Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Why it Resonates 20 Years Later
Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on March 10, 1997, exactly twenty years ago today. For seven years, the series followed valley girl-turned-superhero Buffy Summers, the latest in a long line of “Slayers” – women who are called upon by fate to battle demons, vampires, and an assortment of other ghoulish beings. She's helped by her “Watcher” Rupert Giles, who trains, guides, and mentors her. Buffy is also helped by a close circle of loyal friends who adorably refer to themselves as the Scooby Gang. The Gang gains more members as the show expands its scope, but the ride-or-die members are everyman/nerd Xander Harris and the shy/nerdier Willow Rosenberg.
The first three seasons of the show made excellent use of its setting, Sunnydale High. That the high school was at the centre of a “Hellmouth” (areas that harboured an unusual amount of dark supernatural energy) was both ludicrous and relatable; high school is hell, and this was the show's early conceit. The relatable springing from the ludicrous and vice-versa was apparent even in Buffy's shaggy-dog first season (a season which remains nearly unwatchable, though a case could be made for its campy 90s retro charm and as a fun contrast to the genuine emotional horror of later seasons). Every week, Buffy and co. would battle demons and vampires and all manner of supernatural freakiness, and it'd often be just as fraught with peril and humour as their tangled personal lives. Nearly every monster – clearly some stunt guy in a rubber halloween costume purchased with bus money and a Doritos packet– seemed to be a tangible manifestation of what it felt like to be a lonely and misunderstood teenager. It was rarely subtle, but it nearly always felt true.
Consider Buffy's first boyfriend, the vampire-with-a-soul Angel. When they finally consummated their relationship in the mid-episode of season 2, he reverts back to his evil soulless vampire identity Angelus, and then sets in motion a campaign of terror against Buffy and everyone she cares about. It was explained that Angel was eternally cursed: If he experienced “one moment of perfect happiness” he would revert back to his evil, sadistic self. The particulars to this bit of mythology in Buffy didn't make much logistical sense (like, what the hell constitutes *perfect happiness*, exactly?). But what did make sense was that it was a well-told story about a young woman who put far too much emotional investment into an older man who only wanted one thing. The title of the episode “Innocence”, was ironically named, as from that point on Buffy mostly dispensed with the cutesy-ness and began to tackle more adult-oriented themes and storylines; in this way the show and the titular character were often wonderfully in sync. Not to mention the fact that Xander and Willow, who began as sidekicks with one personality trait (he's goofy, she's weird) would morph into three dimensional characters as they embarked on journeys that spoke to the viewers' sense of alienation, their sexuality, and their insecurities. It's hardly surprising that if you ask fans who their favourite character is or who they relate to the most, you'll rarely get the same answer twice.
This melding of the mundane and the mystical was one component of the show's success; the other component was its post-modern subversiveness. Creator Joss Whedon initially wanted the show to be about two things, 1) High school as a horror movie, and 2) a need to see a girl fight monsters and not die. This basic subversion ventured into more sophisticated and formally complex territory as the show gained traction, with episodes elegantly zipping from soap-opera melodrama, to genuine tragedy, and to farcical comedy in the span of 40 or so minutes.
For a show with an obviously shoe-string budget, it often felt so richly realised – what happened in season 3 would still matter in season 7, for example. And the musical cadence of the dialogue – which played a part in The Avengers being as quotable and funny as it was – bestowed the rapid tonal changes a pleasingly poetic rhythm.
So it seems like a no-brainer that perhaps the most acclaimed episode of Buffy's run was the musical episode, "Once More with Feeling". But at the time, the very idea of a musical episode was met with scepticism and outright hostility by the cast. James Marsters, the actor who played recurring nemesis and later Scooby Gang member Spike, said of the concept of "Once More with Feeling":
“The songs sounded really cheesy and horrible. Absolutely horrible. I remember coming out of my trailer, blinking in the sunshine and seeing other cast members come out of theirs with the same looks on their faces because they just listened to the cassettes. Everyone was completely confused. We were saying 'Joss, you're ruining our careers. First of all, you've never written any music and second of all, I was not hired to be a musical performer. I'd rather juggle chainsaws. This is a career ender.'”
There was no reason at all to do a musical themed episode besides giving into the pull of a pure artistic impulse. But that was Buffy. The show was always willing to fall flat on its face in an effort to reach greater heights. The go-for-broke gonzo creativity faced an impasse with season 6, however, and it split the fan base.
Season 5 ended with Buffy's death. She sacrificed herself to save her sister Dawn and the world from the raging Hell-god Glory, season 5's main villain, and it was perfect. It was a perfect episode of television and the perfect pay-off to all that had come before. Buffy could've easily ended on that note and no one could say that they were left wanting. But ratings were solid, and so the show had to go on. What to do?
Apparently the answer was to bake in the base anxiety inherent in “jeez, how do we top this?” into the text of season 6. The melding of the mundane and the mystical was reconfigured as the mostly mundanely awful with some light mystical touches. Season 6 bled human blood. Buffy was brought back from the dead thanks to Willow, who at that point was an accomplished witch. We never found out what Buffy experienced in a dimension that was implied to be heaven; all that mattered was that being torn from that place left her depressed and borderline-suicidal for an entire season.
That Buffy was reborn in her coffin and had to claw her way out of six feet of dirt was a declaration of intent for the new season: We are not going to cushion the unpleasantness with whimsical fantasy.
Willow's addiction to magic became an explicit metaphor for drug addiction to such an extent that if the writer's traded magic paraphernalia for a glass pipe and a needle it would've made no difference. Xander left his longtime girlfriend Anya at the alter. Giles, Buffy's surrogate father, left for England. Willow's longtime girlfriend Tara was murdered by a stray bullet. The villains were as far away from intimidating as you could get – pathetic, misogynistic geek boys whose endless schemes to kill the Slayer provoked annoyance and engendered inconvenience more than anything else. Buffy's new love affair with Spike caused a major uproar; it wasn't so much a conventional romance as it was an act of self-mutilation, which was whole new thematic territory for a show that mostly kept things PG. Their affair reached a pinnacle of appalling when Spike attempted to rape Buffy. Episodes would often end on a down note, with no assurance that things would get better next week. And they often didn't. Individually, some episodes are widely regarded as the best of the entire show, but taken as a whole, it's often labelled as one of the worst, least enjoyable seasons.
Of course, it's my favourite, but it's hard to argue with those who disavow it.
The final season, season 7, is a fascinatingly fearful artistic reaction to the fan rage-cry from season 6. Barring a couple of outstanding episodes, its peachy-keen sun-bleached tonal vibrancy was a self-conscious retreat into Buffy's early high school years. It wasn't just limited to the tone either, the villain was as safe as you could get; it was literally dubbed “the First Evil”. That the show traded interesting growing pains for comfort food rendered it the most pleasant yet forgettable season, and study of why creators should never listen to fans.
But season 6 and season 7, however messy and polarising, actually throw into sharp relief why Buffy resonates 20 years later: they are works of art that come from a place of honesty. Sometimes that honesty is something we don't want; we don't want to hear that maybe there could be a patch of our lives where there's only disappointment and misery, we don't want to entertain the notion that creators of our favourite works are susceptible to human frailties like wanting to be liked and so will craft something that's likeable yet vapid. But sometimes that honesty is communicating something that can make you feel less alone, especially when you're 16 years old and can't shake the feeling that you'll never fit in anywhere, and all it took was a rubber monster and beautiful writing. Sometimes that honesty can even speak to generations:
“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”
“Everyone is ignoring your pain because they're too busy dealing with their own.”
“I go online sometimes, but everyone's spelling is really bad. It's depressing.”
Not bad for a cheap little show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.