Week in, week out, first run and rerun, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is always a pleasant shock. I almost wrote pleasant schlock, which isn’t the insult it might seem. For Buffy is — among other things — a great TV series risen from the ashes of a piece of burned-out junk: the 1992 film of the same name. The latter featured a script by a 25-year-old Joss Whedon, but — as is the fate of so many screenplays, especially those by young writers without much clout — his material was distorted and watered down. Its title notwithstanding, the movie was fluffy, not Buffy.
But as the comely vampire slayer has done herself so many times, Whedon exacted his revenge. Working with Sandollar production exec Gail Berman (now president of Regency TV), Whedon offered his original, unsullied concept of an empowered young woman caught between two nightmare worlds — high school and the Hellmouth — to Fox and NBC; both turned him down flat. It took The WB, a fledgling network in search of ratings and a distinctive identity, to take a chance — to, in the words of Berman, ”give us some wiggle room” in story lines, casting, and flat-out kookiness.
To be sure, the announcement that a ’97 mid-season debut would be based on a teen movie most middle-aged TV critics hadn’t seen, featuring a former soap opera star and the British guy who’d been in those coy Taster’s Choice commercials, did little to instill hope in the hearts of the press or the public. But with remarkable speed, Buffy became that rare kind of TV programming: a show whose characters grew only more complex (and — rarer still — not even necessarily more likable), and one in which episodes began adding up to a rich, expansive mythology that could accommodate any comment Whedon and company wanted to make on contemporary culture.
Whedon’s vision draws from the conventions of teen film comedies, cutting-edge comic books, and cinematic horror series such as Friday the 13th to provide viewers with an easily identifiable structure and a heroine to whom they can relate. Sure, Buffy is Earth’s current Chosen One — the latest in a centuries-long line of demon slayers (all female, we might add). Yet for all the show’s fantasy trappings, she’s more realistically drawn than any other teenager on TV. Her good looks and super training don’t help her with failing school grades, teachers who’ve pegged her as a problem child, and a mother who can’t fathom the burdens of dating an undead guy. Time and again, Buffy (as smartly played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) takes on heavy-duty, life-and-death responsibilities, giving the lie to the current cliche of adolescents as self-absorbed, work-phobic louts. Indeed, other than a variation on ”Jolly good show!” from her Watcher, she gets zip for saving the world from hell’s hounds. Think of Buffy as Whedon’s take on Reviving Ophelia: building a girl’s self-esteem by first acknowledging the validity of her woes, and, second, suggesting she attack her fears head-on, lest she drive a stake into her own heart.
Fortunately, our heroine is not alone. In addition to Buffy’s stiff-necked but inspiring Watcher, Rupert Giles, and her kind but often clueless mom, Joyce, Buffy has a motley support group of peers, both pals and rivals, all of whom aid her in various degrees of usefulness and foolishness in her not-so-secret identity as The Chosen One.
XANDER The wisecracking horndog who, just beneath his impassive surface, has roiling emotions—a simmering anger at not fitting in as a brain, a jock, or as we learn in the earliest episodes, an object of Buffy’s romantic attention. Actor Nicholas Brendon doesn’t get enough credit for embodying this contradictory mix of joke guy and angry guy: often the show’s truest true-to-life character.
WILLOW Whip-smart and sweet, she’s the gang’s walking contradiction, all common sense and mooncalf romanticism. Actress Alyson Hannigan has been able to occasionally show Willow’s vampy side (with boyfriend-cum-werewolf Oz or in a parallel universe), but she’s primarily Buffy’s sister in venturesomeness, and the most well-rounded nerd in the history of modern teen comedy-drama.
CORDELIA Vain, sarcastic, and analyzed during Career Week as most likely to become a personal shopper, Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia is, in Archie-comics terms, a dark and petulant Veronica to Buffy’s blond Betty. Cordy’s the sort of girl who was born to be popular, but whose notion of what’s cool is thrown seriously off track by supposed ”losers” who save the world and (in the case of a fling with Xander) kiss really well.
And, oh yes—there’s
ANGEL David Boreanaz plays the tall, dark, tortured guy in Buffy’s life, the sort of two-centuries-old fella who can alternately drive a girl crazy or focus her attention into razor-sharp clarity.
From what creative Hellmouth did these characters emerge? Beyond the most immediate contemporary pop-culture configurations, there are various precedents for Buffy. These reach as far back as the 1915 silent-movie serial Les Vampires, a clutch of blood-soaked adventures strikingly Buffy-ish in their tales of vampire hunting as both a noble calling and a down-and-dirty day (and night) job. Whedon has also referred in interviews to Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, a 1973 tome thick enough to repel an oncoming wooden stake. The author, Richard Slotkin, refers to ”mythogenesis,” the creation, ”in both maker and audience, [of tales that are] mystical and religious, drawing heavily on the unconscious and the deepest levels of the psyche, defining relationships between human and divine things, between temporalities and ultimates.” Thus, boiled down for you and me and The WB, we get punk-rock vampires; a door-to-door salesman formed from a mass of pale, writhing worms; and a mayor who turns into a gigantic lizard. We also get stories of friendships tested to the breaking point, as well as a relationship between a hottie mortal Slayer and a soulfully soulless vampire that deftly crosses Anne Rice with Danielle Steel to yield a romance unmatched in prime time for its heat and yearning.
Much has been made of Whedon’s sometimes elementary metaphors, the most pervasive being that the purity of youth is confirmed by contrast—as in the many adults in Buffy who turn out to be fatally distrustful or morally bankrupt. You could say that Whedon is pandering to his core audience, yet I know an awful lot of grown-ups utterly entranced and moved by this show. The reason is simple: Buffy is about adolescence whose form and content are never themselves adolescent—the exact opposite of Seinfeld and scores of lesser shows that idealize the notion of prolonging teen sensibilities well into adulthood. This series is, as Willow once said of Buffy, “16 going on 40.”
Grant me, therefore, a brief moment to make the case for Buffy as anti-fluff. If there is one salient quality that distinguishes this show from all the teeming teen shows this fall, it is respect: respect for the series’ young protagonists, but also, more broadly, for life—for its preciousness and its precariousness. Death, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is never treated lightly (except where vampires are concerned), and when it occurs, it brings down terrible consequences on its perpetrator. (Think back no further than this season’s most shocking event, when the sadly unloved Slayer Faith killed a human she mistook for a vampire. This tragic act set in motion a series of disasters that landed her in a coma.)
Buffy also defies TV convention another way. Weekly series depend on their audiences knowing the parameters of the main characters’ personalities. In Buffy, people change: They quake with fear in one episode and muster up demon-defying courage in the next. They can begin as allies and end as murderers (Faith, for instance) or begin as murderers and end as noble heroes (Angel—as Mick Jagger might sing it, Aaaayn-gel!). These youths don’t stay stuck at one age for years, victims of the 90210 syndrome; they graduate high school, move on to college or spin-off series, and…who knows what?
We can speculate on the future, but we know what has passed: the steady evolution of schlock to shock to pure bliss.