"

Finally, in their inevitable showdown, after Ted has kicked Buffy in the face, she fights back, stabbing him with a nail file, exposing the circuitry beneath his quasi-robot skin, kind of like the arm on the Bionic Woman action figure that was so fun to play with back when Ritter was limp-wristing his way through one misunderstanding after another on Three’s Company. As Ted’s inner computer goes on the fritz, he lurches back and forth between the fakery of grownup small talk and sinister threats, saying, "Hell of a day! Makes you feel like you’re eighteen again!" followed by, head snap, "I don’t like being disrespected."

Finally, Buffy kills him off with a frying pan, yelling what every child of divorce would like to shout at her mother’s boyfriend ("This house is mine!") but not before Ritter’s virtuoso death scene, shaking and smoking and twitching, the skin on his face peeled away and melting on the circuitry underneath, his eyes open and blank.