B is for Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Written by Kerry E.B. Black
When he wrote “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the 1997-2003 television series, Joss Whedon wanted to make a hero of the typical horror story victim. Buffy, The Chosen One, the Vampire Slayer and unacknowledged savior of the world, came in the guise of a plucky little blonde negotiating her way through the perils of adolescence. Many episodes began with, “In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness.” The show approached sensitive matters with disarming wit and tremendous charm.
Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller) arrived at Sunnydale High School after a huge altercation involving vampires, a watcher, and accidently blowing up her old high school’s gym. Her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland), hoped the change of location would allow a fresh start for both her troubled daughter and herself. (She underwent a divorce before the move.) In a strange twist of fate, though, Sunnydale was situated above a paranormal hotspot called the Hell Mouth.
Buffy enrolled in high school and soon met the school socialite (and her sometime rival) Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), the quirky intellectual Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), and the loyal everyman Xander Harris (Nicolas Brendon). The school’s suave English librarian, Rupert “Ripper” Giles (Anthony Head) revealed himself to be the Slayer’s “watcher,” and training and patrolling began.
The mythology involved demons, vampires, and other monsters. Buffy trained in and performed martial arts. Gifted with preternatural strength, agility, and intuition, Buffy defended people and defeated evil. Buffy’s friends, “The Scooby Gang,” assisted Giles as he researched and aided Buffy in her endeavors. This involvement of others in plying the Slaying trade was unusual. Historically, Slayers worked only with their Watchers, and Watchers answered to “The Council.” Buffy trail-blazed further by declaring her independence from all oversight.
When a Slayer died, fate activated a new one. Hence, viewers met Kendra (Bianca Lawson) and the complicated sociopath Faith (Eliza Dushku).
The episodes were self-contained but often included elements of a larger story. A “Big Bad” plotted to cause major harm while minor evil doers plied their nightly trade. Some “Big Bads” included The Master, Darla, Mayor Wilkins, Angelus, Adam, Glory, and The First Evil. The Gentleman stole voices and collected hearts. One demon took the guise of murdered children whose “ghosts” demanded revenge. Sometimes, the evil came from within, with people turning to darkness when the pain of their existences drowned out the need of their souls.
Supporting cast ranged from humorous to menacing, romantic to damaged. Redemption, a recurring theme in the show, allowed characters to shed evil pasts to become allies. Buffy’s first real love, Angel (David Boreanaz) was a vampire cursed with a soul by gypsies. A moment of unbridled joy released the sadistic Angelus. Spike (James Marsters) with his Billy Idol-esque hair and black leather coat, began as a charismatic evil doer in love with the insane psychic Drusilla (Juliet Landau). After a run-in with “The Initiative,” Spike was “neutered” and dependent for his supply of blood. He and Buffy’s group join forces. Eventually, he sought a soul of his own and loved the Slayer. Anya, who became Xander’s lover, began her association with the gang as a vengeance demon. Willow, Xander, and Cordelia all embrace immorality at one point or another.
With gentleness, the series explored darkness within even the best-meaning hearts. Tara (Amber Benson) grew up believing herself evil. Joyce headed a group of vigilantes called MOO which nearly burned Buffy and Willow for associating with the occult. Buffy examined the right of might versus doing what is right, a concept lost on fellow slayer Faith.
FX makeup for the monsters ranged from minor transformations to full-body appliances. When slain, vamps were good enough to dissolve into tidy piles of dust. The main settings for the storyline included Sunnydale High, Buffy’s home, Giles’ residence, Xander’s basement, a mausoleum-sporting cemetery, and the UC campus and dorms.
A hallmark of the series early on is its investment in music. The kids meet at a club called The Bronze where bands perform. The theme song by Nerf Herder played during the opening title sequence gets the heart pumping. The cast performed in a musical episode, “Once More with Feeling,” wherein a demon cursed the town, leaving song as their only means of expression. In a vision, Buffy heard childish sing-songs with clues.
The series touched on serious subjects using the supernatural as allegory. A man might change once he’d had his way with a woman. Another became a hero without any supernatural assistance. Abuse, neglect, and the perils of dishonesty; gun violence, loneliness, and acceptance. Powerful representations of the afterlife and natural death, sacrifice, and love. Buffy the Vampire Slayer brought strong, rounded characters and made them grow in depth as the series progressed.
It also brought to the mainstream such taboo subjects as homosexuality and feminine sexuality. Buffy and her friends were not confined to dictates of society. Willow grew from mousey to bad-butt. She embraced her loves with vehemence and acknowledged her inner strengths, including becoming a powerful witch. Buffy loved with all-consuming abandon while remaining, for the most part, secure in her own destiny. Whedon writes strong-willed characters and turns stereotypes upside down.
I am not alone in my admiration of the show, either. What began as a mid-season replacement of a show cancelled on the WB Network grew into a cultural phenomenon with quotable dialogue and memorable messages. With 144 episodes to their credit, the staff and cast of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” must feel proud. It garnered Emmy and Golden Globe attention. The show reached millions weekly during its run, including its switch in networks for its last two seasons. It remains popular in syndication and is available for purchase. In 2008, it placed #2 on Empire Magazine’s list of Greatest TV Shows. TV Guide’s 2004 List of the 25 Top Cult Shows placed the show at #3, and it reached #10 on Entertainment Weekly’s List of the 100 Best American Television Shows.