Illustration for article titled In which our critic gazes unafraid into one of Buffy the Vampire Slayers weakest episodes

In Pop Punishment, Louis Peitzman endures the most derided genre films, television, and literature, all for your sadistic pleasure.


It's not the stupidest line ever uttered on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but "There's a demon in the internet" isn't one of the series' finer moments. "I, Robot… You, Jane"-yes, that title is almost clever-is commonly regarded as Season 1's weakest point. And that's fair. As silly as Buffy often was in its early installments, few episodes are as misguided as "Robot," which tackles the dark side of online dating.

We open on Italy in 1418-never a good sign. A gaggle of monks trap Moloch the Corruptor in a book, apparently a thing they used to do to all sorts of demons. Naturally it's never brought up again in Buffy or its spin-off Angel, so we'll have to take Giles' word for it. Flash forward to 1997 Sunnydale, where Willow scans the big bad book and inadvertently releases Moloch into cyberspace. Soon enough The Corruptor is calling himself Malcolm and flirting his way into Willow's naïve heart. And then his minions build him a shiny robot body. Yes, that happens.


But it's really not all bad. "Robot" is tremendously dated, which makes it a much more enjoyable rewatch. Few things are as satisfying as hearing Giles dismiss the computer as "the idiot box" and a passing fad. You get the same thrill you do watching that I Love Lucy episode wherein they laugh off the idea of Alaska and Hawaii becoming states. How young we once were! In 1997, computers are big and clunky, and computer geeks are creepy and weird. Hear that, fandom? Buffy once looked at internet culture and sneered.

And there is something prescient about Giles' concerns-I say this as someone who still can't handle purchasing a Kindle. "Books smell musty and rich," Giles opines. "The knowledge gained from a computer has no texture, no context. It's there and then it's gone." While I think that's an oversimplification, it does make me want to go out and sniff my local library. I was less convinced by the opposing viewpoint Fritz offered: "The printed page is obsolete. Information isn't bound up anymore-it's an entity! The only reality is virtual." But I don't think Fritz, who later serves Moloch and dies by his hand, is meant to be the voice of reason.

Yes, there are pros and cons to new technology. We don't need Buffy to tell us that. But "Robot" still feels a little biased. While Giles does get help from "techno pagan" Jenny Calendar, the episode as a whole falls on the "beware the internet" side of the debate. A product of its time, to be sure, but a bummer message nonetheless. Does Moloch's deception turn Willow off of online dating for good? I have met some legitimately sane people there! I realize this is a very specific situation-chatting up someone you've never seen, not having cybersex with a demon. But even in 2011, the idea that internet relationships are fake and/or dangerous still persists.

Of course, enough people have an OKCupid account that few maintain Xander's reactionary stance. "People meet on the net," he explains. "They talk. They get together. They have dinner. A show. Horrible axe murder." Even Buffy acknowledges that this is a little farfetched. But as in most all of Buffy's high school episodes, the monster is a metaphor. This one is particularly heavy-handed.


And shouldn't Willow, a savvy geek, know better than to trust the first mysterious stranger who chats her up? Sure, Moloch/Malcolm has the power to corrupt, but we never really get the sense that Willow is under his thrall. She skips classes. She distances herself from her friends. And it's not demonic possession: it's chatroom charm. Willow only realizes Malcolm isn't on the up-and-up when he mentions seeing Buffy's permanent record, a pretty obvious tell. (Speaking of laziness, how did the editor not catch Buffy's birthdate switching from 10/24/80 to 5/6/79 between scenes? At least her GPA held steady at 2.8.) As romantically inept and Xander-obsessed as Season 1 Willow is, it's just not in her character to fall blindly in love with a stranger.

I'm probably being too hard on "I, Robot … You, Jane," which was made in the pre-To Catch a Predator era. Instead of giving the episode shit for its stance on online dating, I should be focusing on the ridiculous conclusion. There is no logic behind the Moloch robot or his cyber-exorcism, though the latter involves the computer monitor changing colors a lot, so you know something magical is going on!


On the plus side, Willow's robo-romance paves the way for a werewolf and a witch-and they were a lot more fun.

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