She's the greatest vampire slayer ever, a true TV cult that attracted millions worldwide and she stands the test of time. An appreciation.
God, where to start? Well to begin with, God doesn’t come into it. There’s heaven, kind of: we only have Buffy’s word for that but she has been there. And there’s a priest. But he’s an evil, woman-hating priest who gouges out the eye of a character that we’ve spent seven years growing to know and love – a sweet boy who never hurt anyone who wasn’t a vampire or a demon – with his thumb.
But that’s all at the end. (Don’t worry if you haven’t seen it, you’ll have forgotten this by the time you do.) Now let’s start at the beginning, and with what we know before that.
From one thing and another, e.g. the title and the word of mouth, we can guess that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about vampires and that Buffy is a teenage, all-American, high-school cheerleader type … and most people would be put off right there. I was for a long time.
Latching on took a while – weeks, months, maybe a year of occasional dips and finding it quite refreshing. Later, watching with commitment from the start, I saw how the opening minutes of Season One do nothing to dispel that initial prejudice: It’s night, a teenage couple dressed like extras from Happy Days break into a school looking for some petting privacy. The girl is worried: this is not a good idea. The boy is cocky, pushy and maybe just a little predatory. The girl’s hearing noises while he’s hearing thoughts that could be lusty – or evil. ‘There’s nobody here,’ he says impatiently. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes, I’m sure,’ he says. ‘OK,’ says the girl.
That’s when she turns around with her demon face on and sinks a mouthful of fangs in the boy’s neck.
Why Buffy Rocks, Reason 1
This show will always blindside you. First it takes your prejudices and shows you that they were just expectations, then it takes those expectations and shoves them up your ass. In the words of Lee Van Cleef in The Master, ‘Always expect the unexpected.’ Well, you can try, but every time you think you’ve got Buffy pinned down by the scruff of the neck, it will be right there behind you giving you a well-aimed, double-taking kick up the ass. The theme music sums up this attitude beautifully: spooky organ chords conjure up a stony-walled, moonlit, gothic cliché – yeah, for about three seconds before it shatters into a riptide of guitar thrash that expresses the true Buffy spirit. Once that riff kicks in, we know that TV is never gonna be the same again.
OK, a little context is in order.
Buffy’s the Slayer, selected by fate, with no choice in the matter, to fight evil, which doesn’t help her school studies or her relationship with her divorced mother, Joyce.
She’s at Sunnydale High, which sits above the Hellmouth, a gateway for evil to enter our world in a variety of guises, mostly vampires and demons.
Xander and Willow, school nerd and geek respectively, are her sidekicks.
Giles, the uptight Brit librarian, is her Watcher, a guiding font of knowledge on Hellmouth demonology. A typically dry utterance from Giles in raconteur mode is, ‘It’s a funny story – if funny meant horrific.’
Why Buffy Rocks, Reason 2
Humour – especially verbal and linguistic. Buffy has some of the sharpest dialogue since Philip Marlowe:
‘I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. I’m Buffy. And you are . . . history.’
For a petite teenage girl Buffy talks tough, so it’s lucky she has the Tae Kwon Do skills and supernatural strength to back it up. ‘I can beat up demons until the cows come home, and then I can beat up the cows.’ It sounds like corn-fed noir but she’s not joking. This girl’s physical powers know few bounds.
‘I’m not sure our basic workout is challenging you anymore,’ says Giles, to which Buffy quips sarcastically, ‘Maybe next time I patrol, I should carry bricks and use a stake made out of butter.’ Buffy loves to talk back. She’s a teenager after all, and Watchers are invariably fuddy-duddy adults with English accents.
‘Remember,’ says Wesley, a foppish, rule-bound and ineffectual Watcher who’s sent to usurp Giles in Season Three, ‘the three key words for any slayer: preparation, preparation, preparation.’ But the Tony Blair pastiche is wasted on Buffy: ‘That’s one word three times.’
The great lines don’t just belong to Buffy though:
Xander describing an educationally challenged student: ‘What he lacks in smarts, he makes up for in lack of smarts.’
Exchange between a demon and Faith, a rogue Slayer turned bad, who’s just skewered a man with a crossbow: ‘You killed him.’ ‘What are you – the narrator?’
Exchange between two college campus vampires: ‘Does this sweater make me look fat?’ ‘No, the fact that you’re fat makes you look fat. The sweater makes you look purple.’
The Season Seven school principal to Buffy: ‘Well, I better get to work. Got to start deadening young minds.’
Exchange between vampire girlfriend and boyfriend: ‘You love that tunnel more than me.’ ‘I love syphilis more than you.’
This creative vein of humour runs below the verbal to the linguistic level. Buffy manages to capture the verve of the Valley Girl vernacular while avoiding the irritation, from the clunky, affecting syntax of ‘That is so not true’ to the prissy disgust expressed by ‘Again I say eeeww’. So many playfully twisted gems are thrown up that the word play becomes more and more dazzling. ‘Aren’t you acting a little overly?’, ‘What’s the sitch?’, ‘Love makes you do the whacky’ and ‘I’ll talk to you later when you’ve visited Decaf Land’ are examples of the show pushing the envelope of the SoCal teen dialect.
This inevitably encompasses pop-culture references, expressing an intertextuality unusual in a show set in its own fantasy miniverse. ‘My spider sense is tingling,’ says Buffy, and ‘I can’t believe that you of all would Scully me,’ while Xander comes out with, ‘Does anyone else feel like they’ve been Kaiser Sozhe’d?’
‘Being popular isn’t that great, or so I’ve read in books’
As the one-lining sidekick, Xander delivers always with the right touch of self-deprecation –‘Being popular isn’t that great, or so I’ve read in books’ – fear-tinged sarcasm – ‘And the fun just keeps on leaving’ – or angsty teenage lust – ‘I’m sixteen: looking at linoleum makes me think about sex’. Plain deadpan works too, as when he reports to Buffy during a battle with demons, ‘I tried to stop them by beating their fists with my face but they got past me.’
The demons can get the laughs too. The juxtaposition of these mostly upright-walking lizardy types and the everyday setting of a karaoke bar or watching their favourite daytime soap is funny to us, but they have their own sense of humour too, as when Season One über-vampire The Master calls back a minion in disfavour and says companionably, ‘Oh Colin, you’ve got something in your eye,’ before stabbing his finger in it up to the knuckle. Not the kind of thing you’d expect to see on teatime telly – until Buffy came along.
But it’s Buffy herself who’s the queen of the put-down, especially when facing off a demon. ‘Oh good – the feeble banter portion of the fight,’ she chirps sarkily before whupping some talkative vamp’s ass. At one point, the show meta-comments on its own verbal felicity through the mouths of Willow and Xander. ‘The Slayer always says a pun or a witty play on words, and I think it throws off the vampires,’ Willow observes, to which Xander replies, ‘I’ve always been amazed with how Buffy fights, but in a way I feel like we took her punning for granted.’
The writers’ love of suggestive and allusive language extends into the episode titles. Personal favourites include ‘Never Kill a Boy on the First Date’, ‘I, Robot – You, Jane’, ‘Inca Mummy Girl’, ‘Reptile Boy’, ‘Killed by Death’, ‘Band Candy’ and ‘The Zeppo’ (in which Xander is compared to the fourth Marx Brother).
This is not just humour. Sustained and developed across seven seasons, this is fertile linguistic creativity of a high literary order. Writers and directors who cut their teeth on Buffy have subsequently appeared prominently in the credits of hit shows like Battlestar Galactica, Desperate Housewives, Lost, CSI – the list goes on. And they all got their break from one man – the show’s guiding light, Joss Whedon.
Why Buffy Rocks, Reason 3
First of all, there’s his determination to bring Buffy to the small screen as a long-running series years after the movie version had failed to light any fireworks. That takes balls and it takes a worrying amount of self-belief but above all it takes love. Everything about the show, the assuredness and consistency of the characters and the world it creates, from episode 1 to episode 144, convinces us of this. After a short and self-contained first season, according to the dictates of typical network caution, the show’s success gave Whedon the freedom to build his grand story arc of a girl who just wants to cheer-lead forced by circumstances to grow up faster than she wants to, faster than is fair, before dying and being reborn into her true destiny as not the lone avenger she thought she was fated to be but a tested general and a lightning-rod for global female empowerment: learning to deal with the responsibility of being the Slayer and saving the world, a lot.
Whedon, a big Dickens fan, believed that if a film was the equivalent of a short story then a drama series was the novel of the media age. And not a short novel but a Dickensian-sized grand narrative. Buffy would turn out to be as detailed, complex and expansive as The Forsyte Saga, except it would have monsters, a gang of slightly inept ‘Scoobies’ marshalled by a charismatic superhero and lots and lots of kick-ass fights.
Whedon’s talent was for employing gifted writers but staying hands on, guiding the direction of the overall narrative and writing and directing the keystone episodes himself and generally seeing the job through, the way he saw it. Nowhere is this more evident and more impressive than in the Season Six episode ‘Once More with Feeling’, conceived and executed in the style of a classic Hollywood musical. The explanatory premise of a demon that forces its victims to sing their innermost thoughts before dancing themselves on fire is the perfect vehicle for uncovering all the secrets that the core characters have been keeping from one another, not least of which is Buffy’s, which will devastate them all. The episode closes with an iconic moment, the final wide-screen kiss that sets the seal on Buffy’s torrid relationship with the vampire called Spike.
Why Buffy Rocks, Reason 4
Of all the characters, Spike is one of the great swaggering creations of any TV drama, up there with Bilko, Emma Peel and Swerengen from Deadwood. When he crashes his car into the ‘Welcome To Sunnydale’ sign at the start of season 2, he crashes into Buffy’s life for keeps. Spike, another Brit, likes to think he’s the baddest vamp around, he’s killed two Slayers already, uses words like ‘bugger’ and ‘wanker’ and dresses like Billy Idol. The Slayer is everything he hates and he’s everything she hates and that’s the way it goes for the next four seasons. But never forget the blindside – and this one’s a biggie. The thing we fall in love with about Spike is his oft-thwarted efforts to give full rein to his undead instincts for violence, bloodlust and chaos and have a bloody good time doing it. As the architecture of the big story unfolds, he must learn to deny himself these pleasures and disinter his long-buried human self if he wants to win the love of the one girl who continues to frustrate his darkest desires.
Many other characters, all brilliantly realised and acted, have long and illustrious roads to travel to the final credits. Angel and Spike, opposing aspects of the same good-evil dichotomy, may be the bookend loves of Buffy’s life but spare a thought for the smitten soldier Riley who romances her through Seasons Four and Five but is too intimidated by her power to win her heart. Or for Faith, the rogue slayer who represents middle-class Buffy’s white-trash alter-ego (in one episode they even switch bodies) and takes out her self-hate on everyone who tries to help her until the father figure of Sunnydale’s evil Mayor takes her under his wing. Just one of a wide gallery of memorable villains that Buffy presents us with, the Mayor, with his homespun aphorisms (along with the fashion-conscious demon goddess Glory in Season Five) stands out for being witty and kinda likeable. Other figures too numerous to mention come and go – even when you’re dead you can always return in Buffy, which must’ve been great news for the actors – but we should at least pay our respects here to school queen bitch Cordelia, loony vamp Drusilla, loveable werewolf Oz and flaky ex-demon Anya, all of whom have pivotal parts to play in the lives of the core characters.
Which brings us back to Buffy’s mother.
Why Buffy Rocks, Reason 5
Groundbreaking television. Not just for its scope and depth of story and character development – enough to support a whole industry of books, scholarly articles and university courses – but for a fistful of prize-winning episodes that took the Buffy audience to places where no comparable show had previously taken it. It showed teens the adult world without patronising them, nowhere more so than in the Season Five episode ‘The Body’, which deals with the loss of a parent. It’s one of the most devastating 45 minutes of TV drama ever produced, not least because Joyce, Buffy’s mother, is not offed by some blood-sucking demon in the hokey manner that the show would typically have us anticipate. Instead, Buffy gets home all chirpy in the middle of a sun-drenched afternoon to find her mother dead on the living-room couch from a brain haemorrhage. The business of the disposal of the corpse and having to pull her younger sister out of class to break the news are treated with the realism of serious adult drama.
And if you thought Buffy didn’t have a sister you were right – until Season Five anyway.
And if you thought Buffy didn’t have a sister you were right – until Season Five anyway. The introduction of Dawn may have been a network strategy to attract new young followers to the show but Whedon’s explanation and integration of the character into the story arc is masterfully done, an epic revision of the sort that only Dallas with the return of Bobby Ewing had attempted before, and which Buffy was in a position to pull off with bags more credibility.
Of the other innovative episodes, a couple have achieved special status in Buffy lore for one reason or another. ‘Hush’ is notable for being the episode in which the entire population of Sunnydale is robbed by creepy night-stalking demons of the ability to speak. Again, the absence of dialogue is not entirely original – think of the film One Million Years BC – but it was something which television, with its fear of dead air, had never done before. Another episode, ‘Earshot’, gained notoriety and was even withdrawn from broadcast in the US because it came too close to the subject of high-school massacres at a time when they were high in the news. And in ‘Gone’ the camera follows a brawl between invisible opponents, something I’d never seen before and arguably still haven’t.
My personal favourites however are those episodes which introduce an alternative reality to the show’s alternative reality. In ‘The Wish’, Cordelia carelessly expresses a desire that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale to the newly arrived Anya, who at this point in the show is still a Vengeance Demon (later she’ll become human and almost marry Xander, but how he leaves her standing at the altar is another story). This plunges the town into a new reality without the protection of the Slayer where virtually all the main characters are picked off one by one, starting with Cordelia herself. Even an alternative Buffy, called to Sunnydale from Cleveland to save the day, is killed, and only Giles remains to restore normality.
The episode introduces Willow’s other vampire self, who reappears later when she crosses over from this alternative universe in ‘Doppelgangland’ and about whom Willow prudishly notices, ‘I think I’m kinda gay.’ This prefigures her later transition from heterosexual girlfriend of Oz to lesbian partner of Tara in Season Four. Tara becomes the love of Willow’s life, and her death in Season Six – again shockingly real, the bystanding victim of a stray bullet – triggers Willow’s descent into a campaign of black magic to wreak revenge and destroy the world.
Why Buffy Rocks, Reason 6
The complexity of the relationships in Buffy goes far beyond the usual 2D expectations of teen TV drama, where characters normally know what they want from one another and either get it or don’t. Real life tends to be a whole lot messier, and that’s the way Buffy plays it. At the beginning, Willow fancies Xander, who she’s known from childhood, but Xander fancies Buffy. Buffy falls in love with Angel, the vampire cursed by gypsies with a human soul, but when they make love he turns evil and she has to kill him. He comes back later, naturally, but the whole evil thing puts a block on sex so he has to leave town. In the meantime, snooty society queen Cordelia and school geek Xander fall for one another, which leaves Willow wilting until she meets the coolly laconic Oz, who’s a really sweet guy despite being a werewolf, but their relationship is doomed by his lycanthropic tendencies and Willow’s continuing attraction to Xander which is destined to ruin not only her own love life but Cordelia’s too …
You get the picture. Further down the line, Willow turns gay, Xander loses his virginity to Faith before dating and nearly marrying an ex-demon, Buffy and Riley are cursed into making non-stop love at the bottom of a deep pit and even Giles and Buffy’s mother have sex on the hood of a police car, twice. But it’s the dawning of Spike’s sexual and emotional obsession with the Slayer, his nemesis, that leads to the show’s hottest, least expected and most graphic couplings. The darkly inappropriate romance that suffuses Buffy the Vampire Slayer is summed up by the Slayer when she says to Angel, ‘When I kiss you I want to die.’
But ultimately the show is not about sex or jokes or postmodernist surprises. It’s about Buffy.
Why Buffy Rocks, Reason 7
The story of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that of a young girl growing into a young woman and facing all the joys and terrors which the journey entails, and Sarah Michelle Gellar plays the whole gamut of emotions to perfection. Buffy doesn’t just come to terms with being the Slayer, the Chosen One, across the show’s seven seasons. She also confronts and changes the nature of what a Slayer is: by romancing vampires; by flouting the patriarchal rules of the Council of Watchers; by taking on adult responsibility when her mother dies and she’s left to look after her kid sister; by confronting her own mortality again and again; by sacrificing her life to save a sister she knows isn’t even real but who she can make real if she only believes; by being raised from the dead against her wishes and forgiving those who snatched her back from the comfort of heaven into a world that resembles hell; by being a strong and resourceful leader in battle; and yes, even by going out and getting a shitty job flipping burgers when necessity calls for it. What started by appearing to be a show for teens has most definitely become a show for adults.
Perhaps Buffy’s ultimate test comes in the Season Six episode ‘Normal Again’, in which she awakens from the fantasy world of Sunnydale to find her mother still alive, her parents still married and herself confined to a mental ward in LA, where she has been internally living out the far-fetched adventures of the previous six years. Is this true reality or the real delusion resulting from a demonic poison injected into her bloodstream? The doctor treating her schizophrenia convinces her that she can return to normal life by killing her imaginary friends, Xander, Willow and Dawn, back in the mental construct that is Sunnydale. Instead, she chooses to save them and, in an ending reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, regresses into a catatonic state while her despairing parents watch her slip away. It’s one of the most unsettling pieces of television ever.
But, in praise of Buffy and all it stands for, I’ll finish on the more upbeat note that comes at the end of the Season Four episode ‘Fear Itself’. After freaking and fighting their way through a Halloween party of mind-bending terrors, Buffy and the gang find that the demon behind it all is only three inches tall, so Buffy stamps on it so they can all go home. Back at Giles’s, poring over the demon’s illustration in a book, the Watcher suddenly whispers, ‘Oh, bloody hell.’ Eerie music begins to rise, reviving our sense of dread. ‘What is it?’ Buffy asks, worried but ready as ever to throw herself back into the fray. ‘I should’ve read the caption properly,’ says Giles. ‘Actual size.’
Cut to end credits.