My brain must be working through something. Or I’ve been hit by late-90s nostalgia. Or I’ve just missed good storytelling on television. Whatever the reason, I’ve recently become addicted to Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you’re unfamiliar, the show is about a teenage girl (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who becomes The Slayer, a chosen one destined to fight demons in all forms. She is aided by her friends Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Xander (Nicholas Brendon), her Watcher (Anthony Stewart Head), and many others.
I was a lapsed fan of the show. When Buffy first came out in the late 1990s, I was a casual viewer. I saw parts of Season 2, all of Season 3, and part of Season 4 before falling out of it.
Recently, my sister-in-law (a dedicated Buffy fan) came to visit us in our humble abode near Portland. My wife Sara and I were soon sucked back into the show, especially when we saw that all seven seasons were available on Netflix‘s Instant Queue.
As we re-watched the show, I noticed how the the writers, actors, directors, musicians, and crew put a tremendous amount of effort into telling a cohesive story that, despite its fantastical trappings, is very much about our place in the world.
In particular, I’ve noticed five things in particular:
**spoilers below if you haven’t watched the series lately, or ever**
1. The showrunners knew their audience … eventually
It seems that Season 1, and maybe half of Season 2, was aimed at teenage males. Although violence is part of the show, Season 1 emphasized gore, particularly when Principal Flutie (Ken Lerner) is eaten alive in “The Pack.” Sexual situations abound throughout all seven seasons, but Season 1 veered toward exploitation (Xander getting hit on by the hot substitute teacher in “Teacher’s Pet; Gellar wearing a miniskirt even while on patrol). Buffy also appeared to be much more of a damsel-in-distress (especially in “Welcome to the Hellmouth”), and kinda lucking out in killing The Master (Mark Metcalf). She’s also much less of a planner and lets Giles do the strategizing, well into Season 2.
Some of this was likely deliberate: Buffy is, after all, a new Slayer and dealing with everyday details of teenage life, including falling in love with Bad Boy/Good Vampire Angel (David Boreanaz). Plus, Joss Whedon was finding his own voice on a project filled with a million details.
Everything changes in the middle of Season 2. Starting with “Innocence,” (which sees Angel turning evil again after consummating his relationship with Buffy), the show grows up very quickly, and Buffy becomes remarkably introspective. It’s as if Gellar and Whedon planned the Buffy “airhead act” and then actively demolished it.
The depth of storytelling certainly made it the series more appealing to a wider audience. The series’ Nielsen rankings show a marked increase in viewership after “Innocence.”
2. It’s like real life
The series has a healthy respect for viewers’ intelligence and its own “canon” (or internal history). The characters grow with each episode – even in the episodes that aren’t related to the overall arc. When characters betray each other, like Xander cheating on Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) or Xander ditching Anya (Emma Caulfield) at the alter (hmm, sensing a pattern here …), there are no contrived reconciliations. Relationships are messy and complicated, and there are never any easy solutions. The show raises moral dilemmas well into Season 7 – particularly with Spike (James Marsters) – that are meant to be uncomfortable.
Settings are also mutable. The entire high school is destroyed at the end of Season 3, removing the iconic library meeting space for the good guys (or “the Scooby Gang” as they call themselves). The Magic Shop becomes the meeting space for Seasons 5 and 6, but it is eventually destroyed as well.
Death is also a constant in the series. Many characters die, bit-players and major players alike, from the first episode onward. This makes the show gut-wrenching to watch at times. The way that Gellar has Buffy say, “mommy?” at the beginning of “The Body” is heart-breaking. Touches like this add to the realness.
3. Buffy kicks ass
As I mentioned in my review of V: The Series, I dislike mentioning a woman’s strength as a virtue of a character. A strong woman is not a novelty; it’s the norm. I should note that all of the characters display tremendous strength, and all actresses, from Gellar and Hannigan to Amber Benson’s Tara and Kristine Sutherland’s Joyce, all show their range and power as performers.
But strength is woven into Buffy’s identity. (Whedon designed Buffy as a response to women who were hunted, killed, and exploited in innumerable horror films.)
As Gellar became an expert martial artist in real life, Buffy’s proficiency in the fighting arts increases substantially in each season. But her strength is not only physical. Buffy is the moral center of the show and the de facto lawgiver in the fight against evil. This responsibility weighs on her because, by her own admission, she feel superior to every one she knows, but she never shrinks from the price of this responsibility.
When Angelus (Angel’s demon self) opens a portal to a Hell dimension, only to have his soul restored by Willow, Buffy still kills him at the end of Season 2. This decision changes her life, and messes her up, but her job as the Slayer made the decision a foregone conclusion. If she let him live, the world was doomed. (And of course, Angel doesn’t really die for good; he returns for Season 3 and is rewarded with an eponymous series.)
Buffy will also not kill human beings, for any reason. As Season 5 unfolds, we learn that Buffy’s sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) is not actually human, but a “key” that can open all dimensions – good and bad. A maniacal “hell-goddess” named Glory (Clare Kramer) wants to use Dawn to return to her dimension, and the only way to stop this plot is to kill Dawn. Because Dawn was mystically composed of Buffy’s blood, Buffy takes her place and dies. That is conviction.
4. It’s about growing up.
The entire show is a fantastic metaphor for the hellishness that accompanies high school, college, and simply becoming an adult. All of the mini-arcs, particularly in Season 6, deal with this theme. Willow’s addiction to magic; Buffy’s depression/abusive relationship with quasi-reformed Spike; Dawn’s kleptomania; Xander’s commitment-phobia; and Giles leaving for England … these are all crutches that people use when they’re staving off a transformation, because transformation can be scary. And yet, each character deals with this shifting inner landscape and gets through it. Not easily, always messily, but they get through it. They grow.
5. The show broke ground.
The show had a musical number (using actors who were mostly untrained singers), an episode occurring mostly in silence, and it is the only network show to feature a committed, long-term lesbian relationship. I can think of no other show that took this many chances with its storytelling and structure.
To be fair, the show had its share of clunkers. Season 1 was about one-third good, one-third bad, one-third miniskirt (not really complaining about that last bit). I am not really sure what’s up with “Pangs,” the dreadful Season 5 Thanksgiving episode, and Riley Finn’s (Marc Blucas) whiny-ness started to grate on my nerves in Season 4. Also, the music in Season 1 – all synthesizers and drum machines – sounds like it was stolen from a 90s softcore film.
But aside from its weak episodes and the rare cardboard character, the extraordinary and groundbreaking storytelling/acting/music/direction of the show wins out. If you haven’t seen the show in awhile (or ever), check your local listings, Netflix, on-demand, etc. It’s one of the most novelistic shows I’ve ever seen and one that will influence the way I approach my own writing. (And, yes, I think the new incarnation of Buffy will pale in comparison, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
For me, despite the darkness of the stories and characters, the show is about love. And the quote that sums it up best is from “The Gift” in Season 5:
Give my love to my friends. You have to take care of them now. You have to take care of each other. Dawn, the hardest thing in this world… is to live in it. Be brave.