March 10, 2007 was the 10 year anniversary of the debut episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm posting my Buffy cover story for The Coast, which was published just before the series finale, in May of 2003. I get more email requests for copies of this article than anything I've written, so it's good to have it archived here. This version unfortunately isn't the final draft. But it's the closest I have at my disposal.
I really look at the span and scope of this series as a genre monument on par with The Godfather trilogy.
Season 8 begins in comic form this Wednesday (Dave, save me one). Dave Howlett did the cool and unexpectedly controversial cover art for this issue.
I've watched the entire series from start to finish twice, but it's been a couple years now. A lot of Buffy retrospective stuff should start hitting the net in the next few weeks. It's all renewing my interest in giving it a third go-round.
GIGANTISIZED BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER ARTICLE IS BELOW THE STARS.
The end of television.
I remember laughing when I saw a full page magazine ad for a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer about a week before its March 1997 premiere. Based upon a self-consciously campy movie thrown into multiplexes for an unsuccessful run in the Summer of 1992, the prospects of a Buffy series defied reason. When even most TV shows inspired by good movies are junk, it seemed the only possibility of this program surviving would be relegated to syndicated late night reruns between Martial Law and V.I.P.
Back then I never believed that Buffy the Vampire Slayer might last for seven seasons, amassing a dedicated literate fanbase, earning recognition far greater than its weekly viewership, and redefining genre conventions to become one of the most important works of popular entertainment of its time. It was only after my brother expressed sincere enthusiasm over the quality of the pilot that I became perplexed enough to watch it for myself. With its final episode airing this week, viewers will bid farewell to a show that looks like a trifle from afar, yet unleashes an obsessiveness in its followers. Week after week, it puts to shame other programs (even those that blatantly announce their seriousness) with its ability to penetrate truth through pop familiarity. By recognizing pop culture as the one universal language of youth, Buffy uses its characters' battles against mythic figures (vampires, apocalyptic demons) to actually legitimize Generation X/Y experience. Series creator Joss Whedon, moving beyond the artistic failure of his Buffy movie (which he later blamed on actor Donald Sutherland's rewriting his own lines), was eager to approach his high school-as-hell metaphor afresh. This time, Buffy Summers is no longer the self-centered dimwit that Kristy Swanson had portrayed. As played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, she's a typical teenager leading an uncommonly heroic lifestyle-her buttkicking is a playful spin on the victimized horror movie good girls she superficially resembles. As the series begins, Buffy settles into the town of Sunnydale, California with her single-mother, because incinerating the gymnasium of her old Los Angeles high school was seen as cause for relocation. Though tempted by the siren-calls of popularity queen Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), Buffy quickly finds her true friends in clownish underachiever Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) and socially awkward bookworm Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan). But not everything's turning out smoothly. Unbeknownst to her, Sunnydale High is located on the Hellmouth (what it sounds like: a gateway to Hell), and her plans to abandon her calling as the Vampire Slayer are thwarted upon discovering that new school librarian Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) has been assigned as her Watcher (a Pat Morita mentor role) by the Watcher’s Council. Giles reiterates the importance of Buffy's position to her, that she's the one girl assigned to protect the world from vampires, demons and the forces of darkness.
This set up laid a ground work for an initial run of shrewdly written monster-of-the-week episodes. But underneath its light comic-horror exterior, these early episodes held a poignant undercurrent rarely found in youth-centered media. Buffy's battles against atypical monsters of adolescence (dating, conflicts with parents and teachers) were worsened and personalized by the circumstances of her destiny. Rather than attempt to console viewers with AfterSchool Special "Buffy Cheats on a Test" dilemmas, the show presented her burden-of-fate as a recognition of the impossibility of ever leading a normal life.
In its first season, this seemed about as good as a WB Network mid-season replacement called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and based on a movie few people care about, could possibly be. Over the next two years it grew into something far better. What began as a supremely clever twist of teen movie conventions (a hip-factor that most newspaper articles about the show seem incapable of moving beyond), started to articulate its pop vernacular into the most refined expression of youth's grandiosity in contemporary movies and television. Comparably glib entertainments from American Pie to The Wonder Years to the John Hughes oeuvre may be fraught with heartache, but they're all idealizations of how their creators wish they'd lived their teenage years. The characters on Buffy each represent different traits of awkward development, together forming a complex portrait of conflicted youth. Even during its first and best season, Dawson's Creek couldn't elevate its characters into more than an adult's romanticization of adolescence.
On Buffy, when it's discovered that Willow's first boyfriend Oz (Seth Green) is a werewolf, there's never any issue of whether the curse can be broken, allowing for the young couple's return to a state of normalcy. Rather, Joss Whedon and his creative team are concerned with how their characters adapt to such hardships. Buffy's own boyfriend Angel (David Boreanaz) also suffers from an animalistic disease. He’s a 240 year-old vampire cursed by a gypsy's gift of a soul that's forced him to experience continual torment over the hundreds of people he's killed. If he ever experiences a moment of pure happiness, Angel will be reverted to his murderous former self. This moment strikes while relieving Buffy of her virginity, thus becoming one of those rumoured guys who seem so nice until they have sex with you.
It's this connection to a world outside of itself which separates pop from porn, even if the constant inundation of no-substance media has rendered most viewers immune to that distinction.
Buffy's eventual need to disclose of her secretive Slayer duty to her mother (whose great "Have you tried not being a Slayer?" line was shamelessly appropriated into "Have you tried not being a mutant?" in X2) exemplified the series' capacity to probe the complications lurking beneath normalcy's facade. By appearances, Buffy is a pretty, sociable girl with a promising life in front of her, just as her mother can see no reason to tolerate her teenage daughter sneaking out her window on a school night.
"Do you think I chose to be like this? Do you have any idea how lonely it is, how dangerous? I would *love* to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or... God, even studying! But I have to save the world. Again." -Buffy Summers
The moral stakes are always high because the series never assumes simplemindedness on the part of its audience. It's important to distinguish that Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn't soften its text by hiding behind a guise of pop reference. Rather, it uses its pop influence as a means of sincere expression. Even the subpar season five opener “Buffy Vs. Dracula,” employed the most iconic of all vampires to contemplate the importance of Buffy’s position in the world. There’s no snarky distance between Buffy and her demonic foes, or between the show and its genre appropriations, because the series has the insight that pop’s mere prevalence in culture makes it an honest form of expression. This post-ironic approach understands there's knowledge to
accumulate from paying attention to horror myths and comic book serials--something beyond Kevin Smith's and the Wayans Brothers' showoff capacity to make trivial citations.
By introducing Buffy's hedonistic alter-ego Faith (Eliza Dushku) in season three, the show took a cliche of horror-fantasy (the doppelganger) and used it as a genuine test of Buffy's own morality. Her maturation comes with her recognition of the selfishness in Faith's descent into violent gratification; that being a slayer doesn't make her above the code of law and virtue that applies to everyone else. Being the Slayer is Buffy’s curse as well as her gift. Above all, she learns, she is still bound by being human. It was a surprisingly weighty story arc for a show that’s mistakenly categorized as bubbly tween fare–even more so because it led to Faith’s participation in a then very topical annihilation of a high school.
Throughout this unsurpassed third season, more was happening on a single Buffy than on a half-dozen episodes of other dramatic series. On a weekly basis, the show never bested season three. But it also had the good sense to not attempt to relive its past glories. As the characters moved beyond high school--and into the world of university, the work force, and bottomless depression--the show no longer consoled viewers with the safety net of genre stability. Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be funny one week, only to take a detour into absolute misery two weeks later. Few series have so incessantly employed this degree of genre-conflation to relay life experience. The innovative juggling of flavours brought a mostly silent episode, a musical, a first person processing of the death of Buffy's mother, straight horror, broad comedy, Harlequin romance, among other things. If it attains nothing else, Buffy should at least be recognized as the most relentlessly schizophrenic thing to appear on television
Gellar recently told Entertainment Weekly that the show's very dark sixth season wasn't up to snuff because, "It wasn't who Buffy was... You don't want to see that dark heroine; you don't want to see her punishing herself. You want to see her killing vampires and making quips." Though her disappointment was echoed throughout much of the fan community, I maintain that year six is more consistently engaging than year four. An actress of exceptional talent, Gellar's statement reveals that she may not grasp the real brilliance of her own show. Unlike most TV series, which reassure shallow viewers by upholding their tonality and character situations from one episode to the next, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is entirely about growth. It dismisses the status-quo complacency inherent in serialized fiction that Umberto Eco discussed in "The Myth of Superman" by consistently evolving its players through irreversible, often tragic, situations. When Buffy sings in the musical episode, "When you've bowed, you leave the crowd," it's a genuine sentiment of unwanted change-the difficult adjustments facing young adults after the comfort of school life. Likewise, Buffy's suicide and rebirth, which bridged seasons five and six, was a perfect representation of the heroine's need to shed her adolescent skin and enter womanhood. (Her tombstone inscription, "She saved the world. A lot." typifies Whedon's skill at infusing tragedy with absurdity.) This maturing process, however, isn't just easily dealt with through a clever metaphoric device, as Buffy's resulting year-long plunge into a masochistic sexual relationship with the vampire Spike (James Marsters) brought a periodic gloominess to a series once identified by its sprightly wit.
The show made some bad choices too. Buffy's second serious love interest, the spectacularly dull Riley Finn (Marc Blucas), earned nearly unanimous audience disapproval by being the most well-adjusted character to ever have appeared on the series. Fans deserved to see their beloved Slayer wind up with someone more eccentric. A drawn-out story about Willow's addiction to magic was also sloppily handled. Its metaphor for narcotic dependency needed a subtler touch, especially for a show that had gained respectability by not patronizing its viewers with spoonfed analogies. And the much publicized lesbian romance between Willow and Tara (Amber Benson), while the least stereotypical homosexual affair on a network series, was never emotionally interesting because the writers forgot to give Tara a personality separate from Willow's. I didn't care much when Tara got killed, as the two Willows were syphoning one another's life-force.
Now, in its final season, Buffy's recently presented far more story threads than it has, as yet, managed to deal with. On the dawn of an apocalypse, too much time is being wasted on bickering between the multitude of newly introduced slayers-in-training, who have been preparing for war while staying at the Buffy residence. Maybe it's just the calm before the storm. Or maybe the end really does come with a whimper instead of a bang. But in these last days, there are bigger characters and situations that the show should be focusing its energies on.
So where will Buffy the Vampire Slayer rest in the pantheon of television? Eventually somewhere at the top of the heap, near the shows that have had a major cultural impact. For Buffy, I don't think that impact has been realized yet. Amassing just over four million viewers per week, and having never won an Emmy, the show's real popularity exists through word-of-mouth and the obsessiveness of its fans. Buffymania can be found in the introduction of related action figures, video games, chocolate bars, two volumes of academic criticism, and spinoffs both in the form of comics (Tales of the Slayers, Fray), and a TV series (WB's Angel has remained solid over its four-year run). With the seasons coming out on DVD in six-month intervals (season four hits stores June 10), Buffy may be finished, but it's yet to be really discovered.
One thing's certain, it's absolutely time for Buffy the Vampire Slayer to end. I'll miss it, but I'd rather see it die as something that's still mostly great than as a shell of its former self. The show will live on in reruns and chat rooms, as it represents the rarest of media concoctions: a major pop Zeitgeist that's worth a damn.
Essential episode list
"Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest"
The two-part pilot is an instantly addictive primer on the Buffyverse, or, taken by itself, the best teen horror movie of its era.
Giles: Into each generation a Slayer is born. One girl in all the world. A Chosen One. One born with the...
Buffy: "...the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of evil, blah blah." I've heard it, okay?
Buffy learns that she's slated to die on the eve of the rising of first season arch-villain The Master (Mark Metcalf). This season finale is the first episode to be directed by Joss Whedon as well as the first to really strike the balance of humour and melancholia for which the series became known.
Xander: On a scale of one to ten, it sucked.
Having lost her virginity to Angel, thereby unleashing his old killing ways, Buffy fights evil in unison with the stress of discovering that her boyfriend is now her greatest enemy.
Cordelia: Well, does looking at guns make you wanna have sex?
Xander: I'm seventeen. Looking at linoleum makes me wanna have sex.
Angel continues terrorizing Sunnydale, he stalks Buffy and her mother (even telling her that he had sex with Buffy), and casually slaughters Giles love-interest. "Passion" brought a viciousness to the series that let viewers know it wasn't going to play safe.
Xander: I'm sorry, but let's not forget that I hated Angel long before you guys jumped on the bandwagon. So I think I deserve a little something for not saying 'I told you so' long before now. And if Giles wants to go after the, uh, fiend that murdered his girlfriend, I say, 'Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!'
"Becoming, Part 1 & 2"
Two-part season finale, has Buffy deciding whether to kill Angel while her mother learns the secret behind her daughter's "history of violence."
Cordelia: I think it's great to do that before you go out and fail in the real world. That way you're not falling back on something. You're falling... well, forward.
Xander: And almost sixty-five percent of that was actual compliment. Is that a personal best?
A distressed Cordelia wishes upon a vengeance demon (Anya played by Emma Caulfield) that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. Every show has its requisite It's a Wonderful Life episode, but this alternate reality of the undead is especially good. And Willow makes an oddly attractive vampire.
Buffy: World is what it is. We fight, we die. Wishing doesn't change that.
Giles: I have to believe in a better world.
Buffy: Go ahead. I have to live in this one.
Initially scheduled to air just a week after the Columbine shootings, "Earshot" was held back five months because its tale of a newly telepathic Buffy, who briefly overhears a schoolmate contemplating a killing spree, has more relevance than we can tolerate. The poignant and funny episode established Jane Espenson as one of Buffy's most valued writers.
Xander: I'm still having trouble with the thought that one of us is just going to gun everybody down for no reason.
Cordelia: Yeah, because that never happens in American high schools.
Oz: It's bordering on trendy at this point.
"Graduation Day, Part 1 &2"
The touchy subject matter of the second part of the season finale also earned it a delayed airing (though ASN was good enough to show the episode before the announcement to hold it back was made.) The mayor's plot to transform into a giant snake and destroy Sunnydale High during his graduation day commencement speech put a violent end to a major institution of the gang's childhood.
Oz (asking about Angel's condition): Any change?
Willow: He's delirious. He thought I was Buffy.
Oz: You too, huh?
University. Everything's big and different. Buffy gets yelled at by a teacher, her roommate is inhumanly perky, and despite her friends' apparently successful adjustments, the poor slayer feels that she just doesn't belong.
Willow: It's just in high school, knowledge was pretty much frowned upon; you really had to work to learn anything. But here, the energy, the collective intelligence, it's like this force, this penetrating force, and I can just feel my mind opening up, you know? And letting this place just thrust into and, and spurt knowledge into ... that sentence ended up in a different place than it started out in.
Hovering demons in top hats called The Gentlemen steal everybody's voice leaving Buffy and her friends to fend off evil with the disabilities that plague people in early Chaplin films. A mostly silent episode, "Hush" was a benchmark of the series' innovation.
Giles: I have a friend who's coming to town, and I'd like us to be alone.
Anya: Oh, you mean an orgasm friend?
Giles: Yes, that's exactly the most appalling thing you could've said.
"Fool For Love"
Buffy is repulsed when Spike confesses his love for her. The episode is told through contemporary events and flashbacks that reveal Spike's transformation from a feeble poet into a monster. In emphasizing with Spike and demonizing Buffy, "Fool For Love" reveals the series moral complexity, shunning simplistic good guy vs. bad guy tropes.
Spike: Death is your art. You make it with your hands day after day. That final gasp, that look of peace. And part of you is desperate to know: What's it like? Where does it lead you? And now you see, that's the secret. Not the punch you didn't throw or the kicks you didn't land. She really wanted it. Every Slayer has a death wish. Even you.
Buffy comes home to find her mother dead on the couch, from complications with a brain tumour. Whedon directs this episode without music, capturing traumatic experience with an eye for subjective detail that makes In the Bedroom feel like child's play. Truly one of TV's greatest hours.
Dawn: Is she cold?
Buffy: It's not her. She's gone.
The "previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer" summary which opens every episode is historically long here. That's fitting, as this is the one where Buffy kills herself to save the world. Many feel it should have been the end of the series; I see it as the end of the second act of Buffy's development.
Buffy: Remember: The ritual starts, we all die; and I kill anyone who comes near Dawn.
Spike: Well, not exactly the St. Crispin Day's speech, was it?
Giles: We few, we happy few...
Spike: ...we band of buggered.
"Once More, With Feeling"
Yeah, it's a novelty episode. But so what? This tv show musical has remarkable depth and song writing, actually using its gimmick to advance its characters relationships. It's also a kick discovering which of the regulars are the best singers (Amber Benson and Anthony Stewart Head) and which are the worst (maybe there's a reason why Alyson Hannigan is solo for only three lines total?)
Anya: She came from the grave much graver.
Spike: First I'll kill her then I'll save her.
Tara: Everything is turning out so dark.
Spike: No, I'll save her then I'll kill her.
Willow: I think this line's mostly filler.
Giles: What's it gonna take to strike a spark.
A lot of people hate this one (it's about as far from nice and fluffy Buffy as it gets), but Buffy's effort to rejoin the living is touched with grim honesty. Especially poignant is a final scene where the slayer is visibly saddened by the news that there's nothing medically wrong with her, making her recent unmindfulness into acts of pure self-hatred.
Buffy: You know this place is okay for a hole in the ground. You fixed it up.
Spike: Well, I ate a decorator once. Maybe something stuck
Anya returns to her vengeance demon ways, forcing Buffy's decision to kill her good friend. The juxtaposition of comic flashbacks with present day drama and horror elements (there's even a one-song return to the days of the musical) made this one of the series' most urgent and exhilarating offerings.
Aggressive villager: Hit him with fruits and various meats!
"Lies My Parents Told Me"
Another complex war of morality, as Principal Wood (D.B. Woodside) prepares to kill the now-reformed Spike, after learning that he's the vampire who murdered his Slayer mother.
Buffy: I dunno. I mean... Not like it had a catchy hook or anything, like, "I'm Comin' Up So You Better Get This Party Started." It was boring, old, and English. Just like you--ul. Brynner. Yul Brynner. A... British Yul Brynner.
"I Robot, You Jane" (season one)
"Beer Bad" (season four)
Copyright, Mark Palermo